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Exclusive: John McDonnell named Lenin and Trotsky as his biggest influences in 2006

How the Soviet revolutionaries shaped the shadow chancellor's political and economic beliefs. 

On 13 September 2015, for the first time in British history, a Marxist entered the office of shadow chancellor. Unlike Jeremy Corbyn, who recently confessed that he had not “read as much of Marx as I should have done”, John McDonnell is described by friends as a “true follower” of the philosopher.

Labour MPs have long suspected that his admiration extends to Lenin and Trotsky, the leaders of the 1917 Soviet revolution. A lengthy 2006 interview with the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, unearthed by the New Statesman, confirmed their belief. Asked to name the “most significant” influences on his thought, McDonnell (who was then standing for the Labour leadership) replied: “The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically.”

Though the shadow chancellor has praised Marx since his appointment (“You can’t understand the capitalist system without reading Das Kapital”), he has unsurprisingly avoided any reference to Lenin or Trotsky. Unlike Marx, the Soviet duo were responsible for the mass murder of political opponents and inaugurated many of the communist state’s dictatorial methods. In Labour circles, they are reviled as the intellectual inspiration for the entryist Militant Tendency (expelled from the party under Neil Kinnock). But as recently as 2006, the shadow chancellor cited them as definitive influences on him.

Many will ask how a politician with such loyalties remained in the party throughout Tony Blair’s leadership. Still more will ask how he can now speak in social democratic terms of “transforming” capitalism, rather than abolishing it. It is McDonnell himself who offers the best explanation of these apparent contradictions. In the same 2006 interview he argued that the first-past-the-post electoral system and “the affinity and loyalty of the large section of the labour movement and of the working class” to Labour (“you can call it false consciousness or whatever”) meant for “very pragmatic reasons” it was “important to work within” the party.

To the charge that his leadership campaign was a “doomed effort”, he countered: “It's the old Gramsci thing - we're trying to win the battle of ideas on the basis of a really thorough, democratic debate. So we're trying to win hegemony within both the party and the country. And then, use that battle of ideas to make sure we can reflect that in the battle of organisation within the movement overall.”

Antonio Gramsci, one of the most influential Marxist thinkers, advocated a “long march through the institutions”. This entailed working within established organisations (such as Labour) with the intention of winning them for the revolutionary cause. 

McDonnell’s strategy was derided by leftists such as George Galloway, who formed the rival Respect Party. But with the election of Corbyn as leader it was vindicated. In 2006, McDonnell spoke presciently of a “dormant” left which could “easily be re-engaged” with Labour. Ed Miliband’s reform of the party’s leadership voting system in 2014 transferred sovereignty to them. In what he regarded as the twilight of his political career, McDonnell’s “long march” finally bore fruit.

As shadow chancellor he has said that he both hopes and believes Labour will win the next general election. But some, such as former No.10 policy head Geoff Mulgan (who worked with McDonnell at the Greater London Council), have suggested that he may be pursuing a version of Trotsky’s “transitional programme”. According to this strategy, socialists should make economic demands they know are unachievable in the hope of stirring up greater discontent with the system. Previously unreported remarks by McDonnell suggest this interpretation is not outlandish. During a House of Commons debate on 4 July 2011, the then Labour backbencher said: “As someone who still sees the relevance of Trotsky’s transitional programme, I am attempting not to salvage capitalism but to expose its weaknesses.” More recently, McDonnell has suggested that he hopes to retain capitalism but in a more egalitarian form. The question remains as to whether this is merely a tactical shift or an ideological one. 

With Corbyn as leader, the left is no longer what McDonnell called “an opposition within our own party”. But its rule is potentially threatened by Labour MPs, just 14 of whom (out of 230) voted for Corbyn. The leader’s opponents intend to launch a challenge to him after the EU referendum on 23 June. Though most acknowledge that they are likely be unsuccessful if Corbyn is automatically included on the ballot (a recent YouGov poll showed undiminished support among party members) they are prepared to make multiple attempts. “We only need to get lucky once, he needs to get lucky every time,” a shadow minister told me. Corbyn, they hope, will succumb to death by a thousand cuts.

In 2006, McDonnell cited “Trotsky’s analysis of the bureaucracy” to explain the creation of a “degenerate” Parliamentary Labour Party. “The leadership replaces the central committee, the central committee replaces the membership. And that's what's happened here. That coup has allowed the ruthless use of patronage to isolate the PLP from any democracy or accountability within the party itself.”

Among both supporters and opponents of Corbyn, McDonnell is increasingly spoken of as possible successor if his ally is ousted or resigns before 2020. “If Jeremy was pushed under a bus being driven by Boris Johnson, it would all rally behind John McDonnell,” Ken Livingstone told Russia Today last month.

McDonnell, who again stood unsuccessfully for the Labour leadership in 2010, has long been the senior partner in his relationship with Corbyn. Both friend and foe describe him as more competent, more experienced and more intellectually able. Shadow cabinet ministers say he is an “increasingly dominant” presence.

After the PLP meeting on 14 March 2016, a spokesman told journalists: “No one criticised John [McDonnell] or the fiscal credibility rule”. The shadow chancellor’s pledge to run a current budget surplus while borrowing for investment is regarded by most MPs as sound economics. But McDonnell’s recent admiration of Lenin and Trotsky will only confirm their fear that the messenger risks crowding out the message. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear