Keeping Marxist powder dry

Owen Jones of the campaign to elect John McDonnell to succeed Tony Blair spoke to the Weekly Worker

How is the John for Leader campaign going?

This election will be decided on the votes of the Labour Party and the trade union movement. I will give you an idea of how things stand with the unions. Weekly Worker readers may well be aware that a poll of delegates at the TUC - conducted by the electoral reform society, I emphasise, not us - found that 59% of them supported McDonnell and only 9% supported Gordon Brown.

Other indications of gathering momentum include the unanimous decision of Amicus Unity Gazette to support our campaign. This is the most powerful group within the union and was the left grouping that propelled Derek Simpson to power. A very promising sign.

Trade union branches up and down the country have been passing resolutions backing the campaign and encouraging their members to either sign up to the affiliated political fund or, better, to join the Labour Party, which they have been doing in very considerable numbers.

T&G Broad Left have also been organising the campaign in their union quite effectively. So, overall, in the trade union section, we are doing very well indeed. In terms of the party itself, we have been addressing branches nationally. Huge numbers of one-time and never-before members have been contacting us to say they are joining up in order to vote for John - including some people who have resigned from Respect, I have to say.

Hundreds have emailed to say they are coming on board. Many of those have got their colleagues and workmates to rejoin. Anecdotally, I have been told by CLP secretaries who have confirmed this general movement, a surge that bucks the trend of the past few years.

So it looks as though this campaign is increasingly gaining momentum and has a groundswell of support - and not just from the people coming back to the party. Despite the haemorrhaging of socialists from our ranks over the past period, the existing members did vote for a majority of left candidates in the recent NEC election. Labour Party councillors are among those who have been organising meetings across the country for John - they are acutely aware they face electoral defeat if the government continues to alienate Labour voters through the disastrous policies of war, cuts and privatisation.

This is all despite the national media blackout we have suffered. We are still getting our message across and finding a huge appetite for the sort of policies we are promoting.

What about the hurdle of getting 44 MPs to put John on the ballot paper in the first place?

We are going to get the nominations: MPs are backing the campaign, including from outside the Campaign Group - David Drew, for instance, is one such MP who has publicly declared for John.

Part of the reason that is happening - and will continue to build - is the groundswell of support at a grassroots level. People are writing to their MPs urging them to back John, letting them know that they want a debate and real contest, not a coronation. So many MPs who will not necessarily agree with everything that John says will sign his nomination paper because they recognise that there is a demand for a debate across the labour movement. People want a genuine discussion of policies, not a beauty contest between two New Labour apparatchiks.

I know that many on the left outside the Labour Party have been very cynical about whether we will hit the required number of nominations. Obviously, if we don't then they will take it as confirmation that the Labour Party is no longer a reclaimable party and is dead as a workers' organisation of any sort. Well, I think they are the ones that are going to end up with egg on their faces.

We want people to vote McDonnell, of course, but isn't his platform very limited? Isn't it really a rather tame rehash of standard old Labour nostrums from the past, for all your talk of 'new politics' and reaching out beyond the ranks of the traditional working class movement?

I reject that 'old Labour' label. We are standing on a real Labour ticket. We are putting forward policies that are relevant to issues facing working people in Britain today, in the 21st century. There are policies that the whole left would support - including the Weekly Worker, I presume. An immediate withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, for instance. The restoration of trade union and workplace rights. Support for public services, etc. These are issues that have an obvious, daily effect on millions of working people across the country, whether we are talking about local hospitals closing or people losing their jobs in manufacturing because of the government's rightwing economic agenda. Then there are their sons and daughters out in Iraq - these are issues that are directly related to the conditions of the working class and that is why we are attracting so much support.

I don't think that can be won by advancing what seem to me abstract political demands that in themselves strike me as fairly dogmatic in tone - if that's what you are getting at. We have to relate our demands to the conditions as they actually are on the ground. They must relate to working class people and their existing consciousness. I mean, what sort of demands do you think we should adopt?

We would like to think we could persuade John to stand on a full Marxist programme, of course "¦!

If you were standing, I don't think you would be doing that, would you?

Actually, we would. Absolutely. When we have stood in elections under our own banner in the past, we stood on an explicitly communist programme. We see very little point in a Marxism that does not think it is of any practical use to the working class in the here and now, under today's conditions.

I am a Marxist and I am involved in this campaign - which is not a Marxist campaign, obviously. It is a united front. And Marxists have engaged in united fronts throughout our history. Marxists are a minority in this united front. It has a reformist programme and the vast majority of people involved are reformists - there is no getting around that "¦

If Marxists were not in a clear minority, there would be no need for the tactic of the united front at all - although whether the John McDonnell campaign is one is open to question. The left tends to use the term a little promiscuously. But, that aside, the fundamental thrust of the united front is the fight by Marxists to win over larger sections than themselves to Marxism.

But you would say you are involved in a united front with Respect presumably. Respect doesn't promote a revolutionary programme, does it?

Well, 'united front' is not a term I would actually use for it, but the example is a bad one for you. In one sense, it has more of a character of a 'united front' in that the genuine Marxists - that's us I'm talking about - do not hide their programme and pretend to be left reformists. We argue for it.

But that is too narrow. If this is a successful campaign, it will provide a massive opening for the left. An opening of the sort that we have not seen for an entire generation. It will take place in the situation where the political leadership of the labour movement has swung so far to the right, in which the balance of forces have been pushed so far in favour of our enemies, that even the very notion of an alternative to capitalism has been discredited, especially since the collapse of Stalinism.

After three decades of reaction, where our movement has been broken and demoralised, in this situation, if this campaign gains momentum, it will be an historic victory for the entire left. The first victory of any significance for a generation, I would go as far as to say.

You anticipate a huge space for debate and clarification opening up with that potential victory - but in the meantime, you are keeping your Marxist powder dry?

Yes, I am.