Tag Archives: John McDonnell

Book review: ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ by Alex Nunns

Book review: ‘The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power’ by Alex Nunns
by Ian Sinclair
Peace News
February-March 2017

Though there have now been a number of books published about Jeremy Corbyn’s election as the leader of the Labour Party in 2015, including Richard Seymour’s impressive Corbyn: The Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (PN 2596-2597), The Candidate is arguably the definitive account of those exciting days.

As the Political Correspondent of Red Pepper magazine, Alex Nunns is perfectly placed to chart Corbyn’s 2015 leadership campaign, writing a detailed, journalistic and engrossing account. He ends with a short afterword about the 2016 coup attempt and second leadership election – in which, amazingly, Corbyn increased his vote share to 62 percent.

All this feels a long way from Labour’s defeat in the May 2015 General Election. With the Labour left believing itself to be in an extremely weak position – journalist Owen Jones didn’t think the left should run a candidate because they would likely be “crushed” – Corbyn’s candidacy was initially given 200-1 odds by Ladbrokes. However, Nunns explains three large political forces came together to create the mass movement Corbyn rode to victory – the shift to the left of Labour Party members, the trade unions rejection of New Labour and grassroots campaigners like the anti-war movement and Occupy.

The section on the media’s hostility to Corbyn’s rise is particularly impressive. With the press going into “full blown panic mode”, Nunns’s focus on the Guardian’s opposition to Corbyn will be a wake-up call to those who see the newspaper as a friend of radical change. Nunns also includes lots of fascinating tidbits, from revealing the big unions didn’t want Corbyn’s closest ally John McDonnell to be Shadow Chancellor to how Labour HQ staff wore black on the day of Corbyn’s election to mourn the party they had lost.

Highlighting the important role of social media and describing how the campaign organised itself to create one of the most successful social movements the left has ever seen, the book is a hugely important resource for progressive activists. Frustratingly there is no index, though the extensive footnotes provide plenty of sources for those wishing to delve deeper.

With Corbyn’s leadership currently in something of a lull, with low poll ratings and a general election fast approaching, the crucial question is: what now? How can the left revitialise the establishment-beating movement of 2015-16? The answer will shape British politics in the years ahead because far from being the end of a campaign, in reality Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was just the beginning of a much longer struggle to overturn the dominance of neoliberalism and the UK’s aggressive foreign policy.

 

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Do you have to gain power to make change?

Do you have to gain power to make change?
by Ian Sinclair
Morning Star
19 November 2016 

“The greatest lesson that we can take from our history is that we can only implement our vision and apply our values when we win power and form a government”, Labour MP Owen Smith repeated ad nauseam during the recent Labour leadership contest. Owen Jones, generally considered to be on the left of the Labour Party, seemed to echo Smith on the issue of power and influence on his Youtube channel in August 2016. “Instead of sticking our fingers in our ears and going ‘lalalala it’s all fine’ there just needs to be strategy to improve those ratings”, the Guardian columnist argued about Labour’s poor poll ratings. “Otherwise we are finished, and the Conservatives will run the country for years. I’ll just keep doing my videos whinging about things, coming up with ideas. Waste of time. Just words, isn’t it? Just words.”

However, despite what the two Owens assert about the futility of opposition, the historical record suggests a far more hopeful conclusion.

“Power is not the only factor instrumental in creating change”, Salim Lone, a former Communications Director at the United Nations, noted in a letter to The Guardian in May 2016. “In fact it’s what one does in ‘opposition’ that has historically paved the way for real change. Humanity’s progress has resulted primarily from the struggles of those who fought for change against entrenched power.” US author Rebecca Solnit agrees, noting just before the US presidential election that “election seasons erase the memory of movements that worked for years or decades, outside and around, below and above electoral politics.” She describes these as “the histories that matter.”

Producing change while not in power can broadly be separated into two camps: transformation that is forced on an unwilling ruling elite, and government policies that are stopped or modified by strong opposition. And let’s not forget that any change from below almost always involves an extra-parliamentary direct action struggle, from the setting up of trade unions and women winning the vote to the success of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s – all forced on an initially resistant ruling class. In the 1990s direct action played a key role in stopping the “biggest road building programme since the Romans” planned by the then Tory government and the attempt to introduce GM food to the UK.

Indeed, a close reading of the news demonstrates that successfully making change while not in power happens all the time. Last month The Guardian headline was “Poland’s abortion ban proposal near collapse after mass protests”. Back in the UK, Corbyn’s Labour Party has inflicted a number of defeats on the government – on planned cuts to tax credits and housing benefit, and the proposed prison contract with Saudi Arabia. It was a Tory-led Government, let’s not forget, that introduced gay marriage – 25 years after they introduced the anti-gay Section 28. And responding to the Chancellor’s recent announcement about investing in the economy, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell quipped “It’s clear Philip Hammond is now borrowing from Labour to invest in his own speech”.

Unsurprisingly governments will try to take the credit for any popular changes – former Prime Minister David Cameron making it known he had personally intervened in favour of legalising same-sex marriage, for example. But rather than taking the powerful at their (retrospective and self-justifying) word, a more accurate explanation of the process of positive change is highlighted by Tony Benn’s famous dictum: “It’s the same each time with progress. First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous, then there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you.”

Of course, being in power is preferable to not being in power. Far more change is obviously possible when one is in control, when it can be planned, coordinated and sustained. Those attempting to force change from the outside do not have control of the process, the timing or the details. However, it is important not to underestimate the power of social movements and activism – the power of ‘ordinary’ people to create real, long-lasting change.

Indeed, with Donald Trump likely to be in the White House for the next four years it is essential this hopeful understanding of political change is widely understood and acted upon. The signs are promising: with Trump reviled and distrusted by a large section of the American public, it is likely there will be a much needed resurgence of progressive activism following the unjustified lull during the Obama Administration. Trump is dangerously unpredictable, so making predictions about his foreign policy is difficult, US dissident Noam Chomsky noted in a recent interview. However, he ended on a note of optimism: “What we can say is that popular mobilization and activism, properly organized and conducted, can make a large difference.”

The only way to win? Jeremy Corbyn and a Progressive Alliance

The only way to win? Jeremy Corbyn and a Progressive Alliance
by Ian Sinclair

Morning Star
29 September 2016

With Jeremy Corbyn winning his second leadership election with an even bigger mandate than the first, it’s time to look ahead to the next General Election.

Unfortunately a number of factors make a victory for Corbyn’s Labour Party unlikely. First the scale of the Labour defeat in 2015 means Corbyn needs to gain more than 94 seats to win a majority. Second, the upcoming constituency review “will hit Labour hard”, according to analysis done by Tory peer Robert Hayward, with the possibility 30 Labour seats will disappear altogether. In addition, the government’s changes to the electoral register, requiring people to sign up as individuals rather than as households, will likely reduce the number of students and young people – two of Labour’s natural constituencies – eligible to vote.

One way of overcoming this depressing electoral math would be to set up a Progressive Alliance with some or all of the following: the Green Party, Plaid Cmyru, the Scottish National Party and the Liberal Democrats. The proposition has gained traction in recent months, with the Green Party formally writing to Labour, Plaid Cmyru and the Liberal Democrats in June, inviting them to a cross-party meeting to explore the idea. Neal Lawson’s Compass think tank also supports an alliance, and the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, Labour’s Lisa Nandy and Lib Dem Chris Bowers have just co-edited a book on the topic called The Alternative. Furthermore, a recent YouGov poll found Corbyn supporters would be happy to go into coalition with the Greens (91 percent of supporters), the SNP (73 percent) or Plaid Cymru (71 percent).

A Progressive Alliance could blossom in several different ways. At a minimum it could simply be a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement in parliament, with members of the Progressive Alliance supporting Labour in motions of confidence and votes on spending. Alternatively, electoral deals could be negotiated whereby the chances of beating the Tory candidate is maximised – by not campaigning or standing candidates in certain constituencies, or by appealing to supporters to vote tactically, for example. In a recent report from the Greenhouse think tank the Green Party’s Rupert Read notes a couple of historical precedents for this: in 1906 the Liberal Party did not run anyone against the Labour candidate in several seats, and in 1997 there was an unofficial ‘non-aggression pact’ between Labour and the Lib Dems.

More radical still would be for the parties in the Progressive Alliance to hold primaries in local constituencies to decide on a single candidate to stand against the Tories – a suggestion made by Lucas.

Frustratingly, Corbyn has repeatedly ruled out the idea of a Progressive Alliance, saying he opposes a pact with Lucas’s Greens in Brighton and the SNP in Scotland. However, Lucas remains hopeful, telling the Guardian in August that Corbyn’s office have indicated they are open to talks about cross-party electoral alliances (she suggests Corbyn’s public statements should be read in the context of the Labour leadership election).

There are a number of reasons the Labour leadership and leftists everywhere should seriously consider a Progressive Alliance. As I mention above, it will be extremely difficult for Labour to win on its own. Second, it could be the catalyst for fixing our creaking First Past The Post system, with an alliance likely to throw up a number of forward-looking policies, including proportional representation, which is supported by the Greens and senior Labour figures including John McDonnell. For Corbyn’s leadership, support for an alliance would likely be transformative, a decisive taking of the political wheel away from the press and Labour politicians out to get him. It would, in short, be an example of the kind of leadership that would leave many commentators and politicians trailing in his wake, desperately playing catch up. An alliance led by Corbyn would also mean the leaderships and memberships of the Green Party, Plaid Cmyru, the SNP and Lib Dems would have a strong interest in supporting Corbyn’s leadership, creating much needed buy in at a time when a large section of the Parliamentary Labour Party opposes him.

A successful alliance “requires some imagination, some breaking out of the old patterns of thinking, and a willingness to engage with people beyond the Westminster bubble”, argues ex-Green Party London Assembly Member Victor Anderson. With listening, negotiation and compromise surely also central to making any electoral pact work, Corbyn is arguably the perfect Labour politician to lead on this.

As the old political tribalism fades away, especially among younger voters, Corbyn and Labour have a choice: they can either move forward into the future or get stuck in the mud of old politics.

“It is time to take the bold step of considering such a pact, for the greater good”, Read urges. “The prize is democracy itself, not to mention getting rid of the Tories.”

 

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?

Is Owen Jones right that Jeremy Corbyn has the same policies as Ed Miliband?
by Ian Sinclair
29 August 2016

In his now infamous July 2016 blog ‘Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer’, Guardian columnist Owen Jones argued Corbyn’s policies are pretty much the same as those of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party at the time of the May 2015 general election. “It seems as though Ed Miliband presented his policies as less left-wing than they actually were, and now the current leadership presents them as more left-wing than they actually are”, Jones noted. “It’s presentation, style and sentiment that seem to differ most.”

This is a bold claim made by a very influential left-wing commentator. Therefore it is worth seriously considering the claim. With this in mind, I sketch out some key policy differences between Corbyn and Miliband below.

Economy

On the economy, Jones argues though “the Labour leadership now says it’s anti-austerity”, the fiscal rule accepted by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell means his economic policy is similar to that of ex-Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, “including a focus on deficit reduction”. James Meadway, the head of policy for Corbyn’s leadership campaign and former chief economist at the New Economics Foundation, notes Jones “is wrong to claim that John McDonnell is offering Ed Balls’ fiscal policy. He is absolutely not. He is opposed to cuts.” During the 2015 general election campaign Ed Balls “offered up cuts”, Corbyn explained to Jones before Jones wrote his blog. “To be clear, Labour is now an anti-austerity party opposed to the rundown and break-up of our public services”, notes Meadway.

Miliband’s Labour stated it “support[s] the principles behind the negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Treaty (TTIP)”, though was concerned about a number of issues including “the impact on public services and the Investor to State Dispute Settlement Mechanism”. Miliband’s Labour pledged to “ensure the NHS is protected from the TTIP treaty.” Commenting on Miliband’s position, The Guardian’s Political Correspondent Rowena Mason noted TTIP is “a key issue for many voters on the left” and “it does not look like this will satisfy those who view TTIP as a deal for big corporations and want it to be abandoned entirely.” Corbyn opposes TTIP outright.

NHS

Jones argues Labour under Corbyn “would reverse NHS privatisation: again, Labour at the last election committed to repealing the Health and Social Care Act and regretted the extent of NHS private sector involvement under New Labour.” However, though Labour’s 2015 election manifesto promised to repeal the Coalition Government’s NHS privatisation plans, it also saw a role for existing private firms in the NHS because it pledged to cap profits of private firms on NHS contracts. The manifesto had nothing to say about the hospitals built under the Private Finance Initiative policy instituted by Tony Blair’s Government. Earlier this month Corbyn confirmed a Labour Government led by him would cancel PFI contracts.

Education

Jones doesn’t mention any education policies. Miliband promised to reduce university tuition fees to £6,000 per year. The 2015 Labour manifesto did not mention the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA) scrapped by the Coalition Government. Corbyn has promised to abolish tuition fees completely, reintroduce student maintenance grants and reinstate the EMA.

Transport

Jones says Corbyn’s plans to renationalise the railways “beefs up Labour’s pledge under Miliband’s leadership.” In actual fact the 2015 Labour manifesto only promised to “reform our transport system in order to provide more public control and put the public interest first.” If all this seems a little vague that’s because it is: “We will review the franchising process as a priority to put in place a new system… a new National Rail body will oversee and plan for the railways and give rail users a greater say in how trains operate. We will legislate so that a public sector operator is allowed to take on lines and challenge the private train operating companies on a level playing field.” This is not renationalisation.

Royal Mail

Jones doesn’t mention the Royal Mail. Miliband’s Labour promised to “safeguard the public interest in the [now privatised] Royal Mail, supporting the creation of a staff-led trust for the employee share, and keeping the remaining 30 per cent in public ownership.” In contrast, Corbyn proposes to renationalise the Royal Mail.

Welfare

Jones doesn’t mention welfare policy. Corbyn explained to Jones before his blog was published that Miliband’s Labour used “appalling language on the DWP [Department for Work and Pensions], on welfare systems”. Corbyn is presumably referring to comments made by Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary under Miliband, about how “We are not the party of people on benefits. We don’t want to be seen, and we’re not, the party to represent those who are out of work… Labour are a party of working people, formed for and by working people.” When she was first appointed by Miliband in 2013, Reeves said Labour would be tougher than the Tories on benefits. Similarly, a briefing from Labour’s welfare spokesman under Miliband led to the Daily Mail headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against “evil” of benefits scroungers’. Corbyn voted against the Welfare Bill in July 2015 and is strongly opposed to benefits cuts.

Immigration

Jones doesn’t mention anything to do with immigration. During the 2015 General Election campaign Labour produced their UKIP-pandering ‘controls on immigration’ mugs, while Reeves announced Labour would extend the period for which EU migrants are prevented from claiming out-of-work benefits from three months to two years. “The plans take Labour further than proposals so far announced by the Conservatives,” The Guardian noted at the time. Corbyn has long been a defender of migrant rights.

Trident

Jones doesn’t mention Trident. Labour under Miliband supported the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Corbyn opposes the UK owning or using Weapons of Mass Destruction and is attempting to change Labour Party policy on this.

Foreign Policy

Jones asserts “Corbyn opposed the Iraq war; so did Miliband. The Labour leadership’s policy was to vote against the bombing of Syria, as it was under Miliband.” This is a particularly disingenuous argument from Jones. First, because he chooses to omit several significant foreign policy votes and positions – the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, the 2014 vote on the UK bombing Islamic State in Iraq and the British occupation of Afghanistan. All were supported by Miliband and opposed by Corbyn.

Second, Jones’s summary of Miliband’s position on Iraq in 2003 and Syria in 2013 (both opposed by Corbyn) is incomplete at best. In 2003 Miliband was teaching in the United States. Apparently he contacted people, including Gordon Brown, to try to persuade them to oppose the war. Speaking at the Labour leader hustings in 2010 Ed Balls labelled Miliband’s claim to be anti-war as “ridiculous” noting that Miliband “did not tell people” he was against the war. Even if Miliband privately lobbied Labour politicians, this misses a key point, as I’ve argued previously:

“There were numerous opportunities for Miliband to make a public stand against the impending war – which arguably would have had a far greater impact than his supposed behind the scenes advice – including speaking at the biggest protest in British history. That Miliband, at best, opposed the war in private strongly suggests to me that he was thinking more about his future political career than the welfare of Iraqis or the British soldiers being sent to fight in Iraq.”

In contrast, Corbyn was a key figure in the anti-war movement, speaking at hundreds of anti-war meetings and rallies. On the Syria vote, the parliamentary record shows the Labour motion tabled by Miliband was very similar to the defeated Government motion, a fact that did not go unnoticed by the more experienced foreign affairs experts in the Commons. “I can find no difference of substance or principle anywhere in the two offerings”, explained Sir Menzies Campbell, the former Foreign Affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats. Likewise, ex-Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind noted “virtually all” of Labour’s list of requirements for supporting military action “appear in the Government’s own motion.” In addition, Miliband stated that he would support military action against Syria without a United Nations Security Council Resolution – essentially agreeing with the Government again.

Jones versus reality

After considering the information above, one can only argue Corbyn’s policies are the same as the austerity-lite policies of Labour under Miliband if one chooses to ignore large swathes of policy areas or is ignorant of Corbyn’s and Miliband’s actual policy positions. That the analysis of Jones – a huge and influential left-wing voice in the mainstream media – is so pitiful and shallow is extremely concerning, and very damning, indeed.