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Tough but exhilarating

23rd October 2015

Tough but exhilarating

The John McDonnell column
in November 2015 Labour Briefing

It’s a bit over a month since Jeremy was elected Labour leader and it’s been tough – but exhilarating.  This is a chronicle of the first month’s events.

It started with the special Labour Conference. The result was overwhelming but actually coincided with our own last week’s telephone canvass returns. Jeremy’s speech was well received and then, after joining our supporters in the nearby pub to thank them, we joined the refugee demonstration.

That Saturday Jeremy joined Chief Whip, Rosie Winterton, at Labour headquarters to appoint a new Shadow Cabinet. Even those existing Shadow Cabinet members who had stated they would not serve with Jeremy were approached to see if they were willing to contribute. Eventually after two days of discussions with Labour MPs, Jeremy appointed a Shadow Cabinet in time for the first of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meetings on the Monday. Despite inaccurate reports to the contrary, Jeremy was well received at the PLP. He spoke and then replied in his usual gentle manner to a number of questions from Labour MPs, at the end of which he received an enthusiastic round of applause.
We were then into our first week of setting up an office, appointing the first staff, taking over the office space in the Commons and meeting the Labour HQ team. I couldn’t move into my office for a week, had one member of staff and then, when we moved in, we found all the computer equipment had been taken out. Within a week we had to prepare for Labour Party Conference. The media attention was intensive. Jeremy’s family bore the brunt of it and it was a disgrace the way they were treated. It was less so in my case but they still door-stepped every relative, past partner, friends and immediate family, offering money for articles and upsetting many of them by just harassing people. A journalist from the Daily Mail has been in my constituency for a month trying to dig up any dirt. My past speeches and activities were the subject of various distorted stories on the media. We expect all the usual abuse and bias from the Mail and Sun but the Guardian and BBC are just as biased but in a more subtle way.

The Labour Party Conference was energising for us all. With an extra 2,500 members turning up, the friendly and exciting atmosphere reflected the transformation that is taking place in the Party as a result of Jeremy’s campaign. Jeremy’s speech was extremely well received. At the Tory Party Conference the Tories were gloating at their election result and were in denial that they had only received less than 25% of the votes of the electorate. They wallowed in self congratulation and contempt for Jeremy’s election. Jeremy was back out on the road campaigning in Scotland and I visited Redcar to meet the steel workers and their families, while the unions and local MPs were meeting the receiver and government ministers in the hope of saving the plant. It was a deeply moving experience.

Returning that weekend, Jeremy and I discussed with our team the vote on the government’s Budget Responsibility Charter. The Charter is a political stunt by Osborne trying to trap us into being denounced as deficit deniers if we oppose it or supporters of cuts if we support it. Osborne has treated his charters with contempt so I had publicly said we would treat it with the same contempt and vote for it to avoid his trap. I also judged that we were at risk of large numbers of Labour MPs who had not supported Jeremy voting against us if we tried to vote against the order. We needed to avoid a large split on our first finance vote.

There were a number of factors that made us think again. Our success at the Labour Party Conference meant that many now spoke openly as Labour as an anti-austerity party. I then went to Redcar, where the government had refused to invest even to mothball the plant. The Charter would be used to justify limiting investment like this. Plus the reports on the global economic slowdown and the advice from our economic advisers highlighted just how irresponsibly out of touch the Charter was with the changed economic conditions. We took the tough decision to reverse my earlier public position – to urge Labour MPs to vote against. This would confirm us as an anti-austerity party.

We took this to the PLP meeting where some used this issue to attack the new leadership but we worked hard to speak to as many members of the PLP as possible to secure their support. The media went into a frenzy to attack and humiliate me for what they seized upon as a U- turn. The Tories revelled in my change of heart. Nevertheless with only a small minority abstaining we won the PLP to voting against the Charter and against austerity.

The result is that despite the turbulence of the first month we now have the political foundation for mobilising the Labour Party as a campaigning anti-austerity movement. Over the coming months, as the Tories force through the next round of austerity cuts, Labour has the authority to lead the fightback.

Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is MP for Hayes and Harlington and Chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs and of the Labour Representation Committee.
Labour Briefing is the magazine of the LRC.

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