Roy Bentham: “On the cusp of something big”?
Jim Pickard, apparently mellowing from earlier attacks on Corbyn, asked the title question in the FT, on 2nd March 2018.
Reordered extracts, excluding innuendo
John McDonnell hosted the FT interview in his constituency, Hayes & Harlington, a gritty west London seat divided by the M4, home to a high immigrant population and Heathrow airport. McDonnell takes a close interest in deportation claims, welfare battles and — increasingly — housing issues. “We’ve got people living in the most appalling conditions, overcrowding, people sleeping in the streets and on the canal, in the parks; we also have the phenomenon of beds in sheds.”
After becoming an MP in 1997, McDonnell busied himself in various ways: chairing meetings of the anti-Heathrow expansion group, setting up an umbrella group of leftwing unions and leading a campaign against the construction industry, which had been blacklisting workers for their political views and union activities, leading to a £75m settlement. No one doubts his work ethic. Dave Smith, head of the Blacklist Support Group, says he would often encounter McDonnell at a picket at 6.30am: “When no one else was prepared to talk to us he was there . . . representing working people fighting for justice.”
He tried to stand as Labour leader in 2007, promising to break the stranglehold of the “New Labour” elite, but failed to get on the ballot. In 2010 he tried — and failed — again. By the general election of 2015, he had suffered a heart attack and seemed set for oblivion.
“I was going to happily drift into retirement and sit at the back of halls complaining,” he says. “Then Jeremy decided to have a run.”
But it was the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader in 2015 that transformed the fortunes of his closest ally. The pair first met in London in the 1970s. Uncannily like-minded: both opposed the Iraq war, were early critics of PFI schemes, were sceptical about the EU and fought for various unpopular causes at fringe events. “We’ve never fallen out, we’ve never had an argument . . . we’ll disagree on tactics but we usually arrive at a consensus,” says McDonnell. They voted together against the Labour party leadership hundreds of times.
“He [Corbyn] is one of the most caring people I’ve ever met . . . he doesn’t like conflict but he’s absolutely principled,” he says. “Me, I’m slightly different, more than slightly different . . . I will be more in people’s faces and we’ve complemented one another on that basis.”
Today, a McDonnell chancellorship is a realistic possibility. Labour is neck and neck with the Tories in the polls and secured 40 per cent of the vote last summer — just two points behind Theresa May’s party. McDonnell believes he is on the brink of making history, should the government collapse because of Brexit. “Our objectives are socialist. That means an irreversible shift in the balance of power and wealth in favour of working people,” he explains. “When we go into government, everyone will be in government.”
Under Corbyn, Labour has shifted decisively to the left, flush with 400,000 new members inspired by his uncompromising commitment to equality, as well as specific pledges such as scrapping tuition fees and more money for the NHS. Yet while Corbyn is the symbol of the movement, McDonnell plays an arguably more important role in Labour’s new management.
While the leader gives speeches to adoring crowds, McDonnell is more of an organiser. He’s a Jekyll & Hyde character. You never know if you’re seeing a sensible bank manager or a revolutionary Trot Margaret Hodge, Labour MP
An avid reader, he is inspired by Gramsci, the Italian Marxist who believed socialism would triumph by infiltrating “schools, universities, churches and the media”. “[McDonnell] is the brains behind Labour’s hard-left strategy. I think nobody should underestimate him, he works hard, he is effective, methodical, but he is utterly ruthless,” says Margaret Hodge, a Labour MP who first met him in the 1980s. She compares him to a “Jekyll and Hyde character”, saying: “You never know for sure if you’re seeing a sensible bank manager character or a revolutionary Trot.”
Alan Simpson, a former Labour MP — and friend of both Corbyn and McDonnell — says they are the “Torvill and Dean” of British politics. “Jeremy skates round the country with almost karmic serenity, winning admirers for his openness and integrity,” he says. “John, meanwhile, plans the detail of their programmes and does most of the heavy lifting.”
Challenged on his violent rhetoric, the MP claims he is merely a “street orator”. “I call a spade a shovel, straightforward. If I disagree with someone, I tell them.” He has faced abuse for his views too, he says, for example when he advocated gay-friendly policies at the GLC in the 1980s: “I had my window smashed, milk bottles broken in my children’s sandpit and maggots poured through my letter box.”
“The point was to try and get to a united Ireland without the violence.”
In his study in Hayes, among old copies of Hansard and files labelled “human rights” and “groceries adjudicator bill”, there is still a plaque dedicated to “H-Block Martyrs 1981”, a reference to the 10 IRA and IRNLA prisoners who died during the hunger strikes, including Sands. McDonnell denies that he resisted the peace process: “I’ve always honestly and openly said I believe in a united Ireland, but the point was to try and get to a united Ireland without the violence.”
McDonnell insists that companies are “looking to [Labour] for security” in an uncertain world
The day before our interview he was meeting business leaders in Birmingham. The previous week he was at the London Chamber of Commerce: “It was packed out . . . I’ve been saying to them, ‘Look, there’s no tricks up our sleeves. I want these ideas tested almost to destruction.’ ” He even attended this year’s Davos, albeit to offer a warning about the “political and social avalanche” set to hit the world elite.
Pickard asked: “Who are your business heroes?” “There’ll be creative business leaders but actually, when it comes down to it, they can’t do anything unless they’re part of a collective,” said McDonnell. “Unless they’ve got that wealth creator, that engineer and that work person, that skilled person at the bench to fulfil that idea . . . they’re nothing.”
He is interested in alternative models of ownership and in copying the Scandinavian model of enhanced profit-sharing for employees. “Are those ideas inspired by Marx? They’re inspired by socialists and, of course, Marx is one of those thinkers, alongside RH Tawney, GDH Cole, William Morris,” he says.
McDonnell has had an open-minded reception from some business leaders who still resent the Tories over Brexit.
Since Labour gained 30 seats in the June election, and Theresa May’s cabinet has become increasingly divided over Brexit, business leaders have been queueing up both to meet the shadow chancellor and express their scepticism about him. There has been an unlikely mutual courtship dubbed “the tea offensive” by the McDonnell team, with him and Corbyn regularly meeting business groups such as the CBI and FSB. “They need to know where we’re coming from . . . it will be amicable and friendly . . . but we don’t accept any money from bourgeois organisations.”
McDonnell insists that companies are “looking to [Labour] for security” in an uncertain world. His policies span the radical to the mainstream, including the nationalisation of some utilities, higher taxes to fund a more generous welfare state, billions of borrowing for infrastructure and the relocation of most of the Bank of England to Birmingham.
They want Labour to pressurise the government into a softer Brexit, despite Corbyn and McDonnell’s history of Euroscepticism: it was said in the past that “even one single market is too many markets” for them.
McDonnell believes there is other potential common ground with business, such as extra money for skills and infrastructure.
Labour suggests that its election manifesto from June was mainstream: “Corporation tax would be lower than under Tony Blair. Income tax would be lower than under Thatcher,” says one front-bencher.
And there have been signs of pragmatism from McDonnell.
One such was his campaign against the Heathrow third runway, during which he worked with Tory MPs including Zac Goldsmith and Justine Greening. “Although our politics couldn’t be further apart, I’d certainly consider him a friend,” says Goldsmith.
Roy Bentham, a blacklisted construction worker from Liverpool, says McDonnell sometimes visits Anfield: “People come over all the time and shake his hand and chant his name in the pub . . . he has been through the bad times in the Labour party and is now on the cusp of something big.”