Damned if you do, damned if you don’t
Eddie Ford looks at the absurd reaction to John McDonnell’s use of the Little red book
The synthetic uproar over John McDonnell’s response to the autumn statement provides us with yet another insight into the mindset of the media and the British establishment as a whole, not to mention the Labour right wing.
Wanting to highlight the “sheer economic illiteracy” of the government and the fact that it was selling off at least £5 billion worth of assets to foreign investors, including the Chinese state, McDonnell jokingly quoted from Mao’s Little red book (aka Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung) in order to “assist comrade Osborne about dealing with his new-found comrades” - and then threw it across the despatch box towards the Conservative front bench.
As for the actual quote itself, it was fairly anodyne:
We must learn to do economic work from all who know how. No matter who they are, we must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously. But we must not pretend to know what we do not know.
Mildly wise advice, you could argue - and, by the way, taken from an article published in June 1949 before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (‘On the people’s democratic dictatorship’).1
But, judging from the reaction to this stunt, you would think that McDonnell had issued a call for revolutionary slaughter or Year Zero. Self-righteous critics and self-styled experts sprang up everywhere saying how terrible it was to quote from a leader widely blamed for the death of millions during the Great Leap Forward, even if the figures did vary between 20 million to 45 million - or 60 million if you really want to up the stakes.2 But what do facts matter when the overwhelming concern is to attack the Labour leadership by any means necessary?
Naturally, the rightwing press had a field day. The Times claimed that McDonnell’s “homage” to Mao was “beyond parody”, arguing that Labour has “consciously ceded the entire middle ground of British politics” - sentiments wholly endorsed by The Daily Telegraph, which thought that “even by the abject standards” of the opposition front bench, the response from John McDonnell was … yes, you guessed: “beyond parody”.
The DailyMail savaged McDonnell as a “stunningly inept” shadow chancellor who is the “political equivalent of a Norman Wisdom pratfall”, whilst the Daily Express said “you couldn’t Mao-ke it up” - McDonnell “already had a reputation for being on the extreme end of the far left”, which he “confirmed” by reciting the words of a “communist monster”. Not to be outdone, The Sun condemned McDonnell for “approvingly” quoting the Chinese leader and featured a rather uncreative photomontage of the shadow chancellor in a Mao-like uniform. OK, we get the message.
What we see above is pure mendacity, of course - especially given that John McDonnell has absolutely no history of sympathy towards Mao or Maoism, unlike some figures who are now part of the establishment or in top-level jobs in the media.
Not that the more liberally inclined press was any more supportive, it need hardly be said. Tom Peck of The Independent obviously thought he was being waggish by writing that Mao “would have found much to admire in John McDonnell’s meticulously planned and perfectly executed assassination of the last remaining remnant of his own credibility” - which apparently left the party with “life-changing injuries” and “killed satire dead in an instant” (November 25). Yawn.
As for The Guardian, an editorial noted that McDonnell had “ruined” his response to Osborne’s spending review with his Mao stunt - the “best thing” that can be said about it is that it would “probably have raised a titter at a fringe meeting, or an adolescent debating society”. The paper’s Jonathan Jones was also incredulous that McDonnell could not see the “potential danger” of someone seen as “far-left” producing “the Bible of the far, far, far, far left” - that there was no need for forged letters or dirty tricks from the right, as McDonnell has “just played a dirty trick on his own party”.3
For Jones, this “bizarre outmoded political symbol” shows up McDonnell’s age and place in “cultural time” - after all, the shadow chancellor was young in the 1960s: “So he’s a romantic 60s revolutionary, eh?” Yes, Jones adds, he too was a “student Marxist” in the 1980s - reading Antonio Gramsci and Eric Hobsbawm in order to understand how Thatcherism had become hegemonic. But, whilst “it’s great to pose as Citizen Smith when you’re 19”, he writes, eventually “most of us grow up” - or get boring and reactionary like Guardian columnists.
The Liz Kendall-supporting Labour MP, Gavin Shuker - who resigned as shadow international development minister when Corbyn was elected leader - described the Mao quote as “sickening”. He must be very sensitive. Chuka Umunna, the former business secretary and leadership candidate, pompously declared: “I haven’t quoted a communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future” - preferring Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Keir Hardie. Meanwhile, Frank Field wanted us to understand that jokes in the Commons can be seen “differently” from outside. A bit more soberly, the previous shadow chancellor, Chris Leslie, told MPs he was “more interested in the wisdom” found in the Big Blue Book from the office for budget responsibility, which sets out the spending figures.
Stating the blindingly obvious, a spokesperson for McDonnell said this use of the Little red book had been “jocular” and all part of the “theatrics” of the Commons - the idea had emerged from “group discussions”, not just the shadow chancellor. Another Labour aide stated that McDonnell’s joke was “no indication of any underlying belief system”. Thanks for telling us that - we never would have guessed. Capitulating before the media offensive, McDonnell absurdly said he was “prepared to apologise” to victims of Mao’s Cultural Revolution - as if he bore any sort of culpability. We discovered that he had met the Chinese-born writer, Diane Wei Liang, who spent three years in a labour camp with her parents and had told the BBC’s Today programme that it was “chilling” to hear someone quoting from the Little red book because it reminded her of the public denunciation meetings of her childhood - when a passage from the book would be used to condemn people. Wei Liang understood the point of the Mao joke, said McDonnell, but he apologised for any possible offence.
Of course, if a Blairite had pulled such a stunt - using the Little red book or Lenin’s What is to be done? to mock a Tory chancellor or prime minister - then you can almost guarantee that they would not have received the same sort of coverage. If anything, they would probably be congratulated for their searing wit and tactical acumen - certainly not pilloried for quoting the ‘words of a mass murderer’, and so on. But because the comments came from the lips of John McDonnell, then it is used to ‘prove’ his political extremism.
This is humbug and hypocrisy on every single level. It has been known for politicians on both sides of the house to quote from the Bible - the real one, that is, not Mao’s booklet. Here is a book that is full of horrendous acts of violence and genocide carried out in the name of the Lord, and Christianity itself has a history of vile oppression and butchery. So why is it positively respectable to quote from that particular book, but not from the Little red book or indeed anything else? Conversely, progressives throughout the ages have approvingly quoted those sections of the Bible that promote social justice and equality. Unless you believe in the supernatural, no text is corrupting as such - not even Hitler’s Mein Kampf.
McDonnell was making the more than reasonable point, in the form of a joke - successful or not - about George Osborne and the Tories privileging the Chinese regime with various trade deal and bungs. Indeed, in fact, Osborne is not just enabling the Chinese state to own British state assets - he is actually subsidising its enterprises in doing so, as well as structuring UK public-sector contracts in such a way as to favour the Chinese. Furthermore, we get a near deafening silence from the Tory government about the continued oppression of the Tibetan or Uyghur people - and other national minorities and religious groups. If that is not kow-towing to ‘communist dictators’, then it is hard to see what is.
This latest episode shows that whatever McDonnell or Corbyn do and say, they will always be portrayed as lunatic leftwingers, idiots, irresponsible, unfit to govern, apologists for terrorism, etc. Not long ago, for instance, we had the fake scandal over Corbyn’s unearthed 2011 remarks on the Tehran-based Press TV that the killing or assassination of Osama bin Laden had been “yet another tragedy” as he should have been put on trial instead. In the hands of the rightwing press though, albeit predictably, the message pumped out was that Corbyn was either pro-Bin Laden or thought that the 9/11 massacre was not a “tragedy”.
Also fairly recently, we had the media-manufactured storm in August over Corbyn’s supposed support for women-only carriages on public transport in an attempt to reduce sexual harassment and assaults. There was an excited flurry of headlines, especially in the Telegraph, of all papers, about Corbyn’s “outrageous” suggestion - eg, “Jeremy Corbyn faces backlash over women-only train carriages idea”, “Jeremy Corbyn sparks women-only train carriage row”, “Jeremy Corbyn attacked over women-only train ‘segregation’”, etc. Leadership hopefuls Liz Kendall and Yvette Cooper made hay with it - the former attacking “gender segregation” as an “admission of defeat”, and the latter said women-only carriages would be “turning the clock back, not tackling the problem”. Getting her oar in too, Tory MP, Sarah Wollaston, remarked that “segregating” women on public transport “just normalises unacceptable attitudes”.
But, of course, Corbyn had not advocated such a measure himself - it was only one option in a policy document that had been included after a women’s group approached him and raised the idea as a possible solution to the rise in recorded assaults and harassment in 2014-15. Therefore, said Corbyn, he would “consult with women” on this issue - and explore whether “piloting” it on transport lines where harassment is reported most frequently “would be of interest”.
Of course, if Corbyn had totally rejected the idea out of hand, then all the headlines would have been about how Corbyn was a typical male chauvinist pig for ignoring the voices and concerns of women, and so on. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Compounding the hypocrisy - or idiocy - last year Claire Perry, a Conservative junior transport minister, said the idea of women-only carriages was “interesting”, but oddly enough the press did not tear her to bits for her comment.
Now, perhaps desperately, David Cameron has played the old smear card again. At a meeting of the 1922 committee on December 1, he urged undecided Tory MPs not to vote alongside “Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers” when it came to the parliamentary debate the next day on RAF airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria. This followed on from similar comments in October at the Tory Party conference speech, in which he described the Labour leader as “security threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” - a direct reference, and response, to Corbyn’s Press TV thoughts about the bin Laden “tragedy”. As Mark Steel quipped in The Independent, this is a “marvellous technique”: to “pretend your opponent said the complete opposite of what they actually said, and then get angry about the words they didn’t say” (October 9) - which just about sums up the ethos of the entire rightwing press.
Regrettably, both Corbyn and McDonnell have at times bent over backwards to assuage the media - hence the latter’s rush to disassociate himself from any notion of disbanding MI5. But such backpedalling is counterproductive - it will never be enough for the media and the right; they will just demand ever more apologies and retractions until the two leaders end up sounding and looking like Tories.