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John McDonnell and Diane Abbott on where next for the Labour Party?

This article is over 11 years, 8 months old
The left wing candidates for the leadership of the Labour Party, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott, lay out their visions for the party after its election defeat
Issue 2203
John McDonnell speaking at the Right to Work conference
John McDonnell speaking at the Right to Work conference

John McDonnell

In the election I managed to increase my majority to 11,000 thanks to all of the hard work put in by campaigners like yourselves.

Socialists and those who stood on a left platform kept their seats and increased their majorities.

As Brown announced he was standing down, left comrades contacted me and asked me to stand for Labour leader.

We held a campaign meeting where I was asked to stand and I agreed to do so.

We need 33 nominations. And everything is stacked against us. It has been a stitch up—we were told that we were only being given four days to get the nominations together.

It looked like only people from one family, the Milibands, would be standing for the Labour leadership.

We said that this was unacceptable, that we need women, people of colour

and those on the left and right of the party on the ballot.

It is important to have a socialist on the ballot paper—it would be an amazing achievement.

It would create the opportunity for the widest debate on the principles and policies we really need.

We can do it if we go to our MPs and trade unions and if, as individual members of the Labour Party, we put the argument that we need to have a left wing candidate on the ballot paper.

The Con-Dems announced a £6 billion cuts plan on Monday.

Let’s be honest, it is built on [former Labour chancellor Alistair] Darling’s pre-budget cuts plan of £30 billion.

They will try to hide it in talk of cuts to quangos and top posts but the reality is much worse.

There will be cuts across public services—all of our lives will be affected.

And there is more to come. Fifty days after the election the new government will announce its detailed budget, which will have even more cuts.

And in September or October there will be a spending review—and there will be more cuts in that.

They want to resolve the £70 billion structural deficit with public expenditure cuts within the first two years of parliament. That will devastate our communities.

Sell off

Privatisation will be increased. They will sell off what New Labour hasn’t already.

Teachers and social workers will be attacked and frontline services devastated. There will be new privatisation in the NHS and large scale job cuts.

We can expect an assault on our class like we saw in the 1980s, but more virulent and vicious.

They have the anti-trade union laws to help their side.

And local government structures have been changed to remove the control that used to exist.

My fear is that we will be devastated unless we mobilise now through the trade unions, social movements, and our communities and groups.

Otherwise we will leave the most vulnerable open to attack.

Hardship will be increased and we will return to creating another lost generation—abandoned to unemployment and poverty.

Our job is to be clear on the implications and the timescale, and to mobilise now.

We have to resist these attacks in every way possible—through the political process but also through our political organisations and movements.

I want to see the Labour Party as a resistance movement again.

We need to create our own coalition. Their cuts coalition has been launched.We need a coalition of resistance in response.

On immigration we have to say we welcome people coming here and we support their right to come and be protected and not lose their human rights.

We want decent protection and trade union rights for agency workers.

The situation we are in gives us a real opportunity to make an ideological break with the past.

The crisis has been caused by the rapacious, greedy system, started by the greedy bankers with whom the government has colluded.

We have to say that we are not paying for their crisis.

We have to win an ideological argument about how we got here, how the system works and what the alternative is.

We also have to make it an international movement.

In Greece and Portugal, workers are under attack now—and depending on where the rich target, it could be us next.

We stand in solidarity with them and say: they are coming to do to us what they are trying to do to you.

We have to build a movement in opposition to capitalism and in favour of socialism.

Diane Abbott

Why did Labour lose the election?

I think we lost because of deep disillusionment with the party among very many working class people who voted for us in the past.

They became disaffected because of a lack of jobs and job security, housing, and the very low wages that people earn today. The way Labour has chipped away at the welfare state has also greatly affected them.

These issues were combined with a sense that Labour was talking at them, rather than for them. The party, chasing after the votes of Middle England, had ceased to be their champion.

I also think Labour is still paying the price for the Iraq war. During the campaign, on the doorstep in my constituency in Hackney, people regularly said, “I’m voting for you despite your party, because I know that you voted against the war.”

Again, over this issue and the government’s assault on civil liberties, there was this sense that Labour was prepared to ignore the feelings of those who had voted for it.

What do you say to those that argue that immigration cost Labour the election?

All the other candidates, with the exception of John McDonnell, are saying that—but I think it’s quite wrong. One of the main reasons I’m standing for the leadership is because I want to tackle that myth head on.

It is true that many working class people, both black and white, do grumble about the most recent group of migrants to enter Britain. But that is a manifestation of their unhappiness about the more fundamental issues—the questions of insecurity that I talked about earlier.

If this leadership election results in the party taking an ever-tougher line on immigration, that to me is a counsel of despair.

The mainstream candidates are espousing a kind of phoney workerism, where they claim that being anti-immigrant is part of a working class identity.

But their position on immigration also begs a question: if Labour is going to be even harder on immigration, where are we going to position ourselves—to the right of the Tories?

To stop migration from countries in Europe we would have to leave the European Union. To completely stop asylum seekers, Britain would have to opt out of the Convention on Human Rights.

We are not going to do either of these things, so what on earth is the point of leadership contenders giving the impression that they are going to be harder on immigration?

To my mind, if you even look like you are colluding with anti-immigrant arguments, especially during the middle of a recession, you are playing with fire.

What three policies would you champion if you were leader of the party?

Firstly, speaking as a London MP, I would make it a legal requirement for all public sector employers to pay the London Living Wage of £7.60 per hour, and I wouldn’t allow them to set a lower level for younger workers.

Secondly, I would fund a big programme of council housing, built to a very high standard.

Thirdly, I would increase the state pension. I’m in favour of moving away from means-tested benefits towards statutory benefits.

And I’m in favour of clawing back the money that we spend on them from the well-off through higher rates of taxation on high earners.

What do you think the role of Labour leader should be when workers are facing the biggest public spending cuts for a generation?

The majority of people in my constituency work in the public sector and depend on public services. If jobs are slashed, there is very little chance of these people getting a job in the private sector. The last major factory in Hackney, Metal Box, closed its doors years ago.

The cuts are going to hit working class people as a double-whammy. They will lose their jobs and will suffer worse services—and a lot of those most affected will be working class women.

If the time comes, and the Labour Party, and its leadership, is not at the head of the fight over this, then it will be a very sad day indeed.

Politics in Britain, including the Labour Party, seems to be completely in the hands of “posh white boys”. Was that another reason for you to stand for the leadership?

Absolutely. But one of the reasons we are in this position is because of the Labour Party’s move to the right.

In the past, the party was in the vanguard of raising the issues of race and gender in politics.

But the New Labour project was never really interested, and it’s very easy for things to go backwards. And that’s what has happened. As a party, Labour has to rediscover that agenda if we going to have any chance to change the face of politics in Britain.

What Socialist Worker thinks: Who should lead Labour?

It is very welcome that both left candidates have put forward their case in Socialist Worker. Both present refreshingly different opinions to the grindingly right wing views that pass for debate in much of the party.

Trade unions are already discussing the Labour leadership. In a speech to the Communication Workers Union (CWU) conference this week, general secretary Billy Hayes acknowledged that the last Labour government faced a great deal of criticism from trade unionists—not least from CWU members.

He reiterated his belief that Labour is the only party that can represent trade unionists, but said, “It’s clear that Labour needs better policies if we are going to be able to send more people into the party.”

Hayes warned that threats to future trade union funding of the Labour Party could lead to the biggest challenge to working class political representation since 1927, when the government passed legislation to restrict it.

Calling for a full debate about the future direction of the party, Hayes said that he hoped that Diane Abbott and John McDonnell would make it on to the ballot paper.

Delegate Mary Hanson from central London called on her union to support only those candidates who back the union’s policies, and the union passed this policy.

At the firefighters’ FBU conference, delegates gave John McDonnell a standing ovation. The union disaffiliated from Labour in 2004 because of the government’s treatment of firefighters during the FBU strike.

“Our disaffiliation hasn’t affected how we engage with Labour MPs like John,” said FBU general secretary Matt Wrack.

The conference overwhelmingly voted down a motion to reaffiliate to the Labour Party.

The PCS civil service workers’ conference also gave McDonnell a standing ovation.

We want to see John McDonnell win, but the first battle is to get on the ballot paper and we call on trade unionists and campaigners to pressure their MPs to nominate him.

The RMT union’s general secretary Bob Crow said last week, “John McDonnell leads the RMT group in parliament and no MP has done more to fight against attacks on jobs, public services and workers’ rights.

“On the big issues; defending public services, opposing privatisation, repealing the anti-trade union laws, bringing our troops home and supporting workers rights, John stands shoulder to shoulder with RMT and the trade union and socialist movement. He deserves our full support.”

John McDonnell’s words are an edited version of a speech he gave to the Right to Work conference. »

Diane Abbott spoke to Yuri Prasad

Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott

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