John McDonnell Stole the Labour Conference

And everything else you need to know about this year's party get-together.
Simon Childs
London, GB
September 26, 2018, 11:04am
John McDonnell addressing a Labour Party rally on Saturday, the evening before the conference started. Photo: JEP News / Alamy Stock Photo

Last year's Labour conference was all about adulation for "the Absolute Boy", Jeremy Corbyn, riding high on his election performance and still emitting the glow of a man delighted to discover some personal charisma for the first time.

This year, the man of the moment is surely Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who laid out his economic vision in ten-minute bursts to standing ovations, before legging it to the next breathless panel like a man possessed.


At Monday at 5:30PM, the fringe programme had him down as speaking at three separate panels all at the same time: one hosted by the Unite trade union and the "Robin Hood Tax" campaign; one by left-wing think-tank, the New Economics Foundation; and, less radically, one jointly hosted by the Confederation of British Industry and the British Private Equity and Venture Capital Association.

Fittingly, the mercurial Shadow Chancellor has pulled off the trick of pleasing the Labour grassroots and drawing praise from the likes of Jim O'Neill, the former Chairman of Goldman Sachs asset management, who wrote in the Financial Times that Labour's "readiness to explore new ways of shaking up the status quo is admirable". He also got a glowing write-up from centrist Guardian pundit, Polly Toynbee – "a resigning issue", he joked at a fringe panel on Monday evening.

His vision is more detailed and dynamic than Jeremy Corbyn's "bad things are bad, good things are good" socialism. In his conference speech he summed his plan up as "the greatest extension of economic democratic rights that this country has ever seen".

But it was at the panels of The World Transformed – the grassroots parallel festival – that he offered a more holistic exposition. In broad terms, there's a recognition that even a generous welfare state can be oppressive – the jobsworth Jobcentre worker, the tick-box council housing officer, the control of your life by bureaucracy. He used the term "statist" pejoratively and warned of the dangers of the "incorporation" of a radical movement into the state. The alternative, he suggests, is to transform the state to empower people.


In terms of actual policies, McDonnell was talking about using public procurement to invigorate the cooperative sector; a "right to buy" for workers when companies are sold; making workers stakeholders in the companies they work for; the nationalisation of utilities, but with involvement from workers. That kind of thing. In terms of where the body politics is at, these are modest policies which hint at big lofty ideas.

Photo: Paul Quayle / Alamy Stock Photo

Otherwise, the conference had a muted feel. The at times obnoxious jubilation of the left of last year – following a better than expected election loss, and at their dominance of conference proceedings – has been replaced by a determined and business-like mood.

Corbyn's detractors, however, are looking increasingly out of touch. At the rally of Labour First – the old right-wing of the party, which is fiercely opposed to Jeremy Corbyn – the biggest dilemma seemed to be having a leader who is actually electable. Ian Austin MP lamented how Jeremy Corbyn's surprising popularity would perversely make life difficult at elections. "How many MPs got through the last election saying, 'Don’t worry about the national result. There's no way Jeremy's going to win. You can vote for me here. Who makes the best MP for this constituency?' After that [2017] result, the voters won't believe that next time… it’s going to be quite a difficult question to face up to, how we approach the doorsteps next time."


The rally of Progress – another right-wing pressure group in the party – took a different approach: it was all about repackaging sensible centrism as edgy radicalism. Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy called Momentum "absolute melts", aping the language of left-Twitter. "This isn't about taking the party back, but taking the country forward," she said – a snappy, Blairite formulation that really sticks it to anybody who is against forward motion. "Comrades, let's take back control… of socialism!" she said, borrowing from the catchphrase of the Vote Leave campaign to pretend she's interested in radical politics.

It's a long way back for the "moderate" malcontents, who felt like a weird sideshow here, in much the same way that old trade unionists selling socialist newspapers would have been in the Blair years. What was once considered far-left is now normal, and it's on the left of the party that the ideas and vibrancy exist. The packed panels at TWT contrasted with one Progress event that had seven panellists and 12 audience members.

The party seems not to have torn itself apart over Brexit, Momentum activists are a bit miffed that the unions stopped them reselecting MPs they don't like all over the shop, and the anti-Semitism scandal didn't blow up (one fringe event panellist noted gladly that it hadn't dented Labour in the polls anyway, as if to say, "So that's alright then.")

One suspects that the sense of opportunity for a left-wing government will paper over any cracks.


Throughout it all, the question needs to be asked: are radicals capturing the Labour Party or is the Labour Party capturing radicalism? Can the state and its oppression be transformed into something empowering, or is that the political equivalent of turning ice cream into a health food?

It didn't help that shadow Home Secretary Dianne Abbot made some decidedly "statist" noises on beefing up the border forces and police in her conference speech. "The government is big on rhetoric about security, policing and borders. But talk is cheap. Action costs money. And they have slashed the border guards just like they slashed the police and the fire services. Not Labour. It was the Tories that cut them."

"Real border security – to stop drug traffickers, sex traffickers, gangsters and terrorists – that is what Labour stands for," she added.

She went on to blame the Tories for the Windrush scandal and the hostile environment, as if she hadn't just reinforced the hostile rhetoric that brought those two things about, and fluffed the opportunity presented by a national disgrace to push the envelope.

Talk is indeed cheap.