An article from Socialism Today, issue 245, February 2021
A tragically missed opportunity
Peter Taaffe reviews the recent book by Owen Jones, which provides an insider’s account of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party.
- This Land – The Story of a Movement, by Owen Jones, published by Allen Lane, 2020, £20
This is an important account of the rise and fall of Jeremy Corbyn, his army of supporters, and his colossal effect on the labour movement. Coming from an ‘insider’ within the Corbyn movement itself makes it especially interesting. It supplies important information not only about how the Corbyn movement developed, particularly at the top, but also how it subsequently disintegrated in the teeth of remorseless opposition from the right within the Labour Party.
Despite his disagreements with the Socialist Party, Owen Jones in fact bears out our political criticisms of Corbyn’s ideas and methods, and more particularly of those around him, amongst who was Owen Jones himself. It describes in graphic detail the many mistakes and political blunders made by Corbyn and his advisers – like Owen Jones. This meant that many opportunities for significant and sustained growth of the Corbyn movement, and particularly for a decisive breakthrough in creating a new mass party of the working class, were lost.
The author had the advantage of occupying an inside track in the broad heterogeneous Corbyn camp. His historical roots are in the labour movement, including his parents Ruth Aylett and Rob Jones. Although he recognises elsewhere the influence of his father’s politics, he fails to mention even once in this book that they, both Marxists and supporters of the Militant, played a prominent role in Militant in London and Sheffield for a period. Rob was an assistant/researcher in the engineering trade union, which allowed him to exercise a positive influence on Hugh Scanlon, the union’s prominent and powerful left general secretary, at a crucial stage in the battle against the Heath Tory government’s attacks on trade unions in the 1970s. Owen Jones, however, took a different route from his parents, having become an individual left and author.
Objective reasons for Corbynism
The book seeks to explain the development, and the eventual stagnation and demise of Corbynism. Yet while some very useful information is revealed, the author does not draw clear Marxist conclusions. Nor does he offer any effective political advice in charting a way forward. This is a failure, given that a new generation of youth is crying out for a socialist and revolutionary perspective in crisis-ridden Britain. Jones himself highlights in facts and figures the sickness of British capitalism, crippled by the twin effects of the devastating world pandemic and the economic crisis. This has deepened and prolonged the suffering that the working class and its labour movement base have been through, probably the worst for more than a hundred years.
Jones correctly situates the rise of the Corbyn movement through a series of objective changes in the political outlook of the working class and labour movement. This included an important section of largely petty bourgeois radicalised youth, combined with a revolt of Labour Party members, as well as an important section of trade unionists fighting against the ideas and methods of the right.
He also agrees with the analysis of the Socialist Party – although never admitting this publicly – that there was a conscious attempt to derail any working class, radical left movement through the artificial injection of ‘culture wars’ or ‘identity politics’. In the case of Britain this was centred around the issues of the European Union (EU), and particularly around the ideas of ‘leave’ supporters, as well as many, perhaps even the majority, in the ‘remain’ camp. The Socialist Party itself suffered a split in its ranks over ‘identity politics’ – originally an artificial political construct of the universities in the US, which we characterised as the ideological factories of the bourgeois. We fought tenaciously within our own ranks and in the labour movement against these false ideas, because they represented an attempt to put the ideas and programme of identity politics in place of a clear class and socialist alternative.
Mistakes over the EU
Jones correctly writes: “A constitutional split over Britain’s relationship with the EU escalated into a full-blown cultural war that proved deadly to a political project founded on the idea that the real divide that mattered was between the people and the establishment”. We would express this idea in clearer class terms than Jones: that the real divide was between the working class and its allies, and the tiny handful that constituted the ruling class and the owners of the means of production. At no time does Jones articulate a clear class opposition to the EU. Nor did Corbyn or his supporters clearly call for a working class and socialist opposition to the EU and the capitalist system which supported it. The EU – as the collective power of European big business – was a brutal instrument of class oppression from its inception, both of the working class and even of big sections of the middle class. However, the opposition programmes, with the exception of the Marxist left, never clearly or consistently challenged the capitalist character of the EU. The top elite of capitalists would continue to dominate the EU, whether Britain exited or remained.
The real alternative was neither ‘remain’ nor the bald idea of ‘withdrawal’ on the existing capitalist basis. The real class alternative which we advanced was the adoption of a class opposition to all forms of capitalism, and in its place the alternative of a democratic socialist united states of Europe. Any other ‘clever’ solution, situated within the confines of capitalism, would find the labour movement compelled in practice to do the bidding of the pro-capitalist remainers or leavers.
Unfortunately, Jones summarily dismisses the idea of a socialist exit with flimsy arguments. This resulted in a complete muddle, with different and opposing trends within the labour movement singing different tunes to the different wings of capitalism. It led to utter confusion. If a class programme had been adopted it would have avoided the labour movement, and particularly the Labour Party, from being pushed or associated with either the pro-capitalist ‘leave’ camp – including the unsavoury bunch of fanatical right-wingers of Nigel Farage and the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – or with the ‘remain’ pro-capitalist supporters, particularly in the so-called ‘red wall’ of Labour constituencies that were swinging over to the Tories because of indecision by Corbyn on the EU.
How best to defend Corbyn?
The ultimate shipwreck of the ‘Corbyn project’ was brought about by a number of factors not least of which was what Jones describes as the “character assassination campaign – against Corbyn – unprecedented in British political history. The consequences were devastating… But the Corbyn project also shot itself in the foot repeatedly”. Originally, we pointed out that the Corbyn movement represented the possibility for the emergence of a new mass party of the working class. It was in effect the beginnings of a new mass party in the process of formation. Whether or not it could realise its potential was dependent upon whether it was capable of rallying to its banner the best fighting elements, which were looking for a socialist point of reference to oppose a diseased and declining capitalism incapable of satisfying the basic demands of the youth and working class.
We sought to forge closer links with the Corbyn movement. To this end Socialist Party leaders met with Jon Lansman, the prominent leader of the Corbyn-supporting organisation Momentum, shortly after Corbyn’s original leadership election victory in 2015. We proposed that Lansman and his organisation be prepared to open up the ranks of the Corbyn movement and the Labour Party to all those genuine sections of the left prepared to fight for a real socialist party. This could have represented the first steps towards creating a mass left force around Corbyn able to decisively defeat the right.
This was rejected by Lansman. He opposed us joining the new Corbyn force unless we, the Socialist Party, dissolved our newspaper and organisation, and hid our programme. It was noticeable that no other left organisation faced a similar ultimatum. Lansman did not, of course, suggest the liquidation of his own organisation Momentum. His inherently selective approach was undemocratic and bureaucratic, and demonstrated his incapacity to build a viable democratic new force on the left. We proposed that Corbyn should take the first steps to create the beginnings of a new mass force by inviting all genuine and democratic sections of the left who agreed with the outlines of a general left and socialist programme to join Labour. Socialist Party supporters, with our powerful record of taking on and defeating the Tories in mass movements like the poll tax and the Liverpool battle, would have added enormously to the strength and effectiveness of the left.
We also compared what was happening in the Labour Party in Britain around Corbyn to what was happening to social democracy throughout Europe – and to some extent throughout the world. The devastating crisis of capitalism had served to radicalise the base of new parties, with the emergence, in some cases, of a potentially politically powerful left. Such was the situation with Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and the Left Bloc in Portugal. But the mistakes and political miscalculations of the ‘left’ leaderships meant that the opportunity to create a solid basis for the left and ultimately to win these parties to a rounded-out socialist and Marxist programme was temporarily lost.
How could Corbynism have been strengthened?
Owen Jones gives many examples of the fundamental weaknesses of the Corbyn movement, beginning with Jeremy himself, and his lack of clarity in programme and organisation. Corbyn’s accession to the leadership of the Labour Party was both objectively determined by the overall situation in Britain and worldwide, and to new Labour Party rules where you could register as a supporter and vote for ‘the price of a pint of beer’. The new youthful generation grasped this opportunity with both hands, pushing aside the right wing Blairites and their allies. The Corbyn movement represented initially the emergence of a new mass party, ‘in the process of formation’. It had not emerged as a fully formed alternative workers’ or left party although it undoubtedly represented the potential for a new mass party of the working class.
The Socialist Party, along with other organisations of the left, wished to participate in this important project. However, as anticipated from the earlier discussion with Lansman, this was rejected by the leaders around Momentum, including Owen Jones. Other organisations had to remain on the sidelines. This indicated a morbid fear of genuine debate and discussion, and the clarification of ideas, which could politically rearm the ranks of the labour movement at a crucial time. Our alternative model to the bureaucratic construct of Lansman was ironically to be found in the birth of the Labour Party itself, which originally developed as a federation of different political organisations with a high degree of tolerance in the discussion and debate of ideas and the way forward for the labour movement and the working class.
Owen Jones also writes that his “book aims to provide a clear-eyed assessment of the many failures and mistakes of the Corbyn era”, but unfortunately he has not provided such clarity. He offers no real explanation for failures other than to point to the tragic vilification of Jeremy Corbyn, which was used to discredit him by the mouthpieces of capitalism both inside and outside the labour movement.
The truth of the matter is that the almost accidental Corbyn movement which exploded onto the British political scene succeeded in mobilising tens of thousands of youth and workers, and held out the potential for the complete transformation of the relationship of forces within the labour movement. But this was not followed through. Opportunities were squandered. The right was not effectively confronted.
Jones gives many examples of the dirty tactics of the right-wing Blairites, firmly ensconced in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), in trying to prevent Corbyn’s success, including their grossly insulting language, and their vicious methods. They pursued an unrestrained character assassination of Corbyn with Diane Abbott, a close supporter of Corbyn, stating that their aim was not just to politically defeat Corbyn but to “destroy him as a man”. Despite his modest demeanour Jeremy represented a powerful symbol which was challenging the basic tenets of capitalism and their agents within the labour movement.
The crushing defeat of the right in the leadership contests of both 2015 and 2016 should have been used to mobilise a mass membership to politically defeat them through argument, and then go on further to consolidate and transform the party in a socialist direction. The ranks of the Labour Party were clamouring for the immediate introduction of mandatory reselection of all Labour members of parliament, which if adopted, would undoubtedly have politically consolidated Corbyn’s support both inside and outside the Labour Party. It would also have been a golden opportunity to draw in rank-and-file trade unionists in opposition to some sell-out right-wing trade union leaderships, who were openly backing the anti-Corbyn right in the PLP and amongst the membership.
The fighting left layers should have come together with the Labour Party left membership to carry through lasting changes. This is what we advocated week in and week out in the pages of our weekly paper, The Socialist, and Socialism Today. We were ignored, while the Corbyn left tried to win over all kinds of dubious elements amongst the PLP, some of whom masqueraded as ‘left’ but were in reality unreconstructed members of the Labour right, or former lefts who had gone over to the right. One such individual was ‘Sir’ Keir Starmer, the present almost invisible ‘leader’ of the PLP. It is a scandal that this individual, who acts as a tool for the ruling class whenever he speaks in parliament, is the ‘public’ standard bearer for working people. Yet he accepted the semi-feudal appellation of ‘Sir’.
One thing is absolutely clear, he has already demonstrated that he is incapable of reflecting the class indignation of working people at the terrible economic and social collapse in Britain, and incapable of the decisive working-class measures that are necessary in order to provide an alternative. Yet in his youth he was a ‘Trotskyist’, of the pseudo-variety it must be added. Later on he became the Director of Public Prosecutions and persecuted, on behalf of the British ruling class, the heroic youth who in 2010 occupied the Tory headquarters in protest against the increase in tuition fees. He has continued these methods in his persecution of Corbyn by banning him from the PLP. Such a creature should be automatically barred from a leading position in the labour movement.
Practically every page of Owen Jones’s book reveals the rotten methods of the Corbyn-hating right and pseudo-left. At the same time, he demonstrates again and again the determination of ordinary left members to come together with the youth to try and effect a decisive change in the fighting militant character of the Labour Party.
It should never be forgotten the lengths to which the right went to try and discredit Corbyn and all socialists who supported his ideas and programme. The incredible detail given by Jones of their methods is itself enough to utterly discredit the embittered right, which painstakingly searched for ‘evidence’ for the removal of Corbyn. This was their goal right from the first day that Jeremy Corbyn was unexpectedly elected as Labour leader.
What this book irrefutably demonstrates is that the right will never reconcile themselves to a potentially effective left leadership aimed at changing Labour into a party capable of attracting mass participation and support by the working class. All the attempts of some trade union leaders even today to find a modus vivendi – an agreement – to ‘work together’ with Starmer, will come to nothing. However, Corbyn gave a glimpse of what he and his supporters were capable of achieving through the highly successful 2017 general election campaign. This was marked by the bold and radical demand for the cancellation of tuition fees which rallied huge support from the youth, particularly student youth, and those who were about to go to university.
The great relative success of 2017 for Labour only increased the hatred and opposition to Corbyn from the right, particularly of the PLP. For example, Alan Johnson, ex-trade union leader turned Labour MP and cabinet minister, as Owen Jones shows, was clearly embittered and determined by fair means or foul to remove any real challenger to the right’s control of the trade union and labour movement. He gives an example of how after Corbyn was elected leader, Johnson made it clear just how much he supported Blair and the policies of the Labour right: “Johnson’s contempt for the left was visceral. At the parliamentary vote approving military action in Syria in December 2015 left-wing Labour MP Clive Lewis couldn’t get a seat in the chamber and sat on the step Johnson was sitting on. Lewis greeted Johnson but received a mouthful of abuse. Lewis protested that Momentum members were not all nasty or indeed ‘trots’ as Johnson had accused”.
Abuse, lies, distortions by the frenzied right wing, were inevitable ‘overheads’ of the Corbyn movement. The Bolsheviks had also faced unprecedented slander from their landlord and capitalist opponents. So did Militant in Liverpool. Abuse was levelled at the Liverpool city councillors for defying Thatcher and the brutal cuts which she attempted to inflict on the city. Nevertheless, we did defeat Thatcher in Liverpool, and once again later on, over the hated poll tax. These battles and ultimate victories were a product of a mass revolt organised and led by Militant, with also considerable sacrifice by ordinary working people in Liverpool and nationally. The councillors were prepared to go to the end to defeat the ‘iron lady’ herself.
Quite disgracefully Corbyn was maligned and vilified with the lies on ‘anti-Semitism’ that were told by the press and their acolytes within the labour movement, such as Margaret Hodge and others. This absurd charge was wielded against Corbyn and the left as a device to split Labour. There was not an iota of truth in these accusations, but that did not deter the capitalist organs of big business. This represents one of the most shameful chapters in recent labour movement history.
No capitalist interference in workers’ organisations
A cardinal principle of working-class organisation is that we should never allow the ruling class or their representatives to determine the policy, programme and rules of behaviour of the labour movement. That includes trade unions, cooperative societies, political parties, etc. From the very beginnings of the Labour Party and the trade unions, the pioneers implicitly rejected the attempts of the capitalist state, governments or their representatives to interfere and determine the programme, policy or workings of the labour movement.
Essentially for the working class, it remains a matter of ‘their morals and ours’. This is why we oppose the capitalist state interfering in trade unions through ferocious anti-trade union laws. In this case we do not recognise the right of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to set the rules of what is acceptable as far as anti-Semitism is concerned. These people can hold whatever opinion they like but we maintain our right to completely reject the charge of anti-Semitism on the basis of the flimsiest or even non-existent evidence. Corbyn was never anti-Semitic as even many independent commentators have pointed out.
The Socialist Party and Socialism Today have refuted the lies and misinformation perpetrated by the right of the labour movement and their pro-capitalist supporters. One letter in the London Review of Books also refutes in detail the base charges of anti-Semitism levelled against Jeremy Corbyn. The letter pointed out how the EHRC is “a politically appointed body of amateurs which lacks political balance and is known for the publicly stated prejudices of several of its commissioners”. Owen Jones quite wrongly also suggests that Karl Marx himself was guilty of an element of anti-Semitism because of a number of flippant joking references he made in private and never meant for publication – and which he did as someone of Jewish origin himself.
The central point we wish to underline here is that this book may have some useful information about the events around the Corbyn movement, but it does not chart the way forward for the present or next generation to create the foundations of a new mass party of the working class along socialist and Marxist lines. That task can only be undertaken by a labour movement which is armed with a clear socialist programme and aims, and a politically conscious rank-and-file membership able to organise all the means for a decisive change in society. The task is to learn from the Corbyn movement – both its strengths and its weaknesses – so we can politically rearm the labour movement for a mighty force for change.
If the Labour Party continues towards the right it will become a political dead-end for workers and young people, and an increasing number of workers will be looking for an alternative. To those who say that we should give Labour another chance, some young people have already answered: ‘Why – how many chances do they need!’
This book demonstrates the determination of the Labour right, tied hand and foot to capitalism, to use all their power to defeat any movement which seeks to change Labour in a socialist direction. Unfortunately, it also shows how the Corbyn left were also found wanting. Therefore, let us gather together all genuine left organisations and individuals to formulate a democratic and socialist programme, and get down to the task of rebuilding the political power of the British working class through a new mass party that will put socialism firmly back on the agenda.