Change does not come through invasions
Contrary to what some in the John for Leader camp have suggested, John McDonnell himself has unambiguously expressed not only his ongoing solidarity with Iranian workers, students, women and democrats, but his continued support for the Hands Off the People of Iran campaign. Steve Cooke reports
As we noted in last week's Weekly Worker, Owen Jones, a member of the John for Leader campaign team and chair of the Socialist Youth Network, has demanded that John McDonnell's name be removed from the list of supporters published on the HOPI website ('Solidarity with Iran needs a fight on two fronts', March 22). Comrade Jones claims that McDonnell did not know what he was doing when he agreed to become a signatory and has alleged that HOPI is just a CPGB front.
Fortunately, comrade McDonnell appears to have a less sectarian attitude towards solidarity than his campaign colleague, as shown by his comments when asked about his support for HOPI at a meeting in Stockton-on-Tees on Saturday March 17:
"On the issue of Iran, can I just say that I've signed a whole range of various statements on that and the reason I've done that is because I have experience of what the Iranian regime has done to trade unionists. I was involved in supporting the bus workers who went on strike and then the trade union officials, the rank and file members, etc were detained, locked up and some of them went missing. We had to run a campaign to identify and get them released.
"So I've seen just how oppressive a regime it can be. But that doesn't mean that we lend our support to an invasion of Iran by Bush or Blair ... What we do is we support those people who are campaigning for human rights, trade union rights, etc in the country itself and outside the country so it can be transformed "¦ if you look at Iranian society, which is a society modernising all the time, particularly the youth of that country "¦ you can see there's the potential for change there if we can build the solidarity work across Europe and across the world to support it.
"So there's a way and there's a potential for change. It doesn't come through invasion, as that would alienate whole sections of the community through the resultant bloodshed. So, yes, I've signed the statement and I'll support it and other campaigns."
Comrade McDonnell concluded: "There's an irony here, isn't there? When Bush, Blair and others start condemning the Iranian regime, I can't remember seeing any of them signing early day motions, engaging in debates, making statements or involving themselves in picket lines and demonstrations about the repression of the Iranian trade union workers' movement."
Unfortunately, though, there were very few present to hear these remarks. Excluding the three at the top table, only 15 people turned out for John McDonnell's appearance at Stockton's main arts venue, Arc. Apparently, there were 55 at a similar meeting in Newcastle earlier the same day, but that too is very disappointing for such a large conurbation and traditional Labour stronghold. The fact that some of the participants had followed him to Stockton from the earlier meeting served only to emphasise the emptiniess of the room.
While McDonnell is not quite as big a box office attraction as the likes of George Galloway, the comrade's visit did not even merit a mention on the venue's website, being viewed more as a private booking rather than a significant public event. Whether the turnout reflected that poor publicity, a lack of interest in discussing politics in Teesside's constituency Labour Party branches or a fear of being seen to be associated with anyone challenging Gordon Brown's coronation as leader is difficult to tell. Probably a combination of all three, but the impression that McDonnell's campaign is failing to register much of an impact was reinforced by the meeting's chair, Joe Rayner, repeatedly referring to the would-be leader as 'John McConnell' when introducing the session.
Comrade Rayner felt it was vital that the next Labour leader should be chosen through a proper election, a point reinforced by Stockton North MP Frank Cook, a fellow member of the Socialist Campaign Group, who argued that "handing the job to Brown just because he stood down for Blair in 1994" would "not be democratic". The party needed an election. He also agreed about the need to oppose an attack on Iran, while expressing solidarity with those struggling against the regime: "But the attitude on Iran, I'm sure you'll agree, is being groomed by the neo-cons."
Although he lacks the charisma of a Galloway figure, comrade McDonnell's speech was no less impassioned in spite of the small numbers there to hear it. He reiterated his main campaign themes, which will be familiar to Weekly Worker readers, relating them to his concern that New Labour had "systematically alienated" the coalition it had successfully mobilised to work for its great electoral victory of 1997.
He gave several examples. Unison members had campaigned hard for the party 10 years ago, but now they were marching against it. The comrade was incredulous that some cabinet members who voted for the recent public sector pay cuts announced by the government then had the cheek to join demonstrations against those very cuts held in their own constituencies. Brown was the "master-architect of privatisation" and the imposition of the private finance initiative had meant that much of the extra spending Labour had put into public services was merely bolstering private sector profits.
A recently built school in his own constituency, Hayes and Harlington, appeared to be a fine testament to the government's investment in education. However, its PFI funding meant that the premises were effectively owned by engineering firm Jarvis after 5.30pm and the school itself could not afford to hire its own facilities to put on after-school clubs and activities in the evening. Similar problems had arisen in the health service too, with primary care trusts cutting services to fund their heavy commitments to PFI deals.
Unions were "the backbone of Labour's support" in 1997, but they enjoyed less rights now than was the case 100 years ago. Once again this was evidenced in the Hayes and Harlington constituency, home to Heathrow airport, where Gate Gourmet workers had been sacked by a ruthless management whose actions were protected by current law. Comrade McDonnell said he was supporting the Trade Union Freedom Bill in order to restore the rights that unions needed.
Pensioners were another vital part of the 1997 coalition that had been alienated by the government's policies. Labour had promised to reinstate the state pension's link to the retail price index, but many older people lived in poverty, with some 39% failing to claim the benefits they were entitled to because the system was too complicated.
Young people had been alienated too. The imposition of university tuition fees had resulted in less working class people going into higher education and those who did were saddled with huge debts. Such students were often unable to benefit from the university experience, because so many of them, unlike members of the New Labour cabinet, had to work full-time alongside their academic studies in order to pay their way through higher education. These pressures had led to mental health problems among young people soaring in recent years.
The peace element in Labour's election coalition was also disillusioned - and not just by the war in Iraq. Comrade McDonnell said he could scarcely believe Blair's reaction to last year's Israeli attacks on Lebanon and did not understand why the government had allied itself with a neo-conservative US administration: "We have no influence over the Bush regime."
He feared that the US president, "with nothing to lose in the last two years of his administration", now "has his eyes on Iran" with a build-up of naval power in the Gulf bigger than that seen before the Iraq invasion and dry runs for attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities by the Israeli military.
The government should go to the United Nations, admit that it had a "made a mistake" and withdraw British troops from Iraq. That would help the UK to become a "force for peace" in the Middle East rather than the "warmonger" that many people now perceived it to be.
Comrade McDonnell also condemned the government's plans to replace the Trident nuclear missile system, which he described as "irrelevant to the modern world", and ridiculed "the fiction that Britain has an independent nuclear deterrent", when in reality it was made, serviced and controlled by the US military.
Many people had voted for New Labour due to its strong line against the sleaze of the Tory years. However, the cash-for-peerages scandal had totally undermined that stance. Comrade McDonnell was disgusted at the number of political advisers employed by the government who then went on to secure lucrative jobs with private sector companies bidding for major contracts to deliver public services.
"We're sleepwalking to a Tory government," said the comrade. A leadership election was the only way to ensure that this debate on party policy would take place.
Comrade McDonnell also struck a positive attitude in his approach to individuals and groups who are not necessarily Labour members. During his speech, he made it very clear that his campaign was "about recruiting people back to the Labour Party". Moreover, "all my meetings are open. It's non-sectarian and members of other parties can attend "¦ and we engage in a debate because there are people who are members of other parties who will be in affiliated unions and have a vote ... We want to maintain a non-sectarian position where we're all campaigning on this together."
The best way to "have a serious effect", argued the comrade, is to join the Labour Party, where "your vote is worth about 20 times more than if you just vote as an individual trade unionist."
The John for Leader campaign's prospects of getting McDonnell's name on the ballot paper are not looking hopeful, however. The comrade admitted that he had secured the support of just 22 of his parliamentary colleagues - not even the full Campaign Group contingent - a figure which will need to be doubled in order to ensure his name appears on the ballot paper.
Michael Meacher's entry into the race has also complicated matters, potentially splitting the loyalties of left-leaning MPs, but John McDonnell did not believe the former environment minister would attract much support - he had lost credibility in voting to support the war in Iraq and his line on other issues. He hoped that discussions between the two campaigns would enable Meacher to find a "dignified exit" and save further embarrassment.
A member of the audience reflected the powerlessness felt by many Labour activists, saying it was "difficult to see what ordinary members can do to ensure your nomination". Comrade McDonnell urged party members to have a "dialogue" with their MPs and seek to persuade them that an election would be positive for the party, even if they did not wish to back him themselves. The John for Leader campaign had the potential to become a "liberation movement for Labour MPs", many of whom he said "lost their confidence" under New Labour.