In the Labour left’s wilderness years, it was John McDonnell who saved the faction from oblivion. “I know how angry many of you are, but I would ask you to stay in the party and fight,” he wrote in a letter to supporters after failing to make the 2007 Labour leadership ballot. “Don’t mourn, organise.”
Over the years, as chair of the Socialist Campaign Group – the faction founded by supporters of Tony Benn in 1982 – McDonnell did just that. Then, remarkably, Jeremy Corbyn was elected Labour leader in 2015 and McDonnell, his closest parliamentary ally, became the shadow chancellor. Never before had Labour’s left – which Peter Mandelson had aspired to place in a “sealed tomb” – wielded such power in the party.
But McDonnell, now 71, and his allies have since been cast back into the wilderness. A common criticism of the Corbynite left was that they cared more about controlling the party than the country; in the event, they lost both. Labour’s defeat at the 2019 general election was followed by Keir Starmer’s comfortable victory over Rebecca Long Bailey in the party leadership contest. Of the triumvirate who took control of Labour in 2015 – Corbyn, Diane Abbott and McDonnell – only McDonnell retains the whip. Can he once again save the party’s left from irrelevance?
McDonnell was long renowned as the left’s most ruthless MP – the Robespierre of the left. In 2003 he said of the IRA: “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.” In 2009 he was suspended from the House of Commons for picking up the ceremonial mace in protest at the planned expansion of Heathrow Airport.
Though he cast himself as a pragmatic “bank manager” during his time as shadow chancellor, flashes of his old aggression occasionally surfaced. But when I met McDonnell, who was dressed in a navy blue suit and red tie, one recent afternoon at Westminster’s Portcullis House, he was uncharacteristically guarded. “I’ll be frank, I was worried about doing an interview with you or anyone, because everything we say or do is trawled over,” he told me. “People are very worried that anything that is in any way challenging will be used in a disciplinary process against them,” he said, speaking softly as if for fear of being overheard. “That’s the reality. It’s not fear or anything like that – it’s just that you don’t want to put yourself in a position of vulnerability and then let other people down as well.”
Four days after we spoke, Abbott had the whip withdrawn for dismissing racism against Irish, Jewish and Traveller people in a letter to the Observer (see page 15). McDonnell, who has often had a difficult relationship with Abbott, did not comment when I asked for his response. He subsequently told Andrew Marr on LBC that Abbott had made a “terrible, terrible mistake” and credited her with making a “profuse apology”.
In a draft speech he shared when we met, he was forthright on the subject of party discipline and anti-Semitism. “People who have devoted their lives to the Labour Party and have a track record of campaigning for Labour much longer than even the leader of the party and many of those appointed around him are being forced out of the party,” the speech said. “Natural justice has gone out of the window. Party members are being expelled retrospectively for any association with an organisation, no matter how slight, before it has even been proscribed by the party.
“The social media of party members is being trawled for any excuse for disciplinary action, with extraordinary judgements being made. In a bizarre turn of events, it is now more likely to be disciplined [sic] for anti-Semitism if you are a Jew than a gentile.” The draft continued: “I have to accept that even writing this may be used as grounds for disciplinary action against me.”
On 28 March Labour’s National Executive Committee barred Corbyn from standing for the party at the next election following the removal of the whip in 2020 (Corbyn had written that the scale of anti-Semitism in Labour was “dramatically overstated for political reasons”). McDonnell was scathing about this decision and Starmer’s broader approach as leader.
“If you look at Labour’s strategy, the first element is that Keir Starmer is not Jeremy Corbyn,” he said. “After three years I think people have got that… It’s a strategy that is counterproductive now: it’s gone as far as it can. This latest attempt to prevent Jeremy from standing as a Labour candidate just comes across almost as intimidatory bullying to some people.
“If that forces Jeremy into standing as an independent – and I have no idea what his thinking is on this – it would be a complete distraction in London during the election, you can imagine where the media are going to go.
“I think there’s a fine line between being ruthless and being seen as bullying.”
McDonnell, who was elected MP for Hayes and Harlington as part of Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, told me that the degree of central control within Labour is far greater now than it was even then. “There’s clearly a faction who seem to be more interested in destroying the left than in winning the next election. I think the leadership needs to call a halt to that now and fulfil the promise that Keir gave, which was to unite the party.”
If Corbyn, as expected, stands as an independent candidate in Islington North, will McDonnell support him? “I’m not getting drawn into it. Jeremy will make his mind up on that one. I live in hope that somehow common sense will prevail. We’ve got time between now and the general election, and I’m hoping that we can convince people to let Jeremy make that decision along with his local party and avoid splits and divisions.”
During their years leading Labour, Corbyn and McDonnell’s decades-long relationship came under strain. The shadow chancellor was at times accused of plotting to oust his old friend (claims he always rejected). How is their relationship now? “Close. We’re good friends, we speak virtually every other day,” he said unhesitatingly. “We work together on lots of issues in parliament and elsewhere, we continue campaigning. He’s the same Jeremy I’ve always known. His big interest is international affairs, so he’s been doing a lot of work. Last week he was in Mexico and met the president. He’s been meeting Lula [da Silva, the Brazilian president] and others.”
In his view, Corbyn is an asset Starmer should embrace. “What I don’t understand is that, if you’re a leader with confidence in yourself and in your own authority, you’d harness that resource. Whatever people think about Jeremy, he’s incredibly popular among a large number of people. People have an affection for him because of the principled stance he’s taken over the years on a number of issues – he could be an incredible campaigning resource for us. I don’t understand why [the Labour leadership] can’t see that and why they’re trying to prevent him from standing.”
The pair, he quipped, “still argue over football” – McDonnell supports Liverpool and Corbyn is an Arsenal fan. “And I don’t allow him anywhere near my garden because he criticises my planting regime.”
Earlier in our conversation, McDonnell was greeted by Steve Rotheram, the Liverpool City Region mayor. “Keep those rosary beads clicking about the season won’t you?” McDonnell joked (in his youth he considered becoming a Catholic priest). “We can’t not be in the Champions League.”
When Starmer campaigned for the leadership in Liverpool – McDonnell’s home town – he declared, in reference to the Sun’s coverage of the Hillsborough disaster: “This city has been wounded by the media… I certainly won’t be giving an interview to the Sun during the course of this campaign.” The following year Starmer wrote an opinion piece for the paper, an act McDonnell described as hurtful.
“My family in Liverpool are really distressed by the whole thing. There are certain lines you don’t cross and that was one of them, unfortunately. I can’t think what advantage he or his advisers saw in that, because it won’t prevent [Rupert] Murdoch turning on you if he needs to.”
[See also: Why has Labour’s poll lead shrunk?]
McDonnell believes Starmer has been relatively untested by the press. “The media haven’t turned on him yet. You need to be out there now, having convinced people, so that when the attacks come they know you, and they know what you stand for, and they won’t believe the attacks and they’ll defend you.
“If you alienate Scousers now by writing for the Sun, don’t expect them to protect you when the Sun comes for you.”
The Labour left no longer controls the party’s commanding heights, yet it is far from irrelevant. Excluding three independents, the Campaign Group numbers 31 Labour MPs – nearly a sixth of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the event of a hung parliament or a small Labour majority, it could wield significant influence.
“All of a sudden these people [the Labour left] are relevant again,” a shadow cabinet minister recently told the Times of such a scenario. “John McDonnell will be in and out of No 10 like Steve Baker [the Tory Brexiteer].”
Will McDonnell, who rebelled hundreds of times in the New Labour era, revolt if a Starmer government imposes real-terms spending cuts? “I can’t see that we’ll be in that position, but they need to know there will be widespread opposition, not just within the party but across the country. This isn’t people being threatening, it’s just saying ‘Why can’t we have a democratic, open debate and discussion?’
“The junior doctors are striking… If we can’t give them some light at the end of the tunnel – that they’ll have their pay restored – they’ll be striking under Labour just as they are under this government. That’s what we need to avoid.”
Will he vote against a Labour Budget that fails to reverse Conservative cuts? “We’ll be arguing for alternatives, simple as that. I can’t see us confidently going into an election unless there are commitments over the lifetime of a Labour government to reverse all the cuts that the Tories imposed over the last 13 years.”
Long before he earned the official title of shadow chancellor, McDonnell performed this role from the back benches, relentlessly tabling alternative Budgets and policies. From 1982 to 1985 he served as finance chair of the Greater London Council, under Ken Livingstone, presiding over a £3bn budget.
When we spoke, with UK households enduring the biggest squeeze in living standards since records began in 1956-57, McDonnell outlined a mini-manifesto. “I actually think the Bank of England’s approach, which is to increase interest rates [currently 4.25 per cent], is completely counterproductive. The Bank acknowledges that a large majority of inflationary pressures are beyond the UK. An increase in rates will simply put more people out of work and put more pressure on businesses.
“The solution for me is for Labour to come out clearly in support of price controls on foodstuffs; it’s only a temporary measure. If [price controls] go beyond a year they become inefficient, but in the short term they work.”
McDonnell, whose policy of increasing corporation tax has been embraced by Rishi Sunak, is scornful of Labour’s caution on tax. “We can’t keep on repeating that we’re going to spend the money raised by abolishing non-dom status time and time again. That was one of our [Corbyn-era] policies. It’s never been acknowledged, but we can’t keep spending it four or five times over. For the life of me, I can’t understand why we haven’t come out very clearly and said we will tax capital gains at the same rate as income.” (The policy was introduced by the late Conservative chancellor Nigel Lawson in 1988.)
McDonnell added: “With regard to ‘greedflation’, if you look at the figures of the supermarkets, they’ve made enormous profits. What we should be doing is introducing an excess profits tax. The Tories did it in the 1950s when, as a result of the Korean War, profits were going through the roof. If Labour aren’t careful we could be in a situation where the Tories come out with some of this.”
During Corbyn’s leadership, McDonnell was often blamed by left Eurosceptics for persuading the Labour leader to support a second Brexit referendum in 2019. Today, he is strikingly outspoken on the subject.
“My view is, exactly as we said during the Brexit campaign, it has been a disaster, exactly as the Office for Budget Responsibility forecast. The economy has been held back. I’ve been looking at comparative wealth stats. A family in France is 10 per cent wealthier [than a UK one], in Germany it’s 20 per cent, it’s just staggering. Thirteen years of a Tory government, plus Brexit, has meant that our standard of living is one of the worst in our history compared to the rest of Europe.”
Does he favour the UK rejoining the European single market and customs union? “We need to talk about the relationship with the single market, have a proper debate: what are the pros and cons, particularly in relation to the industrial sector. I know people are terrified of opening up the Brexit argument because of the way the Tories will exploit it, but I think we can have an honest economic debate. The single market is one of the issues we need to start talking about again.
“The party membership and, increasingly, the general public – because of the impact it’s having on their living standards – will expect us to start addressing this issue. The party needs to start preparing now for that debate, so we can set the parameters.”
Some will view McDonnell’s interventions with incredulity. Why should Starmer listen to the man who co-led Labour to its worst election defeat by number of seats since 1935? “What you need to do is ensure you learn the right lessons,” McDonnell said. “We failed to develop a narrative which was clear enough and, as a result, even though we were producing individually popular policies, they didn’t have the credibility of being wrapped up in a narrative.”
He cited two lessons for Starmer’s Labour: “There will be a character assassination attempt on Starmer. Build your asset now as much as you can: you need to be able to rebut.
“Second, get your policy agenda in place earlier, so you can then campaign and convince people on it… In that way you’ve built the bulwarks of that general election campaign. People know what you stand for, they know who you are.”
McDonnell, who said in 2006 that his “most significant intellectual” influences were the “fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky”, has sometimes appeared dismissive of Labour and parliamentary socialism. In 2012, at a left-wing gathering, he remarked: “I’m not in the Labour Party because I’m a believer of the Labour Party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that. It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.”
But at the close of our conversation, he insisted that Labour and the left need each other. “Although the polls are narrowing, I still think we’ll get a Labour government. But I want a Labour government with a decent majority, enthusiastically supported with a radical programme, because there’s so much that needs to be done. If we continue [to fail] to bring the party together under those broad-church principles, we hamper our ability not just to win elections but to govern effectively.”
Once again, John McDonnell is staying and fighting.
[See also: Tell us who you really are, Keir Starmer]
This article appears in the 26 Apr 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The New Tragic Age