A non-partisan journal of the left.

Interview: John McDonnell MP Talks to London Progressive Journal

Fri 11th Jan 2008

NM: An unsuccessful appeal was recently heard in the case of the dismissed mental health worker Kate Reissman, who was sacked by the Manchester Mental Health Trust after protesting about proposed cuts. You raised this in the Commons and there has been a huge show of support for her from her colleagues and from her trade union. The allegation of gross misconduct which culminated in her dismissal centred around an interview that she gave in which she criticised the transfer of NHS jobs to the voluntary sector. The Trust is likely to maintain the position that it was not appropriate for an employee below management level to give an interview of that nature. Was this a clear case of intimidation?

JM: Karen’s case is just one example of what’s happening across the health service and across the public sector generally. Anybody standing up against privatisation is a target for victimisation by their employers. We’re seeing a number of cases now where charges are brought against them simply because they’re either critical of the privatisation policies that are being developed, or they are organising against them. So we’ve seen Karen sacked because she has spoken out, we’ve seen Michael Gavin sacked in Newham because he organised a meeting against privatisation of local government services, and it seems to be a common pattern. So it’s a direct attempt by public sector bodies to suppress opposition, but also it’s a direct attack by the state on the ability of people to speak freely, so it’s a freedom of speech issue as well as a trade union issue. It’s an issue also of workers standing up and defending their clients and their patients. So the reasons that I raised it in parliament - I put an early day motion down and we’ve organised for a lobby of parliament as well - is that it’s fundamental to protecting trade unionists and anyone who stands up to speak out against what is a basic attack on their services and their communities. Karen and Michael and others are just heroes and heroines of the struggle so far, but there’s many more of them as well, and they’re being shuffled out of their jobs, some of them quietly, some of them being intimidated and victimised out of their jobs, and many of them of them to rise to such prominence but there’s many out there who are suffering in that way, and we’ve got to try and expose what’s going on to defend them.

The Campaign Against Climate Change has recently organised a huge, nationwide demonstration. In your recent press release, you accuse Gordon Brown of betraying your constituents in the Heathrow area. Would you say that the government’s policy on aviation is completely at odds with its rhetoric on climate change?

I’ve accused the government of betrayal, and Brown in particular, on climate change because within the same week he made a speech on climate change in which he announced that we were increasing the targets on emissions, that we were looking for a massive investment in renewable energy, and that we were looking to curb some of the worst polluters within our society, and everybody applauded that speech, from Friends of the Earth to even some sections within industry. Within four days of that, he has Ruth Kelly announce that he’s allowing the expansion of Heathrow Airport, which will set the tone for the expansion of aviation generally in this country. And it isn’t just about my constituents, although for my constituents people need to realise what the impact will be. It will be the forced removal of anything between three and ten thousand people from their homes and their communities, now that’s the biggest forced removal since the Scottish clearances of any scale of population, and it’s as big as anything we’ve seen in recent capital projects across Europe, including the Ilusu damn in Turkey, and it’s a huge fundamental attack on working class people in my constituency, and an attack on local communities around Heathrow. But more importantly, it means that the climate change policies that the government has announced so popularly, now will be completely undermined by aviation expansion. And the reason I’m using the word “betrayal” is because in our examination of the consultation document that the government has put out about Heathrow expansion, the government is arguing that although the number of air traffic movements across London will increase from480,000 to 800,000, they’re arguing, using doctored scientific evidence, that there’ll be no increase in noise and no increase in air pollution, which is not just a fallacy, is laughable. What we’ve demonstrated, even using the Stern Report’s own methodology, is that it will produce a significant impact on Carbon emissions and undermine the government’s overall climate change policy. That has an impact, not just on my constituents, not just on Londoners, and not just on this country - it has an impact on the globe. And I think that the battle at Heathrow is the iconic battleground for the campaign around climate change, about whether this government is serious. And it isn’t just about campaigning locally and nationally, I think that it will be the campaigning arena for the whole of Western Europe, so what we’ll be seeing in the next few years is a campaign against Heathrow expansion which is waged by local people, by environmentalists across Britain, but also environmentalists across the world coming here, because if we can defeat this one we might be able to turn the tide on this ever increasing aviation expansion which is having such an impact on increasing emissions and therefore on climate change. That’s how significant it is and that’s why I was so angry at Brown’s hypocritical statement. In counter-distinction to an excellent speech on climate change, he then in practice bows down to the profit-making of the aviation industry and Ferrovial, the Spanish corporate in particular, who this year just made in the first six months, £500million worth of profit, and at the same time are trying to cut the pensions of their workers.

You narrowly missed out on the opportunity to challenge Gordon Brown for the leadership of the Labour Party. With this environmental issue, and with the stories in the news at the moment about donations, there seems to be, in some quarters, a growing sense that the New Labour project might be slowly unravelling. Is there cause for optimism or is this just a blip?

In terms of state control, the New Labour machine around Brown controls the parliamentary process, and controls the decision-making process as tightly, if not more tightly, than Blair did, so there’s been no improvement on that front, no further room to manoeuvre. The Brown government is going through a limited crisis, as a result of the mistakes it’s made around not calling an election, around donations to political parties, and miscalculations in a number of policy areas. They’re going through a limited crisis, but I think that won’t result in the Brown administration collapsing, I think they’re more likely to stumble on until the next election, unless there’s a dramatic change of policy and a re-orientation of policy, and the way government is undertaken by the Brown administration. Unless that takes place, we’ll just sleepwalk into a Tory government. But what’s interesting is that, although within the Labour party and within government, democratic resistance has virtually been closed down because of the undermining of democratic processes both within the party and in government, what gives grounds for optimism is the amount of struggle that is going on outside the parliamentary and the political party process. So wherever you go now, campaigns are being waged within communities. Trade unions have rediscovered themselves as social movements, industrial disputes are breaking out which are having some success as well. Some of the best examples are the National Car Parks disputes by the GMB where an organised group of largely migrant workers, who are some of the most vulnerable people in our community, took on the largest private equity company in Britain and won, as a result of a very assertive and very professional organisation on the ground, involving the workers themselves making the decisions about the nature of the dispute. That moves on, then, to other social movements, to other social movements, like the campaign against climate change, campaigns on asylum, the campaigns against the war, the threat to Iran. Social movements gathering outside the political process which eventually will have its influence.

Elsewhere on our pages we will soon be featuring an interview with a representative from a group called the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party”. My personal views on this sort of project are mixed. I feel that from the point of view of parliamentary politics such a project is jinxed, in that the more successfully a minority party achieves mainstream appeal, the more likely it is that it will serve only to hand an electoral victory to the Conservative party, by splitting the vote of people who would otherwise have been likely to vote for Labour. And yet most people would agree that the domination of the political process by two parties is unacceptable or undesirable. My question for you as a Labour MP is: what would it take for you to move on from Labour, bearing in mind privatisation, and the wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, is there a conceivable point at which you might say: “I cannot be a part of this party any more”, or is it a case of sticking it out at any price, in the hope of achieving sufficient influence to steer the party away from neo-liberalism and war, and towards an agenda that truly reflects the party’s heritage and its support base?

When you join a political party, it’s a tactical and a strategic decision, and most of us join because we come from movements where we want to campaign around a particular issue or group of issues, and then become involved in the development of ideas related to that particular issue that then leads us on to a broader analysis and ideology. And that’s where I come from, from working class movements from the estates on which I’ve lived, and also Trade Union activities. You then have to come to terms with the fact that you need to play a role within the state to actually achieve change, so you need to use the state as a tool. The vehicle for doing that, traditionally within this country, partly because of the electoral system, but also because of the historic affinity of working people to the Labour party, has been the Labour party itself. I don’t envisage that affinity between working class people and the Labour party changing, it’s weakened over time but hasn’t changed significantly. At the same time, the electoral system means that the attempts to set up individual parties outside the Labour party significantly fail. But even where the electoral system is proportional representation as in Scotland, it’s still failed as well. I don’t look on what’s happened to Respect or the SSP in Scotland with any joy whatsoever - I think it’s a tragedy. I think there are some tremendous socialists within all of them who’ve devoted their lives to socialism, and I think it’s an absolute tragedy that Respect has broken down into acrimony, and same with the SSP. So the position I’m at at the moment is that I think the most important thing is not to discuss or argue about the organisational form within the party or outside the party, but to work on the basis of solidarity, issue by issue, and develop the broadest united front on a non-sectarian basis, and a non-patronising basis as well, both of movements on the left and of progressive social movements as well. I’ll give you an example, the Climate Change camp came to my constituency, and I learned more about climate change in a week than from all the political debates and reading that I’ve done over the years, and it was because of the effervescent discussion that went on that was so creative during the climate camp where people were coming up with new ideas, and it was inspirational. What we should be doing now is looking at those issues and how we can work together. What can socialists bring to that? Well, what we can bring in a completely non-patronising way, is I think a broader analysis of capitalism under this latest phase of corporate-driven globalisation. And we can link those campaigns but also, because I’m in the Labour party we can offer a bridge to actually tackling some of these issues around state power as well. So my slogan, basically, is fight where you can, but fight together. In other words you fight where you can, but work in solidarity . There’s no point in arguing, we’ve got to find an organisational form where we can work on that broad united front. There’ll be people who still want to work within the Labour party and that’s fair enough, there’ll be others who want to work in the trade unions, there’ll be others who want to work in other parties and social movements, the most important thing is working together at the moment.

Shortly after the war on Afghanistan, there was the talk of a war on Iraq, and at that time the idea was considered by many to be too preposterous even for the Bush administration to contemplate. With the help of a good deal of media hype, the idea was transformed from something that was an outrageous and unlikely prospect, to something that was within the realms of possibility, all within a very short space of time, maybe a year and a half at most. The opinion formers allowed themselves to get used to the idea, after going through the motions of debating the issue for some time; an outrageous prospect crept into acceptability and was normalised. For a few months now, what we’ve seen is a new debate bubbling away in the mainstream media, in much the same way, with regard to a possible war with Iran. It seems to me that this process of softening up the public is once again underway, and the mainstream media have shown no signs thus far that they are likely to abandon the passive and complicit role they played in the Iraq and Afghanistan build up.

What’s interesting - it’s exactly as you’re saying - is the same, almost identical process as pre-Iraq war is now being actually mobilised in I think what’s been a pre-planned proposal within the Bush administration to attack Iran. The same propaganda methods, the same attempt to form a coalition of the willing, and the same attempts to scare people about the nature of the threat of Iran. It’s interesting that the only thing we haven’t seen so far is a dodgy dossier, I would expect one of those anytime. Bush has a slight problem in that, in attempting to arrive at a dodgy dossier his own secret intelligence services have come forward with information saying actually Iran doesn’t pose a nuclear threat in the way that Bush has been speaking about in many of his recent speeches. But I don’t underestimate the desire and the intent of the Bush regime to try and retrieve the situation in its last months of power, and I would expect that even if he can’t get a coalition for an invasion, there may be selective strikes against Iran in the same way Israel did selective strikes against Syria. And the worry is what response will there be then from Iran and other states, and also what response will there be from terrorist groups around the world in terms of attacks on the West. My view now, from the left and from all progressive organisations and people in this country - we’ve got to do everything we can to mobilise and prevent an attack by Bush, everything we can possibly do to ensure that the Brown regime doesn’t become part of a coalition of the willing, and I fear for that - no matter what statements Brown has made until now, we’re still working hand-in-glove with the US military. But then also what we need to be doing is looking at the long-term alternatives, and the long-term alternatives are around ideas about how you restructure government with a Ministry of Peace, how you put conflict resolution and conflict prevention at the heart of government policy-making, and how you not only campaign in the short-term but also in the long-term for a change of attitude in government. If we can use the Iran crisis now to develop those longer-term ideas I think we’ve got longer-term potential, because I think people are really angry about what happened on Iraq, but they’re also angry at the potential that they’re being led down the same path again on Iran.

Following on from that question of having to rally to prevent a repeat of Iraq: Is there a risk that the recent inception of the Hands Off the People of Iran might contribute to the idea slipping into the realm of legitimate possibility and being accepted in that way, by mobilising support at a level of urgency that is more advanced than the actual level of urgency of the diplomatic crisis?

It’s a matter of judgement, but I think you need to err on the side of caution. By that I mean you need to plan for the worst. I don’t think anyone should underestimate the continuing dialogue that goes on between the British government and the Bush regime, and the pressure that will be applied on the UK government to fall into line around - as I say - most probably selective strikes, and people may think it’s a more acceptable strategic approach by the Americans and the coalition, to do selective strikes rather than invasion. I still think they will run the risk and the dangers of a backlash.

Well it’s a question of how you define a war. My view is that the Iraq war did not start when the ground troops went in in 2003, it was an escalation of a war that was ongoing from a previous administration.

Well if you look at what happened under sanctions all the way through, and there was bombing continuously.


A selective strike is an act of war. The media might like to turn it into something else…

The people of Iran wouldn’t sit back and just take it, and neither would their supporters in a whole range of different groups around the world, so you lay yourself open to an escalation of a terrorist war on a scale that maybe we’ve not seen on this scale so far.

Chavez lost the referendum on his proposed constitutional changes. Given the sense of increasing pressure on him from domestic and foreign opponents, is there a sense in which this setback might benefit him in the long run, by forcing him to slow the pace of change, making it harder for people wishing to destabilise his regime, who might have preferred it if he’d won, in order to provide a pretext for further destabilisation?

What I’m hoping will come out of the post-referendum analysis will be an understanding that rather slow down the process of change, they most probably need to speed it up. What I mean by that is that, from the reports that we have, large numbers of people on the ground, who are still experiencing levels of poverty, lack of control over their future lives, are becoming increasingly impatient about the pace of change. For example, whereas in the Barrios there has been a democratisation of decision-making on things like education and health, there have been increasing demands now about democratisation of their working lives. So, I think it might well encourage an intensifying and a speeding up of the process of change, particularly with regard to economic empowerment. If that means more companies coming into the public sector and then being managed by workers themselves, again that will build greater support for the potential of socialism within that country. I think that’s one of the lessons learned. The other lesson learned is, there’s no doubt about it, that there were external forces at work in terms of mobilising opposition to the referendum and we need to be guarded about that infiltration by the US.

Considering it purely from the point of view of the long-term security of the Chavez government, given the countless historical precedents of the US overthrowing socialist or nationalist leaders in Latin America - one of the things they tend to do in the build-up to a coup is a mobilisation of opposition to create a sense of polarisation and disunity. The manipulation of the discourse is also interesting - the press in this country kept referring to Chavez wanting to be “indefinitely re-elected”, quite deliberately completely misleading. If that’s what’s going on here I dread to think what Venezuelans are hearing.

The lesson’s this: either you’re going too fast and you need to slow down to accommodate people, that’s one way. My view is if you do that you make yourself vulnerable. My view is actually you need to speed up and intensify because if you can intensify particularly the redistribution of power, linked with the redistribution of wealth in that country, you’re building up a popular base of support that is insurmountable and unchallengeable. So I think that’s the lesson to be learned, and maybe it is a discussion about the inherent elements of the constitutional proposals, and maybe it is about , within that constitution itself, looking at how you devolve more power to the Barrios, the grass roots, the workers in control of factories, et cetera. You know, you’re going to have setbacks in any revolution.


John McDonnell is the Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington.
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