John McDonnell holds the key to the success of Project Corbyn

John McDonnell holds the key to the success of Project Corbyn

John McDonnell

John McDonnell and his leader are dumping negatives so they can concentrate on what really matters to them – austerity.

Wouldn’t it be lovely if we had a proper national anthem – one that celebrated the country and its people rather than the creepy dirge that got Jeremy Corbyn into trouble at the Battle of Britain memorial service. There’s a case for boycotting God Save the Queen on aesthetic grounds. Compared to the Star Spangled Banner and La Marseillaise – it is truly dire, especially if you get to that sixth verse about crushing rebellious Scots.

But when you become leader of the Opposition singing or not singing is no longer a personal decision. Being a good comrade is key to the Corbyn persona and his silence left two loyal comrades facing the music – Owen Smith on Newsnight and Kate Green on the Today programme. The promise to sing along in future is the right one.

I have a tip for Jeremy as he ponders whether to kneel before the Queen so that he can become a Privy Counsellor. He should follow the lead of our mutual friend Tony Banks. Banks was Corbyn’s first boss within the trade union movement. He was famously caught by the TV cameras crossing his fingers behind his back as he was taking the loyal oath when being sworn in as an MP. The digital twist negated the words being spoken.

It’s a great pity Banksy isn’t still around to take Jezza shopping for a couple of smart suits. Tony’s view was that for a radical being smartly dressed was vital if you want to be taken seriously. In the same vein Joan Ruddock, Harriet Harman’s campaign manager in the 2007 deputy leadership election sent her out to get a new wardrobe at the start of the campaign.

These things shouldn’t matter but they do. If people are looking at what you’re wearing they’re not listening to what you are saying.

Just as important is “dumping negatives” – neutralising issues that get in the way of your focus on what you really care about. Hence Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell’s double apology on BBC Question Time for remarks about “honouring” members of the IRA and his joke about assassinating Margaret Thatcher.

It means Shadow ministers now have a script “I never agreed with John and I’m glad he apologised. Why are the Tories bringing this up yet again because they don’t want to talk about the issues that matter to my constituents and the damage they are doing to the country.”

Even though their victory had looked likely for weeks Team Corbyn hit the ground stumbling. But Labour MPs calling for them to raise their game should be reassured by the appointment to the Leader’s office of Neale Coleman who served Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London and was kept on by Boris Johnson. Livingstone said of Coleman who was a Labour councillor and is the brother of the former Labour MP Iain Coleman:

“He is a brilliant ideas man who will bring well-thought-out, intelligent policies to the table.”

Not only will Coleman be a key player but he should also help the Leader’s Office recruit other talented people – notably a head of media. In the longer term, however, it is McDonnell’s battle with Chancellor George Osborne that will determine the success or otherwise of the Corbyn project. His appointment was controversial but as Patrick Wintour observed it was prompted by a desire for “ideological coherence” at the centre and was prompted by memories of the poor relations between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and, in a minor key, between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls.

McDonnell and Corbyn will have enjoyed reading Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman view of his victory. On forecasts of doom for Labour he asks “why commentators who completely failed to predict the Corbyn phenomenon have so much confidence in their analyses of what it means.”

On economic policy, he says, “Corbyn’s rivals essentially supported the Conservative government’s austerity policies. Worse, they all implicitly accepted the bogus justification for those policies, in effect pleading guilty to policy crimes that Labour did not, in fact, commit.”

Encouraging too for McDonnell is the tone of a New Statesman article piece by Alison McGovern, a Liz Kendall supporter, who has just stepped down from the front bench Treasury team.

She argues that the Tory economic record doesn’t match Cameron and Osborne’s boasts. She offers support to McDonnell and his team. “I’ll be there supporting them as they oppose, and hold the government to account. But she adds “We need a proper alternative to austerity – one that is both ambitious in scale and practical in application.”

McDonnell’s deputy, the shadow Chief Secretary, is Seema Malhotra, who supported Yvette Cooper for the leadership, and my sense is that Mc Donnell will be keen to engage with MPs like McGovern. He will also need to take heed of the polling published by the former party policy chief Jon Cruddas suggesting voters do not back an anti-austerity line.

McDonnell clearly gets the point. Even when the leadership campaign was in full spate with him as Corbyn’s campaign chief he told the Guardian: “Deficit denial is a non-starter for anyone to have credibility with the electorate.”

He has a tough job ahead but I think he will give George Osborne a run for his money.

Don Brind

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