Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Owen Jones and Labour - Storms in small teacups

I’m writing this in response to a small, Labour feud that’s been going on since Owen Jones wrote his latest column for the Independent. Broadly speaking, Jones argued that a coalition was needed to advance ideas on the left of the political spectrum, thus creating safe political territory in which Labour could pursue a more progressive agenda. So far so sensible, and indeed, part of why it’s unfortunate that the debate became negatively charged was that Jones seemed to be putting forward an argument with Labour’s best interests at its core.

In counter, and not unhelpfully, Labour MP Ian Austin reasoned on Twitter, and Luke Akehurst wrote in Labour List, that Labour had lost the last election to a campaign from the political right, and thus there were no votes to be won on the left (which you could argue justifies the need for what Jones was talking about). Luke Akehurst also invoked the Tory-UKIP phenomenon, in which a party further to the right is actually serving to hinder rather than help the Tory party cause, this too is a relevant point.

Labour have more to lose and gain from the dispute than Owen Jones. Jones is an author/journalist who is already – we presume – doing just about all right for himself in such a capacity; he can make a living from writing about problems without being compelled to right them. Labour are a political party who need to reach out to people, they won’t get far telling people they’re wrong in their misgivings and that they should put their efforts into the party machine.

In some of their arguments there seems a sense of entitlement on the part of Labour, the assumption that they have a right to the support of anyone who would identify themselves as either socialist, left, or progressive. They’re wrong, they don’t. Worse is an undertone that those who do identify as left but don’t identify as Labour are in some way avoiding their duties, that they should be working their socks off for the Labour cause rather than, say, the Greens. There seems a lack of appreciation for the fact that some people don’t want to associate with Labour because of things like PFIs and Iraq (yawn!), and the perception that Labour’s last decade offered little substantive difference to the Tories as far bankers, energy companies, environment and (most importantly) the cost of living was concerned.

The dispute seems unfortunate because a central part of Jones’ idea was that a non-party political, leftist movement was needed precisely to help the Labour party, to create the sort of ideological space (I get the feeling that professional politicians snigger at terms like that) that Labour can capitalise on politically. The example given was the right wing Taxpayers Alliance, who will mobilise for a quite extreme agenda in a way that means the Tory party will never come off looking like the most extreme voice in the spectrum. If Labour believe this sort of thing doesn’t happen, and that it isn’t happening naturally all the time, then again they’re wrong. It would be laughable to suggest UKUncut haven't played a role in providing protective cover to politicians wanting to talk about tax evasion. You could even argue that UKUncut have helped make it - well, perhaps not cool - but at least accessible to talk about tax evasion and austerity in an everyday conversation. If Labour win at the next election (and we have to hope they do) it will be in part because there is already some form of network advancing the agenda that will continue to be their bread-and-butter opposition. The naysaying of ‘old Labour’ and ‘Red Ed’ that greeted Ed Miliband’s election as leader has slipped away since 2010, largely because a more left wing dialogue has become acceptable, and indeed was elected around Europe.   

To suggest there would be something wrong with a more concerted attempt to create such a change seems a little like refusing help, like cutting off noses to spite faces. Not all change can (or even should or need to) come from within Labour. This resistance also fails to accept that Labour, like all political parties, has a bad brand. Labour do well in the polling because the Lib Dems made themselves a farce and because the Tories cannot control the elements that make them look like a farce. Labour can win the next election even though over a third of the electorate will believe there’s no point in voting and act accordingly. Once politicians have written off that third of the population then they have accepted party politics as some kind of niche intellectual sport, rather than a broad institution with an intention to represent. Owen Jones referenced the Obama campaign to expand the electorate, whereas Labour voices assert that they “lost from the right”, that the voting electorate are right of where Labour currently stand, and the political ground cannot be won by going left. Again you have to sympathise with the reasoning, but equally it does smack of a lack of ambition, the notion that politicians should be nothing more than service providers to those still interested in consuming politics. What use is education, experience, proximity to power, and an allowance and salary to safeguard from material hardship, if we still end up with politicians seeking no more than the ratification of what an overworked, underpaid population deduce from a diet of tepid media?

I really don’t want to criticise, because I know there are lots of hard working and dedicated politicians. Ian Austin in particular I like for his work on cycling, an area of politics that excites me precisely because it is (or should be) ideology-neutral, makes a tangible difference in people’s lives, and doesn’t (or shouldn’t) get bogged down in the simplistic, left-right mudslinging that I’ve hopefully not added too much to with the above.

In looking for a reconciliatory tone, perhaps those who define themselves as leftists/progressives might benefit were they to allow Labour to be their natural voice in politics. As a party member and campaigner, Owen Jones would already be living up to this ideal. On the other hand, it can’t only be one way traffic, millions of people are currently not buying into the Labour brand for a reason, and Labour have to give them a reason to do so. There is undeniably an enormous amount of passion and creative talent that does not currently choose to ally itself with Labour; even if they might vote for them, be sure they’re not lending a fraction of the support that they could. If the party were to reflect on themselves, thinking how they might change to engage such a demographic, and what that demographic might bring to them, then that would be progressive, and in the truest sense of the word.

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