The Socialist 14 October 2020 |
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Non-fiction: This Land - the story of a movement
Lost for ideas and without a strategy to win
Owen Jones, photo Senan (Click to enlarge)
Nick Chaffey, Socialist Party national committee
The 2017 general election surge for Corbyn's anti-austerity manifesto was a high point for many workers and youth desperate for an alternative to Tory cuts. The election of Johnson and the succession of Keir Starmer to the Labour leadership signalled the effective end of Corbynism within the Labour framework, with answers and ideas needed for a way forward.
So, in his new book 'This Land', Owen Jones, a prominent left commentator and activist, argues: "There is no future for any progressive project that does not face up and learn from its errors."
Corbyn's election as leader in 2015 had transformed the political situation, with the potential to reverse the Blairite pro-capitalist domination of the Labour Party.
His election created two parties in one. This was confirmed by arch-Blairite Peter Mandelson in an interview he gave to Jones after the 2019 election saying: "Corbyn had total power within the party" - although not, of course, over the Parliamentary Labour Party.
Jones lists the single issue campaigns that emerged in the 2000s as Blairism left people disenfranchised and leaderless, correctly pointing out: "These movements were diffuse without the ability to build a coherent alternative to the established order. While there had emerged a broad grassroots constituency thirsting for radical change, that constituency lacked both organised political representation and leadership."
Potential and reality
Jones goes on to show how that potential was never turned into reality, to re-establish Labour as a workers' party based on a clear anti-austerity manifesto, restoring the democratic structures of the party, with members making party policy via resolutions and the national conference, and with the central participation of the trade unions.
The Corbyn insurgency was enthusiastically welcomed by the Socialist Party, but we warned before he was elected that if he won: "He would face an open revolt from the pro-capitalist right that dominates the Parliamentary Labour Party, Labour council groups across the country, and the Labour Party machine, which would do everything to sabotage his leadership." (Socialism Today, issue 191 September 2015)
After graphically describing how Blairite MPs blocked and sought to undermine and remove Corbyn every step of the way, towards the end of the book Jones asks: "Why were these people ever in the Labour Party?". Clearly it's the reward pro-capitalist politicians got for the work they did blocking Corbyn and defending capitalism. Jones and the forces around Corbyn fatally failed to draw the necessary conclusion.
Corbyn's 2017 anti-austerity manifesto led to the largest increase in votes for any party since 1945. This was a confirmation of the potential for left-wing and socialist ideas to unite working-class communities and draw behind sections of the middle classes.
But Jones sees the growth of Corbyn's vote as a victory for a savvy social media team rather than what could have been possible if, from 2015, Corbyn had built mass support for an anti-austerity programme.
Linked to an organised struggle via Labour's control of 120 local councils to stop cuts and build affordable council homes, as we consistently outlined in the Socialist, Corbyn could have demonstrated in practice what an incoming Labour government would mean for working-class people.
Restoring mandatory reselection of MPs and councillors and the role of the trade unions, Corbyn could have led the 2017 election campaign with massed ranks of candidates who backed him. This approach would have ensured victory over a weak and divided Tory government.
But rather than building on this success, and drawing conclusions from the 2016 coup attempt to remove Corbyn, and the evidence of electoral sabotage conducted by the Blairite party machine in 2017, they took the path of compromise. Adopting a false policy of unity with the pro-capitalist right opened the door to a series of challenges that increasingly muffled and undermined Corbyn's 2017 manifesto.
Brexit and antisemitism are the issues Jones focuses on, but he omits the treacherous role Blairite councillors also played in carrying out vicious Tory cuts and further undermining working-class support for Corbyn. He pays attention to the storms at the top of the Corbyn machine, criticises Corbyn's personal failings and, reflecting his lack of confidence in Corbyn, which he acknowledges he had publicly questioned, suggests John McDonnell was a leader who could have won.
Jones argues that, "the fundamental pillar of any left-wing movement is class politics", but on these key issues Jones, Corbyn, and the left, retreated.
A class approach would have meant Corbyn leading the official leave campaign with a clear call to oppose the bosses' EU and for Europe-wide workers' solidarity against austerity.
Jones ends inevitably downbeat but not without hope: "As long as wealthy nations fail to provide security and comfort to their citizens, as long as millions are deprived of a more comfortable and fulfilling existence, there will be a demand for unambiguously radical answers." He points to the Black Lives Matters protests and "extra-parliamentary struggles that are impossible to ignore."
Jones comforts himself with the legacy of "a new ecosystem of think-tanks, economists and intellectuals who are seriously engaged in debating what a new world would look like."
But without a clear socialist alternative, Jones ends where he began - lost for ideas and without a strategy to build 'organised political representation and leadership'. The Labour left and Jones fail to recognise the existential capitalist crisis and what was needed if a movement was to succeed.
Jones and Corbyn's compromise with Blairism to maintain unity in the Labour Party was because the alternative, a rupture, led to a path they had no confidence to march down.
If they had, they would have been rewarded with mass support from the working class and youth, drawing behind them the middle-class layers squeezed by austerity and driven, like the striking junior doctors, into methods of militant trade unionism.
This path was partly due to the class character of the Corbyn insurgency - a layer of the angry and alienated middle class hit by austerity, not the movement of the working class that drove the reformist programme of Tony Benn to the left and saw the growth of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party) in the 1980s.
These events are a closed book to Jones, rejected and omitted from his preamble that leaves out the victories of Militant-led Liverpool City Council from 1983-85 or the 18 million-strong anti-poll tax army that melted the Iron Lady Thatcher.
Jones acknowledges that Blair's support for the war in Iraq led many to the conclusion that Labour was not a vehicle for socialism, yet fails to mention the emergence of political forces to the left of Labour. The first was the RMT-backed European election platform 'No to EU, Yes to Democracy', supported by Benn, which developed into the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, standing over 100 candidates and becoming the sixth largest party in the 2015 general election.
Jones' faint hope that Starmer would stick to his word and support Corbyn's manifesto has been quickly burnt by the supine support for the Johnson approach for dealing with Covid.
It leaves a vacuum once more to the left, which it is an urgent task to fill. Jones is right to warn of the dangers of right-wing populism. It is vital that the lessons drawn from the Corbyn insurgency are the need to build a mass workers' party, with the organised trade unions at its heart, and a bold socialist programme that outlines the way forward to a real, lasting socialist solution to the capitalist crisis and the enormous damage that threatens for workers in the period ahead.
- This Land: The story of a movement, Owen Jones, £14.34, Allen Lane