Labour’s Crisis: In Praise of Owen Jones.
Owen: Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster.
In Praise of Owen Jones.
“The story recounted in this book suggests that the route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party”
The End of Parliamentary Socialism. Leo Panitch & Colin Leys. 1997.
“The period of New Labour may be seen in the future as a short deviation from the historical flow of Labour Party as a developing socialist party or it may be identified as the period in which Labour as an aspiring party of radical socialist advance was destroyed.”
John McDonnell. Introduction. 100 Years of Labour. Graham Bash and Andrew Fisher. 2006.
Until Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader last year most socialists in Britain would have concluded that the second of John McDonnell’s options had come true. Labour was not in any sense a vehicle of “radical socialist advance”. Others who believed that Labour was never a radical socialist party as such but contained currents that promoted democratic socialist policies that could see the light of day, saw their hopes of influence blocked. Labour, was, in short, not a party the left had any hope in.
Blair and Brown, the Third Way, or social liberalism, Blue Labour, a variety of distinctly non-socialist approaches dominated not just its Parliamentary representatives, but local government, intellectuals of any practical influence and the network of civil society associations that sustain the party. For a period modernisers, promoting ‘social partnership’, dominated even the trade unionism, although this began to unravel in the first years of the new century. Left groups and journals, such Labour Briefing and Chartist (both of which I am associated with), were marginalised. The Labour Representation Committee (LRC) set up in 2004 and chaired by John McDonnell had little impact. While union leaders like UNITE’s Len McCluskey appeared to exert left influence, and the centre-left Grassroots Alliance maintained its presence on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) nobody expected the election of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015.
Much of the socialist left, from the late 90s on, in diminishing numbers and with decreasing success, put their energies into trying to create new left parties and electoral alliances that stood independently of Labour. Many of these attempts ended not just in failure at the ballot box but also in demonstrated the difficulties of ploughing new political ground. Above all the experience of the Socialist Alliance (essentially from 1999 to 2003) demonstrated fundamental incompatibilities between democratic socialists and small ‘Leninist’ parties like the Socialist Workers Party, the bureaucratic ‘Trotskyist’ Socialist Party, and whatever label currently fits the personal vehicle for George Galloway, Respect.
If Corbyn’s 2015 victory was unexpected the groundswell in his favour this year has also been unprecedented. Left-wing individuals, including many from the democratic group, Left Unity (which stood out from the above organisations) had joined Labour to vote for him. At present the campaigning and protesting of unions, left groups, and individuals that has, most recently, been channelled into the alliance known as the People’s Assembly, has been overshadowed by rallies in support for Corbyn’s re-election. The campaign for the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn has shifted attention away from the kind of political negotiating that marks the Labour left. A body of opinion has emerged that believes Labour is, or can be, transformed into a “social movement” in its own right. That the vast majority of those now rallying to Corbyn are not part of any organised group has made it hard to funnel them into traditional directions, and the all-embracing nature of the terms “social” and “movement” can be interpreted in many ways.
Paul Mason expresses the view that Labour will come to office because neo-liberalism is “busted” and puts Labour as a social movement at the forefront of building an alternative.
In Labour: The Way Ahead he stated a couple of days ago,
“Labour will become the first mainstream party in a western democracy to ditch neoliberalism and then take power.”
Above all, victory is possible under Corbyn because Labour can become a social movement. Corbyn himself called for this at his leadership launch rally. The problem is that the Labour tradition has very little experience of social movements — especially the networked, anti-hierarchical forms of organisation associated with them since the late 1990s.
To call for Labour to become a social movement when it had 130,000 members and a bunch of moribund local committees would have sounded futile. With 600,000+ members, the majority pro-Corbyn and amid a summer of street rallies and overflowing mass meetings, it sounds highly possible.
Mason’s proposals for economic stimulus, the moblisation of the social movement aorund issues such the defence of mirgant workers, offering hope against the despair of UKIP, are attractive.
But is this part of a viable strategy?
If Corbyn wins on 24 September then, at the substantive and sovereign party conference that begins the next day, Labour MPs should be asked to register publicly their confidence in the new leader.
The party should also ask all MPs to sign a statement recognising that the leader elected on 24 September is the lawful leader of the legal entity known as “The Labour Party” and that he is legally entitled to run the two limited companies that own its assets (Labour Party Nominees Limited and Labour Party Properties Limited).
Those MPs who refuse to register their confidence in Corbyn, or to recognise his legal right to run The Labour Party, should be marked down for de-selection.
Mason clearly indicates that he considers a large section of the existing Parliamentary Labour Party a waste of space. No doubt he, and others, would wish to extend such a loyalty test to councillors and all officers of the Party. Or are local representatives allowed greater freedom to dissent?
One of Mason’s principal models, the Spanish party, Podemos, is a very different phenomenon. It grew from the Indignados, known as the 15-M Movement , protests at the staggering corruption of the country’s political life that involved several million people. Mason claims that the American Occupy movement was inspired by Stephane Hessel’s Indignez Vous! (Time for Outrage) but in fact it had its deepest impact in these Iberian protests. Podemos, while sometimes claiming to be “beyond” left and right, involves at least one left Marxist-Green current, the Izquierda anticapitalista.
From 9,8% of the vote in the European Podemos reached 21% in the December 2015. But, refusing any compromise with the Spanish Socialist Party PSOE) triggered fresh elections. This time, allied with the so-called ‘old left’ of the Izquierda Unida, and hopes of becoming the leading left force in the country it only reached 21,10% to the PSOE 22,66% . New elections may well be held, but even if its score improves Podemos can never hope to score a majority of the vote and can only govern in coalition – a prospect that Labour, with an electoral system that makes even this kind of representation difficult – would not relish.
Mason’s hostility to anybody disloyal to Corbyn is not at all helpful. The antagonism between the Corbyn side and those against him has ratcheted up in the fall out after the Brexit referendum vote. There are plenty of MPs who are willing to take the most extreme measures to destroy the existing Labour leadership. From a constant drip-by-drip of stories undermining the leader of the Opposition and its allies in the Shadow Cabinet we are now faced with the prospect of an alternative parliamentary group, and even – in some people’s view – a split in the party.
How does Mason’s alternative (not to mention those of others equally virulent against the Party’s centre and right-wing) offer a serious way forward? A social movement that moves in “waves and swarms and ” “a street movement” seeking “new forms of representation” a serious way of grappling with the problem of a Parliamentary party split in two and the mounting Tory lead in opinion polls. It would be pleasant indeed to believe that this might win labour elections, but we have only faith, belief in things unseen, to back the claim up.
Frenzied attacks on Corbyn backers, charged with wishing the Gulag for their opponents, have been met by screams of Blairite, and worse. It is as if both sides wish to conduct their disputes after the template of the pro-Nazi 20th century political philosopher Carl Schmitt: dividing the world into “friend and enemy” with a “fighting collectivity of people” confronting a similar collectivity. (1)
In this vein John Landsman asserts “the current leadership contest is like the Miners’ Strike – there are two clear sides, and while one might disagree with the way a political battle is being conducted, you still rally behind your side, because defeat and capitulation to the other side is still much worse.” “This is the battle being played out in the party right now, those are the stakes, those are the ‘sides’ that we are forced to pick.” (Picking sides’ – A short reply to Owen Jones). A victory of the Corbyn opponents, he argues, would lead to disaster. That;’s as may be. But to regard those who do not “pick sides” as part of the enemy camp is but a step from the original assertion.l This is not a way to conduct democratic politics inside the same party. It is a recipe for a split.
Some of the strongest supporters of this approach appear to be recent members of the Labour Party, and those, from the far-left outside, trying to bathe in the glory of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election. It grates to hear people long-standing Labour people, many of whom have decided their lives to it and public office, from the centre, a variety of groups or none, as well as the genuine Labour right group, Progress. It is equally deeply offensive for opponents of Corbyn to scream that his backers are totalitarians, anti-Semites, and abusive thugs.
In the middle of this pandemonium Owen Jones has stood out as a rational voice. Owen first made his name with the book Chavs (2012), followed by the Establishment (2014). His columns, originally in the Independent and now in the Guardian, have great influence. Having worked in John McDonnell’s office he is more than familiar with the way the Left works and the people involved in the present Corbyn team. Owen had trudged around the country speaking to hundreds of left meetings. Above all he is a dedicated democratic socialist who has earned great respect on the left and amongst the wider public.
Owen’s approach in recent weeks gives expression to the deep concerns many of us have not just with those constantly undermining Corbyn but more deeply with the real problems that Labour faces – summed up in disastrous opinion polls – and what he feels are policy failures and difficulties with addressing the wider electorate. He also challenges an over-optimistic ‘social movement’ stand that many appear to be taking.
This is his latest contribution:
Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster. There, I said it. I’ll explain why. But first, it has become increasingly common in politics to reduce disagreements to bad faith. Rather than accepting somebody has a different perspective because, well, that’s what they think, you look for an ulterior motive instead. Everything from self-aggrandisement to careerism to financial corruption to the circles in which the other person moves: any explanation but an honest disagreement. It becomes a convenient means of avoiding talking about substance, of course. Because of this poisonous political atmosphere, the first chunk of this blog will be what many will consider rather self-indulgent (lots of ‘I’ and ‘me’, feel free to mock), but hopefully an explanation nonetheless of where I’m coming from. However long it is, it will be insufficient: I can guarantee the same charges will be levelled
The core of the article revolves around these point:
- How can the disastrous polling be turned around? “Labour’s current polling is calamitous. No party has ever won an election with such disastrous polling, or even come close. Historically any party with such terrible polling goes on to suffer a bad defeat.”
- Where is the clear vision? “What’s Labour’s current vision succinctly summed up? Is it “anti-austerity”? That’s an abstraction for most people. During the leaders’ debates at the last general election, the most googled phrase in Britain was ‘what is austerity?’ — after five years of it. ‘Anti-austerity’ just defines you by what you are against. What’s the positive vision, that can be understood clearly on a doorstep, that will resonate with people who aren’t particularly political?
- How are the policies significantly different from the last general election? “It’s less than a year in to Corbyn’s already embattled leadership: there hasn’t been the time to develop clear new policies. Fine: but surely there needs to be a clear idea of what sort of policies will be offered, not least given what is at stake?”
- What’s the media strategy? “..there doesn’t seem to be any clear media strategy. John McDonnell has actually made regular appearances at critical moments, and proved a solid performer. But Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments: Theresa May becoming the new Prime Minister, the appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, the collapse of the Government’s economic strategy, the abolition of the Department of Energy and Climate Change, soaring hate crimes after Brexit, and so on. Where have been the key media interventions here?”
- What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?
- What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?
- How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?
- How can Labour’s mass membership be mobilised? “a movement will only win over people by being inclusive, optimistic, cheerful even, love-bombing the rest of the population. A belief that even differences of opinion on the left can’t be tolerated — well, that cannot bode well. So how can the enthusiasm of the mass membership be mobilised, to reach the tens of millions of people who don’t turn up to political rallies? What kind of optimistic, inclusive message can it have to win over the majority?”
Comrade Owen ends by stating this,
Labour faces an existential crisis. There will be those who prefer me to just to say: all the problems that exist are the fault of the mainstream media and the Parliamentary Labour Party, and to be whipped up with the passions generated by mass rallies across the country. But these are the facts as I see them, and the questions that have to be answered. There are some who seem to believe seeking power is somehow ‘Blairite’. It is Blairite to seek power to introduce Blairite policies. It is socialist to seek power to introduce socialist policies. As things stand, all the evidence suggests that Labour — and the left as a whole — is on the cusp of a total disaster.
Guess what at least some of the responses to these carefully thought out questions has been?
Those attacking Owen are attacking the democratic socialists who back Corbyn, but with exactly the kind of independence of thought he represents.
We back Corbyn, we back McDonnell – a view strengthened in the last few days by the strong stand in favour of restoring Trade Union rights.
But these are indeed the questions which need to be looked at.
(1) The Concept of the Political. Carl Schmidt. University of Chicago. 2007.