John McDonnell: Labour's shadow Chancellor on home-made jam and wooing Tories

He remains confident the party can win over Tory voters who were not prepared to back Ed Miliband

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Indy Politics

As he approaches retirement age, John McDonnell, Labour’s shadow Chancellor, insists he isn’t mellowing. Sitting in his prefab constituency office, plastered with murals of a united Ireland and cards declaring “Behind every fortune lies a crime”, the 64-year-old lashes out at Tory “brutality”, calls for talks with Argentina over the Falklands and refuses to dismiss calls for a war crimes trial for Tony Blair.

But over a cup of tea, just off the high street in Hayes, west London, the life-long socialist hardliner lets slip a rather more sedate side. He enjoys gardening and swaps home-made jams with his friend Jeremy Corbyn. He even owns a sailing boat moored on the Norfolk Broads – a far cry from the council estate round the corner in Great Yarmouth, where he grew up.

It’s a “little boat”, he insists. “It’s a Skipper 17 which cost me £1,000. It’s a bit of a dinghy with a roof on it. It sank last year.”

Very shortly Mr McDonnell will also be a “Right Honourable”, he tells me. The life-long republican is about to join the Privy Council. Isn’t he uncomfortable about his new position? “No, I’m the same working-class person I was before.”

But his politics are less ferocious – at least on the surface. From “fermenting the overthrow of capitalism”, he now attacks Ed Miliband’s “unseemly” criticism of David Cameron over his privileged background. “People don’t choose what class they were born into or the wealth that they inherit.”

The Shadow Chancellor came in for fierce criticism for quoting Chairman Mao during George Osborne's Autumn Statement (Reuters)

He also guarantees not to raise any income taxes, apart from returning to the 50p top rate if Labour returns to power. “We’re not interested in increasing personal income tax at all; that isn’t what we’re about as a party.” Is that a guarantee? “Yes.”

Has the old hardliner disappeared? “No, we’re being strategic. The whole point of this is that we are strategic in our approach and taking people with us as best we can. We’ve always been left wing, we maintain a consistent pattern of being on the left and being socialists.”

John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn remain firm friends (Rex)

If Mr McDonnell is toning things down so as not to scare the horses, Labour MPs don’t see it that way. The shadow Chancellor was singled out for criticism over his role in Mr Corbyn’s four-day “revenge reshuffle” after dismissing the three MPs who resigned as a “right-wing clique”. He now says he “wouldn’t even call it a reshuffle … I’d call it an adjustment”. He maintains the three shadow ministers who resigned over the sackings of Pat McFadden and Michael Dugher were “sequenced” to cause maximum damage to the Labour Party – a claim fiercely denied by Jonathan Reynolds, Stephen Doughty and Kevan Jones.

He dismisses as “hype” claims Hilary Benn was under threat. “All that was needed with Hilary was to set out the ground rules for the future,” he says – insisting there will not be another situation in which Mr Benn is allowed to criticise the leader’s position from the front bench.

“The ground rules are these: he’ll represent the party’s position in regard to foreign policy, but where there is a situation if it ever occurs again – I’m not sure it will – where there is a free vote, he’s perfectly able to express his views on that. But he won’t do that as the spokesperson; he’ll do that from the back benches.

“That doesn’t mean he resigns or loses his position. He’ll retain his position but he’ll speak on that matter from the back benches as an individual MP.”

Allies of Mr Corbyn claim the Labour leader has emerged strengthened from the reshuffle after moving outspoken Shadow Cabinet critics and appointing a more anti-Trident shadow defence secretary in Emily Thornberry. But MPs have raised concerns the party is becoming increasingly dominated by a core known in Westminster as the Mice – the metropolitan intellectual cultural elite.

Mr McDonnell, born in Liverpool and raised in Norfolk, unsurprisingly rejects the accusations. “I live in the most deprived ward in my borough; it’s hardly Mice, is it?”

Despite the defence of his leader, Mr McDonnell admits they are “all learning, every day” – citing Mr Corbyn’s conscious decision to smarten up. 

McDonnell refuses the notion that Hilary Benn's position in the shadow cabinet was ever under threat (Getty)

“You’re in a much more formal role now. Whereas if you’re representing Islington North there are certain forms of behaviour expected by your constituents in that particular area. If you’re representing the whole country, it’s dramatically different.”

But he remains confident of securing victory in 2020 – and even winning over Tory voters who were not prepared to back Mr Miliband. 

“I’ve worked with Conservatives and Lib Dems and tried to convince them. I respect their views, but I disagree with them. It’s not a matter of being evil – it’s just a matter of being wrong. I have faith and belief in the power of conversion. I can think I can win the argument with them and convert a number of them over. That’s what we’re going to have to do at the next election – to win over a large number of Tory voters.”

Nonetheless, he steadfastly refuses to drop some of his more controversial opinions. 

Does he still want Mr Blair sent to the Hague? “We’ll see what happens in Chilcot.” And what about a united Ireland? “Yes, I’m a republican. I hope to see it in my lifetime.” The Falklands? “All these territorial disputes should be open to discussion rather than force.”

What if Mr McDonnell can’t convince Tory voters to join his socialist revolution? His wife’s family is from Goa and his mother-in-law has retired back to the traditional family home there. However, Mr McDonnell says he won’t leave his patch of west London – and will never stop campaigning for socialism. “I’ll join the retired members’ section of Unite; I’ll keep on campaigning.”