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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Leaving the cleaning to someone else makes you happier? Men have known that for centuries

Research says avoiding housework is good for wellbeing, but women have rarely had the option.

If you want to be happy, there is apparently a trick: offload the shitwork onto somebody else. Hire cleaner. Get your groceries delivered. Have someone else launder your sheets. These are the findings published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but it’s also been the foundation of our economy since before we had economics. Who does the offloading? Men. Who does the shitwork? Women.

Over the last 40 years, female employment has risen to almost match the male rate, but inside the home, labour sticks stubbornly to old patterns: men self-report doing eight hours of housework a week, while women slog away for 13. When it comes to caring for family members, the difference is even more stark: men do ten hours, and women 23.

For your average heterosexual couple with kids, that means women spend 18 extra hours every week going to the shops, doing the laundry, laying out uniform, doing the school run, loading dishwashers, organising doctors' appointments, going to baby groups, picking things up, cooking meals, applying for tax credits, checking in on elderly parents, scrubbing pots, washing floors, combing out nits, dusting, folding laundry, etcetera etcetera et-tedious-cetera.

Split down the middle, that’s nine hours of unpaid work that men just sit back and let women take on. It’s not that men don’t need to eat, or that they don’t feel the cold cringe of horror when bare foot meets dropped food on a sticky kitchen floor. As Katrine Marçal pointed out in Who Cooked Adam Smiths Dinner?, men’s participation in the labour market has always relied on a woman in the background to service his needs. As far as the majority of men are concerned, domestic work is Someone Else’s Problem.

And though one of the study authors expressed surprise at how few people spend their money on time-saving services given the substantial effect on happiness, it surely isn’t that mysterious. The male half of the population has the option to recruit a wife or girlfriend who’ll do all this for free, while the female half faces harsh judgement for bringing cover in. Got a cleaner? Shouldn’t you be doing it yourself rather than outsourcing it to another woman? The fact that men have even more definitively shrugged off the housework gets little notice. Dirt apparently belongs to girls.

From infancy up, chores are coded pink. Looking on the Toys “R” Us website, I see you can buy a Disney Princess My First Kitchen (fuchsia, of course), which is one in the eye for royal privilege. Suck it up, Snow White: you don’t get out of the housekeeping just because your prince has come. Shop the blue aisle and you’ll find the Just Like Home Workshop Deluxe Carry Case Workbench – and this, precisely, is the difference between masculine and feminine work. Masculine work is productive: it makes something, and that something is valuable. Feminine work is reproductive: a cleaned toilet doesn’t stay clean, the used plates stack up in the sink.

The worst part of this con is that women are presumed to take on the shitwork because we want to. Because our natures dictate that there is a satisfaction in wiping an arse with a woman’s hand that men could never feel and money could never match. That fiction is used to justify not only women picking up the slack at home, but also employers paying less for what is seen as traditional “women’s work” – the caring, cleaning roles.

It took a six-year legal battle to secure compensation for the women Birmingham council underpaid for care work over decades. “Don’t get me wrong, the men do work hard, but we did work hard,” said one of the women who brought the action. “And I couldn’t see a lot of them doing what we do. Would they empty a commode, wash somebody down covered in mess, go into a house full of maggots and clean it up? But I’ll tell you what, I would have gone and done a dustman’s job for the day.”

If women are paid less, they’re more financially dependent on the men they live with. If you’re financially dependent, you can’t walk out over your unfair housework burden. No wonder the settlement of shitwork has been so hard to budge. The dream, of course, is that one day men will sack up and start to look after themselves and their own children. Till then, of course women should buy happiness if they can. There’s no guilt in hiring a cleaner – housework is work, so why shouldn’t someone get paid for it? One proviso: every week, spend just a little of the time you’ve purchased plotting how you’ll overthrow patriarchy for good.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.