1. BIG MAC GOES LARGE
John McDonnell was in his element yesterday, using his commanding position as Shadow Chancellor (and as one of Jeremy Corbyn’s closest allies) to win an even bigger ovation than last year. He rammed home not just his radical renationalisation plans, but also his main political message that he’d long predicted the pollsters and pundits were wrong, and said he’d been proved right by the Corbyn ‘surge’ at the general election.
I wrote a snap analysis on how McDonnell broke not just with the Tories on PFI, but also New Labour. His big announcement was delivered with a rousing certainty (“We’ll bring existing PFI contracts back in-house”) that was later relaxed by aides who stressed that PFIs would be reviewed and bought out “if necessary”. Amid panic from business, some in the party were surprised he hadn’t mentioned one area in Northumbria had already done an NHS debt buy-back, proving it was a workable policy.
On Today, former Gordon Brown aide Jon Ashworth, now Shadow Health Secretary, squirmed as he was asked ‘when did you change your mind about PFI?’. He defended the benefits of the policy in Government while holding the new line that a review was needed to avoid taxpayer rip-offs. He earlier told BBC Breakfast that McDonnell “was not jumping the gun, he was setting out what he wants…we will have a review”.
Yet it is McDonnell who is very much the dominant force here in Brighton (I saw his longtime friend and Momentum founder Jon Lansman greeted like a celebrity by activists on the seafront last night). As proved by the Brexit vote move, Momentum is firmly in charge, while skillfully reinventing itself (see Jess Elgot’s excellent piece). It has the best fringes today, with Corbyn expected at its World Transformed festival and Ed Miliband hosting a pub quiz.
Last night, McDonnell underlined just how confident he was at World Transformed fringe with ex-broadcaster Paul Mason. He said the first six months of a Corbyn government would be ‘like Stalingrad’ with attacks from the establishment. More ear-catchingly, he also revealed supporters had been doing “war game-type scenario-planning”, including “a run on the pound”, capital flight and other possibilities it would have to deal with after being elected. The Economist was at the fringe, but PolHome has the best account, with McDonnell saying Labour was prepping “detailed implementation manuals” and even drafting legislation so it can “hit the deck running” if elected. “It tries to answer the question about what happens when or if they come for us,” he said. Aides told me McDonnell was referring to wargaming by others, not his own team, but his words are still very newsworthy.
Big Mac couldn’t resist a joke about ‘the McDonnell amendment’ in his speech, and today the party will vote for a rule change to reduce the number of MPs’ nominations needed for a leadership bid. The only limits to the new membership power comes from unions, and last night one insider told me there was no way they would swap their current influence with a one-member-one-vote system on policy other matters. The rule changes on an expanded NEC and leadership will go through easily today, but there will be another telling indicator of the Leftward-shift of the party in the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) elections. A result is due at the close of play.
2. ABUSIVE RELATIONSHIP
McDonnell worried some Labour MPs with his speech line yesterday that the party’s “opponents” and most media “commentators” were “indistinguishable”. His words were interpreted as further licence for attacks on journalists, not least as critics felt he already appeared to play down the fact that Laura Kuenssberg has a bodyguard in Brighton (he said she should to tell anyone who harassed her that “John McDonnell will sort them”).
But relations with the media seem more fraught than ever here. It’s claimed McDonnell didn’t go ahead with scheduled interviews yesterday. I’m told that Jeremy Corbyn was expected on the Today programme for a live interview this morning but his team made clear last night he wasn’t doing it. If the impasse remains, it means for the first time ever, there will be no Labour conference leader interview on the Radio 4 flagship show. Team JC tell me no interview was ever “agreed or arranged…no pull out, that’s simply not true”. But another source suggested senior Labour figures were unhappy because Today had yesterday failed to ask McDonnell about his overnight trail of the credit card cap policy. Meanwhile, Dennis Skinner fired his own broadside yesterday at journalists (at our Owen in particular, who is not sure if Dennis knows who he even is), suggesting they were all complicit in Tory lies.
Last night, actress Frances Barber quit the party – via Twitter – after reports emerged of a Labour fringe meeting which discussed whether there should be free speech for holocaust deniers (see the Mirror). “Long time coming. Cancelled my LP membership tonight. I can’t belong to a party full of misogyny, anti semitism & thuggery. Deeply sad.” Another member tweeted: “Did mine this morning after 35 years. 5 years longer than my marriage.” Of course, there have been hundreds of thousands of new members drawn to the Corbyn message, but it’s still not a good look to lose any like this.
3. NORTHERN LIGHTS
After a “London-centric” day yesterday (copyright, A Burnham), when conference saw the capital’s trio of McDonnell, Thornberry and Starmer, as well as Sadiq Khan, today has a northern and midlands flavor. Jonathan Ashworth and Angela Rayner will join Tom Watson as the big hitters on health, education and culture/media. Watson’s tone will be very supportive, and a contrast to last year’s defiant speech which was followed by a hero’s welcome in the bars afterwards.
Rayner told the Times’ Red Box live event yesterday that the Tories still viewed notherners with suspicion. “They think we’re a bit luddite and, dare I say it, inbred. They genuinely think we’re all a bit weird with three eyes and that we’re downwind from Sellafield so we haven’t got an opinion that’s worth listening to.” But some in the party still worry about the way some northern votes piled up in some areas yet drifted to the Tories in others (the north east, Mansfield etc).
Len McCluskey yesterday hit out at the ‘whingers and whiners’ who point out Labour didn’t win the election. “We did win…We won the hearts and minds of millions of people, especially the young...we won back our dignity and pride”. We’ve talked to several Labour MPs who take a different tack. Jess Phillips argues: “What we have to look at is where we went wrong in some working class areas”. And fellow Birmingham MP Stephen McCabe also disagreed with McCluskey, adding there was a danger that for working class voters the party was sending “a message that Labour isn’t their sort of party any more”.
Andrew Gwynne, Labour’s elections coordinator, is acutely aware of the need to do more, not just with blue collar but older voters (Labour was way behind at the election among over 65s despite the social care U-turn). He will join polls expert John Curtice and Age UK chief Caroline Abrahams at a fringe later to discuss just that.
4. SNAP CRACKLE POP
Away from the Labour conference, David Davis and Michel Barnier sit down for talks again. After an awkward joint press conference that underlined just how far apart the UK and EU are on Brexit plans, it won’t be easy. Barnier essentially dug in, saying May’s Florence speech offer of £17bn, declaring “we are not going to mix up discussions on debt... on a discussion of our future relationship.” DD was unamused, saying “there are no excuses for standing in the way of progress”. Merkel’s chief of staff Peter Altmaier will have pleased DD with his line on Newsnight that “we have to discuss the future relationship”. Still, he said current talks were “an awful, complicated mess.”
Boris is still on his tour of central and Eastern Europe, but back home there’s still chatter about him, DD and Philip Hammond and their uneasy relations with Theresa May. Yesterday, Hammond very pointedly did not deny Tim Shipman’s revelation that he’d texted Boris after the election to offer his support for leadership bid.
And on a trip to Scotland, the Chancellor refused several times to say May should lead the Tories into a 2022 election: “These are not issues for today…I am not going to get involved in a discussion about future Conservative Party leadership politics.”
The Times has a fascinating story this morning that Tory whips have been put on standby for a ‘snap’ resignation by Boris. It reports Tory MPs have been receiving calls from the whips’ office, which has been assessing support for the foreign secretary while canvassing views on the prime minister’s speech in Florence.
5. TOWERING DISGRACE
The Grenfell Tower disaster is one of the eight ‘priority’ issues chosen by the party for debate at conference. Kensington’s new Labour MP Emma Dent Coad has come up with a shocking new revelation that some of the survivors of the fire have been forced to use foodbanks.
Speaking at a fringe, Dent Coad railed against Kensington and Chelsea council for “unprecedented incompetence”, revealing that a “computer glitch” left one family unable to get cash from the council – and as result they had to go to a food bank to eat.
One disabled woman, she said, had been moved between six different hotels and was left to sit in her own excrement as she had been “completely forgotten” by her carers. And there was this too: “One woman is stuck in a frankly shitty hotel and is very, very low. She is about to give birth and she has nowhere to go.” Where was the £20m that was set to be handed out to residents, she asked. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid will want to know too.
We have more stories to come this morning on Grenfell, one with a Royal flavour, so watch this space.