Aside from Jeremy Corbyn himself, there are few figures in the Labour Party who generate more enthusiasm and often outright adoration than John McDonnell. As Shadow Chancellor, McDonnell’s department has been both crucible and inspiration for some of the most exciting new economic thinking on the Left for a generation. An often impressive media performer, McDonnell’s ‘reasonable bank manager’ persona means he also receives a warmer reception than Corbyn from sections of an otherwise hostile media.
Not only that, but as a committed supporter of the grassroots, McDonnell is a regular face on picket lines and demonstrations, is almost omnipresent at The World Transformed, and has endorsed popular grassroots initiatives like the Abolish Eton and Labour 4 Day Week campaigns. Perhaps most importantly, however, is that as Corbyn’s lifelong friend and ally throughout the Labour Left’s wilderness years, McDonnell is seen by much of the membership as both the soul and armour of Corbynism itself.
This is what has made McDonnell’s controversial interview with Alistair Campbell in GQ magazine this week so difficult to either rationalise or defend. Apart from perhaps Thatcher and Blair, there are few people more universally despised than Alistair Campbell. As one of the key architects of the Iraq war, Campbell’s ‘sexed up’ arms dossier led to the death of more than a million innocent Iraqi civilians, and has created chaos and violence in the region that continues to blight millions more lives today.
The demonstration against the Iraq war remains one of the biggest protests in British history. The betrayal by Blair-Campbell of this movement led not only to thousands of members leaving the Labour Party, but between 1997 and 2005 Labour lost five million votes as well. There is no doubt that Corbyn’s formidable record as a tireless anti-war campaigner brought hundreds of thousands of members back into the Labour Party to vote for Corbyn in 2015. Corbyn’s leadership style represented the antithesis of Campbell’s dishonest spin and the vacuous career politics embodied by Blair.
But nobody doubts McDonnell’s social movement credentials or that he is an anti-imperialist either. McDonnell has voted consistently against foreign military interventions alongside Corbyn, and was a frequent face at Palestine solidarity events before 2015. And in 2013, he stated in an interview with Mark McGowan that Tony Blair should be arrested and tried at The Hague for his role in Iraq, a popular rallying cry amongst much of the Labour membership.
But in an often cosy interview with Campbell, McDonnell appeared to renege on these previous positions. McDonnell’s statement that Blair shouldn’t be “remembered” for the Iraq war, and that he categorically believes Blair isn’t a war criminal, is offensive to the families of millions of Iraqis who lost their lives. Not only that, but McDonnell laughing jovially along with Campbell, and suggesting he would be welcomed back into the Labour Party because “all is forgiven”, made for particulary queasy viewing.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time McDonnell has failed to defend the internationalist principles that define Corbynism for so many. In 2015, McDonnell overruled Corbyn by allowing Labour MPs to have a free vote on Cameron’s Syria airstrikes. It was also following pressure from John McDonnell that Labour’s NEC adopted the highly controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism, against Corbyn’s wishes. Not only has this failed to ‘resolve’ the smears against Corbyn and the movement, but Palestine solidarity campaigners are already being silenced, as many predicted would be the case.
The rationale for these compromises is that Labour’s domestic economic agenda should be prioritised over ‘difficult’ arguments on foreign policy. But even if this were a principled or desirable position, and it’s neither, retreats on foreign policy are an important victory for the British establishment, who see imperialist wars as defining the character of the British state. If the Labour leadership fails to advocate rupture with the British state now, it does not bode well for the ability to do so when in government.
It’s also simply not the case that Labour cannot win on foreign policy issues. Corbyn’s brave decision in the 2017 General Election to link the Manchester bombing to the War on Terror resonated with the public and neutralised a Tory line of attack. We must be confident that principled anti-war positions, rather than triangulation, can win broad based support, particularly when fortified by a strong anti-war movement.
But it was McDonnell’s pledge that Corbyn would step down if Labour loses the next General Election which is now dominating newspaper headlines. This was clearly avoidable: when Corbyn was asked the same question this week, he simply ignored it and pivoted back to the policy issues at hand. McDonnell’s comments have now cast further doubt on Corbyn’s credibility as a leader, at a time when the opposite is clearly needed. And when every single effort should be focused on bringing down the Tories, we are now embroiled in a circus of media speculation about future Labour leaders. McDonnell’s on-going endorsement of Angela Rayner and Emily Thornberry also risks confusing Labour members about who could genuinely carry the torch of the anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist politics that define Corbynism in the future.
But most importantly, McDonnell should not even be countenancing the idea that Labour won’t win the next General Election. To name a defeat before the battle is over clearly makes victory even harder. Given that this will surely frighten Labour members about the prospect of a General Election, perhaps McDonnell is trying to prepare the ground for holding a second referendum before a General Election. It’s well known that McDonnell believes Labour must ‘deal with’ Brexit before going back to the polls. Despite McDonnell’s lifelong and principled opposition to EU membership, he now unequivocally backs Remain.
But this would be a dangerous strategy to pursue: in this scenario, Labour would be unable to negotiate its own credible Leave option as it would not be in government, and Labour would inevitably be forced to campaign exclusively for Remain. I have written extensively about why this threatens the likelihood of Corbyn ever entering Number 10, and it’s a position that was overwhelmingly rejected by Labour conference just last month. McDonnell would do well to follow suit.
But Brexit shenanigans aside, even floating the possibility of losing a General Election risks demoralising the membership who will need to be energised if Labour is going to win. Highlighting the onslaught of dangers Corbynism will face from the British establishment is important. But this should be done to mobilise Labour’s base into building the mass movement, making the case that this is the only way to both win and defend Labour’s radical and transformative political programme.
The inability of the Labour leadership to consistently mobilise extra-parliamentary struggle so far has been concerning to those of us who believe that our power will not come simply, or even mainly, through elections and parliamentary debates. It is also the cause of some of the most damaging Labour leadership retreats in the last few years. But as the Chinese proverb goes, the best time to plant a tree was ten years ago, and the second best time is today. This is certainly not the time for denouncing committed socialists as traitors or focusing on internal Labour Party wars. Instead, it’s time for McDonnell to reignite his radical and principled alliance with Corbyn, borne in the fire of the mass movements, and brought to power on the wave of hundreds of thousands of Labour members joining the party. We have a once in a generation opportunity to deal an existential blow to a Tory Party in crisis, and elect the first ever socialist leader of the Labour Party into government. The prize is too great to be compromised. We can still win.
Holly Rigby is an English teacher, Momentum activist and coordinator of the #AbolishEton campaign. She writes regularly about education and politics.