We catch up with the Shadow Chancellor at Glastonbury, and talk Jeremy Corbyn, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and ask who really leaked the Labour manifesto?
We catch up with Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell at Rag’n’Bone Man's Glastonbury set, and talk Jeremy Corbyn, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, and ask who really leaked the Labour manifesto?
I try my hardest to be sober when I show up to do an interview. In fact, normally it’s not too much of an ask. But as I clumsily brush my teeth, muddy boots on, scrambling through a field brimming with boozy teens and pilled-up mums, it strikes me that the glitter on my face and fake moustache stuck to my elbow might be a giveaway that I’m a little worse for wear. Not pissed necessarily but probably, well almost definitely, still tipsy from the night before.
And who can blame me? The Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell will surely understand. Just 24 hours earlier we’d both watched on as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn had whipped a crowd of over 100,000 into a whooping frenzy on Glastonbury’s Pyramid Stage – he inside the crowd, me stuck in a queue of thousands trying desperately to get into the rammed outdoor arena. If someone had told either of us two years ago this would be happening, well, I’d have suggested that they were the one who needed to lay off the booze. It would have been a crime not to celebrate with a beer or two.
“I’m disappointed in you, Michael,” a stern-faced McDonnell sighs when I apologise for being a little worse for wear (and 15 minutes late to boot). “A fine upstanding young man like you? Drinking? I thought better of you.” He keeps it up just long enough for me to consider vomiting, but a moment later he begins to laugh, putting us both at ease.
“The crowd reception here at Glastonbury was very similar to the crowd receptions at every meeting that Jeremy has done,” McDonnell says, as we settle down to talk. “And there have been many of them going on around this country.” It’s little surprise really that McDonnell feels so jovial this morning, despite my tardiness.
We’re meeting backstage at the Left Field, the beating heart of Glastonbury’s progressive and radical soul. It was here yesterday that Corbyn addressed a smaller crowd after hotfooting it over from the Pyramid Stage, and here that McDonnell has just spoken to a huge audience about Labour’s future economic plans.
“People have had enough, they want change, but they want to do it joyously,” McDonnell assures me, when I ask if he thinks we’re a little too into the absolute boy Corbyn and celebrating how far we’ve come, and not enough into socialism and the cause. “This isn’t just a battle against something, all of a sudden it’s a battle for something. It’s a positive struggle, a positive campaign. In the past people have been having to fight a wave against us. All of a sudden now people feel there is a chance for positive change.”
There’s undoubtedly a sense of excitement sweeping through the nation, and in particular (although not exclusively) amongst young people. During the general election campaign earlier this month Corbyn had been mocked and attacked for addressing huge crowds of his own supporters, but the outcome of the election – which saw Labour make substantial gains and take away the Tory majority in Parliament – was nothing short of vindication.
Sure, some critics have continued to attack the Labour leader for addressing hundreds of thousands of people here at Glastonbury (millions in their homes watching nationwide and beyond) with his policies, politics and ideas, but clearly the tactic is working. Popularity, and the perception of it, spreads fast. But it’s not just popular support Labour now have over the Tories, it’s policies too.
“We were 24 points behind in the polls only six weeks ago,” McDonnell says, smiling, “but I knew that as soon as we get balanced coverage on broadcast media under the law then people would have the opportunity to see what Jeremy is about: a decent, honest, strong and principled person, but they’d also at last get to see what our policies are.”
There’s no doubt the manifesto was popular: scrapping tuition fees, a £10 minimum wage, nationalisations and extra bank holidays to boot. These policies got national attention, but even more so because they were leaked a week before officially being handed over to both the public and press.
“We were sitting down in the office at Labour HQ and [Director of Strategy and Communications] Seamus Milne’s phone rings. He goes out, comes back in absolutely pale, and tells us our manifesto has been leaked.” McDonnell held his head in his hands, thinking hard about who might be responsible.
“In my mind I’m thinking it’s an absolute disaster, but within eight hours it turned out to be the best thing someone could have done for us. We have five days of debate around our manifesto. Now people are accusing me of leaking it! I just wish I was that clever…”
I ask him if he’s sure he didn’t leak it. He laughs, and assures me he isn’t responsible. Either way, it worked. Corbyn increased Labour’s vote share by more than any of the party’s election leaders since 1945. It’s pretty impressive, given nobody in Labour even knew the election was coming.
Throughout this time Labour were working on two plans, pegged to two separate timescales: One based on an election being called in 2020, and one at pretty much any time before.
“From November onwards we’d been saying the party was mobilised for a general election,” McDonnell assures me, arguing that despite it being a snap election Labour were prepared. “The more times she said there would not be a general election, the more convinced we were that there would be.”
Settling into the rhythm of our conversation, I tell McDonnell that I’ve a strange sense of deja vu. It wasn’t just the copious amounts of rum that had me feeling a little bemused by our meeting, this exact interview had been scheduled for the same place, date and time exactly a year before.
“Twelve months ago we weren’t here because our shadow cabinet was resigning in four hour stages to try and destabilise us,” McDonnell says matter-of-factly, apologising again for cancelling. “We were busy appointing a new shadow cabinet of young people who were heroes standing in.” It wasn’t just another Labour coup that was keeping McDonnell, Corbyn and their teams occupied; Brexit, the biggest political earthquake in a generation (well, until this month’s general election), had just begun.
Things may now be looking up for Labour – polling since the general election puts Corbyn as the UK’s favourite future PM – but the last two years have been far from easy. There’ve been constant character assassinations in the press, fellow Labour MPs intent on destabilising the party, even some lifelong supporters of Corbyn’s politics had started to lose faith.
“Jeremy and I have been friends for 30 years,” McDonnell smiles, when I ask how it’s been for him personally. “We’ve always been at the centre of some form of struggle, and generally in a minority position. When we went through the GLC, though the miners strike, the poll tax, campaigns around housing and discrimination and equality. On most of those occasions – alongside Tony Benn – we’ve been in a very small parliamentary minority.”
But as has so long been the case, McDonnell and Corbyn are once again on the right side of history (see Apartheid, austerity, the war in Iraq). The naysayers proved wrong, the critics forced to step back.
“You get used to swimming again the stream for a period,” he adds. “These last two years? Yeah, there have been some really tough times, but certainly it has brought out the best in Jeremy, and he’s certainly grown in the job. When you’re met with challenges you have to then rise to it. In terms of our relationship, well, we’ve always been pretty welded together, and when facing adversity it welds you together even more. We have each others backs, and no more so than in the last few years.”
Walking around the festival (and quite frankly watching both May and Corbyn on the news) you’d be forgiven for thinking that Labour had won the election, and that Corbyn was now PM. I tell John I find this a little bemusing at times, given Theresa May is still the UK’s Prime Minister.
“But we didn’t win!” McDonnell interjects. “We didn’t win… but neither did the Tories.” That’s not to say, he suggests, there’s nothing to celebrate.
“Any professional commentator will tell you that you can only move two or three points in any campaign, we disproved that and shifted the terms of political debate in this country in the process.” Not only that, Labour denied the Tories an overall majority. “The Tories might still be in government but they are barely clinging on to power,” he grins, “and I doubt it’ll last very long.”
As far as he sees it Labour has three key jobs in the next six months: to ensure they are an effective opposition, to confront the government and prevent them implementing their policies, and to force the Tories out of office so Labour can take over as a minority government.
It feels strange to ask any Labour MP, certainly one so vehemently opposed to Tory ideology, about the inner workings of the Conservative Party, but I can’t help but feel intrigued to see what McDonnell makes of zombie May’s prime ministerial mess. Most critics in the Tory party are putting electoral failure down to personal failings, but McDonnell reckons the crisis the Tories face runs much deeper.
“Their issue is they’ve run their course,” he tells me, gesturing me to follow him to Rag’n’Bone Man’s set. “Neoliberalism is failing, it’s imploding, it wasn’t delivering on housing, feeding people, employment or decent wages. They couldn’t write a manifesto because their whole ideological base was collapsing, and falling about their ears.”
Instead, McDonnell says, the Tories came up with a set of policies that were completely irrelevant to the real world experiences of most people in this country, and they failed to garner support as a result.
“The implosion of Theresa May isn’t because of some personal failing in her – which of course there are many – it’s to do with the neoliberal project imploding. You can hide Phillip Hammond throughout a general election campaign, but you cant hide from the policies that he’s put in place.”
As we weave our way through the crowds of people flocking in every direction, the conversation moves onto the Grenfell Tower inferno, a somewhat sombre turn. “The issue for us, for everyone, when an incident like that occurs, is to ensure comfort and support for the victims and their families,” McDonnell explains.
“That is exactly what Jeremy did when he went down there and hugged people; it was because people needed it. But behind that you have to start talking about how this happened, and get to the objective reality.”
What some called ‘politicising’, McDonnell sees as common sense, making accusations and demanding answers in the wake of such a disaster isn’t a point-scoring exercise, suggests McDonnell, with the Grenfell Tower disaster it’s to ensure accountability and justice, and assurances that such unnecessary and avoidable loss of life will never happen again.
“I represent a working-class, multicultural community in the West of London and have done for 40 years,” McDonnell says, stopping to look me in the eye amidst the commotion.
“We have the worst housing crisis that I have ever experienced. I have families living in rented sheds and rented garages. I have families piled into overcrowded conditions which are absolutely lethal. I had a fire in my constituency a few years ago where a guy did burn to death as a result of overcrowding and landlords not keeping up to date on their property.”
Back in 2004 Corbyn and McDonnell set up a Fire Brigades Union Parliamentary Group, and that same year McDonnell made a speech in Parliament about the need for sprinklers in tower blocks and social housing.
“Somehow we had to move on to the local residents from simply comforting them to say that there’s an objective reality as to how this was caused, and it’s deliberate policy decisions over many years by successive Tory governments.”
By the time we make it to Rag’n’Bone Man the Other Stage field is rammed, McDonnell, his wife and I forced to stand on a gravel path that runs behind it to catch a glimpse of it.
With the hangover setting in I say my goodbyes, keen to make it to The Killers a half an hour walk away across the site with time to grab a pint. But just as we shake hands, I ask John my final question: “At what point did you think – shit, I might be moving into 11 Downing Street… I might be the next Chancellor of the Exchequer?”
Turning towards me he laughs, clearly enjoying the moment, standing alongside his wife and soaking up the afternoon sun. “I never thought ‘shit’,” he chuckles. “I thought ‘great’. I thought let’s start planning.”