Shadow chancellor shares memories of growing up in Great Yarmouth
Archant Norfolk 2016
Arguably the most powerful man in today’s Labour Party, shadow chancellor John McDonnell spoke to Annabelle Dickson about his formative years in Great Yarmouth, and his continued affection for Norfolk.
John McDonnell is a man in demand. After years in the political wilderness in the old rebel wing of the Labour Party, he now holds one of the biggest jobs in politics as shadow chancellor.
Yet the 65-year-old still finds time to return to east Norfolk – the place where he grew up.
Just a few weeks ago he was standing on the touchline of a football match in the village of Filby with his brother Brian.
A second consecutive summer Labour leadership race put paid to some of his sailing exploits on the Norfolk Broads where he has a Skipper 17 boat which he takes out every month in the warmer seasons.
It is no surprise that Norfolk still holds such a draw, given he spent his childhood and teenage years in Great Yarmouth.
He was born in Liverpool, but his primary and secondary education were in Norfolk.
His mother worked at British Home Stores in the town for 30 years – first behind the counter and then as a supervisor, but it was his father, a bus driver, who shaped his politics.
As eastern counties branch secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union his father gave him an early introduction to trade unionism.
He describes how his family talked politics all the time, growing up in what has always been a Tory-Labour marginal seat.
Primary school for Mr McDonnell was St Mary’s, but at 11 he had to leave behind his friends and was the only one of his classmates to go on to Yarmouth Grammar School – where he says he did all right.
“Some people didn’t think it was for them. There were a lot of towns where kids felt that way. I resented leaving friends behind. At the age of 11 large numbers of people were classified as failures even though they were extremely bright and talented. That is why I was so in favour of a comprehensive education and opportunities for everybody,” he said.
He started his A-levels, but left midway through his studies, at the age of 17, as he was “too busy doing other things” and fancied travelling.
But before leaving Great Yarmouth he had already entered the world of work in his teens in the town’s thriving tourism industry – from washing up in the cafés and restaurants along Regent Road, working behind the counter in some of the burger bars to collecting glasses in the Tower Ballroom and delivering suitcases to hotels on a barrow.
“That was just the done thingfor kids in Great Yarmouth at the time,” he said.
“It was the norm then. Every summer you would get a summer job. You would go down to the council and register just as a worker – from the age of 11 you would be able to work four hours a day.
“So every summer I would work. It was a thriving holiday town then. Lots of holidaymakers and always very, very lively.”
The other great industry for Great Yarmouth in the 1960s and 1970s –fishing – also lives long in his memory.
“I remember going down to the quay and the fishing boats would come in. They would be two or three abreast lined up on the harbour. They would then take the fish out and put them into barrels.”
He describes how as children they would pick up any herrings which had come loose while the boats were being unloaded.
“After school we would go back, we would walk up and pick up fish that had been dropped and you would be able to use them. It would get you through.”
His final job in the region was on the hamburger line at Birds Eye during his last school summer holiday before he left – although he recalls pea production was where the money was.
But while he left, his family remained. His older brother – a former police chief superintendent – still lives in Filby, and his mother lived in Great Yarmouth until she died three years ago. He admits to losing touch with grammar school peers.
Life after Great Yarmouth involved travelling around the country doing different jobs – he worked for Phillips TV “up north” before going back to night school to do his A-levels and eventually university. He settled in west London, and became the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, joining parliament during the Tony Blair landslide of 1997. But like many politicians, high office was not always the plan. He recalls his dream after university was to become a manager in the Co-Op – a business owned by millions of members as he wanted to demonstrate cooperative principles and prove their success.
“I wanted to transform them into the M&S of the cooperative world. Everybody in my year wanted to be a trade union rep or a politician. I didn’t, I wanted to be a manager of the Co-operative.”
But his enthusiasm seemed to work against him.
“Every time I would turn up for an interview I would overpower them – I was too enthusiastic about the co-operative principles I think.”
In the end his next career was in the unions in the 1970s – first as a researcher for social insurance and industrial injuries at the National Mineworkers Union and then at the Trades Union Congress in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
It was when a friend pulled out of Greater London Council elections that his career in politics was launched “accidently”. The local party asked him to stand.
Under Tony Blair he was never destined for a job on the front bench – and with Jeremy Corbyn was a serial rebel opposing foundation hospitals, top-up fees and anti-terror laws.
And has never been afraid to court controversy with divisive comments about the IRA.
In the New Labour era, he was chairman of the Socialist Campaign Group, with then Norwich MP Ian Gibson.
He was one of their unsuccessful leadership candidates and looked destined for a lifetime on the backbenches until Jeremy Corbyn swept to power in the aftermath of devastating 2015 for Labour.
He has now been shadow chancellor for 15 months, and with Mr Corbyn’s second landslide victory over the summer, looks secure in the post.
But with family in Norfolk and his beloved sailing boat waiting, Norfolk remains a magnet for the west Londoner who has suddenly taken the political centre stage.
• See Monday’s EDP for John McDonnell on Clive Lewis’ leadership prospects, Ed Balls’ potential return to politics and how Labour should approach Brexit.
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