Owen Jones, December 2016

Owen Jones: “Syriza was a very bitter experience”

AthensLive reporter Vas Panagiotopoulos met up with author, journalist and political activist Owen Jones in London and discussed Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, Brexit, the European Union, populism, the Greek bailout talks, Syriza and the European Left.

Full interview transcript:

US Elections

I don’t know the extent of Russian influence within the election. It does seem, as things stand, there is compelling evidence that there was Russian interference through hacking which was then obviously disseminated via Wikileaks. Is that why I think Donald Trump won in the electoral college? Because obviously he lost by quite significant margin the popular vote. No, I think it’s one factor amongst many. I think, a democratic candidate who was seen as very much part of the establishment and I think it’s easy to let the Democratic campaign off the hook and just say: “it was the Russians who did it.” I don’t think it’s true. I don’t think that the rustbelt of the United States didn’t come out and, you know, endorse Hillary Clinton by majority isn’t because of Vladimir Putin.

It is a fact amongst many that has to be analysed, but I do think you have to put it in a broader context of repeated American subversion and interference in foreign elections, including Russia in the 1990s. They interfered overtly in the 1996 presidential election in Russia, but also they repeatedly helped overthrow democratically elected governments.

“You have to put [Russian influence within the US election] in a broader context of repeated American subversion.”

My own parents brought in refugees from Chile who fled the Allende regime. One of them, her husband had been murdered she’d been raped and she ended up taking her own life and she fled a country where a democratic government was overthrown with the support of the United States whose, you know, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said we will not stand by and allow a country to go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people. You had that across Latin America, across Central America, across Africa, Asian countries as well, so you know, the US you know… You do need to take seriously obviously attempts by Putin and Russia, a regime which is an unacceptable authoritarian regime which, the populist right of the West look to for inspiration. They do, you know… The National Front in France, UKIP here, and the Italian Northern League and obviously Donald Trump himself, they all look to Vladimir Putin. He is a protégé, a mentor and inspiration to all of them, and I do think clearly he wanted Donald Trump to win and I think they intervened to help in some way, but I don’t think that’s why Hillary Clinton lost the electoral college and also and I do think we need to put it in a broader context, which is the US is more than happy to interfere and, you know, in terms of America, why did Donald Trump win? Well, I think there’s sometimes a temptation that has to be one thing or the other and of course I don’t agree with that. I think obviously racism played a role.

There was a backlash against a certain group of people at the rise, the gains of the civil rights movement, the anti-racism movement, feminism the LGBT movements and clearly there was an element of backlash there and the other one of course was economic insecurity, stagnating and declining living standards the disappearance of secure skilled jobs in many parts of the United States and I think Donald Trump latched onto that very effectively, whilst Hillary Clinton was seen as being part of the political model that was responsible for many of those problems so, you know, it’s not one thing or the other. I think lots of factors were at play, life is generally quite complicated and we don’t always have to reduce it to one thing.

Brexit & the Labour Party

Talking about Brexit: what’s your view on Jeremy Corbyn not having wholeheartedly supported the Remain Campaign?

There were lots of criticisms which I myself have made of Jeremy Corbyn. I think the problem with the EU referendum is this… I mean look, Labour voters overwhelmingly all, I mean a large majority of Labour voters voted for remain, between two thirds and three quarters. In fact, a similar proportion of Labour voters voted for remain as SNP voters — Scottish National Party voters — voted for remain, but no one is saying that the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon didn’t campaign with enough gusto, the problem with what… you know, what Labour could have done is than this full-throated stand with David Cameron and all the rest… but we had the experience of Scotland where you had the independence referendum there, which destroyed the Scottish Labour Party, because they stood in alliance with the Scottish Tories and the establishment to say in a campaign of fear to say, your life, everything will collapse, your jobs will disappear and it caused fury and anger, and the anger is still there and you know most people, a lot of people of Labour voters where out, where Jeremy Corbyn was out, which is to go, look we don’t think the EU is this amazing incredible thing, but on balance we should stay in it and this is why and that’s what he said and I think the reason the campaign was lost is not above all because of that.

Look, the Leave Campaign had this great slogan “take back control” and that resonated with people, you know, people who felt they have no control over their lives, their communities, that, you know their living standards are falling, in decline they are worried about the future of their kids and the Remain Campaign came across as a very establishment, corporate entity, threatening economic ruin into people who already feel their lives are defined by economic insecurity, just didn’t, it didn’t work and I don’t think that was Jeremy Corbyn’s fault above all else. The danger that Labour have is, they’re in a very difficult position, uniquely difficult position, because the Labour coalition includes people who are very strongly pro-remain and very strongly pro-leave and the Tories don’t have the same problem. You have Tory voters who voted remain, but are not generally fervent remain supporters, they shook their shoulders and said “well, I wanted to remain in the European Union, et c’est la vie…”

“UK Labour is in a uniquely difficult position, because its coalition includes people who are very strongly pro-remain and very strongly pro-leave.”

The difference is, with the Labour, you get lots of working-class Labour voters particularly older working-class voters in northern areas of England, you know like Doncaster and Sunderland, a very strongly anti-EU and obviously very opposed to immigration and then you get people like where we’re sitting here in the middle London, in this borough, Islington, nearly eight out of ten people voted to remain and this is a Labour constituency, so you get you know, you got to straddle a very difficult divide between people who on the one hand feel very angry, very upset, very traumatised by Brexit, they feel it’s a nightmare that just won’t end and then you’ve got people who are fervently and continue to fully support leaving and they both support Labour. So, Labour has to come up with a strategy that can keep them both together and that’s not easy at all.

And there’s always the danger of these people defecting to UKIP…

The danger with Labour is coalitions, you get the “remainers” they could end up being disillusioned and defect into the Liberal Democrats and the Greens, if they think Labour is too pro-Brexit, and then on the other hand you’ve got Labour voters who would defect to UKIP for example, or maybe the Conservative Party, but mostly not. UKIP are waiting. They’re circling around Labour’s coalition, particularly in the North and they’ve made it their strategic aim to try and win over working-class northern voters. So, that’s all said and done.

Are we headed towards a train-crash Brexit?

Well, I don’t want to make predictions, but obviously it looks bad. I mean, Brexit has had a terrible impact on the political culture of this country, that you know it’s a British variant of authoritarian right-wing populism and and the one thing in common with Donald Trump and the right-wing Brexit is that both are what you can call “sore winners” they both act like they’ve lost and they continue to attack their opposition, as if the opposition won.

In this country, you get these bitter, venomous attacks on “remainers” or “remoaners” as they’re called. We lost the referendum. We didn’t win. We’re not in charge of this situation and I think the danger is, as you know, I think the danger is of a chaotic, harsh Brexit which is very damaging to the jobs, living standards and the economy of the country and they will try and blame “remainers” for sabotaging it, but we’re not running this. The people responsible now are all the Brexiteers. Obviously, we’ve got to make the best of it and I support, you know, getting the best possible deal we can.

And if you don’t get that good deal? Because the chances are right now that the deal is going to be pretty painful…

It’s not in the interest of the European Union to give Britain a good deal, because they’ve all got to agree, all the member states, and you know, if you’ve got a precedent of a major EU-country leaving the EU, that’s bad. Sets a precedent, they don’t want to encourage that and also that they all have anti-EU, anti-immigrant parties of their own to deal with, they’re worried about being bolstered, many of their voters already resent Britain, because they think Britain had a special treatment already from the European Union, so obviously that makes it very difficult. I mean, that’s why, as things stand, we’ve got to campaign for good Brexit, we can’t… Some will say, let’s campaign for a second referendum, the problem with that is, under the nature of the British electoral system, if you rerun the referendum under our electoral system in a general election, “leave” would win 421 seats and “remain” would win 229 seats and the reason for that is, we have first-past-the-post, we don’t have a proportional system and in a consistency like this “remain” got a massive… that so in the big cities and Scotland “remain” got these massive huge margins that in most of the country “leave” won most of the constituencies.

So, people who argue to overturn it and also a lot of the “remain” voters, according to the poll are saying, we just have to accept the outcome of the referendum So, anyone who calls for that, it will be argued, they are trying to undermine the democratic verdict of the British people. If “remain” had won 52% against 48% and Nigel Farage and the rest demanded a second referendum, we would have been the first to say “that’s undemocratic, you lost, get over it.” So we just have to… it is hard, it is bitterly hard, it’s difficult, but we’ve got to accept it and we’ve just got to fight for the best possible deal we can.

The European Union and Greece

Obviously SYRIZA, it was a very bitter experience for all of us on the left. I was in in Greece, in Athens for the election in January 2015, which feels frankly like a lifetime away now, and obviously the whole point of what happened with Greece was to make an example of the Greek government and Donald Tusk, the president the European Council, said that the fear wasn’t an economic contagion, or financial contagion, it was political contagion and because if the Greek government was seen to be successful, then that would encourage other left forces like Podemos in Spain as well.

“SYRIZA was a very bitter experience for all of us on the left.”

And the difference is, look, Greece is a beautiful great country but it’s also a tiny proportion of the Eurozone. It’s 2% of the economy, so they actually took a big political hit the EU. They were damaged by it, but they could still manage to get away with it, because Greece was dispensable, it was 2% of the economy, they can afford to threaten in the way they did. If that was the Spanish government, they just couldn’t have done the same thing at all. So, I think that is worth bearing in mind, you know. Yes, Greece was a terrible defeat, a very bitter defeat, but you know these things aren’t easy, it’s called “the struggle” for a reason not a walk-over. I just do not believe that the future belongs to the Nigel Farages and the Donald Trumps and Marine Le Pens, I just don’t believe that. History will damn those who scapegoated immigrants and poor people for all the problems in society. I think those who fought against those people will be looked upon far more kindly.

“History will damn those who scapegoated immigrants and poor people for all the problems in society.”

Unfortunately, it is not a constant story of progress, of victories and successes, but from terrible setbacks and defeats and in the 1930s things were far worse than they are today, we were overwhelmed by genocide or totalitarian fascism. It’s always worth bearing that in mind. I think, the left was being physically exterminated across Europe and that isn’t the case today, things are very difficult and very hard and what the left has to do is to come up with a coherent and inspiring alternative, that is told in a language that people understand, and we’ve often failed to do that.

But, I do look at, Bernie Sanders he didn’t win the nomination, but look how far he came. I mean, you know, I don’t think, you know. I think that whole old establishment wing of the Democrats it’s being discredited. Look at Podemos, a party, which in two years went from nothing to getting millions of votes in Spain. I think that’s a beginning and I think, given the anger and frustration that people have and given how extreme the crisis that has enveloped the western world days is, we need radical solutions, the old centrism just can’t answer them.

So, what could these radical solutions be?

That means investment in the economy rather than the cuts that have destroyed much of the social fabric of Europe, it means promoting the industries of the future with an active state. Germany’s done it with renewable energy, it means public ownership of utilities and services, rather than having them run by profiteers. Making the rich pay for a proper amount of tax which can then be used to invest in the future of the country, and particularly in the young who have suffered so badly in Greece, Spain and elsewhere. It means regulating our financial sector and having a publicly-owned financial component as well, which can help promote the industries and investment of all our economies are depending on, you know. We need to build a society that is run on the basis of people’s’ needs and aspirations of the people, of the social good, rather than the needs of the tiny elite that have plunged the west into a terrible disaster. And unless we do that and get back together, then the future belongs to right-wing populists, but I don’t think that’s inevitable.

Do you think the best way of going about it is within a European framework or a national framework?

Well, I don’t think these problems can be solved one country at a time, you can’t, I mean, look, we’re up against globalised economic and political forces and it’s naive to think a country on its own steam can just solve these problems. The problems we face differ in specifics and scale but they are quite similar in lots of fundamental ways. From an unregulated financial sector that has caused so much pain…

Why I’m asking, and sorry to interrupt you, is because Yanis Varoufakis with his DiEM25 movement said he wants to democratise the EU within, but you talked about radical solutions, so I’m just wondering do you believe we can move forward within the current framework?

I think Yanis Varoufakis is absolutely right that we need to completely transform what the European Union is and democratise it. I mean, obviously Britain won’t be part of it anymore, but I do think it is a radical solution to try and transform it by making it democratic and transparent and not beholden to the interests of corporate interests, which it currently is, and that won’t be easy, it will be hard and that means, that needs a pan-European movement of people to do that, you need to unite across borders all of us do, whether in the European Union or not.

But within? Many people on the Left are saying that the current framework is not adequate…

So look, Britain just voted to leave the European Union, it’s a disaster for our country, it’s a disaster economically but also politically. Because you know, look, the xenophobic populist right is on the ascent across Europe, they’re the ones who benefit most if the European Union disintegrates and we take it as read, that their prospective war no longer looms over our continent, as it has for centuries, but I think it’s naive to think otherwise.

In living memory our continent was destroyed and it was destroyed with tens of millions of people who died and, I think, if the European Union collapses it won’t suddenly mean some great new left Europe will be borne out of the rubble. Of course it won’t. It would mean that the plans of the Marine Le Pens and the Geert Wilders and all the rest, they’re the ones who benefit.

“If the European Union collapses, it won’t suddenly mean some great new left Europe will be borne out of the rubble.”

So, no. We need to change the European Union, transform it. But that doesn’t mean destroying it, because the only ones who would benefit, as things stand, would be the right-wing populists.

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