People on the left often pick fights with Owen Jones. Being a member of the Labour Party is a red rag to some on Labour’s left (indeed, those schooled in the basics of Trotology will know that some of these organisations – like Militant, now the Socialist Party – at one time worked within the Labour Party until they were expelled…) Unsurprisingly, then, one of Jones’s latest pieces, which calls on people to vote Labour on 7th May, has attracted the ire of several people and organisations on the far-left.
Normally, people sniping about one of Jones’s pieces wouldn’t bother me – haterz gonna hate; anarchists gonna… well you get the idea – but several of these articles have been doing the rounds with people I know and, in some cases, they have been favourably received. This does bother me because I want Labour to win and this is a knife-edge election (I also think Jones’s assessment of the situation is basically correct). Plus, even if these articles aren’t really that important, I think they’re just, well, wrong, so in writing this I’m partly responding to the well-known psychic itch of SOMEONE BEING WRONG ON THE INTERNET.
Contrary to what some have said, Owen Jones did not do a Polly Toynbee and say that you should vote Labour with a clothes peg on your nose. As I wrote at the time in response to Toynbee, this is inadequate. The critics of Jones’s piece who say that we cannot simply expect a win for Labour to usher in a glorious new dawn of anti-austerity are entirely correct. In fact, they’re so correct that it’d be hard to find anyone on the left of the Labour Party who would disagree with them. Labour – stupidly to my mind – have already voted with the government for £30 billion more cuts.
But Jones never argued that a vote for Labour would automatically end austerity. His actual position is that austerity policies would be easier to defeat under a Labour government than the Tories. This makes sense. Whereas the Tories are politically and ideologically unified in their commitment to cuts and privatisation, the Labour Party clearly isn’t.
Notwithstanding the rebel Labour MPs we’ve seen over the last parliament who didn’t vote for cuts and benefit sanctions, the Labour Party manifesto is not the ultra-reactionary slash-fest that some on the far-left are making it out to be. It includes closing tax loopholes and cracking down on tax avoidance, investing in 200,000 new homes a year until 2020, investing in properly insulating 5 million homes, repealing the health and social care act, scrapping the bedroom tax and introducing a mansion tax. These are all Good Things.
As Jones points out, many of Labour’s progressive positions – on the bedroom tax, on the mansion tax etc. – are a result of grassroots campaigning. Organising in and outside Labour has clearly created faultlines in the party; on the one hand, Labour is pledging massive cuts, but on the other it’s campaigning on the basis of progressive policies. It’s easier to win the political argument against austerity in this context than it is to fight against a completely unified Conservative Party.
Outside of conversations on the far-left, the Labour leadership are not seen as austerity-crazed right-wingers. In fact, quite the opposite is true; Labour has come under intense media and political pressure for being too soft on the deficit. This means that – irrespective of whether Labour actually does the progressive things it says it will – a defeat for the Tories will itself be seen as a partial political defeat for austerity. People are voting Labour as they rightly see it as an alternative (albeit an alternative that isn’t radical enough in my view).
Of course, the opposite is also true. The left will not gain from a Labour defeat; the pendulum within the party will swing to the right, which will create a clear political consensus for more cuts. This will make the job of anti-austerity activists even harder. Forcing U-turns is harder than ensuring parties keep their promises (and just ask the Liberal Democrats what happens when you don’t keep your promises).
One of the stranger criticisms of Jones’s piece is that he reduces political campaigning to lobbying the Labour Party. Here’s an example:
‘The most obvious problem with the above [the writer had previously quoted Jones] is that it effectively reduces all organising and campaigning down to shifting Labour’s position on any number of issues. At the conclusion of the article, Jones goes further by suggesting that all of our “campaigns and struggles […] would, under Toryism, be doomed.’
But reduced from what, exactly? It’s as much to my dismay as it is to the writer’s, but the masses are not rising up in glorious revolution. Short of ‘shifting’ the position of the Labour party – or whoever the government is – what else is there? The next thing up from that is bringing the government down and replacing it with something better, but – speaking as someone who has done the hard graft of standing in the street talking to people about austerity and organising public meetings and demonstrations – that’s a pipedream. Given that the writer of this piece doesn’t think forcing a government U-turn or holding a Labour government to its promises is a sign of success, it would be useful if they defined exactly what was.
Of course, these article usually imply that success looks something like ‘a mass militant working class movement against the cuts’ but usually this comes at the end of the article and, frustratingly, the author often gives no indication of how to build such a thing (honestly, next time you see a lefty article, before you begin to read it just check the final or penultimate paragraph for words like these. If you find them, run away).
We do need a mass movement against the cuts, and everyone on the left agrees we do. What we don’t need is people repeating that fact as an empty slogan. What’s good about Jones’s article is that he’s offering some indication of what the next steps are in building a succesful movement against austerity, and one of those steps is electing a Labour government. In itself it won’t defeat austerity, and it certainly won’t usher in a social revolution, but it will turn the odds more in our favour. Surely that’s a reason to vote Labour.