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Owen Jones: “I begged John McDonnell to stand for Labour leader”

The Guardian columnist on why the Corbyn project failed, journalism as activism, and living in fear. 

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In 2007 Owen Jones, then a 22-year-old parliamentary researcher to John McDonnell, concluded that the Labour left was “dead”. McDonnell had failed to win the 45 MP nominations he needed to qualify for the party’s leadership contest, leaving Gordon Brown unchallenged.

“We started talking about whether it was over for Labour, whether there needed to be a new political party. It seemed utterly, utterly hopeless,” Jones recalled when we met recently at his home in Islington, north London.

Thirteen years later, the Labour left is absorbing another defeat but in radically changed circumstances. Jones’s new book This Land tells the story of how Jeremy Corbyn and McDonnell captured the party’s commanding heights before their epic humbling at the 2019 general election.

“Above all else, I wanted to be completely honest,” Jones, 36, told me, as his two Burmese cats, Keir and Rickman (the dedicatees of the book), leapt across the room. “I didn’t have any agenda from the start other than that I’m on the left and I don’t believe left-wing policies are inherently doomed.”

Corbyn’s defeat, he emphasised, could not simply be ascribed to recalcitrant MPs and a hostile media. “If you just say it’s internal subversion or external attack, what’s the point? Give up on politics, then, it’s doomed. That’s a fatalistic conclusion, so I wanted to be clear on what went wrong.”

In This Land, Jones recalls Corbyn’s comment to Jon Lansman, the former chair of Momentum, when he made the 2015 leadership ballot: “You better make fucking sure I don’t get elected.” Was this a bad omen in retrospect?

“I was at the first meetings and discussions. The whole point of it was, Jeremy told me himself, ‘We’ll get 15-20 per cent’… He stood out of a sense of duty and commitment to his ideas and his cause, nobody would claim that he had natural leadership abilities, he hadn’t run anything at the time.”

Jones added: “Was it a bad omen? I think it was a warning that more needed to go into planning… And there wasn’t enough of that, but then there weren’t that many experienced people on the left.”

The Guardian columnist was offered a job in Corbyn’s team a few weeks before his election as leader in 2015, but declined. “I knew that I didn’t have the skill-set. I remember working in a parliamentary office for John McDonnell for three years, I was intimidated by how competent Andrew Fisher [Corbyn’s future head of policy] was. It wasn’t my natural ability, I would have been terrible in any job there.”

In a chapter entitled “Dysfunction”, one failure cited by Jones is the appointment of a shadow cabinet featuring just three of Corbyn’s original supporters (McDonnell, Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett). “They should have put more people who were politically sympathetic there.”

In September 2019, Boris Johnson withdrew the whip from 21 Conservative MPs who rebelled against the government in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit. Should Corbyn have been equally ruthless?

“In hindsight, yes, very much so. But it is just being Captain Hindsight. It’s different as well, Johnson operates in a right-wing ecosystem where he can get away with anything… If Labour had tried to boot out 21 MPs there would have been all hell to pay, it would have been absurd. I can’t even imagine the absolute clusterfuck that would have resulted. It was audacious enough putting McDonnell in as shadow chancellor. And there was pushback from senior people in Unite, who were very sceptical. I was sceptical and I need to be very honest about that.”

Owen Peter Jones was born in Sheffield in August 1984 – the year of the miners’ strike – and grew up in Stockport, Greater Manchester. He describes himself as a “fourth-generation socialist” and a “red-diaper baby”: his great-grandfather, a railwayman, had his wages docked after joining the 1926 general strike in solidarity with the miners, while his grandfather joined the Communist Party after the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. His parents met while canvassing for the Labour Party in 1969 and were active in Militant Tendency, the Trotskyist entryist group.

“I was babysat by striking miners in South Yorkshire and strapped to my dad’s chest at rallies in which the voice of miners’ leader Arthur Scargill would boom defiantly,” Jones writes. His own staccato speaking style – deployed at innumerable rallies and Labour Party meetings – owes much to this tradition of socialist oratory.

As a commentator and activist, Jones has long enjoyed greater ubiquity than almost all Labour politicians: he has one million followers on Twitter and is, according to his publicist, the UK’s bestselling political writer (having sold more than 500,000 copies of his previous books The Establishment: And How They Get Away with It and Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class).

Throughout the Corbyn years Jones was both an observer and a participant: in 2016, for instance, he texted members of Labour’s National Executive Committee, warning them that “the party would collapse” if Corbyn was excluded from the leadership ballot. Did he ever feel as if he should choose between journalism and activism?

“If you’re a socialist then you believe in collective struggle… I’m not comparing myself to these journalists, I need to be very clear about this, but… George Orwell didn’t just campaign for a political party. He took up arms for one and I don’t think anyone looks at Homage to Catalonia as not [being] journalism because he was a participant in the Spanish Civil War. Paul Foot – there’s a journalism award named after him and he was a member of the Socialist Workers Party and, unlike me, actually stood in elections as a candidate for the Socialist Alliance. On the other side you’ve got people like Danny Finkelstein, who is probably the most famous or most respected Times journalist, and who’s a Tory lord.”

Jones’s fame has not been without consequence: in August 2019, while celebrating his birthday, he was attacked by a group of men, one of whom, a right-wing sympathiser, has since been imprisoned.

“I just think it’s a waste of time,” Jones said of the custodial sentence. “He might get more radicalised in prison. I don’t see the point, it’s not a solution to fascism.”

Before the attack the Guardian had hired a security agency to brief Jones because of a rising number of death threats against him. He now avoids walking home late at night, has a fire ladder for use in emergencies, and is given automatic priority if he calls 999. But, Jones reflected, “There’s only so much you can do because otherwise they [the far right] win. You can’t end up in a situation where you’re basically living in their authoritarian regime already.”

Since Labour’s defeat, most commentators have tended to blame for it either the party’s incoherence on Brexit or Corbyn’s subterranean personal ratings. Which would Jones emphasise? “On Brexit, I look back and I don’t know what they were supposed to have done. When people say that people on the left use that as a crutch and as an excuse, when actually it was all about Corbyn, I really don’t think you can disentangle the two.

“The one thing that worked in Corbyn’s favour in 2017 was, whether you agree with him or not, he says what he means and he means what he says – he’s a man of principle. And that died a death.”

In This Land, Jones is sharply critical of Seumas Milne, his former Guardian colleague, who served as Labour’s director of communications and strategy. “He was used to writing a weekly newspaper column, not to managing the strategy and communications of a political party.” After the 2017 election, Jones told me, “hubris set in, there wasn’t a coherent strategy… The mistakes on anti-Semitism and Salisbury [the 2018 poisonings] cut through.”

Jones devotes an entire chapter to Labour’s anti-Semitism problem, recalling the anti-Semitic mural in east London that Corbyn defended in 2012. I asked him whether he came to believe that the former Labour leader is an anti-Semite.

“I don’t think he’s anti-Semitic in the slightest, I never have,” Jones replied. “I don’t think for a second – and these are people I’m close to in the leadership, people like James Schneider [former director of strategic communications], people like Carl Shoben [former director of strategy] – I really do not think senior members of staff who were Jewish would have felt comfortable at any point working for someone they genuinely thought was anti-Semitic.”

But, Jones added, “Corbyn ended up in a situation where anti-racism is so core to his identity that the more he was attacked and criticised and called an anti-Semite the more defensive and upset he got. And that completely clouded his judgement on how you get on the front foot to deal with this.”

If there is a hero in This Land it is McDonnell, who is praised by Jones for his intellect, work ethic and strategic nous. Would Labour have fared better with the former shadow chancellor as leader? “The fact is John did not get on the ballot paper whereas MPs liked Jeremy Corbyn on a personal level… And they hated John, they thought he was sectarian, ultra-left, rude, abrasive, they were never going to nominate him.”

But Jones added: “I think the difference is John would have avoided hills that Labour didn’t need to die on… Jeremy’s politics are very impulsive, a hatred of injustice. John had a sense of: ‘This is the society I want to build and this is how we get there.’

“I asked him to stand for Labour leader after the 2019 election, I texted him in the early hours, begging him to stand. He didn’t reply to that text.”

What of Corbyn’s official successor? Jones acknowledged that, under Keir Starmer, “Labour’s polling has improved markedly” but lamented, “I don’t know what his vision of society is.” He added: “Everyone needs a bit of humility, whatever wing of Labour they’re from. There is no majority social democratic government in the [Western] world, not one.”

In spite of this, he remains optimistic. “The basis of why what became known as Corbynism happened hasn’t gone away. It didn’t come out of a clear blue sky, it wasn’t this freak aberration.

“Do I think eventually we’ll be able to build a coalition that will address what are only going to be ever worsening injustices, combined with the climate emergency? I think it’s inevitable; I still think it’s socialism or barbarism. You can’t have a stable society which is as wealthy as ours is and yet riddled with so much insecurity and injustice. It’s not politically stable and we know it’s not politically stable because we’ve just gone through the past five years.” 

George Eaton is senior online editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 11 September 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Saving Labour