What is Labour’s priority at the moment? Normally the sensible answer for an Opposition party would be that it needs to focus on policy, and particularly on talking about next week’s Budget. But it is very difficult for a party polling so far behind the one in government and that is so divided to have much authority when it criticises ministers on policy. So when John McDonnell gave his pre-Budget speech today, his focus couldn’t just be on what he expects Philip Hammond to get up to and what Labour would want from the forthcoming economic statement.
The speech itself wasn’t about Labour’s divisions, of course: McDonnell set out plans to make people who earn at least than £1 million publish their tax returns, an independent body to allocate funding to the NHS as the debate about the health service had become too ‘politicised’ and more hypothecation for health spending. But in the question and answer session afterwards, the Shadow Chancellor made a striking point about those in his party who oppose him and Jeremy Corbyn. He pledged a ‘constructive relationship for the future’ and said he was ‘holding out hands from my wing of the party, from Momentum we established, to those people in Progress. And, yes, Peter Mandelson’.
He then praised Peter Mandelson’s ‘incredibly interesting speech’ on Article 50 in the Lords and said ‘I will be inviting him to come and have a cup of tea, and discuss issues around common concern’.
I understand that McDonnell is in fact on quite a ‘tea offensive’ at the moment, inviting any MP from across the party to have a cup of tea with him. Members of Corbyn’s team have offered these in the past, too – and it’s fair to say based on current relations in the party that such tea offensives have mixed success.
McDonnell’s allies are upbeat about the way the party can approach the Budget next week, claiming that more backbench Labour MPs are co-operating with them on effective lines of attack at Treasury Questions and so on. This is probably wise from MPs who have spent the past few months grumbling about Corbyn and McDonnell: the pair are going nowhere (though everyone seems very keen to talk about Rebecca Long-Bailey at the moment), and so in order to achieve something as a party, they are going to have to create at least a semblance of unity.