I’ve known John McDonnell for 30 years – here’s what he’s really like

The new Shadow Chancellor says he lacks the skills for consensus politics, but he's already formed unlikely alliances with a range of people

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The Independent Online

The first time I saw John McDonnell in action was more than 30 years ago. He was deputy leader of Ken Livingstone’s newly-elected Greater London Council and we were both at a public meeting organised to back Livingstone’s fight to retain cheap fares for transport in London.

There was talk of direct action being taken to support the policy. When I asked about the personal consequences of taking direct action I got an abrupt reply from McDonnell, implying that I was a bit of a lightweight for entertaining such a thought.

McDonnell may have changed since those early days; my impression of him certainly has. 

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I have got to know the new Shadow Chancellor well in our common fight against the third runway at Heathrow airport. I have chaired the residents’ group, HACAN, for the past 15 years, during which time John has been the MP for Hayes and Harlington, the constituency which includes Heathrow.

What has been fascinating to watch is how this man on the very left of politics has been able to bring together MPs and peers opposed to Heathrow expansion from across the political spectrum. He chairs the meetings of the group in an inclusive way which, I suspect, would be an eye-opener to many of today’s headline writers.

McDonnell’s best buddy in the campaign is Zac Goldsmith, the Conservative MP for Richmond Park. Recently I was at a meeting of young activists in the House of Commons who were mildly critical of Goldsmith, largely, I suspect, because he was rich and a Tory. McDonnell was having none of it, mounting a staunch defence of his colleague.

What has interested me over the years is the maverick McDonnell’s ability to think about politics outside the Labour Party and forge unlikely alliances, from Goldsmith to climate activists camping in a field. He embraced the challenge of climate change long before it became a Labour policy to do so.

What will be interesting in the coming months is to watch how this ability to think broadly and make links with others will show itself in his new role. There is no doubt in my mind his focus will be firmly on following an anti-austerity fiscal policy. I suspect he will concede little to his critics within the Labour Party itself, so he and Jeremy Corbyn will need all the allies they can find. 

Given this, I would not be surprised to see McDonnell reaching out to Natalie Bennett’s Greens, to Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP and, given his easy relationship with political activists, to groups like UK Uncut and Reclaim the Power too.

Commentators are right that McDonnell will be a Shadow Chancellor like no other – but perhaps not in the ways they expect.