Russell Brand has endorsed Labour – and the Tories should be worried
Headline to an article by Owen Jones, Guardian, 5 May 2015
Back in 2015, when Jeremy Corbyn was trying to get on the ballot paper for the Labour leadership election, one of his very few backers in Fleet Street was the Guardian’s Owen Jones. ‘I’ve known Jeremy for years,’ Jones wrote. ‘He is the very antithesis of the negative caricature of an MP: he’s defined by his principles and beliefs, uninterested in personal self-advancement, and determined to use his platform to further the interests of people and causes that are otherwise ignored.’
As he explained almost exactly two years later: ‘I campaigned passionately for Corbyn the first time he stood, and I voted for him twice.’ Which is perhaps not surprising given Jones’s social and political network; this is his tribe:
When I left university in 2005, I worked in the office of the now Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell for two-and-a-half years, and helped to run his (abortive) leadership campaign in 2006–07. My Parliamentary badge sponsor was Katy Clark, then a Labour MP who it turned out knew my uncle as a fellow party activist in the 1980s, and who is now Corbyn’s political secretary. My colleague was Andrew Fisher, now Jeremy Corbyn’s director of policy. Friends who were fellow Parliamentary ‘bag-carriers’ included Cat Smith, Jeremy Corbyn’s researcher and now an MP in the shadow cabinet. Other shadow cabinet members I’ve known for years include my friend Clive Lewis, who I campaigned for years before the election, and Richard Burgon, whose house I stayed at when I did talks in Leeds.
And so, for a long time, Jones proved a supportive, if not uncritical, voice. But he had doubts, and our doubts are traitors.
He has never been as publicly damning as his gloomy Guardian colleague, Polly Toynbee: ‘Was ever there a more crassly inept politician than Jeremy Corbyn, whose every impulse is to make the wrong call on everything?’ Nonetheless, the relentlessly bad polling during the last Parliament took its toll even on those with a more Pollyanna frame of mind.
During the ‘Labour coup’ of 2016, when Owen Smith challenged Corbyn for the leadership, Jones issued an impassioned plea for change at the top. He stopped short of calling for Corbyn to step down, but he was in no doubt that the party was in a Gadarene rush toward a cliff edge, and he challenged those who remained loyal to consider their position: ‘What will you say when you see the exit poll at the next general election and Labour is set to be wiped out as a political force? What will you say when , whenever you mention anything vaguely left-wing, you’re mocked for the rest of your life, a throwback to the discredited Labour era of the 2010s?’ He concluded: The situation is extremely grave and unless satisfactory answers are offered, we are nothing but the accomplices of the very people we oppose.’
Satisfactory answers weren’t forthcoming, and in the wake of the Copeland by-election of February 2017 – when Labour lost to the Tories in the first by-election gain by a governing party since the Falklands War – Jones finally abandoned all hope. Corbyn’s failures, he feared, were threatening to take Labour to such a catastrophic defeat that the Left would be buried forever. ‘It is soul-destroying to watch great ideals and policies being dragged down, not by their own merits, but through a lack of strategy and basic competence.’
That position angered sufficient numbers of Corbyn-supporters that, a few days later, Jones announced that he was giving up on social media, after being subjected to an ‘utterly depressing’ barrage of attacks for daring to disparage the leader. ‘I’m just wasting my life,’ he reflected. ‘I wouldn’t choose to walk every day into a room full of total strangers screaming mindless abuse and making up what I think and what my motives are, but in a sense that’s what I’m currently doing.’ (Happily, for Twitter users, he wasn’t away for too long.)
Then Theresa May caught the political world by surprise with her announcement of an early election. Faced with the prospect of a devastating defeat for the Left, Jones conceded that he’d lost the argument over replacing Corbyn and concluded that the duty for Labourites was clear: ‘what we must do is unite and do our very best to prevent a Tory landslide that would be calamitous for the country.’
But although he nailed his colours firmly to the Labour mast, there was still no evident enthusiasm for Corbyn. In a 1,200-word piece during the second week of the campaign, he called for the party to exude ‘hope, optimism and empowerment’, but the name of the Labour leader was conspicuous by its absence.
The result of the election, of course, demonstrated that the earlier fears had been misplaced. Corbyn didn’t destroy the Left, let alone the entire Labour Party, as some others had predicted. Instead he led Labour to defeat in a third successive general election – the third such hat-trick of failures since the war (the Tories have only achieved this once).
Jones was among the first to recognize his errors: ‘I owe Corbyn, John McDonnell, Seumas Milne, his policy chief Andrew Fisher, and others, an unreserved and heartfelt apology,’ he wrote on the morning after the election.
They were generous words. After all, his previous wrong assessment was entirely understandable; virtually every commentator shared it (including those writing for this site), and he was perfectly correct when he wrote last year: ‘all the evidence suggests that Labour – and the Left as a whole – is on the cusp of a total disaster.’ It took a great deal of blind faith to maintain a different perspective in those dark, dark days.
The problem, though, was that Jones’ apology was accompanied by all the fervour of the re-converted. In the same piece, he insisted that Corbyn would make ‘a very fine prime minister’. Really? Based on what?
Of course, that piece was written in the heat of the moment, while the reality of Theresa May’s abysmal failure to secure a majority was still sinking in. But the overheated rhetoric continued. ‘Both Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher led transformational governments that established a new political settlement in Britain,’ Jones wrote the following week. ‘Who knows. Perhaps the third transformational government is coming: one that could eradicate Thatcherism from British society for good.’
Well, indeed, who knows? The mechanism by which this might arise in the immediate future, however, is not entirely apparent. And there is a danger that the level of excitement may not be sustainable, that the momentum generated by the election may dissipate in deferred hope. Jones seems to be aware of this, for he later struck a cautionary note: ‘Labour’s assumption of power – with Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister – is not inevitable.’
This much is certainly true. But the jubilant, triumphalist tone of those in the Corbyn camp – including Jones – still raises expectations that are unlikely to be realised. Corbyn himself says that he ‘expects to be prime minister within six months’.
It’s hard not to worry that no lessons are being learned; indeed, that the lessons of the past two years are being wilfully unlearned. Corbyn’s good luck may be blinding his supporters to the size of the task that remains.
That Corbyn has been immensely lucky was attested to by Jones himself, back when he was labouring in the Slough of Despond. His analysis then was that Corbyn had stumbled into the leadership: ‘Corbyn didn’t win in 2015; his opponents lost.’ The remnants of New Labour – Jones argued – battered by two election defeats, had simply run out of vision, ideas and hope: ‘They left a vacuum, and it was filled.’ There was much truth in this. And, although Jones himself hasn’t been saying it, the same could be said of the general election this month.
With, of course, the crucial difference that on this occasion Corbyn didn’t win. Despite the embarrassingly inept Conservative campaign, the Tories still received the votes of 13.8 million people. How many of these will Corbyn win over next time, when the novelty has worn off, and the fear that he might actually become prime minister will be real?
At the next election, Labour needs to make a greater gain in numbers of seats than it did this time. It’s a formidable challenge, and the obstacles may explain why Jones and the Labour leadership are boasting of an imminent premiership; the sooner Westminster returns to politics as usual, the further the likelihood of prime minister Corbyn will recede.
The hurdle hidden in plain sight is that the Tories won. They are in power, they hold the levers of policy. And the early murmurings from the new government suggest that they are preparing to abandon austerity.
It is also to be seen whether Labour’s fudge on Brexit can survive the start of Britain’s negotiations with the EU. The fundamental choice of priorities – control of immigration and state intervention in industry versus privileged access to the single market – is already putting the parliamentary party’s Europhiles at odds with the Bennite Eurosceptics at its helm.
We’d hope that Jones would be among those setting their minds to these challenges. He is more useful – and much more interesting – as a candid friend than as a cheerleader.
We also note, however, that he was quick to argue against the idea that ‘Labour’s right flank be brought back into the shadow cabinet’. That would involve ‘demoting those who proved themselves to be a successful team’. But, other than Corbyn, who among that team made a positive impression on the electorate?
Jones’s current cry for loyalty has the ring of a plea for forgiveness. He was weak. He denied his leader, betrayed his fellow disciples, but now the sinner repents. In 2016 he worried about a ‘belief that even differences of opinion on the left can’t be tolerated’, and warned: ‘ that cannot bode well.’ A year on, he is arguing that what’s needed now are spokespeople who believe 110 per cent in ‘a genuinely socialist agenda’. What, even if they’re only just emerging from a long dark night of the soul?