John McDonnell: ‘People learned from the EU poll – get out there and vote’

3 Jun

John McDonnell may be in a sunny, relaxed mood as he relaxes at Labour’s London HQ and predicts victory. Yet even he is under no illusion that for Labour to run the Tories close in Thursday’s election, it needs to secure an unprecedented level of backing among young voters for its radical programme.

“This election could be the young person’s general election,” he says. “They have got to go out there and vote. People learned the lesson from the [EU] referendum vote – if you don’t turn up, you’ll be disappointed. The message from us is one of hope – it is that we can transform this country, we can transform your lives. Get out there and vote.”

The buoyant shadow chancellor is convinced younger voters are a big part of “a subterranean shift” among the British public that will see it defy decades of political orthodoxy and embrace the most radically leftwing platform put forward by any party in a generation.

“Particularly for young people, we wanted to say: politics doesn’t have to be like this. Here is what we believe. Here’s how it is going to be funded and here’s how we are going to implement it. And then, when [the Tories] come at us with all the abuse and lies, we contrast our different type of politics and say, ‘actually, you can choose’. Not just the political party – you can choose the nature of the politics. If we can do that, we have built for generations to come.”

As well as abolishing tuition fees, he wants to set up a cross-party review after the election to help those students who have already racked up significant debt.

“The system is collapsing around our ears,” he says. “Half the tuition fees are not paid back. I want to look to see what we can do to lift the debt off students. I want to try to do that … hopefully on a cross-party basis. Let’s try to get some all-party agreement on this.”

McDonnell – cheerful, chuckling and grinning throughout – is convinced his predictions that the huge Tory poll lead at the start of the campaign would evaporate by polling day, leading to a shock Labour win, are coming true. The distance that he and Jeremy Corbyn have travelled since the successful Labour leadership campaign in 2015 is not lost on him.

“What I said back then was that if we could get Jeremy on the ballot paper, we would have a really good showing,” he says. “I thought we would pick up 30% to 35% of the vote of the membership and that would demonstrate the left was back and we would be able to negotiate left representatives in the shadow cabinet. That was the height of my ambition at that point.

“Within four weeks of the campaign, I thought, we can win this because of the scale of support. And then to go through it all over again and have an increase in support [in the 2016 leadership contest] demonstrated that the earth has shifted within the Labour party. But I think that was a reflection of the earth shifting outside as well. That is what we are seeing now – that is what has surprised the pollsters. There is a subterranean shift that they have not recognised … We’ve established a new centre ground around our politics.”

McDonnell’s central contention, still hugely controversial among Labour MPs, is that the “open and transparent” approach he and Corbyn have taken has made voters willing to back a radical economic programme of higher spending and increased taxes on the richest and businesses.

“The idea that we are just tax and spend … it is nothing to do with spend. It is about investment,” he says. “Everyone understands that you need to invest in the economy. Everyone understands you need to invest in health, education … because we have started this debate off, [the public’s view] is beginning to turn. Where it is beginning to turn in particular is the younger generation.”

He is not afraid to show off his willingness to confront big business. “I want to demonstrate that the contractual politics, the bond between the Tory party, big corporations and the City – you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours, you support us, you donate and we’ll give you a tax cut – that is gone.”

He says that behind it all is a determination to move to a fairer tax system. That belief includes a desire to lower the tax burden on working people. “I think VAT is a real problem for many people. When we come out of Europe, there is more flexibility on VAT, particularly in terms of the lower levels. VAT is a regressive tax.”

A tax giveaway will not do anything to reassure voters worried about Labour’s spending plans, but McDonnell claims he would make the move when it could be funded through economic growth.

He says that should Labour win, he will hold a summer budget just weeks after entering office. It will contain measures on NHS and school funding, abolishing tuition fees and setting up a national investment bank. He has met the Treasury’s top civil servants, including permanent secretary Tom Scholar, to make preparations.

“We had a serious discussion about the policies we want to prioritise, the budget, the timing of it,” he says. “It is all doable. That is the norm. There is nothing exceptional about that. The objective is the preparations for government.”

Apart from his planning meetings with civil servants, little else is conventional about the way he would behave as chancellor. He would not, for example, use the chancellor’s grace-and-favour country retreat, Dorneywood.

“I am a chancellor for the people,” he says. “They call me the people’s chancellor. That is what I’ll be. I won’t be taking any of that stuff.” Will Corbyn use Chequers? “No, no, no, no … if it was up to me, I would open them up to the public.”

Once in office, could he really rely on rebellious Labour MPs to deliver his legislation? “I think the atmosphere has completely changed,” he says. “Once we go into government, people will be excited. They will want to take positions and implement the policies.”

And what about inviting moderates back in to serve in government? “All the way along there has been an open door – anyone who wants to play a role, they will have a role to play.” McDonnell the diplomat would even find a way to work with Donald Trump. “We’ll have a working relationship,” he says, ostentatiously rolling his eyes.

The one issue he dodges is the consequences of a clear Labour defeat, still the likely outcome, according to most polls. Last year, when asked if Corbyn would resign as Labour leader should he lose an election, McDonnell said: “That would be inevitable.”

Asked twice if he stands by that remark now, he repeats the line: “We are going to win the election.” He adds: “The polls have narrowed. I’m now telling you we are going to win the election, full stop.”

In a reflection of Labour’s campaign, he is far more animated when talking about public services than the challenges around Brexit. “I think we can arrive at an accommodation [on single market access],” he says. “There is an awful lot of room for manoeuvre on that.”

With the interview ending, he has not mentioned Theresa May once. “The lesson for Theresa and the Conservative party is that people are not willing to accept you turning up with a manifesto which says next to nothing,” he says.

“I think Tories were let down by it. I am getting that on the doorstep, actually. How dare they treat us like that? That is about the nature of the discourse changing.”

In less than a week he will discover whether Britain’s political sands really have shifted – or whether his belief that the country is ready to embrace his agenda is nothing more than a mirage.

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