John Mann MP: Jeremy Corbyn proved me wrong, but now he must answer the 'Bolsover question'
Writing for PoliticsHome, Bassetlaw MP John Mann says all wings of the Labour party must now compromise in order to build on last week's general election gains.
A rapprochement is happening between Labour MPs and Jeremy Corbyn following his turnaround of Labour’s election performance. That is not just predictable, but certain. A further compromise of more fundamental unity is required though and is for the first time possible.
Owen Jones was right to identify that there were two types of Labour MPs who have been opposed to Corbyn; those who thought he was unelectable, but were comfortable with the manifesto and those who thought he was unelectable and disagreed with the manifesto. As ever it’s the economy (stupid) that is the critical issue.
Labour MPs need to grasp that the old Gordon Brown economics had tied them into a monetarist analysis of the economy, where everyone is paranoid about public sector debt, in 2010 this logic led to Alistair Darling’s startling pre-election austerity budget, Liam Byrne’s notorious Treasury departure note (the coffers are empty) and the embarrassing failure of PFI as a method of funding infrastructure spending.
Jeremy Corbyn killed this philosophy dead, with a very simple fairness agenda and the electorate has grasped it. Perhaps the most critical economic argument is regarding student debt. The monetarist position is that this big increase in public spending will burden future generations with future debt. However, student loans have been privatised into personal household debt. For the real economy the difference is negligible, but for the individual student it is overwhelming and stifling. For the second time, repeating the history of the 2010 election, students voted in huge numbers to nationalise their potential debt.
Much less prominently, Labour promised a pay increase to public sector workers and for the lowest paid. This is little different in macroeconomic terms to the proposed helicopter money advocated by some - in other words stimulate the economy by getting people spending. Done at the right level and reaching those with a propensity to spend in the local economy this works as traditional Keynesianism.
If anything the criticism of the Labour campaign should be that this counter to austerity was not hammered home loudly enough.
But acceptance of this core anti-austerity economics is fundamental to Labour unity and has to remain as a continuous coherent Labour message. The compromise required is that those MPs previously opposing Jeremy is that they sign up to the anti-austerity economic policy. It is pillar number one of Labour’s message.
Pillar number two is fairness and equality, much easier to sign up to for everyone but needing much more input for the principles, including precisely defining how off shore tax avoidance can be truly countered. Labour is not radical enough, or perhaps more accurately, not detailed enough in how we can leverage in offshore tax evaders and avoiders.
Pillar three is about national security and this is where the compromise needs to come from Jeremy and his core team and it has to be conciliation both with recalcitrant MPs but much more importantly with a key section of the electorate.
The most worrying result for Jeremy to ponder is in Bolsover, a constituency bordering mine, Mansfield, Ashfield and North East Derbyshire.
We lost two of these seats and nearly lost Ashfield, but it is the Bolsover question that must be addressed.
The swing in Bolsover was 7.7%, the second highest swing from Labour to Conservative in the country. Yet Dennis Skinner, more than any other MP in this election or within the last 30 years, is the one consistent advocate of the basic approach that Jeremy is taking. No MP is as vocal in his support of Jeremy, nor more enthused by all his policies.
So how can Bolsover have gone in such an opposite direction of travel as most of the country? In my experience, the answer is really simple and it is the second compromise needed for Labour unity if we are to achieve electoral victory and government.
Demographically, Bolsover is significant because of its predominantly white, working class population, a similarity mirrored by all of its neighbours. It is in these constituencies where the heavy Tory attack lines on Corbyn led to Labour switchers.
“Jeremy supports the IRA”. Of course he does not and he was explicit in condemning all violence. But his answers needed interpreting and there was space for mischief making. Jeremy needs to say, in simple words, that he unequivocally condemns all IRA violence. From his political stance taken during the election this should be easy.
Secondly, Jeremy needs to repeat his support for shoot to kill when terrorists are actively endangering life. He did say this, unequivocally, but his language remained too ambiguous. Again this contrasts with the open honest and straightforward answers that have won him so many new admirers. On all issues we need to hear him in Bolsover language, not in politician mode.
Thirdly, Jeremy’s position on the use of nuclear weapons in not sufficiently clear. If we are building a new trident missile systems, then there has to be remote theoretical possibilities that they will be used, by him.
If North Korea launched a nuclear attack on America and then attempted to launch one on the UK, and if a pre-emptive nuclear strike was the only protection, then they would need using. Of course there are 1001 caveats to how this situation must never be reached, but to explicitly refuse to accept the logic of deterrence is a position that is a significant issue in places like Bassetlaw and Bolsover and for some a vote switcher. Jeremy stated that he supports multilateral, not unilateral nuclear weapons reductions. His position is strengthened when he is clear with the electorate.
By removing these distractions Labour can then build in Tory austerity attacks on the armed services into our campaigning. No section of the public sector is more demoralised and we should be at the forefront on service pay, conditions and on the wholesale cuts to personnel which endanger our country. Imagine a Party political broadcast from Jeremy leading on this vital issue.
I was wrong on Jeremy’s electability. I expected university and London gains, but I did not expect the clarity of economic arguments that shifted votes to Labour, nor the strength of support that was galvanised in many parts of the country. I may be wrong on my assessment of the Bolsover question, though I doubt it. I challenge others to find another credible answer.
What cannot be avoided is a clear answer to the Bolsover question. Labour cannot win power without this being answered, we have to gain the approval of those white working class voters who switched or abstained this time.
The Labour Party is nothing if it does not represent the aspirations of the white working class in industrial areas. We risk the politics of Trump and the rust belt, or worse if we ignore this issue. The Bolsover question must be answered swiftly and effectively.
John Mann is the Labour MP for Bassetlaw.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.