Answers to Owen Jones' Questions for Jeremy Corbyn's Supporters

02/08/2016 15:54
Jonathan Brady/PA Wire

Better out than in. Owen Jones's Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer is the public climax to a private campaign of criticism of the Labour leader which Owen initiated within 24 hours of Corbyn's election last September.

Barely had the votes been counted to give Jeremy his unprecedented mandate than Owen was embarking on his "it's all going wrong" shtick to anyone who would listen. Some may now see this as the act of one whose prescience borders on genius, others as a campaign of petulant resentment by a celeb no longer quite as centre-stage as he was accustomed to being.

Whatever, his assertion that "I cannot even begin to put into words how much I've agonised over Labour's terrible plight" is the one flat untruth in his blog, as can be attested to by anyone who has suffered his foaming hour-long reviews of the disasters that have attended Team Corbyn's failure to follow his advice to the letter.

That said, Owen's nine questions are mostly important ones and do deserve consideration. His blog would have been better had he stuck to them, rather than prefacing the interrogation with more than 2,000 words of pre-emptive self-justification which I am afraid make Simon Cowell look like a paragon of understated modesty. Nevertheless, there is an illumination in the prolonged preface too, in terms of where Owen is actually coming from.

Owen lists various charges he anticipates being made against him for his apostasy. Some are ridiculous - no-one thinks he is a Blairite, or really expects that he has been gagged by the Guardian, or that he has never been left-wing etc. As to whether he is a careerist, really only Owen himself can answer that, and it is not terribly important either way - there are many different routes to career advancement, as he doubtless had in mind when he turned down the offer to work for Jeremy as leader when it was made last August.

The more interesting charge which he himself raises is the allegation that "I support the coup against Corbyn." His plea of "not guilty" is no better than a half-truth. I am sure Owen had nothing to do with instigating the shameful moves in the PLP but he has certainly been no advocate of resisting them. On the contrary, from the first tremors he has defaulted to his accustomed panic mode and argued for the left dumping Jeremy and replacing him with Clive Lewis (without Clive's endorsement, be it said). So, not exactly supporting the coup, but not exactly resisting it either.

It appears plain that the crisis Owen sees looming over the left is in part rooted in no more than his strongly-held belief that his advice has not been given the weight it deserves over the last ten months. Perhaps on some points he is right, although I wish he would not assert that "the most important advice I could give was that first impressions were critical" as if this was a unique insight which he alone had been mandated to bring to the unenlightened. A commonplace is a commonplace, even if presented as the last word in columnar wisdom.

But Owen is right that mistakes have been made. Some are down to inexperience and a lack of preparation, some are due to the difficulties in getting the right people in the right posts (shame you sat this out, Owen) and, yes, some are more culpably down to a rather passive attitude towards grappling with the real challenges of leadership: building a strong team, extending alliances, getting a grip on difficult issues and people etc.

Far more are down to the unremitting attack the Corbyn leadership has been under from day one, mainly from a symbiotic alliance of the right-wing of the PLP and the mass media, for all of whom a left leadership of the Labour Party is a standing affront to the natural order of things which must be rectified without delay. Even a leader with the rhetorical skills of a Bevan, the policy chops of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the party management guile of Harold Wilson and the strength of will of Lenin, would have been taxed. Owen would do better to give greater weight to these factors. Without addressing them, all the words in the world about wanting a left government are for the wind, since these are the real obstacles and opponents which need to be overcome. In that sense, yes, the analogy with the miners' strike which Owen airily dismisses is apposite - these are different fronts in one struggle, and a prerequisite for victory in any or all is unity, loyalty, self-discipline and self-effacement in the common cause. These virtues I commend to Owen.

Now, to the questions which Corbyn supporters must answer (but which Owen doesn't answer himself, despite his capacity to do so, perhaps because he has now excused himself from the category).

1) The opinion polling

Owen is not alone in preferring opinion polling to the votes cast by actual people in real elections - it is the general setting of the mainstream media in reporting politics. In this case, it is helpful in supporting his argument because, as he acknowledges somewhat sotto voce, Labour's election results under the Corbyn leadership have not been that bad. Not good enough, as Jeremy has publicly acknowledged, but by no means bad enough to justify panic. Corbyn Labour polls as well as Miliband Labour, and rather better than Brown Labour in fact. So Owen rests his catastrophism on recent, admittedly very bad, opinion polling. The figures he cites reflect two things above all - the novelty of Theresa May's premiership, which will obviously boost Tory ratings for a honeymoon period, and the chaos into which the coup plotters plunged the Labour Party after 24 June.

It is a truism that divided parties do not win public support or elections, and this is now being proved in spades. If Owen wished to examine polling over a somewhat longer period he would find that, before these two developments, Labour was near-level or even occasionally ahead of the Conservatives in some surveys. Not good enough, to repeat, and certainly not sufficient for victory in a real election, but indicative of a more nuanced story.

So how do we turn those figures around? First of all, we need unity. A willingness on all sides to respect Jeremy's mandate if he is re-elected will help. Second, a clearer and simpler policy prospectus addressing people's core concerns for security at work, in the communities and in society. Third, build a strong team in the shadow cabinet and beyond which people can trust to deliver on that agenda. Fourth, harass the Tories and their weaknesses at every turn, rather than fighting each other. And fifth, frame all this politics in a vision of what Britain could become under a progressive Labour government beholden to working people, rather than the bankers and the super-rich. Challenging, of course, impossible, no. And a better approach than wallowing in despair.

2) The vision thing

Owen criticises Ed Miliband's grasshopper approach to a political vision and contrasts it with the ruthless clarity of Tory messaging. He is right about that, and also right that Labour's vision needs to be expressed in a clearer and sharper fashion. Many of the elements of such a vision are there already - investment over cuts, public intervention over leave-it-to-the-market, peace and international law over aggression, closing the wealth gap over the unequal society.

Yes, this needs to be the subject of a sharper focus and a more direct transition into practical policies. But it is wrong to ignore the systematic obstruction that has been placed in our way over the last year, where every policy announcement (and there have been at least twenty new policies launched in the last ten months) has been accompanied by gratuitous backbench sniping, turning every Labour policy story into an internal row story. I think there are few Labour members or voters who will not respond positively to a vision of the sort set out here when it is placed front-and-centre by a united Party.

3) 2015 revisited?

In a related criticism, Owen finds Labour policy insufficiently different from where Ed Miliband had left it. I will not repeat points made in answer to previous questions. The issue here is a different one - Miliband had indeed moved Labour policy on from "New Labour" dogmas in some significant respects, including on austerity, the NHS, inequality and state intervention. There is no point in positioning ourselves to the left of Miliband just for the sake of it.

However, there was a widespread public belief that Ed did not have the courage of his convictions, that he would actually overcome the doubters and dissidents in his own Shadow Cabinet and chart a different course. He seemed hesitant, as if hoping no-one would notice that he had tiptoed away from the Blair nostrums. No-one could say that of Jeremy Corbyn.

Take the Iraq/Syria issue, which Owen raises. Ed's approach to Iraq was a mealy-mouthed regret, anxious not to offend those of his colleagues who had voted for the war; while he seemed positively embarrassed to have won the vote in the Commons against bombing Syria. By contrast, Jeremy has led unashamedly and from the front on these questions - his record cannot be gainsaid. People do not just want policies, they want conviction politicians who stick up for what they believe in, come what may. That is the Corbyn difference.

4) Media strategy

Given his trade, and his skill at practising it, it is surprising that Owen's comments are shallowest on the matter of media strategy. Indeed, much of his approach seems to involve bombarding us with statistics on his own personal immense social media reach. When he is not busy burnishing Brand Jones, Owen offers poor advice - no, no public figure should "appear on TV at every opportunity", whatever the agenda; and getting press releases out on time is hardly a strategy. He is also wildly unrealistic.

Owen writes:

"Corbyn often seems entirely missing in action, particularly at critical moments: 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, and so on. Where have been the key media interventions here?"

All these events took place in the days and weeks after the launching of the coup against Corbyn. Most of the Shadow Cabinet had resigned, and around sixty frontbenchers in total. A vote of no-confidence had been tabled and passed in the PLP. 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?

Again, I do not accuse Owen of support for the coup against Jeremy. But he seems bent on ignoring its consequences (or even its very occurrence) at every turn. And he should also understand one fact as well as anyone: there is absolutely no possibility, none whatsoever, of Jeremy getting a fair hearing from any of the corporate-controlled media, nor from the BBC as detailed independent research has confirmed, no more than capitalists will hand over all their worldly goods to the poor. They exist to defeat the left, not enable it.

So a media strategy must start from that point. It is not a matter of exaggerating the reach of the various social media platforms, as much as of recognising their potential as a vehicle for getting around the mass media roadblock. Their role seems only likely to grow. Of course, this must be supplemented by other ways of reaching people, from local broadcasters to mass-market magazines to developing Labour's own media. But if Owen is suggesting a reprise of flying half-way round the world to pay court to Rupert Murdoch, forget it. It may have worked for Blair personally, but it did nothing for Labour.

5) The older vote

On this point - building Labour support in the over-44 demographic - Owen acknowledges that Jeremy has some attractive policies that need more consistent presentation. We are all on the same page there. Personally, I am not sure this is exactly the right approach, however. Older people (particularly if so expansively defined) do not dwell in a separate box wherein they are motivate solely by policies appealing to their direct self-interest or their anxieties about their own future. They too can respond to a broad vision as to how society could be, and can be won to vote in what they perceive as their children or grand-children's interests as much as their own.

6) Scotland

A year ago, Owen wrote this about Labour's position in Scotland:

"Scotland cannot be won back straight away, even if this is a test Jeremy's opponents will set. As things stand, Labour face being wiped out in next May's Holyrood elections. The SNP won 6 Westminster seats in 2010; in 2015 they won 56. Huge Labour majorities became huge SNP majorities. The SNP's lead in Scottish opinion polls is astronomical. Scottish Labour as a party currently remains a husk. The idea such a profound political shift simply be suddenly turned around -- even though Jeremy is by far the best candidate to do so -- in a matter of months is fantasy land stuff."

This was a sensible and realistic approach to a very tough question. So far, events in Scotland's politics have come to pass as Owen predicted. So it is hard to understand why this test Jeremy's opponents have indeed set is now being pressed in aid by Owen.

Nevertheless, Owen is right that it is a serious challenge. One thing I think we should all have learned by now is that it is not a challenge that can be addressed from London. Scottish Labour deserve all the support we can give them in trying to find a way to counter the SNP juggernaut and regain Labour's lost positions - it is our comrades north of the border who must take the lead. It would be idle to pretend that the position is going to be turned around rapidly. But if anyone English can help Scottish Labour address the concerns of Scottish voters turned off by a legacy of bureaucratic managerialism, it is Corbyn.

7) Winning Tories

Jeremy has outlined several attractive policies which could help win some Tory converts. Conservative voters too are concerned about the chronic shortage of affordable housing, about their children leaving university mired in debt and about widening inequality (although I would not place too many hopes on solar panels as a vote-switcher, it is true). Owen dismisses all this too casually, without really suggesting any alternative strategies.

The challenge Labour faces of course is projecting policies which at one and the same time convert Tory voters, stop defections to Ukip, win votes from Liberals and Greens and mobilise working-class abstainers. There is no point in targeting just one of these constituencies in isolation from the others, as Owen does. That way lies a fragmented and contradictory prospectus which will easily fall apart under scrutiny. The issue of winning Tories to vote Labour depends ultimately on the broader vision question already addressed.

8) Immigration

Owen is right that immigration is a nettle that has to be grasped, particularly in the context of arresting any drift of core Labour support towards Ukip. There is little doubt that it played a significant part in the outcome of the EU referendum. Addressing the issues means, among other things, separating the question of support for refugees from that of the free movement of labour across Europe.

The latter has undoubtedly contributed to a lowering of wages at the less skilled end of the labour market because 30 years of labour market deregulation by Westminster had left people without protection. But Jeremy Corbyn has been bang on the money in highlighting how concerns about immigration are more often than not concerns about poor housing, lack of jobs, cuts in social provision and pressure on public services. Brexit, unwelcome as it may be, at least provides an opportunity to argue for greater regulation of our labour market through the implementation of sectoral collective bargaining so wages can't be undercut, while absolutely upholding the right of all migrants living in Britain to remain here.

9) Mobilising the members

The near-trebling of Labour's membership over the last year or so is a tremendous breakthrough, refuting the entrenched assumption that political parties are doomed to wither on the vine and cannot attract the young. It is right that Owen hails it as an achievement, and asks how we can make more of it. It is a potent campaigning force for progressive politics.

First of all, we need to move past this period of internal conflict and bitter rows (although nowhere near as bitter at the grassroots as they are in Parliament) and turn outwards to the rest of the population. And, yes, we must be welcoming and tolerant of difference as Owen suggests.

But really Owen's problem here seems to be that he has been criticised by some Party members (indeed, too many of these issues appear to turn on Owen's own personal experiences, a solipsistic approach he would do well to discard). It is unavoidable that those who thrust themselves forward in public debate and take controversial positions are going to have to take it in some measure as long as they keep dishing it out. This should not distract from a united campaign to take the new agenda Labour is developing out to the millions.

I have addressed the questions Owen himself raised. There are others, at least as important for Labour's future, which he has not asked of Corbyn's supporters. One of course is how we handle Brexit and its aftermath, an issue about which Labour members are deeply and rightly concerned. Our job is to help Jeremy put together a progressive agenda which brings our country together in the face of Brexit, thus healing the deep wounds that the referendum created. At least Owen has not joined in the chorus of unjustified attacks on Jeremy concerning the referendum campaign, possibly because he has been a bit of a flip-flopper on the matter itself. Another critical issue is rebuilding unity in the Parliamentary Labour Party and establishing a strong fighting Opposition to the government in the Commons once the leadership election is behind us. Rumours of splits and continuing obstruction from the right of the Party need to be addressed, as well as the need for the Leadership to work in a way that is at once more dynamic and more inclusive. Since Owen has not highlighted these issues, I merely note them for further debate in the near future.

"Call me a Blairite, Tory establishment stooge careerist, sell-out whatever makes you feel better," Owen concludes. I will do none of these things. I will not go further than saying I would not like to be in a trench alongside Owen under heavy shelling. The events of the last month, which he mainly ignores, have represented an unprecedented attack on an elected Leader of the Party. They are part of a move to break the power and influence of the Left that Owen claims to represent. It is a moment for solidarity, not back-stabbing. Owen's concerns, many of them quite legitimate, could have been expressed privately. Raising them in the way he has, certain to give comfort to the Left's opponents, speaks for itself.

I have tried to address all his questions. Let me ask just one of Owen in return, since he left the answer obscure in his blog: Who are you supporting for the Labour leadership?

The answer will tell us if the shark has been truly jumped. But either way most of the left will recognise that we are in the fight of our lives - not just for our policies and vision, but for democratic decency and for the hope of a Labour government that will do more than just manage the affairs of the elite for a period. Owen, with his great talents as a writer and speaker, would be a most welcome ally to have in that effort. But our efforts will continue regardless. As the Arabic saying goes, the dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.

Manuel Cortes is the general secretary of the TSSA, the union for people working in all sections of the transport industry