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David Keighley’s BBC Election Watch: Marr lets slippery McDonnell off the Marxist hook


Is he or isn’t he? Andrew Marr asked shadow Chancellor John McDonnell yesterday morning if he is an ‘unapologetic’ Marxist?

His answer was an object lesson is smokescreen building – and the BBC accepted it with scarcely a murmur.

This was potentially fertile territory, in that the New Statesman (for example) has argued – on the basis of McDonnell’s own writings and conduct – that he is actually engaged in a ‘Gramascian’ quest to destabilise Britain before pushing it towards a full-scale Marxist revolution.

Bang up-to-date evidence for this, as Guido has pointed out, is that McDonnell last week stood in front of Communist flags to deliver a May Day speech, and has also been clandestinely tape-recorded stating his support for the political doctrine.

McDonnell’s response on Marr? It was slippery as an eel, as the programme transcript (p8)  shows. To the specific charge (of being an unapologetic Marxist), he said ‘no’, but then sought to obfuscate by stating:

“I believe there’s a lot to learn from reading Kapital, yes of course it is, and that’s been recommended not just by me but many others, mainstream economists as well. But I also believe in the long tradition of the Labour Party which involves people like G.D.H. Cole, Tawney and others. You put that altogether and you have, I think, a direction for our economy based upon sound principles of fairness.”

Asked by Marr if he wanted to destroy the capitalist system, the slipperiness continued. McDonnell again professed the answer was ‘no’, that Marx had got it wrong by predicting an ‘enormous crash’. The shadow Chancellor posited instead that he, by contrast, merely wanted to ‘transform’. He declared:

“I want to transform the system. I’ll tell you how I want to transform it. I want to transform it in a way in which we have a prosperous economy, but where that prosperity is shared by all.” 

AM: “So you’re not longer looking for a revolutionary moment?” 

JM: “I’m looking for a transformative government which will – like the Attlee government which transformed our society will lay the foundations for a prosperous economy. There are countries richer but where everybody shares in those riches.”

Marr moved on at this point his curiosity seemingly satisfied, and the subsequent BBC headline story condensed the exchange as follows:

‘(John McDonnell:) “I believe there’s a lot to learn from reading [Das] Kapital, yes, of course it is, and that’s been recommended not just by me but many others, mainstream economists as well.”

But when it was put to him that Das Kapital predicted capitalism would fail and asked whether he wanted to bring down the system, he said: “I want to transform the system – that’s where Marx got it wrong, we know that.”’

So that’s OK then in the BBC’s world. ‘Transformation’ is the new name of the game.

To the Corporation that was case closed. No mention of red flags or Gramascian tactics. The shadow Chancellor is a nice cuddly, ‘transformer’ of the capitalist system whose only goal is to cane the rich.

Others, meanwhile, The Sun included, posed slightly more awkward questions.

It’s hard to imagine that Andrew Marr would have given anyone he regarded as on the right of the political spectrum such an easy ride.

(Image: Garry Knight)

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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