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Owen Jones and the prospects for neo-Bennism

The Daily Express was once the largest circulation newspaper in the world, Frederick Forsyth was once this country’s best-selling novelist, and Labour leftism was once a force that could not ignored. All of these statements, dear younger reader, are astounding but true.

So I was highly amused to see that the website of the has-been tabloid has today published a side-splittingly risible comment piece by the has-been scribbler, making the case that a certain has-been brand of politics is again growing in influence. Please do read it; it is seriously funny, in a ‘so bad it’s good’ kind of way.

Were it not for the article’s considerable comedic value, the initial temptation would be to dismiss it as the lurid ramblings of a man taken in by the paranoid plotline of one of his own penny dreadfuls. Old Labour served Moscow and world communism, you say, Fred? Do have a lie down.

Sadly, the reality is that Labour has not had a functioning left since the failure of the Benn/Heffer leadership campaign in 1988.

Yes, I know about the various conclaves and networks that bring together a few hundred scruffy ex-Trots and fellow travellers, and the handful of Campaign Group and other MPs that still describe themselves a socialists. But they are not important enough to count.

In the sense of constituting a sizeable current of identifiable opinion, with an intellectual life of its own and a weight inside the Labour movement and wider society that makes it impossible to ignore, the Labour left has effectively been non-existent for a quarter of a century.

Which brings me to the irresistible rise of Owen Jones, the twentysomething author and journalist who is attracting growing attention on the back of his advocacy of positions that would, when I was his age, have been described as Bennite.

What’s more, Jones has secured some influential union backers, most notably Unite general secretary Len McCluskey, who has pledged to detail 5,000 activists the task of increasing union influence inside the Labour Party.

All of this has not gone unnoticed by the far left. Socialism Today – a magazine published by the current incarnation of the Militant Tendency – has published an extended interview with Jones, grilling him over the point of involvement with what it describes as a capitalist party.

Meanwhile this week’s Socialist Worker resurrects that old chestnut, the ‘can we reclaim Labour?’ debate. That would presumably depend on who is meant by ‘we’, what is meant by ‘reclaim’, and what would be the ostensible purpose of the exercise.

It’s probably too early to hail Jones as the figurehead of a Bennite revival. His career may go no farther than that of my former colleague on Tribune, Mark Seddon, widely seen as the great white hope of the democratic left in the late 1990s.

Seddon was only ever allowed to fight an unwinnable constituency and to sit on an emasculated National Executive Committee. Eventually, he headed for the better-rewarded pastures of television journalism instead.

On the other hand, these are different times, and if the recession does generate a revival of radicalism, that will presumably find some sort of reflection, both inside and outside Labour.

Jones, I should add, is a remarkably writer for a man who is not yet 30. When he got given a column on the Independent, I was worried that he might prove a one trick social class pony. But no, he has shown himself capable of handling a wide range of subject matter with aplomb.

Those considerably more prolix younger leftist authors who spend an undue amount of time badmouthing him on social media are rather obviously jealous. We’d all like books that sold as well as his.

His maturity as a possible political leader has yet to be put to the test, of course. But knowing him slightly, I see no reason in principle why he should not score well on that front as well.

Put simply, this man is probably the most persuasive, talented and telegenic advocate for socialism Britain has right now. For the sake of the left as a whole, I do hope he does well.

One Comment

  1. Patrick Coates says:

    To take ove the Labour Party the left will have to run each of the 650 CLP’s, and take over all committee work and all the Bank accounts.
    I think Owen will become the standard barer for the left, just like some of my namesakes, David and Ken Coates.
    The Labour Party is a business a very large business, but volunteers like me can still run our piece of it, and enjoy the history which labour people have strived for.

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