As the lines are being drawn, Shabbir Lakha turns the tables on Owen Jones and his soft left assault on Jeremy Corbyn’s social movement
Since the beginning of the attempted coup against Jeremy Corbyn by the Parliamentary Labour Party at the end of June, Owen Jones has made it increasingly clear that he believes Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable and the potential doom of the British Left. This is no less evident in his recent article: Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer, which was put up despite Jeremy answering the same questions with clarity just two days prior during a 45 minute interview.
The questions have also been brilliantly answered by TSSA General Secretary, Manuel Cortes and it is well worth reading his response. However, there are some things I’d like to highlight that Owen Jones seems to be either unaware or intentionally ignorant of. But before that, it should be duly noted that Owen Jones has always been an ardent campaigner for human rights causes and left-wing ideals, and it would not be fair to dismiss this in criticising his position on Corbyn. It is precisely because of this that it is difficult to understand how and why he has transitioned to criticising Corbyn – and worrying for the fate of the left and being well intentioned doesn’t quite cut it, I’m afraid.
During the Labour Leadership contest of 2015, Owen Jones as well as many political analysts rightly pointed out that Jeremy Corbyn’s success was smashing conventional political certainties. Not only has Jeremy Corbyn shifted the political discourse to the left (Theresa May’s first speech as Prime Minister and Owen Smith’s platform in the 2016 Labour Leadership challenge – although both with zero credibility – are good indicators of this), he has entirely changed the way in which politics is approached and how it is practiced. So why is Owen Jones now basing his criticisms of Jeremy Corbyn on the traditional yardsticks that he warned people the media and the establishment would use?
It doesn’t take a genius to know that you cannot oppose the establishment and be favoured by its media apparatus. Does this pose a problem for the outreach it would take for a Labour victory at a General Election? Yes, but we already knew this. Why has there been no factoring in of what Jeremy Corbyn has already accomplished given the circumstances – that we all, especially Owen Jones, knew would be the case beforehand. Jeremy’s three-day-a-week travelling and meeting people, social media exposure and direct engagement has spoken volumes more to ordinary people than any loaded-question mainstream media appearance has done. And the direct evidence of this is the fact that despite the unrelenting onslaught from the Conservatives, the media and MPs from his own party for over a year, when it comes down to it, over 180,000 people were willing to pay £25 each just to support him, and thousands turn up to his every rally – more than there were last year. A year ago, UK political parties had the lowest rates of membership in Europe and now the Labour Party has one of the biggest memberships in Europe.
It’s also not fair to criticise Jeremy for the lack of engagement by his supporters in some constituencies. This is an attempt to find fault in Jeremy where there isn’t any, it tries to overshadow the fact that so many people are signing up in the first place and it ignores the Labour Party’s framework that severely limits Member participation – not least of all demonstrated by the NEC’s decision to ban CLP meetings – the one avenue for local member engagement.
Jones seems unwilling to acknowledge that having such a large and enthusiastic membership base is a huge strategic asset and is vital in giving Jeremy’s campaign a huge advantage in an election to establish a different narrative and combat media lies and right wing attacks.
The other factor that Owen Jones fails to recognise is why people are galvanising behind Jeremy Corbyn in the first place. There are three main reasons why I believe Jeremy Corbyn has managed to gather the unprecedented amount of support that he has, all of which Owen Jones doesn’t seem to have entirely grasped:
1) Jeremy provides a clear, coherent and thorough alternative to the status quo. It’s simply not comparable to Ed Miliband’s position. Miliband may have presented some similar policies to those Jeremy is advocating for, but on face value there wasn’t enough distinction between Miliband’s Labour and Cameron’s Conservatives. It is naive, especially in hindsight, to suggest that Labour lost the last general election simply because the public didn’t trust them on the economy – that’s David Cameron’s line. Labour under Miliband desperately tried to hold on to centre ground by also advocating for some austerity, for immigration controls, TTIP, Trident renewal etc. Corbyn on the other hand is talking about an assault on the neoliberal order. It has long been a political reality in this country that the proportion of the electorate that doesn’t vote at General Elections outnumbers those who voted for any one party and this number has been growing – over a third didn’t vote in 2015. These are the neglected, the disenfranchised, the disillusioned – the game changers, and these are the people who are more and more getting active in politics, enthused by Jeremy Corbyn and his vision because unlike under Miliband, Labour now presents a clear alternative. It also means that Labour has very little to gain from focusing just on trying to convert Tories.
2) Jeremy Corbyn has an unparalleled record in the movement. Even if Owen Smith adopted an equally radical socialist position as Corbyn – as farfetched as that notion is, his campaign would still be just as lacklustre and people would still back Corbyn. This is because Jeremy has been a champion and an active campaigner for practically every just, pro-democracy, pro-human rights cause represented in the UK. His voting record matches what he says, and what he says hasn’t changed since gaining office as the Leader of the Labour Party.
3) Jeremy Corbyn stands by his campaign slogan: straight talking, honest politics. Corbyn has remained consistent and principled through every PMQs – including every childish jibe from Cameron and now May, and his own backbenchers, through every rally and every speech, regardless of the pressure and the torrid campaign against him.
This is why Owen Jones has missed the entire premise by claiming to support a plan that would get Corbyn to shift the narrative then switch him with a Clive Lewis or Lisa Nandy. Its behind-closed-doors plans and schemes that present one thing and deliver another that are the exact reason why people support Jeremy Corbyn. As well as this, such a plan would essentially be a shift back towards the right, a retreat from radicalism and a move away from the very thing that has created such enthusiasm in the first place.
Jeremy may not be the be all and end all solution to the problems people in this country are facing, but he is certainly and uniquely our best chance of getting there. That doesn’t mean that the left can’t survive without him, but it does mean you don’t shoot down your best hope. It doesn’t mean there should be no criticism of Jeremy or that the only job for left wing journalists is to repudiate establishment media attacks, but it does mean you don’t go around regurgitating the right wing propaganda that’s already widespread in the mainstream.
Owen, you cannot claim to worry about the left when your level of engagement is sabotage.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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