Straight talking and an awful lot of common sense from this down to earth, pragmatic politician.
Would that I could report that it was a solid wall of red that greeted John McDonnell as he bounded on to the stage at the New Town Theatre. But this Liverpool supporter peers out instead onto a smudge of grey and pink, a mix of Labour diehards and younger, more curious potential supporters. And it’s in the latter that McDonnell sees the potential for growth in the party that he and Corbyn have, as it transpires, somewhat serendipitously come to lead these past two years.
Pairing McDonnell with that volcano of a comedian, Susan Morrison, proved a master stroke as well. He is instantly at his ease, charmed, as we all are, by her infectious enthusiasm and clever wit and by her gentle but nonetheless penetrating questions.
McDonnell has done things the hard way, that’s for sure. Brought up in a Liverpool tenement before his parents decamped with him to the deep south and London, he worked his way through a series of tough shop-floor jobs in manufacturing (that gives you a clue as to the era he hails from), then doing a degree via night school before landing a job as a researcher in the National Union of Mineworkers, at the time headed up by Joe Gormley.
McDonnell’s entry into politics was, like a lot of things in his life, a bit of a chance happening – the withdrawal of a candidate for a seat in the now defunct GLC led him to being nominated and elected as a replacement. Within twelve months he was in charge of the council’s finances (enough said on that!) just as colourful “Red Ken” Livingstone was taking the capital by storm in the early 1980’s.
Following his election to Westminster, McDonnell kept his counsel for around twenty years on the backbenches as Labour morphed into New Labour and Tony Blair took the party to the promised land – well, to three election victories and a massive financial crisis anyway.
A decade post-Blair and we’re back to old, or original, Labour as the left once more hold the trump cards, or at least enough of them to be able to determine the hand they want to play.
I went to this event, part of New Town Theatre’s interesting “In Conversation With” series, expecting to be bombarded with a series of leftist-Labour sound bites and calls for the re-nationalisation of just about every remaining part of British industry. Instead I listened to a politician who appeared at ease with himself and his audience, who had a nice sense of self-deprecating humour, who listened as well as talked and who answered each question to the best of his ability with a range of compelling and persuasive arguments that didn’t, as far as I can best recall, contain a single sound bite or party message.
McDonnell sounded so worryingly believable that I wondered whether we’ve entered an era where things really could be different, where politicians start listening to the often valid points being made by an increasingly disenchanted electorate. Is the country on the verge of turning to people like Corbyn and McDonnell who have at least had real jobs and who have demonstrably put principles before ambition for some time now in politics? Could Corbyn and McDonnell actually become neighbours in the foreseeable future?
I’m not totally convinced. There has always been a tendency on the part of the Labour left to promise everything to everyone and expect someone else to pay for it. But in McDonnell I detected a pragmatism, a desire to build for the long term, a genuine wish to get out and listen to people, all good omens given that he would be the man in charge of the purse strings in the event that Corbyn defies the odds and gets elected.
This was a one-off appearance as part of the “In Conversation With” series but McDonnell is well worth seeking out to listen to when he is able to engage with a live audience (as here) and where an increasingly polemic main stream press is largely absent or silent, or, in this case, both.