Tag Archives: Owen Jones

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian

Covering Western foreign policy: the Morning Star versus The Guardian
by Ian Sinclair
Medium
29 December 2016

Earlier this month the Morning Star newspaper found itself in the middle of a media shitstorm. The trigger was their front page headline about the final stages of the battle of Aleppo, Syria’s biggest city: ‘Final liberation of Aleppo is in sight’.

The response from some Labour MPs and liberal commentators was immediate and indignant. ‘Absolute disgrace’, tweeted Tom Blenkinsop MP. ‘All parliamentarians, especially party leaders, should condemn false propaganda as was displayed in the Morning Star. People are being murdered not liberated’, Jess Phillips MP argued. Writing the next day in The Guardian Owen Jones noted ‘Yesterday’s front page of the Morning Star rightly provoked revulsion when it described Aleppo’s fall as a “liberation”’. The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland was similarly critical, as was fellow columnist George Monbiot, who retweeted Jones’s column. Paul Mason, also a regular at The Guardian, went one further tweeting the following challenge: ‘Dear NUJ colleagues at Morning Star: in what world does cheering on a war crime conform to union code of practice? Or any form of socialism?’

(Full disclosure: While I write for the Morning Star, I do not agree with the Morning Star’s front page description of what’s happening in Aleppo. Accordingly, I wrote a letter to the paper stating this, which was published on their letters page — like other letters I’ve recently written critical of their Syria coverage.)

To make sense of this uproar, it is useful to compare the reaction to the Morning Star front page on Aleppo to a recent three-page leading article in The Guardian’s Review section. With the front page of the Review section depicting a very presidential-looking Barack Obama next to the headline ‘Amazing Grace’, The Guardian asked seventeen leading authors to reflect on Obama’s legacy.

Before I consider the writers’ contributions, it’s worth stating some basic facts about the first black president’s time in office. Since 2008 the Obama Administration has bombed seven Muslim-majority countries (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Libya, Syria, Yemen and Somalia), escalating the war in Afghanistan, and massively expanding the secret war in Somalia. In 2012 the New York Times reported that Obama had ‘embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties’ of US drone strikes that ‘in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants.’ US counter-terrorism officials insisted this approach is based on simple logic, the New York Times explained: that ‘people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good.’ According to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee the 2011 US-NATO bombing of Libya led to ‘political and economic collapse, inter-militia and inter-tribal warfare, humanitarian and migrant crises, widespread human rights violations, the spread of Gaddafi regime weapons across the region and the growth of ISIL [Islamic State] in North Africa’. In Syria, Obama has been carrying out an illegal bombing campaign against Islamic State, and has provided extensive military support to Syrian rebels trying to overthrow the Syrian government, and given a wink and a nod to Saudi Arabia and Qatar to send in arms to, thus playing a key role in escalating and prolonging the conflict.

The Obama Administration has supported Saudi Arabia’s attack on Yemen, with the Yemen Data Project reporting that one third of Saudi Arabian-led air raids have hit civilian sites such as school buildings, hospitals, markets and mosques. With the US providing logistical and intelligence support to the Saudi-led coalition, the war has played a key role in creating a dire humanitarian emergency, with the UN estimating as early as June 2015 that 20 million Yemenis — nearly 80 percent of the population — were in urgent need of food, water and medical aid. More broadly, the Obama administration has offered to sell $115bn worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia over its eight years in office, making Obama ‘the most enthusiastic arms salesman to Saudi Arabia in American history’, according to Senior Brookings Institution Fellow Bruce Riedel. Turning to the US’s other major regional ally, Obama has protected Israel more times at the United Nations than any other US president, recently agreeing a record $38 billion, 10-year US military aid deal with Israel.

At the tail end of George W Bush’s presidency US Special Forces were deployed in 60 countries. Under Obama today they are deployed in 135 countries — presumably why muckraker Matt Taibbi sees the US presidential race as being about choosing the next ‘imperial administrator’.

At home Obama ‘has waged a war against whistleblowers and official leakers’, according to Spencer Ackerman and Ed Pilkington. ‘On his watch, there have been eight prosecutions under the 1917 Espionage Act — more than double those under all previous presidents combined.’ In April 2011 more than 250 American legal scholars signed a letter protesting against the Obama Administration’s treatment of Chelsea Manning arguing her ‘degrading and inhumane conditions’ were illegal, unconstitutional and could even amount to torture. Described by some immigration NGOs as the ‘Deporter in Chief’, between 2009 and 2015 the Obama removed more than 2.5 million people through immigration orders. ‘Based on statements so far, Trump’s plan to remove the undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes is similar to what President Obama declared in 2014’, ABC News noted in August 2016. On climate change — an existential threat to humanity — Obama’s actions have been wholly inadequate, with the US turning up at the crunch 2009 Copenhagen climate talks with a paltry offer to make 17 percent reductions in carbon emissions on 2005 levels by 2020 (in comparison the European Union pledged to reduce carbon emissions by 20 percent on 1990 levels by 2020). For Peter Brown, Assistant Director of the Quinnipiac University polling institute, this obstructionism was further proof Obama was ‘a conservative voice among world leaders’ on climate change.

So, what did the authors commissioned by The Guardian make of Obama’s time in office? ‘Brilliant and understated, urbane, witty, compassionate, composed, Barack Obama is a unique human being’, began Joyce Carol Oates’s contribution. Siri Hustvedt described Obama as ‘an elegant… moderate, morally upright’ black man. ‘Thank you for your grace, your intelligence, your curiosity, your patience, your respect for the constitution, your respect for people who don’t look like you or pray like you’, wrote Attica Locke. Pulitzer Prize winner Marilyn Robinson asserted Obama was ‘a deeply reflective man, an idealist whose ideal America is a process of advance and self-realisation.’ In the most critical piece, Gary Younge inverts reality, arguing Obama’s ‘victories saved the country from… war without end or purpose’. Noting that she opposed Obama’s use of ‘kill lists’, Professor Sarah Churchwell nevertheless felt the Obama family were ‘disciplined, distinguished, serious… there was not a whiff of scandal’. After he leaves office Churchwell hopes Obama will ‘keep fighting’ as he ‘remains a formidable champion to have on our side.’ Ending the contributions Aminatta Forna laments ‘The world will miss Obama. Deeply.’

I could quote many more lines from the contributions, but you get the picture: evidence-free eulogising from supposedly free-thinking, smart individuals whose worship of established power would shame Pravda. Yemen is never mentioned, nor is Pakistan or Somalia. Libya gets one mention — described by Lorrie Moore as something Obama ‘did not entirely succeed at’. Lionel Shriver provides the sole mention of Afghanistan, noting Obama has been ‘slow to get us out of the sinkhole of Afghanistan’. In short, the deadly impact of American military power is largely either ignored or downplayed.

Far from being an outlier, the authors’ shocking support for an American president who has caused the deaths of thousands of men, women and children, and destabilised entire countries, fits well with the Guardian’s broader coverage of the Obama Administration.

For example, a front-page Guardian article penned by Freedland about Obama’s July 2008 speech in Berlin breathlessly reported the then Democratic presidential candidate ‘almost floated into view, walking to the podium on a raised, blue-carpeted runway as if he were somehow, magically, walking on water.’ In January 2011 Guardian columnist Madelaine Bunting argued Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was advancing a US foreign policy with ‘an explicitly feminist agenda’. In April 2015 a Guardian editorial referred to ‘the Obama-esque oath to first do no harm’. A year before Assistant Editor and foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall chided Obama for his ‘retreat from attachment to the imperious might, the responsibilities and the ideals that once made America an unrivalled and deserving superpower.’ Tisdall has form — in December 2013 he wrote of the ‘good causes for which western soldiers bravely fought and died’ in Afghanistan. What are these, you ask? Tisdall explains: ‘creating and safeguarding the space for extending women’s rights, human rights in general, universal education and child healthcare.’ World Affairs Editor Julian Borger went one better in July 2012, making the extraordinary claim that the US’s ‘military and civilian assistance’ to Egypt was ‘an investment in Middle East peace.’

On Syria, The Guardian has repeatedly downplayed the US’s extensive intervention in the ongoing war. Shockingly, The Guardian’s report of a July 2016 US airstrike that killed at least 73 Syrian civilians — the majority women and children, according to activists — appeared as a small report at the bottom of page 22. In May 2013 Tisdall provided a perfect case study for Mark Curtis’s concept of basic benevolence — how the ideological system promotes the idea Western foreign policy is driven by high principles and benign intentions — when he asserted Obama ‘cannot count on Russian (or, therefore, Chinese or UN security council) support to fix Syria.’

If, as Professor of Journalism Robert Jensen argues, the role of mainstream journalism in a democratic society is ‘to analyse and critique systems of power to help ordinary people take greater control over our lives’, then large sections of The Guardian’s reporting of the Obama Administration has failed miserably.

But now I am downplaying things: if one seriously considers the level of devastation, death and misery around the world the Obama Administration is responsible for, then The Guardian’s ongoing support for/ignoring/downplaying (pick one) of these crimes becomes nothing less than obscene. But while there were howls of outrage at the Morning Star’s front page on the war in Aleppo, there is a telling silence when it comes to the more subtle pro-US government propaganda pumped out by the far more influential Guardian. The Morning Star’s headline was simply unacceptable to the liberal commentariat. In contrast, The Guardian’s often positive coverage of Obama is considered a legitimate part of the broader media debate.

The difference, of course, is all about politics — who is doing the killing and who is being killed. ‘A propaganda system will consistently portray people abused in enemy states as worthy victims’, argue Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their seminal 1988 book Manufacturing Consent. In contrast ‘those treated with equal or greater severity by its own government or clients will be unworthy. The evidence of worth may be read from the extent and character of attention and indignation.’ And, of course, it’s all about which newspaper is doing the reporting — the small circulation, cash-strapped and generally left-wing Morning Star or the liberal, establishment newspaper that publishes the work of — and pays the salaries of — Jones, Freedland, Monbiot and Mason.

 

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.”

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers

Owen Jones, ‘No Platform’ and Normalising Warmongers
by Ian Sinclair
New Left Project
25 November 2013

‘No Platform’ – the decision not to give a platform to those whose views are deemed to be abhorrent – is a popular policy of the Left in the UK. Organisations can ‘No platform’ by refusing to invite certain speakers to events they organise or protesting their appearance at other events; individuals can use the tactic in a different way refusing to appear on a platform with a given individual. This tactic isolates the targeted individual, putting down a public marker showing that they are not part of normal political debate. I would argue that to be an effective and respected tactic that will be supported and understood by the general public ‘No Platform’ needs to be applied in a broadly consistent manner.

With all this in mind, it is worth giving some attention to the recent decisions of Owen Jones about who to appear with on a platform. As one of the most influential figures on the contemporary British Left, his actions inevitably serve to represent the left to some extent and are likely to shape the choices that other Leftists make about who to appear on a platform with, and who not to.  Unfortunately, his decisions seem confused and hypocritical. He appears to ‘No Platform’ relatively powerless people, while being happy to speak alongside far more objectionable members of the ruling elite.

Before I continue, however, I want to make it clear I think Owen Jones is a brilliant voice for the Left in the UK. He has successfully taken apart establishment figures such as historian David Starkey, Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith and Guido Fawkes, has strongly criticised Israel’s attack on Gaza on BBC Question Time and destroyed the pro-war argument at the Huffington Post debate on the 2003 Iraq War. I often Tweet in support when Jones appears on television. Like many on the Left I see Jones as representing ‘my team’ against the Establishment.

Jones is set to speak at the 30 November 2013 Stop the War Coalition conference. On finding out Mother Agnes Mariam wad also scheduled to speak at the conference, Jones told the conference organisers he would not appear alongside her. With US journalist Jeremy Scahill also refusing to speaking alongside Mother Agnes, she has pulled out of the conference.

Mother Agnes is a Catholic nun who lived in Syria until recently. She has received a lot of media attention for arguing the 21 August 2013 chemical weapons attack in Ghouta, Syria was a provocation by Syrian rebels. Critics say she is an apologist for the Assad Government.

Jones, of course, has every right to not share a platform with someone whose views he finds objectionable. However, the problem is in February 2012 Jones appeared on BBC Question Time alongside none other than John Prescott – the Labour Deputy Prime Minister during the invasion of Iraq. The Iraq War has led to approximately 500,000 Iraqi deaths according to a study recently published in the peer-reviewed journal PLoS Medicine.

Prescott confirms his own responsibility for being a leading participant in initiating the invasion in his autobiography:

‘The massive [15 February 2003] anti-war march in London had been very worrying, but I felt we were all in this so the cabinet should stick together.’ (John Prescott with Hunter Davies, Prezza. My Story, 2008, Headline Review, London, p. 284).

So, to put it simply, Jones is happy to appear alongside Prescott, a British politician intimately involved in initiating the illegal, aggressive invasion of another country that led to the deaths of over 500,000 people, but he refuses to speak on a platform alongside Mother Agnes who is, at worst, a propagandist for a Ba’athist dictatorship. Bashar Assad’s Government have been a leading participant in the Syrian Civil War that had killed over 100,000 people by July 2013, according to the United Nations.

Jones addressed this criticism of him in his defence of his decision not to appear at the conference alongside Mother Agnes:

‘The… argument is that I am “happy” to share platforms with those who prosecuted the war against Iraq – including former members of the Blair government – on TV platforms before, but not a Syrian nun. The response here is pretty straightforward. If a pro-war politician had been invited to the Stop the War conference, I would have refused to share a platform, too. That’s because an anti-war conference is an event where – despite differences or nuances in views – everybody is there to make common cause. We are there as allies, as part of the same movement. When I appear on, say, Question Time to debate ministers, there is no presumption of common cause.’

This explanation is contradicted by Jones’s appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions in July 2012, which I described in a previous article:

‘Finding out that Kelvin McKenzie was also on the panel, Jones pontificated on Twitter about whether he should withdraw in protest because of the former Sun Editor’s lies about the Hillsborough football victims. Unsure about the ethics of appearing with McKenzie, incredibly Jones sought the advice [through Twitter] of Iraq War supporter and Blair apologist David Aaronovitch. Jones eventually decided to appear on Any Questions, noting he would donate his appearance fee to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.’

This isn’t just about Jones – it has wider ramifications because his confusing morality is indicative of a wider cultural problem. Polls show 28 percent of respondents to a 2010 BPIX/Mail on Sunday poll said former Tony Blair should be tried for war crimes. A 2010 ComRes/Independent poll found even more support for this, with 37 per cent of people saying Blair should be put on trial. Unsurprisingly, this large section of public opinion is not reflected in the mainstream media. The Morning Star is the only national newspaper that has publicly called for Blair to face a war crimes trial, as far as I am aware.

But it’s not just silence – key participants in the initiation of the Iraq War are regularly invited onto our screens and to write for national newspapers. Prescott has hosted and appeared on the BBC’s satire programme Have I Got News For You, Alastair Campbell was invited to guest edit the New Statesman and Tony Blair regularly appears in the Guardian’s comment pages to shower us with his wisdom on peace in the Middle East.

While the opinion polls quoted above shows a significant percentage of the British public supports Blair appearing in the dock, it’s clear a further, momentous shift in public opinion would be necessary before the Blair Government is held to account for the invasion of Iraq. However, this shift is going to be all but impossible to achieve while Have I Got News For You, the New Statesman, the Guardian and, yes, Owen Jones, continue to treat the guilty men and women as though they were part of the political mainstream. In short, although Jones is a strong anti-war voice, his decisions on who to ‘No Platform’ effectively normalises the murderous actions of Prescott and his cabinet colleagues.

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters

Why Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party should reach out to non-voters
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
7 October 2016

“We’ve got to win in Cardiff North. We’ve got to win in Nuneaton. We’ve got to win in Milton Keynes”, asserted Owen Smith in the recent leadership campaign. “We’ve got to get Tories and Greens and Liberals to vote Labour.”

In the mainstream commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party, one thing is clear – he must claim the centre ground of politics and reach out to Tory voters. The BBC’s political coverage is often based on this assumption, with the corporation deciding to hold its 2015 televised Labour leadership debate in the well-known marginal seat of Nuneaton.

This has been the dominant, so-called pragmatic, way of doing parliamentary politics for my lifetime – what Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London calls “politics as marketing”. In this conception of politics, “there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works.” Voters are rational, self-interested actors with fixed preferences. The politician is sold to the voters as likable and competent, much like a salesperson selling the party brand to customers. “The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies”.

Writer Tariq Ali argues this endless battle for the mythical, ‘sensible’ centre ground has led to the creation of an “extreme centre” in British politics, with Tory-Labour bipartisanship leading to destructive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the financial crisis, privatisation, rising inequality and nasty and dangerous narratives being pushed on welfare and immigration.

Aswell as being tone deaf to radical social movements, this focus on a tiny number of voters in marginal seats ignores what has been called the largest party in British politics – the 15.7 million who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election.

Corbyn himself has repeatedly said he wants to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people. Noting that turnout went down from 84 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 2015, Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford agrees, arguing “the best strategy for Labour to increase its share of the vote is to target people who vote for minor parties and the much larger groups [who] have given up voting or even registering to vote.”

So, who doesn’t vote and why don’t they bother? Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary university, notes the people who don’t vote tend to be “the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested.” Speaking to voters in Manchester before the last general election, the BBC’s Emma Ailes reported that “it seems anger not apathy is turning people off voting” – an observation highlighted by polling. According to a 2013 poll by Survation the top reasons given by people for not voting were a belief that their vote will not make a difference; that the parties and candidates are all the same; a lack of interest in politics; not enough information or knowledge to choose; and that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.

This deeply concerning reality is neither natural nor inevitable. As I note above, in 1950 general election turnout was around 20 percent higher than it is now. The Nordic countries have very high levels of voter turnout.  Indeed there have been British elections recently with very high turnouts – the Scottish referendum (85 percent – the highest turnout in any British election since universal suffrage) and the EU referendum (72 percent). Arguably, in contrast to most of the elections of the past 35 years, these two votes actually meant something – there was actually a real choice for voters to make.

This gets to the heart of the issue. Citing British Social Attitudes survey data, in 2010 Alison Park, the Research Director of the National Centre for Social Research, noted one reason for the low turnout in recent elections “is that New Labour’s move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.” Professor Bale explains turnout goes down when “the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague”.

To counter these common criticisms of modern politicians, Corbyn needs to position the Labour Party as a clear and easily understandable alternative to the Conservatives and make sure the party follows through on any promises it makes. In addition, Labour needs more working-class MPs, a problem Corbyn’s 2015 proposal to provide grants to less affluent parliamentary candidates would help alleviate.

To mobilse non-voters commentator Owen Jones has suggested Labour carry out the biggest registration drive in history. And with Labour membership standing at over 600,000 and Corbyn attracting crowds of 1,000s of people, journalist Paul Mason believes Labour supporters can play a key role by being ambassadors in their communities, engaging with the wider electorate. Trade unions, which have traditionally encouraged the working-classes to vote, also have an important role to play.

However, it is important to note the First Past The Post system means significantly expanding the electorate will not, on its own, win the election for Corbyn. This is because the people who don’t vote tend to live in Labour dominated seats, meaning a higher turnout in most constituencies would simply mean a bigger win for the Labour MP. However, it would still lead to some gains, with a Fabian Society analysis showing a 7.3 percent boost in turnout in marginal seats would lead to Labour winning 52 seats if each new voter backed Labour.

Corbyn, then, will almost certainly need to attract significant numbers of people who had voted Conservative. This isn’t as unbelievable as the mainstream media would have you believe. Polling suggests many of Corbyn’s political positions – on the NHS, on railways, on housing and foreign policy – have the support of large sections of the British public, sometimes the majority of Tory voters.

Beyond the narrow electoral math, there are a number of reasons why Corbyn’s Labour Party (and other political parties) should work hard to engage with non-voters – for their party’s own benefit and for the nation as a whole.

First, though it may not translate into immediate electoral gains, getting the support of non-voters would increase the popular vote for Labour, one source of legitimacy in political debates. In addition, it would increase the number of the poorer people who are interested and involved in Labour politics, and politics more generally. This process would hopefully mean Labour increasingly becomes more responsive to working-class concerns (such as income inequality and social housing) and begin once again to seriously represent the working-class communities who have been effectively ignored by New Labour and the Tories for decades.

More broadly, this could be the starting gun for a mass reengagement with the political system, with previously disheartened and unrepresented sections of society becoming invested in parliamentary politics and the outcome of elections. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is clear the Brexit vote was decades in the making, the product, in large part, of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ that the UK has endured since New Labour was established. For example, a recent Oxfam report noted the UK’s extreme level of inequality was a likely contributing factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Similarly, focus groups ran by Britain Thinks found “Britain is divided – a nation of people who describe themselves as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’”. The research found the ‘have nots’ – who were much more likely to vote Brexit – described “a powerful sense of injustice about their situation in life” and “the feeling that systems are in place which work in favour of elites and against their best interests”.

In a similar vein the 2011 riots that swept England were informed by social and economic issues coming out of ‘the extreme centre’. In addition to difficult relations with the police, an extensive LSE-Guardian study noted rioters identified a number of motivating grievances, “from the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.” The report continues: “Many complained about perceived social and economic injustices.”

If the UK is to move forward and build the progressive, more equal, tolerant, just society that Corbyn supporters and many others want, then the political system has to sincerely engage with, and listen to, all of society – not just swing voters in Nuneaton.

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.

Who is Owen Smith?

Who is Owen Smith?
by Ian Sinclair
Open Democracy
29 July 2016

Labour leadership contender Owen Smith MP has stated he is “going to be just as radical” as Jeremy Corbyn. “Jeremy has been right about so many things”, Smith argued at the launch of his campaign. This pitch to Labour voters has been taken up by the Saving Labour group hoping to dispose Corbyn, with its supporters telling members of the public “there is no real difference… between Owen Smith and Jeremy”.

Is this true? How does this framing of the leadership contest fit with Smith’s actual political record?

Smith has already been criticised for his previous senior positions at Big Pharma corporations. “Smith worked for Amgen as its chief lobbyist in the UK for two years before becoming MP for Pontypridd [in 2010]. Before that he was a lobbyist for US drug firm Pfizer from 2005”, notes the Guardian. “While at Pfizer in 2005 Smith endorsed a Pfizer-backed report offering NHS patients easier access to private-sector healthcare”. According to The Times newspaper Smith stated in a press release “We believe that choice is a good thing and that patients and healthcare professionals should be at the heart of developing the agenda.” For Lisa Nandy MP (“a cracking Labour MP” – Guardian journalist Owen Jones) Smith’s senior role at Pfizer is a good thing because “having seen how a pharmaceutical company and capitalism operates from the inside is probably quite important, to be honest. If you are going to critique it, you need to understand it.”

Responding to questions about his position with Pfizer on the BBC Today Programme, Smith stated “I’ve never advocated the privatisation of the NHS” and “I believe in a 100 percent publicly owned NHS free at the point of use”. Nandy repeated this narrative in her interview with Owen Jones, replying “Yes” when Jones asked her to confirm Smith “wants an entirely publicly run National Health Service – no privatisation?”

In the real world, when Smith unsuccessfully fought the 2006 Blaenau Gwent by-election and he was asked about the involvement of the private sector in the NHS by Wales Online, he replied:

“Where they can bring good ideas, where they can bring valuable services that the NHS is not able to deliver, and where they can work alongside but subservient to the NHS and without diminishing in any respect the public service ethos of the NHS, then I think that’s fine.”

Asked about the controversial Private Finance Initiative (PFI) schemes introduced by the Blair Government, Smith responded: “We’ve had PFI in Wales, we’ve had a hospital built down in Baglan through PFI. If PFI works, then let’s do it.” In the same interview Smith sings the praises of New Labour’s introduction of academy schools, which was strongly opposed by the teaching unions. “I’m not someone, frankly, who gets terribly wound up about some of the ideological nuances”, noted Smith.

In July 2015 Smith abstained on the Government’s Welfare Bill, which the government’s own figures confirmed would push 330,000 children from low-income families further into poverty, with single mothers and ethnic minorities hit particularly hard. Now running for the Labour leadership, Smith told the BBC’s Andrew Marr his vote was a mistake that he now regretted. How sincerely he believes this is brought into question by his appearance on BBC Newsnight in September 2016 when he confirmed his support for the £26,000 benefit cap, saying “We are in favour of an overall reduction in the amount of money we spend on benefits in this country and we are in favour of limits on what individual families can draw down.” In March 2015 the Guardian reported the UK Supreme Court had “found that the effect of the policy [the benefit cap] was not compatible with the government’s obligations under the UN convention on the rights of the child”.

Earlier this month Smith voted to renew the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons. Asked by Marr if he was prepared to “annihilate possibly millions of people” by firing Trident, Smith replied that “You’ve got to be prepared to say yes to that.” But wasn’t he once a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, asked Marr? When did he realise he was wrong? “About 15 years ago”, Smith replied. This doesn’t fit with a June 2006 Daily Mail report, which noted “Yesterday Owen Smith… came out in opposition to the Trident nuclear deterrent”.

Noting Smith entered parliament in 2010, the Guardian’s Zoe Williams argues he cannot be “tarnished by the Blair years and the vote on the Iraq war.” Indeed, though he was a Special Advisor to pro-war Labour Cabinet Minister Paul Murphy in 2003, Smith and his supporters have repeatedly highlighted his opposition to the war. However, interviewing Smith in 2006 Wales Online noted “He didn’t know whether he would have voted against the war”, with Smith arguing “the tradition of the Labour Party and the tradition of left-wing engagement to remove dictators was a noble, valuable tradition, and one that in South Wales, from the Spanish Civil War onwards, we have recognised and played a part in.”

As this suggests, even if he did oppose the war in 2003 Smith continues to repeat the delusional framing of the pro-war camp. For example, introducing the topic of Iraq in his campaign launch speech, Smith referred to the UK as “a country that has traditionally, patriotically intervened around the world to help impose and understand our values across the globe.” And again he tried to ride Corbyn’s coattails, noting “Iraq was a terrible mistake. Jeremy has been right about that.” The problem for Smith is this isn’t what Corbyn or the mainstream anti-war movement argue. Let me explain: if I slip on a banana skin – that’s a mistake. If I spill coffee down my shirt – that’s a mistake. If I spend months planning an illegal and aggressive invasion of another country that leads to the deaths of over 500,000 men, women and children and over four million refugees, then that’s a crime, and a massive one at that, as Corbyn implicitly suggested in his response to the publication of the Chilcot Report.

Corbyn, of course, also opposed the 2011 Libyan war – just one of the 2 percent of MPs who did. Smith supported the military intervention which steamrolled over peace initiatives being made by the African Union, enabled ethnic cleansing and the levelling of the city of Sirte, destabilised the country and region, increased the number of terrorist groups operating in Libya and exacerbated the refugee crisis.

Interviewed by the Telegraph in June 2006, Smith argued Tony Blair was a socialist. Asked if he has any policy differences with Blair except for the Iraq War, which he said was a mistake, Smith replied “No, I don’t think so.” The Telegraph’s take on Smith? “About as New Labour as you can get”. The Independent’s take on Smith for their report on the by-election was similarly blunt: “A dyed-in-the wool New Labourite.”

Big Pharma lobbyist? Radical? New Labourite? Socialist? Blairite? Corbynista without Corbyn? Who, exactly, is Owen Smith? Looking at his record of following the prevailing political winds, it seems Owen Smith will be whoever he needs to be for political gain.

*Buzzfeed journalist James Ball recently criticised a Twitter meme based on a similar article I wrote for Open Democracy titled ‘Who Is Angela Eagle?’. Comparing the selected points my article highlights about Eagle’s voting record with her overall voting record, Ball argued “can prove what you like with being selective with voting records”. As I explained to Ball, my article about Eagle – and this article – is about highlighting political differences between the challenger and Corbyn on key issues that may be of interest to Labour voters and the broader general public. It is not a complete record of Smith’s political career, obviously. I would hope readers don’t need me to tell them that Smith is not a moustache-twirling, Disney villain and has, I’m sure, made many positive contributions in his political career.

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Tory Government U-turns

Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party and Tory Government U-turns
by Ian Sinclair
16 July 2016

In his latest Guardian column, Owen Jones argues that the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn has been “reduced to an ineffective pressure group”. This chimes with a lot of the criticism coming from the Labour MPs opposed to his leadership, Tory politicians and much of the mainstream media – that Corbyn is unable to lead an effective opposition to the Tory Government, and therefore should step down.

In contrast, the historical record shows Labour under Corbyn has defeated the Government on a number of important issues, forcing U-turns at various points. Of course, these victories are not down to Corbyn alone but the whole of the Labour Party and wider Labour movement, often working with civil society groups and other political parties. And, of course, there could always be more defeats for the Government – something that would be more likely if Labour MPs supported their elected leader. I list the victories below so discussion on this topic can be informed by evidence and fact, rather than baseless assertions:

Saudi Arabia prison contract. Guardian, 13 October 2015: “Downing Street has announced that the government is to cancel a £5.9m contract to provide a training programme for prisons in Saudi Arabia… The pressure on Cameron to cancel the Saudi contract escalated when Jeremy Corbyn called on him in his first party conference speech as Labour leader to block the bid to provide training for the very prison system that would carry out the execution of the pro-democracy protester Ali Mohammed Baqir al-Nimr.”

Police cuts. Labour List, 25 November 2015: “George Osborne today caved into pressure from Labour and announced U-turns on both tax credits and cuts to police budgets. Both issues have been major attack lines for Labour in recent months”.

Tax credits. Morning Star, 26 November 2015: “Chancellor George Osborne was forced into a humiliating climbdown yesterday over his toxic plans to slash tax credits. The Tory appeared to make a complete U-turn on the cuts in his Autumn Statement after a campaign led by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. It saved three million families, who were set to lose £1,300 on average from next April, from being plunged further into poverty.”

Housing benefit cuts. Mirror, 27 January 2016: “The Tories have performed a humiliating climbdown on a cruel benefit cut which threatened to force OAPs, veterans and abused women out of supported accommodation. Housing minister Brandon Lewis was forced to the House of Commons to announce the 1% cut in rent for housing providers that support vulnerable people would be delayed for a year… Labour dragged the Housing Minister to the commons during an Opposition Day debate on housing benefit cuts and supported housing.”

Child poverty indicators. Guardian, 26 February 2016: “The government has been forced into retreat after agreeing that it should continue to report lack of money as a measure of child poverty. Ministers wanted to remove a statutory duty to publish levels of UK household income as part of the welfare reform and work bill but have now accepted, after a battle with the House of Lords, that the material deprivation measures should remain protected…. Owen Smith MP, the shadow work and pensions secretary, said…’Efforts led by the Labour party, our peers, the bishop of Durham and the charity sector have together forced the Tories to climb down on their bid to cover their tracks on child poverty.’”

Sunday opening hours. Independent, 9 March 2016: “David Cameron has suffered a damaging Commons defeat after Conservative rebels teamed up with Labour and SNP MPs to throw out plans to allow supermarkets and large stores in England and Wales to open longer on Sundays.”

Trade Union Bill. Labour List, 17 March 2016: “The Conservatives’ anti-trade union plans suffered a setback last night as they suffered a ‘resounding defeat’ in House of Lords votes. Peers voted against aspects of the Trade Union Bill that would see Labour’s funding take a serious hit, as well as stalling proposals to implement 50 per cent threshold on strike ballots until an independent review has considered electronic balloting, which the Tories oppose… In January, Labour and Lib Dem members of the House of Lords agreed to work together to oppose these reforms, following a decades-long agreement that major changes to party funding must have cross-party support. Both parties voted for the amendment last night, as well as crossbench peers and two Tory rebels.”

Disability cuts. Metro, 18 March 2016: “George Osborne could be about to perform a rather embarrassing U-turn on the cuts to disability benefits… Jeremy Corbyn said Labour is ready to combine with Conservative rebels to inflict what would be a humiliating defeat for the Government, unless ministers back down. The Labour leader said 200,000 of the 640,000 people hit by the changes would lose out altogether as a result of the Government’s plans, which would take £4 billion out of the benefit over the course of the parliament.”

Academies. Labour List, 7 May 2016: “The Government has suffered a ‘humiliating climb-down’ on their controversial plans to turn all schools into academies, burying their U-turn among election announcements across the country yesterday… Lucy Powell said… ‘It is welcome news that the Tory Government has finally listened to Labour and the alliance of head teachers, parents and local government who opposed these plans, and dropped the forced academisation of all schools.’”

Child refugees. Huffington Post, 10 May 2016: “Recently David Cameron has been forced to back down from his plans to ignore helpless Syrian child refugees living without parents in camps. A plan put forward by Labour peer Lord Dubs to resettle child refugees was originally refused by David Cameron, but because of pressure from Labour and rebelling backbench Conservative MPs, he was forced to concede to morality.”