Link to this page: https://secure.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/464/1753
Interview with John McDonnell MP
Can Labour be reclaimed?
Hannah Sell, assistant secretary of the Campaign for a New Workers' Party and Ken Smith, Socialist Party Trade Union organiser, interviewed John McDonnell MP on his challenge for the leadership of the Labour Party.
HS: Tony Blair argued in his speech to Labour Party conference that the Labour Party had not changed fundamentally, using Harold Wilson's anti-trade union In Place of Strife legislation as an example. Do you agree with him on that, and if so, what for you would mark a 'fundamental change' in the nature of the Labour Party?
JM: The Labour Party was a broad church coalition from its foundations with trade unionists coming together with socialists, Liberals, and social reformers to found the Labour Party as a voice for labour. It was always a broad church but it was always a terrain of struggle.
Up until John Smith's leadership that broad church was maintained. Kinnock tried to destroy part of it. But until Smith became leader of the party there was still an element of the broad church there.
The New Labour coup in 1994 was when the Labour Party was at its most vulnerable and had been out of power for 14 years. So they tried to even further destroy democracy within the party and exclude any dissent whatsoever from its own political trajectory.
I don't think it's been successful. If you look at the resistance there is within the party and within the trade union movement, there is a demand for a radical break. I think there's a resurgent Left both within the affiliated trade unions and within the constituency parties as well.
HS: And what is the state of the Labour Party at present?
JM: Official Labour Party membership figures have gone down from 400,000 to 190,000, of which realistically I don't think there's more than 130,000. Active membership, even if you gave them the benefit of the doubt and said it was 20%, you're talking about 20,000 active members.
It is at its lowest ebb in terms of rank-and-file membership. However, I think of that membership there is still a determined Left that still exists. And, therefore, particularly amongst our affiliates from the trade unions where the Broad Lefts now dominate most of the major unions there is the potential there of regaining a position within the Labour Party.
HS: Is part of your campaign strategy to encourage people to join the Labour Party?
JM: It's a twin strategy really. What I'm trying to do in a completely non-sectarian way is to try and encourage people to work through the Labour Party by joining the Labour Party or use their union's affiliation to the Labour Party to maximum effect in the policy debate and the fight for positions.
In addition to that, I'm also trying to say to those people who've taken a conscious decision not to work through the Labour Party, there's a lot of issues where we can campaign for common objectives and we can engage in the same policy debate that we can create this climate of hegemony for socialism in which we can win the battle of ideas.
HS: At the TUC, opinion surveys showed that about 60% of the delegates would back you or vote for you in this contest. So far that has not materialised into any major union leader declaring for you. Why do you think this is and what can trade unionists do to assist you getting such backing?
JM: The Electoral Reform Society did a ballot, which was a voluntary ballot, so I don't know how scientific that was. But, I think it reflected - 58% said they'd vote for me - what the media were picking up as well.
Additionally, a number of media did straw polls of delegates going in and out of the conference itself and again we were picking up 50%-60%.
So, at a rank-and-file level there's clearly a demand for policy change which is reflected in support for the candidacy.
HS: But at the top none of the big affiliated unions have yet called for support for you.
JM: Let's be frank. The big four general secretaries have come together and taken a decision not to announce who they are supporting and that's on the basis that they want to negotiate with Gordon Brown.
They think that Brown is going to win and they want to negotiate policy positions.
However, when it comes down to it there will be a one person, one vote in the affiliated trade unions.
The Broad Lefts - Amicus Gazette and the TGWU Broad Left - are supporting my campaign and assisting us in distributing material, And, on that basis - exactly as we planned and exactly as I wanted it - this is a rank-and-file campaign with rank-and-file support.
HS: What can readers of the socialist, particularly those active in the unions, do to help your campaign?
JM: Obviously, members of the Socialist Party are not looking to work through the Labour Party, I accept that. That's the position they have taken.
But what I want them to do is two things: Firstly, if they are members of an affiliated trade union I would expect them to support a Left candidate as they would normally do in any of these battles.
And, secondly, in a completely open, non-sectarian way is the most important thing is for political groups to have the debate about the policy issues for the future of the country.
KS: If you were to win the leadership of the Labour Party would you reinstitute a modern version of Clause Four [the socialist clause Blair removed from Labour's constitution] and would adherence to that be a test of Labour Party membership?
JM: If you look at the LRC (Labour Representation Committee) which we established, and I'm chair of, it has its own version of Clause Four. And that reflects the original and that is about adherence to basic socialist policies.
And, at the same time, you debate their interpretation and you don't use the powers of expulsion or draconian disciplinary measures to undermine that debate.
KS: But, obviously, if somebody in your cabinet was in favour of further privatisation of education, health you'd ask them to leave surely.
JM: Well you would ask them what they were doing in the party. But I don't work on that basis but work on the basis of winning the argument.
HS: We welcome the fact you are fighting this contest to win. However, I am sure you recognise that there is discussion amongst your supporters on what happens if you don't win, or even succeed in getting enough MPs nominations to get on the ballot paper. [He needs 44 nominations.] How would you see things developing in that instance?
JM: My campaign was deliberately not launched in Parliament. It was launched at a public meeting in Manchester not in a parliamentary committee room.
What I didn't want was the traditional Labour Party campaign where it was seen as a group of MPs coming together, stomping out of the bar and saying here's our campaign and programme.
I deliberately wanted this to be seen as a rank-and-file initiative. My idea around the campaign is to try and build up the momentum in the constituencies and trade unions which will give confidence to Labour MPs to nominate.
Labour MPs in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) are not used to voting, let alone nominating. They've only had one vote in the PLP in the last nine years and that was over the disciplinary procedures over MPs who speak against the Whip.
So they're not exactly used to democracy.
If we can build the momentum in the constituencies and the trade unions I'm confident we can get on the ballot paper.
There's a strong argument that we're putting to MPs that if they don't nominate me they won't have a chance of voting. It will be a coronation rather than an election.
So, I think on that basis we'll get on the ballot paper.
I don't contemplate defeat. I just don't contemplate it. There is no struggle that we go into where we talk about what happens when we lose. I'm talking about what happens when we win.
HS: What would it take for you to decide to agree with us that the Labour Party is finished as a vehicle for working-class people to struggle through?
JM: That's too hypothetical. Concrete realities of tactics and strategy need to be taken on board here.
A new mass workers' party
The socialist interviewed John McDonnell MP about his decision to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party. Unlike John McDonnell we do not believe that New Labour remains a broad church.
While this was true in the past today the Labour Party is under the iron grip of the Blairities. The Labour Party today is virtually an empty shell, in which democratic structures which previously at least allowed the working class, particularly via the trade unions, a voice within the Labour Party have been completely destroyed.
Since 1997 the trade unions have given more than £100 million to New Labour. They have been rewarded with a relentless diet of cuts, privatisation and war. We believe the time has come for the trade unions to stop funding New Labour and begin to build a new party that actually represents their members' interests.
However, the majority of trade union leaders are still mistakenly arguing that New Labour can be changed.
We believe that if they are sincere in this, those in affiliated trade unions should support John McDonnell's campaign for the leadership.
McDonnell may be the only candidate other than Brown the Blairite, and is certainly the only candidate who stands on a programme that is in the interests of trade union members, in that it is against cuts, low pay and privatisation.
If McDonnell gets enough support to get on the ballot paper, we will call on those trade unionists that have a vote in the election to vote for him.
However if, as we unfortunately expect, the Labour leadership contest confirms Labour cannot be reclaimed, we argue that McDonnell and the other Labour lefts should draw the necessary conclusions from this and throw their weight behind the building of a new mass workers' party.
In The Socialist 22 November 2006:
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