In what was an astonishing interview on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, shadow chancellor John McDonnell made an emotional appeal for calm in the Labour party – as the attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership took a sinister turn. Dragging a widowed member of staff into the media-led leadership feeding frenzy.
The interview as a whole reeked of desperation from Marr, as he veered from dog whistle questioning surrounding McDonnell’s apparent “main influences” of Trotsky, Marx and Lenin to admitting that he, himself, used to sell the newspaper of left-wing fringe organisation the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, via calling McDonnell a “quasi-Trotskyist”.
But at one point the shadow chancellor, appearing upset and frustrated with the tone of the interview, took the unprecedented move of breaking the “fourth wall” – that is, addressing the camera and the audience directly.
A seemingly moved McDonnell had been talking about the accusation by former shadow chief secretary to the treasury, Seema Malhotra, that her office had been “illegally entered” by both aide’s to McDonnell and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. McDonnell said:
What camera am I on? Am I on this camera? […] Let me just say this to Labour party supporters, Labour members, members of the parliamentary Labour party: we’ve got to stop this now. There is a small group out there that are willing to destroy our party just to remove Jeremy Corbyn. We’ve got to stop them, we’ve got to unite.
He continued, saying that:
If you want to come for me and Jeremy Corbyn, that’s up to you. But don’t pick on staff who can’t defend themselves. In addition to that, last week Save [sic] Labour were talking about splitting the party. I want Owen, and Jeremy and everyone to say “let’s stop this now”.
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This appeal came as Malhotra asserted that she wanted a full investigation carried out into the alleged breaches of security. In a letter to the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, she said that parliamentary aides had been into her office on a least three occasions, asserting that the incidents:
frightened my staff, including a new intern, who have become concerned about their safety, and as such took the decision that no member of staff was to be left alone in the office.
McDonnell also claimed that his member of staff who had been accused by Malhotra was very distressed:
My office, manager […] who has a key to all our rooms […] thought [Malhotra] had moved […] I’ve now got a member of staff […] who’s a widow, with daughters, this is her sole income. She’s one of the pleasantest, most helpful people I’ve come across. She’s now worried she’s going to lose her job and face prosecution because this has been described as a “break in”. That’s just so distressing; it’s unacceptable.
Malhotra’s replacement as shadow chief secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey, told Sky News staff had been planning to swap their offices and thought her predecessor had already vacated hers (having resigned over a month ago). On realising Ms Malhotra was still based there, the member of staff “walked straight back out of the office again and left”, Long-Bailey said. She added:
we’ve got a very good relationship with Seema – I certainly have and I’ve got the utmost respect for her and her staff […] Unfortunately there has been a bit of miscommunication and misunderstanding on both sides.
The furore that has exploded surrounding this incident is, by all accounts, more pernicious than the actual event itself. It is unclear just who is actually in the wrong regarding this; McDonnell says the aide’s who entered had keys to all offices (which implies relevant MPs were happy with this arrangement), while Malhotra claims they broke parliamentary rules that state only police can enter an office without the authorisation of an MP.
But what is abundantly clear, is that the divisions and bile that currently divide the Labour party are now dragging members of staff into the line of attack.
Neither Malhotra nor McDonnell witnessed these incidents first hand – they are having to rely on the word of their advisors. And it would appear that ordinary members of staff in the Labour party are now fair game in this ongoing battle – as the targeting of McDonnell’s office manager shows.
As the shadow chancellor alluded to in his interview, there appears to be no animosity between his widowed aide and Malhotra’s team – they went out for drinks together last week, and an intern of Malhotra’s brought her parents to parliament to meet McDonnell’s office manager.
This seems a sinister concoction created by those wishing to undermine Corbyn. It is important to note that it was Malhotra who began circulating rumours last month that she was canvassing Labour MPs for a potential leadership bid by McDonnell. This meant McDonnell was faced with a similar ‘showdown’ style interview. Both of these claims by Malhotra were given credence as fact by the media, and both proven false when given proper scrutiny.
The fact that a widow, and an intern – both of whom obviously have no desire to be in the public eye – have been thrust into the spotlight to be cynically used to score points against the Labour leadership, is highly concerning.
Furthermore, this latest furore does nothing but publicly present Labour as an even more divided, fractured and embittered group of individuals. As McDonnell said: “let’s stop this now” – because all this vile sniping is doing is making the Labour party, whoever wins, appear more unelectable by the day. And it is now affecting the lives of ordinary members of staff, who are merely in parliament to do their jobs – something which is fast becoming a weapon in the ongoing Labour war.
Watch all of McDonnell’s interview here:
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