Peter Manson spoke to Labour left MP John McDonnell about the Labour Party conference, the general election and beyond

john mcdonnell mpHow do you see the main issues at the Labour conference?

The New Labour leadership will be trying to use the conference for yet another relaunch of Gordon Brown. If it’s anything like the public relations exercise of his TUC speech, it will be extremely dispiriting and disillusioning – it will hardly be successful in terms of launching the general election campaign.

What they will be trying to set out is some form of difference between themselves and the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, but they have all now reached a consensus on the key political issue – they expect working class people to pay for this crisis, not the bankers themselves, and they’re not looking for any transformation of the system. They are now looking for a massive onslaught in terms of cuts in public services, attacks on trade unions and undermining any reaction against neoliberal policies and the restoration of market dominance. I don’t think there’s any discernible difference between New Labour’s position and that of the other main parties.

It could be argued that the Tories are playing into Brown’s hands by declaring their intention to make deeper and further cuts with relish, whereas Brown will make the same cuts with tender, loving care.

That might have been the case a week ago, but the scene has changed so dramatically. We’ve just had Ed Balls announcing education cuts on a scale we haven’t seen for years – there seems to be a Dutch auction going on about who can be more brutal in their attacks on the working class in terms of cutbacks in public expenditure and, inevitably, assaults on people’s pensions and welfare benefits.

It is possibly the most disillusioning exercise we’ve seen in politics in recent generations. Not only will people say, ‘There’s no difference between you’: there is no difference between them in the content of their attacks on working people.

It reminds me of Tony Blair’s first election victory in 1997, when he promised to keep in place the Tory cuts for two years. People voted Labour on the grounds that they couldn’t be any worse than the Tories and that seems to be the basis on which trade union leaders are recommending a Labour vote.

Some trade union leaders. They are working on the basis that you might as well have the devil you know rather than risk the Tories.

Remember, in 97 what happened was that people marched to get rid of the Tories. It wasn’t that they had any confidence in Blair – the electorate didn’t really have a clue as to what the ramifications of his victory would be.

When you are in the situation where all the parties are virtually presenting the same programme, people react according to what they are actually experiencing at the time – they will march again to get rid of the incumbent government. New Labour is seen as pursuing the same policies of attacking working people as the Tories and, despite the savage cuts proposed by the Liberal Democrats last week, I think people will want to take it out on the government.

What happened to Keynes? I thought we had to spend our way out of the crisis, but all of a sudden, with a general election looming, that seems to have gone by the board.

There are three examples of Labour being in power when a crisis like this has hit – two were under Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan. You could argue that Keynes was a competing economic theory in the 30s, but you couldn’t argue that about Callaghan’s time. Both MacDonald and Callaghan rejected Keynesianism, let alone any form of socialist practice. What happened to them? They turned on their own class, cut welfare benefits, increased unemployment and slashed public expenditure. The reaction was absolute opposition from working people and the removal of Labour from power for a decade.

The third example was Attlee, who came to power in a crisis, when the country was bankrupt, and successfully used taxation and public ownership to redistribute wealth and establish the welfare state. What is interesting is the ignoring of the Attlee experience and New Labour’s seizing upon Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan, with Keynesianism going out of the window. Not that I think Keynesianism is the solution, but even in their own terms New Labour has rejected an alternative. It’s panic, absolute panic, that is setting in. Every policy is aimed above all at trying to secure a continuation of power.

Just as the media and many commentators were urging Ramsay MacDonald and Jim Callaghan to be ‘responsible’ and look after the ‘national interest’, exactly the same has been pouring out of the pages of The Guardian, The Times, the FT and the rest. They are all urging ‘responsibility’, which means cuts.

It is almost as though the world has lost its senses, even on Keynesian terms. They are introducing massive cuts during a recession, which will produce more unemployment and keep the economy on a downward spiral.

You are convenor of the Trade Union Coordinating Group. What is the TUGC’s role?

We established the TUCG at the TUC congress in 2008. Initially there were four unions which had worked together in a few individual campaigns such as Public Services Not Private Profit, and they felt a more consistent alliance was needed. They were advocating similar policies and looking for further coordination and campaigning, whether that be public meetings, organising demonstrations or even coordinating action in the future. The TUCG has now doubled in size to eight unions.

It was quite clear what divisions there were within the TUC this year. TUCG trade unions are calling for a much more aggressive approach in terms of industrial relations, so that people don’t have to pay for this crisis in terms of cuts in wages or conditions or their jobs. They have a much more independent line – it is just not acceptable to expect people to support a government which has turned on its own class.

What unions are involved?

The original four were the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers, Public and Commercial Services Union, Fire Brigades Union and National Union of Journalists. Now there are also the Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, National Association of Probation Officers, Prison Officers Association and United Road Transport Union. Only the Bakers Union is affiliated to Labour.

How do you see the TUCG in relation to, for example, the Labour Representation Committee?

Well, to be honest, the TUCG is a trade union grouping, which addresses a whole range of issues from a trade union perspective and will prove increasingly effective, I think, as we go into this next period, whoever is in government. Whoever it is, they are clearly going to come for people’s jobs, working conditions and pensions, and the trade unions are the only organisations that can play a leading role in protecting them.

There is also a role for the TUCG in the discussion about future representation as well as future action. It will be convening a conference aiming for February, looking at a strategy for the unions in the run-up to the general election and beyond it.

There is no formal link between that and the LRC, which is a separate political organisation. But the TUCG is one of many initiatives being undertaken at the moment, whereby people are feeling their way forward on how they can make alliances across industrial, economic and political struggles, and what structures best suit those struggles at any one point in time.

Just as the LRC is an attempt to form alliances of the left both within and outside the Labour Party, here you have a group of trade unions that are allying to make themselves stronger and more effective, but that are also looking to work with others in the promotion of political objectives as well. So the TUCG unions came behind the People’s Charter, and will want to work with groups like the LRC in campaigning on issues they agree upon.

In the general election you will be a Labour candidate, but the message you are putting over is that there is no difference between the three main parties. So on what basis will you be campaigning for a Labour vote?

It’s interesting how many individual Labour candidates in the general election will be standing on policies that they’ll be advocating locally and will have no reflection on what’s happening nationally. They will be pursuing policies that a number of us have been advocating for a period of time.

Those candidates will be opposed to working people having to pay for this crisis and, calling for the redistribution of wealth and power, advocating public ownership, arguing for peace, opposing the war in Iraq and calling for troops out of Afghanistan. That will be a fairly common platform for which a number of Labour candidates will be campaigning, because it’s the only way in which they’ll be able to save their seats. I expect that there will be quite a large number of Labour candidates who will be distancing themselves from the policies they’ve even voted for over recent years.

Unfortunately, however, a tiny percentage of the electorate vote on the basis of what the local candidate, as opposed to their party, is saying.

That’s why if there isn’t any change in Labour policy nationally there’s a good chance of a wipe-out. The only thing that will save Labour – not as a government, but from being wiped out – will be the incompetence of the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

Some of the TUCG unions may well give at least tacit support to non-Labour candidates. How do you view their position?

Well, I’m a Labour MP, so I’ll be standing on a Labour platform. I’ll be putting forward policies I’ve been advocating for a number of years.

Individual unions will make their own decisions, but I think the recommendation of TUCG unions to their members on how to vote will be based on a critique of the record of the particular candidates and the policies they’re pursuing. I think you’ll see a number of unions supporting candidates based on a realistic assessment of their track record.

Even some of the most New Labour-loyal union leaders – Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, for example – are arguing that members should only vote for candidates who support union policies. We’ll see whether that translates into reality, but I think TUCG unions will take such a position.

Do you think any substantial left-of-Labour groups will stand?

Various discussions are going on, I’m sure, as reported in your own newspaper. I’m sure there will be non-Labour left candidates, but there seems to be an increasing awareness that they shouldn’t be running against Labour left candidates.

At the same time I’m hoping that, in the general election campaign, from somewhere there will be a political debate. If that comes from left candidates in the Labour Party, and from left candidates outside, at least working people will be able to see that some people are arguing for an alternative.

We’ll see what happens in the general election. However, the main debate about the future of the left will come afterwards.

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