With its huge chandeliers, high ceilings and grand staircase, the lobby lounge of The Principal isn’t a place I’d expect to find John McDonnell. It’s been a busy 18 months for the Shadow Chancellor; since the 2015 General Election he has chaired both of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaigns, taken on the second-highest role in the party and campaigned for Britain to remain in the European Union, all alongside representing the people of West London’s Hayes and Harlington as their Member of Parliament. Nowadays, he’s also touring the country speaking at a series of public talks and Q&As to discuss Labour’s ‘New Economics’; he greets me warmly an hour before he joined the panel at the York event.
McDonnell describes himself as “an accidental politician”. He went straight into work as soon as he left school but then decided to study A-Levels at night classes before studying Politics, Government and Recent History at Brunel University. Although everyone else on his course “wanted to be a politician or trade union activist”, McDonnell’s ambition was to “transform the Co-Op”.
Instead, he took a position at the National Union of Mine Workers, and then the Trades Union Congress. In 1981 he stood in for a friend who pulled out of running for the Greater London Council and in his words, “that was it”. After the abolition of the GLC he moved to Camden London Borough Council and then became Chief Executive of the Association of London Authorities, representing all London boroughs, before becoming an MP in 1997.
He jokes that his fellow Brunel classmates are probably all now managers at the Co-Op, but what about his own student experience? He went to university in the mid-1970s, a period renowned for its student activism on a huge range of issues including anti-racism and the Vietnam War. Ultimately, he was more involved with community-based politics while studying, in part due to his accommodation arrangement: he lived as a house-parent in a children’s home.
Living “in the heart of a large council estate with lots of deprivation issues” meant that McDonnell got involved with a number of local campaigns. He helped to set up a Law Centre and groups which supported residents to exercise their rights as tenants, and was also involved in environmental campaigns. These experiences, he said, “shaped my own politics.” All the same though, he was involved in student political action “when necessary, if there were demonstrations or occupations and I was needed”, and he always made sure to vote in student elections.
Student occupations and protests might be less common today than in the 1970s, but they are by no means non-existent. Last academic year, students at University College London held a five-month ‘Rent Strike’ to protest the institution’s unaffordable rent prices. In July, the demonstrators declared victory as they reached an agreement with UCL whereby the University agreed to expand funding for its accommodation bursary scheme for poorer students, reduce rent for some rooms and freeze rent for the following academic year, but in reality the activism was only just beginning. Their ‘Cut the Rent’ campaign has now spread across London and further around the country, its necessity even more pressing following the government’s decision to abolish the maintenance grant.
The solution is to scrap tuition fees. We’ve got to, they’ve got to go
McDonnell is more than aware of the issues at hand. When I ask what he feels is the biggest issue facing today’s students, I barely finish the question before he answers, “Debt, debt, debt.” Like all students in the 70s, he attended university on a grant: “you could live off your grant, and you could buy a few pints as well”.
Now the situation is very different; during Corbyn’s first run for leadership, the campaign hosted public meetings and discussions all around the country, and not only did young people make up “at least half of the audiences”, but “there was always a young person who got up and said, ‘this is the level of debt I’m facing, these are my worries, and this is why it’s restricting my ambitions as well’.”
For McDonnell this was “startling”. Speaking with so many students meant he realised “just how crippling it is for people”, and not only in terms of paying back the loans later on: “I met a group of lecturers from one university and they actually said that it’s affecting people’s grades as well, because you’re working full-time during term-time.” I comment on the drastic rise in student mental illness in recent years, and McDonnell agrees: “I don’t think it’s just about increased levels of diagnosis, I really think it’s pressure.”
It’s clear that student voices and student issues matter to McDonnell, and not just because he’s looking for our votes. “I keep saying it time and time again: education is a gift from one generation to another,” he tells me. “It has to be. And if you don’t impart that gift, basically what happens is a general undermining of the quality of the education of a generation.” A generation which has and will continue to suffer the impact of austerity coupled with ever-rising living costs alongside tens of thousands of pounds of debt as a result of our university education. So what’s the solution?
“The solution is to scrap tuition fees. We’ve got to, they’ve got to go.” I’m not convinced this is even possible, but McDonnell assures me that the Labour Party is already examining with the help of experts how it can be funded, and on what timescale. His explanations are clear, concise, convincing – and based on tax. “A fair taxation system enables you then to invest in the economy, grow the economy, and as you grow the economy you can then afford the things that we need. It’s not rocket science! And we did it, you know – we used to do it.”
It’s not just debt that students are unhappy about though. Just last year, the level of animosity at York against the National Union of Students was so high that YUSU called an early vote on whether we should remain affiliated with the Union, or follow in the steps of students at university in Newcastle and Lincoln and leave. Despite the vitriol, York students chose to remain in the NUS (when I tell McDonnell this he laughs and says, “I’m glad someone voted to remain somewhere…”). For the Shadow Chancellor, being part of a union – whether as a student or through work – is “critical”.
What McDonnell says next he will repeat during his talk later in the evening, but that’s because the concept is the foundation of his politics. At the start of the Industrial Revolution, “people discovered a secret,” he tells me. “And it was discovered by the people in the small workshops and in the fields, and they put it on their banners: ‘Unity is strength’. ‘Injury to one is injury to all’. In Latin America it was ‘Workers united will never be defeated’ – the secret was solidarity.”
My own politics is underpinned by these notions, too, stemming in part from my upbringing, but also my own reading and participation. In today’s climate, left-wing concepts like this can be looked down upon or even, as Corbyn has been accused of, seen as ‘turning back the clock’. But McDonnell makes it clear that these convictions are not only still relevant but even more important today than they have been for many years. “The concept of solidarity is that in numbers you’re strong, individually you get picked on.” And as for the NUS? “You reform it from within; you don’t walk away from it. Otherwise you undermine that solidarity; you undermine your own strength.”
If it comes to picket lines, join it
Of course, it’s not just students who are giving themselves a voice on issues that matter: members of the University and College Union, which represents academic professionals and postgraduates, took industrial action in May this year. It was largely reported by the press as a pay dispute, but McDonnell explains: “it isn’t just about pay; it’s the undermining of the profession as well, by the pressure of work”. He cites the exploitation of PhD candidates who are often brought into the classroom to teach in understaffed departments, including here at York.
These issues are important to us as students: they affect the quality of our teaching and our university experience. That isn’t necessarily because PhD students aren’t good teachers, but because the amount of work all university tutors are required to do on top of their own research is phenomenally high; our lecturers are incredibly overworked, and at a time when universities are bringing in more money than they ever have done before. So how can we as students support our tutors? It’s about understanding the reasons behind the action, according to McDonnell: “on that base, you can become an advocate for that as well as supporting them. And if it comes to picket lines, join it.”
One of the biggest issues for politicians is engaging young people. We see it every election: turnout numbers among 18 to 25-year-olds are always lower than every other bracket, so what’s to be done to engage young people in political action? The UK Youth Parliament has campaigned for Votes at 16 for a number of years now and 16- and 17-year-olds were given the vote in the UK for the first time in the Scottish independence referendum, but not in the more recent EU vote. Is McDonnell a supporter of lowering the voting age?
Absolutely: “I support Votes at 16. Look at what happened in Scotland – it demonstrated a mass engagement of young people.” Although it was a single-issue vote, McDonnell points out that it “evolved into mass membership of the SNP… and into a much more engaged community overall.” More to the point, he believes that those young people who used their vote in the independence referendum “will continue in their engagement.” Votes at 16, he argues, “makes politics real.”
That doesn’t necessarily address low turnout numbers among young voters. McDonnell talks about “turning it outwards”, which the Labour party has been aiming to do ever since Corbyn’s first leadership campaign. “The rallies and meetings that we do all around the country are packed out still… people are pouring out all the time – but it isn’t just about people coming along and talking and lecturing, it’s about enabling a discussion and a debate to take place.”
It has had a real impact, too. He mentions that “various spinoffs have taken place”, in particular the ‘People’s Philosophy, Politics and Economics’ group in Tower Hamlets. “They’re doing a whole season of lectures and seminars around that which is brilliant.” Later this month the People’s PPE are hosting a panel discussion with Channel 4’s Jon Snow alongside Guardian columnist Rachel Sabi and Peter Oborne, Editor of the Daily Mail, plus other guests. Many of these events are free to the public and all aim to raise the level of debate and community engagement through speakers who don’t always agree on the issues being discussed.
Resources have been pumped into social media, too. “The national media have not been the kindest to us over the last 18 months,” McDonnell muses. “In terms of the press, it’s really difficult because they’re owned by people whose power and wealth we’re challenging.” Activity on social media, therefore, is critical, and even more so to reach out to younger people. The eventual aim is to “reinvent word of mouth as a means of political communication,” he says, “and I think it’s happening.”
I liked Ed Miliband; he was an honest, pricipled person
When we meet it is the day of the US election, and we speak in a pre-President-Elect Trump world, but the enormity of the potential result hangs over our conversation. I wonder if the recent extraordinary changes in the political landscape, with the rise in divisive right-wing nationalism on the one hand, and the likes of Bernie Sanders, Corbyn and McDonnell himself on the other, has actually created a more positive climate for progressive movements. It’s as though McDonnell can’t really believe it himself: “It’s an exciting political period,” he smiles, “an extraordinarily exciting period for us.”
He thinks back to the last General Election, after which he was clearly crushed. “I didn’t want Ed Miliband to go,” he stresses, “I liked Ed Miliband; he was an honest, principled person. And he went very precipitously and I wanted him to stick around until things were stable.” But Miliband left, and along came Corbyn. “If you’d have asked me 18 months ago ‘was there gonna be a socialist leader of the Labour Party in my lifetime?’ I would have said ‘No, no chance.’ Now we’ve got one it’s carpe diem, seize the moment.”
That’s what’s happening right now, all over the world and on all sorts of levels. “I think get involved in what influences your own life, so if you’re a student you get involved with student politics, what’s happening on your campus and nationally,” McDonnell advises, but he also suggests to “see what’s happening in the community around you… when there’s issues you need to address, get involved with those.” And it shouldn’t stop there: “on international issues you realise you’ve got a responsibility.”
McDonnell speaks with great conviction; his words and ideas feel genuine and honest. He thinks that “everybody should do politics, as well as their own mainstream work”, and it’s true that more and more people are starting to vote with their feet. “Sanders’ campaign has influenced the Clinton campaign,” he reminds me. The difference here in the UK is that the shift hasn’t come about via the growth of alternative individual parties like Pademos in Spain and Syriza in Greece. Instead, it’s come from within the Labour Party, which now, more than ever, has a tight hold on its roots. “The good thing about the Labour Party is still its roots to the trade union movement and the working class, so we’ve got a unique experience that we can develop on.” This is what gives it so much power: later in his talk, McDonnell points out that, with over 600 000 members, Labour has a member on almost every street in Britain.
A busy 18 months, then? “White knuckle ride at times!”