THE first shadow chancellor of his kind has lately been arguably one of the best performers in UK politics, writes Andrew Whitaker
Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors both within and outside the Labour Party sought to focus much of their fire on shadow chancellor John McDonnell from the moment the leader appointed McDonnell to the role that is in reality the second most powerful one in opposition.
The position of shadow chancellor is also an awkward post to define, partly because there is no constitutional status attached to the role in the way there is for leader of the opposition.
It’s an appointment now made solely at the discretion of the party leader and Corbyn’s choice of McDonnell, seen as one of the most left-wing MPs, rather then going for a more centrist figure like Hilary Benn or even a New Labour-leaning MP such as Rachel Reeves or Chuka Umunna, predictably sparked hostility from much of the Parliamentary Labour Party.
In any meaningful sense the shadow chancellor is next in line to be party leader, holding much more sway than the deputy party leader largely due to the post being so encompassing over economic and spending policy.
John Smith and Gordon Brown for example would both go on to lead Labour after holding the Treasury brief.
Shadow chancellors often try to distance themselves from leaders’ decisions that could be detrimental to their own political ambitions.
Brown comes to mind as a classic study here, particularly after his epic fall-out with Tony Blair over who should stand for party leader following Smith’s death in May 1994.
Such tensions were evocatively portrayed in the acclaimed 1990s play The Absence of War by the left-leaning playwright Sir David Hare, which was to enjoy a long run on stage as well as being scripted for TV.
The original production tells the story of a struggling Labour leader, memorably played by the late John Thaw, fighting a doomed election campaign in the early 1990s – with echoes of Neil Kinnock’s defeat in 1992, while simultaneously facing plotting from a disloyal but intellectually more adroit shadow chancellor.
But McDonnell is the first shadow chancellor of his kind in the way that Corbyn is the first Labour leader of his kind, not just with the avowedly socialist policy platform, but also because he is not driven by career or personal ambition after nearly two decades on the backbenches.
Like Corbyn, McDonnell will know the Labour left now has what may be a one-off chance at disproving the supposed conventional wisdom that the party cannot win from the left.
So to take the title of Hare’s play, there is perhaps rarely in Labour’s history “the absence of war” between the office of the leader of the opposition and that of the shadow chancellor, if not among the party’s MPs. Perhaps this accounts partly for why McDonnell is the “boo boy” of the anti-Corbyn brigade in sections of the media and among those in Labour’s ranks keen to see the leader and his shadow chancellor ousted as soon as possible.
There have been some “own goals” from McDonnell, such as when responding to George Osborne’s autumn statement the shadow chancellor waved a copy in the Commons of the Little Red Book written by the Chinese dictator Mao Tse-tung.
What should have been a story about a Labour triumph after an effective campaign from the party leadership to force Osborne to dump controversial cuts to tax credits instead became one about how a left-wing Labour politician had quoted the writings of a “Stalinist despot”.
As powerful as the shadow chancellor is in the party of opposition, one of McDonnell’s political staffers should have snatched the book when learning of the intended stunt.
But after what was not a fatal mistake, McDonnell has since been arguably one of the best performers in UK politics, taking the fight to the Tories following Osborne’s controversial claim that the UK’s tax deal with Google was a “major success” despite a public backlash against the £130 million agreement for being too lenient.
Such an approach from Labour not only had resonance with most voters, but also allowed McDonnell to portray Osborne as an out-of-touch over-privileged Tory, as the shadow chancellor published his own income tax return online and challenged his opposite number to do likewise.
A bonus from all this was that the issue achieved some long overdue party unity.
True Labour schisms over Trident will not go away, but last week one of those implacably opposed to Corbyn and McDonnell, the Blairite-orientated former cabinet minister Caroline Flint, made an effective intervention in the Commons, taking the same line as the leadership.
It may well be that the likes of Flint will continue to refuse to serve on Corbyn’s front bench, but perhaps the Google example shows how the prospects of using the talents of such figures in Labour’s national campaigns up to and including the next general election is a real one.
Of course in the next few months and years, McDonnell will continue to be characterised by opponents in loaded terms as a “hard left” ideologue, with a poor grasp of the Treasury brief and someone well out of his depth.
But Labour’s leadership and McDonell’s office would do well to be ready to battle hard to prevent the shadow chancellor being saddled with such a perception in the minds of the public – something the Tories and sections of the media will surely attempt.
Pointing out that McDonnell served as Ken Livingstone’s chair of finance on the now defunct Greater London Council in the 1980s and was effectively the chancellor of the UK capital would be a good start. But it’s taking on big corporations over the issue of unpaid tax at a time when the living standards of those on modest incomes are being hit by heavy austerity that may prove a decisive hit with the electorate and could yet see McDonnell become the UK’s chancellor.