John McDonnell – 2019 Speech in Birmingham

Below is the text of the speech made by John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, in Birmingham on 4 December 2019.

On Monday night I watched the Dispatches programme “Growing Up Poor.” If you haven’t seen it yet please do so. It portrays starkly what nearly 10 years of austerity has resulted in for too many families in our country.

The precarious insecure existence so many families face in our society means that all it takes is one mishap, an illness, a death or family breakdown and families are pushed over the edge.

Watching children showing us that they had no food in their home, going to bed cold, wearing their clothes in bed to keep warm, raiding their piggy bank to find some money for their mum to pay the meter for the electricity to boil the water for their hot water bottles. Parents struggling with stress and mental health problem.

And, yes the wonderful spirit of the children as they help the marvellous but overstretched volunteers at the food bank.

The remarkable story of the programme was that these were families living in wealthy towns like Cambridge.

On Tuesday a new Shelter report also found 135,000 children will be without a home this Christmas.

On the same day an analysis by the Equality Trust showed the UK’s six richest people control as much wealth as the poorest 13 million. It all went to show just how unequal our society is.

It’s three weeks to Christmas. The celebration of the birth of Jesus. Children going hungry and homeless in the 5th largest economy in the world begs the question:

“Are we really living up to the values of Christianity or any other of our religions or beliefs for that matter?”

What Dispatches showed was what happens when a family is forced to rely upon a safety net that in reality barely exists. We don’t believe it’s enough to offer people a hand up out of poverty. We want to abolish poverty. That’s why we committed in our manifesto to abolishing in-work poverty within five years. And it’s why we’re replacing the Social Mobility Commission with a Social Justice Commission, because unlike the Tories we don’t believe in tolerating poverty so long as a lucky few can escape it.

I want to thank Lyn Brown for everything she’s done in the Shadow Treasury Team to push that agenda forward. But the problem of a steeply rising cost of living over the last 10 years is an issue faced by most within our country. It isn’t just a small number of families hit by stagnant wages and rising bills. But the majority of people in our community.

Labour has published today a report setting out the cost to most, of the nearly 10 years of the Conservatives in government and the policies of privatisation under successive Conservative governments. Going all the way back to the Thatcher and Major administrations selling off our nation’s public utilities and natural assets. ‘The family silver’ – as a former Conservative Prime Minister called it.

Profiteering through privatisation and the Conservatives’ failure to curb rising bills has cost families nearly £6000 a year since 2010. While wages are still lower than before the financial crash, inaction and economic mismanagement by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats over the past decade has meant the cost of living for millions of households has soared.

In our exciting Manifesto launched two weeks ago, Labour set out its plan for real change. Change that will help tackle that burden of rising living costs. How can we do that? After nearly ten years during which it’s seemed impossible that anything might change. I’ll tell you where it starts. It starts with adopting the principle of “do no harm”. “At least don’t make things worse.” So we’ll scrap Universal Credit, stopping its roll-out and putting in place a package of fixes while we design a replacement that’s fit for purpose.

Of course that won’t help everyone. We need to raise wages across the country so people don’t need to rely on Universal Credit. That starts with our Real Living Wage – £10 an hour, straight away, for everyone over 16. An average pay rise of up to £6,000 a year. A pay rise for 7 and a half million people.

For public sector workers, it’s a boost of 5% in the first year of a Labour Government. For others, it’s bringing in trade union bargaining across the economy, to raise wages everywhere. Ending bogus self-employment and investing across the UK in good, sustainable jobs in the industries of the future. A high-wage society is the building block of our vision for a better, more inclusive economy.

But higher wages are no good if the cost of living continues to race away. The Tories and Liberal Democrats have said they’re opposed to public ownership; they’re prepared to tell voters they’re wrong to want control over the essentials of our economy. But their ideological objections have real consequences.

Our proposals to bring the major energy companies into public ownership has been independently estimated to save an average of £142 a year, While our proposals to retrofit almost every home in the country would slash the average household bill by over £400 a year. Getting rid of the dividends being paid out, the overpaid management and the financial speculators isn’t just the right thing to do. It doesn’t just return the essentials of life to people’s hands. It will save you money as soon as Labour get into government and make it happen.

No wonder the privatisation fat-cats are scaremongering with their threats of legal action.

But that’s not the end of it either. Because you’ve heard the Tories and Liberal Democrats over recent weeks telling you that the essentials of life can’t be provided free at the point of use, paid for through taxation. And you’re a dreamer if you think otherwise. The same people whose political ancestors would have laughed at the idea of free healthcare, free roads or education are now telling you that we can’t possibly provide free social care, prescriptions or childcare.

Of course these things need to be paid for. In the Labour Party we know that: our members and supporters are the people who provide the care, who look after our young people, and who dispense those prescriptions. Of course they need paying for. But we believe in a fair society, we don’t leave them to the market so those with the most can afford them while others can’t.

That’s why Labour has a fair approach to tax: raising income tax rates for the top 5% while closing loopholes and taxing income from wealth the same as that from work.

And what a difference that could make. Paying for free childcare – saving on average almost £3,000 a year per child. Providing free school meals for all primary school children, saving parents over £400 and ensuring that no child struggles to concentrate because of hunger. Paying for the personal care that we or our family members might need in old age If you or someone in your family needs care at home, that could mean a saving of over £7,000 a year. Paying for a reduction in rail fares, to keep the cost of living down and encourage more people onto public transport. And paying for free prescriptions, saving those with monthly prescriptions over a hundred pounds a year.

We estimate that – just looking at some of our policies – Labour’s plan for real change could save families over £6,700 a year. And that’s before we start talking about righting the injustice done to women born in the 1950s. Something the Tories will also tell you they can’t afford, despite all the billions handed out in tax cuts to the rich and big corporations.

Labour’s plans to transform our society – to create a society based on reducing costs and raising wages by working together – are based upon laying the foundations of a new economy. The scale of the reforms we pledge to introduce is significant because the challenges we face are significant.

The question asked of us is whether the level of change we aspire to is achievable.

Nearly ten years of Conservative and Lib Dem governments imposing austerity on our society has limited some people’s ambitions for our country’s future. It’s understandable that confidence in the potential for a better future has been damaged by a Conservative political narrative that has undermined the hope that things can change. That’s why for those of us, who believe that real change is not only necessary but readily achievable, we need to spell out in detail how concretely, step by step that change can be brought about.

We have done that, through our Manifesto and our Grey Book. And I’ll be saying even more about that theme in the days ahead. So that before polling day people will know not just what we want to achieve. But also just how we are going to achieve it.

This election campaign began for me in Liverpool, the city of my birth. Only last week, the people of that city were forced to relive again the trauma of the Hillsborough Disaster. The memory of a previous Conservative government and how it treated the north, midlands, Wales and Scotland – football fans, and the working class.

I remember the Hillsborough Tragedy like it was yesterday. I remember the brave campaigners who have fought for justice ever since. And I remember how my best friend, Jeremy Corbyn, one of the bravest of politicians, stood up for them, fighting for justice for those denied it.

Those killed and then lied about at Hillsborough – including by the Prime Minister in his days as a journalist.

People need to remember what the Conservatives have done to us over the decades.

Those who had their communities deliberately smashed apart by the Conservative Party and were lied about during the Miners’ Strike.

Over the years as I’ve worked with Jeremy – over all the times he has taken a stand, been denounced and then been proven right. I’ve seen one thing consistently: the way he supports others to turn their hopes into reality. We’re seeing that now with the rising stars of the Shadow Cabinet; the future leaders of our country.

And giving power to others is at the heart of the society we’ll start to forge in just over a week’s time. Some have said we’re too ambitious, that there’s no way we can achieve everything we’re promising. They may have forgotten or not even heard about the Attlee Labour government which, after the Second World War when the country was virtually bankrupt, took back control of our economy, brought key utilities and industries into public ownership, created the NHS and welfare state.

Well they also said Jeremy couldn’t become Leader of the Labour Party. They said we’d be annihilated in the 2017 election. They say there’s no alternative. They say – or at least the Prime Minister does – that the working class are drunk, criminal and feckless.

It’s hardly surprising they don’t want to see power put into people’s hands away from the bankers who fund the Tory Party. That they mock the intelligence or the capability of ordinary people to run things. And beneath the short-term Brexit bluster it’s the same old message:

“Nothing can change

“Nothing will change

“A better world isn’t possible”

We know that’s not true.

Things can, and will, change. We’re ready to make that change with a fully worked-out programme to give everyone control over the decisions that affect their lives. Not just the lucky few.

The next week is decisive.

On December 13th we can wake up to years more Brexit chaos, of Donald Trump dictating the terms of our trading future, while our economy with “baked in” austerity, according to the IFS, sees public services sink even further into neglect.

Or we can start the task of putting right the mistakes of the past, rebuilding Britain from the bottom up. That will only happen under a Labour Government. And all of us here today will give everything we’ve got in the coming days to make that happen.

For those families and children whose Christmas dinner will be from the food bank this year and who are homeless and have no permanent secure home.

We’ll give them a Christmas present that will transform their lives.

A Labour government.