Why I give John McDonnell's Little Red Book stunt the big red card

The shadow chancellor's Little Red Book stunt in Parliament yesterday overshadowed everything else he said - if he even did say anything else, because after all the Twitter funnies I can't really remember, writes Sam Burne James.

Workers and soldiers under an image of Mao, with McDonnell out of shot (Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, UofT via Flickr)
Workers and soldiers under an image of Mao, with McDonnell out of shot (Credit: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, UofT via Flickr)

Autumn Statements and Budgets are grotesque versions of normal parliamentary sessions. Everything is heightened and exaggerated – the affected laughter is louder, the faux outrage is impressed more deeply into MPs’ furrowed brows, and everything gets examined that bit more.

Under that limelight, it’s pretty safe to assume that Labour's John McDonnell will have prepped long and hard for how to respond to Chancellor George Osborne’s Autumn Statement yesterday. So long as he wasn't afflicted by the same forgetfulness that allegedly overtook his leader Jeremy Corbyn when he was booked in for media training last week, that is.

As such, it was hard to tell why McDonnell thought drawing a comparison between Osborne – whom McDonnell accused of reliance on Chinese investment – and the communist founding father of the People's Republic of China would be hilarious.

Sadly for him, it was hilarious – but not in the way he had hoped. Sadder still, it meant that nobody remembered what he actually said. The highlight from his time at the dispatch box was not a well delivered line or a memorable put down, let alone a piece of policy or Labour proposal, but McDonnell's unusual choice of source material.

That's how it played out on social media, where everyone from respected political correspondents to respected comics was having a good old laugh at 'MaoDonnell' - and in some cases a good old finger wag, pointing out Mao's rather, ahem, dodgy human rights record.

Of course that initial wave of social media mirth calmed down after a bit and gave way to analysis of the actual politics – but in several BBC interviews McDonnell did this morning, he talked far more about his own attempt at humour than he did about any single policy area. While he apologised for any offence caused, he also said his stunt had done the job because it drew attention to what he sees as the problem of Chinese economic ties.

The stunt had become the story - it was far more interesting than the product (in this case, political dialogue) that McDonnell was pushing. That surely is the key if patronisingly obvious lesson - by all means grab attention and create some buzz by doing something unusual, but think about what that will actually achieve first.

I'm prepared to allocate McDonnell some praise for thinking outside the box, but the thing about thinking outside the box is that often, the ideas produced are best kept in the realm of thought rather than actually being brought to life.

So McDonnell very much gets the red card from me for his red book stunt in which Labour again made itself a billboard for the merits of PR counsel. That said, it did give me and the rest of the internet a good laugh. My personal favourite is trying to imagine what is going through Labour deputy leader Tom Watson's head nine seconds into this video. The eyes say it all really.

Sam Burne James is the UK news editor of PRWeek

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