Answers Owen Jones may not want to hear

Jeremy Dewar replies to Owen Jones’ article, ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’

Just over a year ago in Euston, Jeremy Corbyn addressed a mass rally, two overspill rooms and, from the top of an FBU fire engine, a street audience. Owen Jones was one of the supporting speakers. Then he opened his contribution, declaring, “We’ve already won! We’ve created a social movement!”

That statement was right then and even more right now. Our movement has gone from strength to strength, trebling the size of the Labour Party with tens of thousands joining Momentum, and in places like Brighton taking the local party by storm. The latest turnouts in the thousands in Hull, Leeds and Liverpool confirm this.

Without this movement – which, like all new movements, has its flaws and its teething problems – there can be no doubt that Corbyn and his ally John McDonnell would be out of the leadership already, ousted by a right wing unafraid of any rank & file backlash.

But in this article Owen Jones barely mentions the social movement (more accurately it is a political movement, striving to rebuild a mass party) that has sprung up in support of Corbyn’s policies. Instead Owen informs us that, contrary to almost all the 400,000 new party members, Corbyn’s leadership induced in him a deep pessimism bordering on depression:

“In the weeks before Corbyn’s victory, I wrote a long detailed suggested strategy for his leadership to follow… When it became clear such a strategy was not going to be put into practice, I fell into despondency.”

Now he has gotten so low he feels like it’s the end of history: “I worry about the left failing, and even disappearing forever.” Hence perhaps the extremely passive-aggressive style, in which he anticipates (and caricatures) the responses to his criticisms of Corbyn: “Call me a Blairite, Tory, Establishment stooge, careerist, sellout, whatever makes you feel better.”

His disdain for the current movement is made clear when he compares Corbyn’s rallies to those held by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock before they lost elections and claims, “There are 65 million people in Britain. If a total of 300,000 turn up to supportive rallies, that means, 99.5 per cent of the population have not done so.”

Here we have the “silent majority” trick. Those who do not turn out are assumed to be hostile or indifferent to Corbyn’s ideas. Moreover Kinnock and Foot’s rallies were mobilised by a loyal Labour Party apparatus, NEC and PLP and all its funds. Corbyn’s rallies are mobilised against the sabotage of 80 per cent of the party’s MPS and the virtually entirety of the its national and local apparatus. And also at a time when the Party has been shut down for three months and those trying to vote are being subjected to a brutal purge. Yet still thousands upon thousands turn out to hear Corbyn. Is this a cause for “despondency” or sneering?

But anyone who has seriously engaged with Momentum in the past nine months could tell you that it is a broad movement that is far from uncritical of the current leadership, and that it does a lot of outreach work. A year ago most leftists would have given their eyeteeth to have an army of 300,000 to mobilise in order to win over a majority of the 65 million not only in elections but in between them as well. A strange time indeed to despair of the left when in the last three decades we have rarely if ever been so well organised and numerically so strong.

Answering the questions

However, let’s take Owen at face value and tackle the nine questions he says “Corbyn supporters need to answer”. They fall into three categories: policy (2,3 & 8), the polls and communication (1, 4-7) and mobilising the members (9).

Jones claims that Corbyn hasn’t got a “vision” or at least not a “positive” vision. He claims that most people don’t know what “anti-austerity” means. But this is preposterous. Jeremy’s vision is quite clear – and Owen even quotes Jeremy’s reply in his article:

“An economy that doesn’t cut public expenditure as a principle, that instead is prepared to invest and participate in the widest economy in order to give opportunities and decency for everyone. A welfare system that doesn’t punish those with disabilities but instead supports people with disabilities. A health service that is there for all, for all time, without any charges and without any privatisation within that NHS. And a foreign policy that’s based on human rights, the promotion of democracy around the world.”

It is positive as well as posed in contrast to the previous regime. It is also backed up by more concrete policies: renationalisation of rail, mail and utilities; abolish PFI and roll back privatisation in the NHS; a national investment bank and a national education service; tax the rich, reverse welfare cuts and a £10 minimum wage; no more foreign military adventures and unilateral nuclear disarmaments; fully restored trade union and local authority rights.

Owen says he doesn’t think a majority of voters would choose this vision (though Owen Smith and the plotters clearly think it would be more palatable to Labour’s heartlands than Angela Eagle’s vision of more cuts and more wars, which is why they have plagiarised most of them!).

If he thinks people don’t know what austerity is (he’s wrong by the way, millions know what austerity is because it is a term has been popularised for over eight years by the mass media, which Owen says is how most people receive the news), then we can break that down. When we talk about why class sizes are growing in schools again, why a university degree is out of most working class families’ reach, why our local libraries and A&E wards are closing, we can then explain that that set of policies – making the poor and average worker pay for the bosses’ and bankers’ crisis – is called “austerity. It’s not rocket science.

To say this is no different to Ed Miliband’s policies is not true. Many of them are quite different – not renewing Trident and abolishing tuition fees, for example. More importantly, they are not muddled in with a load of right wing messages, aimed at assuring the City of London that a Labour government will be business as usual. People were not put off Labour because Miliband wanted to raise the minimum wage to £8, but because he said he would adopt the Tories’ commitment to deficit reduction and budget surplus. True, McDonnell did have a wobble over deficit reduction in the spring, but he has since come out more clearly in support of stimulating the economy, even if there is highly likely a recession coming.

It is irritating – maybe intentionally so – to read Jones berate Corbyn about not listening to working class concerns over immigration. “I suggested Labour offer an ‘immigration dividend’,” complains Jones, “Corbyn has occasionally spoken about reinstating the Migrant Impacts Fund, abolished by Cameron’s government — but only intermittently, to the extent where I doubt the vast majority of the electorate are even aware of this position”.

In fact, Jeremy addressed immigration in virtually every speech he made in the referendum campaign, offering, yes, an immigration dividend, but much, much more: stronger trade union rights, enforcement of Health & Safety and minimum wage laws, an end to austerity, a council house building programme, etc.

What he didn’t do was evade questions when asked about whether EU membership meant Britain couldn’t control migration from EU countries. But if anyone thinks Labour can win back voters from UKIP by refusing to answer key questions in the media, then they’re sorely wrong. It is precisely the charge that all mainstream politicians treat the electorate with scorn that the right wing populists exploit.

Winning over the majority

Owen believes that somehow Jeremy and his team have missed a trick here: that with the right media strategy, i.e. Owen’s, all the bad publicity could be minimised if not eliminated.

The truth is that the mass media is controlled by millionaire press barons, media moguls and the most pro-Tory BBC we’ve had to endure in a generation (i.e. since the big class battles of the 1980s).

Corbyn, so long as he stays true to his principles, will always worry them. Not because his policies are that left wing when compared to the 1945 government – or even Harold Wilson’s – but because he is advocating them now, when the Washington Consensus, neoliberalism and the new Cold War are central to the British Establishment’s strategy for maintaining its global reach.

So a hostile press is given – unless we want to go back to triangulation, austerity-lite and “humanitarian” foreign wars. A Labour movement funded newspaper and TV channel would help. But so too does social media, where Corbyn and his supporters are doing very well.

Jones quotes recent opinion polls to suggest that this strategy will end in electoral defeat – despite having to acknowledge that in actual elections, Corbyn’s Labour has done rather well. What does this show? Probably that many millions of voters are quite cynical about politicians’ promises in the media and often make up their minds in defiance of what the Established press tell them to think. Look at Brexit, for god’s sake!

Also, as Manuel Cortes of the TSSA has pointed out in the Huffington Post, Owen’s charge that Jeremy failed to make “key media interventions” over “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” ignores the fact that he was facing a coup from the PLP at the time.

As Cortes says, “Does anyone really think Jeremy could have credibly popped up on TV talking about Theresa May, or climate change, or BoJo under those circumstances? Would he not have been skewered by any half-competent interviewer with questions regarding his own position?”

Of course it is true that opinion polls have shown a sharp decline in support for Labour and Jeremy’s leadership since 24 June but that is because 172 MPs launched an all-out war against him. Up until that point Labour had been polling rather well, especially in the by-elections, mayoral elections and local elections; even in the referendum 64% of Labour supporters voted to remain, compared to just 37% of Tory voters and 65% of the SNP’s. Room to improve, of course, but if we can unite the party around his leadership after 24 September, then we can improve.

Jones also points to specific groups of voters, apparently key to winning the next election: Scots, the over-44s and Tory supporters. He offers no solutions but it is not hard to come up with the bare bones of one:

  • Bring the Corbyn revolution to Scotland, the place where he has least affected the party, and turn the party north of the border to directly confront the SNP’s austerity policies; support the right to a second referendum but argue for working class unity with England and Wales against the bosses and bankers – for example in order to defend the NHS which could only exist as a Britain-wide institution.
  • Don’t treat the over-44s as a uniquely selfish bunch of people, but appeal to them on the basis of decent living standards for all, access to education and homes for their children, an end to foreign wars and guaranteed pensions, benefits and services, devolved in terms of how they assist those in need but paid for out of national taxation of the rich.
  • Build a dynamic and democratic labour movement that stands up for everyone threatened by big business and overbearing authority, so that working class Tories are faced with a choice: are you with the many, who share your material circumstances, or with the few who are systematically who are denying your rights?

But in truth, these sets of “key voters” to whose prejudices Labour allegedly has to either accommodate politically or give a “dog whistle” are not the problem. Hundreds of thousands if not millions of young, ethnic minority and working class voters have probably joined the electoral register in the last 18 months. We know this happened in several waves: horror at the Tories winning in May 2015, support for Jeremy Corbyn last time round, Labour’s registration campaign last Autumn, in the run-up to the referendum and now, when Corbyn is threatened again.

Under Corbyn, the mass Labour Party membership could again, especially if it becomes more and more of a social movement, register another million voters for the left. And this, to return to my first point, is what Owen has missed. Not only has Corbyn been, under very difficult circumstances, an effective and at times inspirational leader, but we have created a mass social – and indeed political – movement.

A movement’s social weight should not be calculated by its own numbers, but by how many other people each of its participants influences, i.e. not by simple addition but by multiplication.

And this is also the way in which the Labour Party can continue to renew its roots and its policies. John, especially, and Jeremy have begun to do this by opening up policy forums (at the LSE, Imperial College and elsewhere) to the membership. If we can win handsomely in September, then we can use the momentum to overhaul Labour’s policy making structures and democratic procedures so that the policies reflect those of the majority and the party’s representatives in the Town Halls and Parliament support those policies. That is how we can win the next election.

Not least among these tasks is to reforge unity among our ranks, especially in Parliament. The way to do that is to clamp down hard, giving the coup-plotters a choice: support the elected leader or face reselection battles, where the majority will make their voices heard.

As Jeremy put it last month at his launch rally in Salford:

“We are a social movement and we will only win the next general election because we are that movement of people all around the country who want to see a different world and do things very differently… People say that isn’t how politics is done, and that it is solely what happens in parliament that is important… Changes come because people want those changes to come and Parliament has to be influenced in the way those changes come about.”

But finally, given the delight with which the Labour right and the media have picked up on his “testimony” as to the ineffectiveness of Corbyn as a leader, including the meme that that “Corbyn often seems to be entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments” we must ask whether Owen has lost his nerve completely and is lost in no man’s land, uttering cries of despair; or whether he is contemplating supporting Owen Smith? Given his standing in the movement in 2015 and his access to the media both new and old, we have a right to know which.

Red Flag is a socialist organisation campaigning within Labour for a democratically planned and owned economy. We campaign for grassroots democracy in the labour movement, militant defence of the oppressed and an anticapitalist programme for the Labour Party. Against Brexit, for free movement. Anticapitalist and internationalist.

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