Alastair Campbell and the Gentlemen’s Quarterly should be treated like enemies, argues Alex Snowdon
John McDonnell’s interview with GQ magazine, with Alastair Campbell as interviewer, has provided some ammunition for those wishing to attack Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. A number of comments by McDonnell, shadow chancellor and the second most senior figure associated with Labour’s left-wing resurgence, have been widely reported.
McDonnell’s remarks include a suggestion that a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU could happen before a general election - in contrast to official Labour policy - and unhelpful speculation that Corbyn would resign as Labour leader in the event of an election defeat.
The legacy of Iraq
The decision to grant Campbell an interview has surprised and alarmed many people. Campbell is best-known for his role as Tony Blair’s chief spin doctor for several years, in particular his extremely controversial part in the propaganda offensive before, during and after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. This made him widely reviled by those opposed to the war.
The election of Corbyn as party leader in 2015 was fuelled by opposition to Blairism and its legacy. This was symbolised above all by the war in Iraq, its disastrous consequences and the wider commitment of ‘New Labour’ to slavish support for US military aggression. This was closely linked for many to a more general disaffection with the hollowed-out state of parliamentary politics.
Corbyn’s formidable track record as a tireless anti-war campaigner and spokesperson for peace and internationalism, including a spell as chair of the Stop the War Coalition, was a vital part of his appeal when he became Labour leader. He was, and remains, the antithesis of Blair and Campbell. It is therefore strange seeing McDonnell, Corbyn’s shadow chancellor, giving an interview to Campbell - despite McDonnell’s own commendable record of opposition to the series of US-led wars since 2001.
It is stranger still that McDonnell should unequivocally oppose the Labour Party’s decision to expel Campbell. This followed Campbell publicly declaring on television that he voted for the Liberal Democrats in elections earlier this year. It was a straightforward case of Campbell putting himself outside the Labour Party by publicly supporting a rival party, yet McDonnell - without any attempt at an explanation - suggests this was wrong.
It is exceptionally unusual for McDonnell to intervene in a disciplinary matter, as he and other senior Labour figures have remained silent when figures associated with the left - such as MP Chris Williamson - have been disciplined. McDonnell’s only previous notable intervention in such matters was last summer, when he threw his weight behind efforts to get the Labour Party’s national executive to adopt the widely discredited IHRA definition of antisemitism. This aided the weaponising of antisemitism against the left and the Palestine solidarity movement. It helped those seeking to isolate Corbyn on a critical issue.
Brexit and the liberal centre
Campbell has also become known as a leading figure in the People’s Vote campaign, which aims to overturn the result of the June 2016 referendum on EU membership by holding a new referendum. This has served as a battering ram for those who are deeply hostile to Corbyn’s leadership and Labour’s left-wing direction, becoming a totemic issue for Corbyn’s opponents. Instead of confronting the issues on a principled left-wing basis, McDonnell used the GQ interview to give some encouragement to those who privilege stopping Brexit (in any form) above all else.
Labour has already shifted ground considerably - under pressure - from the sensible, balanced and unifying position it adopted in the 2017 general election, when the party’s vote share climbed from just over 30% to 40%. Instead of respecting the referendum result, it is now committed to a new referendum following a general election victory.
Thankfully the recent Labour conference rejected proposals to push the party even further down a divisive and high-risk ‘Full Remain’ path. The rejected proposals would have involved pledging to campaign against a Labour government’s own exit deal - and in favour of remaining in the EU - in any future referendum.
Yet McDonnell failed to articulate the compromise position adopted at Conference, undermining it by suggesting that a referendum happening before a general election is a real possibility. This is yet another example of the policy-by-media approach perfected by his shadow cabinet colleagues Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer, both of whom are known for exerting political pressure via comments during media appearances, irrespective of what Corbyn might be saying or what Labour conference may have voted for.
Such rhetoric has the effect of downplaying the importance and urgency of a general election. Meanwhile, the status of Brexit is enhanced: suggesting that a referendum could take precedence over an election reinforces the centrality of Brexit to British politics.
Whatever McDonnell’s intentions might be, that strengthens the forces of liberal centrism (embodied by Campbell) against a Left that seeks to overcome Brexit divisions in favour of class politics and a left-wing platform. It emboldens Boris Johnson and the Tories who want to trap Labour in a narrative that cynically pits Johnson as the people’s champion, upholding the democratic will, against an obstructive Remainer parliament.
Fight for Labour’s left-wing platform
The irony is that this approach makes it harder for policies that the left-wing McDonnell is himself closely associated with to get a hearing. Brexit crowds out everything else. Furthermore, it is an election campaign that would allow Labour to pitch those policies - in many ways a more radical offer than in 2017 - to millions of people and, in the process, re-shape the whole political debate. The worrying drift towards postponing an election until 2020, boosted by McDonnell’s latest interview, prevents that happening.
This is in dismal contrast to the energy, spirit and determination of the big Newcastle rally, addressed by Jeremy Corbyn and shadow cabinet leftwingers Laura Pidcock and Ian Lavery, that I attended last weekend. The rally felt like the launch of a general election campaign and was clearly intended as such by a Corbyn and those close to him. There was rapturous applause for key left-wing policies, many of them endorsed enthusiastically at Labour’s conference, and the broader class politics that constitutes a bold alternative to the Blairite legacy.
This is what we need more of: political urgency, radical policies, bold vision, mass rallies and engagement. We need concerted determination to win the election - and a sharp focus on how a left-wing government will change society - not pointless speculation about what will happen if Labour loses.
McDonnell has made important contributions to the renaissance of socialist politics in recent years, but his latest interventions point in the wrong direction. It’s time to get back on track.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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