Leader comment: Time for Labour leadership to stop digging

Contenders cannot get hearing for ambitious housing plans as Shadow Chancellor keeps '˜Traingate' rumbling on

John McDonnell (left) says Sir Richard Branson should be stripped of his knighthood. Picture: PA
John McDonnell (left) says Sir Richard Branson should be stripped of his knighthood. Picture: PA

There seems no end to the acrobatic own goals that the Labour leadership campaign keeps on scoring. And they appear to be no accidental slip of the tongue but calculated attempts to attract maximum attention.The latest incident shows the party’s current leadership incapable of moving on from the “Traingate” affair – the photographs of Jeremy Corbyn sitting on a busy train to illustrate how journeys are now “ram-packed”. Rail tycoon Richard Branson retaliated by releasing CCTV footage appearing to show Mr Corbyn walking past empty seats in the compartment, thus denting the credibility of Team Corbyn’s PR foray.

Far from this spat dying a natural death after four days, Mr Corbyn’s campaign manager and Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has turned up the heat by calling for the Virgin boss to be stripped of his knighthood for releasing the footage. He said Sir Richard was a “tax exile who thinks he can try and intervene and undermine our democracy”.

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As if this was not surreal enough, this came as Mr Corbyn and his rival Owen Smith were trying to set out their views on housing policy. What prospect is there of focusing the attention of Labour supporters when a key party figure launches what seems a petulant attack on Sir Richard Branson?

It is time for this leadership campaign to stop digging. But who has the authority to bring contenders to their senses? It is one thing to call for tax exiles like former BhS boss Philip Green Calling to lose their honours. But advocating this in response to Traingate seems petty at best. It has brought derision from within the party, with Labour MP John Woodcock saying: “Dare to question Saint Jeremy’s version of the truth? John McDonnell will strip you of your knighthood.”

Meanwhile, Mr Corbyn struggles to gain a hearing for his plans to borrow £15 billion a year to build houses across the country – half of them council homes – as part of a £500bn programme of public investment. A Corbyn administration would aim to build one million homes over five years. Leadership contender Owen Smith visited a soup kitchen in Brixton to highlight policies aimed at eradicating homelessness. Pointing to figures showing 3,659 people were sleeping rough last year, Mr Smith’s camp said he would eradicate the problem as part of his plan to build 1.5 million homes. There would also be a rough sleepers’ fund of at least £50 million a year for local authorities to deliver outreach programmes and a government unit to co-ordinate action across the country.

These are ambitious plans, with highly ambitious figures. As such they merit searching scrutiny. Where would the money come from for such a programme if not through higher tax or greater borrowing? Where would the houses would be built, given the opposition that local authorities are already encountering over government house building directives? And how could the high-rise excesses of the 1960s be avoided without huge strain on city green belts?

These are the questions a credible Labour leadership campaign should be addressing. Instead, attention swings to Mr McDonnell’s wayward shot – straight into his own goal.