UK Politics

John McDonnell: Chairman Mao quotes were 'a joke'

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Media captionThe moment John McDonnell pulled out Mao's "Little Red Book"

John McDonnell has defended his decision to quote Chairman Mao in his Spending Review response, and insisted that the stunt was a joke.

The shadow chancellor brandished a copy of the Chinese Communist leader's Little Red Book after claiming UK assets were being sold to the Chinese.

The move was mocked, with some Labour MPs saying the stunt was "misjudged".

But Mr McDonnell said it had allowed him to raise an important issue, and criticised the reaction as "pompous".

Key points of Spending Review and Autumn Statement

In his Spending Review response, Mr McDonnell accused George Osborne of "sheer economic illiteracy".

He also attacked austerity and claimed a Labour victory over police cuts.

'It worked'

But it was his decision to quote Chairman Mao and throw a copy of the Communist leader's Little Red Book towards the chancellor that attracted the most attention.

He had been referring to the UK's relationship with the Chinese government, and said: "To assist Comrade Osborne about dealing with his new-found comrades, I have brought him along Mao's Little Red Book."

He then proceeded to quote from the book, saying: "We must learn to do economic work from all who know how.

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Image caption Mr McDonnell threw Mr Osborne a copy of the book - which is now sitting on the chancellor's desk in the Treasury

"No matter who they are, we must esteem them as teachers, learning from them respectfully and conscientiously. But we must not pretend to know what we do not know".

Defending his actions the morning after, Mr McDonnell told BBC Breakfast: "It was a joke but I was trying to force another issue on to the agenda. I think it's done that.

"You need, sometimes, a bit of flamboyance and a bit of a jocular approach to these things but it's a serious issue which is about the sell-off of British assets."

He added: "Of course the media and some MPs are a bit pompous about all this. But I've broken through on the issue so it worked."


The shadow chancellor said there was an element of hypocrisy in some of the criticism he had received.

"I raise a quote from Mao - I don't support Mao, of course not - to get an issue there and I am criticised. This government is selling off to a Maoist regime British assets... is that what we want?

"People may not like it initially but it is there for public debate," he told BBC Radio 4's Today.

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Media captionJohn McDonnell says his actions got people talking

Speaking to the same programme, Diane Wei Liang, who spent time in Chinese labour camps under Chairman Mao's regime during her childhood, said it was "chilling" to hear Mr McDonnell quote from the book.

It reminded her of "public denunciation meetings", she said, "when, before sentences are passed on to someone who is either condemned to death or jail sentence, [there was] always someone quoting from Mao's Little Red Book a passage which then will be used to condemn these people".

"It's not funny for the millions of people who died during Mao's regime, nor for those who lived through those times," she added.

'Misjudged stunt'

Chancellor George Osborne, who joked that the book was Mr McDonnell's "personal signed copy", said he had taken it back to the Treasury

"I've got it on my desk at the Treasury now. I always think it's important to know what your political opponents are thinking and reading," he told ITV's Good Morning Britain.

Defending Mr McDonnell on Wednesday, Labour's shadow Treasury minister Seema Malhotra told BBC News he had been highlighting the fact that "George Osborne should not be selling off our assets to foreign governments when he won't invest in this country himself."

But former shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna said: "I haven't quoted a Communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future," while Labour MP Frank Field said it was important to realise jokes in the Commons would be seen differently outside the chamber.

Chris Leslie, Mr McDonnell's predecessor as shadow chancellor, said brandishing the book had been a "misjudged stunt".

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