Owen Jones vs the working class
This Land captures how elitist and classist the radical left has become.
It must suck to be Owen Jones. As an edgy left-wing teen, he no doubt fantasised that one day he would be part of a movement for labour against capital, for the people against power. And yet he ended up as the figurehead of a political grouping that helped to mainstream anti-Jewish racism, and which made it acceptable to refer to working-class people as pigs (‘gammon’), and which, when there was an historic clash between the democratic aspirations of the British people and the instinct for self-preservation of the neoliberal elites in Brussels, took the side of the neoliberal elites.
This needs explanation. The question of why Britain’s supposedly most radical party-political movement ended up betraying the Jews, betraying the working classes, and betraying the power of democracy in favour of aligning with the self-interested neoliberal elites, needs some elucidation. Mr Jones’ new book, This Land, offers some elucidation, but entirely accidentally. Its insights are largely unwitting. The reader must scour between the lines of Mr Jones’ bourgeois-left apologism to discover the truth of why these ‘radicals’ ended up siding with capital (the EU) against labour (the British working classes).
This Land is a readable if overlong journey through the rise and fall of Corbynism, as told by someone who by his own definition was both participant and observer: that is, Owen Jones, Guardian columnist and Labour activist; watcher of British politics and partaker in British politics; talking head and passionate street-beater for the Labour Party.
Much of it is a familiar story, told many times by even soft leftists. How Labour was conquered by free-market-orientated activists and spindoctors, personified in the bête noire of the radical left, Tony Blair. How this New Labour machine alienated core Labour members and activists by launching brutal wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and remaking Labour in the image of Thatcher-lite. How these Blairites arrogantly scoffed at the fast-disappearing Labour left, those heirs to Tony Benn, who had been successfully sidelined by Labour’s electoral revolutions in the early 1990s and early 2000s. And how that Labour left was seething the whole time, and quietly growing in respect and stature, especially as a new generation left behind by neoliberalism started to drift into its orbit as a reaction against the the warmongering, pro-capitalism, austerity and illiberalism of the New Labour establishment and its New Conservative heirs.
And lo, we end up with Corbyn’s surprise election as Labour leader in 2015. We end up with Corbynism, or rather just Jeremy Corbyn, given that there is no such ideology or worldview as ‘Corbynism’. The accidental beneficiary of Labour members’ disgruntlement with New Labour and with nice-but-dim Ed Miliband’s electoral failures in the 2015 General Election – which is fundamentally what Jeremy Corbyn was – cannot legitimately be described as a theory, or a worldview, or a movement. No, Corbyn, ironically, was positively Blairite in his conquering of the Labour Party, in the sense that it was the hollowness of the party, its disconnection from its traditional electoral base and its abandonment of its labour principles, which allowed both Blair and his well-educated, well-spun, sharp-elbowed chancers and Corbyn and his middle-class fanboys and girls to waltz into and take over the hole at the heart of the once working-class Labour Party. Blairites and Corbynistas loathe each other, without realising how much they have in common: both were able to rise to power in Labour as a result of the post-1980s moral and political destitution of the labour movement, rather than as a result of any cohering or inspiring ideology of their own creation.
So when Mr Jones quotes his fellow middle-class leftist Ash Sarkar at the start of his book – she says ‘We’ve captured the top of the Labour Party by mistake’ – neither he nor presumably she understands that the exact same sense of accidentalism gripped Blair and Alastair Campbell and the rest of the post-Benn, post-Kinnock free-market upstarts of the 1990s who similarly ‘captured’ the top of the Labour Party. Whether the void of Labour was being filled by bomb-dropping Blairites or meme-dropping Corbynistas, by overeducated Thatcher admirers or overeducated Marxian pretenders, the dynamic was the same: it was the hollowness of Labour following the post-Cold War decline of social democracy that allowed these distinctly non-working-class elements to ‘capture’ Labour and make it into a plaything of their personal psychodramas, whether that was Iraq-bashing (thanks, Blair) or gammon-bashing (thanks, Corbyn).
Indeed, as I pointed out to Mr Jones in a rather tetchy episode of Politics Live on the BBC, Labour became more posh under Corbyn than it had been even under Blair. Surveys showed that the party membership when Corbyn was at the helm was more ABC (middle class) than it had been when Blair famously made Labour attractive to the Amnesty-loving, New Statesman-reading, dinner-party-attending types of Islington and its surrounds in the mid- to late-1990s. To make Labour even more plummy-voiced and stiff-shirted than it had been under Blair is quite the achievement, though strikingly it’s one that neither Corbyn nor Jones is keen to boast about or take credit for. How curious.
This bristling between the radical pretensions of the Corbyn movement in which Jones was a key player and the reality of social democracy’s crisis, of Labour’s pre-existing abandonment of its working-class constituencies, is a key, underlying dynamic in the story of ‘Corbynism’. This is illustrated, accidentally, in This Land. A core argument in this book – the core argument, arguably – is that a new, radical left movement was rising in the 2000s but it was upended, done over, by that pesky vote for Brexit. In Mr Jones’ telling, the 2000s were a hotbed of radical agitation – the anti-globalisation movement, the anti-student-debt protests, the climate-change camps and gatherings – and all of this fed into Corbyn’s surprise victory in 2015. Having aligned themselves with these kinds of extra-parliamentary movements against neoliberalism and for meaningful change, Corbyn and his second-in-command John McDonnell (whom Jones fawns over embarrassingly) were well-placed to milk the new radical moment of the mid-2010s, Jones argues. But then, he says, Brexit came along and fucked everything up. It is difficult to capture in words just how wrong, how distracting, how fundamentally conceited, this worldview is.
Jones’ contrasting of the radical moment of youthful anti-globalisation and anti-austerity in the 1990s and 2000s with the apparently reactionary, Tory-exploited thirst for Brexit in the 2010s is entirely false. He lauds the late 1990s, early 2000s anti-globalisation movement, arguing that ‘in the first decade of the new millennium, a new political constituency was quietly forged’. It was a constituency that took to the streets against ‘globalisation’, a system that ‘nakedly prioritised financial profit over the needs of the vast majority of people’. He praises the wealthy, well-connected queen of this fundamentally middle-class movement – Naomi Klein – and describes her book, No Logo, as a cri de coeur against ‘modern consumer capitalism’. Brexit, on the other hand, was a Tory-exploited ‘culture war’, he says, in which dastardly, anti-immigrant tabloids and demagogic Conservative politicians exploited the legitimate concerns of ordinary people – over austerity, unemployment, etc – to deliver a vote for Leave.
Let’s break this down. What Mr Jones is saying is that when nice, well-read middle-class people revolt against ‘globalisation’, that’s a good thing – it’s radical and wonderful and world-changing. But when ordinary people vote against ‘globalisation’ – which is what much of the Brexit vote was for – that is dark and dangerous and concerning. When the revolt against neoliberalism remains the intellectual property of Klein and Jones and other similar middle-class people, it’s Good; but when it becomes the rallying cry of people in Merthyr Tydfil and Stoke-on-Trent and Dagenham, as it did in that glorious referendum of 2016, it apparently becomes Bad, fascistic, proof of the tabloid newspapers’ stranglehold over the putty-like minds of the anti-immigrant masses.
This reveals the unspoken sentiment that lurks behind much of Corbynism – class hatred. This is the great, twisted irony of the Corbyn movement: it presented itself as the resuscitation of Old Labour, of a more pro-working-class sentiment than had existed under New Labour, and yet it rehabilitated a truly hateful view of working-class voters as pigs (‘gammon’) and as the easily brainwashed, feckless charges of demagogic Tories and tabloids. So when super-smart, attractive Canadians like Naomi Klein rally against neoliberalism, that’s great; but when coarse, common-accented ‘pigs’ in the north of England or Essex vote against that citadel of neoliberalism, the EU, they’re apparently being stupid, racist and misled. This is class hatred, pure and simple.
This Land captures, again unwittingly, just how out of touch the Corbyn machine was during the era of Brexit. Jones, the consummate insider of the Corbyn movement, describes how nonplussed or stupefied Corbyn insiders were when the British people voted to leave the EU in June 2016. He reports that the staff of the ‘Corbyn project’ were ‘bored by the whole thing’ – that is, by the largest democratic vote in UK history, by the British people’s clear rejection of the globalist, neoliberal EU. An adviser to Jones’ hero John McDonnell found the whole thing ‘fucking tedious’. A Corbyn speechwriter says the Corbyn crew did not take it ‘seriously at all’. Jones quotes all of these bizarre, disconnected expressions of exhaustion with the vote for Brexit with an element of approval; he holds them up both as evidence that some in the Corbyn camp were cut off from broader political sentiment but also that they had a point about the Brexit ‘culture war’.
How odd is this. A man, Jones, who cheered the Starbucks-smashing and bourgeois nihilism of the anti-globalism movement of the late 1990s agrees with those who thought it was so ‘fucking tedious’ and tiresome when the tabloid-reading masses really and honestly voted against a key institution of globalism in 2016. This looks like snobbery to me. What Jones is saying, and what so many other Corbynistas have said, including the Novara Media mob, whose first response to the vote for Brexit was to make a video mocking the white working classes, is that it’s okay when we agitate against neoliberalism; but when you do it, you little people, you morons, that’s bad; that’s fascism; that’s the end of radicalism rather than the beginning of it. These middle classes want monopolistic ownership over radicalism. The irony.
Here’s the truth: when radicalism was mere performance, when it was crusties occupying Wall St or Klein fans screaming at some G8 meeting, Jones and other Corbynistas loved it; but when it was real, when it was 17.4million people voting against the neoliberal, racist EU, Jones and Co yelled ‘fascism’. Indeed, Jones, after 2016, threw his lot in with the reactionary middle classes who wanted to overthrow Brexit. Like Corbyn, a lifelong Eurosceptic who ditched his principles the very moment that they mattered, and instead lined up with the Remain campaign, Jones and the rest of the upper-middle-class leftists who ‘captured’ the top of the Labour Party by accident loathed anti-globalisation as soon as it was expressed by ordinary people. Then, it became hateful, dangerous, Hitler-esque. ‘When we express these ideas, it’s fine. When THEY express them, it’s disgusting’ – that’s what they were really saying.
This is the thing Jones must live with, somehow. When the British people lined themselves up against neoliberalism for the first time in our electoral history, Jones took the side of neoliberalism. He gave speeches at reactionary, anti-democratic marches against Brexit. He had cosy, chuckling chats with arch anti-democrats like Anna Soubry and Lord Adonis. Jones and Momentum and Novara Media campaigned for a second referendum, which would have entailed voiding the largest act of democracy in British history – the British people’s vote against neoliberal diktat and in favour of their own people power.
What can we deduce from this? Either that these left-wingers were never anti-neoliberal to begin with, or that they trust only themselves to be anti-neoliberal. It’s hard to know what is worse. Either way, the end result of Corbynism is this: they played at being radicals, but when push came to shove, when these issues became real and pressing, they bottled it. They sided with middle-class elitists and noxious anti-democrats and woke identitarians against the cry of the British masses for more power and control. Jones fantasises that he is one of the heirs to the Chartists and other radical movements (he embarrassingly lists his family’s lame left-wing heritage), but in truth he has far more in common with anti-Chartist reactionaries who fretted that giving working-class men the vote would empower demagogues to exploit the fickle throng.
To be generous, This Land is worth reading – especially if you want to know how not to stand up to post-borders capitalism in the 21st century. Working-class people should read Jones’s book, if only to understand how much the educated elites despise them.
Picture by: Getty.