It’s increasingly clear: Labour’s leadership has little idea how to win a political fight
After this week’s performance by the Labour party, I say – more in sorrow than in anger – that we can’t go on like this, something’s urgently got to give.
It’s more than a year since a new leadership was elected, but the Labour response to Boris Johnson’s social care announcement demonstrated starkly just how far the party leadership is from having a strategy to deal with him or knowing how to respond to the new political battleground.
Through hard experience you learn the basics of any political fight. You have to nail your opponent and offer a solid alternative.
Nailing Johnson doesn’t require invention or much forensic interrogation. His character has become increasingly obvious to people. He is a self-interested liar, whose sole motive throughout his life has been looking after number one. His clowning antics have become passé and largely don’t wash any more for people who have gone through such tough times since Covid emerged.
Johnson’s achilles heel is, increasingly, trust. It shouldn’t have been left to Dawn Butler on the backbenches to call Johnson out for what he is – a blatant and ruthless liar. This should have been a running consistent theme – linked to the month-by-month mounting evidence of his betrayal of all those who believed his lies in the last general election, and to the deceits and corruption of his ministerial team throughout the pandemic.
Increasingly, people are waking up to the fact that Johnson is solely motivated by self-interest. He will always look after himself and people like himself. And that means others will always be sacrificed, whether it’s pensioners reliant on the triple lock, families relying on universal credit, or low-paid workers who believed his now broken pledges on income tax and national insurance.
The result is that, just as we have seen in the tax measures to fund social care, the burden of his policies falls on working people, and the wealth of the richest people is protected.
Alongside the failure to nail the image of Johnson in the popular mind, the Labour leadership’s failure, or refusal, to take the lead effectively on any issue is becoming a regular embarrassment. It means that, even when Tory support dips in the polls, it does not come to Labour.
Shadow cabinet members are sent out like the “poor bloody infantry”: after making valid attacks on Johnson’s policies, they are destroyed by interviewers simply asking the obvious question, “Well what would you do then?”
They are forced on most occasions to repeat the mantra: “It will be in the manifesto.” Apart from coming across as shifty, it confirms the suspicion that Labour has no alternative.
One of the lessons from the 2019 election is that simply announcing an array of attractive policies doesn’t work. Policies need time to bed down into the popular consciousness. The range of new policies in 2019 was planned for the normal electoral cycle, with an election possibly two years off. In desperation during that campaign we launched a policy blitz, which strained credibility with some of the voters we were seeking to attract.
It’s widely accepted that Johnson will go to the electorate early, most probably in the spring of 2023, but rumours abound in Tory circles that he will go in 2022 to avoid the Covid inquiry catching up with him. That’s why Labour needs to set out now at least the bare bones of a policy programme: one that isn’t based on the lowest common denominator of a focus group but excites and motivates people about the type of society a Labour government wants to achieve.
A group of Labour supporters in the communications sector has recommended, as a start, a new pledge card setting out a limited number of solid priority commitments. For me this needs to combine relevance and ambition. So for example, a Labour government would ensure:
no child will live in poverty or go hungry;
low pay will be ended with a real living wage;
the NHS and a new national care service will be fully and fairly funded;
the privatisation of our NHS and public services will be halted;
tuition fees will be scrapped, and our schools and childcare will fully funded;
climate change will be tackled and net zero carbon achieved by 2030 with a Green New Deal.
In addition to coming across as a policy-free zone, Labour’s media coverage is regularly soured by displays of division as the party leadership destructively pursues internal factional disputes.
The result has been the loss of more than 100,000 members; the risk of one of our founding unions disaffiliating; and, ironically for a party pledged to tackling antisemitism, reports of Jewish members being more likely to face disciplinary action than others.
So I say this to whoever is making the decisions at the top of Labour: party members are not the enemy. The Tories have the money and most of the media, but we have the potential of a mass campaigning membership. That equation doesn’t always balance out, but it’s the most effective we can create.
My fear is that, if the Labour leadership continues on this path, people will increasingly see a party divided and fail to know what it stands for.
It wouldn’t take much to unite the party again and mobilise an enthusiastic mass membership with a radical basic set of policies. But time is short and action is needed.
John McDonnell has been the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington since 1997. He was shadow chancellor from 2015 to 2020