As Britain teeters on the edge of a second coronavirus lockdown, former shadow chancellor and left-wing Labour luminary John McDonnell MP is explaining why he believes Boris Johnson’s days are numbered.
“What will happen, almost certainly, I would have thought, is the Tory party will realise they can’t cope with Johnson any longer,” says McDonnell. “His incompetence is exposed, and he’s going to become a liability. Then they replace him with Rishi Sunak, who the establishment media are building up as the saviour of the moment.”
McDonnell knows chancellor Rishi Sunak all too well. As Labour’s shadow chancellor for almost five years, the 69-year old once branded the “enemy of capitalism” was working opposite Sunak and alongside outgoing Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn when the coronavirus crisis began.
These were the dying days of Corbyn and McDonnell’s unlikely journey from the outer reaches of Labour’s left-wing to the heart of the party and back out again. In 2015, when it all began, McDonnell was seen as the harder of the hard left pair, throwing down a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book in the House of Commons and carrying with him a reputation as a socialist fixer.
But he was a canny politician, too. His image softened considerably. He sought to build bridges between the Labour left and the City of London. He lunched with the FT. He tried to show the country that socialist economics were just simple common sense.
Ironically, the outbreak of the pandemic might have helped with that. Over the months that followed, Sunak adopted emergency measures that looked almost McDonnell-like in their harnessing of state resources. The Conservative chancellor became the darling of many pundits, with LBC’s James O’Brien heralding his budget as “fascinating and potentially excellent”, and The Observer’s Nick Cohen saying that if Sunak were a Labour politician “Momentum activists would be cheering themselves hoarse”. The BBC portrayed the chancellor as a cartoon superhero and Vogue told its readers, “Admit it: You fancy Rishi Sunak.”
McDonnell isn’t swooning. “He’s handed over power to the exploiters and profiteers,” says McDonnell of the Tory chancellor, over the phone from his home in Hillingdon, west London. “All the policies he pursues are to protect his friends in capital.” The government, the Labour man says, has “demonstrated a criminal level of incompetence” in its handling of the pandemic, and been “criminally negligent” in its treatment of frontline workers. What’s more, he continues, the Conservatives have failed to use this emergency to lay the foundations for tackling the climate crisis, and the story about them using the levers of the state to protect its people is just that: a story.
“Let’s be realistic,” McDonnell says. “Before I went as shadow chancellor, we submitted a whole series of policy papers and whatever to Sunak, including the proposal for the furlough, including the support for self-employed. We also submitted proposals about how you lay the foundations in this crisis for tackling climate change. He has been forced into implementation of a range of those policies, but it’s been like drawing teeth. It’s always too slow, never on the scale needed.”
McDonnell is speaking to me after the opening summit of Progressive International (PI), an organisation that aims to connect and mobilise leftist movements across the globe. As one member of the PI team puts it to me, “Evil is organised globally, the forces for good have to be too.” The three-day series of events was, the organisation said, convened to “confront the central dilemma of our time: Internationalism or Extinction”, and ended on Sunday with a declaration that “there is an alternative” to the political and economic system burning our planet to the ground.
The summit placed the Liverpool-born McDonnell alongside such figures of the international left as Yanis Varoufakis, Cornel West (“I love the man, I can’t help it,” says McDonnell) and Naomi Klein. Clad in his trademark red V-neck jumper, the British politician was in his element, bringing the experience of almost half a century of socialist struggle to the proceedings.
“I think it’s a great initiative,” McDonnell says of Progressive International. “It’s been tried so many times, and it had to happen because of the pressure that’s upon us… I’ll throw everything I can into it.” On Friday, PI council member Noam Chomsky, invoking the climate crisis, called for a kind of “panic” that organises and energises people. McDonnell also believes the climate crisis is the defining “existential threat” of our era.
But there is also a crisis of democracy, with – as Varoufakis puts it – “two authoritarian internationalisms wrecking humanity’s prospects”. These ascendant forces are “the captains of banks and corporations whose interests the liberal establishment serves globally”, and the “xenophobic nationalists” promising their citizens a restoration of pride and happiness by “turning them against the migrant, the foreigner, the ‘other’”.
In McDonnell’s eyes, Johnson falls firmly into that latter camp. He recently told Italian newspaper la Repubblica that the prime minister’s politics are “proto-fascism”, and went on to call Johnson a “proto-fascist” at the PI summit.
“That expression was really to make sure our own people within our own movement rediscovered some of the analysis of the past that actually applies to today,” McDonnell says. “The concept of proto-fascism is that actually you are identifying the traits within an individual or a movement that could lead you to fascism. In terms of this country, it would be conservative authoritarianism, and I think that’s what we are facing.”
The prime minister, McDonnell says, has a “complete disregard” for domestic and international law, for parliament and parliamentary accountability, and for the nation’s judges. He has “a supplicant media, a party that’s taking money from foreign donors – and at the same time is awarding contracts to close associates and, when there’s a civil servant who stands up and actually says this is wrong, they get pushed out very quickly. All of those traits are those undermining a democracy, and I think you have to warn people about this.”
“Every day was just a struggle to survive.”
McDonnell says he’s trying to get new Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer and his team to see that Johnson “will always go for nationalism – and he’ll tinge it with racism and anti-migrant language”. In response to that, says McDonnell, Labour needs to demonstrate that it is the “community party”.
The former shadow chancellor is also trying to get Labour to link Johnson to Sunak, and to call out the government for “the very limited accountability and the corruption that might be taking place” in its distribution of resources.
Are Starmer and his team brave enough to do that? “I think so,” says McDonnell. “That’s what I’m trying to persuade them to do, and if they have some anxieties about that, then that story can be told from the back benches.”
Reflecting on Corbyn’s time as leader, his old friend says, “Every day was just a struggle to survive, so energies got sapped into just survival.”
“Before Jeremy ran for the leadership I did have a plan,” he says, with a wry chuckle. That plan was to run a candidate from the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs, pick up 20 to 25 percent of the votes, to show there was a left-wing constituency within the Labour Party, and to build a social movement from there.
McDonnell had tried this before, in 2007, when he challenged Gordon Brown for the leadership. “I never got onto the ballot paper,” he laughs. “The whole purpose was to plant a flag for people to rally around and build that social movement. That’s how you bring about a revolution, you know?”
“I look back on it, and I think it was cart before the horse. We won the leadership before we built the social movement, it should have been the other way round.”
He wasn’t surprised by this resistance within his party, and says the tactics they used were “completely expected as well”. The co-ordinated resignation of much of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet in 2016 was an echo then-defence minister Tom Watson’s attempt to oust Tony Blair on behalf of Gordon Brown in 2006, a year before Brown actually took over. When I ask McDonnell if Watson – deputy leader under Corbyn, and now advising gambling giant Flutter Entertainment on corporate social responsibility – might try to bring his new masters down, he laughs heartily: “There’s a joke in there about, ‘I wouldn’t put a bet on it.’”
The morning after we speak, Starmer gives his first conference speech as Labour leader. Standing behind a lectern bearing the slogan, “A New Leadership”, Starmer’s main message is exactly that: “Take another look at Labour,” he says. “We’re under new leadership.”
I message McDonnell to ask if he feels a little insulted.
“The speech,” he replies. “It’s not a problem and completely predictable. I am philosophical about these things and assess matters very much as a political artisan. Any incoming leader after an election defeat will want to distance themselves from the past. The more important question is not who interprets the past but who wins the future. That’s all to play for.”
Update: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that McDonnell referred to himself as a political “partisan”. This has been corrected.