John McDonnell interview: The media are trying to destroy Jeremy Corbyn
Article updated: See below.
"We'll be here all night at this rate," a woman says to me as she joins a queue of people waiting to get a selfie with John McDonnell. It's not a complaint, more of an observation, she's smiling and seems genuinely quite excited. The shadow chancellor has just finished a speech to a group of about 300 people. It's not exactly Corbynmania, but it's impressive for a rainy Saturday afternoon in Northampton.
It's the day after the Independent published an article by Alison McGovern, the chairwoman of the Labour pressure group Progress, in which she slammed McDonnell for suggesting the group has a right-wing, conservative agenda. "Funnily enough I was meeting with Alison that week about a child poverty initiative," he tells me, as the last few people in the hall linger. "I said to her 'I've just called you lot right-wing'. I was really angry because we saw three ministers resign, and one live on television just before prime minister's questions. There's a right-wing element [in the party] that just will not accept the mandate that Jeremy's got. They've got to come to terms with it."
McDonnell: "There's a right-wing element [In Labour] that just will not accept the mandate"
Given the criticism he's received (since we spoke, McGovern has resigned from a party policy review on child poverty) does he also stand by his comments about Progress being conservative? "Conservative with a small 'c', yes, because they're resisting change." He chuckles. "Oh yes, I meant conservative with a small 'c', I thought they'd interpreted that, as well."
One of last week’s three junior ministerial resignations, that of Stephen Doughty, happened live on BBC Two's Daily Politics Show, an incident which has since led to Labour making an official complaint to the BBC. "Remember, this is not an attack on the BBC and it's not an attack on Laura Kuenssberg either," he says. "There is a private company that makes the Politics programme which is commissioned by the BBC…The editor of the programme obviously decided to do maximum damage to Jeremy's standing." McDonnell insists they took the decision to make the complaint because they believe the on-air resignation was an attack on the Labour party rather than impartial coverage.
The subject of the media comes up several times. Among some of the people here, journalists seem to be more unpopular than the Tories. McDonnell talks to the audience about the press coverage he and Corbyn received during the leadership campaign. "None of them, except the Morning Star, supported us," he tells them. "Even the liberal left Guardian opposed us and undermined us at every opportunity." He discusses the coverage of the reshuffle, claiming the press were only annoyed because they had to wait outside the room for 30 hours. It apparently took that long because Corbyn wanted to make sure everybody had a chance to air their view.
I ask if he believes there is an agenda by the media to damage Corbyn's leadership. "It can sound like we're paranoid but the reality is that the treatment Jeremy has had across the media has been appalling," he says. "It's the worst any politician has been treated. The problem with the BBC and other broadcasters is that because of the cut backs that have gone on with journalists, they are taking their stories from newspapers rather than investigating and reporting for themselves and therefore the bias of the press infects the broadcast media too."
He insists the key to challenging the narrative in the media is for himself and Corbyn to do more live interviews. During his speech, he mentions that he tends to receive good feedback after appearing on live TV and that people are often surprised he doesn't have "two heads or horns." He believes there's been a backlash over Corbyn's treatment by the media. "It's an object lesson about the establishment using its power in the media to try and destroy an individual and what he stands for," he says. "It's proved to be counterproductive because the more attacks on Jeremy, the more members we recruit."
McDonnell: The Daily Politics "decided to do maximum damage to Jeremy"
Corbyn and his team have also been criticised for the lack of women in the top shadow Cabinet jobs. The up-and-coming Labour MP, Jess Phillips, famously told Diane Abbott to "fuck off" during a row over the issue at a parliamentary Labour party meeting, back in September. "As far as we're concerned there are no top jobs," McDonnell tells the audience in Northampton. He says that if there were top jobs, they would reflect those of the Atlee government: health, education and welfare. "In those big spending departments, we put women. Their top three jobs are not our top three jobs. Our priorities are the socialist priorities set out by the construction of the welfare state by the Atlee government," he added.
After the few days the Labour leadership has just had, I was expecting the shadow chancellor to appear a little downbeat, but he's not at all. If anything he's really quite chipper. He seems confident and relaxed, and quite funny too. During his speech he makes fun of himself over the Little Red Book incident and the "embarrassing, embarrassing, embarrassing" U-turn on Labour's support for Osborne's fiscal charter. He jokes that when Corbyn attended events around the country during the leadership contest he couldn't go with him because they'd look like "The Last of The Summer Wine on tour". When talking about Tony Blair's intervention during the campaign, he jokes they got so much coverage from it he wanted to send the former PM flowers, but he refrained because Corbyn told him "not to take the piss."
He's almost too positive about things. You'd have to have been living in the back of beyond, or at least somewhere with no access to Twitter, to not have noticed the deep divisions within the Labour party. Barely a day passes without a spat brewing in one wing of the party or another, yet he brushes most of this aside as stories exaggerated by the media. "Don't believe everything you read in the Daily Mail" he replies, when I ask about the factions within the party. "There's a small handful of them that can't accept Jeremy's leadership but we will bring them back on board."
I suggest the party seems more divided now than it has for a long time and ask if Jeremy is really the right man to unite it. "Jeremy's style of politics: caring, considerate, listening, and taking people into account, is the way to do it," he says. "Slowly but surely that's happening."
Contrary to the comments made above by the shadow chancellor, Politics.co.uk can confirm that the Daily Politics is not produced by a private firm but in-house by the BBC.