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Sunday 7 April 2019

labour’s most interesting man

No tricks up my sleeve

  • John McDonnell has spent his career on the political fringes, but now he is on the brink of bringing the Left to power
  • He is in a hurry and is planning for an October election and a budget by Christmas if he takes charge of the British economy
  • He wants to put climate change at the heart of all Treasury decisions and is set to renationalise water and the railways

By Philip Webster

“Let me introduce you to the Marxist concept of praxis.” John McDonnell has a lesson for me.

“It is bringing together theory and practice, and that is what I have been trying to do all my political life. In other words you have a theory that explains the world. You have a theory, a long-term analysis, of how the economic system works. That helps you understand day-to-day things. You apply theory to practical matters in front of you. Bringing theory and practice together is praxis. That is what I do. Others say it is pragmatism. It is. That is what I am doing. It is pragmatism based on an understanding of the world.”

McDonnell’s conception of himself is different to the way others perceive him. The socialist shadow chancellor names Marx, Lenin and Trotsky as his most significant intellectual influences. The man, who will run the UK economy if Labour wins the next election, is perhaps best known for whipping out a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in the House of Commons and tossing it at the then Chancellor, George Osborne. (Osborne wondered out loud whether it was his personal signed copy.) Within Labour circles, it’s remembered that McDonnell fell out with Ken Livingstone back in the far-left days of the Greater London Council, because he didn’t feel “Red Ken” was Left enough.

So let’s clear this up now. Are you a Marxist, I ask him. “I am a Socialist in the British tradition. Part of that tradition is Marxism. So yes. I am a Socialist within that tradition.” I take that as a yes.

GLC leader Ken Livingstone with colleagues including McDonnell, second from right


The shorter McDonnell: key takeaways for hares

  • He is already planning for a general election in October
  • He would reverse corporation tax cuts; higher rate income taxpayers will get a tax rise, but possibly not as high as they fear
  • Water and railways are the priorities for renationalisation
  • He wants a revolution – a green one. All Treasury economic decisions to be reviewed for environmental impact
  • Jeremy Corbyn was chosen to run for the party leadership, because McDonnell and Diane Abbott had tried before. “So we looked at him and said ‘Jeremy it is your turn’ and he said ‘Go on then’.”
  • He has asked the Treasury to start helping Labour for government – and wants officials to widen the range of economic theories they rely upon
  • As a teenager, he turned his back on becoming a Catholic priest: “I was getting into politics and I also discovered girls.”
  • Are you a Marxist? “I am a Socialist in the British tradition. Part of that tradition is Marxism. So yes. I am a Socialist within that tradition.”


What is beyond question is that McDonnell is Labour’s most interesting figure. When we met up at the end of last month – 29 March, what was supposed to be Brexit day – he is plainly a man in a hurry. He rattles through plans for a General Election (he’s planning for October), he’s served notice on the Treasury to prepare for a Labour Budget (it’s slated in for 10 weeks after the election); he spells out the agenda for renationalisations (water and railways look set to come first), he sets out his proposals on tax changes (top rates are going up, but perhaps not as much as you’d expect) and he explains the challenge he has put to the Treasury (his version of a green new deal).

Impatient that the Labour leadership has not yet been given access to the senior ranks of the Civil Service as always happens in a pre-election period, he has served notice on the top mandarin in Great George Street that he wants the Treasury to go back to school and widen the range of economic theories on which it relies. This prompted one official to remark to me that it will become a “re-education camp”.

And would he expect to see Das Kapital, Marx’s foundational critique of capitalism, on the shelves when he takes the reins? McDonnell smiles. “I should think it is there already.”

This is McDonnell, the ideologue, enemy of new Labour, 68 in September, who has been transformed by an astonishing series of political events into the most powerful figure in the Labour party, justifiably claiming to be on the verge of power. And apparently transformed, too, from an uncompromising hardliner into a reassuring diplomat, sent out by Jeremy Corbyn to douse the flames of party rows over antisemitism and Brexit.

We catch McDonnell with his adviser Andy Whitaker as he comes up the escalator from the Westminster Tube Station subway and into Portcullis House. For years, he was a marginalised, barely even marginal figure in British politics. These days, everyone wants to talk to him. So we are there to intercept him.

He is dressed in a smart business suit and tie, the bank manager apparel in which he has visited many a television studio and boardroom in recent years as he waged a charm offensive designed to persuade an anxious big business world that he is not a corporate assassin.

Apologising for being late, he is into election planning within seconds:

“I am working on October. We have been aware of the prospect of an early election for some time now but I think the timetable is this. If Theresa May goes after 22 May they will go straight into a leadership election. The timetable would be mid-July for that new leader to be in place. The new leader goes off to party conference and then there’s a general election. I am working back from dates in October and getting our team and the campaign team ready and all the prep for government work is being done as well. Yes, we think it will be October.”

When I put it to him that he – the guy who once set out to be a Catholic priest – might soon be in charge in the Treasury building, McDonnell says: “I bloody hope so.”

Corbyn and McDonnell at the 2016 Labour Party Conference

Everything that follows suggests an urgency in him; I sense that he knows this may be the Left’s best chance ever to take the reins of government. He is friendly, deeply serious; there are no signs of the flashes of anger, aggression, impatience or even unpleasantness that some associate with him.

Labour MPs regard him as the most important figure in the Opposition bar none. One said: “Corbyn is the figurehead who may lead us into government. But John is the Stakhanovite obsessive who will tell us what we are going to do when we get there.”

How can a man who rebelled against the Labour government hundreds of times along with Corbyn be the central figure in its bid for power? How have we reached this point?

To an extent, as he reveals, the answer is almost farcically comic. McDonnell had worked all his life for socialist ideals, but had surely assumed the Left’s moment would never come. As we know Corbyn’s election was essentially an accident, caused when the self-professed “morons” – MPs who did not support Corbyn – put him on the ballot paper just to give the Left a voice.

He tells me how Corbyn became the candidate. “We had two big meetings of the Left, all the various organisations. Many argued that we should not have a candidate because we would not get the votes. I had failed twice and Diane (Abbott) last time. One idea was that we should negotiate with another candidate to get a junior shadow minister position.

“But after the second meeting we had this discussion in the Campaign Group because we realised our supporters wanted someone to run. We’ll have to do it, no matter how difficult, we decided. Who was it going to be? I said I had done it twice. Diane said she did not want to do it again. Jeremy was at the end of the table. So we looked at him and said ‘Jeremy it is your turn’ and he said ‘Go on then.’ And that was it. He’s loving it.”

“I joke about it but before Jeremy put his name in – I had had a heart attack by then. So I told them I was looking forward to a quiet retirement sitting in the back of halls complaining that it had all gone wrong because no one listens to me.”

So this is how Corbyn and McDonnell took the reins of the party. The fascination for Westminster watchers like myself – and the question looming over the future of public services and the private sector in Britain – is how McDonnell, often referred to as the Hard Man of the Left, has become an arch pragmatist? Is it just show?

As one Labour MP said: “Jeremy finds it hard to move from positions he has held all its life. John does it seamlessly.”

Who, in short, is the real John McDonnell – the consummate politician we see and hear chortling and joshing with interviewers on radio and television, or the granite-faced pugilist who tore into Alastair Campbell on Question Time and told him that his words were “nauseating”? Will the real John McDonnell bare his teeth when he gets into power, justifying the fears that his regular chit-chats with business leaders have not quite succeeded in extinguishing.

McDonnell at a conference fringe meeting, 2016

There is no doubt that McDonnell, who did not perform brilliantly in his school-age education, is highly intelligent and, in the view of most of his colleagues, an intellectual. He often refers to himself as a hard-nosed bureaucrat. He impresses his business audiences, sometimes against their better judgment, with his overall policy grasp.

Dennis Skinner, the leftwing veteran, describes McDonnell as highly competent and, unusual among Labour MPs, able to talk with ease about money. “He knows his stuff. He is good on television and people watching think ‘he sounds pretty safe this fellow’.”

Is he a pragmatist? “Oh yes,” says Skinner, who has seen it all. “Of course he is. You have to be if you are aiming for government. He’s no different from others there.”

But others are not convinced by the makeover. They remember his dogmatic attacks on Blairism and all it stood for, and they believe his true, abrasive character is never far from the surface, shown by his fierce, outspoken hostility towards Corbyn’s detractors as they quit his front bench and Owen Smith challenged for the leadership.

McDonnell has never been afraid of using extreme language. But unlike Corbyn he has a facility for getting himself out of trouble.

“Sorry” is not the hardest word for the shadow chancellor. When he was attacked over his remarks that the IRA should be honoured for the bombings which brought the British government to the negotiating table, he apologised “from the bottom of my heart” to any he had offended. There have been other apologies.

And his reinvention has unnerved Labour MPs, like the former minister who told me he had hardly known him before 2015 and always assumed he was “a nasty piece of work”.

Much of the McDonnell story is explained by his roots. He grew up in a rundown area of Liverpool, born into an Irish Catholic family. His grandfather had come over from Ireland; his father, Bob, was a docker and mother, Elsie, a cleaner.

Soon the family moved to Elsie’s home town of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. She worked in the local BHS, a high street department store, and Bob became a bus driver. He and his brother Keith, who still lives in Norfolk and became a senior policeman, went to a Catholic primary and then on to Great Yarmouth grammar school.

At around 14 or 15 McDonnell went to St Joseph’s College in Ipswich down the A12 from Great Yarmouth. It was established in 1937 by the De La Salle Brothers, a Catholic order, and for some who went there it was the beginning of training to be a priest.

That was McDonnell’s intention. He went there on a church grant. I asked whether it was his idea or his parents. “Oh it was my idea. Look, it was sort of natural. That was my upbringing. You go to Mass. You do Benediction on Sunday. You become an altar boy, you go to a Catholic primary school, taught by nuns. Yes it was my idea.”

After a couple of years of getting up early every morning for Mass he decided the priesthood was not for him. “I did not settle. I was getting into politics and I also discovered girls, so the Catholic priesthood was really out of the question. I dropped out really and went back to Yarmouth Grammar to take A levels… I used to work in the Tower ballroom on the seafront. There were lots of punch-ups.”

McDonnell is no longer a believer. “It happened as I got older as it does with a lot of people. My local parish priest optimistically calls me a lapsed Catholic. He thinks I will be back. But I do miss it. I miss the Latin Mass. I liked the ritual.”

McDonnell returned to the north-west and did a series of unskilled jobs working in a bed factory and then doing 12-hour shifts making Philips TVs.

He met his first wife Marilyn at a miners’ club and admits that she told him to “sort himself out” and encouraged him to redo his A levels at Burnley Tech.

By now McDonnell was a voracious learner and reader. After moving south he did a BSc in government and politics at Brunel University and then an MSc in politics and sociology at Birkbeck College.

As he studied he worked. He and his wife, who were to have two daughters, became “house parents” for a children’s home in Hayes, west London. He remarried in 1995 and had a son with his second wife Cynthia. He has five grandchildren.

In May 2013 he suffered a heart attack but he recovered quickly and these days tries to keep fit with walking and sailing on the Norfolk Broads.

He also worked at the National Union of Mineworkers and the TUC, and soon after being elected to the Greater London Council in 1981.

Tony Benn inspired him in these years when the Labour leadership was at war with the Militant Tendency and the hard Left, and there is a similarity in their missionary zeal. After Benn’s death an emotional McDonnell told the Commons the Left not only respected him: “We loved him.”

McDonnell was determined to reach Parliament. He narrowly failed in 1992, and then became MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, a beneficiary of the new Labour wave with which he was never to make peace.

Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown he effectively ran an alternative economic strategy from the regular meetings of the Socialist Campaign Group and other Left gatherings. Like other members of the Campaign Group he was an outsider for 18 years.

McDonnell with fellow leadership contender Michael Meacher, 2007

During that long period Campaign Group MPs felt isolated and were not well treated by the Labour parliamentary hierarchy. “They always gave us the worst offices,” said one. But they were not idle. Considered unacceptable within the parliamentary party they worked outside building movements and dominated the fringe at party conference. They did not know it but their day was to come.

Now with Brexit tearing the Conservatives apart McDonnell prepares for government.

He seems totally at ease with the contradiction that a man who has devoted his political life to the defeat of capitalism is now bent on running the system. Are we all supposed to take this seriously? When I told him that Alan Simpson, his friend and adviser on sustainable economics,  had described him as a “principled realist”, he beamed.

Despite his protestations to the contrary many Labour MPs believe that if the leadership ever became vacant McDonnell would not be able to resist running for it.

When I put this to him his denial is complete. “No chance. One, Jeremy is not going. Two, I will never run for the leadership. I am happy where I am.”

There have been tensions between McDonnell and Corbyn’s office, particularly when the former insisted on adopting the full international definition of antisemitism. And McDonnell has been instrumental in pushing the leadership to a stance more supportive of a second EU referendum.

But Alan Simpson says that never have a Labour leader and would-be chancellor protected each other’s backs so well and aides insist that any inter-office disputes has not affected their friendship. “They are close mates,” says one.

So what can we expect from a McDonnell-Corbyn government?

Neither of them have ever tried to persuade big business and the privatised industries that they will like a Labour government. They have never hidden their plans for mass renationalisation and big rises in corporation tax.

McDonnell with Angela Eagle and Anna Turley, arrive to meet steelworkers, 2015

Even so the 2017 manifesto was not as radical as some might have expected. There was no sign of a wealth tax and voters were told that no one earning under £80,000 would face rises in income tax or national insurance. It was nothing like the far-left 1983 Labour manifesto dubbed the longest suicide note in history.

A former Cabinet minister says approvingly that McDonnell has been careful in his macro-economic policy not to be “drawn into bonkers positions. He has been far more pragmatic than expected.”

Pragmatic. That word again. So what’s he hiding? No one is accusing him of dropping his pure socialist credo. Is his current-day pragmatism a cover for a red-meat Labour government?

He says: “When I go to see asset managers and others I say to them ‘Look if you read the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph or Daily Express I reassure you that you are not all going to be renationalised or sent to a re-education camp in Bolton.

“I say let’s get down to real business. The difference in the way we do things is that everything we do in advance of government will be open and transparent. There are no tricks up my sleeve.”

He adds: “I say to them that yes we will reverse the corporation tax cuts brought in by the Tories and you won’t like it. But you tell me about lack of skills and so on and I say that is where the money is going – straight into the public services. All those things you may be apprehensive about will be to your benefit. I’m not expecting them to be 100 per cent supportive but I do expect them to be realistic.”

Taxation will be “roughly the same” as proposed in 2017, McDonnell tells me.

So where does that leave us? Based on his steer, corporation tax will be increased from 19 to 26 per cent by stages, with a small business rate of 21 per cent, raising up to £19 billion after three years of a Labour government, provided – and it is a big proviso – companies do not reduce their investment in Britain and shift their profits overseas.

Despite some on the Left believing it is too cautious, his plan is to target only the top 5 per cent of earners with rises in income tax. In 2017 the plan was 45 per cent for earnings over £80,000 and 50 per cent for income over £123,000. Tory cuts in capital gains tax from 28 per cent to 20 per cent (higher rate) and 18 per cent to 10 per cent (lower rate) are expected to be reversed. And the VAT exemption on private school fees is set for the chop.

In addition, McDonnell told me, he is consulting on a new non-residential land value tax to give local government a stable finance base needed now that 40 per cent of services are provided by local government, and its capacity has fallen with the loss of staff and services.

McDonnell insists that he gets little opposition at his “tea offensive” meetings with business. It is quite clear that the Government’s handling of Brexit has made business more inclined to listen to Labour, whose stance most of them prefer. Maybe they believe a pragmatic Marxist is preferable to hard Brexiting Conservatives.

But some do fear he is a revolutionary who will wreck the economy. They can’t quite laugh at his Who’s Who declared hobby of “fomenting the overthrow of capitalism”. They particularly do not like his tax and renationalisation plans. One business chief called them “nightmarish”.

Asked about which industries would be first up for renationalisation, he says: “Consultation is going on but the ones on which we have put out the most detail are water and rail. The reason is this: water was privatised without debt but £18 billion has been paid out in dividends and there has been a 40 per cent increase in charges above inflation. And it’s a pretty poor service. We have had a public clamour to bring water back into public ownership.”

So water and rail are the early ones?

“Water and rail, mail and energy. They will happen, yes.”

How will this be paid for? Labour has suggested it will be cost-free. Investors in the privatised industries will be given bonds in return for their shares and the profits from the companies will pay for them. The profits will cover the borrowing costs. That is the theory.

McDonnell says the new manifesto will be as radical as the last but with new ideas. One under strong consideration, it is understood, is a plan now out for consultation to require all companies with over 250 employees to give staff shares in their firms. McDonnell has called them “inclusive ownership funds”.

So as he awaits an election McDonnell has written to Sir Tom Scholar, Permanent Secretary at the Treasury, telling him he expects the Treasury to “widen the range of economic theories and approaches in which its officials and those in the rest of government are trained”.

He does not say this but he clearly wants the “new economics” to take on the orthodoxy of the Establishment of which the Treasury is a key pillar, and which could be the greatest threat to his mission.

He tells me he will challenge the Treasury’s “narrow-minded approaches to economic ideas and theory. We must challenge them. We are saying that they must not confine themselves to narrow, neo-liberal ‘private sector good, public sector bad’, trickle-down economics, which they have experimented with and failed.”

McDonnell and Cat Smith during the 2017 election campaign

When pressed on alternative models the shadow chancellor mentions Joseph Stiglitz, the American Nobel-prize-winning critic of laissez-faire economics and the management of globalisation, and Mariana Mazzucato, the Italian Professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at UCL, London, both of whom have worked on his advisory team, as figures whom Treasury officials should learn from.

He does not hold back from criticising the very officials with whom he will have to work if Labour comes to power. He says in a reference to John Maynard Keynes, the economist who has guided many a Labour government: “They are too narrow. They are not even Keynesian. I think they have got themselves into a narrow mindset around neo-liberalism and they don’t believe the state has a role.”

You mean the officials? “Yes. It has permeated the whole organisation. We will have to see what happens when we go into government. We will have a much wider debate.”

McDonnell is trying to get access to Whitehall now. He wrote both to Scholar and Sir Mark Sedwill, head of the Civil Service and May’s Cabinet Secretary, to ask for the usual pre-election briefings. It was refused by the Prime Minister. A mistake, he says.

“Now May is going, we will see. We will go back to them and say these meetings should take place now.”

Quite what officials think of their orders from the first would-be Chancellor with Marxist sympathies since Stafford Cripps, the post-war austerity Treasury chief, can only be imagined.

McDonnell declares: “We want a budget in the first 10 weeks. That means the OBR has to do its report first. We want to give them notice.” He wants a five-year spending plan, not the present three years, to cover a full parliament.

McDonnell is described as sectarian by one former Labour minister and utterly intolerant of any who disagree with him by another.

But now he goes on to recommend 10-year capital investment programmes with some of the detail agreed on a cross-party – yes cross-party – basis. This is the same man who was once in trouble for quipping on TV that if he could have gone back in time he would have assassinated (he insists he meant to use the word “sectioned”) Margaret Thatcher, and quoted someone who said that Esther McVey, the former Tory cabinet minister, should be lynched.

He recalls an earlier life when he was chairman of the GLC finance committee and 10-year cross party capital programmes were agreed. “We built the Thames Barrier on that basis and we would often be swimming now if we had not. We did it on a cross-party basis so it was properly funded and secure.”

McDonnell during a rally against a third runway at Heathrow airport, 2015

McDonnell’s letter to Scholar is revolutionary in several other demands.

Most significantly he wants a green revolution. He says that the Treasury must test all its decisions against environmental impact. The letter says: “On environmental sustainability, the latest scientific evidence demonstrates that failing to curb greenhouse gas emissions to within a 1.5C limit will severely undermine the government’s ability to deliver its wider economic and social goals.”

He enthusiastically explains what all this means. The Treasury green book, the criteria on which decisions are made, is to be rewritten. “It’s called that because it is coloured green but we are going to turn it into the real green – meaning environmental – book. It will be redrafted so that civil servants know that everything we do has to be orientated around climate change.”

Simpson is excited by his decision to tear up the green book. “It will now be replaced with one based on climate science not political convenience,” he says. “John makes me feel excited about the future because he has grasped that physics not politics is driving this situation.”

Simpson himself spelt out in a recent article what that means. In practical terms, he says, the UK will have to cut its carbon emissions in half within the coming decade and then do so again in the decade that follows, and the one after that. The next government will have to deliver carbon reductions of 15 per cent a year, he adds. It appears that the rebirth of modern green socialism in America, encompassed in the Green New Deal’s drastic cuts in fossil fuel production proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, is having its impact here.

Kevin Anderson, head of the Tyndall Centre for climate change research, is said to have been influential in McDonnell’s embrace of climate science.

Simpson warns that McDonnell and Corbyn have a battle to get tough environmental policies past the Treasury and a union wing that believes – wrongly, he believes – that they imply big job losses.

But McDonnell believes that union opposition is being contained. He talks passionately about achieving a “just transition” from carbon to green. And he refers to Corbyn’s pledge that people in the carbon industry would be guaranteed a job in alternative energy production and with the same level of wages. That would be a just transition.

McDonnell reveals that he is working with Grant Robertson, the Labour finance minister in New Zealand, on how to create a “wellbeing Budget”. This would involve “looking at outcomes, not just how much money you put into a service. You look at how will that create wellbeing of the community.”

He suggests that in future a Labour Budget could be shaped in that way with the role of the OBR being expanded so that it could look into the wellbeing impact of proposed measures as well as the usual financial statistics.

As we meet, Brexit remains on a knife-edge. Labour has been split – not as badly as the Tories, but split between a substantial number of MPs plus a party membership crying out for a second referendum and the rest who want to respect the June 2016 result but with a soft Brexit. And there are a handful of hardliners who have always been opposed to the European Union.

With Diane Abbott and Jeremy Corbyn, 2018

Corbyn and McDonnell were in that group for most of their political lives. But while Corbyn’s attempt to portray himself as a Remainer has looked unconvincing, McDonnell has managed it. McDonnell, the pragmatist, has smelt the coffee and done more than most to keep the party together.

Has it been difficult? “It has been a challenge. I have religiously adhered to the party conference position.”

Labour’s arch Remainers have been impressed with McDonnell. Will Straw, executive director of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign in 2016, says McDonnell is a brilliant media performer who has shown real political guile and agility. “His movement from being a long-standing Eurosceptic to becoming an advocate of a People’s vote is evidence of that.”

At every opportunity McDonnell refers to his meetings with business. This past week it was the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. “Every major company was there. They understood our position completely. As for our argument for customs union they were on the same page; and on the single market on the same page.”

As McDonnell contemplates probably his one chance of government it seems to me that his pragmatism is winning the internal struggle with ideology. His focus on the green agenda and wellbeing allies him to a modern progressive agenda. He is not a prisoner of the 1970s. Many believe Corbyn is.

There is no doubt that under him and Corbyn the Left has seized control of every part of the Labour movement, apart from the parliamentary party. Most believe that if he won power he would not seek to move even further left.

“John is a realist,” said a former Cabinet minister who knows him well. “If he can win from the left he will want to stay there. And he will want his and Jeremy’s successors to be firmly on the left as well. The Labour party has changed. But he knows the limits, how far he can push things.”

As for the man himself, the answer is intriguing. “I have never abandoned any of my beliefs. I have stuck with them. But I have learnt how you implement them more effectively.”

The socialist pragmatist has spoken. 

Additional reporting by Xavier Greenwood

All Photographs by Getty Images

Portraits of John Mcdonnell by Tom Pilston for Tortoise


Further reading



The sayings of Comrade McDonnell

On Mao’s Little Red Book and the Autumn Statement

“To assist Comrade Osborne in his dealings with his new-found comrades, I’ve brought him along Mao’s Little Red Book. I thought this would help the Chancellor.”

Hansard, 25 November 2015

On the IRA and the Irish peace process

“It’s about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands, we now have a peace process.”

Daily Telegraph, May 2003

Later apology

“I accept it was a mistake to use those words, but actually if it contributed towards saving one life or preventing someone else being maimed, it was worth doing, because we did hold onto the peace process. There was a real risk of the Republican movement splitting and some of them continuing the armed process. If I gave offence, and I clearly have, from the bottom of my heart, I apologise. I apologise.”

BBC Question Time, 18 September 2015

On New Labour

“Labour has always been a broad church but there was a coup in 1994 when Blair took over. Blair wasn’t interested in the broad church and New Labour became dominant. But their time is coming to an end. There’s an opportunity for the left to advance.”

The Guardian, 26 September 2006

On his work at the GLC

“My job was to translate policies into concrete realities on the ground. I was a fairly hardnosed administrator. We set in train policies for which we were attacked from all sides but are now accepted as mainstream: large-scale investment in public services; raising the issue of Ireland and arguing for a dialogue for peace; equal opportunities; police accountability. We set up a women’s committee, an ethnic minorities committee.”

The Guardian, 26 September 2006

On privatisation

“Privatisation over the last four decades has been a history of the British people being robbed and the spivs snatching up the public assets being given the licence to print money. From the earliest privatisations of water, energy and rail to the PFI schemes from the last decade, it has been one long confidence trick.”

The Guardian, 22 August 2015

On the death of neoliberalism

“Faced with the economic and social decay of neoliberalism, our core economic objective must be to create a prosperous economy that provides the richest quality of life possible for all our people and is at the same time environmentally sustainable.”

Verso 2018

On socialism

“We are seeking nothing less than to build a society that is radically fairer, more democratic and more sustainable, in which the wealth of society is shared by all. The historic name for that society is socialism.”

Verso 2018

On Theresa May

“If the Chancellor had spent less time writing stale jokes for his speech and the Prime Minister less time guffawing like a feeding seal on the Treasury Bench, we would not have been landed in this mess.”

Hansard, 15 March 2017

On uniting Labour

“What camera am I on? Am I on this camera? Let me just say this to Labour party supporters, Labour members, members of the parliamentary Labour party. We’ve got to stop this now. There’s a small group out there that are willing to destroy our party just to remove Jeremy Corbyn. We’ve got to stop them, we’ve got to unite. If you want to come for me and Jeremy Corbyn, that’s up to you, but don’t pick on staff that can’t defend themselves.”

Andrew Marr Show, 24 July 2016

On UKIP voters

“With regard to UKIP supporters themselves, there’s a large number of UKIP supporters who voted UKIP because they’ve had enough with the British establishment. I think large numbers of them feel the same way we do about what’s happening, particularly within our economy, about low wages and exploitation.”

Earboo (‘UKIP Supporters’) 28 April 2017, Sky News

On the steel industry

“If the Chancellor will not reconsider his investment plans, can he at least appreciate how angry the families of steelworkers in south Wales are this morning? They know that when the bankers’ bonuses were threatened, he immediately shot across to Brussels with an army of lawyers to defend them and that he will jump into a helicopter for a Tory fundraiser. It has taken him four months to lift a finger to save steelworkers’ jobs. Does that not prove that he is actually the bankers’ Chancellor?”

Hansard, 19 January 2016

On his opposition to the Iraq War

“I believe we will reap the unforeseen and incalculable consequences for the world, for our citizens, for our own constituents for generations to come. People will suffer, and they will die. And no matter how few it will be, it will be too many for me.”

“If the Prime Minister proceeds to take us to war in this coalition—not of the willing, but of the killing—I shall say clearly, ‘Not in my name. Not in the name of thousands of Labour party members up and down the country. Not in the name of the British people.’ To our communities, we say, ‘Continue the campaign for peace, to shorten this war and to prevent the next.’ To the British troops, we say, ‘Safe home.’ To the Iraqi people—the parents—we say, ‘Hide your children deep in the shelters, but we wish you safety. We will stand by you when the bombing stops.’”

Hansard, 18 March 2003

On assassinating Thatcher

“I got into trouble once when I was on Any Questions … and they asked me the question: ‘if you could go back in time, what act would you do?’ And I said I’d go back and most probably, I wanted to say section Thatcher, but I said assassinate Thatcher.”

Earboo (‘Assassinate Thatcher’) 7 June 2010, GMB Annual Conference 2010

On Tony Blair

“I think Tony Blair is almost a Shakespearean tragic figure. I have nothing but praise for him for what he did in terms of Northern Ireland and the peace process. I just thought it was heroic. If he’d have stopped there he would have gone down history as a peacemaker. Then he allows Iraq to happen.”

Earboo (‘Blair’) 12 June 2016, Peston on Sunday

On the expansion of Heathrow (moments before being ejected from the House of Commons)

The decision is a betrayal of future generations, in terms of the environment, and a betrayal of my constituents, who will lose their homes, their schools, their cemeteries, their churches and their gurdwara. It is a betrayal of this House, and of democracy, not to have a vote in the House.’

Hansard, 15 January 2009

On Winston Churchill and the 1910 miners’ strike

Interviewer: “Winston Churchill – hero or villain?”

McDonnell: “Tonypandy – villain.”

Politico, 13 February 2019

On Terence Dicks, the Conservative predecessor to the Hayes and Harlington seat McDonnell won in 1997

“I shall not perjure myself by praising my immediate Tory predecessor. Many saw him simply as a Tory buffoon, and he was once described as a ‘pig’s bladder on a stick’. When he chose as his election slogan, ‘We love Dicks’, we were not sure whether to laugh or to call in the obscene publications squad. However, Terry Dicks was not a joke. He was a stain on the character of this House, the Conservative party which harboured him and the good name of my constituency … Thankfully, my constituents can now say good riddance to this malignant creature.”

Hansard, 6 June 1997

On the Welfare Reform and Work Bill

“I would swim through vomit to vote against the Bill, and listening to some of the nauseating speeches tonight, I think we might have to. Poverty in my constituency is not a lifestyle choice; it is imposed on people.”

Hansard, 20 July 2015

On getting behind Corbyn

“I’ve been talking to Labour party members all over the country, they’re saying for those begrudgers – because that’s what they are – for goodness sake, get behind the leader of the Labour party that was democratically elected. It’s time to put up or shut up.”

Earboo (‘Put up or shut up’) 6 May 2016

On Thatcher’s abolition of the GLC

“The abolition of the GLC was self-evidently an act of malignant spite by a Prime Minister in the first demented throes of megalomania.”

Hansard, 6 June 1997

On capitalism

“It is easier for people to imagine the end of the earth than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. And that is what we are about, aren’t we?”

New Yorker, 23 May 2016

On the Grenfell Tower fire

“Is democracy working? It didn’t work if you were a family living on the 20th floor of Grenfell Tower.

“Those families, those individuals – 79 so far and there will be more – were murdered by political decisions that were taken over recent decades.

“The decision not to build homes and to view housing as only for financial speculation rather than for meeting a basic human need made by politicians over decades murdered those families.”

26 June 2017,  Glastonbury festival Left Field debate

On forgiving Tories

“To be frank, at the moment, with regard to the Conservative Party as it now stands and for all that they’ve done to our community, the suffering they’ve caused, I can’t forgive them. I can’t forgive them for what they’ve done. I go back to my constituency and I’ve never seen human suffering like this in all the times that I’ve been an MP and in the forty years I’ve lived in my constituency.”

Newsnight interview, 21 November 2018

On his anti-austerity tour around the country

“I’m touring around the country every other Saturday, bringing the whole community together, to talk about the local economy, to listen to people, and say: ‘what do they want?’ Do you know what they’re saying, these are working class people, people actually of all classes, but mainly working-class people, they want a decent job for them and their children.”

Newsnight interview, 21 November 2018

On the financial crash

“One of the key lessons to be learnt from the crash is that never again must we allow finance to become the master of the economy, rather than its servant. Labour in government will put finance to work for the real economy.”

The Guardian, 15 September 2018

On Corbyn making the ballot paper in the 2015 Labour leadership election

“I was in tears, in tears when Gordon Marsden and Andrew Smith that morning, just before 12, the deadline, filled out their forms to put Jeremy on the ballot.”

New Statesman5 September 2018

On the experience of Labour MPs since 2015

“They have experienced radical change that they never envisaged. If you look at a number of the individuals that have come into parliament, they’ve had their careers mapped out for the future, almost secure … They were going to be ministers or shadow ministers or they were going to be in cabinet or shadow cabinet. All of a sudden, there’s this disruption about what they believed about the world; what their political ambitions were, both in terms of the transformation they want to undertake and also their political careers.”

New Statesman 5 September 2018


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