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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > Oct-18 > The self-made socialist

The self-made socialist

From working night-shifts in a bed factory to raising 10 children in a care home, John McDonnell has been exposed to the rough edges in life. Who is the man promising to transform Britain’s economy?

Prospect Portrait


John McDonnell likes to recount a bittersweet story about visiting an office in his own West London backyard during a dispute over its future. “I’m going down there to tell management they’re not going to have their way with these workers, we’re going to protect their jobs, and if anything happens, we want guarantees against redundancies.”

The office housed the service records of British military personnel. McDonnell mentioned to the union rep that his father, Bob, had been a sergeant, serving in the Sherwood Foresters on what the Labour shadow chancellor calls “mopping up operations” towards the end of the Second World War. “So I go and meet the management and then halfway through, they come in and just pass me a file. It’s my dad’s old Army file, one of those browning paper folders.”

McDonnell is proud that his father, a Liverpudlian docker, served his country and was delighted that the stafftook the time to dig out the file. “Everything was in”, continues McDonnell, “and the final remarks from a commanding officer were ‘he’s a smart soldier’ and ‘I would commend him to you’ and all that stuff.” Also buried inside was a note that McDonnell senior had been fined half a crown for damaging his motorbike. “Unfortunately my dad was dead by this time. I’d have loved to take it up with him.”

The sweetness of the tale lies in McDonnell’s pleasure in this snippet of family history and the consideration shown by the civil servants. The bitterness lies in what happened to the office next: “Bloody New Labour privatised the place.”

“Hello”, McDonnell recently greeted a businessman, “are you looking forward to having a Marxist in No 11?” You never know how seriously to take these kind of lines from McDonnell, but he certainly has a very Marxian interest in who owns the means of production. In early September, he made a splash with a radical scheme that would require companies to earmark part of their profits to purchase a chunk of their own shares for their workforce. It is hard to imagine any of his recent predecessors coming up with that. Indeed, as the first Marxist sympathiser to hold the Treasury brief since Stafford Cripps did the job in Attlee’s post-war government, McDonnell is perhaps the most intriguing figure in Jeremy Corbyn’s party, which—despite everything— is tantalisingly close to power.

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About Prospect Magazine

In Prospect’s October issue: Rafael Behr argues that politics has been poisoned by Twitter—the platform often drives the political news agenda, encourages people to descend deeper and deeper into echo chambers and sees MPs and their families regularly abused. Meanwhile, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger explains how Oxford picks its students and says that more needs to be done for the colleges to be more inclusive. Also, Jasmin Mujanovic outlines how Bosnia’s elections this month could tip the country back into conflict. Elsewhere in the issue: Alex Dean highlights the alarming decline in the number of students studying a foreign language at GCSE and beyond. Will Self reviews a series of new books about liberalism, arguing that “we need more than just social freedoms and the free market.” Aimee Cliff charts the story of the dying dream that London would be a 24-hour city.