Owen Jones, Jeremy Corbyn and England

In an acutely honest article, Owen Jones has called for a clear, coherent message. England must be part of the answer.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
28 June 2016

Owen Jones, Wikimedia

In a long, beautifully written, painfully honest post, Owen Jones lays out his anguish with the present situation. Why is the left descending into an appalling fight? Why can’t it find the arguments to oppose the historic shift to the right that Brexit represents? Why does it not have a leader who will amplify and focus the energies of those opposed to what is being done to Britain? A lamentable Tory government under David Cameron called the Brexit referendum in bad faith. It then lost it to band of cavalier free-market ‘cosmopolitans’ demanding 'control', who play fast and loose with racism, permitting them to garner over 17 million votes. In the face of this, the country’s dominant left party should be rounding on the lot of them, seeking as a matter of urgency the creation of a pro-European, pro-migration, pro-free-movement campaign, preparing for the fight-back while respecting the people’s decision – striking the notes of coherent grief and inspiring defiance shown by Caroline Lucas for the Greens.

Instead, a civil war has engulfed the Labour party and the candidate around whom a popular wave created a golden opportunity. A man who Owen Jones campaigned for, defended, advised and did everything he could to support: Jeremy Corbyn. In his final paragraphs Jones comes as close to admitting a sleepless political breakdown in as cogent, frank and personal prose as I have read on politics. He can't see how project Corbyn can be replaced by anything better. He rightly fears the absurdity of some “Blairite redux” who will make matters worse. But it is undeniable that the Corbyn project is not working for the country as a whole and will fail.

Jones was its foremost advocate and proponent. He was thrilled by Corbyn’s against the odds victory. He predicted and then witnessed at first hand the cruel ferocity of the assault upon Corbyn from within and outside the Labour party and defended him to the hilt. Now he faces the political crisis of a lifetime. The leader whom he defends will lose the battle that matters. What if his staying silent about this means, if only by default, that Owen Jones helps the Tories turn the country into “a jingoistic, foreigner-hating free market colony”?

It is the extreme honesty of his article that makes it a must read and an example for us all.

A question haunts it. Owen – I feel like using his first name given the nature of the piece – has no wish to reprimand Corbyn. Rather he reaches out to share the undeniable failure while being exemplary in his honesty about it. What is missing is:

A clear coherent message that would resonate with people who aren’t signed-up left-wing activists, that addressed people’s every day problems and aspirations, has yet to be created — and that’s a collective failure of the left (myself included). And if you do not define yourself, you are defined by your enemies — and my word has the Labour leadership been defined by its enemies. This is self-indulgent, but there is no point me pretending that I have not suffered from intense bouts of frustration (and worse), and often been at a total loss about how to help or be constructive.

Perhaps an outsider who is not a member of the Labour party (or any other) can say it is hard to see how Owen could have helped more or been more constructive. He modestly refers in passing to his attempt to set out what he thought Corbyn might do immediately after he won the leadership. I nearly did not click on the link. When I read it I nearly wept. If Corbyn had set in motion half of what Owen lists we would be in a different place – and still in Europe though this is not mentioned. To have such advice from such a close supporter, of such sweep and detail and do none of it…

Owen describes how Corbyn must not limit his appeal to the poor and vulnerable. He sets out how Corbyn needs to ensure that Labour face outwards and does not create a cult around him. How the party needs to establish priorities, i.e. accept that there is scarcity; address immigration in a tough, positive way; love-bomb UKIP; create a council of economic advisors from outside its usual ranks; reframe the debate about social security. The suggestions continue. Of them, only one is recognisably acted on: the council of economic advisors set up by John McDonnell – who unlike Corbyn has been frank about their learning curve, open to new people and ideas and fresh in his arguments, for example on Europe.

But it is the leader in our leader-centric days who defines the alliances that are made and the appeal that is created. Corbyn has not released energy outwards or built on the movement that created him. The moment I knew he had not understood what had happened was when he explained to a televsion interviewer, “I have a mandate”. My heart sunk. The mandate was not his, but the movement that created him. 

The referendum was a heaven sent opportunity for Corbyn’s Labour party. It was a platform on which to take command of defining what kind of country Britain should be and of what kind of democracy it wanted. Because its limelight was not the hideous theatrical of the House of Commons it was, to use Owen's phrase, a perfect opportunity to define oneself. Instead, the argument over Brexit was treated tactically, as a Tory fight that Labour had to keep away from. This was a catastrophic misjudgement. Corbyn gave his support for the EU as "seven or seven and a half out of ten". His defenders say this placed him close to the view of the population. But this misses the point by a galaxy. The referendum was not about Europe it was about us. It was – and is – about our country’s direction, solidarity and internationalism. The referendum was a singular moment of existential commitment not a grade assessment. The demand for leadership is overdone but a referendum calls for leadership in the sense of a definition of purpose. Labour under Jeremy Corbyn did not provide this. (Nor did the Conservatives under Cameron, which is why he lost).

Where now is the “clear coherent message that will resonate” Owen asks. Labourism, the all-British alternative to socialism that grounded itself in the trade union movement, defended its vested interests and was loyal to the British state, is dust. Brexit was an English revolt and in place of Labourism we need to inspire a movement that proclaims England as a European country. This means an England that has a constitution and human rights not just proportional representation. An England that belongs to us, not some mythical sovereignty of parliament anyway now vaporised by the sovereignty of the referendum.

One way to get it is through the bottom up selection of one progressive pro-European candidate per constituency via a joint primary by all progressive parties as advocated by Paul Hilder. To start now in preparation for a general election later this year, when Boris Johnson has set out his Euro-stall. It is an election he may want to lose.

The message should be for an English democracy that makes us the European country we are. It is a generational politics that embraces free movement as a human liberty not the commoditisation of labour; a class politics that seeks skilled employment in a fairly governed framework; a multicultural politics that protects minorities; an international politics that invests in localism, solidarity and mutualism; a politics of city and country. Today, a politics organised through the internet, which makes the democracy of self-government possible – a republican politics to replace Labourism.

Corbyn’s integrity is not made from this cloth. Its upright, stubborn tenacity was forged in another age. The referendum campaign for all its disgraceful froth and noises was a 21st century event, posing the best model of capitalism as one of its central themes. Completely missing from it, on all sides apart from the Greens, was any positive articulation of being European that would make you want to Remain – despite all the need for the EU’s deep reform. The lesson here concderning the “clear coherent message” that Owen calls for, is that you cannot have a positive vision of why 'we' should be “in” Europe unless you know what 'our country' is. If, in the European context, you are evasive, or mumble about this, your entire message fades. The country can no longer be “Great Britain”, thanks to Scotland – if only by default, but nonetheless all the more definitive because of this. It can still be a federal Britain should the Scots agree. But not a Britain ruled thoughtlessly by English supremacists. If we wish to be European, then progressives in England whether socialist, liberal, green, Labourist, pluralist, or Varoufakis, have to speak for England, from England, as English. Otherwise we are a bygone. Brexit was an English call. If we wish to reverse its polarity from negative to positive we have to embrace the source of its energy as our own.

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