The Early Days of a Better Nation

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

John McDonnell: My Part in his Rise

In the spring of 1977 I was a resident of Hayes, a research student at Brunel University, and a raw and active supporter of the International Marxist Group. The IMG had a few hundred members and was widely considered to punch above its weight. It did, but in so many directions that it hit mostly air.

The then Labour Government led by James Callaghan tried to deal with the crisis of the postwar settlement by extending social reforms in exchange for wage restraint. This strategy, begun under Harold Wilson, was known as the Social Contract, and was already under severe strain. The reforms were significant but seemed inadequate, and in any case their effects were for the most part jam tomorrow. Wage increases were jam today. The government's policies were widely opposed by the left inside and outside the Labour Party, by a militant minority of trade unionists, and by broader unrest among women, black people and disaffected youth. In Northern Ireland, no hope for an end – of any kind -- to the Troubles was remotely in sight. The Labour Government was opposed or pressured from the right, of course: by sections of the state, the City, almost all the press, the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher, and the small but fast-growing National Front and other fascist groups. Seldom has the spotlit enclave been more relentlessly shelled.

Looking back, standing candidates against Labour in local elections might not seem the best use of the far left's slender resources, but stand candidates we did. The IMG stood four candidates in that year's elections for the Greater London Council. Hardly anybody had heard of the IMG, so its candidates stood as Socialist (IMG). We had badges and everything. I may still have one.

One GLC constituency in which we stood was Southall, central to which was the largest Asian community -- overwhelmingly industrial working class and small-business in social composition -- in West London. The Socialist (IMG) candidate for Southall was Gerry Hedley, a modest, serious and cheerful militant. A lecturer in art, he had no roots in Southall, but he had support and endorsement from local activists who did. When Hedley addressed one meeting of what seemed like hundreds, from bearded elders to young radicals, he got supportive speeches from the platform in Urdu and Punjabi, as well as English.

One local labour movement left-wing activist whose support we were keen to get was John McDonnell. I, along with a far more dedicated and experienced comrade, met him in a cafe to sound him out. McDonnell may have agreed with many of our criticisms of Callaghan's Labour, but he was adamant that he wouldn't endorse our candidate. The Labour Party's rules, then as now, were strict. Any member who supported a non-Labour candidate in an election would be slung out on their ear. McDonnell had no intention of that happening to him. In the end, we pleaded with him to at least privately vote for us, and perhaps hint to a few close and trusted comrades that lending us their vote might... McDonnell was having none of it. We parted cordially, empty-handed.

If we'd been more persuasive, or if he'd been less staunch in his loyalty to the Labour Party, John McDonnell would almost certainly not now be the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. Say not the struggle naught availeth.

This footnote in history has two footnotes of its own:

1. GLC May 1977 Southall election results (Source, pdf) (See also)

Seive, Mrs Y. Labour 13,330
Schindler, R. Conservative 12,417
Stevens, K. Liberal 2,094
Franklin, Mrs B.P. National Front 1,872
Hedley, G.A. Socialist (IMG) 996

2. Gerry Hedley became Reader at the Courtauld Institute of Art and an innovative researcher in the field of fine art conservation, where he is still – many years after his untimely death in a climbing accident -- remembered with great respect.


Interesting. Wonder if McDonnell has read your books?

I doubt it. Clive Lewis MP is a fan, though.

How would the party have spun it if they'd got twice the number of votes, pushed the NF into last place... and taken enough votes from Labour to give the seat to the Tories?

They'd probably have said it was the Labour right's fault for delivering disappointments and thus depressing the Labour vote. This was the standard left-of-Labour answer to that possibility in general (I don't know if it has ever happened).

The IMG, tbf, never claimed to be a party.

(Incidentally, Phil, you might want to update the blog link in your profile :-)

I'd forgotten how neuralgic a word 'party' was in that milieu. I remember there was a lot of apologetic throat-clearing around naming the Socialist Movement ("essentially it's an initiative recognising the existence of a broader movement which we hope will come to recognise itself within" cont'd p 94). Anything grander than a 'discussion group' or 'corresponding society' starts to sound like you're getting ahead of History.

I've got a profile? I've *still* got a profile? How does bitrot always take the things you need, not the ones you don't?

i have also read your books and they are just amazing

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