Leader: John McDonnell’s long march

Rather than simply insulting the shadow chancellor, his opponents should understand the forces behind his rise.

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After eight years in office, the Conservative Party is deeply unstable. Boris Johnson and his fellow Brexiteers have inveighed against Theresa May’s discredited Chequers plan without having the decency to offer an alternative.

Meanwhile, Britain’s public realm is crumbling after nearly a decade of austerity. Councils, prisons, schools and hospitals are all struggling to fulfil their legal duties. Rough sleeping, which fell by three-quarters under the last Labour government, has risen by 169 per cent since 2010. Nearly 1,000 Sure Start children’s centres and 478 libraries are estimated to have closed since 2010. Potholed roads and uncollected bins testify to the burden of austerity.

In this climate of private affluence and public squalor, voters are attracted to alternatives. John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, whom we interview in this week's magazine, has long been dismissed by his Conservative opponents as a retrograde Marxist. But his economic programme of investment, redistribution and renationalisation enjoys widespread support. A poll published last year by the Legatum Institute and Populus found that a majority of Britons favour public ownership of the UK’s water (83 per cent), electricity (77 per cent), gas (77 per cent) and railways (76 per cent). Voters are weary of the substandard service and excessive prices that characterise the privately owned firms delivering essential public services.

If he became chancellor, Mr McDonnell would increase taxes on the highest earners and corporations, raise the minimum wage to £10 and boost British investment, currently the lowest in the G7. “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,” he says in his interview. “And the things you don’t like, they’re going to happen, so get used to it.”

As recently as 2006, the shadow chancellor described his “most significant” intellectual influences as the “fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically”. But with power in sight, he has become more pragmatic. Labour’s 2017 manifesto owed more to social democracy than Marxism and McDonnell has abandoned past proposals such as a 60p income tax rate (he would introduce a 50p rate) and the full nationalisation of the banking sector. He has also apologised for some of his more outrageous statements, such as praising “the bombs and bullets and sacrifice” of the IRA, and joking about travelling back in time “to assassinate [Margaret] Thatcher”. Mr McDonnell, as Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum, has observed, is “both more ideological and more pragmatic” than Jeremy Corbyn, his closest political ally. He is also more ruthless, and wants to win power.

In contrast to the Labour leader, the shadow chancellor called for MPs to boycott the TV channel Russia Today and unambiguously blamed the Putin government for the Salisbury Novichok poisonings. He publicly argued in advance for Labour to drop disciplinary action against Margaret Hodge, a Jewish Labour MP who called Mr Corbyn an “anti-Semite”, and has long pushed for the party “to resolve” disagreements over the definition of anti-Semitism. For Mr McDonnell, like Nye Bevan, “the language of priorities is the religion of socialism”.

But how serious is he? Unlike some on the Labour left, the shadow chancellor has long been ruthlessly focused on securing power and confident in his party’s ability to do so (he consistently predicted that Mr Corbyn would exceed expectations at a general election). Three years after Mr McDonnell’s appointment, his internal and external opponents remain bewildered by his success.

But the surprise, perhaps, is that they should be surprised. The Conservatives’ dogmatic austerity programme – enabled by the Liberal Democrats – has further divided an already polarised country. Labour’s social democrats were discredited when they responded to Ed Miliband’s calamitous 2015 election defeat by arguing that the party should move rightwards. Rather than simply insulting Mr McDonnell, then, his opponents should understand the forces behind his rise.

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