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.

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.


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