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John McDonnell's Chairman Mao Joke Shows Why Labour Are Unelectable

The Tories will be gleefully repeating it for years to come, so let's try to understand the Shadow Chancellor's "Little Red Book" moment.
November 26, 2015, 10:45am

(Screengrab via Sky News)

Related: George Osborne Just Delivered the Cosiest Autumn Statement Yet

Which Communist icon is a laugh riot? That's right – Chairman LMAO. Having come before the house to announce that his tax credits policy was in meltdown, and he'd failed to fix the deficit for the sixth straight year, George Osborne wasn't expecting to make a clean getaway from his autumn statement aboard a ROFLCOPTER.

But that was exactly the reprieve he was handed, as Tory MPs creased up, David Cameron virtually puked milk from his nose, and even the Speaker, John Bercow, put aside trite conventions about his own impartiality when he intervened during John McDonnell's speech. "Order," Bercow insisted, his lips pursing into wryness. "Now… I want to hear about this book…".


McDonnell had quoted Mao, then flung his Little Red Book across the aisle, and hence this was no longer a dry day of grinding wonk-ish political attrition. The Autumn Statement was officially a carnival of fuckwitery.

Not that the Shadow Chancellor – an experienced intellectual heavyweight – was just quoting Mao because he loves Mao. If you do listen to his full speech (though no one will ever do this, and I only did it myself because I was forced to by an editor) the proper context is that he was cannily satirising sell-offs of national infrastructure assets to overseas, often Chinese parastatal investors.

But why would anyone give a shit about context? For the same reason that no one has yet discovered a joke that still sounded funny when it was read back to them by the opposing barrister in a courtroom, humour that gives offence can be easily obliterated by almost anyone's political agenda. As a man of the hard Left, McDonnell should have known this already. Like a sort of Fabian Society Jeremy Clarkson, his excuse of "It was a bloody joke, OK?" rapidly gets drowned out by people asking him if he thinks that sort of joke is funny. Like the juvenile refrain of "How can we be sitting here when people are dying?", the mawkish and sentimental always win in these situations. Especially when there's a body count attached. So McDonnell thinks the deaths of 40 million is funny?

You can contextualise all you like, but it won't matter because the question rapidly becomes one of judgement, and therefore basic electability. Not: "Would you trust John McDonnell not to put Cornish peasants in gulags and cause a famine in the Pennines?", but "Would you trust John McDonnell to know a very stupid idea when he saw one?".


Maybe over the coming four years, in which this clip being endlessly decontextualised and replayed to him in every Tory attack ad, he will start to realise what exactly a very bad idea looks like, how the media works, and what a spin doctor as ruthless as Lynton Crosby can do to you if you hand him your own ass on a plate.

(Photo by Chris Bethell)

Perhaps McDonnell will come to feel a lot like Liam Byrne – who also couldn't recognise a very bad idea when he left a note in the Treasury at the end of Gordon Brown's government saying "There's no more money". Five years later, David Cameron was still carrying his "copy" of that note around throughout the election campaign, producing it in a series of bizarrely-crowbarred yet ruthlessly-effective stump speech moments. Liam Byrne understood what a bad idea looked like. It looked like a joke gone wrong.

We have all made bad jokes that became diplomatic incidents. But we should at least have the good sense to avoid allowing them to turn into prop comedy – manifestly the most dangerous of all the comedies. The sheer forethought of going out and finding a copy of the Little Red Book is its own under-explored subplot, and the series of failsafes and system early-warnings that have been bypassed to get to the point where McDonnell was allowed to make this joke – where SpAds and spin doctors and junior ministers didn't notice or seek further consultation – will make most feel very relieved that the New Old Labour Party wants to abolish Trident. Though they also make you worry that they'd dismantle it with hammers.

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The worst of it is that this won't just be attacks from the opposite side. Right now, the Labour Party itself is trying to pin down its historical destiny – is it a party of social revolution and protest? Or of C of E-style moderation and consensual government? Already split down the middle, there is the potential for the many enemies of the Corbyn project to use the political incorrectness of Mao to blow it up by tying it in semantic knots. You won't find many people who think that Mao did a really great job killing all of those people, but the moment you start to find people who agree with "at least some of his basic principles", you're heading down the slippery slope to philosophical oblivion. The same wave of new leftists who are so historically sensitive they want to dig up the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University for being a bit of a racist/imperialist will have a hard time justifying why they're even one percent in-line with the 20th century's genocide scoreboard leader.

For all the misery about to be heaped on his head, McDonnell has done little wrong except grossly misunderestimate the stupidity of the human race. Perhaps that basic idealism says a lot about the saintly naivety of the Corbyn project, about why it is still being out-played and out-maneouvred back in reality.


If only he'd read more closely from the Little Red Book of the original Chairman Of The Lolitburo: "When you point a finger at the moon to indicate the moon, instead of looking at the moon, the stupid ones look at your finger."



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