For a full 10 years in the Nineties and Naughties, Monday used to be Gordon Brown Day at Labour conference, as the Chancellor’s “big clunking fist” dominated the economic policy landscape. Now, Monday is Big Mac Day, and John McDonnell certainly went large as he fried New Labour’s love affair with the private sector.
When McDonnell praised the Bakers’ Union ‘McStrikers’ in the conference hall, pausing to deliver them an ovation, his words were a very sharp contrast with Brown’s annual ‘Iron Chancellor’ warnings against industrial action and for pay restraint. But the Shadow Chancellor’s big reveal was a new policy to reverse Private Finance Initiatives. PFI was introduced by the Tories, but ramped up by Brown, as a way to build or refub schools, roads and hospitals while keeping the cost off the public balance sheet. The Left always hated it and not for nothing did McDonnell remind us that Conference voted in 2002 to ‘regret’ the use of PFI – only to be ignored by Blair and Brown (and, whisper it quietly, John Prescott, one of the most passionate backers of Labour’s PFIs).
The new policy is emblematic of a wider shift against the private sector orthodoxy of the New Labour years, and McDonnell underlined again his plan to re-nationalise water, rail, energy and Royal Mail. Just where the money comes from remains to be seen (and Brown never, ever unveiled a policy without detailed costings to ward off Tory attacks). Let’s see if the Shadow Chancellor follows the lead of Dennis Skinner, who warmed up the crowd beforehand with a simple solution: “Borrow the money! It’s what the private firms do!”
Always more fiery and more mischievous than Corbyn, McDonnell reminded everyone he had warned the pre-election polls would be proved wrong and said ‘opponents’ and ‘commentators’ were interchangeable. With a creaking minority Tory government suddenly making business take the Shadow Chancellor seriously, it’s also worth remembering his words at a rally on Saturday night: “I’ll tell you a secret, I’m going to be Chancellor.” If he does reach the Treasury, today he confirmed the worst-kept secret in politics: it would be painted red, not Brown.