Analysis: John McDonnell’s words on Luciana Berger show his darker political side
Suggesting Luciana Berger is facing a no-confidence motion because of rumours she could join another party is completely disingenuous, writes Sebastian Whale
John McDonnell is arguably the Labour leadership’s most effective media operator. The Shadow Chancellor is regularly deployed to defuse rows at contentious times, of which there have been a few since he and Jeremy Corbyn took on the reins of the party in September 2015.
Unlike his close ally, you will not see McDonnell getting tetchy with journalists. If he does harbour a similar level of contempt for the reporters who occasionally collar him on his way to work, he does a remarkably better job of disguising it.
McDonnell has the political nous to understand what needs to be said. He has often been several steps in front of Corbyn in acknowledging the problem of anti-Semitism in the Labour party. He is prepared, at least on the face of it, to cede ground where the Labour leader cannot. He can admit fault, acknowledge flaws, and promise action.
Journalists have often speculated whether there is a more sinister side to the bank manager façade that McDonnell has carefully cultivated over the last four years. A study of his back catalogue – the praise of the bombs and the bullets in Northern Ireland immediately spring to mind – convey a different picture to the dormant Marxist we see on our TV screens.
McDonnell has, for the most part, maintained a level of calm and professionalism that has assuaged those concerned about whether he has grander plans in place. Indeed, his congenial approach and eye-catching policies - many of which challenge conventional wisdom - have earned him plaudits in the media.
He has also been prepared to build bridges where those of a similar disposition have not. He has reached out to the City of London in a bid to be transparent about Labour’s plans for the economy. His door is perpetually open to the malcontents in the Labour party. If there is a problem, his solution is always to talk it out, not hunker down.
The truth of the matter is, McDonnell is not only the savviest media performer, he is also the most and best political operator at the top of the Labour party. But there are two sides to that coin, and this morning we saw the dark one.
Doing a round of broadcast interviews, McDonnell claimed Luciana Berger, Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, is facing two no-confidence motions in her constituency because of rumours she could join another party. This is more than disingenuous; it’s political gaslighting.
Berger has repeatedly raised concerns about anti-Semitism in the Labour party and lamented the leadership’s failure to tackle it. She has received untold abuse for putting her head above the parapet and even required a police escort at last year's Labour conference.
The motions against her accuse her of using the media to attack "the man we want to be prime minister" and "continuously criticising our leader when she should be working for a general election".
But McDonnell argued this morning: “If people are saying, ‘look we are expressing no-confidence because Luciana has stood up and exposed anti-Semitism in our party,’ that would be completely wrong and of course we would say that was not right.
“But it looks as though there are other issues. It seems on social media, that what’s happened is Luciana has been associated in the media with a breakaway party…
"The media have asked her to deny that and she hasn’t been clear on that. So, my advice on all of this is for Luciana to just put this issue to bed - to say very clearly, ‘no I am not supporting another party, I’m not jumping ship'.”
Talk of Berger leaving the Labour party only properly gained traction when she failed to rule it out on ITV’s Peston show this week. To conflate that with the no-confidence motions only fuels the suspicion that McDonnell simply pays lip service to the issues he is so adept at addressing.
He has planted the seed of doubt to those who pay only a passing interest in politics about Berger’s motives. And he knows full well what the Corbynista ultras will know they are armed with this information.
Occasionally with McDonnell, the mask slips. For as long as rumours of a Labour split has been with us, he has been insistent that he doesn’t want to see MPs leave the party. For as long as problems with anti-Semitism have been associated with the Labour party, he has pledged to tackle it. Indeed, earlier this week he told a caller on LBC who claimed the allegations were designed to smear Jeremy Corbyn: "I’ve seen the threats made against some of our Jewish members and MPs so it isn’t a smear campaign and we have to face up to it."
His words this morning are not compatible with that stance.
Luciana Berger has been an extremely effective politician since she came to Westminster. Her work on mental health has gained plaudits from across the House. Her bravery in calling out anti-Semitism, in full knowledge of the consequences, is to be admired.
The fact that MPs like her feel unsafe – unsafe enough to require the need for police protection – is arguably the biggest indictment of today’s politics. It shames the Labour party.
To not have those at the top fighting your corner exacerbates the situation. And you can’t help but wonder, taking everything into account, why would she want to stay?