MCDONNELL should have gone for the open goal of Tory U-turns, writes Joyce McMillan
All things being equal, this should not have been a good week for George Osborne. As he rose to make his autumn statement in the Commons on Wednesday, he was essentially about to add to his “omnishambles” budget of 2012 the “hand-brake turn” autumn statement of 2015; his plan was to ditch his crushingly unpopular decision to cut tax credits for low-income working households, and - in the aftermath of the Paris attacks - to abandon the forthcoming round of cuts in police spending, while still claiming that £12 billion a year could be cut from the welfare budget by 2020.
And if all this erratic road-work made his handling of the economy seem a shade like a Bullingdon Club night out, he had an excuse at the ready, albeit a fragile one.
The Office for Budget Responsibility, he would say, had identified an additional £23 billion available for spending over the five years of the current parliament, to 2020; and although it amounts to little more than one-half of one per cent of all UK government spending over that period, the figure, totalled over five years, would sound impressive enough to spare the Chancellor’s blushes.
It was a seat-of-the-pants kind of plan, in other words, put together since the defeat of the tax credit proposals in the House of Lords last month; and the Chancellor must have been bracing himself for the kinds of U-turn headlines he did indeed get, in the early editions of some newspapers - the Telegraph’s funereal “The End of Austerity”, and the Mail’s “What Happened To Austerity?”.
Yet just at the moment of maximum political danger, for George Osborne and the Tory front bench, salvation appeared, in the shape of a dire tactical misjudgment by the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, tasked with replying to the statement.
For instead of focusing ruthlessly on the Chancellor’s spectacular policy reversals and missed targets - and on the generally poor quality of the OBR’s recent forecasting - John McDonnell started waving a copy of Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, in a visual juxtaposition of left-wing Labour poltician and handbook for communist tyranny that could hardly have been less fortunate, from an image-making point of view.
Mr McDonnell was trying, of course, to make a perfectly valid point about the Chancellor’s bizarre ideologically-driven conviction that it is OK for the communist government of the People’s Republic of China effectively to own large parts of Britain’s infrastructure, but not OK for the British government and people to own it. In the course of making that point, though, the Shadow Chancellor not only flourished the book but read from it, and then chucked it towards the Chancellor, all but guaranteeing that his familiarity with the Little Red Book - and not George Osborne’s litany of economic disarray and misjudgment - would become the story of the hour.
“Ooh look,” said the Chancellor, seizing the moment like the sharp debater he is, “it’s his own personal signed copy.” Now of course it is infuriating for Labour supporters to see such a relatively minor incident blown up into a smokescreen to cover the Chancellor’s embarrassment; but the truth is that not offering such hostages to fortune is one of the first rules of successful political leadership, and one that John McDonnell comprehensively broke on Wednesday.
After George Osborne went so far as to describe cuts in the UK government’s arts budget as “a false economy” - echoing an argument the Scottish Government has been making for the last five years, while Osborne slashed arts spending south of the Border - the political goal was wide open, for any opposition worth the name.
Almost every public spending cut George Osborne has ever proposed, after all, from the winding-down of the Sure Start scheme to this week’s slashing of preventive public health services delivered by local authorities, has been a “false economy”, the kind of disinvestment in people, services and communities that always creates greater social costs down the line.
All John McDonnell needed to do was to point out that truth, bemoan the suffering that has been caused by George Osborne’s extremely slow - and far from complete - getting of wisdom on these matters, and sit down, to roars of approval from most on the opposition benches.
Instead, though, some imp of mischief made him think of Chairman Mao; and it’a hard not to feel that his gaffe is in some way a consequence of the current truly shocking disarray in the parliamentary Labour Party, where the leader can barely open his mouth, either in public or in private, without being briefed against by kind of Blairite MPs who clearly feel that while their friends are in the offices of the right-wing press, their enemies are elsewhere on their own party benches.
Whoever is most at fault, in other words, the truth is that the Labour Party at Westminster is currently in highly emotional meltdown, divided from top to bottom along the deepest and most bitter faultline in modern western politics; and is therefore all but unable to oppose a Chancellor whose economic policy looks increasingly chaotic, and bereft of real justification for the human damage it undoubtedly causes.
Under these circumstances, finally, a heavy burden falls on the SNP at Westminster - still relatively unified, and able to claim both substantial experience of government and high levels of popular support - to provide an alternative centre-left voice that is both more moderate and more credible than that of the current Labour leadership.
And it’s striking that even as Nicola Sturgeon’s administration in Scotland faces increasingly sharp questions about its record in government, and its plans for making use of Scotland’s imminent new tax powers, the First Minister’s stock at Westminster continues to rise; perhaps because she now fills such an obvious gap in the UK political landscape where a canny, sensible and electable leader of the Labour Party should be - the kind of centre-left Labour leader Nicola Sturgeon herself might have been, if British political history had worked out differently; and the kind who understands that you never get anywhere in the politics of this island by waving a Little Red Book, and making yourself seem like even more of an ideological extremist than the Chancellor himself.