The NS debate on the Future of Britain: Owen Jones says “Labour now has to permanently change”

Clive Lewis, Owen Jones and Jess Phillips debated the future of British politics with Anoosh Chakelian at the London School of Economics

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“Before a revolution people say change is impossible. After, people say change was inevitable”, said Clive Lewis, as he debated “Corbyn, May and the Future of Britain” with fellow Labour MP Jess Phillips and the activist and journalist Owen Jones at the New Statemsan's latest live event, held at the London School of Eonomics on Tuesday.  

The lively discussion focussed almost immedietely on how much of a victory Labour's gains in the election represented. Lewis began to explain, “why we won...” when Phillips shot back “we didn’t”. Phillips also downplayed the impact of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, saying that politics is cyclical and that the election result was less a Labour victory than a Conservative disaster.

“Jeremy had a great campaign, but you could've put a dead animal up and it would've been more lively than Theresa May”. Owen Jones, however, was enthusiastic about the “biggest (Labour) surge since 1945”, and credited election coverage that allowed Jeremy Corbyn to be seen “unfiltered” rather than through the lens of a largely right-wing press.

While he is the optimistic about the party’s future, Lewis remained far from convinced that an outright win was on the horizon. “This concept that you can have one more heave... one more push to get us over the line is a fallacy.” Labour’s best chance of victory, says Lewis, is in a progressive alliance: “we need something bigger than the Labour Party to take on the establishment”. Owen Jones seemed to have recovered from his pre-election Corbyn jitters and called for MPs to fall in behind their leader. “There are lots of Labour MPs who did not believe that that set of policies, taken together, would do anything other than end in oblivion. The Labour Party now has to permanently change,” he said. “The manifesto is now the permanent political consensus”. 

The swearing kicked in when the conversation turned to Europe. Chuka Umunna’s recent amendment criticised the Queen’s speech for not keeping single market membership on the table; Jess Phillips voted for it because she was “fucked off with some of the debate”. Jones took a jab at Umunna, saying the amendment was “based on a false pretext” and that it took the debate backwards. “Chuka Umunna thinks freedom of movement has to end. That's his position. How do you have membership of the single market if you're going to end freedom of movement?”

Visibly angered, Phillips asked if “you think he did [the amendment] to have a go at Jeremy Corbyn?”, reminding fellow panellists and the audience that the world doesn’t revolve around the Labour leader. Never one to mince words, she criticised the party for its ongoing bickering. “Too much is about trying to promote your own faction, and Jeremy does it just as much as Chuka.”

Lewis held the party line, claiming the amendment was “little more than a gesture” and prioritised party unity, but joined in with the Brexit swearing. “If we roll out of Europe with a shit deal, a bad deal, or no deal, then there is nothing in a fantastic socialist manifesto which is going to be able to save us from having a collapsing economy."

Turning their gaze from the enemy within to the Conservative Party, the panellists made a few leadership predictions. “Theresa May lacks emotional intelligence - let's get Phillip Hammond in”, joked Jones. Lewis said that a liberal conservative figure like Heidi Allen rising to the top would be a danger to Labour’s vote share, and while Jones agreed, Phillips put an end to any short-lived leadership aspirations for the MP. “She has lovely hair, but frankly the woman wants to put her money where her mouth is... she’s pathetic”. Phillips raised instead the prospect of Sajid Javid, but clarified: “I'm not scared of him, he's easy to argue against.”  

And as for the next election? Phillips reckoned 2022, whilst Lewis bet on two years’ time, once Brexit negotiations had run their course. He even offered the Conservatives a new slogan: “Back Brussels or Back Brexit”. Jones said another election wouldn’t happen this year, but “we [Labour] have to knock on doors and campaign as though a general election will happen tomorrow”.

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Augusta Riddy is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman.  

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