An article by Owen Jones titled “Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer” (posted on 31st July 2016) has stimulated a range of responses from the broad left-wing milieu of the Labour Party which appear to fall into three camps:
1) some, who intend to vote for Jeremy Corbyn in the forthcoming leadership election, regard this article as a genuine effort at helping to advance the campaign;
2) some, who originally voted for Jeremy Corbyn but now intend to vote for Owen Smith, take welcome refuge in Owen Jones’ words;
3) some (for the first time) question the sincerity of Owen Jones’ politics.
Notable online responses thus far include the following. Darrell Kavanagh reasons and pleads with Owen Jones: “If the Labour Party is going to be the vehicle for social change, we need to rebuild it from the ground up, taking account of the atomisation of the working class which means that the old hierarchical structures of the movement need to be replaced. A Corbyn leadership makes this possible. Owen Smith as leader would make it impossible – the nascent transformation of the Party into a new mass movement would be stillborn and the stultifying party bureaucracy would regain its hold. … So please, Owen, come out clearly for Corbyn. The movement enabled by, and represented by, Corbyn’s leadership is currently the only game in town for the British left.” Also in the spirit of reason and plea, the blogger Redstart writes: “While I am a little confused by the timing of the article, in the middle of a leadership contest, I take the article as questions from a critical friend and will attempt a response in the same spirit.” On the question then of how Labour’s mass membership can be mobilised: “The first thing that must be done. Now. Is for Labour MPs to stop insulting new members. I’ve never seen anything quite like this. There has never been a time when new members have been made less welcome and at a time when there have never been so many new members. So that’s the first thing: MPs must stop calling new members trots, rabble, dogs, scum, entryists, etc. … most new members are keen, committed, doing something that they perhaps never thought they would and actually pretty excited about what will happen. And then what happens? They’re insulted by MPs. They’re not allowed to vote in the leadership election unless they pay another £25. They’re told there’ll be no more meetings (to protect MPs from the likes of them) and then some meetings are organised for leadership nominations but they’re not allowed to come, so aren’t invited.” More critically discerning of Owen Jones, Kate Buffery states: “Despite his protestations, Owen Jones has taken sides. The choice at the moment is between Corbyn or Smith. Jones doesn’t want Corbyn as he is. … And Jones’ blog looks too like the work of man who is sure he ‘knows better’ and feels unfairly spurned. He too readily uses the excuse that he is being true to himself whilst using his position to compromise that of a leader he ostensibly supports. He’s under no obligation to put right the proven media bias against Corbyn (which he brushes off as readily as Corbyn’s most fervent detractors) but I don’t see a genuine principle at play in deciding to do the opposite. … a huge number of Labour members, have judged Corbyn to be the best possible option to guard and promote the democratic socialist agenda. If you truly believe in democracy and in socialism Owen Jones, ask not what Corbyn or Corbyn supporters should be doing for you – but what you should be doing for this movement. Whilst you are using media pressure in the hope of changing the mindset of an elected leader so that it more neatly reflects your own, you become a dead weight in Corbyn’s leadership campaign despite positioning yourself above it.” Finally, and perhaps most scathing of all, Manuel Cortes, the general secretary of the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association, has suggested (as reported in the Huffington Post): “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.”
For me, public intellectuals like Owen Jones are incredibly important because very few left-wing people have a voice in the mainstream media. Owen Jones isn’t an anybody, he is a somebody. His words and his deeds carry tremendous weight. He has a big support base. I questioned him back in 2013 about his article, Sexual violence is not a cultural phenomenon in India – it is endemic everywhere, and invited him to reply to my critique of his argument here (which he ignored). I pay attention to what Owen Jones says and does because he is influential. As such, alarm bells went off vis-à-vis Owen Jones’ early political contribution amid the Labour Party coup. It is worth listening carefully to Owen Jones’ video that he posted on 29th June 2016 (and while doing so, bear in mind that the public face of the coup began in the morning of 26th June 2016).
In this video Owen Jones makes four main points – the fourth is bewildering:
- Owen states that Britain is engulfed in its worst crisis since World War Two, that the situation is very bleak and difficult, and that he predicted the Brexit vote and the subsequent disasters. Owen goes on to list these disasters as, one, the takeover of the Conservative Party by its right-wing faction; two, a coup against Jeremy Corbyn; three, an early General Election with a united Conservative Party and a Labour Party in crisis; four, a second independence referendum in Scotland; five, the legitimation of xenophobia and racism in mainstream politics; and six, retribution from the EU (who fears its own disintegration).
- Owen reasons, one could sit and weep for the country, which he has done, but one shouldn’t become paralysed. He urges that we need to do our very best to save this country.
- We need to accept the Brexit vote, Owen says. Moreover, he sees the Brexit vote as a result of working class people wanting to punch the political establishment. Given many problems which people face are seen through the lens of immigration, Owen calls for a rationale discussion on immigration.
- Owen concludes by saying that he wants to suggest something constructive – in his words: “…to launch a new broad based campaign, which, maybe its called Save Our Future or Operation Hope, maybe these aren’t very catchy names, maybe I’d like you to suggest in the comments what this campaign could be called, and basically it would deal with the threats I spoke about in the last video, and would organise in communities across the country, bringing lots of high-profile people and veteran campaigners…”
Here we have Owen Jones, amidst the Labour Party coup and the response from an ever-growing social and political movement around Jeremy Corbyn (most of whom are grassroots Labour Party members, old and new, and some of whom are organised through the Momentum campaign), amidst this, call for a brand new alternative campaign: Save Our Future or Operation Hope. He states that this (brand new) campaign is needed in order to defend workers’ rights, defend the NHS, combat racism and xenophobia, and engage young people in politics and democracy. At various moments in this video, scenes from the defend Corbyn rally in Parliament Square on 27th June 2016 provide the backdrop of Owen Jones’ proposal. It’s bizarre. Why? Because the social and political movement that has coalesced and is still coalescing around Jeremy Corbyn in the Labour Party is a movement that wants to defend workers’ rights, defend the NHS, combat racism and xenophobia, and engage young people in politics and democracy. Owen Jones goes on to say:
“…in due course I want to approach people, particularly people who I think could be influential, including campaigning organisations which I think are rooted in communities, that needs to be at the absolute forefront of this, I’d like to set up a good website where people can get in touch…”
Owen Jones does not simply call for a new campaign, he wants to initiate this himself. He positions himself as its key player. But he doesn’t want to just impose it (his words, “I don’t want to just impose this idea on people”), he wants his supporters to collectively own it. Perhaps Save Our Future or Operation Hope could be more accurately called Project Owen (Jones or Smith). Here are two questions for Owen Jones and his supporters:
- At a time when the force and forces of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the British establishment have mobilised to smear and oust Jeremy Corbyn and to degrade and annihilate the mass social and political movement around him and in the Labour Party, why would you not throw your weight behind this movement? Most of us are, after all, critical supporters not blind cult followers.
- When a mass social and political movement of new and old Labour Party members has developed, many of whom are involved in the Momentum campaign and in their Labour Party branches and CLPs (when they’re not suspended or, prior to that, acting in plainly hostile ways to sideline the so-called ‘Corbynistas’), then if you are interested in its politics, its strategy, its democracy, and its future – in discussing, in debating, and in shaping all of this – why would you wish to launch a campaign apart from this?