I want to start this simply and starkly, Owen Jones does not speak for this movement. The occasion of this post was his article in The Guardian titled ‘Jeremy Corbyn says he’s staying. That’s not good enough,’ after last weeks by – elections. His solution to the current crisis afflicting the Labour Party is for Corbyn to reach a deal with the PLP and stand down to be replaced by a candidate amicable to the Labour left and the party’s MPs. In response to this I hope to touch upon the nature of Corbynism, address the proposition offered in his article and finally the role of journalists and their agency.
Corbynism, if it means anything, means more than just winning a parliamentary majority in the next general election. Its success is dependent on different but related struggles which have been openly and widely discussed. This is important to note as Owen Jones is working on the timeline of the former in which case his agonised positions are understandable. However, once we take into account the fact that the party must be democratised (from the CLPs to delegates to conference, policy making, securing the Mcdonnell amendment and most importantly the PLP getting behind the leadership), that the project has a symbiotic relationship with grass-roots struggle, that alternative media has to be nurtured, that it is dependent on the leadership going further than traditional social democracy; in short we are building a counter hegemonic movement, it is clear that this will be working on a different and longer time frame. It will therefore use different means of measuring the success than just opinion polls, or a by – election loss in a marginal constituency. This analysis is not new. As Jeremy Gilbert states in his piece on OpenDemocracy, What’s a Leader Really For ‘the strategy advocated by the Bennite Left’ in the 1980s and which Corbynism come from ‘emphasised long-term movement building over short-term electoral tactics.’ Or as Tom Mills writes in agreeance with Richard Seymour’s account on Corbynism, that it ‘is a very different political project, which is not orientated merely towards narrow electoral success and technocratic management.’ If Owen Jones (and for that matter other left-wing journalists) is not engaging on this level with their public interventions then they are a hindrance to this project.
His article starts out by noting the long-term decline of support for Labour in the Copeland constituency and the haemorrhaging of working class support under New Labour. This is followed by him questioning ‘wasn’t the whole point of the Jeremy Corbyn project to reverse these trends? It was, but this will not just miraculously happen overnight, as the word trends indicate. This is where his very own strategy is deeply flawed and is the result of a failure to understand Corbynism and his narrow conception of power shared with Labour’s right. This explains his very simple solution that he puts forward; change Corbyn and electoral success follows. However, Richard Angell’s response piece on Progress (the Blairite faction) was simply titled The Problem is Politics, not PR. This is the belief of the majority of the PLP. It is a shibboleth of the party after all that the reason why we lost the 1983 election was because we were too left-wing (on this see Alex Nunns). This is why Owen Jones’ suggestion of a deal is non – starter. A candidate does not exist who will appeal to both the membership and the PLP.
The deal is part of a wager that is put to the supporters of the leadership. ‘Those who fear the fall of Corbyn will open the door to New – Labour style politics should realise that a calamitous election defeat is the way to guarantee it.’ A defeatist assessment of Corbynism and an optimistic account of the forces in the party that are able to offer ‘New – Labour style politics’ if I have ever seen one. What if the defeat is caused by the vagaries of the first past the post system (as in 1951)? What if the struggle within the party to democratise it has borne fruit and there is a continuity candidate? What if we lose but grass – roots struggles are transforming communities? What if Momentum’s Take Back Control initiative starts changing perceptions in working class communities around welfare and immigration? If Labour CLPs starts ‘running food banks, co-operative childcare centres and cinema clubs […] sponsoring sports clubs, running pubs and opening spaces for community use [and] putting time and resources into building up cultural institutions and providing community spaces in which new political identities can form’ which becomes the basis for a 2025 parliamentary majority? In any case this wager is a Trojan Horse. If a deal is struck to Owen Jones’s liking (assuming it is amenable to the PLP and the membership) the Conservatives and the media will present the party as utterly dysfunctional and not ready for government. There is no quick fix and certainly a fix that rides roughshod over party democracy is not one that is appealing either.
Left wing journalists need to be deploying their leverage to enhance the dynamics elicited above. For instance Corbyn has supported a grass – roots housing campaign in his constituency called Reclaim Holloway coalition. Mcdonnell at the end of February addressed a rally campaigning for a living wage in London’s cinema chains. Cover these struggles. This is not merely cheerleading as amplifying the struggles that are directed against local Labour authorities is vital. Encourage new members to get involved within the structures of the party by supporting Momentum’s work on this. Write repetitively about the need for a shorter working week and Universal Basic Income and prepare the groundwork by challenging the thoroughly socialised work ethic which is a huge ideological obstacle. Lend your support to alternative media. But do not use your position of influence to attempt to cut dirty deals whilst overriding party democracy especially through a newspaper that has been active at every step to derail this movement. As Corbyn tweeted after the by – election result ‘Labour will go further to reconnect with voters and break with the failed political consensus.’ Cynicism at politics and misconceptions on immigration and welfare that have gone unchallenged politically for decades will hold up the battle to reconnect. We need voices in the media that aid the struggle to reconnect while also having a long-term and strategic understanding of Corbynism. Put like this Owen Jones is not only not up for the job he is not even applying for it.