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Owen Jones: On Labour and The Left

After last month’s General Election result, the Left is in disarray. At the time of writing, the clearest voices in the Labour leadership contest seem to be Blairite ‘pro-business’ candidates, with little acknowledgement of failures within the party which led voters to opt for the SNP, the Green Party or UKIP over Labour. Regardless of your party political affiliations, the coming year will be pivotal for the future of Labour and, as a consequence, our whole political system. Author and journalist Owen Jones is a staunch Labour supporter, so I scheduled an interview with him for the week after the election to get his take on the party’s “catastrophic defeat” (his words), which he attributes to its alliance with the Tories in opposition to Scottish independence, its failure to deflect claims of overspending by the previous Labour government, and the absence of “any coherent alternative at all”. I think you’re right when you said recently that Labour didn’t have a very coherent election offer. What policies and issues should Miliband have put at the forefront of his campaign? What I would have argued for was instead of wasting taxpayers’ money on in-work benefits, to have a living wage instead. Instead of wasting public money on private landlords, subsidising them, we should’ve had a house building programme where councils were able to build housing to take down the five million-strong social housing waiting list. To have a jobs programme modelled on the likes of Germany, where the state actually gets stuck in, gets involved, doesn’t just let the market decide. We should’ve used the banks we bailed out and turned them into a public investment bank to rebuild our shattered economy. Instead of utilities being run by profiteers or foreign governments, they should be brought under the control of the people of this country, which would save money in the case of railways. We spend four times more subsidising them than we did in the days of British Rail. Childcare – we should be modelling ourselves on Sweden, where costs are capped at only 3% [of household income] and that is good for tax revenues, because instead of not being able to work, they can actually work and pay taxes. These are just ideas which I think would’ve needed to have been quite clear and explicit. It was just incoherent mush that [Labour] were offering. I’m not sure anyone knew what they stood for at all by the end of it. The Tories always had very clear, sharp messages they repeated over and over again – until we nearly tore our hair out, but it’s still very effective. What’s your feeling about the Labour leadership battle? I’m just staying out of the whole thing, to be honest with you. Obviously I think a Blairite candidate would be a disaster. I don’t know how on earth they think they’ll win back people who defected to the SNP, to UKIP, to the Greens. If they honestly think a Blairite is going to bring any of those people back then they’re living in La La Land. The idea that people defected to the SNP because they didn’t think Labour was Blairite enough! I don’t think people were voting SNP, or UKIP, or Greens, because they thought, ‘That Labour’s not pro-business enough for my taste’. Labour actually increased its vote by 3% or whatever in England, and then obviously lost a lot in Scotland. For me, it’s about finding policies which unite working class and middle class people, and I don’t think that means being Blairite or right wing. I think you can have policies which do that which are inclusive and speak to lots of people. How can people influence Labour to move to the left? It’s about people organising. It’s about putting pressure on specific policies, like the living wage, like workers’ rights, like public ownership, like tax justice. And that involves people protesting and using social media. If they’re in the Labour Party, then organising with other people in their branches to support those sorts of policies. Obviously there’s a short timescale whatever happens with the Labour leadership. Labour is in real crisis for lots of different reasons and at the moment there’s question marks over what sort of future Labourism in its current form has. But for me, it’s about building movements from below which, on everything from housing to wages to jobs, can actually build pressure on those with power, whoever they are. Do you think it’s a setback to people campaigning for proportional representation that the Tories actually did manage to get a majority in the end? Well, it’s the least proportionate result since the 1920s, and I’m quoting Daniel Hannan, the Tory MEP, when I say that. Yeah, they sneaked in a majority of 12, but it’s an absurd result whether you’re a UKIP voter, an SNP voter, or whatever. So I think actually no, this has made the electoral system look more absurd than ever. I think it’s an idea that is more salient now than it was, and I think people of all political views should be uniting behind that basic principle. There are some vague positives to come out of the election: the Tories have only got a slim majority; those smaller parties will push electoral reform up the agenda; and we haven’t got UKIP or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) holding the balance of power. Yeah, it’s great that they don’t hold the balance of power, though I would note that the right wing of the Tory party - who are not exactly that different from UKIP, let’s be brutally honest – they now have the whip hand over a Tory government. So we've got more right wing Tory backbenchers than ever before, with a Tory government which only has a majority of 12. Obviously, if only a dozen of them decided to rebel – that’s if every other Tory MP was there for the vote – then the government’s majority would be swept away. So that gives them huge power. The Tory right are more powerful than ever now. I’m glad the protestant fundamentalists the DUP aren’t holding the balance of power, but the fact the Tory right are is not amazing news. The policies that are going to be forced through are pretty worrying to say the least. How do you see the SNP’s share of seats affecting this parliament? Well, they could end up putting Labour to shame in parliament, because they’ll be very assertively anti-Tory, anti-austerity, opposing many of the measures that the Tories are pushing in a way that maybe Labour won’t be. That could put pressure on Labour, if people look by way of contrast at how effective the SNP are at opposing the government, if Labour aren’t doing a similar job. Obviously there’s a big question mark over the future of the country, because nearly all Scottish MPs are SNP. This is an English nationalist government in lots of ways. A lot of Scottish voters will look at this and think, ‘I want out of this. Let me escape this nightmare.’ So there could be a referendum which the SNP could win, I think. That’s entirely conceivable. The hope is that we have a more federal country, a more federal society, and have devolution in England and Wales. A more federal Britain. I hope there are progressive alliances made in parliament between all of the anti-Tory opposition in the weeks and months ahead – pulling together and having a united front against a government which is a disaster for millions of people. @owenjones84 Photo by EdMiliband on Flickr )

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