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 Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.