Owen Jones, poverty, the referendum and his mission to save Labour

By John Hilley (Zen Politics)

owen jones braveheartOwen Jones was in Glasgow last weekend making impassioned arguments for ‘sticking together’, ending low pay and tackling poverty. The STUC-organised march and rally was billed A Just Scotland. And who wouldn’t wish for some of that?

But what’s the use in wishing rather than doing?

On September 18, the substantive part of 1.6 million people actually did something about challenging poverty, foodbank society and much more injustice besides. Something decisive. Something with real potential to change things, even if it was ultimately denied by a conniving political-corporate-media establishment. They voted Yes.

Where did Owen Jones stand on that crucial action? Alas, in political effect, if not intent, with the same establishment forces urging No. Regrettably, still too many trade unionists did likewise.

Complementing his visit North, Jones produced a piece for the Sunday Mail/Daily Record – ‘Scotland’s Newspaper’, we’re told, and lead oracle for the Con-Dem-Lab Vow – lamenting (or maybe Lamonting) Scottish Labour’s now possible demise, unless it ‘finds its radical roots’.

“Scotland is crying out for radical politics”, declared Jones, warning that parties who turn on their core voters will face the ultimate price in deserting support, as is now happening to Labour.

Jones also says of Labour’s collapse:

Perhaps if the party rested on stronger foundations, they would have better survived the referendum debacle. But rather than setting out a progressive vision based on hope, of a new socially just Scotland within the framework of a federal Britain, they instead formed a catastrophic alliance with the Conservatives.

Yet, while surely knowing that Labour were never going down that federal road, Jones stuck with the No option. Notable figures like Lesley Riddoch and Iain Macwhirter had once courted Devo-Max-type federalism, but, realising it wasn’t ever on the cards, never mind the ballot, worked passionately for a Yes. Why didn’t the ‘more radical’ Jones do likewise?

Even as Cameron, Clegg, Miliband and Brown were rushing out their shameless ‘more powers promise’, all backed by a mass exercise in corporate blackmail, Jones still resisted pitching in with with radical Yes. As the possibility of a Yes win loomed, Jones blamed the establishment and Labour negligence. In the aftermath, more faux indignation and condemnation of Miliband.

Indeed, Owen, castigate Labour and the elite, but why claim you didn’t have a better, more progressive choice than the status quo?

Who would doubt Jones’s socialistic motives and concern for the poor? But, compassion and solidarity aside, his referendum position has been underwritten by a more pressing political mission: to save Labour. And not just in Scotland. For Jones, this is an emergency assignment of UK importance.

In one of his recent Guardian columns Jones wrote a hagiographic-styled tribute to ex-Labour minister Alan Johnson appealing for his return. Jones sees in Johnson a well-liked, self-effacing working-class bloke who could be an urgent antidote to Farage’s UKIP. No matter that Johnson was an ardent Blairite, and remains an unrepentant supporter of the Iraq invasion. Amazingly, Jones also invokes ultra-Blairite/war interventionist John McTernan’s own praise for Johnson here. Jones said he ‘was just asked to write a profile of [Johnson] as the man’. Asked by whom, one wonders? Political portraiture or another timely favour in helping to rescue Labour before next May’s election?

Jones is ‘this season’s’ political ‘pin-up’, the media’s go-to ‘radical’. You can see the attraction for both the Oxbridge Guardian clique and lost Labour tribe. But that earnestness masks a public figure now deeply incorporated into the very system he critiques in his latest book, The Establishment.

It’s not just Jones’s tailored pieces, as above, for the Guardian. Now a feted part of the journalistic liberal establishment, he’s reluctant to shine a critical light on that side of the corporate media.

Try asking Jones about those kind of contradictions, as Media Lens, in their customary searching and courteous manner, did recently, and you’ll see the more reactive side:

as ever they [Media Lens] have absolutely no interest in reaching a mass audience and deeply resent anyone who does?

A disappointing and petty closure of discussion from Jones himself. He claims his principal task is getting ‘the message’ out to the ‘widest audience’. Yet, what about the essence of that message? How more effective and reaching might it be if he felt truly free to criticise his host, the corporate-driven Guardian, and other system-serving media?

With almost the entire Scottish and UK press, including the Guardian, lining up for No, where was Jones’s substantive criticism in his Guardian column or his Record piece about the anti-democratic weight of that corporate media? And didn’t his own basic No position give even more bulk to that media establishment onslaught?

Many leftists seem uneasy in criticising Jones. His fresh, populist persona acts like a protective shield. And, of course, there’s much of his challenging thought to appreciate. One veteran street leftist I spoke to put it thus: the left’s approval of Jones is ‘like being thirsty in the desert’. With seemingly precious few radical orators around, progressives and social democrats naturally crave him.

But all the Question Time appearances and ubiquity of ‘the people’s pundit’ shouldn’t blind us to Jones’s own questionable politics. For those seeking deeper insight, consider Tariq Ali’s truly authentic take on the Yes movement’s rise, Labour’s self-inflicted troubles, and, for good measure, Jones’s and the Guardian’s political/media postures on the independence issue.

Like Ali, Jones sees the major political realignment in Scotland now underway, notably in the leftist shift from Labour to SNP, the Greens and smaller socialist parties. All good for Ali and Yes leftism, much more problematic for Jones’s Labourite Unionism.

In purest panic mode, parts of a once-safe Scottish Labour are now pushing for semi-autonomous status and a ‘more radical’ profile. As intimated in his Record piece, Jones is arguing for much the same necessary ‘renewal’. But it’s motivated primarily by a Guardian-type concern for Labour’s electoral survival. All of which gives him about the same ‘radical’ cache as Polly Toynbee.

Meanwhile, massively buoyed by the referendum campaign, Radical Independence are putting together a promising new Scottish Left Project, “based on the principles of radical social change: participatory democracy, democratic public ownership, the redistribution of wealth and power from the rich to the poor and full independence from the British state and its monarch.”

Again, such ideals should, presumably, be right up Jones’s street. So, why didn’t he get behind that dynamic Yes movement in the first place? Because, like George Galloway’s No campaign, cloaked in facile calls for ‘class solidarity’ and fearmongering about the SNP, Jones was motivated by the need to keep open the possibility of a UK Labour deliverance.

And it’s not as though Jones wasn’t well-warned about the myth of any Labour transformation:

He and others remain convinced that the avowedly/explicitly right Labour Party is going to miraculously metamorphise into something of their grandfathers dreams. It won’t.

Yet, like the Guardian’s squalid No editorial – ‘Britain deserves another chance’ – Jones wants us to keep faith with the illusion of some great Labour entitlement.

A month beyond Dark Friday, the broad left in Scotland is on a distinctly different, upbeat trajectory from Scottish and UK Labour, mobilising nicely for the coming electoral battles. Yet, it’s galling to think that this same Yes left advancement could have been a reality post-independence – including the makings of a truly reformed Labour party. We could be preparing right now to push all that collective radicalism inside a parliament with fully secured powers.

Instead, we’re still stuck in an archaic, war-addicted, Trident-holding state, facing some dreaded version of Con-Dem-Lab-UKIP neoliberal rule. We’re also now lumped with Vow politics – or as Ian Bell has just summarised that vacuous bribe:

By promising more while failing to say what more might mean, they promised nothing. Or rather, they promised a timetable for discussions to see if something could come from nothing.

All of which makes it harder to swallow Owen Jones – from the No-supporting Guardian – talking about A Just Scotland and tackling poverty, while putting out life-saving alerts for Labour via its Unionist house paper, the Daily Record.

There’s an historic level of animosity right now towards Labour in Scotland. Many are simply seething. Many will never forgive them for siding with the ConDems and taking a leading part in the establishment’s Project Fear. Jones acknowledges much of this, but fails to concede his own negative part in that outcome.

However, all that resentment needs to be channelled positively.  For a resilient and calmly-rising Yes movement, it shouldn’t mean enduring hostility to No voters, particularly that more self-serving middle class. The longer route to radical independence will be enhanced by more decisive arguments for social justice and winning over greater numbers.

Nor should it involve particular antipathy towards people like Jones. It’s not personal. It’s not about hounding. Yet, such figures helped rationalise many of those No voters’ consciences through moderated appeals to continued Labour Unionism. So it’s certainly appropriate to highlight how such Labourite affinities and calls for abbreviated powers have helped keep Scotland and its poorest in political lockdown.

Applaud Jones’s anti-poverty speeches, if you please. But be aware of the establishment-serving effects of his political positions, media output and the dedicated Labour bailout he’s deeply engaged in.

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