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.
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Despite new challengers, Andrew Marr is still the king of the Sunday-morning politics skirmish

The year began with a strong challenge from Sophy Ridge, who scored a coup with her Theresa May interview. By week two, though, the normal order was restored.

The BBC can declare at least one victory for its news division in 2017. In what was dubbed “the battle of the bongs”, ITV’s regrettable decision to shift the News at Ten to 10.30pm for a couple of months this year in favour of a new entertainment show means that the corporation’s flagship bulletin will be once more unchallenged. But the war among the UK’s television channels has shifted to new territory: now it’s Sunday-morning sofa skirmishes.

This year began with the equivalent of ravens leaving the Tower. The Prime Minister’s New Year interview, cherished for decades by David Frost and then by Andrew Marr, migrated from the BBC to Sky News. It was a coup for Sophy Ridge, whose new show marks the arrival of a woman into what had previously been male territory. It intensified the pressure on the BBC after the blow last year of the defection of Robert Peston to ITV, lured by the promise of his own show to rival Marr’s.

By week two, though, the normal order was restored. The biggest interviewee, Jeremy Corbyn, was on The Andrew Marr Show and his lieutenants John McDonnell and Emily Thornberry were deployed on Sky and ITV. These things matter because the Sunday-morning political programmes often generate the headlines for the rest of the day’s broadcasting and for the Monday papers; and the commercial companies want to dent the BBC’s reputation for setting the agenda. The corporation can often do it by the sheer volume of its output on TV, including the estimable Sunday Politics, and on radio; but it’s a plus for audiences if other voices can be heard.

The Andrew Marr Show has traditionally secured the A-list guests because it has by far the highest ratings. Its most powerful asset is Marr, who was a transformative political editor for the BBC and possesses, as New Statesman readers know, an original and free-thinking take on the issues of the day. The energy in the programme comes from him but he is not helped by a staid production: a predictable format, a set with a London skyline and a superannuated sofa. There aren’t many laughs. The review of the papers has become cumbersome with the addition of a statutory Brexiteer, and the supposed light relief is supplied by arts plugging of the kind that seems mandatory in every BBC News programme. We are invited, wherever we are in the UK, to pop along to the West End to see the latest production involving the actor-interviewee of the day. However, if there is a new political line to be found, Marr is the most likely to sniff it out.

By contrast, Peston on Sunday seems to have consumed a lot of fizzy drinks. It is sharp and contemporary-looking and it bounces along, thanks to the interplay between Peston and his sidekick, Allegra Stratton. It is more willing to take risks, as in the entertainingly acidic recent exchanges between Piers Morgan and Alastair Campbell, and it works as a piece of television even if it doesn’t have the top guests. It merits its repeat in the evening, when it gains a bigger audience than in the live transmission.

Guests may be more crucial to the success of Sophy Ridge on Sunday. It looks lovely in its sparkling new studio, but the prime ministerial scoop of the launch show was followed by an interview with Nigel Farage and a dull encounter with a union official. There is a commendable attempt to get out of London and to hear from the public, and it’s refreshing to locate an MP such as Tom Watson in a West Bromwich café. The programme is also trying to book more women interviewees, and one paper review featured a token man; but can it be a must-watch for news junkies or entertaining enough for a casual viewer?

There is only so much that producers can do to lure the right guests. If you meet any broadcaster these days, they immediately gripe about the attempts by Downing Street to control who appears where – which has been applied with particular vigour under the May administration: hence Boris Johnson recently appearing as duty minister on both Marr and Peston on the same morning, which neither channel finds ideal.

There is a trap, in that obtaining quotesfor the rest of the media is only part of the remit. In these uncertain political times, audiences need knowledge, too, and an interview that merely zips through the news lines of the day may add little to our understanding of policy and the choices faced by government. All of these shows feature presenters with formidable brainpower and it is perfectly possible to meld that into a programme that is worth watching.

Peston’s show makes an attempt with Stratton’s big screen to provide context and statistics, but it could do more – and it might painlessly lose some of the witless tweets that pass for interaction. It’s a further conundrum of television that Marr’s most interesting takes on current issues are often in his documentaries or writing rather than on his eponymous show. The guardians of impartiality may twitch, but viewers would benefit from him being given more freedom.

There is the rest of the world to consider, too. It was striking on a Sunday just ahead of the inauguration of Donald Trump that none of these shows had a major American player. While Michel Barnier was making the news in the weekend papers, no decision-maker from the EU was featured, either. This is not a phenomenon of Brexit: television has always found it easier to plonk a bottom on a sofa in SW1 than to engage in the long-term wooing that gets significant international guests. Yet, as we are allegedly preparing to launch ourselves into the wider world, hearing from its key decision-makers is part of the enlightenment we need, too.

Roger Mosey is the master of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a former head of BBC Television news

Roger Mosey is the Master of Selwyn College, Cambridge. He was formerly editorial director and the director of London 2012 at the BBC.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era