John McDonnell – My Ralph Miliband Lecture on the Impact of the Pandemic on Labour’s Future.


“The pandemic crisis is creating a new climate of opinion. Along with the threat of a climate crisis it has the potential to create a new political agenda.
Whether it is exploited by the right to bolster some form of crisis capitalism or whether those of us on the Left can channel a movement for progressive change, the creation of a People’s Agenda that can reshape the future, is in our hands.”

John McDonnell MP

We are delighted to reproduce John McDonnell’s recent lecture at the LSE on What Would It Take to Secure a Left Labour Government? and addressing the theme of “Is Ralph’s work still of any relevance and has the pandemic changed the political and economic rules?”


Thank you so much for inviting me to give this lecture.

It is a real privilege.

A special privilege because it is in the name of Ralph Miliband.

Ralph was someone whose work significantly influenced the ideas and strategies of so many socialists of my generation. 

We worked in the afterglow of the first great wave of influence of Gramsci’s writings that swept across the Left in this country.

So Ralph embodied for us Gramsci’s concept of the socialist intellectual.

Ralph had the ability when he spoke or wrote to explain, in  deceptively straightforward terms, how a capitalist society operated and then sketch out an understanding of what socialism means and what it could look like in practice.

The attraction of his work was that it came at a time when the complexity of language in much of the socialist discourse, in particular of Althusser and his English disciples, appeared so distant from the actual political and industrial struggles of working class people that were kicking off on our streets and on picket lines.

In contrast Ralph Miliband’s work was such a valuable accessible tool for us in our attempts from the Left to explain the world we faced, what alternatives there are and the forces we were up against.

Harold Laski

For me he was also the true heir of another of the LSE’s greats; Harold Laski, someone too often forgotten now but whose work and reputation desperately deserve re-asserting.

I am keen not to see Laski’s work and role continue to fade so much into the shadows as it has in recent decades.

So much of Laski’s writing is still so relevant today for understanding the history and role of our political institutions and, yes, for designing our future. 

So I have this harbouring ambition to organise over the next year a new initiative to celebrate the lineage of the work of Laski to Ralph Miliband.

Parliamentary Socialism

As a Labour Party member, my problem with being such an ardent advocate of Ralph Miliband’s writings was inevitably friend and foe alike could never resist referring me to the last paragraphs of his early book “Parliamentary Socialism.”

Let me painfully quote them:

“The Labour Left in Parliament can mount episodic ‘revolts’ on this or that issue, though with dubious effect: and can act as a pressure group upon Labour leaders, with equally uncertain impact. But more than this it cannot be expected to do.

What this means is that the Labour Party will not be transformed into a party seriously concerned with socialist change. Its leaders may have to respond with radical sounding noises to the pressures and demands of their activists. Even so, they will see to it that the Labour Party remains, in practice, what it always has been – a party of modest social reform in a capitalist system within whose confines it is ever more firmly and by now irrevocably rooted.”

In Miliband’s eyes, Labour Party activists like me stood condemned of holding what he deemed as

“paralysing illusions about the true purpose and role of the Labour Party.”

Despite being so brutally scorned by him, there were many of us in the Labour Party that cherished Ralph’s work.

As you may know, he was a close friend of Tony Benn.

So quite simply we took it upon ourselves to prove him wrong.

To demonstrate in practice that the Labour Party could and would be an instrument to secure socialist change or at least to advance that change.

For later Ralph described socialism as

 “a new social order whose realisation is a process stretching over generations, and which may never be fully ‘achieved’. Socialism involves a permanent striving to advance the goals that define it.”

So if nothing else many of us aimed to assert that the Labour Party could play a role in that permanent striving.

For us, other people’s perennial hopes, sometimes clung to by Ralph himself, that a new socialist party or revolutionary formation would emerge to save us all, were regularly dashed by the harsh experiences of the culture of British politics, aided and abetted by a first past the post electoral system.

Marxist/KGB Agent 

Shortly after I became Shadow Chancellor I was photographed during an interview and on my table, which appeared in the photograph, was Ralph Miliband’s last book “Socialism for a Sceptical Age.”

It was the book I had recommended to all my team to read to appreciate where I was coming from.

Of course, for the establishment media pack this was further conclusive evidence that I was a Marxist committed to the overthrow of civilisation and all that the British people held dear.

Year after year even on what were supposed to be serious political programmes, when the producer had run dry of serious questions and in attempts to get a bit of a headline the interviewer would be prompted to quiz me on whether I was a Marxist.

I always, mostly patiently, explained that I was a socialist, drawing upon a long tradition of writers and theorists from Robert Owen to Marx to William Morris to R H Tawney to Benn and occasionally threw in the name of Miliband to sow some confusion over which generation of Milibands I was referring to. 

Forgive me Ed and David.

As an aside, the accusation that I treasure the most in the long campaign of character assassination against us, was the Mail accusing me of being a KGB agent bizarrely travelling to Guildford to receive my orders from my KGB controller.

Why Guildford, I have never fully understood but for a few public meetings after that so as not to disappoint the readers of the Daily Mail I opened my speeches in Russian with “Zdrastvujte Tovarishchi.”

“Socialism for A Sceptical Age”

Let me turn though to Ralph’s last book.

“Socialism for a Sceptical Age”

Because it did have considerable influence on me and subsequent events.

Ralph completed it in his last year.

It’s a moving story that his wife Marion and sons David and Ed worked hard to get his draft to the publishers so that he saw the proofs in hospital in the weeks before he died.

In their foreword to the book Marion, David and Ed wrote that the book was

“an argument for fundamental social and economic change stretching well beyond one lifetime.”  

Written, with typical Miliband modesty, they went on to say

“If it succeeds in stimulating further debate about the nature of change, and how to achieve it, it will serve the twin purposes of political and scholarly engagement for which it was intended.”

It did so much more than present an argument or stimulate further debate.

For me it was a handbook for radical change that informed much of the political programme and strategy leading up to the publication of the Labour Party Manifesto that took us within a political inch of Labour forming a government in 2017.

That wave of support for the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership broke on the rocks of the 2019 general election.

As we have seen from the latest report published this week, there are a number of analyses and speculations why that occurred, which obviously need to be addressed to inform Labour’s future strategy.

But I contend that in the light of the dramatically changed economic and political circumstances created by the Coronavirus pandemic, Ralph Miliband’s ideas provide the intellectual impetus and sense of direction for the next wave of a Labour surge that could take the party into government.

Because these are the ideas that are not only essential to create the post pandemic society we need but also reflect so many of the lessons learned by us all in the tragedies of this pandemic.

They are also especially relevant as we must now immediately move on to confront the fundamental crisis of the existential threat of climate change.

Does Ralph Miliband’s case against capitalism still stand?

I well remember speaking on a platform with Ralph in the mid 1980s where, as in his last book, he very eloquently set out his critique of capitalism.

A system that held out the promise of providing at least the potential for what he described as “a materially secure and morally decent life for all.”

But though it has produced the potential to do so, by its very nature it is incapable of delivering it.

He summed up the problem I thought neatly in that capitalism is driven by the micro rationality of the firm not by the macro rationality required by society.

The result he saw was a society still blighted by poverty and deprivation, homelessness, preventable disease and what he described as despair.

The origins of much of this distress was the exploitation and insecurity of wage earners, never safe from unemployment, resulting in low wages and the inevitable inequalities in the distribution of wealth, power and opportunities.

Stack Up and Still Relevant

So the question is does this critique still stack up?

And more importantly is it still of any political relevance?

In hard facts, after 10 years of austerity following the banking crisis in 2007/8, it doesn’t just stack up, it cries out.

If he was with us now he would be expressing once more his heartfelt anger that in the twenty first century there are over 4 million of our children living in poverty in the UK.

The expectation before the pandemic hit was that there will be over 5 million children living in poverty by 2022.

Add to that 125,000 of our children being brought up homeless in temporary accommodation; some we discovered last year living with their families in shipping containers.

It’s hardly any wonder that over two thirds of our children living in poverty live a household where someone is at work, because up until earlier this year wage levels were still below the level before the crash of 2007/8.

The jobs growth boasted about by many Tory politicians produced an economy dependent on low paid, insecure work.

There are now nearly a million people on zero hours contracts.

4 million workers are in insecure work.

The blight of low and stagnating wages has unsurprisingly followed the incremental attacks on trade union rights and the introduction of restrictions on access to legal protections so that justice at work is so often denied.

Privatisation and outsourcing of public services have also been the driving forces to undercut wages and terms and conditions of employment.

Link this to the dominance of neoliberal trickle down economics for large parts of the last 40 years, which dictated tax cuts to the rich and the corporations and we have the perfect storm of inequality.

Wage and welfare cuts for the many and tax cuts and asset accumulation for the already wealthy few. 

The production of a society containing grotesque levels of inequality.

Differences in life expectancy of 20 years in districts less than a few miles apart.

700 of our fellow citizens dying homeless on our streets last year.

And Ralph’s reference to despair can best be translated into the mental health crisis experienced in recent years resulting in the record incidence of suicides amongst young men in our society.

Political Relevance

All these hard facts uphold Ralph Miliband’s depiction of the abysmal failure of our economic system to provide for the many.

But is this all of any political relevance?

All these issues were present last December and yet people still voted to give Boris Johnson an 80 seat Conservative majority.


There are several arguments we can draw upon in response to that.

They go to the heart of why Labour lost in 2019 but more importantly the potential there is now for a Labour government being elected.

There is in politics and history such a thing as contingency.

MacMillan’s famous expression to explain the reason for certain political outcomes of “Events, dear boy, events.”

Brexit was our contingency, our “events, dear boy events.”

That doesn’t mean one should exclude other factors or excuse weaknesses and mistakes for our electoral failure.

The failure to develop, adhere to and repeatedly broadcast an overall narrative for our project beyond the anti austerity narrative that successfully held sway up to 2017.

The constant almost daily distraction from within our own party of internal plots, splits, desertions and coups.

Despite the recruitment of a mass movement, allowing the project to become centralised and bureaucratised.

Failing to be ruthless enough in closing down grounds for attack and rooting out incompetence or malevolence.

I will go to my grave agonising over these questions.

Brexit the Killer

But whatever factors or failures there were, the impossibility of overcoming the party’s Brexit dilemma was the killer blow.

The impossibility of managing the impasse created by having a party comprising a significant majority of its members opposed to Brexit but with so many of its MPs and candidates dependent on electoral success in Brexit supporting constituencies.

Plus, our dependency on maintaining a cross party coalition of support for any Parliamentary strategy also meant we ran out of road, any room to manoeuvre, once the SNP and the Lb Dems under the tutelage of Chuka Umunna, jumped ship.

For all this if you are in a leadership position, you accept responsibility, take it on the chin and move on to the next fight.

The Next Fight

The next fight will almost certainly be fought on a dramatically changed terrain.

The pandemic has the potential to transform the political agenda.

There is no inevitability that the experience of the pandemic will automatically benefit the Left as some assume.

Indeed, far from it.

If the predicted recession hits as hard as some predict as the furlough scheme and other support schemes are withdrawn and unemployment rises, we could have the perfect breeding ground for right wing demagogues.    

Last weekend we witnessed how just a series of tweets from Boris Johnson could call up and mobilise the far right in this country.

I warn you, do not underestimate the ruthlessness and recklessness of the operation of the Johnson Cummings regime.

No risk to the wellbeing of our people will be too great to them to hold onto power.

An Alternative Scenario

But there are early signs of an alternative scenario emerging and it is one which imbues Ralph Miliband’s work with such relevance.

I have been involved in a listening project facilitated by the political author, Christine Berry.

It’s a series of discussions bringing together people from different walks of life to discuss the impact of the pandemic on peoples’ values.

I have also naturally been talking to and observing constituents and the commentary of people on social media, the mainstream media and in the huge number of Zoom meetings and events.

It shouldn’t be exaggerated but neither should it be underestimated how an experience like the pandemic can exert on people’s attitudes.

It can and I believe it has provoked a reassessment, for some a profound reassessment, of what we value in our lives and in our community.

The economic impact of the pandemic is already influencing peoples’ expectations for the future.

Views on the organisation of our society, the operation of the economy and expectations of the role of government are tentatively being reshaped.   

A societal shock like this does prompt people to consider what matters to them and the enforced lockdown has provided for many the time and opportunity for this.

What is appears to be coming through is, of course, a natural increase in feelings of vulnerability and insecurity.

Faced with the risk of threats to jobs and high levels of unemployment, and for some their first experience of the low levels of social security support, its understandable that there is a search for greater security.

With so many becoming aware of the need for health or social care, there is a natural enhanced appreciation of the caring services any community needs and of the true value of all those that provide the treatment and care.

There has undoubtedly been a sense of a lack of control and accountability over decisions being made distantly over critical issues like the return to work and the opening of our schools.

There is a greater acknowledgement of the vital role of the state and public services in all their forms from the NHS to the council, the carers, the Police and our emergency services.

We’ve all been heartened by the visible expressions of solidarity and collective action whether it’s the clapping for the NHS or the young people turning out in their thousands to march in “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations.

The culture of possessive individualism that has been rammed down people’s throats for much of the last four decades for the first time in a long time is being challenged by a genuine sense of collective altruism.

There is an understandable desire to get back to normal life.

People want a new normal.

They don’t want to return to a normal that created a society with its public services so ill prepared for the pandemic and with families so lacking in financial resilience that they were immediately threatened with economic hardship.

Capturing the Narrative

The political movement that captures that mood will be the one which has the chance to secure the support that will enable it to govern and command the future.

To do so it must embody a narrative that offers the reassurance and security people wish for after this devastating crisis.

But that narrative must also reflect people’s underlying determination not to go back.

And it must appreciate the growing feeling that things must change and for the better.

There has already been a number of groups and individuals who are talking about the future we could aspire to under the rubric Build Back Better. 

It’s the determined assertion that we must and we will reshape our future.

Much of the discussion so far has been in the spirit of the penultimate chapter in Ralph Miliband’s last book.

It’s entitled Constituencies, Agencies and Strategies.”

It engages in the creation of ideas and demands for change that can forge alliances and supportive constituencies to mobilise a majority for step by step eventual transformative change.

R H Tawney “The Attack.”

In his book “The Attack” R H Tawney, described by Beatrice Webb as the socialist saint, argued that to win elections and to secure radical change in government, Labour must not just present a programme of what he described as Christmas trees or carrots for donkeys.

Does this sound familiar?

His argument was that socialism is not so much a programme but a motivating creed.

We would replace the term creed with narrative.

It’s exactly the difference in the campaigning approaches of between 2017 and 2019.

I have often cited Tawney on this in the past but also cautioned that a creed or narrative still needs also to be substantiated with a basic programme for action that concretely and persuasively demonstrates the ability to secure change.

Task of the Left and Progressives

For those of us on the Left and progressives, our task is therefore yes to present a coherent narrative for change but also to reinforce that with a at least the basics of a coherent alternative economic strategy.

In recent speeches I have tried to sketch out what could be the contents of that new alterative economic strategy.

1 No Return to Austerity

First there can be no return to austerity.

There have been some warning signs of the Tories testing the water on the public reaction to arguments for a new round of austerity but more astute Tory tacticians fear the reaction of an electorate worn down by a decade of austerity and will back fiscal stimulus as long as the bulk of the benefits of that stimulus flow towards restoring profits not wages and to management incomes and shareholders not workers.

Enter the Conservative Keynesians but Keynesians with a selfish purpose.

2. Tackling Insecurity

That’s why the benefits of any economic recovery secured by large scale fiscal support must be distributed radically more fairly to eradicate financial insecurity for everybody.

There are two steps that could go some way to eradicate this insecurity.

The first is the introduction of a minimum earnings guarantee, set at a level that will allow for a decent standard of living whether in work or unable to work.

The second step is tackling the insecurity at work many now feel by installing trade union rights that can end exploitation and give workers a real say in their workplace.

Seeking a voice and basic security at work is not a lot to ask for.

The unscrupulous behaviour of companies like British Airways and P & O, I fear likely to be followed by others as government support is reduced, they starkly exemplify the need for basic trade union rights.

3. Fair Taxation

The crisis has demonstrated that when needed governments can find the resources.

It has confirmed that austerity was always a political choice not an economic necessity.

In moving towards a rebalancing of the economy, after witnessing how the rich and corporations benefitted from the last economic crash, I doubt if the bulk of people will tolerate either austerity or tax increases.

That’s why the demand for fair taxation must be central to any recovery agenda.

Alongside measures to crack down on tax evasion and avoidance, fair taxes would mean not just increasing taxation on the highest earners but also fairly taxing wealth, treating capital gains the same as income and scrapping spurious tax reliefs like the entrepreneurs’ allowance.

4. Universal Basic Services

The pandemic has reminded people that we depend on many basic services that are so important to the quality of our lives they should not be treated like commodities to be bought and sold but provided universally.

Never again will governments get away with underfunding the NHS and now the establishment of a National Care Service has become self evident.

Even this Tory government has been forced to effectively nationalise our railways and fund our bus routes through taxation to survive.

So the question asked is why only in times of crisis.

Bringing them into an integrated service could be the first step in public transport becoming a universal service provided free to all as part of the drive to environmental sustainability. 

And I can’t resist mentioning the provision of full fibre broadband.

Some may remember it was described as full fibre Marxism when I launched the idea of internet connectivity as a universal basic service last November.

Most people now appreciate that in the 21st century connectivity has become essential to our way of life.

Public ownership of these several basic universal services ensures that people have access to key services and that the more services that are no longer treated as commodities the greater the opportunity there is for overcoming the grotesque levels of inequality in our society.

5. Rehearsing for the Climate Crisis

We also need to treat the tackling of the pandemic crisis as just a dress rehearsal for how we tackle the crisis of the existential threat of climate change.

Now is the time to explain that the only way we will succeed is by applying the lessons we have learnt in this crisis.

The essential value of solidarity and that collective action has to be at the core of any strategy.

The key role of the democratic state investing fast and big, harnessing a fair system of resourcing to support public services.

There is no shortage of ideas or creativity on what we need to do to prevent the looming climate catastrophe.

Indeed, another Miliband, Ed Miliband, is at the forefront of brilliantly articulating these ideas in the Green New Deal and Green Industrial Revolution.  

A New Agenda

The pandemic crisis is creating a new climate of opinion.

Along with the threat of a climate crisis it has the potential to create a new political agenda.

Whether it is exploited by the right to bolster some form of crisis capitalism or whether those of us on the Left can channel a movement for progressive change, the creation of a People’s Agenda that can reshape the future, is in our hands.

I chose and I hope that you will chose to be amongst those that Ralph Miliband described in the last sentences of his last work.

He wrote this.

“In all countries, there are people, in numbers large or small, who are moved by the vision of a new social order in which democracy, egalitarianism, and co-operation, the essential values of socialism, would be the prevailing principles of social organisation. It is in the growth of their numbers and in the success of their struggles that lies the best hope for humankind.”


Thank you.


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