Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. This is how shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s whipping out of Mao’s Little Red Book went down in the Commons yesterday. Critics, on both sides of the house, have lambasted the former backbench romper stomper for quoting from a genocidal dictator. McDonnell argues this “flamboyant gesture” was required to cut through the Osbornomic noise and get a point out about the sale of public assets to foreign buyers, including the Chinese (“Maoist”) government.
The assumption is that publicity –whatever the controversial means applied- is self-justifying. Is he right? Amazon provides a case for the defence. To promote their latest series The Man in the High Castle, an adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s alternate history that imagines a totalitarian America in the shadows of the Axis victory of WW2, the online retailer turned film production behemoth decked out Nazi-style banners in a number of New York subway trains. They had precedence: the cover of the 1962 book featured a large swastika, a toxic icon that is carefully avoided in the Reich-lite regalia used in Amazon’s promotion. Nevertheless the intrusion of symbolically-heavy imagery onto active public spaces –train seats and windows that can’t be avoided as opposed to just a poster that can- did raise hackles.
Choosing whether or not to watch a TV show isn’t usually an ethical choice. The worst that could happen is people who didn’t know about the programme and had no intention of watching it being outraged and then consciously not watching it. Amazon’s hubris may account for its risk taking; but what may work in one field –TV- can be disastrous in plenty of others. Setting out the stall of a political party, for example, requires the consideration of myriad sensitivities. McDonnell’s stunt crossed a little red line and to no apparent gain. For a stunt to work it has to capture something that is either humorous or surprising. McDonnell, who is known for his fiery brand of socialism and past endorsements of revolutionary violence, was hardly shaking up critical perceptions. If his goal was to put dubious privatisation on the agenda he also failed. By Wednesday evening everyone was talking about Osborne’s “his personal signed copy” zinger and only McDonnell was plugging the sell-offs line.
What he should have done was popped over to the LSE Waterstones and bought Osborne a copy of Friedrich Hayek’s bible of liberalism, The Road to Serfdom. Had he quoted the last line of this seminal text of conservative economic stewardship he would have reminded the Chancellor, in the wake of a series of U turns on tax credits and police spending, that “[we] shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish.”
The art of political backfooting is using your opponent’s professed beliefs against their current arguments. McDonnell’s reverse logic of offering his past to undermine his present gains is a political novelty that would take the counterfactual imagination of a Philip K Dick to understand.