Having promised the “boring” speech of a “bank manager”, John McDonnell certainly looked the part. The reading glasses were conservative. He didn’t say: “comrades.” Even the red tie was reassuringly dark. And fate had smiled: shortly before he spoke, he joined Jeremy Corbyn in rushing to the rescue of wheelchair-borne ex-MP Candy Atherton, who, about to depart the podium after her own speech, announced, laughing uproariously: “I’m stuck!” Not just boring but a chivalrous human being too!
Disarmingly, or as close to disarming as McDonnell gets, he acknowledged his own rebranding: “This is not my usual rant,” he admitted. “I’ve promised Jeremy to behave.” Certainly this was a new fiscally responsible non deficit-denying iron-chancellor-with-a-difference. (The difference being that his “aggressive” balancing of the books would be unashamedly at the expense of the rich, of “corporate welfare” recipients, and tax-shy multinationals).
True, the “chat” he had earlier envisaged with Bank of England Governor Mark Carney about “People’s Quantitative Easing” sounded faintly like something menacing that might take place in the back of a car with darkened windows. But no. The Bank would remain independent – albeit with a new “mandate”. And the Shadow Cabinet refuseniks, he said to applause, should return to “help us succeed.”
While some of it distantly echoed the old 1970s Bennite “Alternative Economic Strategy”, it was unalloyed manna for delegates long starved of a robust, anti-austerity, redistributive policy, ending “the longest fall in wages since Queen Victoria sat on the throne”. Perfunctory the standing ovation wasn’t. Late on, he referred to the hope “that another world is possible”. Since this mantra grew out of the anti-global capitalism protests in Seattle in 1999, it was reassuring to think that the inner McDonnell still flourished behind his impeccably sober exterior.
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