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A Quick Chat on the Tube with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell: 'George Osborne Is in Chaos'

We talked about how he's going to respond to George Osborne's "smoke and mirrors" in today's autumn statement.
November 25, 2015, 10:15am

John McDonnell speaks to our reporter while an aide listens in

"It's been tough—really tough," says Labour's John McDonnell, about his first months as Shadow Chancellor, as we wait on the St James' Park platform. After over two months of hostile press coverage and party infighting, Wednesday's spending review and Autumn Statement is going to be the new Shadow Chancellor's biggest test yet.

Since taking office in September, McDonnell has been pretty hard to pin down. The only time I could grab him for a chat is settling down on the District Line, as he made the journey back to his constituency. A lot has changed since we met before the General Election.

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It was also before the Labour leadership election, when he was obscure enough that you could chat to him fairly easily, and he could get away with saying things like "we [Jeremy Corbyn and I] don't believe in leaders." Can John McDonnell, until recently a rebel backbencher and radical activist, convince us he's got the makings of a future Chancellor of the Exchequer?

His first attempt didn't go well. The Fiscal Charter was a crass and economically illiterate attempt to make the Labour Party's new leaders look like incompetent idiots, but it worked. The legislation ties Britain into producing a budget surplus from 2020 onwards. A number of eminent economists felt it necessary to write publicly about how it was "irresponsible for the Chancellor to take such risky experiments… to score political points."

But as trap it showed some serious strategy: vote against it, the Labour Party looks like they're happy to piss voters' money away. Vote for it, and their anti-austerity policies are completely undermined.

When it came to it, McDonnell committed to doing both—at first supporting it, then later asking his party to vote against it. He admitted this was a U-turn in the commons, repeatedly shouting his agreement that it was "embarrassing" over the brays of Tory MPs.

"It was an excruciating nightmare," smiles McDonnell acceptingly, "but importantly we won the vote within the PLP," meaning that Labour mostly voted against the charter, though it was passed. "We only had 20 voting against us or abstaining, and honestly I thought there'd be more." (It was actually 21 who defied the whip).

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Self-inflicted errors aside, McDonnell argues that he and Corbyn have had a much tougher ride from the press than other incoming opposition leaders. "The Times, Telegraph, and Mail, they've gone back to 1975 researching me, and contacting people from the past." That antipathy has been mirrored by parts of the Parliamentary Party. "When I was appointed Shadow Chancellor, I couldn't get into my office for at least a week, because the previous administration were still in there," said McDonnell.

Once he finally got inside, he found there were no computers left behind, as he struggled with Labour Party HQ to free up the resources to appoint his staff. This can't help but conjure up an image like a scene from The Thick of It, of the shadow Chancellor sitting on a milk crate in a bare office, refreshing Twitter, and tapping out policy ideas into the notes app on his phone. "Even now, I've only just got my team in place."

Now the Shadow Chancellor has got an office, with both computers and staff. He's also appointed an impressive economic advisory committee. Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz and ex-Bank of England Committee member David Blanchflower are on board, among six of the most respected economists of our time.

McDonnell predicts that the Autumn Statement will be "filled with smoke and mirrors… stunts and razzmatazz on the first day, but in the days that follow, the truth will come out."

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Smoke and mirrors like Osborne's promise, made in his Summer Budget back in July, to tackle poverty with a national living wage; just days later, the number crunchers cottoned on that with cuts to tax credits we'd be worse off than we were before.

"This time he'll do the same, try and portray that he's pulled back on cuts in contentious areas like policing," predicts McDonnell, "and claim to actually be protecting the poorest in society."

"On tax credits, if he pulls back, he may well be cutting housing benefit," suggests McDonnell. "The burden just shifted from one area to the next."

He predicts Osborne will be keen to talk about an £8 to £10 billion [$12- $15 billion] funding jump for the NHS—a day after we talk, a £3.8 billion [$5.7 billion] boost is announced—"but we'll be in crisis by winter anyway, as he's asking them to find £22 billion [$33 billion] of savings."

John predicts that Osborne will keep a couple of zingers close to his chest in order to give McDonnell's team the minimum amount of time to pull together a coherent response. "Unless we can find some headlines there and then, expect Osborne to come off OK."

The response is likely to see a rhetorical shift. John has cottoned on that "anti-austerity" in of itself will not resonate with voters—"what does austerity mean?" being one of the most-searched terms during the Labour leadership debates.

Instead, he's now talking about investment, wages, and the price of houses, while continuing to get characteristically angry about those bloody Tory cuts.

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I ask what John really makes of George Osborne, his opposite number. "Honestly? I think he's in chaos."

John with Former Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis (left) and Christine Blower, general secretary of the NUT (center)

Earlier in the evening, McDonnell had been speaking at an event with Yanis Varoufakis, who resigned from his position as Greek Finance Minister when he couldn't stomach austerity being implemented by his own party, Syriza. This leads me to a question that seems to have been ignored. If Labour is really committed to a democratic "new politics," what might happen if the party votes to take a stance he can't abide? Let's say, for example, a majority of members vote to renew Trident nuclear weapons—would he really lead a party into an election on a manifesto containing policies he'd oppose?

"Yeah, I think that's the nature of the party we are pursuing." He assures me, however, that he doesn't think this situation is likely to arise.

"The majority of issues are ones we can win," he says, neatly avoiding giving a red-line issue that would make him resign. And to be fair, recent polling shows that some 66 percent of Labour members think Corbyn is doing well and fewer than one in five Labour members and supporters want to see him resign.

The public at large is another question—a recent Independent on Sunday poll made uncomfortable reading for Corbynistas with an eight point increase in the leader's "unfavorable" rating since his election in September.

With the train pulling into Ealing Station, a fellow passenger heckles our photographer. "You'll never convince anyone about this," he said, pointing towards this politician on a train not powered by gravy. John told me he really does take public transport all the time, but it summed up the problem—people don't trust politicians, and McDonnell doesn't act like one, but that, in turn, stops him looking like a true statesman.

As we make our way along the platform, John puts out his hand for a shake goodbye, and I ask my final question. Is he really ready for Downing Street? "Yes, certainly, and every day I'm stepping forward," he responds. "I wouldn't live at Number 11 though," he calls back, heading off to catch the next train, "I'd stay in Hayes I should think, I'm almost certain."

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