On any other day — on a day, say, when the Labour Party wasn’t tying itself in knots over its policy on Syria, with calls for the leader to resign and a by-election campaign slowly dying in the background — the Times’ story about John McDonnell would have been top of the news agenda.
In case you missed it (or can’t get past the paywall), its investigations editor Dominic Kennedy revealed that the shadow chancellor — last seen brandishing Mao’s Little Red Book in the Commons chamber — has called for Ireland to be reunited via the “ballot, the bullet and the bomb”. Oh, and he also said that those who refused to treat with the Sinn Fein were “gutless wimps” who should have their kneecaps shot off to help change their minds. That John — what a card!
And this is why it won’t — can’t — get better for Labour. Not only are McDonnell, Jeremy Corbyn and their core team completely at odds with most of their colleagues: they could possibly ride that out given the support of the membership. It’s that they’ve been doing this for decades: they didn’t misspeak, they weren’t misquoted, these far-left positions are what they genuinely believe, and have been proclaiming loudly for years. Even if journalists don’t dig up the choicest quotes, you can bet the Tories’ researchers will — and drip-feed them into the public domain at the appropriate intervals.
Take McDonnell, for example. I’ve just been re-reading ‘Ken’, the biography of Ken Livingstone published by Andrew Hosken in 2008 — you can read my review here. The reason I was doing so is that most of Livingstone’s team have now made the transition to Corbyn’s — so I wanted to see what kind of people they were.
Among those people, of course, is John McDonnell. During Ken’s at the Greater London Council in the early Eighties, McDonnell served as his deputy and finance chief: that is why, he says, he’s qualified to oversee the nation’s finances.
There are a few wonderful stories in the book. How McDonnell and others leaked confidential documents obtained via a prostitute from the briefcase of a civil servant client: she claimed they “fell out” while he was handcuffed and hog-tied on the bed.
Or, more pertinently, how he apparently told his team to “shred the documents” when they brought him unwelcome news: in this case, that the GLC had enough of a surplus to invalidate McDonnell and Livingstone’s plan to respond to Thatcher’s capping of their budget by “going illegal” — refusing to publish a budget, letting London’s public services fall apart, and (McDonnell believed) seeing Thatcher swept from power by an angry public.
Now, let’s ask ourselves: is someone who orders people to “shred the documents” when brought unwelcome news really the best person to be in charge of £4 trillion of spending over five years? To ask the question is to answer it.
Let’s take at some other Dominic Kennedy headlines. “Shadow Chancellor defended violent looters as ‘victims’”. “McDonnell linked to Trotskyite sect”. You can huff and puff and declare that this is a media witch-hunt, that what’s said in the past doesn’t matter.
But the point stands. Corbyn and McDonnell and those around them are people with an awful lot of what you might call “previous”. Even if they can resolve their present difficulties, there’s little they can do to stop the past returning to haunt them.