John McTernan thinks you’re a moron. And not just if you’re the kind of croissant-munching, wind-chime-hanging lefty the former Blair adviser makes his living disagreeing with. In general. If you’re explicitly right-wing, and actively support the Conservative Party, he probably thinks you’re a moron, too, although a more respectable one – McTernan is too committed to “proper factional politics” to ever cross over to the other figurative row of benches. And if you’re on the centre-left, and haven’t done enough to stop Labour’s rapid move leftwards under Jeremy Corbyn, you’re the most moronic person of all in McTernan’s eyes. It was your weakness that got us here in the first place, he’d say. It was your soft-left MPs who agreed to nominate a leadership candidate they didn’t support in order to “widen the debate.” Accordingly, he hates you, and would rather spend his time with actual right-wingers than you people who can’t even encroach on their turf properly.
McTernan – face knitted together from raw fish guts, a grey junkyard of rotting, creakingly repurposed components – now works primarily as a journalist, writing a regular column for the Daily Telegraph and contributing to Prospect, the Scotsman, the Spectator and the Financial Times, among others. He also spends all day long on Twitter, parping out flatulent putdowns downwards onto the upturned heads of the disillusioned, which means you have to scroll really far down if you want to look up anything he said more than a few hours ago. He fits a peculiar niche of newspaper columnist in 2016’s Britain; the odd breed of nominally left-wing writer writing right-wing opinions in right-wing papers in order to reassure their right-wing audience with a friendly textual pat on the back that everyone, left and right, feels exactly the same right-wing way they do. McTernan mocks Labour for supposedly lamenting, “If only the voters weren’t misled by the mainstream media,” whilst he misleads people in the mainstream media.
Other journalists from this strange sect include Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday and David Aaronovitch of the Times, both of whom have boasted of how, to save the Labour Party and the people who desperately need a Labour government, they’re going to do the only thing that’s good for them and vote Conservative in 2020. This shouldn’t be too surprising for those familiar with Hodges’ habit of leaving the party at any feasible opportunity – if he’s not in the process of leaving now, he’s probably joining up again specifically in order to do so.
Aaronovitch explained his reasoning in a piece called “Yikes! I might have to vote for the Tories.” “Yikes” is a somewhat more restrained version of what would be going through my head if I found myself in a similar place – something more along the lines of “holy mother of fucking fuckballs, what sick abomination have I become?” – which leads me to the conclusion that, along with everything he’s ever written, this is evidence that uber-centrist Aaronovitch wouldn’t be too uncomfortable voting for the Tories – governed as they are by their more presentable, somewhat more liberal wing – in the first place. “Yikes” sounds soft. “Yikes” sounds fluffy. “Yikes” sounds vaguely anachronistic, like the only manner in which you’d possibly be saying it is with a heavy tinge of irony. If Corbyn’s still in power in 2020, maybe the tribalist McTernan will, to parse two quotes from Tony Blair, bite the peacenik bullet and vote Labour because “it’s just the way I am,” despite the “dangerous experiment” of his leadership. But he still Retweeted the “Yikes…” piece.
When asked at a Q&A what his thoughts on Jeremy Corbyn were, Blair’s former Director of Communications Alastair Campbell said that he had figured that if he didn’t have anything nice to say, better he refrain from saying anything at all, acknowledging the phenomenon of “rent-a-gobs” from within and without Labour popping up all over the media, never missing a chance to publicly attack Corbyn and his leadership team. Campbell – although he has not fully resisted the urge to weigh in with criticisms – did not wish to fulfil that role. McTernan has had no such qualms. The first time I recall being aware of him was when he was on Newsnight, blasting “moderate” MPs from his party as morons. He became quite a fixture on our screens in the ensuing weeks, as the Labour leadership debate raged on and it became increasingly likely that the left candidate, the token socialist, the one-in-a-thousand long-shot, was set to win. When the party began excluding left-wing sign-ups from participating on the grounds of fears of “entryism,” McTernan appeared on BBC News to defend the process, spluttering that “people are resigning their memberships to other parties and joining the Labour Party,” as if this wasn’t a wholly natural, democratic state of affairs.
And anyway, wasn’t the Labour right’s whole strategy for 2020 to recruit voters from other parties, maybe have them resign their memberships and come into the Labour fold? Nope: the Labour right do want members from other parties, but only if those parties are UKIP or the Conservatives – not “the flotsam and jetsam of Trotskyism and the Green movement” – and nobody feels strongly enough about being a Tory to actually join the party anyway, so no memberships would be resigned in that case. Really, there are about five Trotskyists in the whole of Britain, one of them’s Corbyn’s cat El Gato, and Greens are just normal centre-leftists Labour should attempt to accommodate (in fact, they should be attempting to render the party electorally redundant). But these weren’t the right people. They didn’t have the right “aims and values.” McTernan flippantly divulged that Labour had expelled one of the greatest living British artists, the film director Ken Loach, as “he’s well known” (for being a socialist and making films reflective of socialism, presumably.) A year later, Loach won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for I, Daniel Blake, a film hitting straight at the heart of the viciousness of the Conservatives’ welfare reforms – admittedly a minor victory for the British left, but a “fuck you” to the Tories worth celebrating.
McTernan never did rally behind Labour’s new leadership, and in his Telegraph column (his writing for Prospect frequently retreads the same material) spends as much time as any of the paper’s Tory columnists pouring scorn on everything Corbyn, from his management of the party to the fundamentals of his ideology. McTernan may still see himself as a true Labour man, but he barrages the party with criticism with the fury of the apostate. He also frequently takes the time to remind Labour what it once had, and what it lost. In an article from 24th May, entitled “Labour’s deluded Corbynite Twitterati are sealing it off from the electorate” (who are Labour’s deluded Corbynite Twitterati? Whoever it is, I’m definitely part of it.) McTernan mounts a spirited defence of his erstwhile boss Tony Blair, and the amazing way he reshaped the capital city:
London is Tony Blair’s legacy. The Olympics. The jobs. The boom. The excitement. Hipsters. Silicon roundabout. Diversity. Equality. Marriage (as Obama pointed out, it’s just “marriage” now, marriage for all). The greatest city in the world in the greatest country in the world.
It’s a highly selective view of London, a laundry list of subjective benefits, each of which can be inverted and deflated: The Olympics, with all the ephemeral benefits they brought. The shit jobs; underpaid, zero-hours. The boom…and the bust. The excitement of insecurity, of not knowing where the next pay cheque’s coming from or how you’ll pay your rent. Gentrification, whilst wankers chomp away in cereal bars. Magic roundabouts. It’s like he expects, when he mentions “the jobs,” everyone will go “ah yeah! The jobs! I remember the jobs! Half my family were working the trading floors in those days – we were all bankers.” Bringing up equality is especially odd, given that a 2010 study declared London the most unequal city in the developed world. The swell of patriotism at the end is a neat rhetorical flourish – the kind of slick sign-off Blair had SPADs working around the clock to conceive – and leads nicely to McTernan’s defence of the Iraq War, for which he has a George Orwell quote handy:
Pacifist propaganda usually boils down to saying that one side is as bad as the other, but if one looks closely at the writing of the younger intellectual pacifists, one finds that they do not by any means express impartial disapproval but are directed almost entirely against Britain and the United States.
I wonder if he’s realised that, among Labour’s deluded Corbynite Twitterati, liberally quoting Orwell has become seen as one of the biggest Blairite cliches in the book. Need to defend a bombing campaign? Orwell fought with the POUM militia against Franco, y’know, which is basically the same thing. Want to patronisingly attempt to placate the working class by telling them it’s ok to yell at immigrants? Orwell always did say the left were squeamish about patriotism. For a socialist writer, Orwell’s work is constantly recycled to reactionary ends. In this case, McTernan utilises Orwell to call into question the patriotism of the anti-war left and, by extension, Jeremy Corbyn; to suggest that they are, as sacked hack Labour MP Michael Dugher would say, “more anti-West than anti-war.” It is a deliberate furthering of the Conservative Party’s attempt to portray Corbyn’s foreign policy as indicative of a “Britain-hating, security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising ideology,” debasing discourse around life and death matters into a puddle of jingoistic gloop.
If we’re gonna get into twisting Orwell’s words here, “if one looks closely at the writing of” McTernan, “one finds that” he does “not by any means express impartial disapproval” but is “directed almost entirely against” the left. When it comes to the wars at home – of poverty and inequality – or abuses of state power, McTernan is Orwell’s pacifist.
McTernan views himself as a kind of righteous cowboy, a bad guy-felling “gun for hire”, which is how one rationalises not being very nice. Owen Jones has described him as “one of the most disingenuous people I have ever come across in politics,” which is saying something for a man who spends half his time hanging out with Tories in a vain attempt to love-bomb them into socialist bliss. “All you offer is pedantry, petulance and a thuggish demeanour,” Jones told McTernan on Twitter, after he gleefuly welcomed a constituency Labour Party’s decision (leaned heavily on by former Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy) to block Jewish activist Rhea Wolfson from standing for Labour’s NEC on grounds of her apparent links to antisemitism, which literally just boiled down to her being a member of Momentum, the campaigning group formed to support Jeremy Corbyn (McTernan, like so many Labour “moderates” condemning left-wing Jews for their failure to live up to their exacting standards, is not Jewish.) When McTernan asked Jones what “thuggish demeanour” he spoke of, Jones linked this article on McTernan’s time working for Australian Labor leader Julia Gillard, featuring such nuggets as:
The emails show (McTernan) encouraged Labor staffers to mobilise so called “Twitter armies”‘ to ridicule the Tony Abbott-led opposition and attack individual Coalition MPs online, which he would later point out to journalists as proof of public opinion.
When Ms Gillard’s chief of staff declared a “war on crap'” and ordered staff to tidy their workstations to make the office one befitting a prime minister, a colleague jokingly referred to “McTernan’s office” as one needing attention.
Mr McTernan replied: “Cunt, you will be cunted too” in a reply-all email to the office.
Seriously, the article is gold:
He would forward flattering articles, pictures and memes about himself to staff but lacked basic knowledge of some of Labor’s key policies and attacks, and regularly responded to media and stakeholder criticism with ridicule and abuse.
It was not just Rudd supporters who disagreed with Mr McTernan’s aggressive style, class-war politics and gender-focused strategies.
Many of Ms Gillard’s closest supporters also privately partly blame him for her downfall.
The reason we’re supposed to listen to guys like John McTernan – “guys like him” both ideologically, as supposedly pragmatic centrists, and professionally, as high-powered political advisers – is because of their superior grasp of matters of electability – of finding that political sweet spot the populace can’t resist, dead in the centre ground. But, as much as I would welcome some of this elusive “class-war politics” he’s apparently been peddling, nothing indicates that McTernan’s strategies did anything but keep Australian Labor down in the polls, accelerate Gillard’s exit from office and help scupper their chances in the 2013 election. McTernan ran Scottish Labour’s campaign in the 2015 general election, in which they lost 40 seats. In 2007, on McTernan’s watch, Labour lost control of the Scottish parliament to the SNP. In Labour’s 2015 leadership contest he failed miserably to defend the hegemony of the party’s right-wing by not realising and loudly declaring that the only way for one of the non-Corbyn candidates to have beaten him would have been to tack sharply to the left – he could later have called on them to ditch those same policies, but in that case some degree of genuinely perceptible leftism was the only path to electability. The leadership election illustrated that – for all their “sensible” bluster – ideology all too often trumps pragmatism for the Labour right. McTernan, with his stubborn resolve to insult every Labour member short of Blair himself, embodies that more than most.
In addition to his anti-left rent-a-gobbery, McTernan works for some shadowy Spectre-style supposed “thinktank” called the Westminster Policy Institute, who provide businesses and politicians with services of “thought leadership” and “hard intelligence that cuts through the hearsay and uncertainty.” “Being seen by your stakeholders as a ‘thought leading’ brand is proven to improve significantly your reputation and profile,” their homepage entices you in the managerial bollocks-speak of an ’80s self-improvement VHS. Alongside McTernan, the illustrious team includes an expert at re-privatising publicly owned banks. There’s a guy who helped the government with their policy response to the financial crisis (austerity) and with the introduction of Universal Credit, which hasn’t been introduced yet. There are proponents of Blair’s failed PFI (Private Finance Initiative) project, and of “reforming” (AKA cutting) public sector pay. Lest it be cited as further evidence of Corbynite delusion, the Spectre comparison was a silly joke; for a start, James Bond and these guys are definitely on the same side, ie. western capitalism. There’s nothing actually sinister about this hotbed of tedious wonkery, beyond everything they appear to stand for.
McTernan is very much against people trafficking, and in a series of articles has described how boats carrying refugees from the Middle East should be turned back, so that they can return to their homes that no longer exist. He acknowledges that they may need some temporary accommodation closer to home, and cites as an example Australia’s asylum seeker detention camps, which are by all accounts an absolute dream. Praising the extraordinarily reactionary former Australian Conservative PM Tony Abbott for his abrasive, race-baiting demand of “stop the boats,” McTernan is a veritable Slavoj Zizek as he digs his fingers into the grubby toolkit of the far-right, arguing that “once you signal that Europe is open for refugees then you no longer control your borders – they are managed by criminal gangs.” Displaying an internationalism that would do Orwell proud, McTernan suggests that instead of providing refuge for desperate people in immediate need, Britain could pursue the easier double-option of ending war in the Middle East and poverty in Africa.
His finest right-wing moment has got to be his Telegraph hot take on the Panama Papers revelations, with the absolute fucking howler of a title, “Tax avoidance is an expression of basic British freedoms.” The article begins by comparing taxation to slavery. Naturally, it falls back on the strawman argument that, actually, tax avoidance is perfectly legal and above board, and it’s evasion that’s against the law, dummy. It says “tax minimisation” is a more appropriate term for a sacrifice the left must make, as “free movement of capital is as fundamental as free movement of goods and services.” It appears to cite former Countdown presenter Carol Vorderman (who is not, to my knowledge, left-wing) as exemplary of the “moralising left.” And, to justify tax avoidance’s inextricability from the core values of British life, McTernan references not Orwell, but the Magna Carta. But, yeah, sure, it’s Marx that has no bearing on today’s society.
McTernan, like his bedfellow of the Labour right (and fellow Orwell-quoter) Tristram Hunt, has the good fortune not just to be a pompous, retrograde dolt but a uniquely terrible writer, churning out prose so soporific it’s less like a sharp-shooting Old West shakedown than the droning fireside war stories of a decrepit, dribbling, semi-snoozing Confederate general. He’s much more suited to Twitter, where he can succinctly let everyone know he’s a complete wanker by using the phrase “magic money tree.” But his articles will still appear in every publication under the sun and that sour face facsimile of crudely stitched aquatic innards will keep besmirching our television screens, insisting that libraries are obsolete, that 3% is a perfectly acceptable rate of tax for one of the world’s biggest corporations, and that he, not 64% of members, is the real face (if you can call it a face) of Labour. The guy who writes for the Tory paper. Saying the Tory things. Giving the thumbs up to his Tory mates. Even sticking up for the fucking Australian Tories, for fuck’s sake.
In October, the journalist Jamie Ross Tweeted that “mysteriously, John McTernan is at this Scottish Conservatives event.” When people started asking the bleeding obvious, McTernan – who gloats that “I am perfectly happy to hold my own on Twitter and do so regularly” – stated “I’m not leaving the party. I’m taking it back.” But it’s too late. John McTernan doesn’t need to leave Labour. Labour already left John McTernan.