John McDonnell interview: how Labour is moving to the left

The leader of the Labour left on why his job is to make issues "safe" for Ed Miliband and why the party will be "forced to look at more radical options".

Located in a shabby portacabin off Hayes high street, everything about John McDonnell's offices says Old Labour. Union flags and banners decorate the windows and walls and various trade union awards and trinkets occupy a cabinet, which is the only piece of furniture in the waiting room save some fold-up chairs – even the carpet is red. This a fitting environment for McDonnell, who cut his political teeth as a researcher at the NUM, before going on to work for the TUC and then as Ken Livingstone's deputy at the GLC – before being fired for being too radical for "red Ken".

After 1997, McDonnell voted against almost all of New Labour's flagship policies, including the war on Iraq, foundation hospitals, top-up fees, trust schools and anti-terror laws - "it wasn't an oppositionist position – I was opposing things because they were just wrong. I couldn't do anything else, there was no compromise." He stood for the party leadership once, after Tony Blair stood down in 2007, and again in 2010 – both times on the promise that he would reverse the party's moves towards privatisation and reinstate a "real Labour government". Despite support from the TUC and party members, he twice failed to receive sufficient nominations from MPs to go through to the electoral college stage.

He is keen to stress that he never intended to stand for leadership, saying he only did so in order that the left of the party could "publish a political programme and demonstrate we've got support for that political programme". He says that the high bar for parliamentary Labour nominations meant "I was blocked from the ballot paper They were terrified that if I got on the ballot paper I would show sufficient breadth of support from the rank and file members and the trade union movement that they'd have to acknowledge there was support for the policies I was advocating." Who is this "they"? "Blair and Brown, that whole clique basically."

Why, then, did he stay with Labour, when its leaders were advocating policies to which he was morally opposed? "Because it's my party, not theirs. I saw the Blair-Mandelson regime as a coup, and I think it was a well-funded coup as well – resources obviously came from big private-sector backers. But all through that period the bulk of the rank and file party were what the party has always been, a socialist party."

And what about now? McDonnell suggests that Labour Party supporters are moving away from what was "the march to the neo-liberal right" - "A lot of people woke up and thought 'how have we got in to this?'". He said that Labour's opposition to the coalition's welfare uprating bill was demonstrative of a "significant shift in parliamentary Labour Party attitude". "The debate was tremendous – Labour MP after Labour MP getting up and putting forward the arguments about deprivation and redistribution of wealth." Equally, he says, Ed Miliband's recent policy proposal to bring back the 10p tax rate funded by a "mansion tax" is another sign of a shift to the left -  "it recognises the mistake it was to abolish it but also more importantly it is part of the process of reasserting the role Labour has to play in redistributing wealth."

For McDonnell, who chairs various socialist groups, including the Labour Representation Committee, the Socialist Campaign Group and Public Services Not Private Profit – the left of Labour is regaining power within the party. This is aided greatly, he says, by the development of new media. "In the past the media was a real problem. In terms of mainstream media it's very difficult to break through if you're on the left." An exception to this rule is Chavs author Owen Jones, who previously worked for McDonnell organising his leadership campaign. "Owen's done very well, he's been swept up, and it's a real breakthrough – he's done fantastically" - although McDonnell fears "they'll do a token lefty and make or break”. Who is the 'they' in this case? "Just the establishment, the establishment. But it doesn't matter because we create our own media – new technology has given us blogs, it's given us Twitter. Public meetings are packed these days".

For McDonnell, the role of Labour's left is now to make issues "safe" for the party's leadership. "If you make an issue safe, Ed Miliband will shift. Whether it's Murdoch, banks, welfare or benefits  But I don't think they'll just shift cynically, they'll shift on to the terrain that is then safe, and you can have a proper discussion then." As an example of this process, he cites the treatment of people with disabilities who were subjected to the Work Capability Assessment, a process that was initiated by New Labour and built upon by the coalition, who enlisted private IT firm Atos to finish the job. "We had two years of arguing and demonstrating how bad it was and got nowhere. In fact it was almost physical in the chamber at times – you felt threatened. But now we've got a whole swathe of opinion within the Parliamentary Labour Party and now we've now got the frontbench standing up and criticising Atos as well." He also cites the black-listing of trade union members in the construction trade as another example of an issue that's been made "safe" - "we've now even got Chuka Umunna jumping up and down about it."

McDonnell, an anti-capitalist who subscribes to a Marxist conception of class, last year published a "Radical Alternative to Austerity" in which he detailed his vision of a "democratised economy", with public ownership of firms and the City, a tax on financial transactions and a 60 per cent rate of income tax on earnings over £100,000. He concedes that he'd have a much harder job trying to get the Labour frontbench to commit to this kind of socialist policy. "The Labour leadership comes from a neo-liberal background. They served their apprenticeship deep in the heart of New Labour and they're looking to come back as New Labour mark two, slightly reformed but not challenging the system itself."

But he says that as the economic crisis deepens they'll be "forced to look at more radical options". Talking about his own constituency Hayes and Harlington, for which he has been MP since 1997, he says "we have an open-door policy four days a week because people have so many problems. I've got people coming in who are close to eviction, can't afford to pay their rent, under incredible stress – all that stuff about parents choosing between heating and eating happens on a daily basis."

He tells me that he thinks the left of Labour is even beginning to make headway on radical reform. "It's beginning to move, even there, we've got a situation where the party is looking back again to its roots around cooperation. It's beginning to open up. So what I want to do is make safe the debate around systemic change." There's a small pause before he bursts out laughing. "It's ambitious," I say.

John McDonnell, MP for Hayes and Harlington and chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of Labour MPs.
Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.