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Sunday, 30 August 2015

5 points where I disagree with Owen Jones about Labour's future

Owen Jones, the Labour left's most prominent writer and commentator, has written a very useful piece called 'My honest thoughts on the Corbyn campaign - and overcoming formidable obstacles' .
It includes a lot of very interesting material and helpfully draws attention to the challenges the left will face should Jeremy Corbyn be elected leader of the Labour Party on 12 September. There is a great deal for me to agree with. I won't recount the lines of agreement in a short blog post like this one - my lengthy article 'Jeremy Corbyn, Labour and the left' overlaps heavily with much of what Owen writes, so you can refer to that if you wish.

So, let's cut to the quick. Here - in a spirit of comradely and constructive criticism, aiming for maximum clarity - is where I disagree:
1) Owen is wrong to say that 'bread and butter' issues must be the overwhelming emphasis for a Corbyn-led Labour Party, implicitly pushing for foreign policy issues to be downgraded as priorities. The big foreign policy issues are important in their own right. I'm thinking here of Trident replacement (and the wider issues of nuclear weapons and arms spending), the legacy of Western interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the threat of Western bombing of Syria, Israeli apartheid and the Palestinian struggle, this country's relationship with Gulf states like Saudi Arabia (which Owen does, commendably, write about), and more besides. 
It is on these issues that Corbyn has a strong record as a campaigner (and considerable expertise) through being Chair of Stop the War, a vice chair of CND and a patron of Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Iraq was the single greatest driver of disaffection with 'New Labour' in the first place. The anti-war protests of 2002/03 constituted this country's largest ever mass movement, and helped shape a long-term shift in public opinion on wider issues of war and militarism. This trend has not been reversed, while the massive demonstrations for Gaza last summer indicate the continuing potential for popular mobilisations on major international issues. 
Furthermore these issues will be the main source of attack by the right wing, both inside Labour and beyond, so they can't be ducked. They need to be a central part of Corbyn's whole agenda. This will become immediately apparent this autumn if David Cameron pushes for a Commons vote on attacking Syria. 

2) It is incorrect to say that Labour, led by Corbyn, should reject adopting NATO withdrawal as policy. Why? Because NATO membership (and Britain's role in it) is tied up with all the other foreign policy problems - with nuclear weapons (including Trident replacement), with military interventions, with excessive arms spending, with tensions in Ukraine, and so on. Withdrawing from NATO would in fact be an excellent overarching perspective that gives cohesion to much of the foreign policy detail. 
Corbyn needs to assert a totally different kind of 'internationalism' to that championed by the Blairites - one that involves opposing, not propping up, international institutions (NATO, EU) that are geared towards elite interests at the expense of the working class. Only a coherent socialist vision of internationalism can tie together various left-wing policies on international issues, and also link them with an anti-racist perspective on migration and the refugees crisis. When you consider the role of Western military interventions in creating refugees, and also the EU's 'Fortress Europe' policy, that means advocating that we get out of both NATO and the EU. 

3) Forget any forlorn attempts to 'reframe national identity'. Let the Right have their nationalism. It can only be countered by principled class-based politics.
This is the Left's duty: to translate an understanding that society is divided into classes, in constant struggle with each other, into concrete policies geared towards reducing inequality and improving the lives of the great majority. No version or form of 'national identity' will aid that project. 
The Labour Party is historically geared towards being one branch of the British state, ultimately putting (when in office) the interests of the nation state ahead of the working class. Labour is traditionally one of this country's two parties of government. The pressure on Corbyn to adopt the language of 'the national interest', and adapt his policies accordingly, will thus be massive. The left needs to resist this uncompromisingly, and develop a totally different class-based narrative that gives no ground to British nationalism. This is inextricably linked to any project to make a Corbyn-led Labour Party genuinely anti-war and anti-racist.  

4) There's not enough about democracy in Owen's contribution. The Corbyn insurgency has happened against the backdrop a long-term hollowing out of democracy and mass disaffection with Westminster. The desire for greater democracy, among millions of people, is profoundly political and linked to a range of social and economic issues. Look, for example, at how the mass political engagement (and to an extent radicalisation) of the Scottish independence campaign, and indeed its aftermath, revealed the yearning for greater democracy, precisely to improve economic conditions and create a better society. 
Corbyn should, if elected leader, open up a comprehensive, far-reaching and long-term process of discussing what kind of democracy we want, and what reforms are required. This should cover all sorts of things: local government funding and powers, Scottish independence, regional devolution, House of Lords, monarchy, EU membership, electoral reform, economic democracy, and more. 
Transforming internal Labour Party democracy is essential, but won't in itself be a vote-winner or make a difference to people's lives. It's the broader democratic vision for society that really matters. 

5) We need an approach more firmly oriented on broad movements beyond the Labour Party. While I agree about Labour needing to be a social movement, and going beyond the conservative limits of the PLP, there still seems to be an assumption that this is solely about the Labour Party (that's my impression, anyway).

But the Labour lefts, like Owen, need to consider the role of broad-based, non-party political movements and their relationship to a Corbyn-led Labour Party. Corralling everyone and everything into the Labour Party won't work, not least because it means fighting largely on the terrain of electoral (and internal Labour Party) politics, which is not where we are strongest. We need serious thinking about how mass movements can be further developed and how they can both support a Corbyn leadership and operate independently in ways that are effective.

The starting point for this will be the TUC national demonstration, at Tory Conference in Manchester, on 4 October. The massed ranks of new Labour Party members and supporters, enthused by Corbyn's campaign, should be encouraged to be there, to build it, and to be part of an ongoing broad movement against austerity afterwards. I'm sure Owen agrees about that. The point is that the left, inside and outside Labour, needs to explicitly focus on this and make it central to the strategy for left renewal beyond 12 September. 

UPDATE:

Owen's reply (via Facebook) is as follows:

1) Here's where we'll strongly disagree. Issues like jobs, housing, education, living standards, healthcare, childcare, general opposition to austerity, and so on, obviously have to be at the absolute centre of Jeremy's leadership if he is to win mass support. That does not mean other issues are not important (like, as I mention, our support for the Saudi dictatorship).

2) I'd leave NATO in a heartbeat, but he has a million fights to fight if he wins - austerity, nukes, opposition to unjust and disastrous wars like Iraq - that opening up a fight on this issue makes no sense to me whatsoever. If you're a campaigner where you can just choose whatever issues you want to focus on without running the second biggest party in the country with much of the mass media and PLP going for your throat, then you can afford to do this, in my view.

3) Why the left should somehow not emphasise traditions and values based on the long history of people in this country struggling for justice - like the Chartists, suffragettes, trade unionists and so on - and make people feel proud of it and the rights and freedoms won is beyond me.

4) I mentioned PR, which I support, and a federalism with devolution that keeps redistribution. I was however emphasising key hurdles in this piece that need to be overcome, rather than a policy programme.

5) At the centre of this piece was the need to build a mass movement in every community without which a Corbyn-led Labour party would be dead in the water.

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