Jim McMahon: 'A fair day's work for a fair day's pay, for many people, is a contract that's been broken'

Labour’s loss in December mirrors its loss of working class support, and the party’s new Northern Powerhouse spokesman tells Geraldine Scott regaining trust in pledges and is only part of the battle in winning back voters.

Rebuilding trust has been a buzz phrase for Labour since December’s crushing election defeat for the party.

Those who knocked on doors trying to convince voters to get behind Jeremy Corbyn at the polls reported that the British public simply did not believe the promises the party was making, or that Mr Corbyn could deliver them.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

But rebuilding trust in pledges is just one part of the jigsaw, according to Labour’s new Northern Powerhouse spokesman Jim McMahon. It is about how the party operates too.

Labour's shadow transport secretary and Northern Powerhouse spokesman Jim McMahon with Labour leader Keir Starmer. Photo: Supplied

Mr McMahon, who is also Shadow Transport Secretary, was given his new role last week.

It mirrors the Government’s approach exactly, where when Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry resigned the then standalone job in February, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps amalgamated the role into his own.

“Of course, we recognise it goes beyond transport,” Mr McMahon said.

“It's about whether the foundations of our regional economies are strong, and of course, we know there are big issues there.

Labour's shadow transport secretary and Northern Powerhouse spokesman Jim McMahon. Photo: PA

“But also on just how we're going to respond in terms of Covid and the impact on our regions, to make sure that actually the pre-existing issues that were there before Covid in terms of the need to ‘level up’ - as a Government would say - really do receive the investment that the Government promised.”

Mr McMahon said he felt it was positive that “the Government themselves recognise that actually our country is so unequal, that people feel that and they notice it and they're angry about it”.

He said: “And so they have to do something about it

“What we're seeking to do is to make sure that it goes beyond slogans. What we really care about is how people feel in the places where they live.

“When they walk down the street, do they see the roller shutters down and boards on the windows? Or do they see a place that's thriving, that's got a positive future?

“When they think about their local community and the facilities that are there, have they got a pub? Have they got a post office? Have they got a local bank? Does the bus turn up on time? Can they get the kids into the local school of their choice? Did they have to wait too long to see your GP?

“As much as we talk about the big ticket transport items, that of course I've got an interest as a shadow secretary, what really matters to people is the places where they live.”

Mr McMahon, who spent 13 years as a councillor, said his experience in local government meant he understood “the power of place”.

He said: “It's really important that we see it through the eyes of the people who live in communities, because if we don't do that we will simply move power from one set of powerful people to another set of powerful people.

“But actually the people who have always felt they've had no power, no agency, that their voices aren't listened to, still continue to feel that way.”

But he said that was not simply about investing money. He said: “We also understand that actually, our politics is in crisis, to be honest. That many people don't believe that politics can make a difference.

“People don't believe that politicians are always acting in the interests of the wider public and until we really address the issues that matter to people in their everyday lives, then we are not going to convince people that we get it and that we have the solutions to put their places right.”

He also warned that in the response to coronavirus, the danger of a second spike loomed more ominously for those places often described as ‘left behind’.

He said: “We know that the towns that will feel that most are the towns that have always been at the back of the queue when times are good, and the front of the queue when times are bad, and it's just not good enough.”

Labour’s role in that, he said, was making it the party of the working people again.

“We understand we have got a challenge facing us politically. We are the party that was born as a party of working people and it's not acceptable that so many working people don't think that we are that party.

“So we've got a big piece of work to do to rebuild trust, not just in terms of promises, but in terms of how we operate.

“So Keir [Starmer] is really clear on this. He expects all of us to get out of Westminster and speak to people in the communities where they live. And the idea isn't just that we go and listen, and then we just kind of go back to Westminster as if the conversation never happened, but the working people get to drive Labour's policy agenda and work, and people get to realise that if there's a Labour government, that the power won't just be held by a Labour Government, that power will be held by them in their communities.”

Mr McMahon, who signed the first of several deals with George Osborne in November 2014 while leader of Oldham council, has previously been critical of the way devolution and the Northern Powerhouse has played out.

In 2018 when shadow minister for local government devolution, he said an opportunity had been missed to include localism in with handing over powers.

In 2016, in his maiden speech in the Commons, he said: "I believe in devolution and will continue to fight for power to be moved away from Whitehall to empower communities—to be honest, devolution as it stands today does not empower those communities."

In the same speech he said: "Without genuinely reforming central Government and addressing fair funding, the Northern Powerhouse as a brand is meaningless."

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post last week, he said: "I think providing the devolution has got localism running through it, then absolutely [he supports it], because there is no doubt that in order to get power out of Whitehall and into our regions and our sub-regions, our local authorities, none of that will pass a test of giving power to everyday people, if it's held in town halls or city halls or by mayors.

"So what we see is a localism agenda. But we do see the value of having properly resourced local authorities, with councillors acting as community conveners, bringing people together.

"We do see the power of mayors and we see already that mayors and making a difference. Your Dan Jarvis, and the way that he's really advocating for your region more broadly than his very tight geographical remit in that sense, but he's doing that because he is filling that leadership role that I think the region was crying out for."

Mr McMahon said before the next election in 2024 Labour would need to come up with an investment plan which would benefit not only the country, but the regions too.

But he added there was also work to be done now on making sure parts of the country outside London had a shot to recover well from the coronavirus crisis.

He said: "There have been many promises made, there have been many promises actually repeated a number of times before we see them anywhere near delivered, and it's really important that we hold the Government to account on that.

"I think we also need to see the bringing forward of capital projects. So if we think about the kind of economic challenge that Covid would bring, the best way to recover our economy and get back on an even keel is to bring forward investment to kickstart that recovery.

"And we know that there are shovel ready schemes in Yorkshire and the Humber that are ready to go now that the Government can bring forward. We also know the importance of North connectivity more broadly, so Northern Powerhouse Rail, why wait when everybody agrees that it's the right thing to do? It will create jobs that will kick start our economy. Well, don't wait for it, get cracking because the economy needs it."

He added: "If you look at the occupations that are most affected by Covid, they are the frontline occupations, quite often where people have no choice but to turn up to work.

"It's not just about whether they can remotely work, it's about if they don't go to work, that quite often the security of their employment means they're choosing between putting food on the table or keeping themselves or their family safe.

"And that's got to be some component into why our regions have seen the levels of fatalities recorded in those occupations.

"The fundamental thing for me [is] we should learn what happened after the financial crash, because we were promised that those with the biggest shoulders would take the burden, that the banks who led us into the crisis would pay for the recovery, and it just never happened. What happened was that everyday working people took the brunt of that and actually still do.

"There's a national crisis in this country where the British contract has been broken. The idea that if you go out to work, you roll your sleeves up and you make that contribution, that you can afford to live a decent life. A fair day's work for a fair day's pay, for many people, is a contract that's been broken."

And he was concerned that those who had felt let down would again be hit if cash promised to improve life for those outside of London was diverted to help cover the cost of the coronavirus.

He said: "I'm very concerned about who pays the bill of the Covid response, and how we free up resources to deal with the economic recovery required to rebuild our economy.

"And I think there's a real danger that as much as we are saying we should not repeat the mistakes of 2007/2008 onwards in terms of the kind of austerity agenda that the Tories brought in at that time, I've got a real fear that that would be exactly what happens."