The Shadow Chancellor’s speech at Labour conference has always been the second biggest slot after the leader. But in a sense John McDonnell’s speech today, just before lunch, is the most important slot of the whole conference because he is talking about the policy area that did the most to put voters off Labour in May. A review by Jon Cruddas found that voters were well-aware of Labour’s anti-austerity message, and that they didn’t like it, even though all the retail offers on energy bills and so on were popular.
But McDonnell believes that voters need to be told of the dangers of austerity, which they haven’t, and then they will come over to his way of thinking. He also clearly knows that before he can get a hearing for this argument, he will need to convince voters that he’s worth trusting, and that’s why he spent so much of his Today programme interview sounding calm, mild, reasoned - not quite the impassioned speaker that those who’ve watched him in the Commons know. He was quite insistent that his speech would be boring, presumably because boring is trustworthy, while exciting is risky.
He also had to explain his stance on direct action, so that he didn’t appear to be sanctioning violence. And he complained about ‘the headlines’, both covering his personal beliefs and covering the pre-briefing on his speech. He joked that he was thinking of publishing all of his own speeches, given everyone else was too (pesky journalists, trying to find out what someone believes, eh?).
The new Shadow Chancellor wants to grow the economy by tackling tax evasion and tax avoidance and fair taxes. And he would use ‘people’s QE’, but only in the right circumstances.
All of this forms the foundation for what McDonnell hopes will be a completely new direction for Labour’s economic policy that will energise voters. What isn’t clear - as well as the detail of the policy, such as how much money he can really expect to collect from being tougher on tax avoidance and tax evasion - is what evidence he has that voters in Britain secretly want a party with an even more strident anti-austerity message. Perhaps he will explain this in his speech.