Shadow chancellor JOHN McDONNELL talks to the Star’s Conrad Landin about Labour’s post-election strategy
Two years ago, few would have identified John McDonnell as Labour’s great conciliator. But as Jeremy Corbyn’s loyal number two, this is exactly what he has become.
It seems that barely a week goes by without the Big Mac, as some in the party affectionately call him, making a plea for the sheer reasonableness of Labour’s agenda or the willingness of him and Corbyn to work with their critics. Though he had little experience of prime time television before becoming shadow chancellor, he has become a master of direct pleas to camera.
His repeated prophesy in interviews over the past year that Labour would close its polling deficit was ridiculed by MPs and journalists alike. But having been vindicated in last week’s election, he has a spring in his step. Just before our interview, he has called for the public to apply maximum pressure for another general election. But would Labour win big, I ask?
“I never take any vote for granted, but I don’t think this government is a legitimate government,” he says. “It hasn’t got an overall majority. The deals it’s doing with the DUP — we’ve still not seen what that deal is, but again it’s backroom deals which I think is unconstitutional and undemocratic.
“What I’m saying to people is they should be pressing now, because nobody won this election. The Labour party should have the same right to put policies forward in Parliament, to be properly debated and voted upon and to legislate as well.”
That’s an ambitious demand. Does he think the Tories will be unable to command a majority, in that case? Will they be able to implement any of their controversial manifesto pledges?
“If they bring them forward we’ll defeat them in the House of Commons, they know that,” McDonnell says with confidence.
“What we’ve got now is a zombie government, it cannot make legislation, so what we now need to do is say to the general public, this government isn’t going to survive, press now to make sure Labour has the opportunity of going into government.
“And if that needs another general election so be it. But our view is we can rule as a minority government, because many of the policies we’ve got in the manifesto, we believe, could command majority support in the House.”
How will this work in practice? Labour would still struggle to get the numbers for a working majority on the current arithmetic. But, McDonnell says, there’s potential for winning Commons votes without being in government too.
“What we’ll do is we’ll put forward an amendment to the Queen’s Speech which sets out some of our programme,” he reveals. “After that we’ll use every parliamentary device that we possibly can to promote our manifesto policies.
“That could be individual pieces of legislation, in addition to that it could be motions, debates, amendments to any piece of legislation the Tories bring forward. For example the finance Bill — we’ll try to amend that, to insert a number of our tax proposals.”
It’s safe to say Theresa May hadn’t countenanced losing her majority when she called the election — so I ask McDonnell what, in his view, went so wrong. Were there particular policies in the manifesto he would blame?
“I think the whole vacuous nature of their manifesto,” he says. “You had Jeremy, you had the Labour Party bringing forward a manifesto, the contents were detailed, costed, excited people. And you had this absolute vacuum that the Tories brought forward. I think people thought they were insulted — they insulted the intelligence of the electorate. People weren’t going to put up with that.”
Corbyn was given an unprecedented standing ovation from Labour MPs when he entered the Commons chamber on Tuesday — reflecting the mea culpas from scores of his former critics. But what would McDonnell say to those who maintain their reservations about the leadership and its policy direction?
“The vast majority of members of the PLP just get on with the job,” he replies. “There’s a few people [who] still, I don’t think, have caught the mood of the party yet.”
But, he argues, no-one is more prepared to win them over than Corbyn. “We’re going to work on that. Jeremy’s policy is an open door to anyone. If there’s any areas of policy people want to lead on, we’re saying: help us develop that policy. Even if it’s not a formal position everyone’s got a role to play.”
What about those who don’t co-operate? “Those people who still have formal disagreements, let’s know what they are in policy terms. We haven’t had anyone disagreeing with any of the manifesto. So if it is about a policy issue then we can have that debate.
“If it’s about the style of our campaigning we can all learn lessons. If it’s about how we behave as a leadership, again, Jeremy’s position is open door now, all the time.”