Socialist Appeal: There has been quite a shift to the right
over the last 20 years. The defeat of the miners strike led to
demoralisation and inactivity, which in turn led to a shift rightwards
in the leaderships of the trade unions and the Labour Party in that
period. Do you see this period coming to an end now, and the pendulum
beginning to swing the other way?
John McDonnell MP: At the end of the 80s and the beginning of
the 90s there was a coalition of circumstances: the miners strike; the
local government rate campaign; the emergence of Kinnock; the use of
expulsions from the party; the defeat of the Labour Party by Thatcher;
and being out of government. These all meant that Labour was vulnerable
to the coup carried out by the small right-wing clique that was able to
take over the party through bureaucratic measures. When the 1992
election was lost to the Tories and John Smith replaced Kinnock, there
was a small opportunity for the broad-church approach of the Labour
Party re-emerging. This could have given the left, right and centre the
ability to have their voice and exercise some form of influence. But
the death of John Smith was the trigger for a neo-conservative coup
under Mandelson, Blair and Brown. This was the beginning of the closing
down of all forms of democratic engagement within the party, as the
clique tried to distance itself from any form of accountability either
to the Labour Party or the trade union movement.
I don’t think it was a matter of the Labour Party rank and file
shifting to the right. There was an element of disillusionment and some
members of the party left. A number of very good comrades were lost due
to the expulsions. But I still think there was a traditional left
Labour base within the party at that time. The Neo-Conservative group
that by that time were strengthening their grip recognised this and by
bureaucratic manoeuvres began to take more control of the organisation,
closed down democracy so that ordinary members had no voice or
positions of influence within the party.
A decision then had to be taken, if you are a socialist within the
Labour Party what do you do? You could either leave the party to
establish some kind of alternative, or stay in and fight and that is
what a number of us did.
Through the 90s up till the present time the main tactic of the Labour
left has been to work on a twin track approach. Using whatever
opportunities still exist within the party structures – and they are
very limited – and to mobilise to raise levels of consciousness, to win
the battle of ideas within the party.
Among those that stayed in there was a recognition that, because
democracy was being closed down within the Labour Party, you had to
work outside of the party structures on individual campaigns such as
anti-war campaigns, environmental campaigns, or anti-privatisation
campaigns. This was an attempt to develop a climate of opinion outside
the party, which eventually would permeate the party itself and society
At the same time, although there was a move to the right at the top of
the trade union movement, there was still a structure and a rank and
file base that we could work with and influence over a period of time.
This played its role in the eventual election of a left in the unions,
which is now established in some strength again.
We have now reached a stage where New Labour as a neo conservative
force has run its course. Labour is facing potential disaster,
electoral unpopularity in the opinion polls; in the last election the
loss of 100 seats; and in local government Labour has been eradicated
from office in some areas.
In addition to all this New Labour is trailing behind the Conservatives
in the opinion polls now on every issue. What is interesting about
these opinion polls is that when you ask people about the individual
policies, they’re not supporting the Conservative’s polices, but the
traditional Labour Party polices that we’re campaigning on. Opposition
to privatisation, opposition to the war, opposition to tuition fees,
for state pensions, for public services: all of those policies are
popularly supported. We are the only ones putting these policies
forward. It is now up to the left within the Labour Party to prepare
for, and to lead, what could be the resurgence of the left within the
party. It could be, but it’s going to take a lot of organisation, it’s
going to have to be rank and file based because of the bureaucratic
controls that New Labour exert both within the party, and within some
unions. It’s going to have to appeal to a much wider layer outside the
Labour Party and trade union movement as well.
Blair has now said that he is going to leave as leader of the party.
That means we have the opportunity to raise the question of the
leadership of the party, and the future of the Labour Party, more
importantly of the movement as a whole, and of the country.
SA: The shift to the right in policy and the undermining of
democracy in the Labour Party flowed from the fact that Blair wanted to
change the whole basis of the party and turn it into another Tory
party. An important part of that process was to break the links with
the trade unions, though Blair and co have obviously failed in this
attempt. Do you think that the unions represent a decisive base to use
in the struggle within the Labour Party?
JMcD: I think we should be clear about what the 1990s coup
within the Labour Party was about. There was a small clique who saw the
vulnerability of the Labour Party being out of power for a long time,
and the death of the then Labour leader, who actually was looking at a
broad alliance within the party. That coup was about installing a
neo-conservative government full stop. The whole panoply of policies
let the free market rip, undermining the welfare state, public services
overall, and introducing what they call ‘flexible labour’, which is
actually an intensive exploitation of the workforce. To do that they
had to do two things, one was close down democracy in the party and the
other was eradicate and eliminate left-wing advocates within the party.
In addition to that they had to try to ensure that the trade
unions themselves were demobilised, both in terms of preventing them
from taking forms of industrial action – keeping in place Thatcher’s
anti-union laws – and by trying to weaken their links within the Labour
Party. They have made several attempts at that, reducing the role in
the Labour Party structures for rank and file and trade union
involvement, and now they want to go further in terms of trying to
break the links altogether. But what’s interesting about the current
period is that there is a strong rank and file reaction against that.
Every election for a trade union general secretary over the last five
years has been won by people purporting to be left wing and it is
impossible to win an election without describing yourself as on the
left, and supporting left programmes. This is a demonstration that the
rank and file is reacting against neo-conservative policies and wants a
Therefore, what we are going to see over the next few years is a
pitched battle in the Labour Party and trade union movement between the
neo-cons and those who are trying to reassert some form of socialist
and trade union practices again. It is an incredibly exciting period.
It reminds me of the early 80s. The left mobilised on the basis of a
conscious understanding of what was going on in society, and it was
done on the basis of mass rank and file activity. That is the kind of
opportunity we have at the moment.
SA: Under these circumstances do you feel that your candidature
is the key to opening up this debate and to really challenge to change
the party and its whole direction?
JMcD: Well, the debate about the future is breaking out in
virtually every area. Whether it is in individual trade unions that are
facing privatisation; or in individual communities that are facing cuts
in the health service; or in society as a whole as people watch the
television and read the newspapers about what is happening in Iraq,
Afghanistan, Lebanon. People are looking at these issues and ideas are
beginning to coalesce around the need for change. One of the ways we
are saying to people that they can change is, of course, to mobilise
within your own community, mobilise within your own trade union
structures, and other structures, whatever organisation you are
In addition, we can use the leadership campaign to
have that debate about where we are at the moment, the failure of the
neo-con policies under New Labour, what the alternatives are.
Again it’s about involving people in that debate on an issue by issue
basis, mobilising the experience of working class people working within
their own communities, within their own sectors. It is also about
giving people the understanding that this election could enable that
change to happen. A new Labour leader coming to power on the basis of a
debate about the change of policy, and the future direction of the
Labour government – and our society overall – would mean that we would
have an accountable government with a clear direction. It would be
based on rank and file community activity, which I think would be so
powerful in playing a role in transforming society. So there is a real
opportunity here, a once in a lifetime opportunity in this campaign.
SA: What has the response been like in the last couple of months?
JMcD: One interesting thing has been the response from the
opposition. New Labour neo-cons have done everything they possibly can,
obviously, to structure the party to prevent any challenges to their
leadership, to their dominance. Therefore, they have tried to contain
the debate around the future direction of the Labour government within
narrow New Labour parliamentary circles. So what we are seeing at the
moment is an internal battle within New Labour about the future of the
leadership of New Labour which is largely about naked ambition, but set
squarely within the parameters of neo-conservatism.
trying to ensure that this is done in such a way that they can maintain
their dominance, but there is faction fighting within that New Labour
clique. They’re trying to ensure that their structures exclude anyone
from the ranks being able to stand at all. So the constitution of the
Labour Party has been established in such a way that the Parliamentary
Labour Party still controls who will appear on the nomination papers
when there is an election for leader, and we’ve got to take that into
account. The way we can overcome that is through a rank and file
campaign in the Labour and trade union movement. Amongst those people
who will be participating in the ballot – when the ballot occurs – and
those people who have no votes in the election but may be able to
influence the climate of opinion as well. And that’s what we’ve done.
We’ve ensured that everything we do is based on rank and file activity.
So it’s about going back to the tradition of people talking to each
other in meetings in which they can raise issues, there can be debate
and dialogue and understanding and agreement on the way forward and
it’s been done in a style which is conversational, discursive rather
than hectoring. This isn’t about a leadership; it is about the whole
future of rank and file activity in our movement and how we restore
accountability and democracy in the movement itself.
so far within the movement has been tremendous. There’s a real
excitement, people recognise this as an opportunity, a real excitement
about people being able to debate issues again because there’s been no
political discussion in the Labour Party, in any meaningful sense, for
Within the trade union movement the same – rank and
file trade unionists coming together, debating issues, and getting
excited about campaigning on policies they believe in.
One of the comrades said on the platform when we launched our campaign
in Manchester to a packed meeting that she feels that for the first
time in nearly 15 years she can go out now and argue for policies that
she believes in and has contributed to developing. That’s how people
feel about it overall.
Outside of the movement, most of the media
is controlled by friends of New Labour so there is almost a news
blackout. What we’ve been trying to do to overcome that is to use the
concept of the public meeting, and to produce our own material. Also to
use as much live media as we possibly can so it’s not edited in any
way. In addition to that we have this whole momentum of events that the
media has to cover because of their significance. So we’re commenting
on, and involved in, action that takes place on the ground, whether
it’s industrial action by particular groups of workers, individual
campaigns, whether it be health workers working with members of the
community campaigning against health cuts.
We also try to use
every modern form of media communication that we can so the internet
has become one of the key elements of our campaign. It’s democratic,
they can’t control it, they can’t edit it, and the scale of engagement
of people through the internet with our campaign has surprised all of
us and it really is a way forward. The style of the internet
involvement is exactly the same as having a public meeting, it’s
discursive, so it’s allowing people to have their say, allowing people
then to link up with others around a particular issue and policy issue.
There is an excitement now that we have not had within our movement for
SA: Derek Simpson, the General
Secretary of Amicus, refers to the campaign as the campaign of a
‘no-hoper’. In a rebuttal, another Executive member said that Derek
Simpson was also referred to as a no-hoper some four years ago, and yet
he managed to win the Amicus General Secretary election, defeating Sir
Ken Jackson, on a left programme. What do you think about that?
JMcD: The good thing about our campaign is that it is
grass-roots based, rank and file, with individuals making their own
minds up by asking themselves whether they share our understanding of
the world. Do they share the policy programme that we are putting
forward? In that way they can become excited by the campaign. These
questions are being considered by individuals and raised within
organisations. Within every constituency Labour Party the question will
be asked: do we support these policies? If we support the policy that’s
being advocated by a socialist within the party, do we translate that
into support for that candidature? That question will be asked of every
Labour MP, and by their constituency as well. It will be asked in the
unions, too. The rank and file, individual members and organisations
like the broad lefts, in each union are asking themselves the same
question: do we agree with these policies? If so, should we mobilise
behind them and support this candidature? These questions are then
raised within the formal structures of those organisations and
therefore are asked of the General Secretary, too.
Secretaries – no matter what platform they have been elected on – once
they are in can become bureaucratised. They can get sucked in to the
system where they believe that their role is not necessarily
representative of their members in the sense of engaging in a debate at
grassroots level, and then allowing the position to be determined as a
result of that debate. Sometimes they see their role as leaders of
their unions to negotiate with government and they feel they have a
free hand to do that, they don’t want to be fettered.
coming at it with a different concept, they’re delegates, no
representatives, they are accountable to their rank and file and
therefore they should engage like any other member of the union and
come to a decision. They shouldn’t pre-guess or in any way take a
decision in advance of their rank and file. Derek Simpson is a very
good example. He was elected on a left-wing platform, which I
supported. The Amicus Gazette broad-left has largely supported me and
most of them are campaigning for me. Derek has come out with a view,
which might be summarised as follows: I support the policies, maybe,
but he can’t win the election therefore he’s a no-hoper, so what is the
point? What he has failed to understand, and it’s the same as the
neo-cons of New Labour and the commentators, is that this election,
once we get past the nomination stage, will be determined by the votes
of every rank and file member of the party and every individual member
of an affiliated trade union. We are demonstrating by our grass roots
campaign that actually there is a majority of support for the policies
and the candidature within those organisations. What we are about to do
is going to cause a shock in the media, and within New Labour circles,
about the depth of support for those policy positions we are
advocating. There will be something of an earthquake when that support
is translated into support for the candidature, so it’s a moving feast.
I think it’s often the case that leaders are sometimes behind the
general pattern of the rank and file, rather than in advance of it or
alongside of it, and I think that’s happening now in union after union.
SA: Clearly, as far as you are concerned, the battle is in the
labour movement and above all in the Labour Party. Are those who
advocate leaving the Labour Party really just weakening your case and
strengthening the case of Blairism?
JMcD: Every person who leaves the party loses a vote in this
election and therefore hands the leadership, and the future direction
of the Labour Party, to the Neo-Cons of New Labour. That’s the
straightforward mathematical calculation, obviously.
people who have left the party, and are turning up at my meetings,
large numbers of them are rejoining. We are having a resurgence of
membership. We are saying to people if you do rejoin it is about
getting involved in this campaign, participating in debate and
discussion, and that’s going to strengthen us in the long-term. So
we’re rebuilding the left of the party from within, but on the basis of
socialist policies and socialist practice.
As for organisations
outside the Labour Party, as I said, I have I worked on individual
campaigns on a broad united front basis, working with different
organisations to raise consciousness on individual issues, and I am
happy to do that, for example, campaigning against privatisation,
against health cuts, or for trade union rights. If people agree with
these policies and they are outside the Labour Party in different
organisations then we work together on that particular issue. But my
argument has always been that it would strengthen socialism in this
country dramatically if the left outside the Labour Party would rejoin
the party because that would give us the vehicle for government, and it
gives working class people the lead to take power over their lives.
is simple message but I say that in a completely non-sectarian way, and
try to encourage people to work together. In that way, even if people
don’t rejoin the Labour Party, we can build a commitment and
understanding and support for our ideas… Even the Conservatives are
having to nod to the left on some of these issues like public services,
around the environment, and rights at work. They do that for
opportunistic reasons and we know that as representatives of capital if
they ever got power they’d turn on the working class as they have done
before… The people who are immune to that at the moment are the small
clique of Neo-Cons within New Labour, but they are an increasingly
small clique. The remarkable position now is that there is a small
bunker mentality breaking out amongst the Neo-Cons. They know they’re
on the way out, they know they’re faced with mass opposition within
their own party, within the movement as a whole, and within the country
itself. Now we obviously need to win this leadership election. If we
don’t, it’s difficult to see a Labour Government being elected at the
next election. The Neo-Cons could destroy our party. That is why we are
asking people to mobilise for this campaign because it will determine
the future of the party, and the future of the country.