Saturday 12 October 2019

What is John McDonnell Playing At?

You've seen that interview by now with Alastair Campbell, and the ritual denunciations from the ritual denunciators on Twitter. Chances are many Labour members, even those who do not support the Corbyn project and long for the the good old days, are asking what the bloody hell is going on? Here are some observations.

1. If there is a significant difference between John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn, it comes down to party matters and the handling of the never ending cold coup. During these last couple of years, John has struck the more conciliatory tone. You will remember how shortly before her departure to form Change UK Luciana Berger faced a no confidence vote in her constituency party - John was one of the leading voices urging restraint. On the anti-semitism crisis more generally, John is at the forefront of urging tough action. For the Birmingham Metro Mayor selection, Liam Byrne got his endorsement over the popular local trade unionist, Pete Lowe. And on Brexit, his positioning has been subtle and not-so subtle, skirting around the outer edges of hard remain, and suggesting he would campaign for staying in regardless of the deal Labour might secure with the EU in any upcoming referendum.

2. The interview with Alastair Campbell fits well within this pattern. Going from calling him out to his face on Question Time for the damage he inflicted on British politics to a casual conversation for GQ isn't going to sit easy with many Labour supporters, especially when you remember how recently Campbell spat his dummy out. Indeed, if the possibility of such an interview was mooted this time last week plenty of people would have chalked it up as likely an encounter with Boris Johnson where each question was answered truthfully and straightforwardly.

3. Has John booked a weekend in sell out city, as his detractors like to claim? Obviously not. We know an election is around the corner, and we know that while the Tories are in disarray their vote has firmed up. The anti-Tory vote, however, is split. It can move in Labour's direction, and it must if we're to stand a chance of forming the next government. John's attempts to reach across the party's divides and granting an interview to one of the most loathsome characters in British politics isn't aimed at the likes of us, but more at that noisy section of soggy centrism whose votes the party needs. Because of First Past the Post lesser evilism is unavoidable. If Labour can appear less evil to centrist voters, then the party benefits in target seats instead of disgust at the Tories getting dissipated among the Liberal Democrats and other parties.

4. It also comes from a place of frustration. Labour's programme is bold and radical by the standards of British politics. The next manifesto not only promises positive change, it can establish the country as a world leader in green industry and what the wonks call ecological modernisation. We have a model, and the rest of the world can follow. Much more important than flying the flag for policy sensiblism, a Labour victory under current conditions would represent the greatest blow struck for working class politics in 75 years. It would shatter the confidence of the there-is-no-alternative brigade, shake the self-belief of our class enemies, and boost the left's resurgence everywhere - and particularly in the United States where a historic breakthrough is still possible.

5. These are the stakes as John sees them. And he's right to, because they are the stakes. Another five years of Boris Johnson shafting our people and downgrading climate catastrophe is unconscionable and doesn't bear thinking about. The despair, the demoralisation, we've had enough of that for 40 years. If a bit of conciliation now can help get us across the line later, then why not?

6. As plenty of folks know, there's no reconciling some people. And this is a hard lesson the left has been forced to learn by the Labour right since we won the leadership contest. Yet I strongly suspect John McDonnell knows a bit more about this topic than any hashtag-festooned keyboard warrior calling for his head. Give the man some credit. He knows the likes of Campbell or Mandelson aren't about to embrace Labour's programme, but again, it's not about them. It's about snatching back centrist-leaning Labour voters and others seemingly open to giving the LibDems a punt. If sitting down with Alastair Campbell might help Labour's chances, wouldn't you do it too?

Image Credit


Dipper said...

its the battle for Corbyn's Brain stepping up as possible victory looms on the near horizon.

mikenotts said...

I don't disagree with any of this but playing devils advocate: it can surely be argued that, in any general election with Corbyn as leader, Campbell & Blair will pay their expected role as saboteurs and this will influence centrists far more than any outreach from labour, while on the other hand, said outreach demoralizes the very labour troops the project depends on.

So even in pragmatic have-to-get-your-hands-dirty-to-win mode, McDonnell is wrong-headed (it could be argued).

I certainly wouldn't dismiss those dismayed by this as "Some people are always looking for someone to hang a jolly old betrayal on." Its arguable, to say the least. Oh well, time will tell.

Lidl_Janus said...

Look, talk of ‘Corbynism’ fails to understand the fundamental differences between Corbyn and McDonnell: former has a CPGB-adjacent politics, McDonnell is more like a EuroCommunist. Obviously.

Boffy said...

"Look, talk of ‘Corbynism’ fails to understand the fundamental differences between Corbyn and McDonnell: former has a CPGB-adjacent politics, McDonnell is more like a EuroCommunist. Obviously."

The other way around I'd say. Corbyn is more a CPB Stalinism in One Country, Eurocomm, whereas McDonnell is more a CPGB internationalist.

I think maybe you are confusing the Euro-Stalinists of the CPB/Morning Star, with the CPGB/Weekly Worker.

sandra crawford said...

John McDonnells conciliation..........

Anonymous said...

"granting an interview to one of the most loathsome characters in British politics isn't aimed at the likes of us"

In one. This is a framing issue, not a substance issue. The sort of people who think McDonnell is the antichrist will tune in, hoping to see Saint Alastair hack him to pieces.

Less obviously, it also demonstrates that "Old Labour" isn't trying to airbrush New Labour out of existence, but is willing to engage with it.

If you'll forgive the rarefied analogy, the two men are like a temporary two-planetary system, the centre of their combined masses (and thus their orbits) is positioned somewhere between their two bodies, invisible, in empty space. And that is fascinating for the viewer, who forgets about try to decide whose ideology is orbiting whose. (Who says centrism doesn't have its uses, eh? :)

PlebJames said...

'If sitting down with Alastair Campbell might help Labour's chances..."

Will it though? Or will do as much harm as good?
The general rule upon which, I had assumed, the whole Corbyn project had been based was - there is no central ground, it is a chimera, so courting it is futile. Like trying to win the war on drugs.

I don't know if any damage has been done (probably not) by this. Nevertheless, too much further down this path and you can count me out. I am only in Labour for as long as it represents our best hope for a better, more equal, society. There is not a shred of party loyalty within me (apart from some of the nice people I have met) and if they ever stop saying the things I agree with, I'm off in the blink of an eye.

Anonymous said...

Spot on as ever Phil. JMcD can afford to nark the likes of you and me in the name of reaching out. Not like we're going anywhere at this point, and it definitely helps the cause.