The socialist at
Number 11

John McDonnell on austerity, childhood and crisis

When John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow chancellor of the exchequer, told me that we are “well past” crisis point, he was referring to the elemental state of austerity. The burning impact of public spending cuts, reported by the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights as “punitive, mean-spirited, and often callous,” slowly cleaving apart the ice shelf of British life. A few weeks after that conversation McDonnell’s words are additionally prescient, his own party juddered by crisis.

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Jeremy Corbyn did what no one else could. When Labour held a leadership election in 2015 he didn’t just get on the ballot, he won. Unremarkable in and of itself but for his socialist politics.

For years under Tony Blair, Labour was ‘New.’ It shifted to the centre, became a party of justice (“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”), introduced private contracts to the public sector through PFI and engaged in illegal foreign wars.

The left of the party was marginalised to a colourful fringe that repeatedly rebelled against Blair, and his successor Gordon Brown, in parliamentary votes and delivered speeches at protests like ‘Stop The War’ – the UK’s best attended political demonstration of the 21st Century.

That was the space occupied by Corbyn and his buddy John McDonnell. Twice McDonnell had tried and failed to get on the ballot of the Labour leader race, in 2007 and 2010. After a heart attack in 2014 it looked like a “quiet” retirement and “drift” into obscurity. A slim ration of notoriety from the time he protested Heathrow expansion by lifting up the Commons’ ceremonial mace. He is insistent he will not run for leader again.

Corbyn, however, was convinced to give it a crack by McDonnell after the Conservatives secured their first majority for 23 years in the 2015 general election. On acceptance, McDonnell set about gathering enough support from other MPs to get his friend on the ballot, framed as a parting gift to the party’s old way.

A groundswell of grassroots activism and accompanying members into the party from pressure group Momentum secured Corbyn the leadership, as it is a vote by Labour members that decides its new leader. Socialism had brought its weight to bear, leveraging instruments of democracy to its advantage.

Since, Labour has advocated a programme of nationalisation, increased public expenditure through taxation and a reduction in tax avoidance as well as environmental and worker protections. The party has also faced extensive criticism for its handling of anti-Semitism within its own ranks and Brexit.

In the wake of 2016’s referendum on membership of the European Union, Corbyn’s shadow cabinet collapsed on a wave of centrist resignations. It precipitated a leadership challenge that, in the end, the incumbent saw off with an increased majority. McDonnell describes the “coup” as “quite exciting”, with laughter, but also an opportunity to bring through a new crop of promising characters.

There has been little room for the acolytes of Blair and Brown in the years that followed, particularly after the party’s performance in the 2017 snap election. A massacre was expected. Instead Labour increased its vote share by the largest margin since the end of the second world war.

Take over complete, base solidified and no path to career progression for an enterprising Blairite to pursue.

Which brings us to now, the heady and warm winter of early 2019 where institutions begin to splinter apart. At the time of writing, eight MPs have resigned from the Labour party. Far from the caricature of the hard man on the left, McDonnell has been acting as the glue and go-between for his party’s leadership and dissenting moderates. And yet, one feels the strength of the bond is yet to be subject to maximum stress.

As a 24-year-old man, John McDonnell and his then wife were responsible for the care of 10 children. It was a “fairly sexist traditional model” that saw the house mother caring full-time while the father worked. What was it like, shouldering so much responsibility at that age? “Tough.” A laugh follows and then his actual answer: “No, I loved it.”

They visited McDonnell’s “mum’s place” and went camping in Scotland, acting as much like a “normal” family as they could. He said he looks back on the time and its challenge with a sense of excitement.

“Their life experiences were pretty tough, they were all kids who had been brought into care largely because of family breakdown, mental health problems in the family or sometimes abuse. I hope we helped them come through it.”

During his own childhood, McDonnell was pushed toward priesthood. He gently mocks the tradition that saw Irish Catholic families arbitrarily select a relation for the religious orders. “I thought I had a vocation.”

From state school he was sent to De La Salle, a private boarding school, in preparation for a seminary. At 16 he realised it wasn’t for him, left and does not have faith now. The local parish priest refers to McDonnell as “a lapsed Catholic,” which the shadow chancellor insists is optimistic.

“I have a lot of respect [for our religious leaders], it’s a constructive relationship. When there’s a crisis in this community and I put out an appeal, they always come forward, on a multi-faith basis.”

Despite not being religious, Corbyn’s de-facto deputy still mentions the radical pope John XXIII as an influence. “He changed the atmosphere within Catholicism, it was more about confronting the real world.” Additionally, he cites Guru Granth Sahib and Guru Nanak, references no doubt a product of the significant Sikh population in Hayes and Harlington.

“These are common lessons learnt by humanity here, and whatever religious group, or non-religious group, there are commons themes. It is about mutual respect, mutual engagement.” Still, it’s obvious it is politics and a sense of social justice, not God, that are omnipresent for McDonnell.

We’re talking in his constituency office, rendered shabby by the prominent and modern mosque across the road. He helped secure the site for a place of worship 20 years ago. Not that that has any bearing on the interior of McDonnell’s workspace.

The Irish Proclamation sits above his desk to the right, in front a plaque dedicated to ‘The H-Block Martyrs.’ Shelves sag and bow under the weight of case files ranging from ‘pensions’ to ‘Stop Genocide of Tamil in Sri Lanka 2.’ There is a poster for I, Daniel Blake. Helen, one of McDonnell’s staff, says he is “a hoarder.”

A megaphone rests against stickers from a demonstration long forgotten. Relics of protest in the office of the man who would be chancellor of the exchequer. A socialist at 11 Downing Street.

It is early in the morning, before most start their work day, still McDonnell warns we may be interrupted.

“You’ll find the door is going continuously. The social problems we’re dealing with, I’ve lived here for 40 years and never seen anything like this.

“It’s a struggle. A lot of the work falls on my team and they’re fantastic. I literally have a saint who runs my office, a woman called Helen Lowder. She works herself into the ground, won’t take time off. It all falls on Helen and my team.

“We’re a strong community, multicultural, working class, we’ve never seen anything as bad as this. Homelessness on a scale we’ve not seen ever, overcrowding and we’ve got this beds in sheds phenomenon – where families are living in sheds and garages rented out to them.

“Helen has been dealing, just before Christmas, with families who are living in vans in the area, that’s how bad it is. Our food banks are overflowing at the moment because of people not having their benefits.

“Benefits being delayed, Universal Credit has just been introduced in this area, sanctions, the people who are affected the most are those with mental health problems who can’t cope with this system.

“My team here are dealing with all of that, people come to me when we’re the last resort, they’ve tried everything else and they’re desperate and it’s heartbreaking. Heartbreaking.”

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That’s what McDonnell was referring to when we spoke about being at crisis point. He no doubt laments the loss of eight of his own MPs but it’s neither central or periphery.

What it truly is, is a distraction. A shift of the focus away from the horror and brutality and suffering. That’s what he means, when he talks about a crisis point.