by Rob Marchant
It was a cold February morning, when the Shadow Chancellor finally gave in to his demons and went “full conspiracy theory”.
To be fair, he probably didn’t feel too well. Labour had just suffered a “historic” by-election defeat at the hands of the governing party, something unheard of in thirty-five years and with the biggest pro-incumbent vote increase in a half-century.
It all had to be, of course, the fault of the Blairites. Particularly the man himself for his recent intervention over Brexit, who will shortly celebrate a decade of, er, not being the leader of his party. Not to mention Lord Mandelson, the incarnation of all evil to a Corbynite.
As John Rogan pointed out last August, it’s not as if McDonnell holds views consistent with a life at the top table in a major political party. When the IRA came to the negotiating table, he said they could only settle for a united Ireland. The organisation he chairs, the Labour Representation Committee, in 2012 called for the release of all Irish “political prisoners”, including those who had murdered that same year, 14 years after the peace agreement.
In other words, McDonnell and his colleagues set themselves in a position considerably more uncompromising than Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, by then getting on with the substantially more serious business of governing Northern Ireland.
No, McDonnell, untroubled by the tiresome responsibility of office, was able to perpetuate in his little hard-left bubble surrounded by like-minded people, surely never once thinking that he might actually ever arrive on Labour’s front bench. It was easy for him to maintain the same views he had held since the time of the Brighton bombing of the Tory conference, a mere two years after which he was happy to endorse the IRA’s campaign (£).
And so down the years, the times moved on, but his views stayed the same. John Maynard Keynes famously floored a reporter with the line, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” Not so comrade McDonnell. Labour’s dark days during the 1980s were his comfort zone; its success during the 2000s his nadir.
How he must have not believed his luck, to abruptly wake up from his dream-world in autumn 2015, and find himself as Shadow Chancellor. His arm must surely have been bruised from all the pinching.
Fast forward to the present day, where Labour’s credibility as a political party – not to mention its polling – lies in tatters. It cannot be his and Corbyn’s fault, of course; we must invent someone to blame it on.
A couple of weeks ago, McDonnell then sets to write a conspiracy-laden blog piece for Labour Briefing accusing his detractors of a “soft coup”. To wit: “an alliance between elements in the Labour Party and the Murdoch media empire”.
Let’s think about that for a second. The only remarkable thing about the Parliamentary Labour Party at the moment is its deathly quietness. The stomach for a fight, many lobby correspondents have observed, seems to have largely gone from them compared to the initial defiance when Corbyn was elected. And such centrists are, to be frank, woefully disorganised if they are mounting a coup. If only.
And an alliance with the Murdoch media? Don’t make me laugh. They are not particularly interested in the PLP, who are mostly nowadays seen as bit-part players in Westminster. And they are certainly not gunning for Corbyn.
In fact, given that the more rightward-inclined of his media want the Tories in power, quite the opposite: they know that a continued Corbyn leadership of Labour is key to a lasting Tory hegemony. They want him to stay, at least until the next election, when he will cause Labour to be crushed. They haven’t even started bashing him yet.
But the piece is not merely factually incorrect (Jon Trickett is no longer Labour’s Campaign’s Coordinator, for a start): it is filled with the most risible, emotional dog-whistles for the left, messages that they are being attacked and must resist the sinister interlopers.
The “dark arts”; the nefarious activities of the “plotters”; “a covert strategy”; “a classic negative story framing and transmission exercise”; “distorting media coverage”; and so on. He might just as well have written that the membership was being infiltrated by lizard-men, for all the coherence of the article. And never mind that most of the centrists he is criticising by proxy have been members far longer than the vast majority of those who voted for Corbyn.
What is genuinely painful to watch, for the decent members and MPs who remain in this party, is to see its number two politician become a laughing stock. A foolish conspiracist who invents bogeymen and easily-disprovable fairy-tales, taken seriously by no-one.
And all to try and cover up the dog’s breakfast that he and his colleagues are making of the management of this once-great party. It is a sad sight to behold.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left