One of the most surprising developments of recent months has been John McDonnell’s success in presenting himself as a bridge from Corbynism to the centre-ground of British politics – but he appeared to revert to type yesterday when he attacked People’s Vote campaigns and blew up the leadership’s compromise on Brexit.
Before this summer McDonnell was always the hardliner’s hardliner. In his youth he trained to be a Catholic priest before abandoning that for Leninism – as recently as 2006 he said the biggest political influences on him were “the fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky”.
One of the most bizarre aspects of his relationship with the far left was his championing by Gerry Healy, the now dead thug and rapist who used to run the Workers Revolutionary Party on a stipend from Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi. (There is no suggestion McDonnell knew of, or approved of, any of this.)
McDonnell says he never met Healy – a leading figure in British Trotskysim from the early 1940s to the late 1980s – and we have no reason to doubt him. But – to misquote Trotsky’s famous aphorism about war – while McDonnell was not interested in Healy, Healy was interested in McDonnell.
McDonnell, along with Ken Livingstone, was a leading figure in the group around the “Labour Herald” newspaper, which appeared weekly in full colour, printed on the WRP’s presses throughout the 1980s. It is said that the one full-time staffer at McDonnell’s paper was also a member of the WRP’s central committee.
Livingstone and McDonnell fell out spectacularly in 1985 over rate-capping after GLC leader Livingstone voted to set a rate and finance chief McDonnell didn’t and got sacked for it. Healy tried to persuade Livingstone to change his mind, but Livingstone refused.
McDonnell’s real passion, though, was support for Irish republicans. Indeed, so vocal was his support that Gerry Adams had to ask Tony Blair to get him to shut up about the issue as every speech he made encouraged the hardliners inside the IRA to resist laying down their guns. Earlier, in 1997, the rumour was that Tony Blair had only consented to his candidacy in then marginal Hayes and Harlington if McDonnell issued a statement distancing himself from the IRA. He complied in both cases.
On antisemitism McDonnell has played a canny role in the recent weeks, on one day loudly demanding the party adopt the IHRA definition at the same time as the Labour Representation Committee group he leads joined a protest against adoption of the IHRA definition.
Yesterday seemed like a reversion to type – after weeks of being nice to the soft left he appeared to stand on his head and demand that voters only be offered a choice between a no deal Brexit and a hard Brexit, and that even if Labour conference endorsed a pretty weak pro-People’s Vote motion on Tuesday, the leadership would be free to ignore it.
Previously he had spent weeks telling anyone who would listen that he felt the option of a People’s Vote should remain open and as a result many on the soft left were warming to the idea that he could be a compromise post-Corbyn party leader: able to bridge the gap between the hundreds of thousands of Corbynistas who rarely turn up to meetings or do any campaigning but who dominate all internal ballots through sheer numbers and the party bedrock. That feeling was shattered and to make it worse, McDonnell appeared to twist and turn as the day went on, changing his position three or maybe four times.
If reputations take years to build they can be wrecked in minutes and many trade union leaders (with the exception of Len McCluskey of Unite who took the same position) must be wondering how McDonnell managed to land himself in a world of pain by repeatedly digging an ever deeper hole as the day went on.