by Kevin Meagher
What were the odds of John McDonnell becoming shadow chancellor six months ago? Longer than they were of Jeremy Corbyn becoming Labour leader, I suspect.
But here he was, a trim 61 year-old with neat white hair and a smart suit, looking every inch the interim finance director of a struggling SME that’s just lost a major contract and needs a new direction.
Given his previous form, it helps that McDonnell doesn’t look like he’s come from central casting as your typical ‘lefty bogeyman’. And neither, to be fair, did he sound it.
His main task today was not to be predictable. Frankly, all he needed to do was not to snarl about nationalising the FTSE-100 and it would turn out better than many on the right of the party had been fearing.
His promise to “force” recalcitrant corporates like Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon and Google to pay their “fair share of taxes” was vintage Margaret Hodge.
His pledge to establish a national investment bank and review the UK’s economic policy-making to ensure it is “fit for purpose” in preventing another recession could have been made by Gordon Brown.
Asking the former head of the civil service, Bob Kerslake, to lead a review of the Treasury was pure Harold Wilson, who established the department of economic affairs in the 1960s to counter its over-mighty bearing on Whitehall.
While pulling together a super-group of international progressive economists to advise on economic policy lends weight to McDonnell’s future pronouncements and sets them in a wider critique of austerity economics.
Sceptics will point to the lack of detail in his speech, but this is the first conference following the hammering back in May. There’s little to say at this stage of the political cycle, so McDonnell gets a pass today on that score.
But what do we make of McDonnell the man? His reputation as a maverick has somewhat preceded him, but there’s something else there too. He looks like someone who has been itching to get back running something for an awfully long time.
A former finance committee chairman of the Greater London Council in the 1980s, (who claims to have delivered a balanced budget), he has more substance than most on the hard left who simply believe in planting enough magic money trees to pay for fixing the world’s ills.
McDonnell’s coda, calling for disgruntled ex-frontbenchers to “come back” and help with the job of rebuilding the party, was a nifty piece of theatre, playing to the grassroots activists’ love of unity during conference week. Hell, he may even have meant it.
So his task of warming-up the Conference with a bit of tenderness and sobriety nicely tees-up Corbyn for tomorrow’s tummy rub. After all, it’s now clear both from the tenor of McDonnell’s speech and the shelving of a vote on Trident that there will be no fireworks this week.
The Corbynistas may be planning to stoop before conquering, but, so far, they have played their hand adroitly. Time will tell if this foot-rub offensive is genuine.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Uncut