About six months ago, a metaphorical bombshell was exploded within the UK political jungle; Jeremy Corbyn was elected as leader of the Labour Party. The impossible had been achieved, the members had spoken, no, in fact they had bellowed ‘we want change!’ and good heavens they got it. The candidate who struggled to get enough nominations from MPs to even appear on the ballot paper had triumphed in the end; not just triumphed but routed his opposition. No one was more surprised than me about the size of his mandate other than possibly Jeremy.
But the subject of my musings this week is not Jeremy but one of his appointees. Corbyn could have taken the easy option by choosing Angela Eagle or some such as Shadow Chancellor thus appeasing at a stroke what the media call the ‘Blairite wing’ of the Party – who were still in shock and hadn’t yet come to terms with the extent of his support. But no, as we now know Jeremy is nothing if not his own man. Step forward one John McDonnell, a long term backbencher with a penchant for getting up the establishment’s collective nose.
I am enough of a political animal (surely not, I hear you say) to think that I have heard of most Labour MPs and indeed I knew a little about McDonnell’s background but not enough to suggest that he was Shadow Cabinet material never mind Shadow Chancellor. I thought he would gift the Tories and their media friends a series of old fashioned rants; giving them plenty of ammunition to hurl the usual anti-left abuse. How wrong I was. His approach has been as refreshing as Corbyn’s.
His experience as Chairman of Finance at the GLC under Ken Livingstone in the eighties controlling a budget of over £3billion must have taught him how to deal with bitter opposition within the hard school of political aggression. So he is not exactly untested, unlike our present Chancellor who was appointed as Shadow Chancellor by Michael Howard after his first two choices turned it down. Interestingly when Cameron was asked why Osborne was still in his shadow cabinet he replied ‘He stayed in my shadow cabinet not because he is a friend, not because we are godfathers to each other’s children …’ Hmm.
Despite some gaffs over which McDonnell held his hands up admitting he had made mistakes and said “a bit of humility amongst politicians never goes amiss”, he has handled his brief with a confidence and competency which has surprised many commentators who predicted calamity. He has presented his economic plans with clarity and transparency; sensible ideas and not the full blown Marxism that many predicted. He has said that we must live within our means and accepts that cuts in public spending are necessary to eliminate our deficit but not at the expense of middle and low income earners or especially the poor. He proposes separating day to day banking from investment banking to stop bankers gambling with customers’ hard earned money. He wants to introduce a financial transactions tax to fund the rebalancing of our economy towards production and manufacturing.
All very sensible, if boring, to those of us whose idea of economics is looking for 2-for-1 deals down at Sainsburys. Already the usual suspects, including, I’m afraid, some Labour MPs are sniping at him accusing him of adapting Blairism, that, of course, would be flying in the face of why Corbyn was elected but, personally, I think that taking on board some of Gordon Brown’s economic policies is no bad thing; a much maligned chancellor in my view. I hope those dissenting Labour MPs take the advice of our deputy leader, Tom Watson, and keep quiet for a while to give the man a chance to prove his worth.
It is of some significance that Corbyn and McDonnell are respected by ordinary people for what they are; whilst neither has the traditional background associated with national politicians. Neither of them went to Oxbridge and there’s not a PPE degree between them (Philosophy, Politics and Economics – the requisite of power). They both left school at seventeen/eighteen and Corbyn worked and then went to a North London Polytechnic but didn’t finish his degree course. McDonnell left school unqualified at seventeen; he studied at night school whilst working until he entered Brunel University at twenty three. No silver spoon or political dynasty in sight; just hard work and having a life.
Time will tell (wishful thinking) if McDonnell turns out to be a good chancellor but for the moment he is refreshing to have around.