John McDonnell MP spoke to Solidarity at the Labour Representation Committee conference on 14 November after he had announced that he will contest the Labour Party leadership again when Gordon Brown goes.
The Labour Party conference this year was the smallest Labour conference since the Second World War. The number of constituency delegates was significantly down, and even trade union delegations were smaller this year. That’s the sad reality.
But there were victories on the floor of the conference, for example, over the election of the National Policy Forum. That happened for a number of reasons.
There were some stirrings in the constituencies. A lot of the careerists are dropping off now as they see the prospect of Labour losing the election. You have more people turning up now who are the activists who have clung on by their fingertips through the years of New Labour, and many of those are still on the left.
On the trade union side, there is a feeling now of “enough’s enough”. The role of the GMB, in particular, has been important.
It was a useful exercise in some element of democratic accountability. But let’s not exaggerate. We are talking about a party whose rank and file is sadly diminished, and almost moribund in many areas of the country.
I also think the Labour leadership have taken their eye off the ball to an extent as regards internal Labour Party matters. They are more concerned with survival than with planning the issues at Labour Party conference.
But it does demonstrate that with a bit of organisation, even with small numbers, there is a potential for some widening of democratic involvement.
I’m not giving up on the general election yet. It could go either way. There could be a tsunami in which Labour is comprehensively swept out of power, or we could be in a situation where the Tories do not win as they expect to – there is a hung parliament, or Labour has a very small majority.
If there is a hung parliament, or something close to it, it is going to be very interesting to see what power the left can exert with a minimal representation in Parliament but a much wider representation in the trade unions and in the constituency parties.
There will be post-mortems, of course. The response from the right will be to evade any responsibility whatsoever for Labour’s electoral fortunes. They will reject any critique of past policies. They will argue that it’s simply the electorate becoming bored with the Labour government after a long period in office.
What I would describe as the centre-right – Compass and so on – will formulate a critique which will appear to be from the left, but will be significantly tainted because it will stay within the narrow bounds of New Labour’s fundamental neo-liberal practices. I think it will be seen as opportunistic.
The question is whether the left can mobilise at that stage, and not only in the Labour Party and the trade unions but also in the wider society, for a real critique of what has happened under New Labour.
In the Labour Party itself, there will be the usual bureaucratic manoeuvres to close that debate down. We have got to break those barriers, but more important is to win the wider movement to the discussion.
As to what the left does in the general election, there are three levels to that discussion.
First of all, everyone on the left, wherever they are in the country, needs to flock to give their support to the few socialist Labour candidates. Geographical distances are secondary here. We need resources poured into those constituencies.
We need to make sure the funding is there, and we have the people there too, to get our vote out. That’s the first thing.
The second thing, in the wider movement as well as the trade union movement, is to make sure that we start the debate now about how we got into this situation, and what the alternatives are.
After the election, whatever the outcome, we have to be ready to make strategic interventions that come out of the analysis, and make the demands on any future government. But the most important thing now is solidarity to keep socialists in Parliament, and to engage so that the debate cannot be controlled from the right.
If there is a new Labour leadership election, I will stand again. Last time [in 2007] we were severely limited by minimal resources, but we did take issues out into the affiliated unions.
We tried to ensure that there was a debate in the constituency parties, too, and that happened to a certain extent. We were killed off by the centralised control of the nomination process.
What we need to do different this time, I think, is to make the debate much wider, much broader. We have to be much more media-savvy, use the media more effectively, and take the debate into the social movements as well. There is a whole range of organisations now beyond the traditional Labour and trade union movement whom we need to involve in the debate.
It will be focused around a post-mortem – around what happened to a government that turned on its own supporters.
The People’s Charter? It’s a general statement of aims and a general critique of society as it is now. You will get a broad range of support for that, but it’s a bit like a funnel. It’s the widest end of the funnel, and you can then draw people in, down that funnel, into a much more concrete debate about socialism.
It’s like any other campaigning tool. It gets people through the door, and from there you can go on to have a real debate. In some areas it will work, in some areas it won’t.
I’m working at the minute with a whole range of broad coalitions. They enable you to get people together around an issue, and then you can go further.
Public Services Not Private Profit was launched because the TUC wasn’t running a proper campaign against privatisation. Seventeen unions got involved, and it has been relatively active at different periods when needed. I think the unions take a very pragmatic view on that.
It will be an important tool in the coming months, definitely. The other structure that will be increasingly important is the Trade Union Coordinating Group (TUCG). There are now eight trade unions involved in it, meeting on a regular basis, planning the raising of issues in the parliamentary groups of the different unions and joint campaigns. It is looking to a conference in February which brings people together from across the trade union movement, with others, to talk about the strategy they wish to pursue at and after the general election.
Public Services Not Private Profit will be one element of the strategy, but I think the TUCG now is a really strong potential vehicle for bringing the movement together.
Of course, I am a Labour MP, and I will be campaigning in the general election to secure the election of a Labour government. I can understand why people are setting up alternative coalitions for the general election, but for the period of the election we will have to go our different ways.
The most important thing is to continue the work we have done in recent years to build the broadest possible alliance across the Labour and trade union movement and the social movements. Once the general election is over there will be critical discussions that need to take place on the sort of political formation that is a positive factor for developing that work.