A reply to Owen Jones: “Labour left needs patience and hard work to win people over”
Jones’ questions about Corbyn’s style and effectiveness do not seem pertinent enough to raise at such an important stage of the leadership contest. Indeed, whether some of his criticisms contain much substance at all, is also strongly debatable.
I believe being outraged at others on the Left’s differing views is generally counter-productive, but nonetheless it has to be said that the focus of Owen Jones’s recent writing on polling numbers, PR and spin, at a time when what is at stake is clearly a far more brutal power play, is frustrating. However, as Jones correctly states, it is better to engage with differences, rather than simply call foul-play. Indeed, Jones couldn’t find a better example of this when he points out that many of his detractors are the same people who “were berating me for believing the best bet for the left was through the Labour party”.
Jones’ assessment of Labour was based on a relatively long-term strategy of ‘reclaiming’ the Party for its Left-wing, as the Party’s traditions, union links and ties to Britain’s working-class were too strong to justify being anywhere else than the Labour Party. It’s now very possible, that Jones’ assertions will be proven correct. Many, including myself, did not foresee this as a viable strategy. Despite, the First-Past-The-Post electoral system being an almost insurmountable barrier for smaller Left parties to overcome, it seemed that there was no other strategy other than to slowly and incrementally build outside of the Labour Party.
Making the case for long-term strategies isn’t always a very popular, easy or seductive sell. Indeed, anyone who has ever tried to convince someone of the virtues of a future Socialist, Left or even progressive society will be familiar with the difficulties that this poses. However, short-cuts to attaining power will not serve us well. The watering down of a political programme or the tempering of a political position isn’t just morally reprehensible, it is often political suicide.
There’s no point, other than short-term populist gain, in saying you’re in favour of something, if you’re not. One of the reasons why so many people, young in particular, are drawn to Corbyn is that unlike most other politicians, he is honest about where he stands. Moreover, it is not just about the moralism of being honest but about how we convince people, that we need to begin to use the wealth and potential investment in society for the benefit of the majority. Indeed, in a post-industrial and neo-liberal Britain in 2016, convincing people of this is not something that will be achieved overnight. It requires being honest about what truly is needed for the lot of the working classes to materially improve. For a whole host of reasons this requires taking a patient and long-term approach.
Left-wing and mass Labour Party is opportunity that cannot be squandered
Furthermore, a genuinely Left-wing Labour Party in opposition can do far more for Britain’s working classes, than another governing Blairite Labour ever could. Corbyn has repeatedly listed off Labour’s achievements in opposition under his tenure and they are not inconsequential either. That’s not to say that Labour in government under Corbyn isn’t highly desirable and shouldn’t be strived for (Corbyn has repeatedly set his stall out publically to win the 2020 general election), but it must be achieved on the correct basis. Achieving a majority for a majority’s sake and pandering to the Right is what will be catastrophic for the Left.
It’s also worth remembering that many of the biggest gains for working-class people post-WWII have come when mass Left-wing parties were in opposition, but were propped up by huge party memberships and/or social movements. The working class’ power to affect change is determined by many factors and certainly a mass membership and an openly Socialist leader presents odds far greater than we have seen in recent history.
Labour’s membership now stands at a whopping 515,000 members (554,000 if we include those who aren’t eligible to vote in the leadership contest). That Labour’s membership has grown so exponentially is testament to the appeal of Corbyn’s politics. Clearly the Labour Party under his stewardship is politicising and convincing people of Left-wing ideas at a rate of knots. A party of the working-class, which stands against the British establishment, the mass media and big business can only be successful with a mass membership.
As Jones himself correctly argues, “unless a mass membership can be mobilised in the wider community to reach those who are not already convinced, then its role in winning over the wider public will be limited”. In reality, the membership’s most important task to-date has been to mobilise people into supporting Corbyn on the streets and convincing people to join them within the Party itself. If Corbyn and the membership succeed in retaining power against the right’s attempted coup, then this must be seen as a huge success for a dynamic, which has only existed for a short time. Corbyn and Momentum’s task, if they retain power, is to turn this mass membership into an integral cog of British society, but time and political space is required in order to successfully achieve this transformation.
Indeed, the reality is that if we wish to address the contradictions within capitalism, then we will have to go even further left than the Labour Party under Corbyn already has. At least with Corbyn this would be possible – none of his challengers want to change a thing about the way society is organised. In other words, we need to protect our left flank while attacking our right.
Turning on Corbyn because of polls is ill-advised
It seems that most of Jones’ worries stem from Labour having trailed the Tories in the polls since last September. Indeed most of Jones’ analysis is viewed through the narrow prism of polls. Leaving aside that Britain has a recent history of not producing particularly accurate polls, results can shift substantially, even after a short period of positive work. As a seasoned politico, Jones will be very familiar with the cliché that ‘polls are only a snapshot in time’ and that over the course of a 5 year term, much can happen to result in a massive swing.
The most pertinent questions on this topic are; surely Labour’s poll results are hugely impacted by the on-going attempt by the PLP’s attempt to destroy Corbyn? Would people not have more trust in Corbyn if his MPs respected the democratic mandate and supported their leader? The only way either of those questions can possibly be answered, is by getting behind Corbyn, then straight away working to present a credible and radical alternative to the rule of the markets. To suggest that Corbyn is not currently achieving this, almost seems to completely ignore the objective conditions at play. The current fight revolves around Corbyn retaining power and being in a position to contest the next general election in a much stronger position.
In fact, a look at the polls show that the Labour Party is performing relatively well, considering the PLP is trying to systematically split and destroy itself. Neither can we dismiss Labour’s recent election results, which include winning by-elections, Sadiq Khan becoming London’s mayor and coming on top, albeit somewhat unconvincingly, in the local elections. Perhaps what is most disappointing about Jones’ latest Corbyn article is his sensationalism around recent polls. Jones asks ‘how can these poll results turnaround’? Well, the PLP showing loyalty to the leadership would be a fine start.
A battle of ideas on this scale was always going to be a violent political fight
Labour does indeed face an existentialist crisis as described by Jones, one which can be characterised by Corbyn’s wish to see Clause IV reinstated. The idea that ‘Blue Labour’ advocates like Chuka Umunna would ever be convinced that this was a positive step forward and would accept it without a fight is obviously impossible to imagine.
Indeed, the Blairites care little about the damage they are doing to their own Party, the massive support which Corbyn receives from the membership and the trade union movement. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that their terror at the heightened democracy now on display within their Party. Any genuinely leftwing party must ensure that its elected representatives are accountable to the membership and, consequently, its democratically-elected leadership. Indeed, my own party, the Workers’ Party of Ireland, can attest better than most, the importance of having the appropriate mechanisms in place to ensure that elected representatives are accountable to their members and open to recall. In fact, my own union, Unite’s call for mandatory reselection should now be a key priority.
It is essential that the farcical leadership bids by Angela Eagle and Owen Smith are not be repeated. Indeed, the right wing’s shameful affront on democracy by attempting to exclude Corbyn from the ballot paper must be countered with a further democraticisation of the Party, including making the decisions of the membership and conference sacrosanct.
Clearly, the crisis within the Labour Party is grounded in a battle of ideas and ideology. Jones’ assertion that Milliband and Corbyn’s manifestos are basically identical is unhelpful and inaccurate within this context. Jones’ insinuation that their programs are similar, but Corbyn’s delivery is simply more radical, does pose some serious questions about whether Jones fears Labour being perceived as too radical (see long-term argument above). I’m probably not the only one who was left scratching his head at the idea that PMQ under Corbyn and Miliband has only differed in style.
Undoubtedly, Jones is correct in saying that Corbyn and Miliband share many positions on policy. However, taking corporation tax as an example, there has been a substantial shift in policy. While Miliband favoured a freeze on corporation tax, Corbyn has advocated a moderate increase in order to fully scrap third level tuition fees. More importantly, the re-introduction of Clause IV would see the Labour Party clearly re-instate its commitment to Socialism. It is this key issue – a fundamental orientation towards democratic control of the economy – which has meant the UK Labour Party has in the past – and might again be in the future – been an important battleground for socialists. It would be foolish for socialists not to acknowledge – albeit cautiously – the potential this offers us.
At a time when Europe faces the rise of the far right, it has never been more vital to, as Corbyn states, call for a society “that puts investment, productivity and sustainable growth first, instead of a self-defeating austerity aimed at shrinking the state for an economy fit for the 21st century that works for everyone, where prosperity is shared.”
Questions such as how, if indeed it can, Labour re-establish itself in Scotland are vital to the Party’s future. However, the reason Labour has leaked so much support in Scotland and the North is due to their utter capitulation to the neo-liberal agenda. On that basis, a leader who is dragging the party back to its working-class roots is the best possible starting point. Further strategies will need to be developed over time, but a left-wing leader who has the full trust and support of the majority of his membership, is a situation, which no one would ever have thought possible 12 months ago.
No political leader should ever be beyond reproach or critique, however, timing is crucial. Jones seems perturbed by Corbyn’s performances in the media and his inability to “connect” with people, but Corbyn’s message is part of an ideological battle that must be fought by Britain’s working-class as a whole. Personally, I’ve been relatively impressed with Corbyn’s handling of the media under the circumstances, but certainly as with most aspects of politics, improvements are possible. However, moderating his soundbites just won’t cut it in the battles that lie ahead.