Two non-eventful things happened this week that left an impression on me. I watched a fairly long interview with the British Labour Party Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, and I bought the Conservative magazine ‘The Spectator’ for the first time in forty years. I spent six euros on the Spectator and settled down in my local coffee bar to try to get some feeling as to what exactly is happening in the Conservative Party. Well, I have to admit, all I got was a Brexiteer and anti May perspective, so the next time I’ll keep my six euros. This leaves me with the John McDonnell interview.
Before talking about Mr McDonnell, I would like it made clear that I favour an open but regulated economy. I suppose I would be a Blairite if I lived in the UK, which makes me slightly left of centre in relation to the economy. In fact I did the Guardian newspaper political test, and they placed me just in that spot, just left of centre. Now let’s look at the Shadow Chancellor’s communication style. From a nonverbal point of view John McDonnell appears neat, serious looking, and precise. He almost has a priestly appearance. His tonality, meaning his intonation, tone of voice and pitch, is even and matter of fact. His answers are concise and precise. His body language is controlled without any gesturing to his audience. His facial expressions don’t change, but his eyes move continuously as he addresses his audiences. Yes, with Mr McDonnell it is the eyes that stand out, and this certainly increases our curiosity. Although all of this increases his credibility, it is the credibility of his message that makes him doubtful, which we will look at later.
On the verbal side, rationality or logos dominates his communication style. Everything he says fits into a logical sequence that is easy to follow. His argumentation format is simple and it is obvious that his left wing ideological stance is well thought out. He makes a general statement and quickly follows it with support, and then stops to wait for a response. After the response, he appears to repeat a new general statement with support. This continues alongside his serious non-verbal message of solidness of character.
Regarding the emotional aspect of his style of communication, his serious demeanour communicates a degree of gravitas. He appears to be self-aware of his own strengths and weaknesses. However, one gets a clear feeling that he only empathises with those in the lower income groups of society. The impression one gets of a 1960s ideological vision for the future.
This is where I saw a similarity with Margaret Thatcher’s style although she came from a right wing ideological background. Mrs Thatcher was sure of her arguments and, like Mr McDonnell, had immediate answers which she communicated with absolute certainty to her admiring followers. It was this certainty and firmness that won her the admiration not only of British Conservatives but also of many others throughout the world. Margaret Thatcher was pristine and single minded in pursuit of her objectives. So the question that arises is can John McDonnell do the same for Labour?
One got the sense that John McDonnell, with his priestly demeanour, is gentle behind his rather puritanical appearance. Mrs Thatcher, on the other hand, gave the impression of being very assertive to the point of aggressiveness and didn’t mind if her colleagues liked her or not. This is probably one reason why Mr McDonnell will not make his mark as Margaret Thatcher did. The second reason is that his message resembles a 1960’s left wing ideological one which many of the middle class will find hard to identify with.
Is John McDonnell an enigma? He seems to communicate personal credibility but is saddled with an ideology that many feel won’t inspire the practical solutions for post-Brexit Britain.