The John McDonnell Column
Earlier this month George Monbiot wrote a couple of articles in the Guardian which highlighted the failure of parliamentary politics to address the threat of the transatlantic trade deal and later the lack of resistance in Parliament to the corporate takeover of politics in this country. George then asked the question “And where beyond the Green Party, Plaid Cymru, a few ageing Labour backbenchers, is the political resistance?”
I took it he was referring to me and my comrades Jeremy Corbyn and Dennis Skinner on the Labour backbenches. I’ll have a separate chat to George about ageism in our political discourse later but many will feel that he has a point.
I had just been talking to a few people about how we needed to liven up the political debate in the run up to the election and how to give this debate some political depth as well. With 16 months to go before the next election we should be entering a period of intense debate about the current state of the country and the politics we want for the future. This hasn’t taken off yet and usually the last place to look for this is in Parliament itself with its sterile knockabout politics.
When I was part of the left that took control of the GLC in the 1980s I was a bit worried at how lacking in radicalism many on the incoming Labour Group on the GLC actually were. One idea we came up with of generating the debate and ideas needed to stimulate and sustain a radical administration was to throw open the doors of County Hall to anyone who wanted to come along to discuss an issue or to hold a meeting to generate support for a policy or a campaign.
We turned the actual building of County Hall into a People’s County Hall where meeting rooms became the fora for groups across the capital to come to discuss, debate and promote an idea for the future of London. The concept really took off and virtually every day, including at weekends, there would be groups meeting to develop their ideas into policies for the capital.
You could open a committee room door at County Hall and bump into a group of people arguing about anything from the fares policy, the funding of community arts and the policing of our streets to the retention of manufacturing in an area of the city. There were heated arguments, hilarious moments when high flown theoretical analysis imploded and examples of magnificent creativity. This was politics at its rumbustious, exhausting and at times infuriating but enjoyable best.
Isn’t that the sort of feverish political debate we need influencing the Labour Party in the period in which it is formulating the policies with which to campaign up to the election? Isn’t that the sort of wide open and exciting political climate of discussion we need over the next year?
So far the discussion involved in the preparation of the Labour Party’s next manifesto hasn’t exactly caught alight. It certainly as yet hasn’t caught the imagination of most party members and supporters. Although there has been some increased confidence in the Party that has led to commitments such as scrapping the Bedroom Tax, the failure to commit to public ownership of rail, Royal Mail and energy has demonstrated timidity still reigns.
So with the appearance of George Monbiot’s articles I thought rather than just write to a few comrades with the idea of opening up the political debate I decided to write to the Guardian. I explained that, just like at the GLC’s County Hall, there are meeting rooms within Parliament and we should use them to bring some real politics to Parliament.
You never know it might even infect the Commons Chamber itself.
So the idea is to use the venue to host a multitude of discussion groups, presentations, lectures, meetings and debates over the next twelve months on as wide a range of topics as people want to discuss.
Make the place a People’s Parliament.
Many people have contacted me to welcome this initiative and suggested issues that need to be addressed and stimulating original thinkers and activists who could open up a discussion of a particular analysis or policy idea.
If you know a specialist in particular policy field who you think has something useful to say, let me know and we’ll book the room, invite MPs, activists, academics, students and anyone else who wants to come and kick off a discussion. The best time for using Parliament’s facilities in this way is in the evening and usually Monday to Thursday. Think about participating.
I look forward to hearing from you with lots of suggestions.