The five things you need to know on Moniday September 28, 2015...
1) LITTLE JOHN, BIG IDEAS
Monday of Labour conference is traditionally the day of the big setpiece speech by the Shadow Chancellor (and Chancellor, for those who can remember that far back). But John McDonnell is proving that he’s not going copy the way Ed Balls and Gordon Brown have filled this slot ever since 1994.
Just as Little John was Robin Hood’s right hand man, McDonnell is Jeremy Corbyn’s most trusted ally, and wields similar muscle in the new, old Labour party. So it’s perhaps apt that the Shadow Chancellor is set to announce that a Robin Hood Tax will be included in a review of economic policy. The idea is totemic of the new era under Corbyn – very popular with the grass roots, while making many senior figures nervous as business rolls its eyes.
In another break with tradition, McDonnell bust the midnight embargo on bits of his own speech at a Unite fringe last night, declaring “either we introduce a financial transaction tax unilaterally in this country, or Europe or globally”. He stressed that Angela Eagle had agreed on a review, though she has big doubts about unilateral fiscal rearmament (the Times quotes a senior party source today describing a non-global Robin Hood tax as ‘idiotic’). Clarifying his remarks on Today, he said he wanted a global tax not a unilateral UK-only one.
More widely, McDonnell wants to shift taxation away from low and middle earners and onto big corporates but also wealthy households. Just how he plans to do the latter remains to be seen, but aides were stressing last night that ‘redistribution’ is key. Yes, that EdM ‘predistribution’ complexity is out, down-the-line redistribution is back.
McDonnell also told the fringe last night that his speech would be ‘stupefyingly dull’ (he told BBC News this morning it would be ‘pretty boring’), in that he will talk about living ‘within our means’. But there’s trouble ahead on this, as some Corbynistas are already sniffing betrayal with the Shadow Chancellor’s talk of signing up to Osborne’s fiscal charter.
This morning, Ann Pettifor, one of his new economic gurus, told Today’s Business section (it was a lovely dawn here in Brighton as she did her interview) that she was ‘unhappy’ with the shift to living ‘within our means’. “No Chancellor” can do that, she said, without the economy growing, pointing out even Osborne had to ditch Brown’s fiscal rules to avoid further recession. Pettifor said she was pleased McDonnell was shifting from ‘the fetish of the deficit’.
The man himself told Today that he wanted to test how much of the £120bn ‘tax gap’ could be recovered. He also refused to back down on ‘People’s QE’, saying he and Mark Carney were ‘going to have a chat’. A review of the Bank of England’s mandate is also now Labour policy, he said.
2) TRIDENT TESTED
The explosive row over Trident renewal has been defused thanks to a ballot of trade unions and Constituency Labour Party delegates which decided this was just not a priority for debate today. A tiny 1% of trade unionists wanted the nuclear debate and just 7% of CLPs.
Lots of papers have written this up as a defeat for Corbyn, and it certainly fuels the belief that Tom Watson’s allies will act as guarantors of ‘sensible’ Labour politics and block lurches to the far Left. But I’m told that the Left is not giving up. One MP told me last night that there was a move to increase the number of contemporary motions from four to five, leaving open the door to Trident being discussed later this week. Let’s see if the party machine lets that happen.
Both Tom Watson and Jeremy Corbyn suggested yesterday that there would be a free vote for MPs on Trident when the maingate renewal decision comes up in the Commons next June. Corbyn still wants to ‘persuade’ colleagues, but it’s very unlikely that he’ll do so.
As for the other big foreign policy issue that Corbynistas have made a totem, Tony Blair’s support for the Iraq war, there appears to be little appetite among the leadership to push it this week. While some excitable MPs have been urging the leader to make a big ‘apology’ in his conference speech, I’m told by very senior figures that that was ‘never the plan’. Jezza will indeed make his apology but it will come ‘in due course’, not tomorrow.
And given our new HuffPost/Survation poll out this morning (7am), it’s perhaps wise to let sleeping dogs lie at conference. More than half of Labour voters DON’T want Corbyn to apologise for Labour’s involvement in the Iraq war. And on the benefits cap too, 54% of Labour voters disagree with their new leader’s plan to scrap the cap. Maybe those disconnects explain our other finding: only a third of Labour voters think Corbyn can win the next election.
Andy Burnham, the new shadow home secretary, said last night that Labour has "completely and utterly lost it" if it does not "want to listen" to Tony Blair. Sounds like a fair chunk of Labour voters agree with him.
3) WOAH SELECTOR
Corbyn reassured MPs at his first PLP that he would not be backing any attempt to introduce mandatory reselection. But since then, plenty of backbenchers have grown wary of noises from the Left calling on him to do just that.
It may be that the boundary review will effectively help Corbynistas engineer reselection decapitations anyway, removing those MPs felt not totally on board with the leader’s project. But the moderate wing of the party is beginning to mobilise at grass roots level too, relearning the lessons of how to combat the Left at every level, from branch meetings to CLP GCs.
The Times has an exclusive of a leaked email from a Unite official Tony Woodhouse urging a ‘massive recruiting drive’ in constituencies of MPs who have refused to serve in Corbyn’s shadow team. A Unite spokeswoman said it ‘does not and will not support’ any deselection moves, but it’s the unofficial moves that worry many.
Among those who have refused to serve are of course Tristram Hunt and Chuka Umunna, both of whom were very active on the fringe yesterday. Hunt made a particularly strong speech at Progress (and LabourList), making clear he was going to lead a fightback of the moderates, while accepting Corbyn ‘got it’ that politics needed to change. It wasn’t quite ‘I’m a fighter, not a quitter’, but we got the gist. “ Let's not allow the multiple joys of internal debate to go on forever, because with every day that passes this government is wreaking terrible damage to the country I love” he said.
Another big figure who decided not to serve under Corbyn is Dan Jarvis. He’s making his only conference event appearance today when he’s In Conversation with me for our HuffPost WaughZone Live. Come along for 12.30pm at the Albert Room in the Grand and see what he has to say.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Vladimir Putin just can’t resist tweaking the West’s tail on Syria, declaring Assad is staying to avoid Libya-style meltdown. Watch his CBS interview from overnight.
4) DISUNITED NATIONS
150 world leaders are gathering in New York for the UN General Assembly, the biggest ever meeting of its kind. Obama meets Putin today after more than a year’s gap, David Cameron meets the Iranian President.
But on Syria, will the US shift position slightly, just as the UK appears set to? Cameron told reporters that while Assad was ultimately part of the ‘problem’, “you need to have a transition, the exact terms of that transition have to be worked out…” That sounded like a Putin-style wriggle room to let Assad stay in post for a fixed period while ISIL can be tackled.
But what about Labour’s position? Hilary Benn has his own big speech this morning and he’s set out some demands, making clear that the UK should table a UN Security Council chapter VII resolution demanding Assad be brought before the International Criminal Court on war crimes charges. That sounds like a hardening of Labour’s position on Assad and would rule out any ‘transition’ period of diplomacy.
As for the party’s stance on air strikes, well it’s unchanged but Benn’s set of key tests sound tougher not weaker. The question is whether the PM will want to dare call Labour’s bluff.
5) PIG SEER
Over a week after the piggate allegations first shot through the body politic like a nauseating jolt of electricity, David Cameron has finally responded on the record.
He told hacks with him for the New York trip: “Everyone can see why the book was written and everyone can see straight through it. As for the specific issue raised, a very specific denial was made a week ago and I’ve nothing to add to that.” In fact Downing Street issued no on the record denial at all and it was left to senior sources, more than a day later, to say the porcine allegation was a bit of a porkie.
Tristram Hunt couldn’t resist the temptation last night to exploit the PM’s difficulties however. He told both the Progress rally and the LabourList event the same joke: “We might all be feeling like the inside of a pigs head after a Piers Gaveston Society meeting….” Who has the last laugh after this week in Brighton remains to be seen.
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