John McDonnell: Labour government could “change atmosphere” of Brexit talks and “secure a deal”

At a New Statesman and FSB Labour fringe, the Shadow Chancellor stated his preference for a general election over a “people’s vote”.  

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The New Statesman and Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) jointly hosted a Labour conference fringe – “FSB Small Business Question Time” – with Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and the FSB’s Martin McTague. New Statesman deputy editor Helen Lewis chaired the discussion, in which McDonnell declared that he would rather fight a general election than have a “people’s vote” on the final terms of Brexit.

When asked what was top of the FSB’s current considerations and policy “asks”, McTague said it was “hard to get past Brexit”, declaring that any deal without a transition period would be a “major problem” for small businesses, which make up 99.3 per cent of all private sector businesses. In the latest survey of FSB members, he reported, 41 per cent had made no preparations whatsoever for Brexit in any form.

Lewis asked McDonnell to articulate Labour’s plan for Brexit, putting to him that “the number one thing businesses have always liked about Britain is it's a country that's offered them stability and the ability to forward plan. Now Brexit has taken that all away”.

McDonnell complained that Labour’s discussions with the government over Brexit were hampered by the fact that “we're never completely sure of who is in charge [of government policy] at any one point in time” and that Labour would, therefore, “like to get on with doing the negotiations ourselves.”

He argued that Labour should respect the initial result of the referendum, and that a general election was “the best way in which we can have the future of the country secured.” He said the chances of an election were no longer “slim” and predicted an implosion of the Conservative Party. Labour, he said, could “change the atmosphere” of the negotiations.

An audience member asked for more clarification from McDonnell, after having heard from Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer the previous day that remain was being kept on the table as an option by Labour. McDonnell confirmed that this was the case, but stressed that “we campaigned for remain and we lost … I do not want to give any opportunity to the rise of UKIP again”.

Aside from Brexit, McTague raised the “consistent running sore” of late payments. He complained that big businesses were “bullying their supply chain” by delaying payments to smaller suppliers. McDonnell responded saying that late payments should be legislated on: "There's issues like [late payments] where we just have to say 'this is a role for the state; it might sound radical but it has to happen.'"

The Shadow Chancellor also reiterated Labour’s desire to establish a national investment bank, which would be connected to regional investment banks whose mandates would be developed by local authorities.

Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.