A response to ‘A cruel society is being built. Voting Labour begins the fightback’ by Owen Jones.
On 21 April, to absolutely nobody’s amazement, Owen Jones advocated a vote for Labour in his Guardian column.
Jones will tell anyone who asks that he’s a fierce critic of the party when it does wrong, and sure enough it’s easy to find articles where he decries this or that Labour policy pronouncement. But it hardly seems to matter; Labour can be as reactionary as they like and Jones can write as many denouncements as he wants, but in the end the party can rely on not only his vote but his recommendation to others.
As far as criticism goes, that’s the safest possible form any would-be government can hope for. Empty threats honestly have more substance, because even if you pull your punch at least you don’t prostrate yourself before the other guy.
I’ve dealt with the notion of holding your nose to vote Labour before. Jones’s article is just the latest version of a piece written so many times before that you wonder if newspapers have a template on hand for any columnist to bash out at election time. Emotional blackmail plus implied guilt with a dash of threat equals a vote for Labour.
So rather than his electoral hackery, I’d like to tackle here Jones’s interpretation of how campaigning works and what its purpose is.
Indeed, those who claim there is no difference between Labour and the Tories do down every single person who has protested and campaigned over the last few years. UK Uncut occupied shops and businesses that refuse to pay tax as our services and welfare state are shredded. Many of those activists, my friends among them, were arrested. Their sacrifice was not in vain: they forced the issue on to the agenda, and have everything to do with Labour’s promised clampdown on tax avoidance and non-dom status.
Trade unionists and other activists sick of British workers being commodities to be hired and fired won a commitment from Labour to clamp down on zero-hours contracts. Dogged NHS campaigners won a Labour pledge to reverse privatisation, and even a partial renunciation of New Labour’s obsession with the private sector. The persistence of anti-war protestors over so many years culminated in Ed Miliband’s vetoing of the proposed bombing of Syria, a dramatic rupture with the bomb-happy leadership of Tony Blair. Who knows? Islamic State could be in Damascus right now if things had panned out differently.
The most obvious problem with the above is that it effectively reduces all organising and campaigning down to shifting Labour’s position on any number of issues. At the conclusion of the article, Jones goes further by suggesting that all of our “campaigns and struggles […] would, under Toryism, be doomed.”
This sentiment promotes a dangerous illusion – that the strength of the working class and so its ability to effect social change is tied to the electoral fortunes of Labour. As such, without a Labour government, there’s no point fighting as we can’t win until they get back in. Hence, with a Labour government, our criticism must be tempered by the need to keep them in power.
Needless to say, this is disingenuous bollocks.
Even if I bought the logic of pulling Labour leftward (spoiler: I don’t), what leverage is there to do that if no matter what they do they always have your vote for fear of the Tories?
More importantly, the focus on whether or not Labour will do something only obscures the fact that we win concessions and improvements through our ability to threaten disruption. Our organised strength as a class is the deciding factor of how effective struggles are, not which party is currently in charge.
The victories of organised campaigns should not be measured in Labour’s election pledges, since there is no more reason to believe Ed Miliband’s 2015 pledge to end zero hour contracts than Tony Blair’s 1995 pledge to do the same. Such pledges are no doubt the party trying to make political capital out of popular opinion, but Labour are hardly the only ones to do that. Taking the UK Uncut example, we should remember that the Tories have promised action on tax avoidance too.
As another example, zero hours contracts will be beaten when the BFAWU union’s strike victory on the issue is widely emulated and the bosses are forced into a retreat, leaving the state no option but to legislate against them in order to ward off further action. This isn’t dependent on any particular party being in charge but on the strength of our class.
It’s also worth noting that a letter to the Guardian has already debunked Jones’s image of an anti-war Miliband as a crock too.
In reality, “virtually all” of Labour’s list of requirements for supporting military action in 2013 “appear[ed] in the government’s own motion” (Malcolm Rifkind), and Miliband himself explained that he was prepared to back military action without a UN resolution. As Jonathan Steele observed, “Cameron and Miliband used dubious legal grounds to try to justify bypassing a veto in the UN security council by saying western military strikes were needed to protect Syrians” (Opinion, 1 September 2013).
Miliband supports our current bombing of Iraq, and backed both Nato’s 2011 bombing of Libya and Britain’s most recent war in Afghanistan. Hold your nose and vote Labour on 7 May if you will, but have no illusions: Miliband is a man of war and imperial power, just like his predecessor.
Finally, Jones’s counter-posing of “Labour” and “the establishment” as if one is not part of the other underlines what he is doing. This isn’t just a nauseatingly earnest plea that we vote for the lesser of two evils, it is a plea which justifies itself by obfuscating where the power of the working class truly lies.
That is why it isn't just patronising and wrong-headed, but actively dangerous.