John McDonnell:Speaking truth to power


I’ll remember where I was when I heard John McDonnell deliver his first speech as Shadow Chancellor to the Labour Party Conference. It was one of those moments in time when you sense things are never going to be the same again. He had promised to be “boring”, more like a bank manager than the left-wing firebrand he obviously is. It had the feel of a lecture from your favourite school teacher. It was warm, sincere and compassionate, but for all its calmness there was no hiding the seismic nature of every word he uttered.

The Tory Party and their supporters in the press don’t know what to do with Labour’s new front bench team. After failing miserably with their predictable but cynical smear campaign, they seem to be in complete disarray. McDonnell had been labelled an insurrectionist prior to taking centre stage in Brighton. When he sat down those same hacks were busy labelling him a sell-out. So bamboozled are his opponents that they continually flip-flop between condemning his “outrageous” radicalism and sneering at the “lack of any radical detail” in his speech.

It’s no surprise to me that the fourth estate are struggling to deal with this new movement. After all they have been fed a steady diet of sound-bite politics, spin and triangulation for over a quarter of a century. I actually read a tweet from a journalist recently, who had bemoaned the lack of a ‘spin doctor’ to explain Corbyn’s speech to the Trades Union Congress. Here’s a thought, why not just listen to him like the rest of us.

We now live in a world where the idea that statements and facts have to be reinterpreted for us in order to make them more palatable to to some imagined electoral norm. It’s no wonder to me that interviewers are continually wrong footed when trying to deliver the all important ‘Gotcha!’ question. However, it is a little depressing that Corbyn and McDonnell are seen as ground-breaking because they actually answer the question; a fact that says more about the nature of politics and the media, than it does about them.

The strap-line for the campaign that has shook the political establishment and transformed Labour was “Straight talking, honest politics”. That’s exactly what McDonnell delivered today. It was at times deeply moving, but throughout it signalled a truly radical shift in British politics. I’ve heard it said that people won’t vote for anything other than a centrist liberal offering. I fundamentally disagree with this. I believe people respond to a clear vision and to conviction, and McDonell’s speech was full of both.

The detail will come. Labour have appointed a panel of internationally renowned economists to help draft their economic strategy. They will oversee the development of a plan that will offer a robust alternative to austerity. I look forward with genuine excitement to arguing for those policies in 2020, but what I was looking for was some idea of the principles that will guide the whole process. This is where McDonnell delivered in spades.

“To the Tories austerity is just a word, a political choice,” he said. He then passionately pointed out that it was much more than that to the homeless, the working poor and those pushed into poverty by it. There were promises to end the mistreatment of disabled people, to build secure homes for the 100,000 children living in homeless families and to end workplace discrimination.

For me this speech was the most radical in my lifetime. It was a line in the sand and the electorate can be in no doubt they have a choice at the next election. Gone is the so called ‘neo-liberal consensus’. In truth Cameron and Osbourne tore that up the moment they won the election anyway. Labour’s challenge was merely choosing whether to march even further to the right, or to stand up for the principles that founded the party. Thankfully and magnificently they have chosen to do the latter.

Make no mistake, this Labour Party is seeking to transform society, the economy and the structures of government. Workplace democracy is now on the agenda with commitments to more cooperative forms of ownership and worker control of businesses. We will see greater wealth redistribution and an end to ‘corporate welfare’. McDonnell will “aggressively” bring down the deficit, not on the backs of middle and low income families or the poor, but by forcing the rich and the corporations to pay their taxes.

The Tories have used the economic crisis to roll back the state and in doing so they have left hundreds of thousands of people isolated and vulnerable. It is an ideologically driven agenda and the financial crisis is just their cover-story. Anyone who wants to see a genuine alternative now has an opportunity to see it realised. At the next election there is a real choice at last.

I’ll end this piece with the words that brought a tear to my eye today. They were spoken with genuine sincerity and passion. I believe they embody the ideals that led me to Socialism as a young man and they are why I have come home to Labour today..

“As Socialists we will display our competence with our compassion.

Idealists yes but ours is a pragmatic idealism to get things done, to transform our society.

We remain inspired by the belief and hope that another world is possible.

This is our opportunity to prove it.

Let’s seize it. Solidarity.”

John McDonnell, 28th Sept, 2015.