Just a few early thoughts on Owen Jones’ article:
1) How can the disastrous polling be turned around?
The first thing I think has to be said here is that if you look at the polling since the election, after suffering a bad election result Labour has been behind. The polls closed in March then widened dramatically soon after. What happened then, the wrecking by the PLP majority (no confidence motion, hourly resignations, heckling of your own leader in the Commons in full view of the Tories, briefing to the media) reached a fever pitch. That is when the polls yawned open. This was not Corbyn’s act. It was engineered by his opponents, no matter what the impact on Labour’s prospects.
Now, what you do about polling (and yes, polls can be wrong, but they can also be a rough indicator of where parties stand)? Jones does not give an answer to this. There is a strong whiff of defeatism in his article, in my opinion. Surely this is the time to come out fighting, firm up Corbyn’s leadership and ensure a united party behind him. What, Owen, is the alternative?
There is no guarantee that Corbyn can win, but there is no evidence Smith can either. Smith is essentially about replicating Brown and Miliband’s approach and that of social democracy across Europe, which is struggling. The PLP majority was briefing against Corbyn before he became leader, during the last leadership campaign. That divisiveness has bedeviled his attempt to take on the Tories.
To most of us active in support of Corbyn, the recent huge rallies have been energising, evidence that we can use the mass membership as a cog to move the bigger cog of Labour voters and in turn to move the still bigger cog of people who used to or have rarely voted Labour. Jones looks statically at half a million people as a small minority of the whole population. Yes, if they do not campaign, if they do not intervene, if they are not armed with arguments to convince people. That is our task, to turn a numerical mass membership into an active and dynamic mass membership. Winning the leadership is the first essential step in doing that. I think Jones has to be crystal clear where he stands in the leadership and how to deal with people who refuse to accept Corbyn’s leadership after a victory.
2) Where is the clear vision?
Corbyn’s leadership represents a clear break with neo-liberalism at a time when even the Tories admit neo-liberalism and austerity are in crisis. Now, this has to be put into simple terms. I, as just one rank and file anti-austerity activist, have long argued that we need to be armed with simple, punchy policy breakdowns of what anti-austerity means in practice, on housing, jobs, the NHS, welfare and an ethical foreign policy rejecting the legacy of Iraq. If Corbyn’s vision is so unclear, why has Owen Smith adopted so much of it? (See Daily Mirror analysis of this).
3) How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?
Cuts. In a word, cuts. If anyone seriously does not see a clear difference between Balls/Miliband’s caution and acceptance of cuts while not saying where they would be made, I really do not think they have been looking. The same goes for a period when the Labour Party could produce anti-immigration mugs and a Labour leader who could go to Calais to meet refugees. Labour councils must break from being seen as passive conduits of Tory cuts. That said, you do not write a Manifesto far in advance of an Election. The new agenda has to be formulated, sharpened and made accessible to the public. This should be the business of Labour Party and Momentum forums. Already there are such discussions beginning around the country. These should be bottom up, respecting the views of members.
4) What’s the media strategy?
There may be some meat in this question, though it is slightly disingenuous in a period when salami-sliced resignations have stripped much of the Shadow Cabinet and parliament is on holiday. That caveat made, of course, with the leadership issue resolved, Labour speakers have to be seizing every media opportunity to tackle the Tories. The media, especially the big press barons, is hostile to Corbyn, but a united Labour front bench would get access to the TV studios and press. The message has to be sharp, combative and, here’s the rub, unified. Circumstances will, given the Tories’ economic and post-Brexit difficulties, be favourable if we are ready.
5) What’s the strategy to win over the over-44s?
The Tories have worked hard to relatively safeguard the pensions triple-lock, but Ros Altman’s intervention demonstrates that there are tensions over the cost of the pensions bribe. Labour is beginning to make pensions and social care a priority as Corbyn’s interview with Owen Jones shows. Meat needs to be put on the bones, but it has to be ambitious to break older voters from the Tories.
6) What’s the strategy to win over Scotland?
It is a reasonable question for Jones to argue, but it will be a long-term strategy given the disastrous stewardship of previous Labour leaderships. Jones admits himself that this issue predated Corbyn’s leadership and emerged because of the right-wing, unionist strategy of people like Jim Murphy and John McTernan. Thanks to their intervention, Scottish Labour is seen as ‘red Tories’. Corbyn represents a break with the Murphy/McTernan catastrophe. A reborn Labour Party has to demonstrate to Scots what it can do. Corbyn will have to prove in England and Wales that Labour can recover the trust of Scots voters.
7) What’s the strategy to win over Conservative voters?
Once more, a very good question and obviously related to the one about mobilising Labour’s membership. Labour has recruited more people this year than the Tories have members. Labour’s membership is much younger than the Tories. The Tories however have a much more ruthless approach to unity in action even when the various wings loath each other. That should give the PLP majority pause for thought over their chicken coup. The Tory voters who can be won to Labour will be attracted over housing (many reasonably well off Tory voters admit that they are doing OK, but they worry for their kids ever having their own home), jobs, the NHS (popular even with Tory voters in the polls) and services (many individual Tories and Lib Dems supported the library campaign around the country for example and hospital cuts campaigns). Many former Tory supporters sided with the junior hospital doctors. A campaigning, mass membership could connect with these people and lay the basis for a Labour majority.
8) How would we deal with people’s concerns about immigration?
It can’t be done by making concessions to the racist agenda (and no, not everyone who talks about immigration is a racist). We need a broad policy platform on the services that everyone agrees are under strain, but demonstrating that it is not the product of immigration. Once more, it is about a mass membership contesting the anti-immigrant message that has become dominant largely because there have often been insufficient people confident and well enough armed with arguments to take on UKIP and Tory activists linking every problem to immigration. This is going to be a central issue in the coming months and years with the Tories’ divisions over Brexit constantly emerging and UKIP barking sell out at them from the right. The message of a vibrant multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, forward-looking country is a very powerful one and needs to be mobilised. Why, after all did Danny Boyle and Frank Cotterill Boyce’s Olympic celebration strike such a nerve?
9) How can Labour’s mass membership be mobilised?
I think there has to be an unremitting attempt, as the leadership issue is laid to rest, to have educational meetings instead of dull, routinist business meetings. If Labour is to become a radical socialist movement intervening in communities and workplaces, meetings have to be interesting, not the routinist CLPs in many areas, often consciously because of the view that the real Labour Party is the PLP. Agitation around the anti-union laws has to be central. Every member has to be equipped with simple, direct agitational materials such as leaflets, stickers and policy cards. Take a look at how the Tories have employed simple (usually mendacious) mantras that they parrot over and over again until they become the accepted narrative. That is how they sold the big lie that Labour brought down the economy, not the Great Crash of 2008 rooted in the US sub-prime crisis and international casino banking. If there had been a mass membership so armed in 2008, history could well have been different.
These are just a few personal thoughts, a contribution to the debate Owen Jones has launched. I wrote it in a few minutes. I will change it as people help sharpen my thoughts. Why did I feel I had to respond in this way? Quite simply, I felt that the huge hole in Jones’ article was the lack of enthusiasm for the fight throughout, the sense of impending doom though the party has half a million members and huge, enthusiastic rallies. I think we have a world, and before that, an election to win.