‘Corbyn has just appointed a nutjob as shadow chancellor,’ was the Daily Telegraph’s take on the elevation of John McDonnell last week,1 but it wasn’t always thus. Over the years some have been far more enthusiastic: he was ‘an educated young Messiah,’ declared one supporter, back in the 1970s.2 And perhaps the two verdicts are not mutually exclusive.
Born in Liverpool in 1951, John McConnell grew up in Great Yarmouth, where his father, formerly a docker, had gone to work as a bus driver. He won a place at the local grammar school, but left at seventeen without sitting A-levels and found factory work in Lancashire. In his mid-20s, he resumed his education, first at evening classes and then reading for a degree in politics and government at Brunel University in west London. This necessitated a relocation, whereupon he joined the Hayes & Harlington constituency branch of the Labour Party.
At the time there was a growing tension – particularly in London – between an old, somewhat complacent Labour establishment and a young and impatient left, who felt the party had tacked too far to the right under the leadership of Harold Wilson. This new generation of activists had been radicalised by the social movements of the 1960s and by opposition to what it had seen as the Labour government’s craven support for America during the Vietnam War. Their task, they believed, was to keep the parliamentary leadership on the straight and narrow road to socialism. The role of MPs should be to act as delegates rather than representatives, and those who failed so to do would be removed from their seats – ‘deselected,’ in the new jargon; not chosen to stand as parliamentary candidates when the next election came round.
An early target was Neville Sandelson, Labour MP for Hayes & Harlington, a public school-educated barrister who was very definitely on the right of the party; among his crimes, he had followed the lead of Roy Jenkins and voted for British entry into the European Common Market. In 1976 his position came under attack.
One of his leading opponents was McDonnell, now 26 years old and in his final year at Brunel: ‘a personable young man who finds time from his studies to help run a children’s home’,3 and who had already acquired a reputation as ‘a quiet, assiduous and effective political operator.’4 In the brave new world of political activism, he was adjudged to be ‘an articulate exponent of the view that those running a constituency Labour Party are entitled to try to secure the removal of an MP whose views diverge substantially from their own, regardless of whether those views are consistent with mainstream Labour politics in Parliament.’5
Sandelson survived the attempt to remove him as the parliamentary candidate by a single vote, but the criticism continued. ‘He can’t understand the grassroots trade union activist,’ argued McDonnell. ‘We want a strong-minded activist who can act as a focus for our campaigns.’6
Perhaps McDonnell was right. Sandelson was re-elected to parliament in 1979, and a couple of years later left the Labour Party to join Roy Jenkins in the newly launched SDP, though he would have argued that he didn’t leave willingly: his perception was that he was forced out of the party he had served for over thirty years by doctrinaire militants like McDonnell.
In any event, Sandelson stood again for Hayes & Harlington in the 1983 election, but this time for the SDP. He came third, only 375 votes behind the Labour candidate, and in the process the anti-Tory vote was split sufficiently to allow the election of Terry Dicks, the first Conservative to take the seat since it was created in 1950. These were not good days for Labour at Westminster.
They were, on the other hand, very exciting days for the Labour Party in London. In 1981 it won control of the Greater London Council (GLC) and the new left celebrated by staging an immediate coup to remove their leader, Andrew McIntosh, and installed instead Ken Livingstone. Thus was born the administration that would become the principal target of media stories about the ‘loony left’, pursuing such daft policies as cheaper fares on public transport, freedom passes for pensioners, women’s rights and lesbian and gay equality.
McDonnell, elected in that 1981 victory, was not as colourful as some of his colleagues – Tony Banks, Valerie Wise, Paul Boateng – but he eventually became one of the stars of the GLC nonetheless. Initially, however, he was shocked to discover just how tame his comrades were. ‘I thought I was joining a left group,’ he complained, ‘and then all of a sudden we were onto these very middle-of-the-road policies and capitulating on a number of issues, as I saw it.’7
He was not, perhaps, quite as sympathetic to the new agenda of diversity as he might have been. Livingstone expressed concern ‘that his training as a supporter of the Militant tendency had made him less receptive to the issues of racial and sexual politics.’8 He inclined towards a more traditional – some might say macho – form of class-based politics. He also still believed in street action: he was arrested on a CND demonstration against Ronald Reagan in Parliament Square in 1982 and charged with obstruction, though the charge was later dropped with McDonnell awarded costs.
Even so he was chosen to chair the GLC’s grants panel, then the finance committee, eventually rising to become Livingstone’s deputy leader. And, whatever his own political proclivities, he was seen by the press as one of the loonies. In the words of the Sunday Express, he ‘masterminded the doling out of ratepayers’ cash to two homosexual counselling groups, a lesbian organisation and the English Collective of Prostitutes’.9
Or perhaps he wasn’t as loony as all that. Because when the Daily Express drew up a list of seventy ‘extremists fighting seats Labour seems set to win’, in advance of the 1983 general election, McDonnell met just one of the five criteria the paper used for identifying the extreme left. (The only ones who got a full house were Jo Richardson, Syd Bidwell, Ernie Roberts, Martin Flannery and Audrey Wise.)10
As that article suggested, he had by now been selected as a parliamentary candidate. He’d failed to unseat the Labour MP Russell Kerr in Feltham & Heston*, but had been chosen to fight Hampstead & Highgate, a new constituency which was nominally Tory, having inherited Geoffrey Finsberg, MP for the previous seat of Hampstead since 1970. McDonnell did relatively well, managing a solid second place, despite the SDP fielding one of its better candidates, Anne Sofer. (She came third and Finsberg won, remaining in situ till Glenda Jackson turned up in a waft of Oscar-laden glamour in 1992.)
The disastrous Labour performance in 1983 was, it has long been assumed, the beginning of the end for the left. Its candidate (Michael Foot) had been chosen as leader, its policies had shaped the manifesto and it was blamed for the defeat. Labour was from now on to commit itself to a more mainstream approach.
A new leader was elected in the form of Neil Kinnock, a man who was once considered to be of the left himself, but who had been recast as Judas for failing to support Tony Benn’s bid for the deputy leadership in 1981. Now he was seen (the terminology had changed) as part of the soft left, as distinct from the hard left, who still looked to Benn for a lead.
McDonnell was very definitely in the hard left camp. You could tell by his position on Northern Ireland, one of the litmus tests of the time. From a hard left perspective, Northern Ireland (often referred to as ‘the six counties’ or as a ‘statelet’) was a relic of imperialism and colonialism, and the island of Ireland should become a single nation. The soft left, meanwhile, clung to ideas of constitutional change and self-determination.
In 1985 McDonnell moved a resolution at the regional conference of the London Labour Party, calling for a series of public meetings with ‘representatives of the majority of Republican opinion’ in Northern Ireland. As far as he was concerned, this meant Sinn Féin for sure and, at a push, possibly the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) too.
Coming just six months after the Brighton bombing, in which the IRA had tried to kill the prime minister and had succeeded in murdering five people, this proposal didn’t win much favour with the Labour leadership, who vigorously opposed the participation of Sinn Féin. The argument was clear: the SDLP were electorally far more significant at the time, and were also Labour’s sister party in Northern Ireland. Which didn’t stop McDonnell from railing against ‘an outrageous form of dictatorship’, aimed at ‘subverting the decisions of the London Labour Party conference’.11
Last week, when he became shadow chancellor, the issue of McDonnell’s support for Irish Republicanism was one of the first to surface, with a re-run of his comments at a commemoration of IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in 2003, apparently praising the armed struggle.
Those remarks caused controversy at the time, and he defended himself in the Guardian. ‘Let me be clear, I abhor the killing of innocent human beings,’ he insisted. (The word ‘innocent’ was an interesting qualification of his abhorrence.) But he argued that it was the Unionists who needed to adjust their position: ‘There needs to be an honest admission that their position can no longer be sustained by a combination of paramilitary violence and the force of the British army.’ And he was perfectly open about the goal: ‘Only the political process offers the real prospect of a united Ireland at peace with itself.’12
From this perspective, the Labour leadership was deemed to have failed on Ireland. But then it was deemed it have failed on pretty much every test set before it.
In 1985 McDonnell co-authored with Ted Knight and Matthew Warburton (both of Lambeth Council) a piece in Labour Herald, denouncing Neil Kinnock’s ‘increasingly explicit evolution to the right’. Their argument was made largely on economic grounds: ‘the Labour Party’s leadership is still acting as if the post-war boom was still in full flood,’ they wrote. ‘It is trying to pretend that Keynesian reflation rather than full-scale socialist transformation is all that is required by the present crisis.’13
The same three reprised the theme in the Guardian, accusing the leadership of ‘systematically attempting to lower the horizons of the Party and the labour movement, to reduce expectations about the possibility of radical change during the next Labour government’. The disastrous performance in the 1983 general election ‘was not a defeat for socialist principle but of the Party’s perspective of welfare capitalism’. And they offered their own programme:
Eliminating unemployment by democratically controlling and planning our economy on the basis of social need rather than the pursuit of profit. Tackling deprivation by redistributing wealth and massively investing in the reconstruction of essential services in the fields of health, education, housing. Seeking peace by ending the war in Northern Ireland, achieving nuclear disarmament and transforming Britain’s international role from a neo-colonialist power linked to an aggressive pact, into a non-aligned force for peace and progress in Europe and especially in the Third World.14
This was a fair summary of the hard left’s platform at the time: a planned economy, higher taxes and public spending, a withdrawal from Northern Ireland and NATO (that’s the ‘aggressive pact’ of which they spoke) and unilateral nuclear disarmament. (Withdrawal from the EEC was already slipping down the agenda.) And all of it was underpinned by an attitude that was easily portrayed as being anti-patriotic – as represented by that bit about Britain being a ‘neo-colonialist power’.
But all three of these writers combined carried far less weight than did Ken Livingstone, then the undisputed heir to Benn as leader of the left. And, as the left fractured in 1985 with the defeat of the miners’ strike, McDonnell and Livingstone fell out.
The issue was rate-capping. In the days before the poll tax (and latterly the council tax), local councils were largely funded by a property tax known as domestic and business rates. It was unpopular, as are all local taxes, and needed reform, but no one quite knew what to do about it.
Meanwhile, with the parliamentary impotence of Labour, local government had become a key battleground, and the second administration of Margaret Thatcher was determined to clip the wings of left-wing town halls. Thatcher had been elected in 1983 on a manifesto that promised the abolition of the GLC, and now she imposed limits to the rates that could be set by certain councils that were deemed to be overspending. Most famously this provoked the defiance of the Militant-dominated Liverpool council of Derek Hatton, as denounced by Neil Kinnock at the 1985 Labour conference (‘a Labour council’ etc).
At the GLC – which was also on the government’s hit list – there was a divergence of opinion over what its response should be. McDonnell favoured a confrontational approach of refusing to set a rate at all and believed that he had the support of Livingstone. But when the crunch came, the GLC leader distanced himself from the tactic, and was seen by the left as reneging on his commitment. He was fearful – it was said by some – that he would jeopardise the parliamentary career on which he had set his heart, and in certain Trotskyist quarters he became known as ‘Lord Redken of Gobshite’.
‘He agreed with the no-rate strategy at every stage until we got in a position where the legal opinion that we obtained demonstrated that we could win,’ protested McDonnell. ‘At that stage he bottled out.’15 The fear was that Livingstone, the great white hope of the left, had moved from hard to soft. McDonnell, on the other hand, was a man of principle and was not to be so easily cowed. ‘McDonnell’s uncompromising position is likely to win him supporters on the Labour far left and the Trotskyist groups,’ suggested the Guardian.16
The dispute between the two men became acrimonious. ‘Ken Livingstone is betraying the Labour movement,’ claimed McDonnell, while Livingstone retorted, ‘John McDonnell will never be forgiven by the people of London until the day he dies.’17 But the general conclusion was that Livingstone had emerged the winner. Although McDonnell was, according to the Financial Times, ‘the cleverest finance chairman the GLC has had in many years’, he had ‘led himself and the party into a blind alley’.18
As though to confirm the belief that Livingstone was another Judas, another who had betrayed the promised revolution, he responded to the attacks on Kinnock by McDonnell, Knight and Warburton, describing them as ‘parts of the left rolling around and lashing out like a dying crocodile’.19 By 1986, however, with the GLC now duly abolished, it seemed that the rift had been healed. ‘John and I have been working well recently,’ said Livingstone. ‘We have both been working towards a GLC in exile. You only have to look at the Wilson-Callaghan relationship to understand what I’m driving at.’20 He left us to decide for ourselves which man was channelling which former prime minister, but when the ancien régime was restored, with Livingstone’s election as mayor of London in 2000, there indeed was McDonnell at his side as ‘mayoral adviser on local government’, together with other old GLC names: John Ross and Dave Wetzel.21
‘Ken returned to the fold in the late 1980s,’ reflected McDonnell much later. ‘That’s the advantage of being consistently on the left: you can enjoy watching the passage of others crisscrossing the political spectrum.’22 At the time, though, the split with Livingstone seemed set to damage his prospects.
With the defeats of the miners and of local government in 1985, the left found itself isolated and ignored, and McDonnell’s stalled political career symbolised the directionless drift of the times. He found work comfortably enough in the public sector, becoming policy adviser to the leader of Camden Council and, later, secretary of the Association of London Authorities. He also continued to be a voice on the hard left. But it wasn’t the same as holding an elected post.
In the autumn of 1985 he stood for the first time in the ballot to elect constituency members of the National Executive Committee. He came sixteenth, attracting just 18,000 votes, some 300,000 off the total registered by the lowest placed of the successful candidates. The same year, he was seen as the front runner to succeed John Silkin as candidate for the safe seat of Lewisham Deptford, but lost to Joan Ruddock; he also missed out on the nomination for Bow & Poplar, where Mildred Gordon took over from Ian Mikardo; and in 1986 he unsuccessfully challenged the sitting MP, Syd Bidwell (one of the Daily Express’s ‘extremists’), for Ealing Southall. In the end, he failed to find a constituency at all for the 1987 general election.
At the beginning of the decade, it had seemed as though the future lay with the left; now little remained, just a saddened rump, forever launching new initiatives that fizzled out long before the public might become aware of them. But McDonnell – like his current leader, Jeremy Corbyn – kept the faith.
And, also like Corbyn, he railed against the new-look Labour Party. The arrival of Peter Mandelson as Labour’s director of communications, bringing red roses to the 1986 conference, provoked a new outbreak of complaints. ‘They’ve turned our conference over to the pressmen, the hacks, the sycophants, the publicity agents,’ protested McDonnell. ‘We’ve all been working for a Labour victory, but not unity at any price. Not unity at the price of a coalition with the right in the Labour Party.’23
Which was, in essence, the hard left’s problem: they believed that it was a sell-out to seek accommodation with members of their own party. And the electorate simply didn’t understand the delicacy of their feelings.
For the 1992 general election, McDonnell was finally selected as a parliamentary candidate for a winnable seat: Hayes & Harlington, back where he had fought against Neville Sandelson 15 years earlier. And he very nearly succeeded, coming in just 53 votes behind Terry Dicks. It was, noted Paul Foot, ‘one of the more unhappy moments on Election night’.24 To add injury to insult, McDonnell was, shortly before the election, deemed to have libelled Dicks and, having apologised, was hit with a bill for £15,000 damages and costs reported variously as being between £55,000 and £100,000.
Understandably, he felt no great affection for Dicks, a particularly absurd right-wing Tory, and when McDonnell was eventually elected as MP for Hayes & Harlington in Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide victory, he broke with convention and said nothing nice whatsoever about his predecessor in his maiden speech. ‘He was a stain on the character of this House,’ said McDonnell, ‘he brought shame on the political process of this country by his blatant espousal of racism and his various corrupt dealings. Thankfully, my constituents can now say good riddance to this malignant creature.’25
McDonnell himself was by now being described in the Guardian as ‘an unreconstructed Trotskyist … who openly supports Sinn Féin rather than the SDLP’.26 The ‘Trotskyist’ label was perhaps misapplied, but the ‘unreconstructed’ tag was not. As an MP, he refused to support much of the programme of New Labour, voting ‘against the majority in his party 478 times’.27 Of course he did. No one expected him to compromise with his leader. But the truth was that, such were Blair’s parliamentary majorities, no one cared much what the likes of McDonnell and Corbyn thought.
So marginalised was the left that when in 2006 McDonnell announced that he would be putting himself forward as a candidate for the leadership of the party when Blair stood down, the Daily Mirror suggested that his chances stood at 500 to 1. ‘Standing on socialist platform,’ the paper summarised. ‘No real chance, but could nudge Brown leftwards with a decent performance.’28 To get on the ballot paper, he required the nominations of 45 MPs; he received just 29. Quite apart from his politics, the failure was also attributed to his lack of personal popularity in the parliamentary party: ‘some colleagues find his manner abrasive,’ as the Independent delicately put it.29
And yet Corbyn and McDonnell – very much the tortoises in the Labour race – have achieved positions of power within the party (if not the country) that were beyond the reach of Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone. At the age of 64, McDonnell is now the shadow chancellor. Maybe, three decades ago, as he wrestled with the GLC budget, he might have dared dream of such a thing. But surely no one else could have imagined it.
* In a comment posted below, John McDonnell clarifies that he did not seek the candidature in Feltham & Heston. The information came from a report in the Guardian on 8 February 1982 which said he came third to Russell Kerr and Arthur Latham. We would like to apologise to Mr McDonnell for being wrong.
As with all the portraits in this series, this piece is drawn almost entirely from contemporary newspaper accounts. It is liable, therefore, to be wildly inaccurate.
1 Daily Telegraph 14 September 2015
2 Times 27 November 1976
3 Observer 23 January 1977
4 Times 21 January 1977
5 Times 27 November 1976
6 Observer 11 November 1979
7 John Carvel, Citizen Ken (Chatto & Windus, 1984) p. 147
8 Ken Livingstone, If Voting Changed Anything, They’d Abolish It (Collins, 1987) p. 229
9 Sunday Express 14 February 1982
10 Daily Express 2 June 1983
11 Guardian 3 April 1985
12 Guardian 3 June 2003
13 Guardian 12 April 1985
14 Guardian 20 May 1985
15 Guardian 6 March 1985
16 Guardian 13 March 1985
17 Times 11 March 1985
18 Financial Times 12 March 1985
19 Guardian 20 May 1985
20 Times 12 May 1986
21 Daily Telegraph 9 December 2000
22 Guardian 23 December 2003
23 Guardian 1 October 1986
24 Daily Mirror 3 July 1992
25 Hansard 6 June 1997
26 Guardian 6 May 1997
27 Guardian 16 September 2015
28 Daily Mirror 25 September 2006
29 Independent 15 September 2015