Labour left figure John McDonnell has praised new leader Keir Starmer’s response to coronavirus and his approach to opposition during the crisis as “exactly right” during a Times Radio interview.
In a boost for the new leadership team, the former Shadow Chancellor talked to John Pienaar about the fresh strategy and style of the opposition party, and declared: “I think Keir’s got this exactly right.
“He’s approached the government in a constructive way – and we’ve got to get through this crisis together – but he can’t help but point out failure after failure. And people are getting pretty angry.”
Outlining examples of “incompetence” by the government during Covid, McDonnell added: “Keir’s offering that alternative. And as we go forward, I think we’ll see a narrowing [in the polls] and maybe Labour will overtake.
“The issue I would say to Labour, though, is don’t just pin this on Johnson. There’s a whole team of them. Because you know how ruthless the Tories are – they would get rid of Johnson tomorrow if necessary.”
The former Labour frontbencher, who stood down when Jeremy Corbyn was replaced in early April, expressed concern about Rishi Sunak replacing the Prime Minister and a subsequent “boost in the polls”.
Asked about the idea that the Labour left has been marginalised and this has improved Labour’s position in the polls, McDonnell said of Starmer: “He’s taking this government on.
“What’s interesting is the government itself has had to adopt many of the policies – not just the ones we advocated for in the last general election, the investment, etc – but also the policies that we put to them in March to cope with this Covid crisis.
“The furlough scheme was our proposal. The support for small businesses, the self-employed – our proposals. I think he’s gaining the benefit of that.
“Of course, with a new leader, the media will give you a much wider leeway to a large extent and of course he’s exploiting that. Good for him.”
Asked whether Starmer is a “proud socialist”, the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington replied: “Keir has made it clear he’s a socialist. If you look at his expressions in the past and throughout – of course he’s a socialist.
“The issue is, what does socialism mean in the 21st century? And the ten-point plan he put forward to be elected as leader was 21st-century socialism. The Labour Party isn’t about one individual either, and Keir knows this.”
He added: “We’re on the same page. Sometimes I’ll want the party to be a bit more vociferous on some of these things, but that’s a matter of style. As long as we get the point across.”
Starmer has been criticised by some left-wing activists for appearing to row back on pledges such as the Green New Deal and defending free movement after Brexit, as well as by Alastair Campbell for an “inability to take [the government] apart”.
But the latest comments of McDonnell, who acknowledged in the interview that he was aiming to play the role of the “elder statesman”, offered Starmer encouragement from a key figure of the Corbynite era.