John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the Politics Department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign Secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.
In answering Dermot Hodson’s questioning on political economy issues, he discusses the U-turn over George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter in terms of the time pressures of taking office and the urgency of repositioning Labour as the party of anti-austerity in spite of short-term costs to economic credibility. In answer to Hodson’s question about the EU referendum, McDonnell said that Labour would be entering the Brexit debate on its own terms, including through cooperation with other parties on the European left. When asked by Ben Worthy about inspirational figures he name checked, unsurprisingly, the great 1940s Labour reformer Clement Attlee but, less expectedly, the artful balancer of the 1960s and 1970s Harold Wilson. He was less convinced when Alex Colas asked him for his most admired Conservative leader. He argued that, amid the political ‘insurgencies’ of Left and Right, the rules of political leadership had now changed.
There were then searching crowd-sourced audience questions on a whole range of topics, from whether Labour could build a winning electoral coalition to dealing with rebels, press regulation and sacrificing principles for power. He argued that a winning coalition did exist among the majority of anti-conservative voters if the message was right, but felt the first round of elections in Scotland, London and local government in May 2016 may be tough. Party rebels [which McDonnell and Corbyn used to be] would face a barrage of ‘tea and sympathy’ and the public would be reached not through the main stream press but on the stump and through social media. He suggested more change was coming, supporting a PR elected House of Lords of the regions and initiatives around national savings bank and a series of gender based policy reviews.
John McDonnell was an MSc. student at Birkbeck between 1978 and 1981 under the great Bernard Crick, before entering politics and becoming Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and standing for Parliament in 1997. Studying politics at Birkbeck had given him a rounded, deeper understanding of politics and, he said, a fear of essay deadlines.
Listen to a recording of the event: