Trade union struggle and political struggle - an interview with John McDonnell

Submitted by AWL on 12 October, 2021 - 5:02
John McDonnell, McStrike demo

John McDonnell, Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and former Shadow Chancellor, spoke to Sacha Ismail.


After Labour Party conference, what do you think will happen with Starmer’s leadership? Do you think he’ll be around for a long time?

It’s impossible to tell at the moment. At the conference he used the traditional Blairite, Mandelson playbook. Attack your own party to demonstrate you’re a strong leader; do a big personal speech to try to demonstrate you’re a normal human being; make banal statements instead of policy commitments. It didn’t work: the bounce in the polls didn’t happen. The Tories are still ahead and Starmer’s personal figures are continuing to collapse.

Don’t underestimate panic breaking out in the Parliamentary Labour Party if we get into the new year and the polling hasn’t changed and we face the possibility of the Tories winning the next election. That would be a real disaster, not just for our country, but for the fight against climate change globally. It would mean that in the world’s fifth largest economy we continue to fail to pull our weight to tackle climate change. So the party needs to have a serious look at where it is going.

David Davis has talked about the Tories “sleepwalking towards a second Winter of Discontent” [the revolt of trade unionists against pay restraint and austerity by the late 1970s Labour government] because of the combination of “levelling up” rhetoric with more new cuts. How can the left help generate and win those battles?

A number of Tories have raised this idea. They are trying to get Johnson to wake up to the fact that there is a mounting anger in many communities – although it’s not demonstrated in any major opinion poll dip yet, many of them will feel the growing anxiety and discontent in their constituencies. It’s certainly what I feel in my own community. I don’t need to rehearse what the government is doing in any detail – you’ve got the Universal Credit cut, the increase in prices and meanwhile real pay for some is rising but not by much, and for many its frozen or being cut. What we’re seeing is not only hardship but destitution on a major scale.

In that context there are a range of campaigns being waged or that need to be waged, against the UC cut, against evictions, industrial action over jobs and wages. Political activists, including the Labour left, need to be at the centre of all that and try to bring greater coordination and political ideas into it. We need to make arguments not just about this government but more widely about how society operates, with an alternative analysis and alternative vision and programme.

I must stress again, all this is overlaid by the existential threat of climate change, which we’ve got to try to find ways to link to these various other struggles.

Are there are particular struggles you want to highlight?

We’ve been raising for a number of years the situation in the gig economy, the dismal situation it creates in terms of pay, working conditions and trade union rights. I was on the Uber picket line yesterday, in Aldgate at Uber headquarters. That was about low pay, termination of contracts without any right of appeal, and facial recognition software which targets people of colour. That exemplifies the wider situation. I went from there to a meeting with Unite members who work in Pizza Express, who are campaigning on the longstanding issue of not getting their tips but also the wider lack of a living wage. Then I went to a UCU picket line in FE – again about pay, insecurity, the casualisation of their work and the lack of respect for them as professionals.

So you can see how it’s kicking off in a range of sectors, that many people have simply had enough. There is a bit of a ferment of industrial action taking place. In all these fights, of course, campaigning to defend and promote trade union organisation and recognition is key. And again, we have to explain to people how these situations flow logically from the nature of our society and the ruthless pursuit of profit.

The Bakers’ Union has disaffiliated from the Labour Party and there’s a CWU special conference coming up which will be discussing their relationship with Labour. What would you say to activists in those unions?

Trade unions should stay within the Labour Party, and strengthen the socialist wing of the party. I can completely understand the anger the Bakers felt about the way their union in particular has been treated. The way their President Ian Hodson, one of the most forceful advocates for trade unionism and socialism in the country, has been attacked, and a solid working-class union with a real record of struggles treated with contempt. However, I hope they will think again and revisit affiliation. At the same time, I have of course assured them I will continue to help represent their union in Parliament, through their parliamentary group, as well as by supporting their industrial struggles.

CWU will have their debate, and I hope they will remain affiliated. I know Dave Ward is arguing that the union should stay in the party, but use more of its resources to support those in the party who are campaigning for its demands and policies, and to campaign on a range of things in the wider community.

As a number of unions are coming into struggle in their own sectors, there is also increased discussion between unions about how they coordinate their actions, industrially and politically too. We need more of that.

At Labour conference, Starmer only got his rule changes through because of Unison. It seems to us particularly misguided, even if understandable, to leave at a time when the left may be in the process of taking over Unison.

I’ve just come from a Unison left meeting, actually.

I’ve been a member of Unison and its predecessor NUPE for the best part of fifty years. Over the years it has become deeply bureaucratised and has repeatedly failed to stand up for its members. The rank-and-file left, organised around the platform ‘Time for Real Change’, won democratic elections and now has a big majority on Unison’s national executive. What they’re seeking to do is give the union back to its members, by making sure it fully represents their interests and views.

If you look at that left majority on the Unison NEC, a lot of it has come from precisely the places where workers are under pressure and under attack, in the public services that have kept society going during the pandemic.

The left majority on that NEC is now having to confront a bureaucracy that’s been in control for a very long time and is more focused on its own interests than those of its members. It’s going to be a sustained every-day struggle to democratise and reorient the union, but it will succeed. That will mean a much more solid and united bloc among unions in all kinds of struggles. It means the strength of the trade union movement in the Labour Party, as well, could be seriously increased, with coordination between the struggles of rank-and-file party activists and rank-and-file trade unionists.

At Labour conference the left won policy debate after policy debate, but the leadership made it very clear they intend to ignore those decisions. If the unions unitedly back up CLPs over these issues it will be much harder for that to happen. That just reinforces the case for unions to remain affiliated, reaffiliate or consider affiliating for the first time.

We think the question of Labour conference deciding policy is crucial, and neglected or under-emphasised on the left. Back in 2019 there was briefly the Labour Campaigns Together alliance of organisations seeking to get policy passed at conference fought for and included in the manifesto. We’d like to see something like that, but broader and more active, again. We’re thinking of proposing to Momentum Internationalists that it approaches the various campaigns about the idea. Would you support that?

In 2019, a lot of those conference policies got translated into manifesto commitments or policy proposals that we published alongside the manifesto. For instance employment rights, education policy, taxation policy… That coordination of groups at conference and then lobbying afterwards about the manifesto was actually very effective. You’re right that we’ve got to do something similar, so we can build up a climate of opinion in which no Labour leader, going into the next election, can refuse to take account of what the conference policies are. We’ve got to create a climate where the people going into the Clause V meeting to decide the manifesto, from the NEC, the shadow cabinet and the unions, are under real pressure from the rank and file for a clear commitment to conference policies. Even if it seems hard now, that is what we've got to do.

That kind of pressure really helped us in 2017 and 2019, against people who weren’t keen on adhering to conference policy. In 2017, for instance, the lobbying to ban fracking helped. In the run up to the Clause V meeting there was a strong push from some unions against it, but because of that pressure we were able to win the argument.

In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn went on the Andrew Marr show and said quite clearly that conference should decide policy. That was very welcome, but it seems to us this argument was not really repeated or taken forward, and many conference policies were in reality ignored. Policy was still very often made by the leadership, in the old way.

I think that’s unfair. Jeremy and I always argued for the sovereignty of conference, but particularly in the situation we were in, the reality was we always had to negotiate the way through, form alliances around particular policies and push for what we could get. That’s why the climate of opinion is so important, to build up a balance of forces where things become incontestable.

I’ll give you another example. Before the 2017 manifesto, there were some in the shadow cabinet who didn’t want the commitment on abolishing tuition fees – including Angela Rayner, who was the shadow education secretary. They argued why spend money on this when there are so many other priorities. We won the argument because it was the overwhelming view coming from members through various channels.

In reality there’ll always be negotiations. But yes, conference should be the sovereign body and its policy should be the clear basis for the party’s campaigning and its manifestos. Strong campaigning and lobbying can help shape the negotiations in favour of conference policy.

OK, so a specific set of policy issues, workers’ rights. At conference [shadow secretary of state for employment rights] Andy McDonald resigned because he was told to argue against a £15ph minimum wage and living wage-level sick pay for all workers. The conference passed these demands overwhelmingly, perhaps unanimously. How do we take them forward?

The whole labour movement, affiliated and unaffiliated unions, and CLPs too, should mobilise for these demands. We need to raise the slogan “Fight for 15”. Back in 2017 we had to fight for the £10 an hour demand against many at the top of the party who didn’t want it. We need to fight in the party now but also much more broadly.

The £15 demand really is important. We’re in an absurd situation where it won’t be too long before the Tories come to a £10ph minimum wage. I think £15 can have a real resonance in the wider community, particularly as inflation starts kicking off. Some object that it’s near the average wage – but that’s the point. We’re trying to raise wages overall, as part of a major redistribution of wealth.

Do you see this as mainly a political battle or a series of industrial ones?

It’s got to be both. The £15 demand was first raised in the McStrike campaign, and that was a demand on the company but also a demand for national policy. The two sides can reinforce each other. If we can succeed in winning it against a particular company or companies that will only help the wider political campaign. The same with the demand on sick pay.

The other thing in that workers’ rights motion, and also the Green New Deal motion, was repealing all the anti-union laws – emphasis all. That’s been passed by Labour conference a number of times now and more widely the demand is gaining ground in the labour movement. It seems crucially important to us. But under Corbyn it always seemed unclear: you mainly talked about the 2016 Trade Union Act.

I think there was some confusion about what we were saying. In 2017 we endorsed the Institute of Employment Rights manifesto. I’d worked with the IER for many years as a backbencher, including on my Trade Union Freedom Bills [Private Members' Bills to significantly weaken the anti-union laws, though not completely abolish them, in 2006-7]. The 2017 policy did say specifically we would repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act in our first hundred days. Obviously that wouldn’t cover the right to sympathetic action, so I got asked about that. My response was that people must have the right to withdraw their labour, in line with the ILO [International Labour Organization] conventions, which means a clear right to strike. I remember a BBC interview asked me if that meant there would be secondary picketing.

I said that won’t be the situation, it won’t be necessary, because we’re going to have measures to democratise the economy. We’ll have workers on boards, we’ll have workers taking partial ownership over their companies [for our criticism of this see here]. But nonetheless everyone should have the right to withdraw their labour, no matter what.

I went up to Scotland and I was given the example of the brave Rolls-Royce workers who refused to load engines to go to Pinochet’s air force. I was asked would that be legal under our plans and I said, yes, of course it would. Everyone must have the right to withdraw their labour, no matter what. The ILO conventions are very clear.

I’ve read the IER stuff quite closely and been to quite a few of their events. It seems to me that the question about the anti-strike laws has faded out from their proposals – even between that first manifesto in 2016 and their second one in 2018. But in any case, our positive argument is that it’s necessary, at a bare minimum, to forthrightly advocate removal of all the restrictions introduced since 1979.

I think the 2016 IER manifesto does do that. After I made the point about international solidarity, with the Scottish example, they incorporated that too. But for sure people must have the right to strike, full stop.

Does that mean under a left-wing Labour government we’d face a new Winter of Discontent or something like the 70s? No, because we’ll be implementing policies agreed across the whole labour movement, and redistributing power at the level of companies but also at the level of economic management overall. In our plans workers would have greatly increased power overall and so wouldn’t necessarily need to use strike action in the same way.

That seems to me the wrong way of looking at it. It’s an important discussion we could perhaps return to in future. Perhaps you could speak for Free Our Unions about it?

Yes, and invite John Hendy and Keith Ewing [from the IER] too. We’ll all come along together.

Great idea. Looking back at your time in the leadership, what do you think you collectively or individually did well; and what do you think you got wrong or should have done differently?

On the first, my role as shadow chancellor was to change completely the economic analysis of the Labour Party. What I inherited was a party completely permeated by neo-liberalism and supporting austerity. If you remember not long before Jeremy got elected we had the PLP abstaining on the welfare bill and using the rhetoric about strivers and skivers, effectively endorsing attacks on some of the poorest people in society. We transformed the economic debate in Labour. Even now under Starmer, at the conference, they didn’t really try to challenge that. Even some of the policies announced by Rachel Reeves reflected this, for instance the major public investment to tackle climate change.

In terms of our failures... You do have to put it in the remarkable context. No one expected what happened. In normal circumstances you’d have a long time building up a movement, taking control of the party democratically, training activists to organise and take up positions, developing policy… Of course we’d done bits of that, that was a lot of what I was trying to do as a backbencher, but it all happened so suddenly. Jeremy won suddenly, we had the overwhelming majority of the parliamentary party against us, and we didn’t have a well-organised activist base.

We managed to increase the membership very rapidly, but we didn’t put sufficient effort or energy, or sufficient thought really, into training and educating an activist base to become a real democratic socialist movement, in the party and in the wider community. We under attack constantly – every month there was some sort of coup – and a lot of our energy was put into survival.

You can’t bring about or sustain a socialist government unless you have that kind of activist movement.

In regards to training a movement, what’s your analysis of what happened in Momentum? Because in that case it wasn’t just a failure, or a lack of effort, but a big effort which deliberately took things in the wrong direction.

It became bureaucratised. When we first envisioned Momentum, we wanted as horizontal a movement as possible, and one which nourished debate among members about the nature of society and about the policies that we need and how to campaign for them. That obviously requires proper mechanisms for people to be democratically involved. Instead you got a new mini-bureaucracy. Then obviously as a result of that you then had the new initiative which won the last Momentum elections last year [the Forward Momentum slate].

There is always that danger – you can read Trotsky on bureaucracy, or you can read Max Weber. I’ve been in so many organisations on the left where you start off with good intentions but a layer of people take control. You need to intervene as early as possible to try to prevent that kind of domination.

The last period of your time in the leadership was very much dominated by Brexit. What do you think looking back on it, and what do you think the left should say now?

It really was a nightmare situation. The vast bulk of our membership was clearly anti-Brexit. And the bulk of our support was too, in fact. At the same time, many of our constituencies, including my own, were pro-Brexit. The only way we could have overcome that, I think, was greater clarity. You obviously had those on the left, and on the right actually, who argued that we should have come out clearly for Brexit. Well, you were never going to get a stronger pro-Brexit position than the one coming from Nigel Farage and from Johnson. That was not a viable left-wing position.

The problem was that the social issues we tried to raise, workers’ rights, public services and so on, got subordinated by the issue of Brexit. What we should have done, I think, is put forward an analysis which articulated the social issues more strongly while also criticising Brexit more sharply. As it was there was a failure to communicate a clear message or develop a clear narrative. Hence our loss and the scale of the Tory majority.

Now, well, we should be straightforward with people. What I say to my constituents is I opposed Brexit; many of you voted for it, which I think was a mistake, but that vote and decision took place; but now we have to look at the reality of the deal the Tories have produced and all its consequences. We’re seeing those consequences starkly, right now. We’ve got the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland, and now the failure of supply chains to even put food on the shelves, and these issues are connected to the Tories’ deal and to the whole nature of Brexit. We do need discussion about our relationship with Europe and the rest of the world. We can start with opposing what the Tories are doing with trade deals, undermining workers’ rights and protections for the environment, and of course their attacks on migrants.

As an MP you’ve talked a lot about being a socialist. What does socialism mean to you, and how do you see your role as a politician fitting into that?

Neil Kinnock, believe it or not, in the late 80s, asked Professor Bernard Crick to do an explanation of socialism. Crick, who I did my masters with by the way, produced a pamphlet which said socialism means the achievement of equality through democracy. I would say socialism is not just a state you arrive at, it’s an ongoing series of relationships, and the society we want to see will always continue to evolve. The key elements shaping that evolution must be a commitment to equality and a commitment to democracy. If we consistently pursue those two commitments we can have a society where we eliminate poverty, where everyone can have a decent life, and the economy is based not on the search for profit but planning for need. On that basis we can create the rich and bounteous life I think we all aspire to.

In terms of a state vs an ongoing process, do you envision there being a break or rupture where the power of the capitalist class is overthrown and the working class takes power in a more comprehensive sense? In other words a point after which evolution continues, but faster and on a new basis?

I think you’ll get different kinds of changes and surges at different times. I think you can get a series of different breaks within and from capitalism. Capitalism is crisis-ridden, and those crises can create opportunities for rapid change, when new hegemonies, new paradigms can be set. There will also be periods when under pressure from the working class the system drives to adapt by making concessions, historically the welfare state and so on. There’ll be periods in which you get an evolution of capitalism as a result of class struggle, and other periods in which crises speed things up and open opportunities for more radical change. The last 75 years in this country illustrate that.

Both models depend on workers’ organisations and the left seizing opportunities. Otherwise crises can also lead to reactionary “solutions” and to regression, as in some ways we’re seeing at the moment.

Two things connected to antisemitism. It probably doesn’t need stating here how bad Starmer and co. are on it, in various respects. At the same time we think much of the left doesn’t really take seriously or understand seriously the nature of antisemitism and why it must be fought. And secondly, and it obviously relates, much of the left is obsessively anti-all things Israeli and thus not interested in solidarity with democratic and socialist forces resisting the right within Israel. For instance that support was absent from the Palestine solidarity motion passed at Labour conference. What do you think?

On the latter, I and some others on the left have done everything we can to support people in Israel courageously and heroically standing up for basic human rights, and standing in solidarity with the Palestinians. I have nothing but admiration for them – for instance the young people who have refused to serve in the army and been jailed. We have to support them. More broadly there have been a number of initiatives for peace and democracy that I’ve met with and supported.

On the issue of antisemitism, I’ve said it time and time again: one antisemite in the Labour Party is one too many. Jeremy has said that too. You have to recognise what the horrendous impact of antisemitism is on individual Jewish people and on the Jewish community overall. I've tried to take a really strong stance on this and actually faced some criticism on the left for that.

In terms of the disciplinary side, when we were in the leadership, we were undermined by the bureaucracy. I remember meeting after meeting where we were demanding to know why a string of things we’d agreed had not been done. Some things we thought had been done and then found out later they hadn’t. It was extremely frustrating. I always pushed for extremely firm action against antisemites and antisemitic behaviour.

With the purges now, much of which is totally unconnected to that need for firm action, I do find it ironic and disturbing the large number of Jewish members who have been expelled. Moreover some of the JVL [Jewish Voice for Labour] members being expelled are quite elderly and the way they have been treated is again disturbing.

In terms of the educational side, I tried to draw parallels from the Irish issue in the past. You get people on the left using antisemitic language and concepts and not even thinking about it. I remember in the 70s and 80s I was involved in campaigns against the way Irish people were treated. You had anti-Irish jokes and many people said, it’s not really serious. We published works explaining the thousand years history of trying to dehumanise the Irish. To subjugate people, you dehumanise them so you can treat them differently from others. That’s what often happens with Jewish people and that is why I’ve tried to make that comparison. The left has to fight it. To understand it properly a big job of education is needed, for all of us. Again, when we were in the leadership some of that was frustrated by the party machine; we probably should have tried to step outside it more.

You’ve been vocal about workers in China and Hong Kong, and vocal attacking Stalinist politics. It seems to us there’s been a bit of a revival of Stalinist ideas, coming in part out of the Labour left. What’s your analysis of that and how do we fight it?

I’ve spoken out on China for general socialist reasons, but also because of my trade union connections. There’s a couple of union comrades in Hong Kong I’ve campaigned with over the years, for instance in disputes in BA [British Airways], who are now in prison – why? For standing up for basic trade union rights. It behooves all of us to stand in solidarity with them. We should stand up against all regimes which attack human and workers’ rights, no matter what political language they use and what historical background they have.

There’s always been this political trend in our movement. You have to argue against it, in part by looking at history, by helping people understand how there have been revolutions which became bureaucratised and actually turned their forces against the working class. What was it that enabled that to happen? The breakdown of democracy within movements and within society, the dictatorial rule of an elite group.

We’ve had an expansion of the left and the Labour Party membership and maybe those ideas have expanded too. But I’m not sure if it’s actually got that much stronger. In any case it takes us back to the need for political education. If those political deviations are there, and if there are new people attracted to them, that signals a weakness of political education and discussion.

Something I’ve been working on is actually a new initiative on political education. Touring the country I’ve been struck by how often I’ve made a reference to something and people don’t know what I’m talking about. As a result I’ve started a series of podcasts about the history of class struggle, starting in the medieval era. We did the Peasants’ Revolt, the Civil War, we’ve just done one on the Chartists; there’ll be more coming on the rise of the Labour Party, women’s struggle for democratic rights, the Attlee government... I’ve also got a podcast series planned on key thinkers within the socialist tradition.

I’m trying to get out there, in an accessible form, material that encourages discussion of our movement’s history, which seems to me a good way of taking up the issues you raise about Stalinism. If people have a better understanding of this problem in history they are also more likely to comprehend and tackle the question we discussed earlier about the bureaucratisation of movements and institutions today. They are more likely to create and sustain effective democracy in the movement.

Last question! One thing you raised after the 2008 crash, but not as shadow chancellor, was public ownership of the banks – not just separate public investment banks, but taking the big banks into public ownership and democratic control. The kind of policy the Fire Brigades Union has promoted. This seems to us more urgent than ever. What’s your thinking on that?

I was involved in some of the early drafts of the FBU’s pamphlet. In 2008 I raised the demand to nationalise the banks into order to stabilise the economy. That’s actually what happened, but the issue was Brown nationalised but didn’t take any control whatsoever.

As shadow chancellor I conceived it in stages – first setting up a strategic investment board through the Treasury and the Bank of England to direct the economy more effectively. We also looked at how we could lay down different rules and conditions on the operation of the financial sector, including the banks. Particularly if those conditions weren’t met, we still had the option of bringing at least some of them into public ownership. But our more immediate focus, preparing for a first term in government, was setting up a national investment bank with regional banking arms. Wider public ownership was something for the future.

You’d have to find ways to convince people it’s necessary. For instance, there is real resistance in the financial sector to serious action to tackle climate change. The impact and urgency of climate change means that if you have a financial system that isn’t willing to act on it, then a democratic government has to force them, either through regulation or ownership. If regulation doesn’t work, then we have to use ownership. That’s always got to be part of the toolkit for a left-wing government.

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