Are we too radical?

Submitted by AWL on 15 September, 2015 - 5:12 Author: Sacha Ismail

No one predicted what would happen with Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign; all of us are fallible. But unlike Workers’ Liberty, lefty author and journalist Owen Jones admits that he did not originally want a left candidate for the Labour leadership.

Jones campaigned for the soft left Wigan MP Lisa Nandy to stand. To give Jones his due, he acknowledges that it would have been absurd, once Corbyn got nominated, not to follow the logic of the fight: “Obviously the thing about history is that it doesn’t unfold in ways you can control. ‘Hey, history, tell you what, could we run this in three years instead when we’re more ready?’”

Now that Corbyn has won, Jones has positioned himself as a prominent voice on the Labour left advocating a moderate course for Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Jones’ commentary is thoughtful and it has the merit of recognising that, despite its triumph, the left is in many respects in a weak position. He has valuable thoughts on the various sections of the population where Labour desperately needs to win greater support in order to win the next election. His conclusion from such facts, however, seem very much influenced by his increasingly less radical political slant.

• He dismisses the idea of Labour councils refusing to implement cuts, though such tactics have worked in the past (Poplar, Clay Cross) and though there has been no serious debate about them in the labour movement.

• He advocates dropping opposition to NATO in favour of suggesting “a more constructive role within the Alliance”. There is clearly an argument and fight to be had about NATO, and it may not be possible to win it immediately, but Jones comes close to promoting illusions about making the imperialist coalition change its spots.

• He advocates “modernising the economy” so that “Britain... can properly compete in the world”. There is a genuine problem of how socialists advocate anti-capitalist policies for Labour when even the Labour left has largely abandoned this terrain, but Jones’ formulations obscure the reality of capitalism and imply becoming a spokesperson for sections of British capital.

Hence, presumably, his talk about appealing to “entrepreneurs”. In this context, what does rejecting the “top-down nationalisations of the past” mean? Were they too radical?

• He advocates reaching out to “middle-income” and “middle-class” people. There is good sense here, in that the labour movement should represent all wage earners, not just the poorest. But like the Corbyn campaign, Jones specifically pitches to the self-employed, and — unlike a few years ago in his very interesting book Chavs — does nothing to explain or educate about what the working class under capitalism is. The point is not that we should simply dismiss middle-class people; it is that the left and labour movement should see our central goal as helping the working class, in all its diversity, become more self-conscious of itself as a precondition of organising and winning.

• He qualifies his support for greater party democracy by saying that it should not mean “chaos”, rejecting “public conferences with huge bust ups over every issue”. If this just meant that participants in Labour’s democracy should behave reasonably and not unnecessarily or recklessly given ammunition to the right-wing media, there would be no issue.

However Jones is clearly talking about something else: “there needs to be a balanced approach to democratic involvement”. So not too much democracy then? Particularly coming after the Blairite years, this is a pretty awful thing for someone on the left to argue. It might be okay for him with his major media platform, but less good for rank-and-file Labour Party members and trade unionists whose only voice will come through open, clear democratic rights and structures. In particular, Labour Party conference must become sovereign — precisely in order to allow serious political arguments to take place.

Owen Jones’ writings on all this provide plenty to think about it. They pose the need for class-struggle socialist to hammer out our own analysis and proposals as an alternative.

• Read Owen Jones’ articles on the Medium and Guardian websites.

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