Desperate to convince the public of that he is not a ‘deficit denier’ and that he can be ‘trusted with the economy’, John McDonnell will vote for Osborne’s fiscal rules. Apart from that awful phrase ‘deficit denier’ there isn’t anything so shocking about the substance of what McDonnell is saying. He aims to balance the current account, will borrow to finance counter-cyclical investment, and sees no need to make a fetish of being in debt! Trouble is, this is Labour on the defensive again! Trying to justify themselves in terms that the Tories have defined. Better if Labour announced tomorrow that it is not asking people to trust it to run this economy but to change it, starting with the financial sector and the crash which produced the deficit everyone is worrying about.
By all means let’s talk about debt and deficits, not to prove that Labour can be ‘responsible’ but to show how we will make the people who really are responsible pay. The huge debt overhang from the financial crisis continues to act as a brake on new investment and economic growth even though it has been part-nationalised with taxpayers bailing out the banks and underwriting bad debts. Propose new steps to tackle the financial sector, demand immediate action to prevent the next credit bubble (probably buy-to-let led), target businesses and financial institutions hoarding cash instead of investing. McDonnell – and the rest of us – will know we are getting somewhere when Osborne is having to explain himself.
It isn’t easy. Corbyn didn’t expect to get elected and hasn’t got a worked out programme. Fortunately there are a lot of bright people around in think-tanks and the like, all itching to offer advice. But it is the politics that counts. Corbyn should not imagine that he can simply put a new team in place and settle down to managing an opposition with a more left-wing profile making appropriate concession to keep critics on board or at bay. If you are not going to sing the national bloody anthem or kneel for the Queen, make a virtue of it; make the case for changing Europe from the inside but you still don’t need to give Cameron a blank cheque. Get a grip.
Corbyn could usefully think of himself as the leader of left party heading a new minority government. Time is limited and he has to decide what to do with it before the Tories, the press and his enemies in his own party gang up on him. He has to use the momentum of his election to change the political conversation. Mobilise the party around a few key campaigns (public ownership of rail and utilities; stringent controls on the financial sector; housing and full employment as the key priorities) while publicly commissioning work on measures to make longer term structural changes. The leadership challenge was the left going on the offensive; there needs to be another.