A different kind of leader

Left-wing MP John McDonnell says that he wants to 'reclaim the Labour Party' and is standing as leader under the campaign slogan 'Another world is possible'. Why does he think it's worth the effort and what's the 'new politics' he's talking about? Interview by Hilary Wainwright

October 1, 2006
10 min read


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper

What’s the wider political strategy behind your campaign? It doesn’t strike me as a traditional leadership campaign where the main goal is votes in the electoral college?

Let me put the campaign in the context of the plight of the left over the last 20 years. We have been marginalised within the Labour Party at virtually every level since the mid-1980s, following the miners’ strike, the abolition of the GLC, defeat of the local government rate-capping campaign and the emergence of Neil Kinnock and then New Labour.

When John Smith took over the leadership of the Labour Party in 1992 there was a brief opportunity for the return of a traditional, inclusive, broad church politics, allowing the left to influence policy and to hold positions. John Smith wanted to bring all wings of the party together. After his death, however, the coup by which the New Labour neo-cons, Blair, Brown and Mandelson, seized power, led to the closure of almost all opportunities for democratic participation – not just for the left but by anyone who had reservations about the New Labour ‘project’.

The left in the Labour Party then had to take the decision whether to leave the party and try alternative strategies – new parties, single issue campaigns and social movements – or to stay, to consolidate, and then move on to rebuild and eventually reclaim the party. I decided to fight within the party structures – but on the basis that the Labour Party as a vehicle for socialist and progressive advance could only be reclaimed from without as well as within.

Isn’t there a problem – especially for keeping the two sides of such a combined movement together – with defining the goal so definitively as ‘reclaiming the Labour Party’, as distinct from a more open-ended idea of creating a socialist movement, without thinking that we can predetermine the outcome?

It was New Labour attempts to close down democracy within the party and to deliver the party as a vehicle for a neo-con government that made it necessary to adopt the twin-track, outside-inside strategy. The stranglehold on the party of New Labour’s apparatus has undoubtedly made democratic debate within the party very difficult, but there remains a vast constituency of people willing to mobilise for change, both in the party and more strongly outside. Stop the War, the election of left general secretaries of unions, civil society campaigns on poverty in the developing world, the rise in environmental awareness, and all those hundreds of community campaigns about local issues such as hospital closures are all part of that constituency.

It’s true that for us the ultimate goal is to reclaim the Labour Party. But that doesn’t in any way stop us working with activists and organisations with whom we share values and policies but who do not share this same hope. For us, the twintrack approach involves working to open up gaps within the party structure to oppose New Labour and to offer an organisational voice for the left that has remained inside it. But where the party structures restrict democratic dialogue we work to influence the party from without, linking up with campaigns, progressive organisations, academics and others in civil society on issue after issue to create a groundswell of opinion and eventually creating a majority view within the party rejecting New Labour.

All of my work in recent years has been to assist in that slow, painstaking task of rebuilding the left within the Labour Party and trade union movement, while at the same time ensuring that the Labour left is part of that much wider socialist and radical movement that is setting the alternative political agenda. This work is both organisational and, more importantly, ideological. It is no use organising to win office and power within a union or the Labour Party or any other organisation unless we are clear on our understanding of the world in which we exist and have prepared in some detail the policies we want to pursue in office.

How do you ensure that the struggle in the party doesn’t separate you from the movements based outside it, bogging you down in institutional tactical struggles and manoeuvres that make it very difficult for you to be open to the innovations and new directions of autonomous movements?

Well, as chair of the Socialist Campaign Group of MPs I have tried to make sure that the Labour left makes use of the platform of parliament on behalf of the many progressive campaigns in our society. At the same time, we’ve attempted to restore the working link between the left in parliament and the left in the trade unions – which does not automatically coincide with the formal link between the unions and the party.

We have worked to give the unions an effective voice in parliament through joint campaigning on issues like the Trade Union Freedom Bill and the Public Services Not Private Profit campaign. The Labour Representation Committee was also set up to mobilise within the Labour Party while linking rank and file members of the party with trade unionists and members of progressive organisations outside the party.

Hasn’t New Labour effectively destroyed the Labour Party as a space for real debate and a base from which the left can reach out?

Undoubtedly the Labour Party has been weakened significantly by New Labour. Membership is at its lowest ebb, constituency parties have been hollowed out and support in the opinion polls is at its lowest for 20 years. Nevertheless there remains a sizeable membership that supports alternatives to New Labour – witness the election of Walter Wolfgang and other critics to the NEC. And the trade unions provide the organisational base for an effective campaigning organisation.

The twin-track strategy would imply a very different kind of approach from traditional leadership campaigns, including of the left. Is this the case?

The political practice of New Labour and, at times in the past, the left, has been cynical, patronising, manipulative and self serving. This has lead to a disengagement with political parties.

People want to break with this style of political discourse. That is why they have been engaged in forms of direct action, demonstrations and all kinds of public events and meetings in such large and increasing numbers in recent years. They are searching for a voice, for mutual support and for new ways of organising. They have no outlet in the mass media, particularly the press.

For years, left MPs would tour round meetings doing political stand up, making great oratorical appeals, lined with a few jokes, and then heading off without leaving behind any organisational form or sense of purpose among the participants and often without listening to people’s own experiences and views. By contrast, the whole point of our campaign is to bring people together from across our movement and beyond, and, first, simply find out who is still out there who may be interested in left politics. Then it is a matter of enabling people to discuss in the most open and engaging way how we can move forward in solidarity.

What are you suggesting people do?

Of course, with the leadership election in sight, we want Labour Party members to get involved directly in our leadership campaign and for others to join or renew their membership so that they can vote in the leadership election whenever it comes. But also the point of this campaign is to promote engagement, bringing people together to help each other gain a greater shared understanding of what we are facing and to see what opportunities there are for joint action on the key issues internationally, nationally and locally. It is a mutual consciousness-raising exercise and an assembling of solidarity, which reinforces all our campaigning, whether within the Labour Party, trade union, other political organisation or community groups.

We have worked on developing accessible and direct forms of communication. We have taken advice from many people who have experience of campaigning via the internet, including people who were involved in Howard Dean’s ground breaking internet campaign in the US presidential primaries. Our website has over 1,000 people a day hitting the site after only eight weeks. The blogosphere is going to be one of our most effective outlets given the difficulty the neo-cons have in controlling the expression of views on it. We are also looking to getting people together in net groups around specific policy areas as an effective way of exploring new policy ideas.

At the meeting I went to in Manchester, I was struck by your style, which seemed to me a conscious avoidance of the traditional kind of political performance. Does that come from a thought-through rejection of traditional forms of leadership?

The concept of leadership in conventional political discourse doesn’t sit easily with me at all. It is the right that hails strong leadership and hierarchical relations between the leader and the led. The present centralisation of power and especially patronage in the hands of Blair and Brown has resulted in disastrous mistakes because policies are not tested by open democratic debate.

I would suggest some basic principles of a new politics. First, we need to reject the Burkean concept of political representation, which renders accountability almost meaningless. Those who are elected to voice the views and implement the wishes of others should be delegates, not representatives. They are directly accountable to the people who elected them.

Second, any socialist organisation should seek to operate as a collective, making democratic decisions on the basis of equality of influence. The ‘leadership’ role becomes a combination of spokesperson and co-ordinator. Even the traditional British constitutional description of the prime minister as ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) reflected a more open and democratic system for decision making than the present day Blair presidency or the system of directly elected mayors introduced into local government by New Labour.

[The political philosopher] Norberto Bobbio defined the difference between the left and right as being that the left aimed for equality whilst the right always produced inequality. This commitment to equality should be reflected in our political practice. In our campaign discussions everybody is treated with equal respect and has an equal right to a say.

Although people feel very strongly on issues, the lesson from the women’s and peace movements is that the way we communicate can encourage or discourage participation. Being hectored is such a turn off. I am travelling around the country to packed meetings where people enjoy themselves by dealing with serious issues with wit and compassion. You’ll hear laughter as much as applause at any of these meetings. Every meeting is a revelation of what is happening in a particular area, in a particular workplace or to a particular group in our community.

Above all else, the exciting thing is that people are returning to activity and for the first time in a long while young people are mobilising on the radical left once again. As one young woman who is a Labour Party member said at our Manchester meeting:’I have waited a long time for this. At last I can go out and campaign for something I believe in again.’

John McDonnell’s leadership campaign website is at www.john4leader.org.uk


Hilary WainwrightHilary Wainwright is a member of Red Pepper's editorial collective and a fellow of the Transnational Institute. @hilarypepper


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill