John McDonnell under fire for quoting Mao Zedong in Commons

Shadow chancellor brings out Little Red Book to make point about George Osborne’s relationship with Chinese

John McDonnell chose to jokingly brandish a copy of the Little Red Book of the Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong during his response to the spending review, to the disappointment of some senior Labour figures.

In a move that sparked laughter and jeers in the Commons, the shadow chancellor pulled out a copy of the Quotations from Chairman Mao to make a point about George Osborne’s attempts to sell off state assets to the Chinese. He read out a passage and then threw it across the table of the house towards Osborne.

“To assist comrade Osborne about dealing with his newfound comrades, I have brought him along Mao’s Little Red Book,” he said.

McDonnell then was forced to pause, amid laughter from the Conservative benches.

After the Speaker restored order, McDonnell said: “Let’s quote from Mao, rarely done in this chamber. The quote is this: ‘We must learn to do economic work from all who know how, 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.’

“I thought it would come in handy for him in his new relationship,” he added.

However, critics were quick to point out that it may not have been wise to quote from a communist leader who has been blamed for the famine that cost up to 45 million lives in China during the Great Leap Forward.

The Conservative frontbench watch McDonnell quote from Mao.
The Conservative frontbench watch McDonnell quote from Mao. Photograph: PA

Some Labour MPs sat stony-faced on the frontbench during the episode. One shadow cabinet minister said afterwards that the main gripe among his colleagues was that the stunt had been a distraction at a time when McDonnell should have been concentrating on attacking the Tories about spending cuts.

Angela Eagle, the shadow business secretary, said she thought the joke had “probably backfired a bit”, while the former shadow chancellor Chris Leslie told the BBC: “There are all sorts of stunts and things that can happen in the banter in the House of Commons.

“I’m not sure on this occasion it will achieve quite what John was hoping it to achieve,” he said.

Chuka Umunna, the former shadow business secretary, said he was not sure why McDonnell had referred to Mao as a joke.

“The last politicians that I quoted, who have inspired me, are Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King, Keir Hardie – they’re the ones I tend to quote. But that’s my choice. I haven’t quoted a communist before and I have no intention of doing so in the future,” he said.

It emerged later that the video of the speech uploaded to the shadow chancellor’s YouTube page had been edited to remove the Mao reference.

Responding to McDonnell’s speech, Osborne expressed incredulity at his opponent’s move. “So the shadow chancellor literally stood at the dispatch box and read out from Mao’s Little Red Book,” he said.

Opening the book, the chancellor said: “Oh look! It’s his personal signed copy. The problem is half the shadow cabinet have been sent off to re-education.”

It is understood the chancellor will be keeping McDonnell’s copy of the book as a memento of the encounter.

A spokesman for McDonnell said the shadow chancellor’s use of the Mao book had been “jocular” and all part of the theatrics of the House of Commons.

Asked whose idea it had been, the spokesman said it emerged from “group discussions”. “It is nothing more than a joke and it is no indication of any underlying belief system,” another Labour aide said.

McDonnell later told broadcasters that pulling out the book was intended to put Osborne on the spot and to highlight his point.

“I have been ribbing the Conservatives about what they have been doing in terms of selling off our assets,” he told Sky News.

“It seems to want to enable the Chinese state to nationalise many of our assets but at the same time it won’t do anything about allowing the British government to either bring something into public ownership or invest. So I wanted to try and get that across.”

The quote read by McDonnell appears to be a line from Mao’s article On the People’s Democratic Dictatorship, published in June 1949 just before the republic was established.

The slogan was well known as one of Mao’s directives on how to approach economics, according to histories of the period.


Rowena Mason

The GuardianTramp

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