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Who is the real John McDonnell?

From Marxist ideologue to shadow chancellor, Corbyn’s intellectual guru and closest ally has long been reviled. But now that power is in sight – and faced with a possible Labour split – his passion is turning to pragmatism.

1. The Sealed Tomb

During a recent sailing holiday on the Norfolk Broads with his wife Cynthia, John McDonnell read Aristotle’s Politics. Once determined to overthrow capitalism and destabilise the British state – he said in 2006 that his “most significant intellectual” influences were the “fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically” – the Labour shadow chancellor is preparing pragmatically for power, organising meetings in the City of London and reaching out across ideological divides. He says his door is now “open” to Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents and antagonists inside the demoralised parliamentary party. And even when he is relaxing, the so-called hard man of the left, who is an autodidact, does not relax: he reads compulsively and works on briefing papers, tactics and strategy.

After Corbyn astounded even himself and his closest allies by winning the leadership in 2015, most of those who gathered in his first shadow cabinet considered McDonnell to be the real leader of the Labour Party. “Jeremy was just the figurehead,” one MP told me. “But that may have changed. It was the same when I attended Campaign group meetings in parliament back in the day. There were some big personalities there – Jeremy, Diane [Abbott], Michael Meacher, Austin Mitchell. But John was the leader.”

Peter Mandelson once said that the Bennite Socialist Campaign Group occupied a sealed tomb. “They were isolated, ridiculed and badly treated,” recalls a senior Labour MP. “They were not able to sit on the front bench, or on select or bill committees, they had the worst offices. No one would speak to them in the division lobbies. They were treated as pariahs.”

The isolation of this small, embattled group of socialist ideologues forced them closer together and out into the country to build networks and movements. “We were on every picket line, we dominated the fringe at Labour conferences,” John McDonnell recalled when we met recently. That proved decisive when Corbyn contested the leadership in the immediate aftermath of Ed Miliband’s abject defeat. Despised by the parliamentary party, the Corbynites had the resources of the wider extra-parliamentary left to draw on – groups such as Stop the War and UK Uncut – as well as Greens, former Liberal Democrat activists and various far-left and Trotskyite factions.

“Mandelson said they were sealing the tomb so the left would never break out of it again, so we would slowly die off,” McDonnell told me. “I never thought it would be a tomb. It’s like when Brown announced the end of boom and bust – there’s a real world out there, and to understand that world was actually to understand how the economy worked, how society reacted to that. And capitalism is inherently crisis-ridden.”

I visited McDonnell, who is 67 and was elected to the Commons in the New Labour landslide of 1997, on a warm late summer afternoon at his run-down constituency headquarters in Hayes and Harlington, a gritty, multicultural west London suburb that includes Heathrow Airport. McDonnell lives in the poorest ward in the constituency in a detached three-bedroom house, with a “messy garden”, and likes to take the bus. He aspires to live his principles and operates what he describes as an “open door” (a favourite expression, as it turned out) to constituents. During the nearly four hours I spent with him, several young Muslim women turned up without appointments to seek his assistance. He greeted each arrival with courtesy and patience.

“When I’m on the bus there’s quite a lot of banter. People say, ‘John, can I come and see you?’ If you live in a constituency like this long enough, you’re part of the community. If you try to have any airs and graces, they’d make sure you’d know all right. I think that’s what grounds you really.”

His constituency office is chaotic and cluttered – books are double-stacked and files and papers piled up on various tables as well as on the floor. It’s as if you have wandered into a space occupied by an eccentric academic. But there’s nothing eccentric about McDonnell in person. Tanned from his holiday, grey-haired and casual in a blue business shirt and jeans, he is steely, unyielding, ideologically committed, and absolutely determined. He also has a good sense of humour.

McDonnell is an adept media communicator and it was unsurprising that he rather than Corbyn appeared on BBC One’s The Andrew Marr Show last Sunday to cool tempers over Labour’s anti-Semitism crisis. There’s a certain doubleness at play in his public performance: he can assume the persona of revolutionary belligerent – especially when speaking at rallies among the true believers or while on a picket line – and of an emollient, soberly dressed bank manager deflecting questions and easing stresses.

But who is the real John McDonnell and what does he really want?

2. Out of the Wilderness

While speaking at a May Day rally in 2013, McDonnell experienced a burning sensation in his chest; he dismissed it as indigestion but couldn’t shake it off. As the hours passed, he became progressively more uncomfortable. “I’m speaking in Trafalgar Square, I’m doing three meetings after that and then back to the constituency, and I’m thinking, ‘Oh, this bloody indigestion’s terrible.’ Thursday I was in work, and then Friday evening comes and I’m at the local Catholic church and I’m doing this presentation. When I came out, I felt a bit off, and my wife said I looked terrible. The next morning, I’m doing a conference in central London, and then I’m driving Tony Benn to Brighton for a meeting. My wife offers to drive. She comes, I get on the platform, I speak, come off. And I’m done.”

Cynthia didn’t drive McDonnell to Brighton and, instead, took him to a local hospital for tests. It turned out he’d had a heart attack. “I had the attack on the Wednesday. And then another really serious one… At midnight, they put me in the ambulance. I then have an operation and they shove a stent inside me. They burst the vessel, the blockage. It was on an outer vein.”

McDonnell used to be a 60-a-day smoker – he underwent hypnotherapy to stop in the early 1990s – and his father had died from a bronchial condition aged 58. “You go back after six months, a year. Now, I don’t go back at all, or I contact the GP. Harefield Hospital is unbelievable. You go on a fitness regime. They were trying to work out what the lifestyle issues were for me – you know I don’t eat an awful lot, I walk quite a lot and I do quite a lot of sailing.”

When he returned to work after his heart attack, McDonnell knew his leadership ambitions were over – he’d attempted to stand against Gordon Brown in 2007 and again in the 2010 contest but could not make the ballot – yet he never accepted it was over for the left. He believes in the class struggle and, though he claims not to be a determinist, always believed that a crisis of capitalism would lead to the conditions for a left takeover of Labour. That is what sustained him during the long decades in the wilderness: the conviction that the left’s time would come, that the door of the tomb would one day open.

In the final hours before the deadline for entering the 2015 leadership contest, McDonnell pleaded with fellow MPs to nominate Corbyn. “I was in tears, in tears when Gordon Marsden and Andrew Smith that morning, just before 12, the deadline, filled out their forms to put Jeremy on the ballot.”

Ed Miliband’s great mistake as leader, McDonnell says now, was not misreading the financial crisis as a moment of opportunity for a social democratic revival, but his chronic caution. “He misunderstood there was a willingness for more radical proposals of the kind Jeremy was offering. Instead, we got austerity-lite and limited radicalism. But Ed gave space for political debate to happen again, in a comradely way. With Tony Blair, you were in or out. There was a limited amount of conversation with Gordon, but it was still the iron fist.”

After so long on the outside as the de facto leader of the left in parliament, when he and the Bennite Campaign group of Labour MPs were openly mocked and reviled by colleagues, McDonnell knows how close he is to power, which is why Labour’s “lost summer” and protracted anti-Semitism crisis so frustrate him. There has been chatter to the effect that fissures have opened up between McDonnell and Corbyn, especially over the way the leader’s office equivocated over adopting the full International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance guidelines on anti-Semitism. There was also tactical dis-agreement on how to respond when Sergei Skripal, a Russian double agent, and his daughter Yulia Skripal, were poisoned with a nerve agent in Salisbury in March: Corbyn rejected the British government’s position on Russian culpability in the attempted murders but McDonnell accepted it.

“I wanted the Russia issue resolved as quickly as possible so we could concentrate on the real issue,” he says now, “which was the sanctions on the Russian oligarchs and their money in the City. It wasn’t about closing down and moving on. It was actually saying we need to resolve this in a way which is effective. The same with anti-Semitism. I’m not talking about closing it down as an issue. I’m saying we need to resolve what this seems to be so that we can get on the real issue, which is campaigning against anti-Semitism.”


The ambitious shadow chancellor claims he wants to open rather than close doors to opponents and antagonists​. Picture: Kalpesh Lathigra

Jon Lansman, the chair of Momentum, has said that McDonnell is both “more pragmatic and more ideological” than Corbyn. He is also more ruthless. Although McDonnell will say nothing against Corbyn, it’s obvious he believes the anti-Semitism crisis was mishandled and should not have dragged on to such damaging effect.

I asked McDonnell about his old friend Margaret Hodge and her remarks about how fearful Jews were feeling, and how alienated they were from Corbyn’s Labour. “It’s really upset me. I worked with Margaret for 30 years. It has hit us to the core. I don’t want to live in a society where synagogues are attacked or where Jewish graveyards are daubed with swastikas. Jewish children having to have security at their schools, that’s unacceptable.” What had he said to Hodge? “I gave her a ring, soon after. I said, ‘Look, we need to resolve this and I’ll do everything I can to resolve it.’ That’s what I’m trying to do. The key issue is to resolve this, so we can get out there as a real campaigning force on racism and anti-Semitism in particular.”

Of Corbyn and his support for various anti-Zionist and Islamist groups, and stubborn refusal to speak to ideological opponents, McDonnell said: “I think he’s trying to listen. If there are issues like that, and where people want that dialogue, there’s an open door now. We all need to ensure that we have an open-door policy to all the people involved. Maybe we should assert that more thoroughly.”

Open door: that phrase again.

I asked if he or Corbyn would meet right-wing Zionist or Israeli settler groups. “You need to listen to everybody, and if you disagree with them, they need to understand why you disagree.”

A long-time friend of McDonnell’s tried to explain to me why he and Corbyn, though they claimed to be peacemakers, only ever spoke to one side in their ideological struggles and why Corbyn made alliances with Sinn Féin/IRA members, anti-Semites and Islamists: “Whether it was Yasser Arafat or Nelson Mandela, when they were considered terrorists, John and Jeremy saw themselves as conduits for a different type of voice to be heard in the British parliament.

“The other side was already represented. They didn’t view politics through the optics of the party leadership. They never had to compromise. It was about principles. And it was these principles that sustained them.”

McDonnell self-identifies as working-class. His father, an Irish-Catholic Liverpudlian, was a docker, and his mother was a cleaner who, after they moved south to Great Yarmouth, worked for 30 years for British Home Stores, including a stint on the biscuit counter. He left grammar school without A-levels and then, as he puts it, “sort of dropped out”. He explored becoming a priest (he told me he is now an atheist) and then headed north to work “in production”, making beds. He married his first wife, whom he met at a miners’ club, when he was 20, and she encouraged him to do A-levels at night school. He went on to university, completing a sandwich degree course as a mature student at Brunel in west London, which enabled him to work as well as study.

All of this makes McDonnell, who has two grown-up daughters and a son, sound like a political version of Leonard Bast: but it also gives him a sympathy for the outsider and the underdog, and an anti-establishment abrasiveness. In 2003, of the IRA, McDonnell said: “It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA.”

During our conversation he conceded that direct action might be necessary to confront the rise of the far right. “There are three political strategies,” he wrote in 2011, “which have traditionally been deployed to achieve change in Western societies: parliamentary democracy; the ballot box; and syndicalism, now more commonly known as industrial action and insurrection – what we now call direct action.”

Becoming actively engaged in politics in the early 1980s, McDonnell was on the editorial board of the left-wing journal Labour Briefing, an elected member of the Greater London Council (GLC), and the Labour candidate for Hampstead and Highgate in the 1983 general election. He chaired the GLC’s finance committee and served as Ken Livingstone’s deputy, until they clashed over manipulation of the budget and rate-capping. Was McDonnell too radical even for Livingstone? “I consider that a badge of honour,” he said, chuckling.

McDonnell is encouraged that some of his closest shadow cabinet allies, notably Rebecca Long-Bailey (his protégé) and Angela Rayner, have social backgrounds similar to his own. “The best thing that happened when most of the shadow cabinet resigned [in protest against Corbyn’s leadership in 2016] is it gave us a real opportunity – we were forced to do it – to bring the new generation on. We brought them in quickly. Becky Long-Bailey – she’s incredibly bright, meticulous, eye for detail, an increasingly good advocate. Richard Burgon, too, like Becky, a young lawyer – both just professional in terms of their approach. Angela – straightforward, pragmatic – the working-class voice that they all have, and that northern voice, that’s incredibly important.

“Look at others we’ve got around that table. Emily [Thornberry] is fantastic. She was on a council estate, and her family went into hard times. So, she’s lived it as well, she’s had that lived experience. You go around that table, I think it’s amazing – Kate Osamor, Dawn Butler, young black women coming through.”

McDonnell warns repeatedly against what he described to me as the “class forces” arraigned against Labour. He is particularly sceptical of the BBC. “When they interview a minister, there seems to be a natural deference to the ministerial title. With us, they will interrupt continuously. There’s a natural establishment bias. In the written media, it relates to the ownership, which is owned by the right, full stop. But in terms of the BBC, there is an establishment bias… You get used to it. At the GLC, you got trained up on how to handle it, but then also do as much live stuff as possible because they can’t edit it, so the live broadcasting is important to us.”

During our long conversation, McDonnell was most anxious when we discussed splits or breakaway factions in the Labour Party. “If there are people willing to leave the party, OK, I’m saddened and disappointed by that. If it’s about Brexit, they know the debate is happening. If it’s around individual careers, I understand that but am disappointed by it.”


Corbyn and McDonnell. Picture: Jon Super/EPA/Rex

He invited disaffected MPs to meet him. “Talk to us if there’s something they want to do. We’ve got an open door on that. If it is anti-Semitism, we’ve got to resolve it and will, and that’s it. I don’t see these as fundamental issues that would encourage a split because there are opportunities for people not just to express their views but actually sometimes to win arguments as well.

“I’m worried and I’m saddened. Any split is automatically damaging. A new party will take votes away from Labour. This could make it very tight in particular constituencies, and Labour might not pick up those seats. And what does that mean? It means the Tories getting in… This concept of a party as a broad church is a good thing. I lost a debate for 30 years and stayed in the party. The nature of Jeremy’s politics is not to alienate people, it’s to bring people in.”

This is not a view widely shared in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), many of whom describe the shadow chancellor as intimidating. I asked McDonnell why so many of his parliamentary colleagues were so unhappy – indeed, despairing – about the Corbyn leadership and the party’s toxic culture. His answer was thoughtful, acknowledging the repeated shocks and painful reversals Labour MPs have experienced since 2015, from Corbyn’s victory to Brexit.

“They have experienced radical change that they never envisaged,” he said. “If you look at a number of the individuals that have come into parliament, they’ve had their careers mapped out for the future, almost secure… They were going to be ministers or shadow ministers or they were going to be in cabinet or shadow cabinet. All of a sudden, there’s this disruption about what they believed about the world; what their political ambitions were, both in terms of the transformation they want to undertake and also their political careers.

“I can completely understand how they’re feeling and how that can alienate them. But if you look at the political issues, there’s room for discussion and debate. On a number of these issues you may well win the argument. Also, you may well ameliorate the policies that we are doing, from your position to ones that become better for us. [Without our critics] we’d lose the opportunity of that challenge we sometimes face. And if it’s about a career – I don’t believe politics is a career, but if that’s the way they’re approaching it, for goodness’ sake, there are roles that they can play within the party that will win people’s respect.”

3. John McDonnell’s Late Style

McDonnell is working out a strange political destiny as he plots a path to power and considers the obstacles that lie in wait for him. As a long-time theoretical Marxist, he believed Westminster and Whitehall were facets of a corrupt power structure that prevented the creation of a more equitable and democratic society. Even the Labour soft left was unacceptable because it sought to mitigate and make compromises with financial capitalism.

But proximity to power has begun to change McDonnell, softening his ideological rigidities, late in his career. His understanding of the nuances and complexities of politics has deepened, hence the interest in Aristotle; he is beginning to understand the need to get the balance right. He has appointed a new media adviser, the former political journalist Andrew Whitaker, and his chief policy adviser is James Meadway, a cerebral economist formerly of the New Economics Foundation.

“He’s become much more light-footed,” says Maurice Glasman, the Blue Labour thinker and peer who has been talking to McDonnell about economic matters. “He keeps saying to me: ‘Tell me where we disagree’. He’s also worried about losing the working class. Many of the senior people around John in the shadow cabinet are lazy: he’s doing all the work.”

In the words of Richard Barbrook, an adviser to the Labour leadership and a friend of the shadow chancellor from the GLC days, McDonnell “is very smart. He’s read lots of books. And he knows what’s happening outside the bubble. Above all, he’s committed to democracy – to state and civil society transformation. He came out of a statist tradition, which he has come to see as elitist. He’s now interested in co-operatives, mutuals, in creating the conditions for people to run their own lives.”


Illustration: André Carrilho

A former senior aide to Ed Miliband said: “McDonnell is the only serious politician on the left. The only one who could deliver. Corbyn is a liability despite also being the reason for the left’s renaissance. But my reaction to McDonnell is that I really don’t trust him and the more reasonable he sounds the less I trust him. I suppose a lot of people think there is another McDonnell beneath the bank manager image. I also can’t separate him from Corbyn. He lacks his own stature and separate identity. Did you know who you were talking to when you interviewed him?”

I don’t think McDonnell is hiding anything: he means what he says and should be taken seriously and literally. Never doubt that he considers Westminster and Whitehall to be corrupting influences, where vested interests are anchored. “You get elected on the left and keep moving left. That was the old GLC model,” Richard Barbrook says. But that is not McDonnell’s plan today, because he wants to win from the left and stay there, rather than move even further to the left.

Over a long career as an agitator and organiser, as well as through the hard graft of his leadership role of the Campaign group – chairing meetings, putting together alternative budgets, opposing what he saw as the compromises of his own party – McDonnell learned the craft of movement politics.

“The issue for me is that we have to be effective very quickly. We’ve got to be prepared for government, know how to operate the state, and then you go within. You get elected and then your state isn’t just a set of institutions, it’s a relationship. You change that relationship, which at present is a relationship of dominance. All our reforms are about empowering people, through new structures that we get established.”

McDonnell has read the Marxist thinker Antonio Gramsci and aspires to achieve political domination that extends beyond control of the state and parliament and into the realm of culture and ideas. “The 2017 manifesto was important,” he says now. “Hegemony is about dominating the debate, and it’s about transforming the whole reality as well. It’s about winning the argument first – and that’s what we did in the [2017] manifesto. Had that election campaign gone on another couple of weeks we would have won. The issue for us then is winning the argument – by showing that we are competent to deliver those policies. So that means absolutely – and this is where the ruthlessness comes in – understanding the nature of the state and how you can use the state vehicle to transform it as well. We go inside the state institutions.”

Would that include the newspapers and the BBC? “Well, that’s what Jeremy’s speech in Edinburgh was about.”

For McDonnell, Labour has become more than a political party: it is a cause and a movement. “Building a social movement is linked to the ability to go into government – not just sustaining power, but nourishing it. It’s about making sure that the movement throws up the next representative group.”

By which he means, securing the succession to him and Corbyn, so that the Labour flag remains planted on the radical socialist left. He returned repeatedly to the question of the succession, even likening himself and Corbyn to “two old geezers from Last of the Summer Wine touring the country”. Is Corbyn Compo, I asked. “No,” he shot back, avoiding the trap.

To his opponents, John McDonnell is both serious and seriously dangerous. No one should doubt that a realignment has taken place inside the Labour Party and that the left has hegemonic control of the wider movement, the Unite super-union, most of the membership and the key rule-making institutions such as the National Executive Committee. What it doesn’t yet control is the PLP, but that will change over time – which is why so many Corbynites agitate for the deselection of MPs.

“Demoralisation doesn’t even begin to describe the mood inside the PLP,” Caroline Flint, MP for Don Valley since 1997, told me. “Of all the issues, anti-Semitism has been the most appalling. As politicians, we have to take account of the things we’ve said and done. The issue is: what do you bring in your baggage that you have to account for? It’s the same for all Labour leaders, not just Jeremy.”


On tour: McDonnell has likened himself and Jeremy Corbyn to the cast of Last of the Summer Wine. Picture: Photoshot/Getty

Those who know McDonnell well say he has mellowed, not least because he desperately wants to be chancellor and can’t quite believe his own ambition. He recognises the need for the left to appear “credible” on economic matters: he was scarred by his defeat in the 1992 election, by 53 votes to John Major’s Tories in Hayes and Harlington, before winning the seat in the New Labour landslide five years later. This is why he has adopted a so-called fiscal credibility rule – an aspiration over a five-year parliamentary term to eliminate the current budget deficit and to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP. Labour has pledged to raise taxes only on the top 5 per cent of earners. In 2017, it published its manifesto costings, unlike the Conservatives.

 “John is a hard man,” says Caroline Flint. “He’s an operator and he doesn’t take prisoners. He can be very abrasive to anyone who doesn’t fall into line. But he’s also a pragmatist and a realist. He’s not someone who responds on an emotional level. He thinks about what the battle is and what is needed to win. Now he has to manage expectations about what a real left-wing Labour government would look like. He must know that Labour can only win if it presents a broad platform that appeals.”

The late style of John McDonnell is more restrained, less explicitly confrontational. He wants to open rather than close doors to opponents and antagonists alike, or so he claims. At the same time, he rules out entering coalitions with the SNP and the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament. “We would rule as a minority government. And we’d put the policies up in a Queen’s Speech.”

And if the speech was voted down?

“We’d go to the country again, on the most popular Queen’s Speech in the history of the Labour Party.”

“McDonnell is not corrupt and he has moral integrity – that’s his Catholic background,” says Glasman. “He sees something corrupt in existing power structures. What he doesn’t have is a constructive alternative. But he’s the only one who’s trying to reach out to build one. He’s reviled because he aligned himself with a kind of Stalinist politics [in truth, he comes from a more Trotskyist tradition] – the whole of New Labour had to be opposed, the City of London abolished. But if socialism is the language of priorities, McDonnell is thinking through the priorities: ‘How do we do this?’ He has become, to his incredible surprise, a parliamentary Bevanite. He wants to present a serious and constructive alternative that includes words like ‘prosperity’ and ‘growth’. But he’s been so long on the outside that he doesn’t know how to join the dots.”

Of his meetings with senior business and financial leaders, McDonnell says, “They’ll have read the Mail and Telegraph and be expecting a Marxist, who’s either going to nationalise everything or send them off to re-education camp.” His response is to “dispel myths” about a future Labour government’s economic programme. He likes to quote Marx in meetings but also Adam Smith, whose writings he believes have, like Marx’s, been misunderstood or misread.

The 2017 Labour manifesto was much less extreme in its radicalism than the so-called longest suicide note manifesto of 1983, when under Michael Foot the party would have withdrawn from the EEC, imposed unilateral nuclear disarmament (at the height of the Cold War!), and reintroduced capital controls as well as sweeping nationalisation.

But a Corbyn government would still raise income and corporation taxes, nationalise utilities such as water and the railways, impose financial transaction taxes, restore trade union rights and sectoral bargaining, and introduce a “real living wage”; it would also borrow to invest in house building and infrastructure. “I’m saying to the business leaders, you’re going to like some of this, you’ll get a decent rate of return on your investments, but we’re not going to be ripped off any more. And the things you don’t like, they’re going to happen, so get used to it.”

What about capital flight and a run on the pound? “We’ll be prepared for anything. Look, the pound is already in a terrible state because of government policy. Don’t blame me, blame them. My greater worry is about the strength of the pound when we get elected. People will breathe a sigh of relief that they’ve got a government that has stable long-term policies, stable investment and that can deal with Brexit.”

He dismisses as “rubbish” claims by Alan Johnson and other ardent Labour Europeans that he and Corbyn did not campaign hard enough against Brexit. “If they’d followed our advice, we would have won the referendum.” Once a hard-line Bennite opposed to British membership of the EU, McDonnell “came to the position of remain and reform”. He is not closed to the possibility of a second referendum but would prefer a general election and for Labour to take control of the Brexit negotiations.

“We have to respect the European referendum result because if we don’t, it opens up opportunities for the right – a revival of Ukip or something worse. However, we’re moving on as best we can. We’re never averse to some kind of democratic engagement… Europe is evolving.”

He does not rule out the UK one day rejoining the EU, but first “we have to bring people back together and completely prevent the remobilisation of the right”.

Unlike Corbyn, McDonnell has apologised for many of his past mistakes and more outrageous statements, so as to concentrate on future prospects. It’s often said Corbyn is satisfied controlling the Labour Party while McDonnell wants to govern the country. And this much is true: the hard man of the left is enjoying his late flourishing. Abuse and hostility do not bother him; his experiences at the GLC toughened him for the struggles to come.

“Why should I be bothered [by the hostility]? I’ve waited 20 years for this. In fact, I’d be bothered if we weren’t getting it. We’ve got it from the media. We’ve got it from the Tories. This means people are taking us seriously.”

But here’s the dilemma: the group seemingly least interested in Corbynite bourgeois radicalism is the working class. And isn’t that the real problem: a working-class revolution that the working class rejects?

John McDonnell looks straight at me, his right fist clenched in characteristic style. “People are ground down, ground down because of a lack of trade union rights, and the general atmosphere of austerity. We’re going to democratise society in a way which gives working people a voice. Not just where they live in their local communities, but where they work as well. Even the wealthiest don’t want to live in a society where they can’t get on a train because so many are cancelled or delayed. Even the wealthiest don’t want to live in that sort of society.”

Jason Cowley's new book of essays Reaching for Utopia: Making Sense of an Age of Upheaval has just been published by Salt Publishing 

From Attlee to Marx – and the violence of the IRA

Do you have a political hero?

Clement Attlee, because he was a determined socialist. He created a transformation of society, and he did it in a way that held the party together.

What about Attlee’s decision to commission Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent?

No one’s perfect. I disagree with him on the bomb itself.

Would you press the so-called nuclear button, if you were prime minister?

No.

Do you have a favourite Labour MP?

Tony Benn. For his ability to articulate an argument successfully in difficult circumstances. He had humility and listened to working-class people.

And a favourite Tory MP?

None.

Not one?

I honestly don’t like their politics, though I have worked with Justine Greening and Zac Goldsmith against the third runway at Heathrow.

Is there a historical figure with whom you most identify?

Keir Hardie. He had working-class roots, was extremely well read, articulate, a good writer, and an absolutely determined man. He took the party through really difficult times.

What books have you found most influential?

It has to be Das Kapital. Francis Wheen’s description of Kapital is brilliant. It is not just a piece of economics, it’s a work of literature as well.

How did you feel when Jeremy got on the ballot in 2015?

I was in tears.

Did you have a plan?

We’re on the ballot, but then the issue was: how are we going to maximise the opportunity that we’ve got? So let’s get out there on the stump. Jeremy said, “You come with me,” and I said, “No, you go as the candidate, we’ll organise it all.” And I also joked that it looked like Last of the Summer Wine, these two old geezers touring around the country. I said, “No, you need to be out there [on your own].”

Was Corbyn Compo?

No [laughs]. I’d been out there before, and this had to be completely fresh, with a new face. And so we brought the team together, and I asked Simon Fletcher to come in and help run the campaign.

You’ve recently called for direct action against the far right; do we need to fight physically on the streets?

No, no you don’t. Even at the Battle of Cable Street, people just went to block the road, they never wanted violence, they just turned up to block the road. Increasingly, the view I’ve taken is that physical presence is important – but you can do it in such a way where your physical presence can make sure that the message gets across. As soon as you get into violence, people then start turning off, so the message gets undermined.

You supported the IRA and violence in Ireland: are you a revolutionary at heart?

Everything I did around Ireland was to try to bring about peace. It came from my Irish background, but we also had the threat of bombs in this constituency as well. So I was worried about what was happening on the ground – of people losing their lives. And I was desperate to do anything to secure the peace. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article appears in the 05 September 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The hard man of the Left