“Build better but not back” – John McDonnell’s full speech

Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Labour MP John McDonnell at the launch event of ‘Claim the Future‘ on Wednesday evening.

Let me welcome you all to this launch of our new project we’ve called “Claim the Future”. Thanks for joining us. I’ll try and briefly explain the background and purpose of this project before I introduce a panel of my friends to speak this evening. And thanks to our speakers who are coming to us from New Zealand, India, New York, and London.

We are living in a time like few others. A traumatic period both for the many that have directly, too often tragically, suffered loss and harm from the Coronavirus outbreak. But it’s also a period of potentially dramatic economic and political upheaval as people lose their jobs, sink into debt and the underlying principles of how our economies operate are being forcibly challenged.

When people are faced with uncertainty and insecurity like this, there is a natural tendency to want to cling to the past, to wish for things to return to what was ‘normal’. That’s why the slogan ‘Build Back Better’ has had an attractive appeal. And it’s also why it has been so readily co-opted by Conservatives like Johnson. But it’s interesting that the crisis that we are going through has largely bucked this trend. Polling is demonstrating that most people do not want to go back to the way we were. They want to build better but not back. It’s because the ‘normal’ that existed for so many was far from good enough.

The pre-pandemic normal for most was the product of ten years of austerity. A decade in which our essential public services, like the NHS and social care, were deprived of the resources they desperately needed. And a decade of year on year of wages cut and frozen and work increasingly insecure, stressed and under pressure. The grotesque neoliberal mismanagement of our economy left our public services so ill prepared to cope with the virus. It left so many people incapable of avoiding immediate financial hardship when the pandemic struck. So it’s completely understandable that people do not want to return to the insecurity and the precariousness of that past normality.

Of course, the vast bulk of our attention is naturally focused on coping with, surviving and getting through the pandemic. At the back of the collective mind though is that nagging thought that Coronavirus is not the only threat we face. And for all the frightening scale of hurt and damage it is causing, Covid pales into relative insignificance besides the existential risk of climate catastrophe we now face. That’s why we can’t allow a return to normal. We can’t let establishment political leaders and their corporate and media allies take us back. Because they will put us all at risk again.

So, we must claim the future. We have to ask and answer the questions about what lives we want to live, what communities we want to live in and what future there should be for our planet. If we don’t others will. And it will be the establishment politicians and their corporate controllers that will answer these questions for us.

I heard that wonderful writer and campaigner, Arundhati Roy, describe the pandemic as a portal through which we can step into a new future. That is what this project is all about. It’s about releasing our collective imagination to consider what that new future could be, but more importantly it’s about networking that thinking with the action and activists working to secure the change we desire.

There are some who are arguing that this is not the time to be promoting new ideas or policies about the way we manage our economy or organise our society. It’s best to simply criticise the performance of the Tories here and the status quo elsewhere. When asked “if you don’t like what Johnson is doing, what would you do?” the response has been from some not to say or say very little, on the grounds that the election is a long way off. I completely understand that. There will be a time for constructing a manifesto later. But there is a positive role for many of us to play in instigating a constructive discussion about the society we want to create and some of the policy ideas possible to lay the foundations of that new society.

If there is at least one lesson I have urged people to take from the horrendous defeat Labour experienced in 2019, it’s that ideas and policy programmes must be set in an overall narrative, a narrative of the vision of the society you aim to create. And you need time to bed them in and convince people of the role these policies will play within that overall narrative and to achieve the vision of that society. I also have to say that at a time when so many are recognising the need for change, if progressives do not seize this opportunity, the question has to be if not now when will it ever be the right time.

I’ll take you through the work we have undertaken in preparation for this project and our ideas on the process from here. I want to thank the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation for the support it has provided to enable me to bring together a small team who over the last couple of months have drafted a series of policy position papers on some of the most pressing economic issues facing our society. They range from climate change to finance capital to, taxation, public services, public ownership and many others. The team has brought together for each topic a range of expert policy researchers and progressive think tanks, and activist campaigns to peer review the papers and to throw in ideas for both policy development and the campaigning needed to secure the policy.

It’s been quite an exhilarating listening project. Just listening to the buzz of well thought through and grounded ideas and importantly to the incredibly creative and, so often, courageous campaigners in the various fields has just set me alight at times. Our intention is to release the individual papers over the next couple of months for discussion and to convene online meetings to launch and explore their ideas and plan support for actions.

We will aim to put the various proposals from these individual papers together in the early Autumn hopefully as an alternative economic strategy for discussion and campaigning. The most important role is to link the development and promotion of new thinking with the campaigning and action on the ground. Welcome to the concept of praxis.

This is a sizeable and challenging project to pull off. And we might fall flat on our faces. But the political climate is too serious not to try. My underlying fear is a repeat of what happened after the Banking Crash in 2008, when the Left left a vacuum that the right readily filled. The result was ten years of brutal austerity that we know didn’t just cause hardship but cost many, many lives. A recession that we could be facing now is also often the breeding ground not just for the right but for the far right. That’s why we need this project to work.

The first part of our listening project was to listen to the way people had learnt from the pandemic experience about the values they held and the values which they felt should underly our society in the future. What came across was just how much we care for one another and how much we need one another. Basic values of humanity and solidarity that should underpin how we live together. People have described the scale of the challenges we face in every field if we are to build the economy and society we need. The policy papers we will be releasing over the next three months will address many of these key issues. But there are some immediate issues that need to be addressed urgently.

Next Sunday (26 July) marks the 75th anniversary of the Attlee government taking office. In the ruins of the Second World War, with debt far higher than today, they didn’t offer a meal deal, they founded the NHS, created the welfare state, built council homes and nationalised one-third of industry. They claimed the future, and so must we. The time has come to complete the unfinished business of the Attlee government. Thanks largely to the underfunding by successive Tory governments and the ownership of much of our care service being in the hands of hedge funds, venture capitalists and backed by private equity sucking resources from the sector, our care services have been stretched to the absolute limit. With another spike in the virus highly possible, it’s time now to act decisively and create the caring services we need. We need the urgent nationalisation of care to establish the National Care Service alongside the NHS. Only in this way will we be able to secure the standard of care we wish for our elderly and disabled and ensure that the care workforce is properly supported and rewarded.

Other urgent issues have to be addressed. The precarity facing workers has been exposed as the furlough ends and unemployment soars. Even before the pandemic, the economy was stagnant and wages no higher than a decade ago. That’s why we need an immediate minimum income guarantee. But we also need to deal with the escalating mountain of personal debt. We will be bringing forward radical proposals to tackle the debt crisis. We will also support all those campaigners and experts who are demonstrating the same scale of determination, radical policymaking and resourcing to tackle climate change.

Just to conclude before I introduce my friends whom I have asked to speak this evening, let me say this. This is a pivotal moment in history. Over the last few years populist politics, led by charlatan politicians, backed by corporate wealth, took hold here and in the United States. The pandemic has exposed that type of politics and those politicians for what they are – bombastic, dangerous incompetents. People have paid for the likes of Johnson and Trump with their lives and many more now with their jobs and livelihoods.

But the pandemic has also revealed how our current economic system also fails us. It is putting us at risk of an even greater catastrophe of climate change. Our project aims to help ensure that lessons are learnt from the pandemic that can be carried forward to enable us to tackle the fundamental threat of climate change. That we contribute to creating an unstoppable climate of opinion. We’ve been working with dozens of different activists and campaign groups to claim the future, to give confidence to others, to open up a political door that post election defeat timidity may be preventing some from walking through at the moment. I hope that having listened to our speakers tonight you will join our network for action we are launching tonight to do this. We cannot go back, we must claim the future.

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