The gospel according to John: can the Shadow Chancellor convert the sceptics?

Posted On: 
20th September 2018

For more than a decade John McDonnell was the standard-bearer for a small group of MPs disaffected with the New Labour project. While Blair, Brown and Mandelson controlled the levers of government, he spent his time on the backbenches, debating left-wing policy programmes and bringing forward alternative budgets. Now, with the Treasury in his sight, a bitter split in the party threatens to derail his plans. Can the Shadow Chancellor keep things together? Sebastian Whale speaks to Labour MPs, old friends and the man himself to find out

John McDonnell became MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997
Credit: 
Paul Heartfield

Fellow sailors flee when John McDonnell and his wife take to their boat on the Norfolk Broads. “We’re rubbish, we really are,” the Shadow Chancellor tells me. “They go off the water when they see us coming.” The vessel was famously named The Morning Star when he bought it some years back (a fact he insists he was unaware of at the time). It is now simply referred to as The Boat.

McDonnell, who was born in Liverpool but grew up in Norfolk, finds rare if unsought respite from the political world on The Boat. “You can’t always get a signal. Occasionally I’m uncontactable,” he explains. This summer, he spent cherished days with his family sailing (he has two daughters from his first marriage and a son from his second). That is before he resumed his unofficial role as firefighter-in-chief for the Labour leadership.

The 67-year-old makes himself presentable with a red tie and black jacket as we convene in his clustered parliamentary office. At first, he seems understandably distracted. Today, the National Executive Committee votes to incorporate in full the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition on anti-Semitism. It is the culmination of a turbulent period for the Labour party, one in which Jeremy Corbyn faced direct charges of being an anti-Semite.

“Having the most, well I think the most, effective anti-racist politician I’ve ever met – he’s devoted his whole life to it – to then be accused of anti-Semitism is really distressing for him. It’s also distressing for me. He’ll turn that around and that’s what he’s doing at the moment,” McDonnell reflects.

Though McDonnell insists he doesn’t find frontline politics stressful, his focussed demeanour suggests otherwise. “Ed Miliband came up to me in the lobby a short while back and he said – I just love the guy, he’s a really nice bloke – and I must have been looking tired, he said ‘are you alright?’ I said, ‘I’m having the time of my life’,” he recalls.

That said, the Labour party is on the verge of being torn apart. One MP tells me it is “inevitable” that the party will split. Ever the astute media performer, McDonnell has acknowledged the risk of this taking place, and has pledged to do all he can to ensure it does not.

But that is far removed from the man who, when warned by colleagues in 2016 that under Corbyn the party was heading towards a split, allegedly replied “if that’s what it takes”. So for all his overtures on the subject, and notwithstanding his perpetually open door, what is he prepared to do to stop Labour’s much heralded broad church from narrowing? Or is the former backbencher, who spent nearly 20 years in the political wilderness, sanguine about such a prospect?

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To get to grips with this, we first need to go back a few decades. McDonnell moved to Hayes in west London at the age of 23. In 1979, he was serving as an election agent for Neville Sandelson, the incumbent Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington who was re-elected with a majority of more than 3,000.

But McDonnell and other members of the local constituency party had grown despondent with Sandelson and had lodged several attempts to deselect him. They had even tried to convince then Labour leader Michael Foot to put the beleaguered MP in the Lords. In the end, Sandelson defected to the SDP in 1981, and it would be 16 years until Labour, with McDonnell as their candidate, would regain the constituency from the Conservatives.

“I’ve always been chastened by that experience,” McDonnell says. “That’s why I say to people now, remember what happened with the SDP because they maintained the Tories in power for that whole decade. That’s the lesson of all that.”

Much has been made of left-wing MPs’ appetite for rebelling against the Labour government under Tony Blair and latterly Gordon Brown. Corbyn and McDonnell did so hundreds of times over the 13-year period. Sadiq Khan, at that point a party whip, once rang Corbyn simply to confirm that he would be rebelling on a vote. Knowing his efforts would be futile, he didn’t even try to get him to abstain.

McDonnell, who chaired the Socialist Campaign Group, an umbrella outfit for left-wing Labour MPs, says they were in opposition to a lot of the government’s policies but “not as a point of principle”. Their criticism centred on the “nightmare” of Iraq and economic policy, particularly areas such as PFI and the refusal to undo Thatcherite privatisations. “Some of the elements within New Labour were neoliberal as far as we were concerned,” he says. “But if you look at my voting record I must have probably voted more times for the Labour government than Tony Blair himself. It was a loyal opposition and never ever ventured outside the Labour party.”

Does it make him smart that some MPs who have spent just three years without control of the party are either quitting or threatening to quit? “No, not really,” he replies. But he points out that no one from the Socialist Campaign Group ever joined another party. “It was never even thought of.”

Austin Mitchell, the former Labour MP for Great Grimsby, was a member of the group during this period. McDonnell was the most organised part of the faction, he tells me, far more so than colleagues Corbyn and Diane Abbott. “John always reviewed the weekly business of the House and what to do about it, kept up the contacts with the trade unions. He was efficient and well organised,” he says.

Frank Field, who resigned the Labour whip in August over a culture of “intolerance” in the party, says McDonnell “never failed” to mobilise his colleagues to enter the lobbies on key votes on Europe and protecting poor people’s interests when a backbencher.

McDonnell took the view that the group should not only come up with alternatives to what the Labour party was offering at the time, but also prepare to action the policies. “People thought at that point that I was ludicrous, ‘when is a left-winger ever going to get back into Cabinet’ or whatever. But I was arguing there may well come a time that we get back into government in some form and therefore we should be ready for it.”

As part of this endeavour, McDonnell brought forward alternative budgets. When he was appointed Shadow Chancellor in September 2015, Gordon Brown joked that he had always held the post.

So keen was McDonnell for the left to get a voice in the party that he stood for the leadership twice (in 2007 and briefly in 2010 before standing aside for Abbott). He did not receive enough nominations to stand against Brown and prevent a coronation. “That’s how popular I was in the PLP,” he quips.

Mitchell says he still feels “guilty” about not nominating his ally. “I thought he was going to lose, and everybody wanted to jump on the Gordon Brown bandwagon – there’s no point in creating an unnecessary division if he’s got no chance. But in hindsight, I was wrong. It would have been sensible to put down a marker that Gordon Brown wasn’t free of the landscape and there was a viable alternative. We never did that,” he says.

I put to McDonnell that he has a unique perspective on the current impasse as someone who was isolated within the Labour party. His face lights up at my phrasing. “Well, wait, interesting – [isolated] within the parliamentary party,” he says with emphasis. “Because actually the policies we were advocating had overwhelming support within the party – they were conference policies, most of those.”

So what could Blair and Brown have done to placate him? “We wanted an open door for a continuing dialogue, so we could influence policy… that’s what we’ve got established now.”

Did he want left-wingers to be put in the Cabinet? “Yes, if we could demonstrate that we could competently administer that policy having won that argument, of course we did. Ed Miliband began to do that,” he replies. “The party under Ed was much more democratic than it was before.”

Peter Mandelson, now Lord Mandelson, once said he wanted to put the left of the party into a “sealed tomb”. Those on the left say the Labour government shut them out of policy making; New Labourites argue left-wingers were ideologically wedded to oppose them.

McDonnell insists that this is a different leadership team to Blair’s; a more inclusive operation. “I can understand how people felt, Jeremy comes along, and a lot of people thought my god, their whole career trajectories as they saw it are no longer open to them. Again, it’s saying to people, that’s not true. There are positions that people will hold and will want to hold in the future and they can all contribute in different ways,” he says.

“When Jeremy reappointed Owen Smith into the Shadow Cabinet even though Owen had been the candidate against him in the leadership contest, we demonstrated we are willing to bring people back all the time.”

He adds: “The worry I had with the Blair government is that Peter Mandelson and Blair almost excluded the left from any debate or considerations in government. Therefore, you got a situation almost like Emperor’s New Clothes, you couldn’t challenge the policy within the administration itself. That’s how bad decisions get made.”

Clement Attlee held together a Cabinet full of people with different political ideas, he says. “Harold Wilson was a master at it. He had a left, right and centre within the Cabinet itself, really rumbustious and everyone thought that was division and it wasn’t, it was democracy. There was a real debate going on. Within the Labour party in particular, that’s the sort of politics we want.”

But many MPs cannot reconcile themselves to the previous associations and political positions of the Labour leader – not overlooking McDonnell’s own chequered past with comments on the IRA and Esther McVey.

In the 2016 leadership contest, Owen Smith accused McDonnell of being relaxed about the prospect of a split under Corbyn. In a tweet, the Pontypridd MP alleged that he “shrugged his shoulders and said ‘if that’s what it takes’” during a heated debate on the matter. McDonnell later branded this claim “complete rubbish”.

McDonnell argues that the vast majority of the PLP recognises Corbyn’s mandate as leader. “There are a small number of people who are still not happy with Jeremy’s leadership or disgruntled, but still there’s an open door, we’re trying to bring those in. Time and time again, I’m saying if you’ve got a concern let us know. Come and talk to us.”

Jess Phillips, the Birmingham Yardley MP and critic of the Labour leadership, recognises the openness of McDonnell’s door (which stands in contrast to Corbyn’s office, she argues). The Shadow Treasury team which he leads make a “big show” of reaching out to Labour members about policy before budgets, she says, and McDonnell has visited the women’s parliamentary Labour party, which she chairs.

But Phillips argues that Labour’s top brass, if they’re serious about building cohesion, could do far better at “heralding” the achievements of the party’s backbenchers. She points to work done by Caroline Flint and Margaret Hodge on tax transparency, and Stella Creasy’s work on PFI and women in Northern Ireland’s access to abortion. “I don’t remember ever seeing praise when laws were actually changed,” she says.

“The problem is that the people who support their faction hate those women. So, you have to balance whether you want to make Labour look brilliant and active on things like tax transparency and PFI, or do you want to win an internal battle?”

Austin Mitchell, a Brexiteer, believes the leadership is serious about preventing a split: “They’re accused of intransigence, or at least Jeremy is, but look at the way he’s accommodated pro-EU MPs. He himself has been a stern critic of Europe and a Brexiteer… and was always on the side of Brexit. He’s accommodated the party by modifying his views on that, which I don’t particularly like but on the other hand is inevitable.”

Field lends some credence to this claim. Before voting with the government on key amendments to Brexit legislation, McDonnell tried to convince him and his fellow Labour leavers to vote with the party. “I said, ‘look, I’m voting to keep the Brexit promise and keep your spirit alive’. He just ruffled my hair and walked away laughing,” he recalls.

McDonnell has been “very kind” and reached out to him since he quit the party last month, Field says. “I don’t think he wants a split now. That’s the last thing he wants. What is going on in his soul only he can answer.”

What is McDonnell personally prepared to do, in real terms, to keep the disparate wings of the party together? “Exactly as I’m doing: talking to everyone, meeting everyone I possibly can. Where people are saying we’ve got a concern or whatever I’ll seek them out to meet them. I want to understand why and if we can get to the root of why they are considering leaving the Labour party, I think we could say we can reassure you and overcome that,” he answers.

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McDonnell has a political nous not often associated with Corbyn. One MP says that if you could rate the pair on a scale of 0-10 on pragmatism, “Jeremy would be near the nought and John would be near the 10.”

McDonnell quickly called for the probe into Margaret Hodge’s outburst at the Labour leader to be dropped or dealt with swiftly (she branded Corbyn a “racist anti-Semite”). He engages with the financial services sector with a view to being transparent about Labour’s plans and insisted on the party’s 2017 manifesto being fully costed. But critics linger on past comments, such as his desire to “ferment the overthrow of capitalism”, as evidence that he has ulterior intentions to his middling bank manager façade.

“I think that’s crap,” says his ally Mitchell, who resigned as an MP in 2015. “People always impugn revolutionary motives to anybody on the left as a way of discrediting them. I see no indication of that, it seems to me very unlikely.”

Field (who believes there is “much one would want to vote for” in his programme) says that McDonnell is attuned to the fact that people want to break away from neoliberalism. “He obviously wants to make a decisive shift in post-war politics, but is it going to be carefully gauged or is it going to be just simply ideologically driven? I very much hope it’s going to be carefully crafted,” he says. “Get there by winning the argument and not frightening people off.”

Does this characterisation of an obtuse figure frustrate McDonnell? “Um, you expect that. That’s why part of the role that I’ve got, me and my team and my advisers and all the rest, is this process of engagement. I keep saying that time and time again, if people are not happy with a particular policy, come in and tell us why and tell us how we can achieve it otherwise.”

After completing an undergraduate degree at Brunel University and a masters at Birkbeck College, McDonnell became a researcher and official with the National Union of Mineworkers and later the TUC. He cut his political teeth long before entering parliament as chair of finance on the Greater London Council (GLC) from 1981-85 under Ken Livingstone. He was just 29 when he oversaw a £3bn budget at the GLC.

“I had a capital fund that we established along with the Tories and maintained that, so I could borrow cheap on the basis of the strength of London and invest right the way across London itself and on major projects,” he says. “The Livingstone administration finished the Thames barrier and opened it. We would be swimming at the moment if it wasn’t for that Labour GLC.”

However, Livingstone sacked McDonnell after he argued that the GLC should defy the Thatcher government by refusing to set a budget. This came after the former PM oversaw cuts to local government funding and capped council rates to stop authorities from raising extra revenue. Accusing his finance chair of over-egging the severity of the cuts, Livingstone told McDonnell: “If these figures are right then we’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels.”

“Where we fell out in the GLC was over the rate capping issue, but that wasn’t about management of the funds, that was a political issue itself. I had a good relationship with the City then and it’s exactly the same now. But it was a straightforward relationship, it was fair,” McDonnell says.

I ask McDonnell if he has become more pragmatic with age. “The accusation against me on the left is that I’m a bureaucrat,” he says. McDonnell, who said in 2006 that Marx, Lenin and Trotsky were his most significant intellectual influences, argues that this rationality was demonstrated during his time on the GLC. “We were described as the loony left because we supported lesbian and gay rights, because we were anti-racist. All those things that we campaigned on then but were accused of being loony left are now mainstream policies accepted by any government or demanded by any government.

“But at the same time, we were doing the bread and butter issues. We were developing a transport system which I think was second to none… the City and business and all the rest of it were supportive of those policies because they saw that you need decent public services to sustain a capital city like this.

“That’s what we’ll do in government; it will be a very pragmatic approach to the policies that we introduce, and it would be based upon improved quality of life for everyone.”

Which relationship from the pantheon of chancellors and prime ministers gone by would he most like to emulate? “The one between Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell,” he replies. “The relationship that we’ve got is different than most of what’s gone on in the past. We’ve worked together for over 30 years, close allies politically, close friends as well. That’s the model that I want to maintain.”

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While Corbyn takes more of an interest in foreign affairs, McDonnell’s preoccupation is with the “nitty gritty, the nuts and bolts of the economy”, as Mitchell describes it. Over the summer, he revealed that Labour were considering supporting a universal basic income. In the days after our interview, amid a fresh push from his new look media team, he lays out plans to give gig economy workers full employment rights.

With Labour all-but confirmed to oppose Theresa May’s Brexit deal, McDonnell has been preparing for an early general election. He confirms to me that the party has been formulating its first Queen’s speech, a “transformative” and “dynamic” document that will address tax inequalities, invest in public services and restore trade union rights.

In a clear hint of the party’s strategy on Brexit, he suggests that the PM should stand aside if defeated in the Commons later this year (“if she can’t get a decent deal and deliver it and hold it within her own party and get it through parliament, it’s time for them to go”). In fact, he says that she should stand aside in the autumn and let Labour take on the negotiations if she feels she cannot secure a workable deal.

McDonnell insists that Brexit will only further the need for Labour’s more transformative economic policies, rather than curtailing them. “We’ve become the reassuring voice within the City around Brexit because they can’t trust the Tories, but they know where we’re coming from and we’ll provide the stability that the city and others need,” he declares audaciously.

The party’s strategy on Brexit is a risky one – the ticking time bomb of Article 50 means the UK is set to depart on March 29, 2019, so voting down a deal has implications that are as yet unconfirmed. And the likelihood that an election could be held in the meantime (as McDonnell wants) seems optimistic. “That’s why this autumn they need to be serious about whether or not they can sustain themselves enough in government to get a decent deal. If they can’t, they have a responsibility to the country to go and let us get on with it,” he interjects.

Despite his best intentions, coverage of Labour in recent months has focussed on the row over anti-Semitism, which many both inside and outside of the party feel was down to Corbyn’s handling of the media maelstrom.

I say to McDonnell that, unlike his close colleague, he knows how to neutralise a row. Ever the loyalist, McDonnell replies: “I disagree. The problem is Jeremy is under much more focus and attention than me. The media scrutiny on him is just extraordinary. I’ve never seen anything like that. Even in the old Livingstone days, I ran the campaign at the GLC and Livingstone was if you remember, according to the Sun headline, ‘the most hated man in Britain’.

“We turned that around; he became a popular candidate and then eventually came back as mayor as well. You can get the message across. But even having experienced with Livingstone, I’ve never seen anything of the intensity of the media attacks on Jeremy.”

But surely, given Corbyn’s handling of the row over the IHRA definition, ‘wreath gate’ and footage of him lamenting Zionists’ lack of English irony, the criticism has been warranted? “We all make mistakes, we all don’t do enough quickly enough and all the rest of it and we can all be collectively blamed on different things right the way through our careers. But I think Jeremy has been absolutely straight and honest with people and tried to engage them with the difficulties that we’re experiencing.”

Does McDonnell offer his old mate advice on how to handle the media? “Course I do, we talk all the time, he offers me advice and vice versa. I think he’s handled himself brilliantly on all occasions. There’s been times where the intensity of the scrutiny has been appalling and the intensity of distortions, I’ve never seen anything like it. They’ve tried it on me but nothing on the scale that they’ve done with Jeremy. It is amazing.”

The only real sticking point between them, McDonnell says, is over Corbyn’s “dreadful football calculations”. “We have arguments about his jam. I think my marmalade’s better.”

But as McDonnell’s stock goes up, some in the party feel he may be tempted to stand for the leadership once more. “He’s grown hasn’t he over time. From throwing the Red Book across the table to now being a figure in his own right,” says one MP. Another believes he wants to prove himself as chancellor before “having his right to the succession”. “Oh, I’m sure he’d like to be leader, because he’s one of the most able of the Shadow Cabinet,” they add.

In recent days, McDonnell has rubbished reports about him replacing Corbyn, branding them “laughable”.

McDonnell gives straight answers to straight questions. He is passionate about his open door and transparency when it comes to policy. Caricatures of him being a malevolent Marxist ideologue are misplaced to some. “He’s really a regenerated Keynesian. His strategy is to rebuild the purchasing power of the consumer, of the worker in this country, so that the economy runs effectively,” says an ally.

“You do that by strengthening the trade unions, you do that by paying a higher minimum wage, you do that by encouraging high pay and expanding demand. John’s very aware of that. Now, all that’s Keynesian, it’s not Marxist at all.”

Nagging in the back of your mind however are reminders of some of his back catalogue. His joke about assassinating Thatcher. His praise of the bombs and the bullets in Northern Ireland. That alleged conversation in 2016 and his apparent indifference to the prospect of a split. As one MP puts it: “The sinister stuff; we won’t ever know, will we? Unless it all comes out.”

Regardless, McDonnell will be a star turn in Liverpool at the new feel Labour conference, and Momentum’s World Transformed event. With Brexit months away, and debates on deselections in the offing, you could bet your house on the atmosphere being febrile. Not that McDonnell is concerned.

“We’ve got to go out there and say actually, Labour party conferences are going to be frenetic. They are going to be rumbustious, because you know when you join the Labour party you can come along and express your view and it will be appreciated and welcomed. You might not always agree. That’s democracy for you.

“This modern Greek invention called democracy is quite important to us, you know.”