“If we combine, we can win”: interview with John McDonnell

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John McDonnell (Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington in West London, chair of the Labour Representation Committee and convenor of the new Labour Left Platform) spoke to Omar Raii and Sacha Ismail.

The Tories are polling well and we have the rise of UKIP. Is there a shift to the right in public opinion?

There’s a reaction to the economic crisis and in such circumstances people can go to the right or the left. If there isn’t a left alternative people can go to the right. Also people look back on a neo-liberal government under New Labour, which undermined standards of living for working-class people. So it’s no surprise people aren’t marching out for a Labour government. People are disoriented and want some kind of change but there is no obvious alternative. That’s where the Labour left is so important.

We should respond to UKIP by campaigning on positive policies. Every issue they throw up we’ve got a solution to. In my constituency there’s a huge housing crisis which they’re trying to exploit. People are living in terribly overcrowded conditions, in sheds, and being charged £400 a month for it. When have to explain whose really to blame and our alternative. We can get there in advance of UKIP with their poison, blaming it on migrants and any other minority group they want to target.

The UKIP candidate here in a council by-election, who is also their parliamentary candidate, was an English Democrat and was caught marching with the EDL. The ward was where the BNP used to pick up a vote, and before that the NF. Because of our mobilisation and our “community socialist” politics, we smashed UKIP, even though they ran one of their most intensive campaigns.

What should socialists do and say in the election?

We’ve got to nail austerity. We’ve got to make sure people know we’re not campaigning to elect a Labour government that will implement cuts in public services or increase tax and cut benefits. We’ve got to make ourselves the party that will end austerity, and we’ll do that by introducing a fairer taxation system, by taxing corporations and the rich, and recover the £120 billion tax they’re evading now. If we do that, we can finance the largest investment in public services and our environment since the Attlee government, and give people the confidence we can eradicate poverty, get a decent roof over their heads, give their kids a free education, can access a health service which doesn’t just meet existing needs but makes a proper investment in caring.

We can demonstrate how we can tackle climate change, create millions of jobs in renewable industry. If we can demonstrate those things we can give people hope but also some confidence that they can become active to change the world.

We’ve got to get out there and argue the case in every forum we can and on the doorsteps, not only to get a Labour government elected but to push forward the program we want it to implement. Socialists in the Labour Party have a bigger responsibility than everyone else.

In your recent New Statesman interview, you predict a bloc of Labour MPs standing against austerity. How solid is such a block likely to be and how would it change the situation?

We’ve had up to 30 Labour MPs willing to stand together on some of the key issues, for instance benefit cuts. Some of them are standing down, but I’ve been pleasantly surprised by people getting selected who are sympathetic to the left and rooted in their local community. That happened a bit in 2010 – the North East is the best example, where people like Mandelson, Blair, Milburn and Byers all went and got replaced by people like Ian Lavery, Ian Mearns and Grahame Morris.

There’s been a strong reaction against having candidates parachuted in, and to a certain extent under Miliband it’s eased off. So we could see a new generation of the left in Parliament, and while it will be hard to hold together after the election I think it’s possible. I can’t see Labour MPs coming from back from their constituencies after a general election and implementing benefit cuts. Miliband and Balls know that, which is why they are giving signs of reshaping their economic agenda.

The key thing for the left is not to be driven into a corner where we’re designated as oppositionists, where all communications break down between the left and the rest of the party. We’ve got to have a comradely debate about issues and policy, but one where we draw the bottom line. On every policy we’ve got to know what we want and what we’re fighting for.

We also need technical plans and ability to implement the policies. The best example is rail renationalisation. Eight years ago we were standing up in Parliament and condemned as unreal because we wanted the franchise system to allow public sector bids. We were calling for renationalisation, but we said as a stepping stone let’s allow public bids or keep franchises which fall into the public sector, in the public sector. That was condemned as ultra-leftism! Now it’s Labour Party policy. We won that argument because we were right but also because our policy positions were written after working with the rail unions, and sitting down with transport experts, to demonstrate it was achievable.

But looking at the examples you’ve given we’ve lost; there hasn’t been enough organised class force to win.

You’ve got to combine the lot. Ten or fifteen years ago, for instance, we were organising meetings at the House of Commons on Tax Justice, and we got nowhere. When Gordon Brown merged Inland Revenue and Customs to set up HMRC, we said it was a great opportunity to crack down on tax evasion. He not only ignored us, but cut 12,000 jobs! Since then the debate has moved and do you know why? We were arguing it for a decade and then UK Uncut came along, occupied Vodaphone and the issue went to top of the agenda. Even the Tories are making noises about it. At the same time, it helps that we have proposals written with the people who are the tax collectors themselves, the members of PCS. It’s the combination of things that means we can win.

What’s your view on the Greens?

Over the years I’ve worked closely with socialists in the Green Party, but the Greens are not a socialist party, and they’re not class-based. They have limited if any links to the organised workers’ movement in this country, like the trade unions. We’ve also seen in Brighton unfortunately, when they come to power they’re not necessarily any better in the interests of working people.

I understand why many young people feel disillusioned and want to vote Green, but it would be the worst thing if large numbers of people vote Green in constituencies where they’ll end up with a Tory MP and at the same time that vote will do nothing to build a real alternative.

In this area, we’ve got the [Heathrow] Third Runway campaign, which I’ve been involved in practically since aviation began! We’ve got a Green candidate here who doesn’t live in the area, we don’t see him. He seems like a nice enough guy, a retired doctor, but he’s never been involved in our campaign. I’m perfectly friendly with the Greens but this is absurd particularly when we need to unite against Heathrow, because it’s a crucial battle against climate change, that along with fracking.

What’s your assessment of the Collins Review and the future of the union-Labour link?

I was very disappointed the unions accepted the Collins Review. We should have rejected it and pushed for a clearer role of the unions within the party. I’m definitely worried about the weakening of the link. There are many within the old New Labour clique, hanging around still looking to weaken that link even further. We need to start rebuilding the link at a local level and also campaigns on particular issues, like the fast food campaign, like blacklisting. We need to ensure that whatever the formal structures we’ve got a vibrant organic link between the party rank and file and the unions.

If we’re not careful the Labour Party could become like any other party within the system, part of the rotation of elite representation. That’s the fear, but there’s a long way to go between now and then, and if we rebuild the link it will enable us to get a review of the decision taken with Collins.

It seems like the union leaders, including left leaders, duck every fight.

On a number of key occasions the union bureaucracies have decided not to mobilise their members in the fight many members wanted. One reason is a lack of confidence, I mean political confidence. Even though there’s some good leaders like Mark Serwotka and Matt Wrack others lack any real political idea they can mobilise.

The other issue is that unions are just completely bureaucratised. Unison, my own union, is a clear example.

You can overcome that by rank and file mobilisation. With the Blacklist Support Group, we didn’t have any official union support, but the campaign took direct action, and won union support bit by bit. Now we have general secretaries falling over themselves to get on platforms. Left-wing unions can also play an important role, even when they’re smaller, like the Bakers’ Union is in the fast food campaign.

We need to demand Labour stands with workers. Take the FBU. Under New Labour they went through some bitter struggles, but they’ve got a new leadership under Matt Wrack, and on pensions they’ve fought the Tories for two years. They’ve combined industrial action with lobbying, parliamentary representation and more recently direct action. At their last lobby they had two and half thousand firefighters and they closed down Parliament Square. What happened is Miliband took over my motion to rescind the attacks and the whole PLP supported it.

My line has always been that in the depths of a recession, usually, people just want to survive. When you start coming out of recession and expectations are raised, and there’s economic growth, but you’re not sharing in the benefits, people get angry and have the ability to mobilise more effectively. That’s already started to happen.

What’s the future for the Labour left?

We convened the Labour Left platform, which was sponsored by all the left groups in the party, for the first time in decades. We got a range of MPs and candidates, and a phalanx of policy advisers, and a range of social movements. We’re developing the policies and if we can have that reflected in Parliament after the election I think that could be quite fruitful. I don’t think we should try to turn it into a membership organisation or anything like that, but we’ll be having another meeting after the election and we’ll have to have that discussion and see.

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