More significantly, John McDonnell did quite well in the Labour List write-in poll, coming fifth with 6.7%.
While I know it is not the path to easy popularity on the left, I am going to argue that a McDonnell candidacy is a potentially dangerous distraction.
John McDonnell cannot win, and is not the leader which the Labour party needs. What is more, when he stood last time there was considerable vitriol from some of his supporters against MPs who failed to nominate John,. If that same approach is repeated (and there are already signs of it on blogs associated with LRC members) it is likely to cloud a rational evaluation of the substantive differences between the other candidates.
Quite apart from the question of whether John can achieve sufficient MP nominations to get on the ballot paper, we have to understand that at no time in the Labour Party’s history has a candidate stood for leader on politics similar to John’s.
That is because all previous leadership contenders have stood in the tradition that the pathway to radical social change lies via a Labour government, implementing policies developed by the democratric internal processes of the Labour Party, yet in September 2007, John McDonnell wrote that:
“the old routes into the exercise of power and influence involving internal Labour Party mobilisations and manoeuvres have largely been closed down. We have to face up to the challenge of identifying and developing new routes into effective political activity,”
Similarly, John McDonnell cannot expect support from the major unions given his approach to them. In February 2009, in response to the walkouts at the Lindsey Oil Refinery, an unofficial dispute, but one where both UNITE and GMB officers acquitted themselves admirably, John McDonnell wrote
“People have also learnt that working through the official structures of their trade union has been rendered largely ineffective by the persistence of Thatcher’s anti trade union laws under this Government. Increasingly they have also come t know that they cannot rely upon many of their trade union leaderships who have delivered up their unions in support of New Labour and who less than 2 years ago installed Brown as Labour leader, the evangelist for globalisation, free markets and flexible labour.
Without political representation and with limited potential to mobilise through official union channels there is no other route but to take but direct action when fear for jobs turns to anger.”
Every major union supported Gordon Brown’s election as leader, so by criticizing those union leaders, John is implying that he would not be the ally of the existing trade union leaderships were he leader of the Party.
John McDonnell operates seeking to draw the wagons into a circle around the beleaguered left of the left in the party, without seeking to build the network of alliances necessary to unite the party; to win elections; and to fight the Tories.
For example, following some MPs associated with Compass voting for the governments 42 day detention McDonnell wrote:
“I was due to speak at a Compass conference, but watching the way this group of MPs has followed the government on 42-day detention, I’ve changed my mind”
He says that some Compass MPs voting to support 42 day detention: “destroys in my view any vestige of credibility those associated with Compass may claim to have to be part of the left or part of any project to reclaim the Labour party as a progressive force.
“Compass may publish policy statements decrying the government’s policies but these are not worth the paper they are expensively published on when Compass MPs go on to vote through policies like this which fly in the face of all that socialists should stand for.
“I was scheduled to speak at the Compass conference on Saturday at the LRC/ Labour Briefing breakout session. I will not do so now. I do not want to be associated with those that are willing to support undermining the basic human rights that socialists have fought and sacrificed themselves to secure and protect over generations.”
This makes no sense at all.
He is a member of the Labour Party, and is therefore inevitably “associated with those that are willing to support undermining the basic human rights that socialists have fought and sacrificed themselves to secure and protect over generations”, when the Labour government brings in restrictions of civil liberties.
But he is saying he will not be associated with those seeking to develop a coherent left leaning political strand within modern Labourism.
How can someone stand for leadership of a party, where the majority of MPs voted to support 42 days detention, and say that he does not want to be associated with anyone who did?
John McDonnell is an admirable man in many ways. A principled socialist who has done sterling work for the trade union groups in parliament, and is a courageous campaigner against injustice. But he has the wrong politics, and the wrong skill-set to be leader of the party. As such he is not a credible candidate.
And the danger is, that some of his supporters exhibit considerable hostility towards the centre-left.
This could be damaging if there are loud voices saying that there is no difference between the other candidates, then that will obscure the arguments of those seeking a more nuanced approach to electing a leader who will provide the best context for retaining trade union influence, and returning the party towards policies that will connect with the heartlands Labour voters, while not neglecting the need for building an election winning approach to win over voters who have voted Liberal, or even Tory, this time round.
The immediate task is for the whole labour movement to involve itself in a debate about how to reinvigorate progressive politics, and break from the pernicious legacy of New Labour. The hard left has a legitimate voice in that debate, but that voice will not be listened to if linked to a Quixotic leadership bid of a non-credible candidate; especially where there is friction and hostility towards the centre-left.
Within the leadership election we have to ensure that there is an extended contest, and that the real differences between the candidates are fully explored.