A Question Owen Jones Needs to Answer?

Many left-wing Labour supporters have been dismayed to read Owen Jones’ recent blog post demanding answers to nine questions that he claims all Corbyn supporters need to address. Jones spends a long time pre-empting the criticisms he will get for posing these questions and defending his actions as an act of good faith and not of sabotage — he has genuine concerns for the future of the Labour party and the Left.

There is no reason to presume that Owen Jones is acting here out of anything other than genuine concern. It is also perfectly valid to pose such questions and important that this new movement within Labour is open to criticism and is able to respond. Indeed, Paul Mason’s latest article on the way ahead for Labour does provide clear answers to most of the answers posed by Jones. The questions themselves will thus not be addressed here, but rather the negative effects — however unintentional they may be — of the article itself. The problem with Jones’ article is not so much the questions and their content — all of which, at certain junctures, are important ones to address — but in the tone of the article, some of the odd language used and, most of all, its timing.

First of all, the tone. Owen Jones writes from a position of authority and he lets us know that in his article. This is not without justification — Jones has been a rare voice for the Left in the mainstream media and has enjoyed real success while reaching a broad audience. The manner in which he writes from this position of authority, however, almost renders the questions he poses rhetorical in that he does not foresee or expect any answer to them. Here is a brief structure of the article:

1. Jones affirms that he has a long history in the left of Labour and personally knows Corbyn, McDonnell and the others very well, and has been involved in their operations.

2. He campaigned for Corbyn last time around, but predicted the calamitous problems that he and Labour have encountered.

3. Despite this in-depth knowledge, personal contact with the chief actors and belief in the political aims, he cannot even begin to sketch any answers to the crucial questions that he is posing for Corbyn supporters.

4. Given this, the article quickly begins to read as an implicit pronouncement that the movement is doomed and even destructive.

In one telling sentence, Jones writes:

I can’t facilitate something harmful, even if that means saying things the people reading my work do not wish to hear.

This ‘something harmful’ can only refer to Corbyn and the movement, while the questions he poses — and the sheer number of them as they build into a crescendo and an apocalyptic conclusion — do not appear, actually, to be genuine questions, despite the doubtlessly genuine faith they are posed with. They appear rather as a barrage of questions from a prosecuting lawyer whose aim is to cow the defendant.

The negative effect of all this is exacerbated by the timing of the article. Right now there is only one concrete question for Labour members and supporters: Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith. Given that context, what is this article actually saying? An article published on the same day as Jones’ by another rare voice of the Left in mainstream media, Paul Mason (as mentioned above), shows an entirely different attitude as it lays out a coherent strategy for Labour: yes, the odds are stacked against us, not everything is in our hands and what is will be difficult to pull off, but it’s not impossible. And in any case, what’s the alternative? Mr. Smith?

Surely the task for the Left is to sure up Corbyn’s leadership and then start getting to grips with the kinds of questions being posed by Jones (although the process can start, internally, before that of course). With words such as ‘I can’t facilitate something harmful,’ a crescendo of questions that look all the world to be pronouncements of doom, and a prophetic conclusion that predicts the death of the Left, what other impression can the reader take away than it is not really an attempt to positively engage with the movement, but rather discourage it?

This impression is reinforced when the article concludes with a rather odd statement:

The situation is extremely grave and unless satisfactory answers are offered, we are nothing but the accomplices of the very people we oppose.

If we cannot provide satisfactory answers to the questions he poses, then we are merely accomplices of May and the Tories if we back Corbyn — is this not the only logical conclusion that we can take from this statement? That by supporting and voting for Corbyn without satisfying the conditions that he sets out, we are in fact backing the Tory party. There is a certain arrogance, as well as desperation and despair, displayed throughout this article, and it reaches its zenith here. This is understandable and forgivable — all this has happened very quickly and unexpectedly, and emotions are running high as a lot is at stake. Nonetheless, suggesting that people are accomplices of the Tories in backing Corbyn plays into the very centrist/Blairite narrative that Jones has expressly stated that he wants no part of.

It seems clear, at the very least, that Owen Jones is suffering from a crisis in faith and at best wants some reassurance before continuing to back Corbyn; at worst, he has already given up on him and the movement and this is the first public step. However, unless Jones simply wants the Left to retreat rather than be humiliated in the next election and for us all to be mocked for the rest of our lives (as he puts it in a slightly hysterical way, it has to be said), it is extremely difficult to see how Owen Smith — who is the only alternative to Corbyn right now — can in any way address the questions he has set out. Nor is it easy to see how voting in Smith would not lead to a Tory government next time around, but without having a clear left-wing opposition and alternative on the opposing benches.

Therefore, at this particular moment in time, the question that Corbyn supporters need answered from Owen Jones — who has been and hopefully will continue to be an influential voice for the Left — is who is it to be, Jeremy Corbyn or Owen Smith?