Owen Jones’ predictions of doom do not match up to the challenge ahead, writes Lindsey German
There was a popular 1950s sitcom called The Army Game which contained a character played by the actor Bernard Bresslaw, whose famous catchline was ‘I only asked’. I thought about him when I read Owen Jones’s latest blog where he poses questions to supporters of Jeremy Corbyn. While Bresslaw appeared genuinely bewildered at the response to his questions, Owen Jones is more disingenuous. He asks a series of questions, some already posed in a videoed interview with Corbyn himself, which themselves fit a set of assumptions, and which are as much about telling us what the questioner thinks as they are about eliciting answers from those who don’t agree with him. Because Owen isn’t ‘only asking’; he is presenting a particular analysis where he predicts imminent catastrophe for the Labour Party if his questions are ignored, or not answered properly.
I don’t intend to put forward answers to the questions: partly this has been done well elsewhere, and partly I want to try to broaden out some of the discussion about Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and the future of the Labour Party and the wider left here in Britain. Nor do I want to argue about where exactly Owen Jones is going with this. While the facts may speak for themselves, everyone is entitled to put forward their own analysis, although one might question the timing here.
What I do want to do is to question some of the assumptions behind the article, and indeed behind some comment I have seen in the past days, about where the Corbyn leadership is and where it is going. The events around the Corbyn campaign over the past weeks have surpassed even those of last year. Already many thousands have gathered at outdoor rallies, including 3000 in Hull, 1600 in Brighton and possibly 10,000 in Liverpool. These are quite remarkable figures, as are likely to be those in South Wales, in Cornwall and other places across Britain not normally associated with very big political meetings for generations. They are attracting many people new to politics, as well as previous generations of the left. They are a sign of political vibrancy and engagement, and of the revival of a political left.
Not for Owen Jones. They are reminiscent, he thinks, of the rallies held by Michael Foot in the run up to the 1983 election (lost by Labour) or of the mass Sheffield rally addressed by Neil Kinnock in 1992 (where Labour also lost the election). He’s wrong about this. The Foot rallies were major indoor rallies (in a time when such meetings were more common) but were not on the scale of the Corbyn ones; nor was there any question of Labour winning the election, given the split caused by its right to form the SPD, which allowed Thatcher to win for the Tories on a minority vote. Kinnock’s rally was very large, but had more in common with the recent democratic party convention in the US, in the sense that it was stage managed for existing supporters, many of them bussed in, rather than the mass spontaneous events we have seen with Corbyn.
Owen says the rallies don’t help win elections. The argument that there is no point in having rallies because they make us all feel good but don’t help win elections is put even more strongly by Abbie Tomlinson, the young woman who bravely stuck up for Ed Miliband before the 2015 election with the Milifandom campaign. ‘The thing is, in an election, you need to convince, you need to reach out to the people who don’t go to rallies. We can’t win with rallies. They don’t do anything. It seems like a ridiculously obvious point to make but, do you know who have literally zero rallies? The Tories. Do you know who keep winning elections? Also the Tories.’
Again this isn’t really right. Both Tories and mainstream Labour had plenty of rallies in the run up to the last election. The problem is they were totally top down stage managed events, based on US style vacuous politics. Tomlinson is involved in Owen Smith’s leadership election campaign, so she may have a bit of an axe to grind, but she should be aware that before the 2015 election, when she was such a Mili fan, the Tories had not won an election since 1992. Hardly ‘keeping winning’, is it?
So rallies or no rallies? Well, let’s look at what they are for. They group together people who are already supporters or those willing to be convinced. They help to inspire and organise those people to go out and campaign for wider support. They put forward a series of arguments which counter the dominant ones being put forward in the media. They show your political opponents that you are serious and that you have support. There doesn’t seem to be much wrong with that and I guess Owen Smith would be organising more of his own if his figures could come anywhere close.
They should not become echo chambers, or bubbles. But usually they aren’t. They are a part of political organising, mobilising together the activists and conscious political organisers, who in my experience are all too aware that they are in a minority within society as a whole, but who are committed to challenging mainstream politics. Any party which aims to win the votes of the working class and the most oppressed in society should have as its aim this kind of operation.
This leads to the larger question of how a (even very substantial) minority acts to win over much larger numbers of people. What is the relationship between an activist minority and the much larger electorate. Owen Jones worries about this one. And of course the gap between the British electorate and the size of Labour’s own membership is huge, ditto between it and the huge number of people – not all Labour members – inspired by Corbyn. The British electorate, if you exclude Northern Ireland, where the main political parties do not stand, is around 45 million. Labour now has a membership of half a million – bigger than all the other parliamentary parties combined, and no little thanks to Corbyn – and probably a similar number of committed activists in trade unions, community campaigns and the like. That is a sizeable group of people who can be mobilised in support of egalitarian policies and committed to the idea of a left government.
Labour does not of course need to win over the 45 million. It needs to increase its vote from 2015 sufficiently to win the largest number of seats in Parliament. This means doing two things: setting forward a series of policies which can appeal to their own voters but also to those who may have voted for other parties in the past; and creating sufficient motivation for those who generally agree with many of the policies to come out and vote.
The policies should not be too difficult: millions of people in this country are feeling the pinch over two main areas - work and housing. Policies which end zero hours contracts, give much more security, cut the number of hours worked, raise the level of wages and increase trade union rights would all be popular. As would a proper challenge to the housing crisis by rent controls, security of tenure for tenants and a mass emergency council house building programme. As it is, the policies on which Jeremy Corbyn stood last year to do with ending austerity are now being adopted more and more not just by Owen Smith but by the Tory government.
There also needs to be a left response to Brexit in terms of defending and guaranteeing rights for all EU citizens living here (it is a scandal that this has not yet happened), refusing to accept greater restrictions on immigration, raising levels of wages for all workers, dealing with the housing crisis, and creating new levels of jobs and investment in industry. The 10 pledges put forward by Corbyn are a good start in these respects.
In terms of raising the turnout of likely Labour supporters, we know that the decline in turnout among the working class, ethnic minorities and the young is at least in part a problem of triangulation, as these voters with ‘nowhere to go’ but resistant to Blairism in its various versions tend to sit out the electoral process. That can and does change in circumstances where people think voting can make a difference. If Labour under Corbyn can show that this will be true, they will raise the level of their ‘natural’ supporters voting.
These are surely the urgent tasks facing Labour members and supporters and it is to this that those rallying in large numbers should be turned. They must treat the leadership election not as an internal operation but like a general election campaign, using it to begin to reach out especially to those in Labour areas who are attracted to UKIP especially over immigration. Successive governments have pandered to anti immigrant feeling without actually telling the truth about it, nor dealing with any problems of housing, schools etc which might wrongly be blamed on migrants. There needs to a proper debate which the left can win with large numbers of people.
The focus must be on consciousness, how do we change ideas. According to received wisdom among the Labour right, such an approach cannot succeed. The whole philosophy behind focus groups is that everything has to be focused on a small group of swing voters who choose between ‘right’ Labour or ‘left’ Tories. In such circumstances, only a very narrow set of policy changes are permitted and we get the endless promotion of a centre with which most people don’t agree. The assumption is that anything too far to the left (or indeed right) cannot then succeed. Hence Jeremy Corbyn can’t win.
This assumes that society is largely unchanging and that consciousness is static. But that isn’t true. Look at different attitudes that have changed dramatically over the past few decades towards racism, civil partnerships, family and marriage, war. These have been the results of conscious campaigning, organising, demonstrating as much as legislation. Consciousness tends to change when the lived experience of people conflicts with the received ideas, laws and morals and groups of people organise to bring about change.
That consciousness changes through struggle is obvious from the past fights for the vote, for trade union rights, against war, for civil rights and against racism. The Corbyn movement is itself a sign of that struggle and is partly a product of some of those movements, especially the anti war movement whose consequences are still being played out. We need more of these sorts of campaigns and struggles. The figures for strike levels last year was very low, even by recent standards. We must do everything we can to extend the levels of strikes, of other campaigns, and of organisation on the left, all of which can contribute towards these changes in consciousness and strengthen the confidence and organisation of working class people. The continuation of protests such as the People’s Assembly demonstration at the Tory Party conference in October are not merely necessary but essential to this process.
We should put the whole question of electability and leadership in this context. Mainstream concepts of this just don’t fit a picture of radically changing ideas, of a revulsion with the mainstream parties, of a deep sense of insecurity about a future which neoliberal capital is destroying, and which is affecting people across Europe and in the US. Leadership surely is providing answers to these questions and a way forward for millions, not repeating the same old failed policies.
The reaction of the new and old left to globalisation and neoliberalism has been to look for new parties, as in Greece or Spain, to new leaders of old parties such as Corbyn and Sanders, and to new social movements to express their concerns over a range of issues. Their search for this has taken the form of a mixture of old and new methods, but clearly includes a sense of history, a looking back to previous successful movements and struggles.
The truth its, that we are facing a much bigger crisis than the one located by Owen Jones. British capitalism is now one of the most unequal in the world, with low wages and low productivity, lack of investment, rampant privatisation of public services including education and the NHS, and a dismal future for its young people. To alter this needs much more fundamental change which Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters point the way to. Such policies are a challenge to British capitalism. If we regard the behaviour of the MPs, the Labour machine, the media and all those ranged against him as appalling so far (as I do) we should be aware that this is nothing compared to the onslaught if he becomes prime minister.
The fight is on therefore not just for Jeremy’s leadership, which he is strongly placed to win again, but for the future of the left in this country, and for millions who will benefit from his policies. That means the fight cannot be solely or mainly in the parliamentary arena, but must be on every front in terms of the trade unions, the movements and the self organisation of large numbers of people who want change.
There isn't a quick fix, a magic answer to some questions, or the possibility of peace breaking out with the Blairites. There is the chance of taking the whole left forward, which requires some courage, foresight and principle, not the predictions of doom which Owen Jones has given us, and which really don’t match up to the challenge ahead.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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