© David Vintiner

Politics

John McDonnell: Labour should have a female leader if Jeremy Corbyn loses next election

The last time these two met they almost came to blows. Now, John McDonnell, Labour's shadow chancellor, goes head-to-head with Alastair Campbell once more as they spar over Campbell's expulsion from the Labour Party, Brexit, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, Tom Watson, the Lib Dems and why a woman should be the next Labour leader

John McDonnell did not exactly figure large in the New Labour era. In the several million words of my diaries, mentions of the MP for Hayes And Harlington can be counted on one hand. In so far as we were aware of him, it was as the Labour backbencher most likely, with Jeremy Corbyn, to be rebelling against the Blair and Brown governments. Today it is Corbyn and McDonnell, not Blair and Brown, who call the shots at the top of the Labour tree and whatever the polls may say the silver-haired 68-year-old Marxist Liverpudlian, once destined to be a Catholic priest, is convinced he is within touching distance of becoming the most left-wing chancellor in history.

Our last media engagement together, prior to this encounter in a spartan hall next to his constituency office, was a rather ugly affair when we were panellists on BBC Question Time and almost came to blows after continuing our heated on-screen exchanges in the green room. Since then we have had friendlier meetings to discuss the People’s Vote campaign, of which he has become a significant supporter on Labour’s tortuous Brexit policy journey. He has also developed a warmer persona more generally and become one of Labour’s better media performers.

Friend and foe alike respect his work rate and his determination. While some wonder whether Corbyn actually wants to be prime minister, nobody doubts McDonnell, a keen sailor in his spare time, longs to get his hands on the tillers of the Treasury. Nor does he hide the fact that he wants to make a lot of change.

Those who know him from his days as a militant opponent of all things Thatcherite when part of Ken Livingstone’s Greater London Council (GLC) team suspect the new, softer, smilier McDonnell is an act, that the mellowed image is just that. Yet he does not disguise, whatever the image, that his basic political outlook has never changed. His hatred of Tories runs deep. And, as you shall see, from the off, he does tend to give pretty straight answers to straight questions.

Alastair Campbell: On a scale of one to ten, if Boris Johnson is 8.5 right wing, where are you and I on the left-wing scale?

John McDonnell: I'm nine, you're six.

AC: Did you support my expulsion from the party?

JM: No.

AC: Would you have me back?

JM: Yes.

AC: Good. Thanks for that.

JM: Hang on, your expulsion was under the basis of ridiculous rules that were brought in under New Labour!

AC: It was badly applied!

JM: It was, but it was a stupid rule.

AC: OK.

JM: Come back, Alastair, all is forgiven!

AC: So, when you and Jeremy were rebelling fairly regularly against New Labour, did you ever think that you and he would be in charge of the party?

JM: No, but I always worked on the basis the left has to be ready to move into government. You've got to demonstrate you're capable of developing policies but, more importantly, you're capable of implementing them.

AC: So you thought it was always possible that you might end up as chancellor?

JM: No, I thought that it was always possible that we would get the left back into government in some form. When Ed Miliband got elected leader, there was a renaissance in the way we had political debate in the party and I was hoping that we would get at least one member of the campaign group into ministerial office. Cabinet was the ambition. That was the height of ambition at that point. I didn't see Jeremy or me being appointed to anything, but we might be able to populate maybe junior ministerial ranks with some members on the left.

AC: Do you not worry that the country has just decided Jeremy is not going to be prime minister?

JM: I don't agree with that.

AC: But no opposition leader has ever, ever, got near to power coming from the ratings that he and Labour have got now.

JM: Yeah, that’s true, but I don't believe any more we are in the same political climate that we were in in the past. The 2017 general election actually demonstrated that.

AC: She [Theresa May] was terrible.

JM: Yes, that is true. But we were 24 points behind.

AC: Johnson, assuming that he's going away, he's not Theresa May.

JM: I know that is true, but I also think he has got vulnerabilities just as much as Theresa May that we can expose and exploit in a campaign. I'm not being unrealistic, but the political climate is incredibly unpredictable. You can't use the usual gauge sticks.

AC: You don't worry that you guys are promising this working-class revolution but the working class are not engaged in this?

JM: I think this is more than a class revolution. Climate change is the big issue now. The systemic failure on virtually every front – whether it is around public services or whether it is about what is happening in our communities, the division. We've got to demonstrate that actually we can change the world and that is what we are going to do.

AC: The sense I get, and you must feel this at times, is that people hate the Tories but they are looking at you and saying, “I’m not having those guys.” There is a lot of that about.

JM: There is no doubt an element of that and that is what we've got to do in this current period of campaigning. In a general election you get more balanced coverage in terms of broadcast media, that gives us that window of opportunity of getting the message across and when people get into that ballot box they have a fairly clear choice about where they go. So, I'm confident that we can turn that around, but yeah, we face up to it.

AC: You think you can win a majority at the next election?

JM: Yeah, I do.

AC: You don't think you'd have to rely on the SNP or the Lib Dems?

JM: No. Well, I think we can win a majority, but if we go into a minority government situation, there will be no deals, we'll just lay out our programme and they either support it or they don't. If they don't support it we'll go back to the country and it will be interesting, if they did, to see how they argue against a real living wage, investment in public services, restoration of trade union rights, tackling climate change. How can they argue against that?

AC: What would be wrong about going into some formal agreement, say with the SNP or the Liberal Democrats?

JM: We want to be absolutely clear to the people what we are about. No backroom deals whatsoever and we're not going to be held back by any other political parties.

AC: Have you not introduced the idea of backroom deals because you've got this all-party process on Brexit?

JM: The only reason we're all sitting around the table at the moment is because we want to block no deal. We'll see what comes out of it, but it has a specific purpose here. It is not going into an election on a platform, or anything like that, with them.

AC: You [McDonnell] have definitely moved on Brexit in terms of progress to the People's Vote?

JM: Yeah. We've worked through a sequence of events. At party conference last year there was a clear decision about what sequence we'd go through and that is exactly what we've done.

AC: Why has Jeremy had to be dragged kicking and screaming and is still not really there?

JM: He hasn't. He hasn't. You're wrong on this Alastair. We only had that party conference decision last year about blocking a no deal and that is exactly what we're doing, seeing what deal we can get and we tried. Six weeks we were with the Tories. It was hard work and the hardest work was that they were falling out among themselves and they couldn't deliver a deal at the end of the day. Then after that we made it absolutely clear that if we couldn't get a deal done we'd go back to the people and that’s what we're doing.

AC: I do understand the logic of the policy but Jeremy is standing to be prime minister while trying to make something of being neutral on the single biggest issue facing the country. You're not neutral?

JM: No, but what I'm also saying is that people have got to have a choice before them and the issue for me is that the first principle is letting the people decide. We're at that stage now where we've exhausted every other route we possibly can and so it’s back to the people.

AC: Do you agree with me that there shouldn't be an election?

JM: I'm more of the view that we've said up until now that we want a general election. That, of course, is what our objective is, but let’s see what actually parliament will wear in the end. Within parliament itself there is a large number of people who are saying we'd rather have a referendum attached to any deal.

AC: What would you rather have?

JM: I want a general election, actually. I would like a general election.

AC: Do you think Brexit can be resolved in a general election?

JM: I think there is the potential for that but we'll see over the coming couple of weeks. It's a limited timescale. I'm not sure there is a majority on the floor of the House Of Commons for a referendum before a general election but I'm a bit more nuanced about that. I just really want to say whatever we do we've got to block no deal, whichever is the best route.

AC: What about if an election leads to another hung parliament? Is there any doubt that there has to be a referendum?

JM: I don't think there is any doubt about a referendum. If it was a general election first or a referendum first, it doesn't matter.

AC: So, it has to happen?

JM: It's got to happen, yes. If we get elected into government we've said we'll go back to the people with a referendum. If there is a hung parliament I think there may well be a majority for going for the referendum, yes.

AC: How do you legitimately keep no deal off the ballot paper given that you do have a very large group now that says, “I don't care about no deal, that's what I want.”

JM: Yeah. I think legitimacy is about making sure we get parliament debating the issue and we put a realistic option before them. A sensible option on Leave that they can vote for. Being honest with people too – I don't think anyone sensible could support a no deal at the moment as a parliamentary activity.

AC: How seriously should we take this idea that some of the people around Jeremy actually want Brexit? Do they matter?

JM: The way it has been portrayed, that there is this coterie of Brexiteers around him, that's not the case. We've got a position in the party that is holding up quite well. I've never seen the Parliamentary Labour Party more united in the last couple of years. Everyone is very careful about holding that political vase so that we don’t drop it. That means working through the sequence that we've done, and the logical conclusion of that is that once we get to the stage of blocking no deal, a general election is on the table. If we can't get that general election, the referendum becomes an option.

AC: Isn't it a problem in this populist era where you describe your own policies as a vase, that becomes a very difficult thing to explain to the public?

JM: Yes, of course it does. That is the challenge that we've got but I think every political party is in the same situation. The Libs now have come out for Revoke and they've got to go and explain to large numbers of people who voted Leave why they are being completely ignored. The Tories now are, “Get it done, hardline Brexit, no deal if necessary.” They've got to explain to all those other people who don’t want that...

AC: So, you're basically doing a bit of New Labour triangulation here John?

JM: Not a triangulation, no, not at all! What we're trying to do is be straight with people and say actually the best we can do is get people back together again and the best way of doing that is getting another referendum.

AC: Trump or Johnson?

JM: I think it is very difficult to see anything between them, I really do. I find the whole thing really worrying. Johnson needs to understand and be worried about the forces he's unleashing. When you go into that political climate where actually you are lying through your teeth, and when you've got a crony media in large sections of it, you have the potential then of unleashing forces that you lose control of. I think we're on the edge of that. I'll just give a local example, OK? The Daily Mail did a number on me. The usual stuff. Photographs of the street, knocking on doors of neighbours and stuff like that. Within three days of that, a children’s nursery with a big white wall at the top of my road, Nazi swastikas painted all over it. “McDonnell out.” “Leave means Leave.” We've not had that in this constituency in maybe 40 years. Those are the sorts of forces Johnson's risks unleashing and I think he needs to realise the dangers there are in that.

AC: When I interviewed Tony [Blair] for GQ we had this argument about whether we are reliving a version of the Thirties. Do you think we are?

JM: That is interesting. Have you seen the BBC documentary on the rise of the Nazis?

AC: Yes.

JM: I bumped into one of the young men who edited that and he said to me, “When we were doing this as a historical documentary of interest, people started thinking, ‘My God! Look around us! There are similarities.’” You can't argue that these are the same as the Thirties, but I understand where you’re coming from because it is about this unleashing of forces that you lose control of and can take a dangerous strait. Harold Laski at the end of the Second World War was the chair of the Labour Party – Marxist I think, actually – he said fascism in this country won’t come through a dictator in uniform with medals all over his chest marching about. The danger is conservative authoritarianism where there is an erosion of all those rights, rules, regulations, institutions that protect our democracy and I think that is the fear that we have.

AC: Do you think Johnson wants to do that because that is what he believes?

JM: Oh no. I don't think Johnson has much of a belief at all. I think this is the ruthless pursuit of power for power’s sake. That is why I caution him to be careful with what he's unleashing here. What has happened in the past when these right-wing forces have been unleashed is that you've got a politician who, literally, truth doesn't matter to. Secondly, they start attacking the institutions that protect our democracy – parliament, judges, the rule of law. Once you get into that territory you're into danger territory and you don't know again how that will wind up and I think there are real issues there and lessons we've got to learn.

AC: You said you were a republican not a monarchist, but how do you feel about the way even the Queen is fair game?

JM: Yeah. I'm a republican, but I respect the constitutional settlement that we currently have and that has to be protected. If you are attacking the courts, if you are attacking parliament, if you are almost ignoring the rule of law and then the constitutional monarchy that I don't agree with but we have at the moment, as soon as you start undermining that process as well, well, what have we got left to protect us?

AC: Do you not feel that people agree with that but there is a real problem at the moment where they look across the despatch box and they don't see the replacement or the alternative?

JM: The issue for us is how we get across that actually the best form of protection is to elect a leader who is a consensus builder that brings people together, whether it is Brexit or other issues, and that has consistently I think, on a number of issues, on the right side of history. I think we can do that but we've got to have that serious debate now. As I say, it isn't just about Brexit, it is about the operation of the whole system because people aren't just angry about Brexit, they are angry about the state of their lives.

AC: The anti-Semitism stuff, you're not happy with the way it has been handled?

JM: No, I'm not. And you know my view, we should have been firmer, more ruthless and faster. I think we are on top of that now but we are learning lessons all the time.

AC: It has done a lot of damage.

JM: Of course, it has, but look at the contrast of the way the media have treated us on anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in the Tory Party. It is a disgrace, actually.

AC: I agree, but we shouldn't judge ourselves against them.

JM: No, of course we shouldn’t, but I'm just saying look at the operation of the media with regards to that. We are an anti-racist party and we have always been a leading party in that respect, but it does demonstrate the role of the media itself. We've got to cut through that all the time.

AC: In power, what would you do to try and change the media landscape?

JM: I would like Leveson Part Two. I think Leveson was a good exercise. That is why the Tories blocked it, because it was beginning to develop more accountability within the media itself. Also, yeah, we want to make sure there is a diverse media as well so when we go into government we will do whatever we can to ensure the spread of media ownership.

AC: Have you been surprised at Jo Swinson's approach vis-à-vis a Jeremy government?

JM: Not her personally, but I have been surprised that other elements within the Lib Dems haven't asserted themselves a bit more, but I think that is beginning to happen.

AC: So, you think that, talking about the constitution, if the government falls for any reason, Jeremy has to be the first person?

JM: Yes. We're the largest party. That's the convention.

AC: If he doesn't get the numbers?

JM: I think he will.

AC: If he doesn't?

JM: I think he will.

AC: OK. Another hypothetical. If he were to lose another election, is it possible for him to stay on?

JM: I can't see... I think it is the same for my own personal position, I can't see so. What we'd do is as the tradition, which is have an election for a new leader. I'm still of the view now that whoever comes after Jeremy has got to be a woman. We've got to have a woman leader. If you look at the new youngsters that have come through, they are fantastic.

AC: I get that, on one level... but tell me why it has to be a woman if there might be men there that people could look at and say, “That is the next prime minister”?

JM: OK. On these equality issues you work on the basis that if there are two people that are roughly the same then actually what you need to do is discriminate in favour of those groups that have been discriminated against in the past.

AC: I think people get that for most jobs, but when you talk about leading the party or prime minister?

JM: I think we are in that situation now where we've got such a range of talented women in the shadow cabinet that it’s obvious it’s going to be a woman next time.

AC: So, it’s Emily Thornberry, Rebecca Long-Bailey...

JM: There is a whole range of women. Angela Rayner... There is a whole range of women and it's fantastic.

AC: OK. So, you're ruling yourself out again?

JM: Yeah, of course.

AC: How's the old ticker?

JM: Great. Great! When I had the heart attack I had one stent inserted, which was great. As the consultant said to me, there are 649 out there sitting in that House Of Commons who don't know what their heart is like. We know exactly what your heart is like, we'll keep an eye on it. That's it and it's brilliant.

AC: Do you feel that you and Jeremy have the energy that you need both for the campaign and for government?

JM: You know how fit Jeremy is. It's unbelievable. He's running every morning!

AC: I don't get the sense of real energy there.

JM: Jeremy is the fittest person I know.

AC: He's not the fittest person you know John.

JM: He is.

AC: You must know fitter people.

JM: You obviously don't know who I mix with! You mistake Jeremy's style, you really do, these zen-like qualities the media write up. He's a very quiet, caring, compassionate person. He's a consensus builder and he'll work through the issues and then that’s it, decision made.

AC: I worry that in terms of his style, that is a problem in this world that we've been describing where people are looking for that sense of leadership and passion and energy.

JM: No, look – you're more like me and I'm more like you in terms of style. I think that isn't what is needed at the moment. You need someone who comes at these issues in his own quiet, steely way and gets them done. Do you understand what I mean?

AC: I totally get what you mean. Talking of you though, I remember Illtyd Harrington, a very old friend of ours, your colleague at the GLC, he always used to say, “Ken [Livingstone] may be hard but McDonnell is harder.” Have you, and I'm not criticising you for this, have you deliberately tried to soften the way you seem with your woollies and your shrug and your smile and all that?

JM: [Laughs.] Red jumpers have been a feature all my life. I think it’s because my mother used to knit them, that’s why. No, I haven't. I loved Illtyd. He was a great friend and a brilliant orator. The hardness he was talking about was that once you've made a decision, stick to it and see it through no matter what.

AC: Have you still got that?

JM: Oh yes, I have. In terms of image and all the rest of it, the idea is that you don't allow yourself to be portrayed as a villain in the way media do, so you cut through that crap as much as you possibly can.

AC: So, what have you done specifically?

JM: Just been straight with people. I say if you want to talk to me about an issue then you come and talk to me. If you are writing rubbish I'll come and have a conversation with you and cut through that. It's as simple as that.

AC: Isn’t there a total inconsistency between the Good Friday Agreement, the working of the single market and the issue of the frontier?

JM: Yeah.

AC: So that actually says Brexit cannot happen without undermining it?

JM: I don't think there is any way Brexit can happen without undermining the Good Friday Agreement, unless, for example, you had a solution that was permanent membership of the customs union. That is what we've put forward and what was at the back of my mind in negotiations with the Tories and they wouldn't budge – and still haven’t.

AC: Or a united Ireland?

JM: Yes, or a united Ireland. Again, the good thing about the Good Friday Agreement is that gives a process for the way that can be achieved and that is what held people together.

AC: If you did become chancellor, what are the first three big priorities.

JM: First of all, the most important, is to try and lift people out of poverty. Real living wage. Get that in straight away. Second, to make sure we protect that, trade union rights and sectoral collective bargaining. Then the third is about the complete end of austerity and that means making immediate reforms, a huge emergency package of reforms to universal credit, and then leading on to a new system.

AC: On the nationalisation agenda, which would be first in mind?

JM: I think the one that is the most offensive at the moment is water. Sold off without any debts whatsoever. They've paid out £18 billion worth of dividends. Some of them borrow to pay dividends. Some tax avoidance schemes that have been used have been scandalous.

AC: You wouldn't see the need to recompense people at market value?

JM: Well, parliament will determine the value itself, as they always do. It will take into a range of factors. The key thing for me is making sure we protect it and the shareholders are in there for the long term – the pension funds and others.

AC: What's the difference between a banker's bonus and Virgil van Dijk on six figures a week plus?

JM: Well, we're going to tackle both, because we introduced in the grey book – my alternative budget – an excessive pay levy as well. We would tackle bankers bonuses as well as excessive pay.

AC: Those footballers will just go, won't they?

JM: I don't think they'll just go, but also there is a difference in terms of the football regime itself because actually what we need to do is if the footballer is earning the wage, on our excessive pay levy it would be against the company or the football club itself. They would have to determine then whether or not they want to shell out that money.

AC: Would you see a limit to corporation tax and income tax? Would you have a top end you wouldn’t go beyond?

JM: On the income tax stuff, what we've said is that the top five per cent will pay more. We've set out the figures. We talk about 50p rates on £126,000.

AC: It isn't going to give you that much though?

JM: No, it isn't but it is a fair assessment that it will give us some. It will help us pay for some of our education in particular. We’re not going to penalise people even in that top five per cent heavily. We want to bring people with us as much as we can.

AC: Quite a lot of investors are focused on getting their money out already. You must hear as well that people say they fear a Labour government more than they fear Brexit.

JM: Yes, that has become a sort of headline thing that appears in some of the press – that is not the feel I am getting on the ground. Serious players know that this market and this country will be a place they want to invest in.

AC: I bumped into Ann Cryer and she said – back to my expulsion – she'd written to Jeremy. She said that she, and you and he, rebelled regularly and consistently and nobody ever thought about kicking you out.

JM: No, exactly, and that’s why I was so annoyed about it.

AC: But Jeremy has, again it may be the people around him, but there is a sense that it’s his way or the highway.

JM: No, I completely disagree with that.

AC: Some of these reselections?

JM: No. Interestingly enough, the one thing that Jeremy has said is that the local people will decide.

AC: But he intervened in the Ilford one recently?

JM: No, that was done by the NEC [National Executive Committee] officers – they intervened overall.

AC: What about the Tom Watson fiasco at conference?

JM: Yeah. It was a fiasco.

AC: Was Jeremy just not present or not engaged? Or was he engaged and it went wrong?

JM: Things happened that Jeremy wasn't aware of and when he became aware he intervened. But he intervened by providing his view to the NEC and they adopted it.

AC: Do you feel the Jeremy/Tom tension in the shadow cabinet?

JM: No. No, you don't, actually. Tom does his brief, DCMS [Digital, Culture, Media & Sport], does it well. Tom is Tom, he'll make statements on all sorts of things and you'll wake up in the morning and think, “Oh, blimey, what has he done now?” That's all part of it really, part of the joys of life.

AC: For the public, though, it’s confusing.

JM: It can be at times, but we get through it.

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