Colne Valley visit inspired Labour's 2019 free broadband policy, John McDonnell reveals

Labour’s contentious free broadband policy at the 2019 general election was inspired by speaking to despairing businesses in Yorkshire, former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has revealed.

Mr McDonnell told The Yorkshire Post that discussions with business owners in Colne Valley led to the policy which he said was controversial two years ago but “now seems incredibly popular” following huge increases in working from home as a result of Covid-19.

At the last election, Labour said it would deliver full-fibre broadband to every home in the country by 2030 by bringing parts of BT back into public ownership and creating a new organisation called British Broadband to perform the £20bn roll-out.

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The party said the move would be paid for through higher taxes on multinational corporations, including technology companies like Facebook and Google.

John McDonnell has revealed the origins of Labour's free broadband policy were in Yorkshire.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson called the policy a “crazed communist scheme” during campaigning while the then-Chancellor, Sajid Javid, labelled it “primary school politics”.

Mr McDonnell revealed the idea had been borne out of a visit to the Colne Valley constituency, which at the time was represented by Labour MP Thelma Walker.

“I went up to Thelma Walker’s constituency and we had a discussion with local businesses and local people,” he said.

“This is where our broadband policy came from – I know it became controversial but now it seems incredibly popular. One of the local firms there said: ‘Do you know what our broadband speeds are like? They’re dreadful, so no wonder people leave the area and we can’t attract small firms’.

“They were buzzing with ideas and they were so creative. I said: ‘What do you want?’ He said they needed fast broadband, as simple as that and full-fibre is the best one. Secondly, they needed it accessible to everyone. I thought the way to do that is to have it funded by the state itself, based upon taxation of the big companies – the Googles and all the rest.

“Make sure they pay their taxes and then we can put broadband in. If it was in public ownership, we would be able to maintain proper provision overall and it would be to the benefit of the whole community.

“Actually that’s become increasingly popular. That’s where that idea came from – it actually came from Yorkshire. It is quite interesting where those ideas develop from. You have got to listen to local people, but you’ve got to give them the resources and the power to get on with it.”

Labour’s free broadband policy was not the only general election idea to come out of Yorkshire.

He said: “A lady somewhere in Bradford made the simple request, ‘Can the Government just get Brexit done?’

"We were doing the research for the Conservative Party at the time. That provided the foundation phrase that created the opportunity to get Brexit done. It was relevant, the context was right and it was simple and clear.”

Labour 'must expose rhetoric around levelling up'

Labour needs to expose the difference between “rhetoric and reality” from the Government to differentiate themselves from the Tory Party on the levelling-up agenda, John McDonnell has said.

Mr McDonnell said the idea of improved investment strategies to tackle regional inequalities was one the Labour party had been putting forward before the Conservatives started their focus on levelling up. When asked how Labour can differentiate itself from the Conservatives on the issue, he said: “You expose what is rhetoric and what is reality, as simple as that.

“I’m worried that in this Budget they’ll be lots of announcements that sound great but then - as always with Boris Johnson - when you go under the surface it will not be at the scale that the hype promised.”

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