John McDonnell, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s principal lieutenant and — Jezza is not the brightest red in the asylum — much of his brainpower too, isn’t that enthused by this democracy thing. McDonnell, who is also Labour’s “shadow” chancellor of the exchequer (chief financial spokesman), has called on trade unions to support a mass demonstration in London on July 1 designed to put pressure on embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May to stand aside. Barely a week after a general election in which the electorate selfishly declined to throw enough votes his party’s way, he explained how “we need people doing everything they can to ensure [a fresh] election comes as early as possible.” “We want,” he added, “a million on the streets of London . . . ”
Peaceful protest is an integral part of the democratic game, but when McDonnell summons people to the streets, both his record and his rhetoric suggest that — despite a subsequent request, calculated and unconvincing, that demonstrators should follow Gandhi’s example — he has something edgier in mind.
He has, after all (before some half-hearted backtracking), claimed that May’s government is not “legitimate” on the grounds that it failed to win an absolute majority in the House of Commons. No matter that the Tories won many more seats (318 in the 650-seat parliament) than Labour (262), no matter that they may be able to cobble together a de facto majority, and no matter that, if they cannot, they can be voted down in Parliament. To John McDonnell, constitutional scholar, they lacked legitimacy.
But then, so far as McDonnell is concerned, they always do.
Here he is in 2012: “I want to be in a situation where no Tory MP . . . no coalition minister, can travel anywhere in the country, or show their face anywhere in public, without being challenged, without direct action.” They were “social criminals” who should be put on trial.
The Conservative-led coalition government had an absolute majority. It didn’t seem to matter.
And for a clue as to what McDonnell might mean by “direct action” (“what we used to call insurrection”), take a look at his celebration of those who kicked “the sh** out of Millbank” (a reference to the building housing the Tory party’s headquarters) at protests in November 2010, the “spark [that lit] all the combustible material that then brought people out . . . and that’s the best of our movement.” To be sure, Ed Woollard, the protester who threw a fire extinguisher at the police from the top of the Millbank Tower, went too far. That, conceded McDonnell, was “wrong,” although the 32-month sentence Woollard collected for his particular exercise in direct action was “too much.”
Protest, McDonnell maintained, neither for the first nor the last time, should be “nonviolent.” Such restraint cannot have been easy for a man who occasionally appears to wrestle with his inner Gandhi. He has recalled how he felt after sitting in Parliament hearing proposals from the government to scale back the public sector in the wake of the financial crisis: “Sometimes you feel like physical force, you feel like giving them a good slapping, because the anger that you feel is because these people who tell us that we’re all in this altogether will go back to their homes tonight, their mansions. They’ll count their shares, they’ll receive their bonuses, and they’ll expect us to pay [for their crisis].”
Mansions, shares, bonuses: McDonnell is a man who exults in the language of class warfare. He may have been an MP since 1997 and an apparatchik, politician, or both since the early 1980s, but his background is proletarian enough. His father was a bus driver and trade-union official. In September 2011 McDonnell warned “any institution or any individual that attacks our class, we will come for you with direct action.”
Our class. We will come for you. Direct action (again).
After musing about “slapping” the elected politicians sitting opposite him, McDonnell promised to resist the government’s economy measures “in every form possible.” He urged his listeners to leave debates to the House of Commons — his contempt for Parliament has been a recurring theme throughout his career that is impossible to miss — and then: “Where we will win will be on the streets and on the picket lines, in the demonstrations and in the strikes and, yes, in the direct action that will be needed to prevent these cuts.”
“Voters,” wrote the pseudonymous “Habibi” of Harry’s Place in a critical (and valuable) September 2016 piece on McDonnell, “are the ultimate judge, the final arbiter.” The shadow chancellor doesn’t seem to see it that way.
Those MPs who risked a slapping and were targeted (one day) for trial got off rather more lightly than Esther McVey, the coalition government’s (Conservative) employment minister. In McDonnell’s view, she was “a stain on humanity.” He quoted comments that she should be lynched. Lynched. Later he maintained that he had been angry, but no apology was forthcoming.
This did not impress Yvette Cooper, a prominent member of Labour’s soft center (and one of those Corbyn beat in the 2015 leadership election): “It’s really, really not okay. People do say things in the heat of the moment. He should have apologized. He should absolutely have apologized. The idea that a woman MP, as Esther was at the time, should be lynched, it’s just wrong.”
Cooper continued: “How can we stand up against oppression and bullying by the powerful or by the mob, as Labour has always done, if we are not prepared to deal with the minority in our own party who might be doing that kind of thing?”
Might be doing that kind of thing? No, they were doing that kind of thing. And McDonnell had done his bit to create the climate in which they could.
Times change: After Labour’s unexpectedly strong performance in Britain’s June election, the principled Ms. Cooper let it be known that it would be really, really okay if she were offered a senior position in Corbyn’s team, a team in which McDonnell was the second-most-important member. Corbyn accepted her surrender, but rejected her offer.
When, on another occasion, McDonnell announced that he wished he could have gone back to the 1980s and assassinated Margaret Thatcher, he was not, for once, angry, merely, he said, joking. He apologized, although that did not stop him from subsequently quipping that there had been “massive support” for the idea.
The first Thatcher government secured a decent parliamentary majority; the second and third were elected in landslides. It is hard to get more legitimate than that, yet . . .
McDonnell has also apologized — but not really; it was primarily one of those apologizing-for-giving-offense apologies — for remarks he made in 2003 at an event to commemorate the death by hunger strike of Bobby Sands, a Provisional IRA terrorist (direct action by bombing and a gun battle with the police): “It’s about time we started honoring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA. Because of the bravery of the IRA and people like Bobby Sands, we now have a peace process.”
Awkwardly, McDonnell had begun by opposing that very same process. Three months before the Good Friday Agreement, McDonnell had, the Daily Telegraph’s Andrew Gilligan revealed, told a nationalist newspaper that “an assembly is not what people have laid down their lives for over 30 years. We want peace, but the settlement must be just and the settlement must be for an agreed and united Ireland.”
Asked to name the ‘most significant’ influences on his thought, McDonnell replied: ‘Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, basically.’
Put another way, negotiations between two democratically elected governments (and Northern Irish political parties) had, if what was eventually agreed was to be abided by, to reflect the demands of a violent minority whose legitimacy to decide on the province’s future flowed, as McDonnell saw it, not from the ballot box but from those “bombs and bullets” and the righteousness of the nationalist cause. This was not the argument of a democrat, but it was the argument that McDonnell chose to make, at least for a while. As Gilligan noted, McDonnell “changed his position when the IRA accepted the accord and supported the agreement.” Oh.
In 2016, the left-of-center New Statesman unearthed an interview McDonnell had given to, appropriately enough, the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty ten years before. Asked to name the “most significant” influences on his thought, McDonnell replied: “Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, basically.” That would be not one but two mass murderers, as well as a millenarian crank who never killed anyone but was certainly excited at the thought of the slaughter to come.
If McDonnell had disclosed that he had drawn his inspiration from the speeches of Goebbels, or, say, what he’d read in Mein Kampf, his parliamentary career would not have gone much farther, but in today’s Britain some butchers are more equal than others, their catastrophes and their victims ignored, explained away or consigned to the memory hole.
More interesting, if somewhat less reprehensible, was the nod in the same interview to the prewar Italian Communist politician and theorist Antonio Gramsci, the man who may best account for the strategy adopted by Corbyn and his associates after Corbyn’s surprise victory in the Labour Party’s 2015 leadership contest (McDonnell ran his old friend’s campaign). Gramsci is perhaps best known for his advocacy of a “long march through the institutions,” the notion (as the New Statesman’s George Eaton described it) of “working within established organizations (such as Labour) with the intention of winning them for the revolutionary cause.” The Labour party is one of the great institutions of the British state. If the far left could win control of the party, radicalize it, and then keep its traditional support more or less intact (not so difficult given the tribal loyalty that Britain’s two largest parties still enjoy), then it would, almost inevitably, pull the national political debate leftward and, even better, be in a position to take power should the Tories stumble.
That was the plan, and, purge by purge, activist by activist, it was working. What no one anticipated was that the Conservatives would stumble quite so quickly and quite so badly. A hung Parliament and the momentum away from Theresa May’s Tories that has persisted since the election has brought Labour’s extremist leadership far closer to power than any democrat should want.
In 2011 McDonnell said he was “someone who still sees the relevance of Trotsky’s Transitional Program.” What that program envisaged (to put it too simply) was a series of escalating demands by or on behalf of the working class that the existing capitalist system could not satisfy, a failure that would lead, in Trotsky’s words, “to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.”
That’s really, really not okay.
— Andrew Stuttaford is a contributing editor of National Review.