John McDonnell says Keir Starmer needs to 'lift people's eyes to a new horizon' to get Labour back into power

Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has urged Labour leader Keir Starmer to be "a bit more adventurous and visionary" if he wants to win back the northern 'red wall' voters who deserted the party at the 2019 election.

Speaking ahead of an event focusing on how Labour policies could benefit West Yorkshire post-Covid-19, Mr McDonnell said people who have struggled through the pandemic now "need their eyes lifted to a new horizon" with bold new policies from the opposition party.

He spoke before Sir Keir Starmer - who has faced questions over his leadership a year into taking over from Jeremy Corbyn - pledged to lead a "moral crusade" to address inequalities and injustices exposed by the coronavirus crisis in a major pre-Budget speech this week.

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Keir Starmer: 'Northern Powerhouse' and 'levelling up' only add up to soundbites...
Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has urged Labour leader Keir Starmer to be "a bit more adventurous and visionary" if he wants to win back the northern 'red wall' voters who deserted the party at the 2019 election. Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

The Labour leader used a major speech to call for a "new chapter" in the country's history after the pandemic laid bare the nation's "fragilities", saying: "We have to seize this moment to address them."

Mr McDonnell told The Yorkshire Post that Labour failed to establish a clear narrative that would overcome the confusion over its Brexit stance when he helped run its disastrous 2019 General Election campaign.

Labour lost a swathe of seats across Yorkshire - including his own Parliamentary Private Secretary Thelma Walker as MP in the Colne Valley - as Boris Johnson's Conservatives won a large majority.

Sir Keir became leader in April and Mr McDonnell said the party had since looked to introduce him to the public before announcing any policies.

He said: "And there's been a view by some, that well the [2024 General Election] is a few years off, there's no rush about policies or anything like that. And what I've said is that actually they've got the next 12 to 18 months because after that you're effectively into a General Election in that last year to 18 months.

"So my view is you can't leave off setting out what your vision of society is, and then start setting out your policy programme about how that will be achieved.

"So I think now's the time to be bolder, and a bit more aggressive and, to be honest, a bit more adventurous, visionary. I think what we need to do now is have a clear vision of the society we want to create and then start rolling out the policy programme about how that can be created.

"When Labour front-bench spokespeople go on the media now, whenever they're asked that question 'what would you do' they've got to start having very clear answers.

"I actually think people are coming through this trouble of crisis as best they can but, now's the opportunity to actually give people some hope, real reassurance, security.

"They've had 10 years of austerity and that I think has contributed towards the tragedies that we've seen during Covid because of cutbacks in the NHS and social care and public service, generally.

"And I think people need their eyes lifted to a new horizon, I think they need now to see that as the Labour Party has a vision for the future that actually does does actually deal with the immediate problems, but also creates that society where people can have that security again, where they see those hopes for themselves and their families.

"So I think now's the time for Keir to actually come out and all the front bench and say this is our vision, these are our objectives, let's start to talk about these individual policies, let's have the debate about them. Instead of just reacting to the events now we've got to be so much more proactive and I think that message is going to come through."

The Opposition leader has often said he did not want to get into specific policies with an election still three years away. But this week, having seen Labour's progress stall in the polls, he unfurled not one but two policies that he would deploy if he becomes prime minister in 2024.

With Britons having squirreled away a reported £100 billion in savings since the pandemic started, Sir Keir said he would offer a "British recovery bond" to help create funds for investment while also giving savers a stake in the country's future.

He also unveiled plans to offer 100,000 start-up loans to new businesses in a bid to "back a new generation of British entrepreneurs" in every region across the country.

On Saturday February 27 Mr McDonnell is hosting the Claim the Future for Colne Valley event, which will bring community activists together to set policy priorities for Colne Valley post-Covid, and to plan and organise future campaigning.

The West Yorkshire constituency voted almost exactly 50/50 between leaving and remaining in the EU at the 2016 referendum.

But nationwide Mr McDonnell said Labour were left in the "horns of dilemma" at the last election as the bulk of its membership were remainers but the electorate backed leaving in many northern constituencies.

He said: "The tragedy for me is that people like Thelma Walker, who was possibly one of the best constituency MPs I've ever come across, but also because of her contribution, particularly on education on the select committee, we lost people like that and that for me that was quite devastating.

"That was the worst part of the election night, apart from I always get the job of going to watch the exit polls, I get the short straw on that one, the worst moment on that night was the loss of Thelma because she was my Parliamentary Private Secretary. And she just deserved to stay on, she was such a good MP."

In recent months Boris Johnson has outlined a 10-point plan for a "green industrial revolution", claiming he wanted turn the UK into the "Saudi Arabia of wind power generation".

This includes a ban on new cars and vans powered wholly by petrol and diesel being sold in the UK from 2030 and quadrupling the amount of offshore wind produced so there is enough to power every home in the UK.

Criticising the Conservatives' approach to green issues, Mr McDonnell said: "To be frank, there's a difference between saying it and doing it.

"I get contacted by lots of the media to say that they've stolen another one of your policies and all the rest. No they're not, they're just mouthing the words, they're not doing the delivery. That's the first thing.

"The second thing is that I don't think they have any understanding of the scale that's needed to ensure that we tackle climate change, we are running out of time, it is truly an existential threat, if we don't deal with it now it's not just going to be a bad policy decision, it will mean the next generation won't be able to survive in many respects.

"We're already seeing the implications of climate change in the global south, the flooding in California with fires etc. So there's a sense of urgency about this. So the scale of investment, I think they don't understand.

"The third thing is obviously all of our policies were around ensuring that the local communities benefited, so that means if it's in public or cooperative ownership, the local community will get in the game rather than it being used for profiteering."

To find out more about the Claim The Future Colne Valley event click here.