John McDonnell has always been a believer. As a child, growing up in an Irish Catholic family in Liverpool,he went to Mass every Sundaymorning followed by Benediction in the afternoon. There was no meat on a Friday, confession on a Saturday night and, as soon as he could lift the thurible, he became an altar boy at the church at the end of the road. On Holy Days of obligation he would join the procession behind the statue of a saint and help his mother to decorate the windows of their small terraced house. Sometimes he would go on retreats to deepen his faith with the help of the monks. So strong was his spiritual devotion that, at the age of 12, he went to a boarding school run by the De La Salle brothers and started training to become a priest. “I thought I had a vocation, and when you think you’ve got a vocation, it’s everything. You have a firm belief, but also you feel you can play a role in the world,” he tells me. “I miss the Latin and the incense and the ritual and the drama of it.”
Then at 16 he started to have doubts. The shadow chancellor jokes to friends that it was about discovering girls but it was in fact a more profound awakening than that. “I just came to a conclusion that I didn’t believe there was a deity,” he says. “You see a wider life in front of you. I discovered more about politics. If you are a relatively serious-minded young person, faith isn’t just about the belief in the Scriptures. It’s about the social role you can play. The New Testament is about transforming society, tackling poverty, all those things that are embedded in my socialism. So I thought being a priest isn’t for me and I can serve in different ways. But there was an element of maintaining a sense of vocation for changing the world.”
McDonnell still seems haunted by his lost faith – “I don’t know a Catholic who doesn’t joke about Catholic guilt,” he says – and his upbringing has clearly informed his politics.There are religious books on the shelves in his study alongside copies of Hansard and posters advertising the Ken Loach film I, Daniel Blake. “I always looked on Jesus as a socialist,” he says. “The Sermon on the Mount, ‘blessed are the poor’, the [feeding of the 5,000 with] 5 loaves and 2 fishes – it wasn’t a miracle, it was just that they shared all their food.”
His political convictions are now as strong as his religious ones once were. “You have to have a set of beliefs. I suppose I retain from the old Catholicism that sense of right and wrong, and at times a depth of justifiable anger about what’s going on. When Jesus threw the money changers out of the temple, he did it in anger. I come back to my community here where I’ve lived the past 40 years and I am angry because we have people sleeping in cars, beds in sheds, and it shouldn’t be like this. It’s a motivating anger, not a destructive anger, that enables us to say there must be alternatives to this.”
McDonnell – a self-proclaimed Marxist – could become the most left-wing chancellor the country has ever known. Over the past couple of years he has attempted to transform
himself from the hard man of the left, who was once recorded encouraging disgruntled workers to spit into their bosses’ tea, into a genial bank-manager figure who has mounted
a charm operation in the City that his aides have nicknamed the “tea offensive”. He still occasionally finds himself on a picket line, but he has also attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, rubbing shoulders with the global elite. He is learning the trombone and talks about his love of opera, insisting, “It’s not elitist. There’s nothing too good for the working class.” He enjoys the theatre and football – tonight he will be in Madrid to watch his team, Liverpool, play in the Champions League final.
Some around Jeremy Corbyn prefer the purity of opposition to the compromises required to win, but McDonnell is single-mindedly focused on getting into power.He describes himself as a “bureaucrat” who has a detailed grasp of facts and a ferocious work ethic as well as an intellectual curiosity. Yet he is also an ideologue who has not fundamentally changed his ideas in decades. In Who’s Who he lists his hobby as “fermenting [sic] the overthrow of capitalism”, and when I ask whether this is still his aim
he replies without hesitation, “Yes. I want to move on from capitalism.”
The combination of reassurance and radicalism makes him the most intriguing but also the most unsettling figure at Westminster.As the real power in the Labour Party, and the brains of the Corbyn operation, the shadow chancellor has won some surprising admirers. Lord Mandelson, the former Labour cabinet minister who once boasted that the hard left had been shut in a “sealed tomb”, says, “I rate his seriousness, his energy, his political touch and his pragmatism. What remains to be seen is whether in office he can make the difficult judgment calls about market confidence and strike the right balance between the desire for economic transformation and the need for economic stability.”
Others worry about McDonnell’s volatile streak – he once flung Mao’s Little Red Book across the dispatch box. Margaret Hodge, the veteran Labour MP who worked with him at the Greater London Council (GLC) in the Eighties, says, “He’s very clever, incredibly hard-working and utterly ruthless. He’s a Jekyll and Hyde character – you never know whether you are going to get the bank manager or the revolutionary Trot. They’re both there. The problem is, you can’t predict what he’d be like in power.”
We meet in McDonnell’s constituency office in Hayes and Harlington, a deprived multiracial west London suburb that includes Heathrow. He lives in one of the poorest wards
and always takes the bus. Like Corbyn, he grows his own vegetables, although he admits, “My garden is a mess at the moment because I’ve had no time to do it. If I get five minutes this weekend I’ve got some courgettes to put in.”
I had heard that the shadow chancellor has a temper – one former official who worked for him at County Hall described him as a “shouter who would come right up to you and scream in your face”. But as we talk for almost two hours, he is thoughtful, engaged and open, showing none of the tetchiness that Corbyn often displays in interviews when he is asked difficult questions. With his white hair, and navy blue suit, there is an air of formality about him – even in the local café he refuses to take off his red tie for the photographer,instead apologising to his constituents for disturbing their breakfast. As we walk along the street, people come up to shake his hand. In the era of nstagram, the 67-year-old feels like a politician from another age.
His political heroes are Tony Benn and Clement Attlee; his intellectual guru is Karl Marx. Das Kapital is “one of the important analyses of the modern capitalist system”, he
says. “Poor old Charlie Marx has been blamed for an awful lot. You wouldn’t read the New Testament and blame Jesus Christ for the Spanish Inquisition. In the same way that
I’m a defender of the New Testament and the lessons you can learn from it, I’m trying to rehabilitate the reading of Marx.”
I ask whether he understands why many people find the idea of a Marxist at the Treasury alarming. “It’s because of the association with Stalin and what went on under some of the most oppressive regimes in the world, but my lot, the socialists, were the first that went to the gulags and got shot by Stalin,” he replies. Of the failures in the Soviet Union, Cuba and Venezuela, he says, “It was never socialism.”
While the Conservative Party is imploding over Brexit, with leadership candidates jostling for position, the shadow chancellor is preparing for power with discipline and vigour. He is already working on an emergency budget and has written to Sir Tom Scholar, the permanent secretary at the Treasury, setting out detailed plans. He doesn’t see
Whitehall as a roadblock to reform, insisting that Labour would be viewed as a “breath of fresh air” by the civil service. “I think there’s a buzz waiting for a Labour government.”
Things would certainly be different with him at the Treasury. New Labour refused to talk about redistribution, but McDonnell is proud to describe himself as a socialist. As
chancellor, he would raise taxes on anyone earning more than £80,000, nationalise the railways and Royal Mail, bring energy and water companies into public ownership and
force companies to hand up to 10 per cent of their shares to employees and put workers on boards. He plans an extra £48 billion of public spending, funded through taxation, and £250 billion of infrastructure investment, paid for through borrowing over ten years.
Instead of capitalism, he wants “a system where you reduce the level of exploitation, you establish a fair distribution of rewards and then you start developing other forms of ownership,” he says. “Eventually, I think you will get to a situation where goods will be held in common, so workers will own their own companies, [and businesses] will be democratically managed. That will evolve over time. What we will do is move it to the next step.”
He speaks softly, sounding more like an academic than a rabble-rouser, as he leans back in his chair, but he is in fact proposing a huge transfer of power and wealth. According to Paul Johnson, the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the programme in Labour’s last manifesto would represent a “dramatic reversal” of the policies pursued by successive governments over the past 40 years. “It would be very radical,” he says and, if implemented too quickly, there would be “obvious risks”.
In his meetings with banks and businesses, McDonnell is honest about the extent of his ambitions. He tells them there will be “no tricks up my sleeve” and stresses that he wants to give them time to prepare. “The way in which we give confidence to people is to be completely open and transparent. What you see is what you get.” There are many aspects of his programme – such as a financial transactions tax – that the City loathes, but he says, “They’re going to happen anyway, so they count them into their calculations for the future.” He is open to ideas about how to deliver his aims but not on the principles of reform.
Some in the corporate world now fear the increasingly real prospect of a Labour energetic shadow chancellor is a refreshing change from the divided and distracted Conservatives, who have run out of ideas. In contrast to Boris Johnson, the favourite in the Tory leadership race, whose most famous pronouncement on business was a four-letter word, McDonnell seems serious. At the end of one recent briefing with a major accountancy firm, two executives asked for a selfie with him. “He’s credible and engaging,” says a senior figure in the City. “Everybody is impressed by his breadth of knowledge and intellect. He gives an impression of openness and willingness to listen. People come away from meeting him saying, ‘This is a man we can do business with.’ It’s a bit like Kaa the snake in The Jungle Book – the eyes go spinning, he puts you
to sleep, then he’s wrapped all around you and he’s crushing you to death.”
There have been reports of wealthy individuals fleeing Britain to escape Corbygeddon. “It’s not going to happen,” McDonnell insists. “I honestly think people are generally altruistic.” As for the idea that there will be a run on sterling that could tip the country into recession, he says, “I worry the other way round: I think the pound will go
up because of our investment proposals.” But he will never say, as Lord Mandelson once did, that Labour is “supremely relaxed about the filthy rich” so long as they pay their taxes. “If we had a more equal society people would not be filthy rich. We would have a much more equal distribution of the rewards.”
It’s not only City bonuses that infuriate him. Footballers are, in his view, also paid far too much. “Of course they are – that’s why you need a fair taxation system.” He despises the idea that “greed is good”, adopting a tone of pity rather than anger towards the well-paid executives he meets on his “tea offensive” in the financial district. “I think they’re trapped in the system like everybody else. I’m saying to them, ‘Do you really want to live in this sort of society?’ And most of them – even some of
the richest people I’ve met – don’t want to be stepping over homeless people in the street. They want to feel safe in their community. They want police on the streets. They want to ensure everyone has a decent education.”
There will be, he warns, dire consequences for the country if wealth is not more widely shared. “The real anger there is in society at the moment – which motivated the Brexit
vote, for example – is that people saw a grotesquely unequal society that they had no say or control over … That was a demand for change. I think it was channelled in the wrong way, but it was a demand for change and we need to recognise that.”
McDonnell knows that Brexit makes the country’s economic future much harder to predict. And politically, Labour is suffering almost as much as the Conservatives over
Europe. The shadow chancellor sticks studiously to the party line. “In my heart I’m a Remainer – I campaigned for Remain – but we have to respect the decision that was made,” he says, looking slightly uncomfortable. I ask whether he is more worried about the threat from the Brexit Party or Remain-supporting parties including the Lib Dems and the Greens. “The issue for me on the Brexit Party is not where the votes are going; it’s the nature of its politics,” he replies. “It gives a stepping stone for the far right and that’s very worrying. We had that politics in this area for a long time, with the BNP and the National Front. I wouldn’t want it to be inflicted on the rest of society.”
McDonnell still sees himself as part of the proletariat. “I hate to bring Marx back into it, but do I own or control the means of production? No, I don’t. So I’m working class.” Born in Liverpool on September 8, 1951, the street he grew up on was later demolished as part of a slum clearance programme. “You had a tin bath and an outdoor loo, but it was normal so there wasn’t any sense of resentment,” he says. “As a kid I never lacked for anything. No one felt poor because everyone was the same.”
His father was a docker who became a bus driver, his mother worked as a cleaner then got a job on the biscuit counter at British Home Stores. “We lived off broken biscuits. It was great.” The family moved from Liverpool to Great Yarmouth and the shadow chancellor still has a boat in Norfolk on the Broads. “I bought it and then looked at the back and its name was The Morning Star,” he says, laughing. He gets sick if he takes it out to sea.
McDonnell left school at 17 and worked on a production line, taking A levels at night school before going to university. He and his first wife became “house parents” for a children’s home. “We had about ten kids; there’s a few we keep in touch with.” He remarried in 1995 and has three children and five grandchildren of his own. He describes his parenting style as “soft” and says he is rather sentimental. “I cry all the time.” He burst into tears when Corbyn got on to the shortlist for the Labour leadership contest
in 2015, but he says it is his constituents’ stories that upset him the most. “I’ve cried in here,” he says gesturing around his office. “We’ve people who have attempted to commit suicide because of loss of benefits. You’d have a heart of stone if you weren’t moved by that.”
There is still a slight Scouse lilt in his voice. “My dad taught me that you worked hard, you paid your way and you looked after each other – beyond the family, in the community, too. The biggest thing my mum taught me was, ‘Always be kind.’ ”
This is not advice that McDonnell has consistently followed. A few years ago, he quoted a call for the Tory MP Esther McVey to be “lynched”. When I ask about this, he shifts
slightly in his chair, insisting it was “meant as a joke. It was just repeating what somebody said.” But there is a bit of a pattern. He also once said that Danny Alexander, a former Lib Dem cabinet minister, should be “garrotted”. “That was just a joke as well,” he says. In 2003 he suggested the IRA should be honoured, declaring that it was “the bombs and bullets” that brought Britain to the negotiating table. He has since apologised and says that violence in Northern Ireland is “a door that’s closed now”. Does he think violence is ever justified to bring about change? “I’m a believer in peaceful protest,” he replies, although he points out that “the ANC in South Africa did resort to violence because they saw no other route through”.
McDonnell has always been an antiestablishment street fighter, but he says that the murder of Jo Cox in 2016 made him realise that words can have consequences and he would not now repeat some of the things he said in the past. “I am much more careful.” Many female Labour MPs receive appalling abuse from the hard left, but he does not accept
that Labour has a particular issue. “It’s across society. Everyone’s got a problem, left and right. Because I’m on the left, I’m more concerned about it on the left. I’ve always thought we had a higher standard so … whether it’s misogyny or antisemitism, we’ve got to sort it out.”
The shadow chancellor admits he is frustrated by his party’s failure to deal with antisemitism. “We weren’t fast enough, we weren’t ruthless enough and I’m quite angry about why that happened,” he says. There were reports of tensions between him and Corbyn over the issue last year, but he blames “the bureaucracy at the time” rather than the Labour leader. Instead of criticising his friend for writing a foreword to a book by an antisemitic writer, he points the finger at Sir Winston Churchill. “Look at some of his language. He treated Asians, even Gandhi, as almost subhuman. That was the context at the time and you have to understand that and take that into account.”
He says he was appalled by the treatment of Luciana Berger, the Labour MP who defected to Change UK. “What she’s gone through is bloody horrendous. I understand her anger and frustration, but I just wished she had stayed in because I think we could have resolved it.”
One of the things that upset Berger most was McDonnell’s suggestion that she could see off a Labour deselection threat by denouncing talk of a breakaway party. This was, he says, “completely misinterpreted” and he insists it would be a mistake for the hard left to embark on a purge of moderates. “I have so much time for Harold Wilson. His cabinet was left, right and centre, absolutely rumbustious, but they got better decisions as a result of that.” The big tent only stretches so far, though, and Labour would not, he says, form a coalition with the SNP. “I think we will win the next election with a reasonable majority, but if we are in a minority, my view is we go into government as a minority government and put a set of policies out. If the SNP or anyone else wants to vote for them, that’s great. If they don’t, well, we’ll go back to the people.”
McDonnell admits he never expected to be in a position to be discussing power-sharing arrangements. Elected in 1997, he has twice tried to become Labour leader and on both
occasions failed even to reach the shortlist.“I was on the back benches for years and was looking for a slow run into retirement. I had just had a heart attack; I thought I would quietly drift into retirement, sit at the back of a hall moaning that nobody ever listens to me. Then the opportunity came with Jeremy’s leadership election and we took it.”
Having spent years in the socialist Campaign Group, and voted together against the Labour leadership hundreds of times, Corbyn and McDonnell share many of the same beliefs. There are, however, differences of style between them. One politician says the Labour leader is “pretty lazy and inert. He doesn’t have an inquiring mind and he wants to be surrounded by people who agree with him. McDonnell is much more energetic and open.” A shadow cabinet minister says, “When Jeremy is confronted by something he will never admit he is wrong. John is more willing to learn from mistakes and listen.” McDonnell thinks he and Corbyn complement each other. “Jeremy has got that gentler, kinder politics. I’m a bit straight with people in terms of what I say – that gets me into trouble. Jeremy is much more considerate.” He prefers to see the shadow cabinet as a “collective” rather than a hierarchy. “The fact that someone is designated leader is not the most important thing. The important thing is that you work as a team.”
Some at Westminster think the shadow chancellor is a technocrat whose more radical ideas will be curbed by the realities of power; others say he is a dangerous ideologue with a sinister plot to destroy capitalism. He sees his managerialism and his Marxism as two sides of the same coin. “I get accused of being a bureaucrat, but if we are going to achieve our ideals we have to be pragmatic and practical about it,” he explains.
It was said of Donald Trump before his election that the press took him literally but not seriously, while his supporters took him seriously but not literally. There is something similar going on with McDonnell. He is a man with a plan and he knows exactly how he would deliver it. There is no secret plot – he is completely open about his desire to overthrow the established economic order. The shadow chancellor should be taken both seriously and literally. “My theory is you go inside the state, either by being elected or by becoming a worker within the state, and you transfer the power that the state has to the community,” he says. “I want radical change, transformative change. Whether people want to call that a revolution, that’s up to them.”