For all the differences between the front benches in the Commons at the moment there is one thing that unites them: both sides are headed by career politicians.
Not the same sort of career politicians, mind. George Osborne, the Tory chancellor, is a man who prides himself on belonging to what he terms the parliamentary “guild”. As described by his biographer Janan Ganesh, this is defined by the view that:
“Politics is a trade with its own skills and codes that can only be learned on the job. It is not an amateur vocation for talented people from other fields.”
Two swords’ length away from Osborne, his shadow John McDonnell is of a different view.
Like Osborne, whose time before joining the Commons was spent in the Tory machine and as a special advisor, McDonnell has never had what is described as a “real job”. Apart from some odd jobs before university, McDonnell has only worked within trade unions, as a bureaucrat, and as a politician.
But whilst the chancellor spent his career carefully plotting a Tory recovery – only partially carried off – McDonnell’s tenure in Labour’s left flank has been spent “generally fomenting the overthrow of capitalism”, to quote the main hobby from his Who’s Who entry.
All the above takes us to the scenes in the Commons on Wednesday, as John McDonnell responded to the Autumn Statement by pulling out a copy of the Little Red Book, a collection of quotes from the Chinese tyrant Chairman Mao.
McDonnell’s gag, suggesting Osborne was enthralled by China following a state visit by its president Xi Jinping to Britain and the chancellor’s previous trips to promote trade in the Far East, was weak.
But the problem for McDonnell wasn’t his lacklustre humour, but a failure to understand how politics works.
Politics is not an honest game. It is not about who has the best ideas, in the same way that business is not about who has the best product. Rather it is about who is willing to buy your product, and how well you sell it.
Understanding this makes sense of Osborne’s otherwise bemusing response to McDonnell, as he turned the book over in wonder and said: “So the shadow chancellor literally stood at the dispatch box and read out from Mao’s Little Red Book.”
For the chancellor, who having served under Tory leader William Hague is acutely sensitive to public opinion’s power to keep you out of office, it was obvious how Fleet Street would portray McDonnell’s handling of the book.
That it was not obvious to McDonnell says a great deal about Labour’s problem right now, and the Left’s more generally. People on the fringes of politics seem forever convinced that their ideas will capture the imagination of the public, like an entrepreneur giddy on his own genius.
Yet much as the public dislike the corporate politician with his glib soundbites and deliberate style, it is Tony Blair and David Cameron who have been the two most important politicians of these past two decades, whilst Ed Miliband, Gordon Brown, Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard have all fallen by the wayside.
The shambolic tactics of the Corbynites, slumping poll ratings, and lack of nous have confirmed the suspicions of most of Fleet Street that the Labour leader was unfit to lead his party. And so the “guild” of Osborne remains firmly in charge.
Image Credit – George Osborne laughs at John McDonnell, Autumn Statement 2015, via BBC