British Labour politician
Although largely unknown to the general public, John McDonnell is the current Labour Member of Parliament for Hayes and Harlington, and the only candidate who has so far declared his intention to stand for the post of Leader of the Labour Party as and when the incumbent Tony Blair decides to stand down.
He is not, of course the only John McDonnell in town. There an Irish Playwright by the name of John McDonnell, another who was a teacher at Ampleforth School and died on 31 May 2005, yet another who is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania, another John McDonnell who was chairman of the McDonnell Douglas Corporation from 1988 to 1997, as well as the John McDonnell whose death at Scarborough Police Station on the 30th March 2003 is the subject of an investigation by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.
John Martin McDonnell was born in Liverpool on the 8th September 1951. His father Bob McDonnell was a docker who decided to move south in search of employment when work on the docks dried up and became a bus driver. McDonnell senior branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union for some thirty years: as McDonnell junior later explained "Trade union politics permeated our household".
Although John attended grammar school at Great Yarmouth he left school at seventeen with few qualifications and subsequently travelled about the country working in a variety of manual jobs including stints spent at Philips TV and Silent Night Beds. He later attended evening classes at Burnley Technical College where he studied English, Sociology and Economic History and obtained a place at Brunel University, subsequently obtaining a Masters degree from Birkbeck College, London. Having come to London to further his education, he ended up living in Hayes, where his then wife ran a local children's home. After university he became a researcher in the social insurance department of the National Union of Mineworkers and was later employed by the Trades Union Congress in a similar capacity.
Having joined the Labour party in 1974, in 1981 he was elected to the Greater London Council (GLC) as the member for Hayes and Harlington, and at the age of twenty-nine he found himself deputy leader of the GLC and chair of finance with responsibility for the council's £3bn annual budget. He later fell out with the Council leader Ken Livingstone over the issue of the issue of the Conservative government's use of 'rate-capping' to limit council spending. Livingstone, who has never been quite as left-wing as he has sometimes pretends to be, proposed a budget that complied with the limits set by central government, whilst McDonnell wanted to deliberately set a budget that breached the limits and provoke a fight with central government. Livingstone solved this particular conundrum by simply sacking his deputy. John, however, remained at the GLC until it was abolished in 1985 after which he became head of the policy unit at Camden Council, leaving in 1987 to take up the post of chief executive of the Association of London Authorities. (1)
Naturally he had ambitions to became a member of parliament and was chosen as the Labour PPC for his 'home constituency' of Hayes and Harlington. Like many a hopeful Labour candidate no doubt he expected to be returned at the 1992 General Election and to shortly be celebrating the election of the first Labour government for thirteen years. As we know now he was soon cruelly disappointed as his Conservative opponent Terrence Dicks squeaked home by a mere fifty-four votes. To make matters worse he was later forced to pay £15,000 damages plus costs estimated at £55,000 for having libelled Mr Dicks in his election literature (2). McDonnell had to wait another five years for the 1997 General Election, when he was swept home with a majority of over 13,000 in what he has claimed was "one of largest swings to Labour in the country".
In the intervening period the Labour Party had changed somewhat. Whilst McDonnell might have felt quite at home in the Kinnockite party of 1992 he was quite out of place in Tony Blair's New Labour of 1997. As an avowed Socialist there was clearly no place for him in a modern Labour government and he was regarded with disdain by those who espoused the New Labour creed, who almost succeeded in having him de-selected prior to the 1997 General Election.
During his subsequent parliamentary career he has therefore earned himself the label of 'left-wing rebel' and has consistently voted against the government on such issues as the Iraq war, foundation hospitals, student top-up fees, trust schools etc etc. Denied any prospect of government office, McDonnell has been active in a number of all-party parliamentary groups, including a number representing individual trade unions, such as the Public and Commercial Services Union, Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union, Fire Brigades Union, the National Union of Journalists, and the National Assocation of Probation Officers, as well as groups on a wide range of issues such as Britain's Irish community, the Punjabi community, Kenya and endometriosis.
As befits a man whose entry in Who's Who he lists his principal interest as "generally formenting the overthrow of capitalism" he stands at the forefront of what remains of the British left and might well be seen as the inheritor of Tony Benn's mantle. He is the chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, which claims the support of twenty-four current Labour MPs and in 2004 helped establish, and now chairs, the Labour Representation Committee which is an umberella organisation of party activists and trade unions, campaigning for the adoption of socialist polices by the Labour Party. McDonnell is the chair of Public Services Not Private Profit, which is a coalition of public sector trade unions and other interested parties campaigning against privatisation more of a single issue campaign which has even succeeded in attracting the support of the the odd Liberal Democrat or two.
According to McDonell himself he wants to give "people a decent state pension, invest in public services, restore Labour as a party of peace, withdraw from Iraq and withdraw from Trident. And no nuclear power." His consistent refrain is that New Labour has "systematically alienated" its core supporters, which he regards as a "clique" which has "hijacked" the party. Such criticisms have been dismissed by John Prescott, who in his own characteristic language said that, "When Mr McDonnell was a councillor, he split with the London council. When he was in Ken Livingstone's Cabinet, he split with them. When he is in the Parliamentary Labour Party, he splits with them. Don't let's talk as if all of a sudden he has come from a unity base."
On 14th July 2006 McDonnell announced his intention to stand for the leadership of the Labour Party and in the following week on the 22nd July, he won the endorsement of the Labour Representation Committee
at their annual conference. His decision to stand appears to be driven by the belief that "If Brown takes the helm, Cameron's victory at the polls in three years' time is all but guaranteed" (Mind you he was saying much the same thing about Blair and Michael Howard before the last election.) He has also been at pains to get across the point that he is serious about his candidacy - "This is not a stalking horse campaign and I am not willing to stand to be humiliated. This is a serious campaign, in which will have a democratic debate. This is a campaign to win." - and of course he now has is own website (http://www.john4leader.org.uk/) dedicated to the cause.
Labour Party rules require that candidate be nominated by 12.5% of the Parliamentary Labour Party, that is he needs the support of 44 MPs simply in order to enter the contest, and not every one is convinced that he can even get over that initial hurdle. It is by no means certain that all twenty-four of the Socialist Campaign Group will put their names to his nomination paper (there have been suggestions that some at least would prefer to support Michael Meacher) and although he has close contacts with both the Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers Union and the Fire Brigades Union, both of which have made donations to his General Election Fund. Sadly this won't help him in the leadership contest as both these unions have disaffiliated from the Labour Party and thus have no say in the matter.
In truth even McDonnell isn't dense enough to believe that he can actually win the forthcoming leadership election (whenever that takes place). His objective is probably no more than to "rehabilitate and reinvigorate the left" which is to say, to try and and put on a good enough show to restore the confidence of the British left. In any case his chances of winning a General Election as Labour Party leader are less than zero; his well documented remarks on Ireland are in themselves sufficient to condemn a McDonell led Labour Party to an electoral defeat of such earth shattering proportions to dwarf even that of 1983(3).
He married young and had two daughters, Melanie and Rosa. His first marriage ended in divorce in 1985, but has since remarried his second wife Cynthia being "a Goan from Kenya" with whom he has a son named Joseph. Apaprently his hobbies include theatre, cinema, reading, football and cricket, sailing on the Norfolk Broads, cycling, and playing games of tennis and football with his son.
McDonnell has recently had a little spat with a certain Kerron Cross who describes himself as the "The Voice of The Delectable Left" and "Labour's Number 1 Political Blogger" posted a short piece drawing attention to the fact that John McDonnell's parliamentary office was open for only nine hours a week. McDonnell threatened to sue, Cross removed the post, at which point it was immediately reproduced elsewhere. One must presume that this is what McDonnell means when he talks of "democratic debate".
(1) Later the Association of London Government, being the body which collectively represents London councils to central government.
(2) This libel relates to allegations McDonnell made relating to Dicks's human rights record, specifically that Dicks had 'supported' the hanging of the journalist Farzad Bazoft by Saddam Hussein and that he had cast doubts on reports that Saddam had used poison gas against the Kurds. McDonnell was still trying to raise this issue under the cloak of parliamentary privilege in 1998 at which point he was told to shut up by the deputy speaker.
(3) McDonnell appeared at a gathering to commemorate the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands in May 2003, where he said; "It's about time we started honouring those people involved in the armed struggle. It was the bombs and bullets and sacrifice made by the likes of Bobby Sands that brought Britain to the negotiating table. The peace we have now is due to the action of the IRA." A statement which, if nothing else, demonstrates a profound ignorance of recent history, that one has to wonder where McDonnell has been for the past thirty years.
- Ronan Bennett, Honest John, September 26, 2006 http://www.guardian.co.uk/g2/story/0,,1880921,00.html
- Hélène Mulholland Who is John McDonnell? Guardian Unlimited, July 14, 2006
- Biographical information at http://www.john-mcdonnell.net/ and
- Tom Happold and agencies, MP's 'brave IRA' comments spark outrage May 30, 2003
- Left-winger throws hat into ring 8 September 2006,
- Profile: John McDonnell, 22 October, 2002 news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/2090323.stm
- Details of McDonnel's voting record at