Please note: In the view of the writer there is no overwhelmingly great phrase for the phenomenon that might be described as “an obscure left-wing backbencher reluctantly placed in the position of token candidate of The Left in the 2015 Labour leadership contest then sweeping to victory upon a wave of enthusiasm, affection and hope for the future because he resurrected the socialist principles it once espoused.” So, I refer to it here as, variously, “The Corbyn Movement”; “The Movement”; “The Rise of Corbyn”; “Corbyn-led Labour Party”; even, at a moment of desperation or self-gratification, I’m not sure which, “The Wave”.
“The situation is very grave…Labour and the Left teeter on the brink of disaster” – apparently.
In his recent Guardian video interview with Jeremy Corbyn, Owen Jones (a famous journalist) declared Labour to be facing an electoral disaster. Whether he knew it or not, accidental or not, coincidence or not, he was using a standard rhetorical tactic designed to wrong foot an opponent in an argument. It’s based on getting your opponent to accept a negative proposition – negative, damaging, for the opponent – at the beginning of the debate without realizing that they’ve done so.
This sort of thing is a standard tactic of the Coup MPs, the anti-Corbyn PLP and their supporters in the mainstream media. They love to deploy these hopeful propositions which they hope will be stand up for appearing to be “obvious”. The “Corbyn is unelectable” one is their star turn. But arguments which are essentially self-serving are usually highly susceptible to collapse or at least serious damage when probed properly. The “unelectable” charge is just the grossest, most egregious where a) none of us can see the future, b) Corbyn has yet to be tested and c) he has yet to be tested even in conditions which have deliberately been made unfavourable to him by elements within his own side. Only when the anti-Corbyn elements have quit, been deselected, have been persuaded to co-operate or work with The Corbyn “Movement” of their own volition will we begin to get an idea of how electable Jeremy is.
But look! They have me in their trap even as I type! The whole “unelectable” notion is crooked to start with. It depends upon accepting a false proposition: that a Labour defeat in a General Election is the responsibility of the leader. This is not quite so sinister – it is standard for all politicos and historians to freely say or write things like, “Thatcher won three elections…” “Kinnock lost the 1992 election…” “Blair won three elections…” when the result is always far more complex than this, a playing out of a whole plethora of forces, issues and events which themselves are highly complex: the state of the national economy, social issues, changes at a global level (especially in economic affairs), the national mood, what the media is up to, and so on. Suddenly the idea that any politician is “electable” or not is simplistic to the point of stupidity. This has not stopped the side of The Coup using it as a flame-thrower against Jeremy. Indeed, this entirely bogus argument forms their biggest weapon. Why? Because it is so simple even BBC news journalists can understand it.
Sorry. A slip there. (Note to self: must keep close to “Kinder Politics” idea of Jeremy’s)
Why? It is so simple that anyone can grasp it and it is juicily, temptingly simple for TV and radio interviewers and journalists to use.
Jones, in his recent long article about the state of the Labour Party, uses the same tactic. He opens with it, trying to establish that the entire debate within his piece is to be conducted on terms totally favourable to his position. The Labour Party “is teetering on the brink of disaster”, he tells us, and off he goes. He ends there too, to give his essay a nice balance. Begin with your key proposition; finish with it. It’s a sound debating device: leave the reader or listener with a very strong impression of what you’re saying; naturally, they’re more likely to be convinced by it.
Here, though, Jones doesn’t need this sort of finish: he’s turned the tables on you in his first sentence and unless you’re really on the ball (and I wasn’t when I first read it), you can’t turn them back by going,
“Oh, I see what you’re saying. I’ll read what you have to say but I’ve noticed your sneaky opening gambit so don’t think I’m a pushover.”
The thing is, like the “unelectable” concept, the “brink of disaster” belief is a highly, highly partial argument. And when you test it, it isn’t convincing.
Personally, I don’t remotely agree with it. This is not because I see Jones’ article as damaging to the Corbyn cause, one which I passionately and actively support (though it may be so); not because it is highly inconvenient to the cause where it needs as much mainstream media support as it can get for at the moment it has virtually none (it is indeed, highly inconvenient), not because I am disappointed in Owen Jones because I thought he was a good guy (I did), but because the Labour Party is not teetering on the brink of a disaster.
Jones’s proposition is built on another piece of trickery in the form of an underlying assumption that most people in the media and even on Twitter seem to agree with: that it would be a disaster for Labour to lose the next election. Here I’m in danger of taking this piece of writing into territory it would take me about 10,000 words to get out of, terrain I do not wish to inhabit or risk you inhabiting with me on this particular occasion. This land is called “British electoral history, 1905-2015”. Interesting thought it is, I suspect none of us has the time or inclination today to go there, even though it is the time when most of us take a Summer holiday. Suffice it to say then two things:
- Yes, it would be a disaster for many people in Britain if the Tories were to win the next General Election, presuming they would then be in power for five years.
- No, it wouldn’t.
I’m sure all you left-leaning readers understand 1) easily enough. They’re a shower of bastards, right? Yes, they are, and they will inflict low wage, insecure working misery on tens of millions of British people. They’re historically always terrible at running the economy, so there’s every chance that things would be as bad as they could possibly be under half a decade under May. But 2)?
It would feel like a disaster if the Conservatives won a majority of, say, 100, because, historically, majorities of that size are rarely if ever overturned (they almost were in 1910 and 1950, but not quite). However, experience tells me that this is not going to happen unless everything that could possibly go wrong for Labour went wrong and the Tories suddenly sussed out how to manage the British economy. The first is almost totally unlikely and the second simply impossible.
But putting that aside, it would not be a disaster if they won a majority of, say, 20. This is because, the really crucial election for the Conservative and Labour parties is the one after next. This subject is deep enough to need a new piece of blogging so I’ll just touch on it here. Why is the next one going to be the “make or break” election for Labour and Conservative? Because if the Labour Party avoids a split and the anti-Socialist group is expunged there will be sufficient time for a coherent party on the Left of British politics to convince the British floating electorate to vote for it in very large numbers. In which case it will form the largest party in the House of Commons. And if that were to happen, life in Britain would improve and the Conservatives would, in my opinion, be in a very serious mess indeed.
What Mr. Jones underestimates – and I’d say he underestimates it almost totally – is the power of the ideas Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell has for his country. To be very brief, with two exceptions, virtually everything Jeremy espouses and wants for Britain is what the working- and middle-class masses want and need. Those exceptions are immigration and nuclear weapons/Britain as a World Power. They constitute great difficulties for The Movement, but neither are insuperable. Nowhere in his essay is there a belief in the cause, in the arguments, in the ideology of the humane and just society that We want to bring about.
What he also underestimates is the damage that would have been done to the Labour Party if it were won back by Blairites, Brownites, Red Tories, New Labourists, call them what you will. Even if he were right that because of the Corbyn revolution, the rise of The Movement, Labour electorally is, for the moment, in difficulty, great difficulty, even, then so be it. Two stats I keep Tweeting are so important that I’m thinking of having them tattooed on my neck:
Labour share of the vote, General Election 2010: 29%
Labour share of the vote, General Election 2015: 30.2%
Forgotten fact: As a result of the second statistic above, Harriet Harman and others in what was left of the defeated upper echelon of the party were so freaked out by the scale of their defeat that, desperate to prevent the other 70% of the British electorate from kicking its corpse into an alley before forgetting it completely she allowed anyone with a spare three quid to have a vote in the upcoming leadership election.
The rest, as they say….
So anyone wanting to aim a blow at the Corbyn-led version would do well to stop kidding themselves that the Islington Wonder stole a viable political party from them. To go back to that corpse in the alley would be futile.
I really want to avoid attacking Owen personally in this essay, but this has to be said: What you emphatically do NOT do in this situation is think like a pessimist, or defeatist. And if you are a left-wing journalist you do not parade your defeatism to the world. In the first place negativity helps no-one and builds nothing. In the second, you give a free gift to the enemy.
Which brings us to this: what was Jones really trying to achieve with his defeatist and damaging article? Was he, is he trying to bring Corbyn down? I think the answer is clearly, “yes”. An important question now arises: how should we approach Mr. Jones’ works in future. Each can have their own answer; mine is, with the utmost caution. This is for two reasons: firstly, because I think his intention here was malignant and secondly, because his thinking is poor for much of the article and should be dismissed as publicly as possible.*
There is so much sloppy thinking in the article, so many lazy, unsustainable arguments or arguments backed up with weak evidence or no evidence at all, that it would take more time than I have to set them all down, and doing so would be a depressing experience even while it is not unpleasing to realise that your enemy’s arguments are falling around you like oranges from an overturned fruit stall.
One of the worst sections is where he dutifully types out Jeremy’s Vision before saying, “I’m not at all convinced that this will resonate with the majority of people.” Given that it contained this: “a health service that is there for all, for all time, without any charges and without any privatisation…” one can only conclude that Jones has either completely lost his grasp of British politics or makes his case because he is intent on a Corbyn hatchet job. (Take your pick). The same is true of his estimation that Labour now is broadly the same as it was under Ed Miliband. Silly is about the nicest thing you can say about such a view. His comment on the May election results was so weak that I cannot describe it as “analysis”. They weren’t good, apparently and weren’t as good as Ed Miliband’s in 2012.
The false comparison is a favoured rhetorical trick and Jones deploys it here more than once; but – surprisingly for one apparently so well endowed with educational advantages – he doesn’t remotely have the sleight of hand to pull off. The argument that Jeremy’s big crowds are meaningless because they also turned out for Michael Foot in 1983 is one featured here. It’s false most obviously because the contexts are wholly different. The politics of one period are always different to another. The political dynamics of 1983 are far from 2016 to understate the case.
And in academic circles this sort of literary hucksterism isn’t remotely acceptable. My professor would either laugh or snort in disgust if I tried this on with my PhD. For a start, he’d say, one is a General Election campaign and the other a personal leadership contest: how are they the same? Then the issue of the politics of ’83 being comparable with ’16? A roll of the eyes would be enough to destroy me.
But I wouldn’t reach for it to start with. I hope I’m not patronising you to point out the problem. Where both Foot and Corbyn are notionally left-wing leaders, the situations of the two parties are completely different: 1. Foot was leading a truncated party, a hunk of Labour having split off to form the Social Democratic Party in 1981. 2. Following that, Foot had a serious challenge from nominally Labour people who were merely using the party as a Trojan horse for a revolutionary or semi-revolutionary ideology, at the centre of which was the highly organised Militant tendency. In 1983, while Soviet Russia and the Eastern Bloc existed it was only a distant fantasy that a Marxist-Leninist transformation of Britain was possible, as opposed to a completely hopeless one. Here in 2016 we live in post-Soviet times. Russia may be an authoritarian state but it is not a Communist one.
These differences are so huge and so obvious that I apologise if I’m insulting your intelligence. It has to be done simply because anti-JC people continually make this idiotic Foot-Corbyn comparison.
As stated above, I could go on and on. I won’t, but as I understand he’s stated that the article began with his being annoyed by the idea put about on Twitter by Corbynists that it might be a jolly good idea to combat the corrupt mainstream media organisations’ attempt to destroy Corbyn’s new career by reaching as many voters as possible through increasingly popular and prevalent social media platforms. Just cuz 10, 000 Scousers show up in the middle of Liverpool and 3,000 in Hull and 2,000 in Leeds, etc, doesn’t mean “Downing Street Ahoy!”, thinks Jones, who presumably thinks, like most of Jeremy’s other enemies and/or naysayers think they’ve been to the future and have now returned to tell us all about it. Anyone with a balanced and curious mind surely goes, “Hmm, interesting”, or “Shit”, or “Wow” and simply wonders what the result of this unprecedented stuff in this post-modern age will be.
Many people have blogged their replies to Jones and rightly so. He deserves a tidal wave of rebuttal. Finishing up here I feel more sadness than anger or annoyance. Owen Jones, the so-called poster-boy journalist of the Left has, I think, soiled his bed. Many will think less of him than before. I’m sad that he can write crap like this and sad too that he gave the Guardian ice queen Polly Toynbee the excuse to peddle claptrap like Owen being “brave and honest” (for “brave” read: “Ha! He’s joining our side!” For “honest” read: “Ha! He’s joining our side!”)
The thought of her gloating over Jones’s turncoat swivel gave me my worst stomach ache since my first collision with an Owen Smith interview. (I always wondered why her articles attacking the Tories were so cold and clinical; now I know that if you cut her open in the chest area and got the rib-spreaders working instead of a heart you’d find a framed photograph of Roy Jenkins.)
The second reason for caution is that one can no longer trust Mr. Jones’ intentions, for reasons above stated. Why give a gift to Jeremy’s enemies now? Why is your heart not encouraged, lifted even, by pictures of vast crowds coming out on to the streets of Britain to make a statement and to hear The Man speak to them? And why, if you are a socialist, are you not prepared to fight with a glad heart for a Britain worth living in? Where a government does its damnedest to give everyone in it a live worth living? As Sophocles put it: “Live without life’s joys is living death.” Where is the joy for those with debt? Who need food banks? Of being exploited at work? For those who have to keep forking out for their well-educated kids because they have no work or a low-paid job? Or who seem to have “made it” but who still have to shell out for massive rents to people and companies who don’t remotely deserve the reward? It struck me very early on in the Rise of Corbyn that anyone who called themselves “Labour” but couldn’t be glad of this unexpected turn of events was not “true” Labour. I know that might turn Alan Johnson puce for the TV cameras but he’d know what I mean: socialist Labour; a party that believes that “the party is a crusade or it is nothing” (as Harold Wilson put it), and, I would venture, a crusade that fights against iniquity, corruption and exploitation wherever it exists in Britain, instead of making feeble compromises against the organisations and individuals who cause and practice these things and who don’t go to the weddings of people who own the muthafudging Sun and Daily Mail newspapers. For me there is no getting around this: if you say you’re a socialist, you join the Movement, the Wave, and support its leader, or change your identity. And certainly, if you attack the Movement, the Crusade – I don’t mean make criticisms, I mean attack – and Jones has done that, without any shadow of a doubt, you place yourself on the side of those who despise it.
Time these days carves through the political scenery like a chain saw through blancmange. No sooner had a finished listening to a discussion on Novara Media (wonderful) where a bloke called Steven Woolfe was going to be a dangerously impressive new leader of UKIP than I read a Tweet saying he’d been shoved off the ballot paper. Bang! Perhaps by the time you read this The Ghoul, Mrs. May will have called an election and most of us will be running around in various shades of panic. Or punching the air defiantly shouting, “Come on! Let’s go!” like Andy Murray about to win Wimbledon again. Where will Owen Jones be a year’s time? Or six months or six weeks? If you want to know – on the basis of his recent diagnosis of the current Labour Party, at least – don’t ask him: he won’t have a clue.
*A less interesting question is Why? I suspect, sadly, that egotism has got the best of him here: in the article he used “I” 84 times and “Me” 16 times. And the “My Background” stuff was not a wise decision. Trust me, I used Control Search and found out. I also think I smell some Sense of Entitlement denied him t00. Or has someone near me put it: “Hell hath no fury than an Oxbridge graduate scorned”. Is that the case? Who knows, but if so I think OJ should have worked at disguising it.