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John McDonnell

John McDonnell speaking at The World Transformed in Liverpool, September 2018. Photo: Kevin Walsh

With cynical spending plans from the Tories, Labour must go on the attack with its message of genuine change in favour of working people, argues David McAllister

John McDonnell’s economic statement this week signals the sort of radical approach Labour need as much of as possible if they are going to win. The pledge of a £150 billion ‘social transformation’ fund is a welcoming sign to people who have suffered nearly a decade of Tory austerity in which public services have been run into the ground while working conditions for many have reached unbearable levels. The accompanying £250 billion green transformation fund is also very welcome, as it starts to give substance to Labour’s Green Industrial Revolution which links climate justice with social justice.

What is encouraging about McDonnell’s message is that he indicates towards a wider picture of democracy and wealth distribution, by insisting on an “an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people.” This wider picture is being pressed forward by the Labour leadership team, and no doubt by campaigners up and down the country. It is important that Labour stays as radical as possible, and uses these sorts of messages to shift the narrative outside the narrow parameters set by the Tories and much of the media. 

Public spending is clearly uncomfortable territory for the Tories, which is one reason why they will continue to frame the next five weeks as the ‘Brexit election’ – their desperation to do this having already resulted in embarrassment after it was revealed that they had doctored footage of an interview with Kier Starmer.  

So far, Boris Johnson and Sajid Javid are doing little more than recycling well-worn stock Tory arguments about Labour and the economy, spinning scare stories about them raising everyone’s taxes and making the economy ‘sick’. Labour should continue to focus their tax plans exclusively on the very richest in society, whose unpaid taxes have contributed to the starving of funds for public services while the incomes of most working class people have stagnated for decades.

The Tories spending plans by contrast are wildly cynical. The magic money tree they found in order to secure power with support from the DUP has now been miraculously rediscovered in election time. Their sudden promises of multi-billion pound spending increases, after years of cuts, should obviously be taken with a pinch of salt. They are also an admission of how unpopular the austerity programme has been. That they are now trying to pose as an alternative to the damage they themselves have done is laughable. 

More importantly, they leave untouched the other major source of damage – privatisation. On this, Labour needs to go on the attack. Decades of PFI in the NHS, education and other public services has meant that finances and decision-making has shifted gradually towards private consortiums who have then presided over a decline in quality, a lowering of wages and conditions, and a steady erosion of democratic accountability. 

So Labour should not be drawn into a shallow tit-for-tat on public spending alone, since the crisis in public services goes much further than that. John McDonnell’s ‘social transformation’ fund will have the most resonance if it lives up to that name, and be part of a radical plan to transform society, take on the billionaires, take on the climate crisis, and make that irreversible shift in wealth and power towards working people a reality.

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One more thing...

These are exciting and challenging times for socialists. Around the world, we see the rise of right wing and authoritarian movements, but at the same time mass movements of hope and change. Here in Britain, millions are looking to a left government led by Jeremy Corbyn and to an alternative which prioritises social need, not private greed. Protests have spilled out across the Middle East and Latin America, and in the US strikes are growing.

The next weeks and months will see great change – presenting the left with opportunities which we cannot miss. Socialist ideas and organisation are at a premium and Counterfire needs to grow, to spread our ideas and influence throughout the movement. 

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