Answers for Owen Jones (part I)


A few days ago, those who support Jeremy Corbyn in the current re-run of the Labour leadership election were given an instruction by top commentator Owen Jones. Owen told all of us that if we didn’t provide satisfactory answers to his nine questions, then we would be counted as “accomplices” of the very people we oppose”.

Now, I’m not one who generally goes around obeying instructions from top commentators, but it seems an interesting challenge, and I’m up to it. The questions themselves are ill-ordered, in my view, but for consistency, and assuming readers here will generally have read Owen’s piece, I’ve stayed with Owen’ order.

Nor is it clear exactly how Owen sees answers being presented, if indeed he expects them at all. That is, it’s not clear whether he wants answers based on analysis what the Corbyn leadership is at the moment, or whether he seeks a more normative reponse around what Corbynism might become, assuming he retains the leadership.

In the absence of clarity, I have plumped firmly for the latter, but I have done so also because I think that the first year of Corbynism has been a decidedly mixed bag. In large part this has been because of the rampant stupidity of a large number of Labour MPs, but it does also reflect a lack of clarity on the part of the Corbyn leadership itself about what social forces and motivation brought Corbyn to the leadership in the first place, what a Corbynst ‘social movement’ might and should be, and ultimately, how phase 2 Corbynism might, if it’s key adherents, concientized, might actually still be the radical re-engineering of democratic socialism towhich many of us aspire.

To nail my colours to the mast, then, I’ll almost certainly be voting for Corbyn again, not least given what I think of Owen Smith’s pitch to date.

I won’t vote for Corbyn because I think he’s the Messiah — I do actually think he’s been a bit of a naughty boy to let himself be surrounded by some downright nasties who will probably never get the democratic impetus he actually reflects.

I’ll do so because:

a) I think Owen Smith winning will lead, via a series of “told you so” iterations by a Labour right back in what they consider to be their rightful place, to an unelectable party going through the same pointless triangulation;

b) I believe a reformed second phase Corbynism, in which Corbyn himself may or may not be the party leader, can win the next election (at least in collaboration with the SNP) because people want a radical change for security and stability.

The responses got a little bit long, so I’m separating them into two parts.

1. How can the disastrous polling be turned around?

This question should be at the end, not the start. Articulating a clear vision (Q2), developing a distinctive set of policy commitments (Q3) and making best use of a larger membership all surely feed into improvements in the polls; for Owen to suggest otherwise — perhaps inadvertently because of the stream of consciousness speed at which he churned out his piece — seems odd.

I do not think that Labour is best served by gimmicky announcements aimed at short term poll surges. Recent history suggests that unless you can build a solid base of trust in your capacity and willingness to deliver, such poll surges can quickly be reversed. What runs through all my answers to Owen, therefore, is a commitment to rebuilding connections and trust with citizens, in a way which may not see overnight polling changes, but which will create more sustained party (re-affiliation) for all that.

That said, there is something to be said for an early post-leadership contest announcement of one clear shift in the ‘Corbyn project’ which makes clear that the focus is now very clearly on building those voter connections and trust. I will come back to that under Q9 in part 2.

2. Where is the clear vision?

Owen is quite right to say that inthe ‘vision-setting’ under Ed Miliband’s leadership there was a failure to settle on and stick with a form of words to be repeated in interviews and on leaflets. He’s also right to say that no regularly used soundbite has yet emerged under the Corbyn leadership, though it’s also arguable that there’s still plenty of time for that (I don’t remember the Conservatives in opposition having much to offer before the financial crash hit, giving them the opportunity to hit Labour hard on their economic record).

But the question Owen should perhaps be asking is not where the vision is, but what it should be. That’s because, if it’s to hit home at a time when trust in Labour is at a low ebb, it will have to be more than a rhetorical device; it will have to be backed both by action while in opposition (see Q9, part 2) and by policy commitments (see Q3). Compare, in this respec, the way Osborne’s 2010 commitment to an emergency budget paid off because it demonstrated that the Conservatives meant what they said).

So as and when I get to be Jeremy’s key political advisor, this is what I will advise him about the vision we need to set out for life under Labour.

“Jez,” I will say to him, “do you remember that cider advert on the telly from a year or two ago, the one in which , three identifiably working class men — one who makes pork pies, one gas fitter and one who did something else — enter a giant cathedral-cum-masonic-hall, and walk slowly up the central aisle as hundreds of fellow workers look on in admiration, one with a tear coming to his manly eye.

At the front, they are given a pint of Strongbow cider and turn to their work comrades, raise their glasses, and drink their just rewards. There’s another advert too, from about the same time - a pastiche of the Braveheart film, with working class men brandishing satellite dishes instead of spears. And this, Jez. is what the cider advertising executive had to say about these adverts at the time:

While talking to consumers when researching the campaign we found that working-class men, while not vocal about it, feel undervalued….
In the 1980s there were considered to be a lot of working class heroics, such as during the miners’ strike — the working class was the backbone of Britain. Today there is a feeling that has been lost and it is about things like celebrities and how much you earn on the football pitch….
There is a middle-class distrust of manual labour, a suspicion of being ripped off but 99 out 100 times that is not the case. The core idea is workers as heroes.

“These ads, Jez”, I will say to him, “and adverts a bit like it (but with women and people from ethnic minorities in), should be a template for our vision of life under a Labour government.”

In short, we need a vision statement which celebrates the best of English (I’ll talk about Scotland in part 2) working class culture, and re-identifies Labour with it, in a way which is clearly backed by policy commitments.

That best of English working class culture lies in its neighbourliness and solidarity, especially in the hard times which Brexit/threat of Brexit will soon bring.

Of course the loss of industry, and with it an important commonality of interest in specific locations, has damaged this cultural trait in many towns and cities. Of course (as Iset out here) this damage is part of a wider societal shift toward ‘atomisation’ of late consumer capitalism (a shift which actually pre-dates neoliberalism by two decades). Nevertheless, it is a cultural trait to which working class people aspire — that much is clear from the success of the cider advert s — and which Labour can and should seek to foster, both as the key part of its rhetoric and through both policy commitment from the PLP and from the shift in Labour party social activity I advocate below (Q9, part 2).

I’m not in advertising, and I hesitate to put forward the form of rhetoric and metaphor which might compete for effectiveness with the Tory sloganeering which Owen (rightly) praises in its own terms, not to mention the more recent UKIP/Brexit ‘take back control’ . mantra. Nevertheless, my sense is that Labour needs to shift its metaphoric base from ‘fight’ to ‘build’.

For myself, I am sick to the back teeth of left-wing activists and Labour ‘moderates’ alike who for ever feel the need to be seen to be “fighting” for or against something, whether this be cuts to services, Blairites, the hard left or, on many recent occasion, some or other phantom insult to their integrity. The fight metaphor — for it remains a metaphor as long as physical violence is not present — is not just stale; it is counterproductive, because it militates against (see what I did their) any notion that Labour might work for a common goal, instead emphasizing a permanence of division and mutual hostility.

We need, I believe, a conscious and determined shift in language, under a second phase Corbynism, towards the metaphors of building, stability, and permanence — language which helps instill confidence in voters that Labour is about returning what working class communities miss most — security. As I set out here, this is the kind of language which comes naturally to Jeremy Corbyn himself but, perhaps because it does come so naturally, he has apparently not sought to embed within the rest of the party leadership and sidekicks, who consistently fall back on their adulterated Gramscianism, and for whom everything, and especially everything intra-party, is internalised then articulated as a war of position.

Put simply, we do not need to be at war with ourselves, and Labour needs to articulate a vision of permanence and stability.

While an appeal to (what remains of) to the best of English working class culture makes sense as a vision statement, this does not mean to say that that culture has no faults, or that I am some starry-eyed romantic who believes that everyone with a working class accent is the salt of the earth who’d do anything for you and then still leave you the bus fare home.

I’ve been on enough doorsteps and in enough pubs, and heard enough reference to people ‘coming over here attacking our way of life’, to ‘asylum seekers’ and ‘illegals’, to know that racial prejudice based on a strong sense of racial superiority of the English, is a real, living, and self-perpetuating legacy of our colonial past (and perversely our victory over fascism), and I will tackle this head on in my (potentially controversial) response to Owen’s question on the ‘immigration question’, which has dogged Labour for half a century now.

Suffice to say here, though, that if, as Owen suggests, we’ve fallen behind the Tories when it comes to setting out a clear vision statement, we can do worse than embedding a new vision of ourselves within the existing vision of how many in the working class are still happy to see themselves portrayed.

Of course — and here’s the tricky bit — Labour can’t afford — leaving aside the ethics of doing so — to accommodate the more negative traits of working class culture (albeit imposed on that culture by colonial and then consumer capitalism) at the expense of the liberal middle-class support it already enjoys.

3. How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?

Owen is reasonably correct to say that there is not a big distance between much of current policy — in as far as that policy has been articulated at all at this stage; while John McDonnell’s proposed fiscal rules differs from Ed Balls’ at a technical level (the zero bound exception), to many lay observers it is likely to look and feel the same.

I disagree with Owen on two counts, though. First, there’s his apparent assumption that having substantively the same policy agenda as Ed Miliband is a bad thing for the party. In fact, the Miliband programme made a good deal of sense, though much of the more radical stuff developed during 2013–14 and largely set out in IPPR’s June 2014 Condition of Britain report, was let go from the final campaign as the leadership, and the more conservative elements behind it, became increasingly nervous about setting out too radical a programme.

There was nothing intrinsically wrong with much of the Miliband programme for government (although one area needs clarification and expansion, which I’ll cover below), and it’s no bad thing in itself that the emergent Corbyn programme follows it quite closely; that just displays continuity. The challenge is to articulate it better than we managed under Miliband, and to persuade voters of the fact that, this time, we’re serious about implementation.

This links into my second disagreement with Owen, which is on his assumption that the best way to become electable is “to develop radical policies and present them as being commonsense and moderate.”

I think this is to misunderstand what I’ll call, for shorthand, the Overton Window as it ‘exists’ in the early 21st century. Shifting the Overton Window is not done by getting voters to look differently through it, so that your policies can be seen; it’s done by pulling the window to one side. UKIP haven’t had their relative electoral success by seeking to mainstream, their point on view; their success has come because they made a case beyond the mainstream.

Owen Smith, perhaps surprisingly, gets this better than Owen Jones, when he talks of his ability to produce and lead a “government in waiting” with a “radical” programme (though, as I’ll suggest in part 2, the part about waiting around is weak and reflects precisely what potential a properly developed Corbyynism might have).

So my own view is this: the second phase of Corbynism needs to reflect positively on what Mlibandism (nearly) brought to the policy table — a lot of the work has been done — then display it anew as radical departure from the mainstream.

In other words, what Owen in his despair sees as a negative, I see as a positive (answers to Q4 and Q9 permitting).

At first sight, the idea of setting out a radical policy agenda might seem inimical to the earlier view set out above — that what voters crave is certainty and security. But that is 20th century politics: the politics of an ”It’s the economy , stupid’ time, when the mainstream’s best selling point was that it offered safety and security. Now, in the 21st century, trust in the mainstream has broken down to such an extent, that it’s the radical seems to offer the best route to security. That’s the appeal of the populist right. That’s why, against all economic logic and expertise, people voted for Brexit. And that’s why, albeit belatedly, the left is on to something when it espouses the radical.

But, with this as a framework, let’s get back to the key substantive question from Owen J: “what sort of policies will be offered, not least given what is at stake?”

There’s not room here to set out a full programme — that will have to wait until I become key adviser to the second phase Corbyn leadership — but here for starters are two important elements.

Firstly, second phase Corbynism needs to be clear that investment is not limited to infrastructure, but includes investment in people, with a specific focus (as per above) on keeping people security. Just as a flyer, we could call it something like social security….though it needs to be a 21st century version.

Yes, building homes and improving transport infrastructure (see below) is important, not least because of the decent jobs and associated training it brings, but in a country here ‘precarity’ now runs deep into the middle class, and across generations, Labour needs a set of policies for long-term Galbraithian investment in human capital, of the type which reduces the burden on the public purse in the long run, but also prevents the kind of crisis periods which are now almost a hallmark of modern life. The list of such intervention areas, but includes high quality early years provision (as opposed to the often quite poor quality provided at the moment), child & adolescent mental health services integrated properly into pastoral care at school, effective preventative social work and family support, domestic violence prevention embedded in schools, through to a revised universal credit programme decoupled from any sanction regime, security of tenure, and humane inter-generational housing provision which gives older people social back up, and proper empowerment of carers in a properly used health and social care service.

Some of this is already set out in the IPPR Condition of Britain report referred to above, but never made it anywhere near the 2015 manifesto for fear of sounding spendthrift. This is because those leading the Milibandian charge in this area failed to conceive of this kind of investment as anything other than day-to-day spending which would need justifying through overall cost neutral programming of the type which inevitably raised the prospect of cuts to universal services.

This time around, with the Conservatives forced into a u-turn on fiscal repression by the horrible reality of the post-Bexit recession (and a slightly more orown up understanding of economics than Osborne), Labour needs to talk a different, radical game on human investment, in a way which moves us on from the stale anti-austerity rhetoric that has, as Owen rightly points out, dominated left-wing parlance to little effect for the last six years.

But of course this is only one part of the policy-as-security programme. The other major part is, of course, security of decent work, especially in the ‘left behind’ areas of England. This will need a radical industrial and technological strategy, focused not just on export but also, in a post-Brexit world, on a rather old-fashioned but now sadly relevant strategy for import substitution, as we move almost inevitably into a state of semi-isolation (I’ll be covering this in much more detail in part 2).

The strategy will need to be more than an Investment Bank; there will need to be an element of ‘picking winners’ post-Brexit, however sub-optimal that might have been for a free trading country, and it will need to involve significant adjust to tax regimes to make poorer areas differentially attractive, with different corporation tax rates, non-investment levies where necessary and, at the SME and micor-business level, the return of proper statutory sick pay support quietly done away with by the Tories, R&D tax breaks, and corporation tax removals at de minimis levels of profit (recreating the £10,000 zero rate in place until 2006).

Alongside this, Labour under Corbyn would do well to speak out against HS2, on the basis of the evidence from Europe that high-speed rail links may wellhelp the development of certain metropolitan hubs, but also foster intra-regional inequalities as development gets sucked in from regional towns of precisely the type that already feel ‘left behind’.

Instead, Labour should plan for major investment in local lines and newrolling stock — the extortionate leasing costs of ancient rolling stock by companies set up for a song by management buy-out at the time of privatisation, and now largely sold on to private equity, is a much greater scandal than who runs the trains.

This should aim to create easier travel to work patterns and ease congestion in the places that really count, and should in turn, should be part of a wider strategy to regionalise supply chains, with tax and other incentives for doing so.

Finally, I can’t leave this section without reference to what will, in the next couple of years, become the overriding security and stability concern for many people in England. That’s terrorism. You only have to read Rukmini’s extraordinary journalism to grasp the sad inevitability that, in the coming period, terrorist atrocities will take place, and may well increase in frequency, potentially perpetrated by both Islamists and the far-right, and no party seeking to be in government can ignore what will be its duties to protect and prevent.

I’m no security (in that sense) expert, and can offer up no meaningful contribution as to how Labour should set out polices for preventing active attempts at terror while respecting civil liberties, other than to say it is going to require plenty of investment. What I can say though is that as a corollary to such short-term policing and prevention there will need to be a generation-long educational and civic society development programme around what I will deliberately here call ‘constitutional patriotism’ and a more mature cosmopolitanism.

Towards part 2

I’ll cover this, as a necessary ingredient for a mature Corbynism, in part 2, when I’ll tackle, amongst Owen’s other questions, the issue of how Labour deals with the fact that, for most of its existing and even more of its ex-support, immigration and immigrants are dirty words.

As a cliff-hanger on that one, I’ll finish with a thought from Richard Crossman’s diaries, written in September 1965, which reflects the intractability, for Labour in particular, of the ‘immigration/electability question”. Here, Crossman refers to the August 1965 White Paper Immigration from the Commonwealth, in which plans for a drastic reduction in immigration were introduced on account of fears about pressures on housing and services:

This has been one of the most difficult and unpleasant jobs the government has had to do. We have become illiberal and lowered the quotas at a time when we have an acute shortage of labour. No wonder the weekend and liberal papers have been bitterly attacking us. Nevertheless I am convinced that if we had not done all this we would have been faced with certain electoral defeat in the West Midlands and the South East. Politically, fear of immigration is the post powerful undertow today….We felt we had to out-trump the Tories by doing what they would have done and so transforming their policy into a bi-partisan policy. On the other hand I can’t overestimate the shock to the party. This will confirm the feeling that ours is not a socialist government, that is surrendering to pressure.

In part 2, I’ll deal with how, perversely, Brexit offers England, and Labour, a once in two lifetimes’ opportunity to deal with our deep legacy of colonialism, which lies at the heart of so much that is wrong with modern England, but which a successful second phase Corbynism can start to grapple with.

Oh, and I’ll also talk about media strategy in the context of what Corbyism actually is/can be, and I’ll cover where Momentum fits into it all (or rather doesn’t) in the context of how to develop social movements that win elections.

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