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On the 16th of February, during his visit to Bristol, Epigram spoke to Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell about mental health, young people making a difference and the state of the Labour Party.

It had not been the best month for the Labour party. Two inconvenient by-elections, another disastrous poll rating putting Corbyn’s popularity at its worst since July, and yet more speculation over possible contenders for the Labour leadership.

Perhaps, then, it shouldn’t be surprising that ‘it’ll turn’ felt like it was becoming John McDonnell’s catchphrase when the Shadow Chancellor spoke to Epigram during his visit to Bristol.

Despite Labour’s troubles, Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man was out showing a positive front to help campaign for Lesley Mansell, Labour’s Metro Mayor candidate for the West of England. Outside in the street, surrounded by a small huddle of Labour members, McDonnell stopped to chat to Epigram.

‘What’s happening is very straight forward, there have been savage cuts’

‘It’s interesting. This generation that’s coming up now is extremely radical on a whole range of fronts and you can see it on every issue. Young people are now leading at the front of the campaigns’, McDonnell commented.

The divide between young and old was highlighted during the EU referendum, where younger voters were overwhelmingly Remain supporters, yet it was the older generations that swung the result with their Euroscepticism.

‘Alright, we lost the vote on the referendum, we lost the vote on that, but this is when the real work starts because what will happen is Theresa May will go off, she’ll try and negotiate a deal, that deal will not work on every element of it and then every aspect of [it will have] young people campaigning to overturn the crass deal’, McDonnell argued.

For McDonnell most issues seemed to come back to government cuts and a lack of funding, so when asked about mental health provisions at university it was unsurprising that he returned to this familiar line.

‘What’s happening is very straight forward, there have been savage cuts. It’s a combination of savage cuts to mental health services. Talking therapies, which have been supposedly funded by the government, are on a minimal scale, or not on any scale. At the same time as you’ve got the cuts in the services people need you’ve got increased pressure on people.

‘So I go back to tuition fees… when I came off the shop floor I did a sandwich course, I got a government grant, and that government grant meant I needed to work during the summer but not during the term time.

‘It’s all about profiteering at the minute’

‘A lot of the students I meet now, most of them are working in the term time, the pressure comes on as a result… they’re doing the hours of work as well as studying and the pressure comes on for exam grades, and I’ve been meeting lots of young people and tutors and others as well who are saying actually this is beginning to impact upon exam grades and also impact upon people’s wellbeing because of the pressure that they’re under, it’s financial pressures.’

Asked whether this is a problem for the government to address, or whether universities should be dealing with it too, McDonnell argued that both have a part to play.

‘I think two things need happening. One is more funding from the government. We’re seeing mental health cuts right the way across the country. Extraordinarily, this week I’ve met my local trust and mental health provider, they’ve introduced talking therapies on quite a significant scale, but that’s as a pilot, we’re not even sure how long that money will last now. That’s the first thing.

‘We’re learning a lot at the moment’

‘The second, when it comes to universities themselves, I understand the financial pressures around there, but increasingly now good universities are recognising the pressures their students are under and they’re trying to put some services in place.

‘It does come back to why are people worried? They’re worried they haven’t got a decent roof over their heads, they’re worried if they’re under pressure financially and they’re worried if they’re underachieving, and they’re underachieving because a lot of the financial pressures pushing them into almost full time work whilst they’re studying.

‘This period in people’s lives should be one in which they really enjoy themselves. You have a period of time in which you study and you can have a quality of life that enables you to enjoy that studying experience. That isn’t happening at the moment, you know’.

When asked what he thought of the current Higher Education reforms, such as the Teaching Excellence Framework, McDonnell instantly responded saying ‘nightmare, nightmare’. The problem as he sees it comes back to the ‘privatisation of Higher Education’.

‘There are two pieces of legislation going through about Higher Education (HE) and Further Education (FE) as well, and if you look at FE the emphasis there is on financial solvency of colleges themselves, now that becomes a criteria.

‘It’s all about profiteering at the moment. This introduction of other providers in HE I think is extremely worrying because what will happen is May will try and do a deal with Trump and Trump will be about the nature of trade that will open up our Higher Education system to American companies to exploit it. Heard about this before? Of course we have, so we campaign against it’.

‘People won’t vote for a divided party’

Unfortunately for McDonnell he couldn’t blame cuts or privatisation for Labour’s disastrous poll ratings and his response that they will ‘turn it around’ came across as blind optimism at best.

When pressed on what Labour was doing about it he spoke in vague terms about campaigning techniques.

‘I think it’s a whole range. We’re learning a lot at the moment. Some of the traditional methods are to get out on the street. That works to a certain extent. Mobilising around trade unions works as well, so there’s traditional methods which are important.

‘The use of social media is much more effective now. 40 per cent of the people now get their news from social media so we’ve got to be much acuter and much more effective on that. Jeremy has campaigned there to a certain extent, all that Facebook, I think all of that is quite important… It’ll turn. We’ve had 18 months, nine months of that 18 months have been leadership elections. People won’t vote for a divided party’.

At this point McDonnell’s aid tapped him on the shoulder to remind him the BBC were waiting to interview him next. As the interview ended, McDonnell agreed to hold a copy of Epigram for a photo. Possibly out of politeness, as he left, he even asked whether he could keep it.

Do you think John McDonnell is right that Labour can turn the polls around? Is he right about mental health funding problems? Let us know on social media! 

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