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Shadow chancellor’s ‘cunning plan’

04 October, 2018 — By John Gulliver

John McDonnell sets out his ‘cunning plan’ in the Marx Memorial Library on Tuesday

SHORTLY after John McDonnell had delivered his “lecture” I had a wicked thought. I suddenly saw a scene from Blackadder, and the shadow chancellor was Baldrick and it was all taking place in the extraordinarily packed hall in Clerkenwell on Tuesday evening.

As Baldrick set out his “cunning” idea in the small hall, with a large portrait of Fidel Castro looking down on him, he fleshed out his Labour Party conference speech – that a third of the board of companies of more than 250 staff will be workers – by adding that there would be an allocation of shares so that after 10 years they will own 10 per cent of the company with shareholders’ rights, managed… and this is the key word, “collectively”.

But there was more from our new Baldrick, casually dressed in a red jumper – this would mean there’d be some “social dividend”, with income going to the state, for schools, social care and hospitals.

He spoke quickly, decisively, I could sense a nirvana opening up in front of him.

All the research showed, he said, that the more workers were involved, the better long-term decisions, better productivity, and an end to what has “bedevilled” the economy, “short termism and profiteering”.

The shadow chancellor stopped to speak to a crowd outside

Earlier, I had seen an amazing sight – something I had never seen before – a long snaking queue of more than 150 people outside Marx Memorial Library in Clerkenwell Green for a “lecture” that had been hardly advertised. Social media, word of mouth, was enough for the new political rock star.

But this wasn’t going to be a replay of the Harold Wilson years in the 60s and 70s, according to the cunning plan. For instance, it wasn’t going to be all top-down, and now that word “democracy” kept on cropping up – democracy in the “workplace”.

Nor was it going to be left to the MPs to get on with it.

“Everyone” had to be involved, he said, looking around the hall. “There is a responsibility on everyone’s shoulders to sit down and think ‘What can I contribute?’ – and get out there and do it.”

Mark Rylance as Iago in Othello. Photo: Simon Annand

He saw “a big wave” – and the new government could only be sustained by “a mass movement”.

Then came a warning: “If you cut the leadership off and the representatives off from the growing movement, it will inevitably fall apart,” he said. “We have to make sure everyone is involved in the development of policy.”

He was drawing in lots of experts – and seemed optimistic about support from civil servants. He even brought into the fold the actor Mark Rylance whom he had seen recently in Othello. It was marvellous how he had defended Corbyn on TV against the awful accusations of anti-Semitism.

But before anyone in the audience got carried away he brought them down to earth. “But socialism in one country won’t work, we tried it, it doesn’t work.” His cunning plan seemed a little shaky here. “We need to bring together global powers for the future . . . piously and with humility, we want to see whether we can start that debate off.”

Blackadder’s Baldrick, aka Tony Robinson

In the old Bennite days I recall, there were visions of the future where masses of people were expected to take to the streets to back up the Labour government, and McDonnell seemed to be painting a similar picture. There were one or two million who marched against the Iraq war. Would similar crowds emerge again?

Admittedly his futuristic picture amounted to more than what the social economist Will Hutton in last week’s Observer approved as Corbyn’s “stakeholder” capitalism. Somewhere along the line Labour planned to sneak up and transform the economy. And the cunning plan brought loud applause. But not the end of the evening. Islington councillor Claudia Webbe, who chaired the meeting, manoeuvred the shadow chancellor through the departing crowd to speak to an overflow meeting on the pavement outside.

The Marx Memorial Library had never seen anything like it before.

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