“Never Underestimate the Ability of the Establishment to Divide and Rule”

John McDonnell

In an interview with Jacobin, former Labour Party shadow chancellor John McDonnell discusses Boris Johnson’s handling of the COVID crisis, recalls the radical atmosphere of the 1980s Labour Party, and draws the lessons from Jeremy Corbyn’s five years as party leader.

John McDonnell addresses supporters in his home town in Liverpool in 2017. (Christopher Furlong / Getty Images)

Interview by
Alex N. Press
Gabriel Winant

John McDonnell, a member of Parliament representing the West London constituency of Hayes and Harlington, was the Labour Party’s shadow chancellor under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership from 2015 until earlier this year. He was recently interviewed by staff writer Alex Press and historian Gabriel Winant on Jacobin’s Casualties of History, a podcast focused on E.P. Thompson’s classic history The Making of the English Working Class. McDonnell discussed the response to the current economic crisis, the Boris Johnson government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic, and the Labour Party’s bitter defeat in the 2019 election.

You can listen to Casualties of History by subscribing to Jacobin Radio here, and you can listen to the episode with McDonnell here. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.


ANP

John, why don’t we talk about the layoffs in your district that have kept you busy these past few weeks?

JM

When I was shadow chancellor up until the recent period, we were submitting papers to the government on what needed to happen. We argued, for example, for what they call the furlough scheme, which was introduced in Denmark, where if people have to go home because there’s no work for them, or they have to self-isolate, we were arguing that they should be paid their wages 100 percent. We wanted to ensure that the self-employed were protected but also we wanted a significant rise in benefits for those who are not in work — particularly people with disabilities, the carers, etc.

The government has introduced some of those measures but in a very half-hearted form. They’ve funded companies to furlough their staff, without any conditions. So, I give the example of what I think is a rogue company now, British Airways. It used to be a nationalized industry, used to be our national airline, it still is the flag carrier — you see the Union Jack flying on their airplanes.

What they’ve done is they’re taking the money, they furloughed staff, but a couple weeks ago they issued 12,000 redundancy notices — but then after that they then say, we’re going to dismiss all staff, and we’ll lay off permanently 12,000, but we’ll bring the other 30,000 back into work, but with forced wage cuts, and undermining terms and wages conditions.

Heathrow Airport is in my constituency. So British Airways is based in my constituency. The airline pilot union is in my constituency. Remember, in aviation, often what you’ll find is whole families working for the airport, some working for British Airways, some for other parts of the airport. So, as a result of British Airways’s announcement, I’ve got families now whose whole economic well-being is gone. They’ve got the whole family laid off: mother, father, sons. You can imagine what the reaction is in the whole community. That’s the first part.

But what’s really pushed people over the edge is that British Airways is part of an international group, IAG [International Airlines Group]. They’ve taken money off the Spanish government and what they’re doing is they’re laying off workers here to undermine wages and conditions, but they’re using their resources — and they’ve got quite significant resources — to buy up other airlines. So it’s a sort of Darwinian law of the jungle: who’s going to survive at the end of this, in aviation? And the reason they are allowed to get away with this is because the government here has attached no conditions for financial support.

What I was arguing for when I was shadow chancellor is resources going into protecting wages, not profits, and conditionality. For example, when 9/11 happened, I chaired a number of meetings with the unions and the companies, and we agreed to temporary measures. We accepted that people would be laid off but they’d have their wages guaranteed.

So, one of the arguments that we put to the government this time is that where there is a temporary problem like this, there should be a commitment to reengagement for those staff. And even if this goes on much longer than anything we’ve experienced in the past, there should still be reengagement clauses so those workers can be given the first refusal about getting their jobs back. That’s not happening.

So what we’re finding — and British airways is only the first — is that they won’t let this crisis go to waste. They’re using it to further ambitions and strategies that they’ve had for years. British Airways for years has been trying to undermine wages and conditions of work. We had a strike a couple years ago, a bitter strike of cabin crews, where they did exactly the same to the cabin crew. It’s been horrendous.

There’s a brutality to this, and it’s impacting people in a way which is affecting them. The stress, the mental health issues that are arising within our communities. So that’s what’s happened at the moment. The government is sitting on its hands. Obviously they’re under a lot of pressure from the business lobby. But I come at this as a bit of a political artisan.

You look at a government, you look at politicians and you think, even if you’re bitterly opposed to everything they do, are they competent? And what we’ve got in Boris Johnson, increasingly revealed now, is someone actually who desperately wants to be prime minister and now he’s there and can’t do the job. And Rishi Sunak, the chancellor they brought in, is dominated by Number 10 Downing Street, the prime minister’s office, and as a result of that we have policies that are slapdash, not implemented effectively, and at the same time they turn a blind eye to real problems within the economy itself.

So at the moment there’s a strong feeling in my constituency, but also across the country, that with Boris Johnson, who won an election six months ago with a sizeable majority, now people are thinking: what have we done?

What have we put into Number 10 in a crisis like this, when you need somebody who, even if you disagree with them politically, at least is competent. It’s pretty grim for working people at the moment and there are a number of companies that are ruthlessly exploiting the pandemic in a way which has to be condemned, but more importantly, has to be exposed.

GW

What do you think are the prospects for this current crisis opening up new avenues of solidarity and militancy and resistance for working people? This is a question in the United States that we’re thinking about.

JM

I did a couple of lectures over the last week, one for the Marx Memorial Library and the other for the London School of Economics. There are a lot of people arguing that this crisis opens up a huge opportunity for the Left because it demonstrates exactly what’s needed in our society and how austerity over the last decade or so has ill-prepared us for dealing with this pandemic. I think that’s true but what I’m trying to warn people about, and what I was trying to explain, is it actually opens up an opportunity for the Right as well.

I went through the banking crash, and there was an opportunity there, there was a small window of opportunity that lasted for about six months when people saw what capitalism is all about, and how a capitalist crisis was used effectively by the establishment to further its own ends. Lessons weren’t learned quickly enough or rapidly enough, and the Left missed the opportunity of using that to open up a window of debate around the issues.

This time around I’m saying you have to recognize the Right will seize upon it. Do not underestimate the potential that there is for the rise of the far right again as well, because if we do go into a significant recession for any period of time, then the Right will do the usual thing, which is search for scapegoats.

After the tragedy of George Floyd, we have had demonstrations, just as in the United States. In Bristol, they targeted a statue of a slave owner, and brought that statue down and threw it in the river. Then, Boris Johnson seized upon that, tweeted out this fear that there will be attacks on other statues — Winston Churchill — and he effectively called up the far right. So the far right marched into central London and were physically abusing people, etc., and it just shows you how a mob, because that’s what it was, can be called up in that way.

It goes back to the book [The Making of the English Working Class], doesn’t it? The king and church mobs that were raised up by those in power: that’s exactly what happened on this occasion. I’m trying to say to people that that’s just one small example of what can be done. When we had Mrs Thatcher in power, and recession after recession in terms of working people and working communities, what Mrs Thatcher did by her right-wing politics was she gave permission for the far right to rise up, and as a result of that, we had appalling instances of the far right targeting migrants in particular.

My constituency is multicultural, one of the most multicultural in the country, and it is next to Southall, which, again, has a large Asian population. And we had the National Front in the eighties mobilizing in Southall, and demonstrations took place.

There’s a famous case of a teacher named Blair Peach, who was killed by a police officer, but no police officer was prosecuted. And I just thought all the ingredients are here now if we’re not careful, not for people to learn the lessons of austerity and this pandemic, and therefore establish a program of progressive policies, but there’s also the risk of the far right using this. That’s what we’ve got to guard against first of all.

Secondly, we do have to come forward from the Left and from progressive movements with first of all a narrative about where we go from here, but link that to a policy program as well which concretely shows where we can go from here. That’s what a number of us are working on at the moment. We’re launching a project called Claim the Future. The idea behind it is to look at an alternative economic strategy that we’ll be able to mobilize behind.

But more importantly, it’s the old Marxist concept of praxis: not to produce as a think tank another set of papers — we’ve got those, we can put those together — but more importantly to identify who’s campaigning on those issues and how do we support them. Are there any gaps in those campaigns that we need to bring people together on? So that you’re building a movement more than just setting policies.

ANP

That sounds like a big project.

JM

It is, but we’ve got to be ambitious. The crisis is big, so the response has to be big. What’s interesting is the level of creativity. The last five years, we’ve rebuilt the left think tank architecture in this country. One of the biggest failings of the movement for a long period of time was a lack of political education, particularly in the Labour Party. In the eighties, you had Labour socialists in local government — the GLC [Greater London Council], people like Hilary Wainwright and others — developing economic strategies on the ground and testing their implementation.

All that got destroyed as we went into the late nineties, and into the 2000s. So what we’ve had to do in the last five years is reestablish an architecture of think tanks and rebuild the trade union role in terms of the development of policy as well. That’s been incredibly successful so now that enables us to draw upon fresh ideas with detailed research to confront issues like the pandemic.

The issue now is the sort of society we want to create afterward. During the Second World War, what happened was, even in the darkest times of the war when things were pretty grim, progressives and socialists came together and they looked back on the ‘30s and they said “never again.”

And then they started dreaming and discussing and planning what sort of society we wanted after the Second World War. That’s the role of progressives and socialists now. Look back on the last ten years of austerity and say “never again.” But then start planning now the society that you want and start talking to people. Start the campaign for it in all different aspects.

It’s been terrific really, there’s a huge new generation of, as I say, people working in think tanks in different campaigns, and the creativity is staggering. Any issue you raise, people will come up with a whole range of different options, ideas, get the debate going, and there’s the potential, despite the loss of the election in December — which really knocked us all back — people have come out of a period of mourning now, and they’re organizing on the ground as best they can, but more importantly, they’re involved in a really thoroughly comprehensive intellectual debate now about the nature of society and the nature of the economic foundations of that society. Out of this adversity and the very real tragedies, people’s determination to change the world is the thing that this period may well be remembered for.

ANP

I did want to ask you about the election, and the loss, and what has followed for you from that experience.

JM

The election was a nightmare. It was a real blow.

What’s been revealed since the loss in 2019 is just how close we came in 2017. You may know the story of this leaked report, which if true, also reveals just how close we came but how much we were undermined in that campaign by the senior echelons of the party bureaucracy. So there’s a sense of frustration that we came so close, but were undermined from within — you need to learn that lesson.

A report was published this week, which was made by Ed Miliband, our former leader, and others, into the reasons for the loss. The report itself is not bad, it’s pretty well-balanced, so there’s lots of lessons that people with humility are learning, which is very good. It’s almost as though because of the pandemic, the general election seems six years ago, rather than six months ago. Christopher Hill and all the rest, the world has turned upside down.

If the pandemic has done anything, it has made people sit back and think about what they really value in life, and what their priorities are. We then talk to them about, well, if they’re the sort of values that you now feel you have, how should society be changed to reflect those values? People are buzzing with ideas about that. Very basic stuff. One of the things that’s come out is you value people who care for you.

Those people who work in our health service or in social care caring for us, who’ve been savaged over the last ten years of austerity in terms of cuts in wage freezes and cuts in their conditions of employment, they’ve been outsourced. The cleaners in particular, who are essential if we’re going to tackle issues like a pandemic, they’ve been exploited. People are now waking up and saying, actually, we valued bankers and speculators in the city, who contribute effectively nothing to our society more than we valued the person who keeps our hospitals clean. Or if you look after our elderly, if we care for them and treat them, we save lives.

So it’s been a fundamental reappraisal of the role of the state. For forty years under neoliberalism, the small-state argument has been thrust at us — not just from conservatives either; we’ve had it come from the Labour Party too. Now people are waking up to the fact that you do need the state, local government, local councils, whether it’s the NHS or its emergency services.

It opens up all sorts of debates about fairness in our society, about how we pay for services. It would be even a brave conservative now to get up and start arguing for austerity. What’s been interesting is how people are up now for much more radical proposals. But as I say that could go to the Right rather than to the Left if we’re not careful.

GW

Your comment raises a question for me. It’s striking that since the Great Recession, there’s been so much social pain inflicted through inequality and austerity. I think we on the Left keep expecting all of this social pain to manifest into solidarity. And certainly in this country also, in formerly industrial places, places with strong old trade union histories, we’ve seen great difficulty in manifesting the marginalization of the working class into the kind of social solidarity and consciousness that we would hope for. So I’m curious to hear you talk about how you see the link, or maybe the missing link, between inequality and austerity on one hand, and the missing social solidarity on the other, and how we can reestablish that link.

JM

When a recession hits, or when a recession hits and it is used, politically — for example, with austerity — to protect corporations and the rich, it hits people hard, and often what you find on the Left, people will argue that the people will rise up, that’s the time. It isn’t. That’s the time when people just want to survive.

You’re more worried about: can I pay the rent next week? Can I put food on the table? Dissatisfaction really mobilizes itself when you’re told, we’re coming out of that recession and you’re not sharing in the benefits. And that’s what mobilized the sort of social solidarity that nearly took us into the government in 2017.

After that, the establishment here needed something that would divert people’s attention away from that form of solidarity, and Brexit was the obvious issue. And that’s what happened between 2017 and 2019.

Brexit became the issue that could divert people’s attention, divided working-class thought and attitudes as well. And then tinged with a bit of racism too, the fear of migration has always been manipulated by the Right. The problem is that there is a rational argument on the Left about European institutions, and how they’ve been part and parcel of neoliberalism for years. So it divided the Left as well.

I just always say to people: never underestimate the ability of the establishment to divide and rule, particularly when they control all channels of communication. Our question on the Left is: how do we ensure that we bring people together around very concrete issues that they’re experiencing in their lives — whether it’s an industrial dispute or a campaign around a particular issue like welfare benefits — then communicate how we can tackle those issues. We’ve always got to be in a situation where we’re examining how we organize and how we communicate.

In 2017 and 2019, we lost the narrative. We lost the narrative not just because of Brexit but because of our own failings as well. You have to be ruthlessly honest about that. In the run up between 2015 and 2017, what we decided to do in all the discussions that we were having is: how do we mobilize? We’ve got to build a mass movement.

All our objectives were around building the movement, recruiting, recruiting, recruiting. We went from a membership of 150,000 (something like that) to half a million, and then we were knocking on nearly 600,000 at one point. What we failed to do is build into that mass recruitment sufficient training and political education. Part of the reason for that is because we bureaucratized ourselves a bit, no doubt about it. But also, every day was a fight to survive. Every day was another coup coming from within the Parliamentary Labour Party or, as we know now, from the bureaucracy itself.

Although we had wild ambitions about building political education, community organizing etc., we didn’t translate that from paper to on the ground. So, one of the lessons for the future is that that’s got to be a key thing. Why do you need that? Because you can be as professional and not lead with your chin as you’d like, but the mainstream media is owned by the very people whose wealth and power we want to distribute. So they’re going to come at us all the time.

Sometimes it was farcical. In one of the lectures last week I reminded people that on every serious political program I went on, when they ran out of questions, they’d ask me “Are you a Marxist?” And I’d answer, “I’m a socialist, that means I’ve read Robert Owen, William Morris, and Marx, etc.” The farcical one was, I think it was the Daily Mail, did this big exposé of me being a KGB agent.

Going to a town to get my orders and Jeremy, I think he was a Czech agent or something, just extraordinary. The mainstream media, although you try to deal with them professionally, the reality is, they’re going to come at you full out. One of the ways we’re dealing more professionally is actually on broadcast media, doing live interviews. So literally every morning I’m up at half-five going through interviews. Because in live media at least you have that first few minutes to get your message across.

The second thing is that the one advantage we had up to 2017 was the development of social media. We had young people who were incredibly creative using social media much more effectively than our opposition. So, our view then is do our best with mainstream media, do everything we can to use social media, but use our mass membership to get that message out door by door.

It can only work as long as you’re building that movement up, and that’s where we failed. We didn’t build the social movement. We built it on a scale, but we didn’t build it with the resources to enable it to get that message across as effectively. That’s a lesson for the future. Everything we do now, we’ve got to recognize the only way we’ll win is by remembering that we’re the many, and they’re the few. So therefore, we’ve got to build it in a way where people go out there fully understanding the world but able to articulate the alternative argument.

ANP

How is the Labour Party different now from when you were young, not just in terms of its positions but as far as the social experience of party membership?

JM

I joined the Labour Party a bit later. When I was a kid, my dad was active in the trade union movement. He was a branch secretary. My mom was a cleaner and my dad was a dockworker in Liverpool — I was born in Liverpool. And then we moved south. Work was drying up, so we moved south to where my mother came from which is the East of England, rural. My dad then became a bus driver and my mom worked behind the biscuit counter of a shop — so we lived off biscuits for most of my childhood, it was wonderful.

My introduction to politics was the discussion around the kitchen table, my brother and I, my dad and my mom. They pushed lots of reading, but my dad’s active intervention in the trade union movement is where I got my politics. So I was much more trade union–oriented then I was Labour. I only joined the Labour Party much later on in my early twenties. Although I voted Labour and worked in campaigns and stuff like that, I didn’t join the party until later on because I was more interested in trade union work.

In my constituency here — I’ve been here some forty-five years now — in the constituency here, it was a network of branches. Reading E. P. Thompson’s book [The Making of the English Working Class], the organization of the Labour Party then was exactly the London Corresponding Society: divisions and all the rest.

So, I turned up my first day at the party branch meeting. There was an elderly woman who was the secretary, because women were always given these roles, doing the notes — the sexism is just extraordinary. Then you’d have sitting around in the room in your local branch maybe about a dozen members, and it would largely be talk about local council work. The local councilor would give his reports — it was always a he, again — and then you might get a chance to raise any popular issues.

That was the early to mid-‘70s. But in my constituency quite a number of young people started joining, and we thought it was boring — let’s talk about politics, etc. And we had people in different individual organizations. All of a sudden a large number of young people said “we can’t go on like this,” and that much more political attitude was breaking out all over the country.

And at the same time, you’re involved in quite a large number of community campaigns. As we moved into the ‘80s, particularly campaigns against Thatcherism. And that meant that a staid organization became a radical organization. It changed dramatically. You then had a huge discussion around feminism and the role of women. And all of a sudden you’ve got women represented, which was a huge breakthrough. But then as the population began to change in demographics, there was a struggle to ensure that the Labour Party properly represented those local communities as well. So then there was a real struggle around confronting racism within the party. It was quite a traditional organization that then became radical and active on the ground.

Once I joined the Labour Party, my campaigning was around issues like rent. We set up a law center to assist people because we had a range of evictions. But in addition to that, a lot of my campaigning was around trade union disputes, so I was active in the trade union movement. And the trade union movement was much more radical at that time.

GW

I’m curious to ask you a question as a domestic and economic policy thinker. There’s been a lot of debate on the Left about how we should think about socialism in capitalist democracies in an age when growth seems to be slowing and productivity seems to be slowing, and there are real questions about how much growth we want, given the climate crisis. Where is your thinking on these questions and has it changed in any way?

JM

The key aspect is to deal with the real world. And the real world is that we come out of this pandemic and we face the real crisis, and the real crisis is climate change and climate catastrophe. We’ve got to engage with the real threat of climate change because we’re running out of time so rapidly. That means, in some ways, learning the lessons of the pandemic, as I said on values — what do we really value.

So we learned the lesson from this pandemic, for example, of the role of the state. The role of the state is essential to tackling the coronavirus impact. So now we’ve got to use the role of the state to ensure that we can tackle the crisis that faces us now in terms of climate change. That does mean it opens up the opportunity as well of recognizing that if we are going to intervene in that way, public ownership plays a role — public ownership of some of the essential services that are provided has to take place because left in private hands, they’re not going to play a role in effectively tackling the climate crisis.

That’s now where all our thinking is going, and where it’s got to go. As I say, we’re running out of time rapidly. I think people will be up for that; I think people realize now that you can’t just sit on one side and allow the economy to be run the way it has been — there’s got to be a much more direct intervention that will enable us to survive, to overcome this existential threat.