Two armies are lining up on the battlefield, preparing to fight. Defeat for either camp will result not merely in a retreat to safer ground, but in a full scale rout. Only one side can win. The troops of the defending army are ready to stand their ground and show enormous sacrifices in the face of their rival’s attacks. But just as the enemy begins its charge, one of the defensive generals breaks ranks, screaming about a lack of strategy. Confusion and chaos takes hold in the ranks, playing into the hands of the offensive forces. Demoralisation quickly spreads; the troops scatter; the battle is ignominiously lost.
This role of the hapless army officer is being aptly played out of late in the arena of politics by none other than Owen Jones, the renowned left-wing journalist and author. In his latest contribution from a series of hand-wringing articles lamenting the “existential crisis” within the Labour Party, this former darling of the Left launches into a completely mistimed critique of Corbyn and the movement around him, full of “despair” about the “terrible plight” Labour faces under Corbyn.
Needless to say, Jones’ criticisms of the Labour leader – hidden behind the fig leaf of apparently good intentioned “questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer” – have been pounced upon by Corbyn’s opponents. It will come as no surprise to anyone (but the article’s naïve author, it seems) to see that all manner of Blairites in the “Saving Labour” camp have wasted no time in using the Guardian journalist’s words as yet another stick with which to beat Corbyn.
“Labour and the left teeter on the brink of disaster,” Jones warns – music to the ears of the Labour right wing, who look on with glee as this high-profile figure of the Left adds his voice to their deafening chorus of condemnation. Despite boasting that he “literally wrote the book” on the Establishment media, the acclaimed author seems to be oblivious to the fact that he is parroting their rhetoric and – consciously or not – doing their dirty work for them.
Jones has stressed on social media that his article is not an attack on Corbyn, but merely a collection of questions that must be answered if the Left is to succeed in gaining power and carrying out socialist policies. Many of the questions and concerns that Jones raises are valid, and indeed must be answered in due course if a Corbyn-led Labour movement is going to win. In this respect, we do not doubt the sincerity of Jones’ motives or the honesty of his aims.
But, as they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. And at this time, when the democratically elected Labour leader is under-siege from an alliance of Blairite MPs and the right-wing press, it is clearly not an opportune moment to be providing a left-cover to the blows being struck against Corbyn.
“How will the weaknesses that existed before the coup be addressed, and how will confidence be built in him and his leadership?” Owen Jones innocently asks. Not by choosing this moment to hand Corbyn’s opponents a barrel of mud to sling at him, we reply.
Paralysed with pessimism
Anticipating the irate responses to his pessimistic musings, Jones spends the first half of the article defending himself against accusations that he is doing the bidding of the Blairites, or that he is a simply careerist who is “shifting politically to the right”. Unlike the Corbyn’s critics in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and the right-wing media (“who do not want the left to succeed”), Jones asserts that, “my starting point is exactly the opposite. I worry about the left failing, and even disappearing forever.”
From start to finish, however, the whole article is one (overly) long tome of paralytic pessimism, with no positive suggestions about how the movement can or should advance. It is clear that Jones himself has no suggestions to offer, but is merely frozen by fear, like a rabbit in the headlights; “it feels like I’m at a party on the edge of a crumbling cliff…all I can see is the cliff. And I’m desperate, at all costs, for us all not to fall off that cliff.” Like a drowning man clutching at straws, our experienced left activist suddenly find himself without any lifeline to help him escape from what he describes as his “pit of despair”.
This is not the first time, however, that Jones has fallen into an abyss of doom and gloom about the future of the Left. Already, just over a year ago, Owen Jones wrote a Guardian piece imploring the movement to abandon “the old shackles of the Left”. A couple of months later, during last year’s Labour leadership election, the very same author wrote another extended blog post in which he outlined that he did not think the Left should have stood a candidate in the election, due to his fears that they would have been heavily defeated, throwing the movement backwards for a generation.
“My view was that, in the midst of general post-election demoralisation, a left candidate could end up being crushed. Such a result would be used by both the Labour party establishment and the British right generally to perform the last rites of the left, dismiss us as irrelevant, and tell us to shut up forever.”
What was Jones’ preferred alternative? “…to enlist Lisa Nandy, the straight-talking ‘soft left’ Wigan MP…” and “spend the next few years building a formidable movement…to win support for the policies we believe in, and to shift attitudes on a number of issues.” (That is, the same Lisa Nandy who joined in with the mass resignation from the shadow cabinet in a failed bid to force Corbyn to resign.)
Now, with such a mass movement developing around Corbyn’s leadership, Jones repeats his almost nihilistic defeatism about the prospects of the Left winning, asking yet more questions in conclusion:
“Many of you won’t thank me now. But what will you say when you see the exit poll at the next general election and Labour is set to be wiped out as a political force? What will you say when — whenever you mention anything vaguely left-wing, you’re mocked for the rest of your life, a throwback to the discredited Labour era of the 2010s? Will you just comfort yourself by blaming it on the mainstream media and the PLP? Will that get you through a lifetime of Tory rule? My questions may strike you as unhelpful or uncomfortable. I’m beyond caring. Call me a Blairite, Tory, Establishment stooge, careerist, sellout, whatever makes you feel better.”
Which way forward?
Although not said so explicitly, the whole tone and direction of the article is therefore to suggest that a Corbyn-led Labour Party, fighting on a socialist programme, would never be able to defeat the Tories. Rather, based on the current polling figures, Corbyn and Labour would see a humiliating defeat, which would leave the Left shattered for years to come. The answer, Jones seems to be hinting at, is that the Corbyn movement must sacrifice its leadership and its programme in favour of a more “realistic” and “electable” alternative.
There can be no doubt that Labour would struggle to win any snap election at this point, given the crisis that our Party has been plunged into of late. But we must seriously ask: who is responsible for this crisis? Jones seems to apportion the lion’s share of the blame for Labour’s poor showing in the opinion polls to Corbyn and his team, citing in particular their lack of media strategy. At the same time, he calls on them to compromise and hold out an olive branch to those who have shown nothing but scorn and distain towards the Labour leader and the democratic will of the Labour Party rank-and-file.
Our despairing author empirically points to the facts, such as Labour’s support in the latest opinion polls, without analysing the underlying processes at play. Of course the Party will be trailing in the polls, if the vast majority of its own MPs – backed up by the entire Establishment – are consistently telling the public that Labour is unelectable and incompetently led under Corbyn! Jones replies in advance, however, that,
“Labour have barely ever had a lead over the Tories since the last general election. When there is a slim lead, it is seized on with much excitement on social media: but it was the norm throughout the entire last Parliament for Labour to be ahead, often by a big distance.”
To which we should add: yes, Labour has been trailing behind the Tories since last year’s leadership election – but the Blairites have been consistently undermining Corbyn and sabotaging the Party ever since then also.
If we want to defeat the Tories, we need a Party that is united in that aim. Unfortunately, Labour is currently being destroyed from the inside by a tendency of Tory entryists, who would rather see the Party implode than have the democratically elected, anti-austerity, anti-war Corbyn at its head. It should therefore come as no surprise to see that a sizeable gap in the polls between the Conservatives and Labour.
At root, Owen Jones pessimism ultimately derives from his empiricism and his complete lack of any faith in the power of the working class to transform society – that is, from his ingrained reformism. He defends himself by citing his impressive lefty-activist CV, assuring readers that he has not been infected by his Guardianista employer’s “liberal disdain for the radical left”, before proceeding to roll out the same liberal accusations about the lack of “electability” of a genuinely left-wing Labour Party, and contradicting his own suggestion of how the thousands of new people who have been brought into politics by the Corbyn movement could be organised to campaign for a socialist Labour programme.
Jones’ whole argument, however, is based on a simple snapshot of the situation, failing to mention that for a period earlier this year – when the Tories themselves were riven by crises such as the death of British steel, the Panama Papers scandals, and the splits over Europe – it was the Corbyn-led Labour Party that was ahead in the polls.
In turn, lacking any perspective, Jones fails to see how the Tories themselves will again be thrown into crisis in the not-so-distant future, as the tensions over Brexit and the impacts of the economic slump begin to rear their ugly head once again. The class struggle will become even more sharpened, and the ideas of socialism will be back on the agenda. If the now 600,000-strong Labour Party were united behind the leadership, and armed with a bold socialist programme, the fight could be taken to the Tories, and their currently papered-over cracks would quickly re-emerge.
Despite repeated claims to be facing up to reality, Jones consistently ignores the real situation that is opening up in the Labour Party and in British society as a whole. For example, whilst calling on Corbyn and his supporters to reach out to hostile MPs and “love-bomb” them, these same Westminster career politicians continue to scheme and plot and stab the democratically elected leader in the back. Indeed, Jess Phillips – the Labour MP for Birmingham Yardley, and one of Corbyn’s fiercest critics – has even claimed she is willing to “knife him in the front, not the back”! How can there be any reconciliation with such ladies and gentlemen, who want nothing less than Corbyn’s head on a stick?
Labour’s civil war
In this respect, the extended war metaphor of the opening paragraph is extremely apt – and it is war being waged by the Blairites against the Corbyn movement. Even the mainstream media have frequently referred to the situation inside the Labour Party as a “civil war”. The serious mouthpieces of the ruling class are openly calling for the right-wing Labour MPs to split away and form a new “Centre” party. And yet, despite such clear divisions and antagonisms, Owen Jones chooses now – when the struggle between these two wings is at its most heightened – to focus his energies not on attacking the Blairite coup plotters for their scandalous behaviour and actions, but on making some thinly-veiled criticisms of Corbyn’s leadership.
Despite all the media attention (including Jones’ articles) on Corbyn, the reality is that the attempts to get rid of the current Labour leader are about far more than one man. It is not Corbyn that the Labour Establishment wishes to destroy, but the enormous movement behind him. The fact that the Blairites have rallied behind Owen Smith, with his vain attempts to woo Labour members with “radical” promises, shows that this is a war not simply over individual leaders or their policies, but over the future and soul of the Labour Party.
At root, this is a class struggle taking place inside and through the Labour Party: on the one side, the Blairite gangsters in PLP who stand for the interests of big business; and on the other, the Corbyn movement, the trade unions, and the mass of ordinary workers and youth. The former have shown complete contempt for the latter, and will never accept seeing the Labour Party transformed into a social movement that represents the interests of the working class. Jones calls for Corbyn to put forward an “optimistic, inclusive message…to win over the majority”, but fails to recognise that the Blairites have no interest in championing such a message.
Despite this irreconcilable nature of the struggle, which is seemingly plain for all except Jones to see, our esteemed political commentator pre-emptively shrugs off the suggestion that “you just have to pick sides” in this battle. But since Owen is so fond of asking questions, we are inclined to ask him a very concrete question: in the eventually of a split in the Labour Party, with a divide along those lines explained above, which camp will Owen support? The Corbyn movement and the Labour grassroots? Or the Establishment and their Blairite stooges in the PLP?
A question of leadership
When the question is posed in this manner, it becomes evident that – despite what Jones claims – we do have to pick sides. And this is why the left-wing journalist, despite his supposedly good intentions, has understandably earned the ire and anger of many Corbyn supporters, who feel like this leading figure of the Left has abandoned them at this most vital of moments.
Jones states that he cannot face putting forward an “uncritical defence of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and…suppressing any fears that I have”. But nobody is asking Owen Jones to bury his head in the sand; indeed, it is precisely the opposite: people are disappointed with Jones because he is failing to stand up and offer any solutions, and is instead merely despairing and posing endless questions.
It is clear that Jones – as he himself admits - has been paralysed by his fears, unable to provide the fighting direction that the Left so vitally needs right now in the struggle against the Blairites and the Tories. Precisely at the point when bold leadership is required, Owen Jones – one of the most well-known and authoritative voices in the movement – is losing his head, vacillating, and abandoning the battlefield. Without any perspective or strategy for victory, he rolls over and accepts defeat.
The fact is that Owen Jones is in a privileged position – commanding respect and authority across the Left for the years of tireless service that he has put in, championing the cause of the working class and the ideas of socialism. But with this privilege comes an enormous responsibility; a vital duty: to show leadership in the pivotal moments of history when leadership, above all, is what is needed.
Defend Corbyn! Fight for Socialism!
Now is such a moment. The status quo has failed, and all the old pillars of society are crumbling around us. Now, more than ever, the movement needs a compass to advance; a guide to action. The questions and criticisms of Corbyn that Jones raises may be valid. We too, as Marxists, have our own criticisms of Corbyn’s programme and strategy. But what is required now from leading figures such as Owen Jones is not questions, but answers.
Rather than handing our enemies ammunition for their attacks, it is the duty of those who seriously want to fight the Tories not to wallow in despair, but to get stuck in; to defend Corbyn and fight for socialism.
The conclusion that one inevitably draws from Jones’ piece: that, in the final analysis, the author does not really believe that any fundamental change in society is possible; that the Establishment, which he has written so extensively about, is an omnipotent opponent that we must kneel before. And yet, ironically, we are told all of this precisely at a time when the capitalist system – and the ruling class that defends it – has never been weaker; and, importantly, when the mass movements against the system have never been so large and so generalised.
The Marxists, however, do not share in Owen Jones’ pessimism. Indeed, we are imbued with a sense of revolutionary optimism about the future. Whilst Jones focusses solely on the negatives, we see the enormous positives and potential: the unprecedented grassroots movement that has developed around Corbyn – a mass movement of workers and youth, actively and directly participating in politics for the first time; a political reawakening in society, with a renewed thirst for the ideas of socialism.
It is our task now to build the revolutionary leadership that is needed in order to harness the potential energy of this movement: to defend Corbyn and ourselves against the attacks from the right wing; to get organised and clear out the careerist Blairite cancer that is killing our Party; and to fight for a bold socialist programme capable of defeating the Tories, abolishing the anarchy of capitalism, and transforming society.