McDonnell Conference Speech

The other day, I proposed that this conference would be when we began to learn how serious the Labour Left were about taking over the party.

Today’s speech by John McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn’s left-field choice of Shadow Chancellor, suggests they either can’t or won’t.

There are two very damaging narratives about Labour which could emerge from this conference.

The first, heralded by drop-down drag-out brawls over subjects like Trident, is “Labour in chaos”. The second, if the leadership managed to cut through the noise with distinctive policies, is “Labour are a hard-left basket case”.

A third possibility, which must haunt the nightmares of some Corbynistas, is that their champions go native.

All of these possibilities are bad, so the party is understandably trying to avoid them.

But since genuinely good outcomes – united party with effective leadership rally behind popular manifesto – are off the table, we’ve ended up with a little bit of all three.

McDonnell opened his speech by openly warning those familiar with his oratory that it would not be one of his “usual rants”. And it wasn’t – it was in the Guardian’s words “not stirring, or even especially memorable”, but “a plain, straightforward manifesto.”

This has gone down well on Twitter, and not just with the usual suspects. Patrick Kidd, the Times sketchwriter, described it as “impressive” and suggested the Tories might be under-estimating the Shadow Chancellor.

Kidd McDonnell tweet

Some suggest that this is part of a tone management exercise: the content comes second to conveying an image of the party as sober, serious, and united.

Setting aside for a moment quite how much like politics as usual that sounds, it’s also very late in the day: the window of public interest in the new Labour leadership has almost certainly been exhausted, or close enough, during the last two weeks of near-unremitting awfulness.

But whilst this approach may be a disappointing comedown after the chaos theatre of the new regime’s first fortnight, it doesn’t necessarily reflect a betrayal of the radical spirit.

It’s no stretch of the imagination to see McDonnell grasping the strategic sense of behaving himself: even Lenin played the game enough to force his dismayed ambassadors to wear top hats.

Yet the content wasn’t especially radical either. To quote the Guardian again: “Yet, in terms of substance, this was all far less novel than McDonnell suggested. In fact, almost all of it could have come from Ed Balls.” John Rentoul, that arch-Blairite reactionary partisan, was moved to tweet:

Rentoul McDonnell Tweet

It’s at this point that the Corbyn true believers ought, perhaps, to start feeling the prickles of consternation.

Before Corbyn was elected, we set out why it made sense for Corbyn to cleave to his radical instincts if he secured the leadership. The short version is that he sincerely believed in a hard-left platform, and wasn’t a credible salesman for an alternative point of view.

If he compromised to try and please everybody, as Ed Miliband did, he’d just end up like a less electable version of Miliband. He’s doubling down on a formula for defeat, which from his perspective is surely worse than gambling on his beliefs.

An Ed Balls speech might come as a relief to moderate Labour supporters who had braced themselves for some real off-the-wall lunacy, but it doesn’t change the fact that Balls’ approach led Labour to a calamitous rout that cost him his own seat.

Dan Hodges is no friend to the Labour left, but that doesn’t stop him being right when he points out that McDonnell’s hard line against austerity is a direct repudiation of an electorate that doesn’t trust Labour with the public finances.

Hodges McDonnell Tweet

The Miliband-Balls position is the one that Labour was supposed to be moving on from in order to reconnect with the electorate and win in 2020.

Instead, so severe has been the storm that struck the good ship Labour in August that the party is now dragging itself ashore on the old consensus, thankful to be alive.

All this ought to trouble the true believers: the establishment very rarely praises people who are genuinely challenging it. The press is a pillar of politics as usual and if they don’t think you’re nuts, odds are you are too.

Given that I still don’t think this compromise makes sense for the Left, it leads me to conclude either that Corbyn and McDonnell are playing a long game – they have only been in post a fortnight – or that they’ve concluded that the opposition of the party establishment is insurmountable.

But unless we see either the awaited radical coup, or the PLP summons up the courage and wit to stage a proper counter-revolution, we can begin to spot a familiar pattern in the Corbyn leadership.

His first few weeks have set expectations so low that in the course of an ordinary week he cannot help but exceed them.

A Prime Minister’s Questions in which the Prime Minister doesn’t break a sweat is offered as a sign that the Conservatives ought to be worried; an interview with Andrew Marr in which Corbyn doesn’t choke is a triumph; a bland, ancien regime conference speech is praised for not being mad.

Meanwhile, a leadership focused on party unity fails to articulate a clear message and sense of direction, giving its opponents the space to tag it with deeply damaging labels it never shakes off in the minds of the electorate.

Whilst the party brand is slowly irradiated in the country at large, it may not lose a mid-term contest dramatically enough to force the hand of a historically lethargic PLP.

It’s not impossible to imagine Corbyn surviving May’s round of elections in London, Wales and Scotland if he and McDonnell can stabilise themselves in this consensual, ‘neo-moderate’ position.

This is starting to look like a re-run of the Miliband story, starring leads with heavier baggage who are easier to attack. Not a bad story to tell – if you’re a Conservative.

20 comments for: McDonnell’s speech suggests the Labour establishment are winning

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.