The Independent

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Hello! Just a reminder that all my columns and blogs are now at the Independent website here

Written by Owen Jones

July 7, 2012 at 12:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

I’ve joined the Independent

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I’ve just started writing a weekly column at the Independent. I’ll use it as best I can as a platform for the causes, issues and people that I believe in. Writing for me is a means to an end, and I hope I put it to good use.

I’ll keep on blogging on whatever crops up over at the Independent here.

I’ll keep this website up and running, but all my new stuff will be over at the Indy. Hope to hear to some of you soon!

Written by Owen Jones

April 2, 2012 at 10:00 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Independent: If trade unions don’t fight the workers’ corner – others will

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Our Prime Minister certainly has few doubts about who’s orchestrating the backlash against workfare. “Trotskyites!” Cameron boomed during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions; if he’d thrown in “wreckers”, it wouldn’t have been a bad impression of Andrej Vyshinsky, Stalin’s semi-hysterical prosecutor during the 1930s Show Trials.

And yet Cameron barely had time to put down his ice pick before news trickled out that the Government was abandoning sanctions for the work experience scheme. Here was the vindication of that well-known Trotskyist transitional demand: that people should not be forced to work for free against their will.

Workfare is battered, but not defeated. The Mandatory Work Activity (the clue is in the name) and the Community Action Programmes remain intact, all of which compel the growing ranks of the unemployed to work for free or have their measly benefits slashed. But it was a slap in the face for the “protest doesn’t change anything” brigade, and another victory chalked up for the burgeoning alliance between small groups of activists and the Twitterati.

The truth is that direct action and social media are filling a vacuum. A coherent opposition to Cameron’s Britain is as lacking as it is needed. The Labour leadership is hobbled by the fact that, from workfare to NHS privatisation, they laid the groundwork for much of this Government’s agenda. If there’s any force uniquely placed to challenge the most far-reaching transformation of British society since the Second World War, it’s our trade unions.

You can read the rest of the article at The Independent

Written by Owen Jones

March 4, 2012 at 11:38 am

Posted in trade unions

Fabian Society: A new class politics

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This originally appeared in the new Fabian Society pamphlet: ‘The Economic Alternative: The politics and policy of a fair economy’

The recession has brought class inequality back into view by exposing the unjust distribution of wealth and power in Britain. Labour must tackle this with a new class politics of stronger trade unions and a more representative parliament.

During the long boom of the nineties and noughties, it was possible to at least pretend class was no more. ’We’re all middle-class now’ boomed politicians of all stripes; it was a line peddled by most of the mainstream media too. Britain’s growing class divisions – as entrenched as ever – were apparently papered over by the promise of ever-growing living standards.

We now know that this was a myth, even before Lehman Brothers collapsed. Real wages stagnated for the bottom half and declined for the bottom third in 2004, four years before the financial collapse began. After 2003, average disposable household income fell in every English region outside London. Cheap credit helped disguise the fact that the income of the working majority was being squeezed even as the economy grew.

But it was the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s that shattered the delusion that class was no more. The current recession has helped refocus attention on the unjust distribution of wealth and power, because it is self-evident that the impact of crisis is completely different depending on where you stand in the pecking order. The average Briton is currently experiencing the biggest squeeze on real income since the 1920s. Living standards are projected to be no higher in 2016 than they were in 2001. The Child Poverty Action Group has warned that poor families face a ’triple whammy’ of benefit, support and service cuts, adding that the government’s “legacy threatens to be the worst poverty record of any government for a generation.”

Yet while it is recession for the majority, it remains boom time for those at the top – including those principally responsible for the current economic disaster. Last year, average boardroom pay went up by 49%; in 2010, it soared by a staggering 55%. TheSunday Times Rich List – made up of the richest top 1,000 people in Britain – recorded an increase in wealth of nearly a fifth. Back in 2010, the leap was approaching a third – the biggest jump recorded in the history of the Rich List. While the government has hiked VAT – a tax that disproportionately hits those on low- or medium-income – corporation tax is being slashed, meaning the banks that had such a central role in the financial crisis will be enriched to the tune of billions. With such a glaring disparity, pressing the case that ’class no longer matters’ appears as nothing more than a naked attempt to shut down scrutiny of the ever-widening divisions in our society.

Now that class is back with a vengeance in the public consciousness, Labour needs to ride the wave. Above all, the case has to be made about representation. Less than one in twenty MPs hail from an unskilled background; more than two-thirds come from a professional background. The issues facing working people as they are made to pay for a crisis not of their own making will be not be addressed unless the middle-class closed shop of Westminster is cracked open. For example, there are currently 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. When I asked Hazel Blears shortly before the 2010 general election why Labour had done so little to tackle this growing social crisis, she responded that there was simply no-one in government with enough interest in housing. But – inevitably – if there were MPs who have had the experience of years stuck on a social housing waiting list, the chances of the housing crisis being forced up the agenda would be dramatically increased.

There used to be avenues for working-class people to climb the ranks of politics. Other than Clement Attlee, the three pillars of the post-war Labour government were Nye Bevan, Ernie Bevin and Herbert Morrison. All three were working-class, who had experience of doing the sorts of jobs that most people had to do. Bevan’s experience of Welsh mining communities helped fuel the passion that culminated in the National Health Service. All three figures entered national politics through the trade union movement or local government, or a combination of the two. But it is precisely these routes which were massively eroded by Thatcherism. That is why the desires of some Blairite ultras to weaken the union link are so wrong-headed. Instead, it should be strengthened to get more supermarket workers, nurses, bin collectors and call centre workers into parliament.

That means the trade union movement has to change, too. While over half of public sector workers are unionised, only 14% of those working in the private sector are members. We need a new model of trade unionism that adapts to the fact that job insecurity has dramatically increased, and work has become increasingly casualised. For example, there are now 1.3 million part-time workers who cannot find full-time work; and there are another 1.5 million temporary workers lacking the same rights as others. Already, Unite – the largest trade union in the country – has introduced a ‘community membership’, particularly aimed at those without work. It is a step in the right direction. Back in the 1880s, trade unions were concentrated among highly-skilled craft workers; so-called ‘New Unionism’ aimed to expand it among unskilled workers. Today we need a new ‘New Unionism’ that particularly aims at service sector workers, giving them a voice both in the workplace and in society as a whole.

When addressing the crisis of representation, it is important to acknowledge that the working-class has changed shape. Back in 1979, over 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it is around 2.5 million and declining fast. Instead we’ve seen a shift from a service sector working-class to an industrial working-class. There are now one million call centre workers; as many as there were working down pits at the peak of mining. The number of people working in retail has trebled since 1980; it is now the second biggest employer in the country. It is these workers that desperately need a collective voice: that is what the Labour Party and the trade unions were founded to do.

Labour has to develop a new class politics, relevant for the needs of crisis-hit 21st century Britain. The Tories, after all, have developed an ingenious form of class politics on behalf of their own base. And has always been the case, if you stand up for the bottom 70%, you are labelled a class warrior; speak for the top 1%, and you are presented as a moderate.

Written by Owen Jones

February 19, 2012 at 11:07 am

Posted in class

Comment Is Free: An honours system for those who fight to make Britain a better place

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Poor old martyred Mr Fred Goodwin. According to ex-CBI supremo Lord Digby Jones, this latter-day Joan of Arc is the victim of a “lynch mob” mentality. Quite right: it’s the unemployed and poor who are supposed to get a kicking from the tabloids, not multimillionaire pillars of the establishment. Has the world gone mad?

But now the poor bloke has had his knighthood shredded, it’s a good time to rethink the whole honours system. For a start, handing out “Orders of the British Empire” strikes me as more than a little tasteless in the first place. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah turned down his OBE nearly a decade ago because “it reminds me of how my foremothers were raped and my forefathers brutalised”. He has a point: as a country we’re far from coming to terms with the barbarity of empire. As Mike Davis points out in the seminal Late Victorian Holocausts, millions of Indians starved to death in unnecessary famines under British rule. It is surely possible to recognise achievements without celebrating this murderous era.

You can read the rest of the piece at Comment Is Free

Written by Owen Jones

February 2, 2012 at 12:28 pm

Posted in Fred Goodwin, honours

LabourList: Socialism – it’s nothing personal

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This post originally appeared on LabourList

I’m almost feeling sorry for Fred the Shred. ‘Humbling of Mister Godwin’, mocked the Daily Mail; ‘Goodwin is shredded’ (geddit?) bellowed the Daily Telegraph; ‘Once A Knight Fred’, echoed the Sun, a newspaper always keen to win the most imaginative pun stakes.

It’s more than tempting for the left to jump on this populist bandwagon. After seething with anger as those who had nothing to do with the crisis have been expected to pay for it, finally, one of the those responsible for the current catastrophe has been held to account in some small way.

But this is where the left should have a different approach to the right. The crisis was not caused by a few “bad eggs”; the odd greedy banker who can be treated as a fall guy, and then we can all move on. It was a system – not a few individuals – which plunged the world into economic catastrophe. This is a crisis of unfettered capitalism, red in tooth and claw, not the unfortunate consequences of some cock-ups by the likes of Fred Goodwin. We forget this at our peril.

I’ll give you an example: James Dyson, a businessman who gave his name to the pioneering vacuum cleaner. He was once hailed as leading a renaissance in British manufacturing, until he shut his British factory down and upped sticks to Malaysia in 2003. It’s not because he’s a bad person, or morally questionable: it’s because capitalism is about making profit, rather than putting the good of society first.

In short, a good slogan could be: “Socialism, it’s nothing personal.” The left stands in opposition to the way society is currently structured, not to the fact there are greedy or selfish individuals running the show.

Apologies for quoting myself, but in the introduction of my book Chavs I wrote: “We are all prisoners of our class, but that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices.” I could be accused of hypocrisy here: after all, like others, I’ve railed against the fact that we currently have a government of multi-millionaires, and the fact that Parliament is full of middle-class professionals. That’s not to say the well-heeled have no place in politics whatsoever: but unless working-class people are properly represented, their interests will not be properly championed (as indeed they’re not). When I asked Hazel Blears why New Labour had let 5 million people languish on social housing waiting lists, for example, one reason she gave was that there simply hadn’t been anyone sufficiently interested in housing. Yet if there were people in Parliament who’d actually experienced the housing crisis, the odds of something being done about it would dramatically increase.

It should be how we understand politics, too. Some on the left offer a lazy critique of New Labour, effectively arguing that the Labour leadership swung to the right in the mid-1990s because a coterie of right-wingers (led by Tony Blair) made it that way. But New Labour was really the product of a whole range of factors: the rise of the New Right, the battering of the labour movement in the 80s, repeated electoral defeats producing massive disorientation and desperation, and the capitalist triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War.

It’s easy, too, to castigate Ed Miliband personally for the concessions the Labour leadership has made to the Tory cuts agenda. But, again, it is in large part a product of the weakness of the left (which barely exists as a coherent political force).

That doesn’t mean individuals should not be beyond criticism: after all, we’re not all robots – we all have agency. Attacking a politician for hypocrisy is completely legitimate. For example, I wrote a pretty blistering attack on Liam Byrne on LabourList back in January. But it was a political, rather than a personal point: if you demonise some of the poorest people in society who receive money from the state while wrongfully claiming far larger sums yourself, then you should expect to face accusations of hypocrisy.

But because the right believe that the left is motivated by personal hatred towards those from privileged backgrounds, there’s nothing they like more than going for “posh” lefties. If you’re from a middle-class background or above and have anything other than a commitment to naked self-interest, then you’re a hypocrite, or so this line of attack goes.

Sometimes this is taken to absurd lengths. For example, one senior right-wing journalist attempted to pressure his fellow columnists to write a piece about the fact my ex-boyfriend was privately educated. I don’t mind right-wingers taking pot-shots at me – it’s what I expect – though I do object to others being dragged into it; at the time, I had to explain to him that he might be about to be publicly outed while he was being treated for cancer. Unpleasant, but the point that the journalist was trying to make was – “oh look, here’s a left-wing journalist who rages against privilege, but look who he’s sleeping with”.

My whinge aside, there’s always been a long tradition of people from relatively privileged backgrounds in the ranks of the left, such as George Orwell and Tony Benn, for example. And as long as they don’t crowd others out, and make sure they defer to working-class experiences, then there’s nothing wrong with it.

Above all, the left’s beef is with a system that is as unjust as it is irrational. Taking pot shots at the odd banker, or those who had no say over which school they went to, misses the point. After all, socialism is nothing personal.

Written by Owen Jones

February 2, 2012 at 12:27 pm

Independent: Gay people have come a long way – but hatred is still out there

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When it comes to homophobia, it’s fair to say that ex-Everton football player Michael Ball doesn’t mince his words. “That fucking queer,” he tweeted about Coronation Street’s Antony Cotton. “Get back to your sewing machine in Corrie, you moaning bastard.” His aggressive antipathy towards gay people is shared by Jason Gibbs, a former Brighton teacher who called his students “poofs” and “batty boys”, warning one class not to “go into the shower because this group will start bending you over and do you up the ass”.

Both episodes are unpleasant reminders that anti-gay hatred hasn’t gone away. But they also offer hope, too, about just how far we’ve come. Ball’s bigoted tirade landed him with a £6,000 fine from the Football Association on Tuesday – the highest the body has ever imposed for homophobia; the same day, Gibbs was banned from teaching indefinitely.

There was more evidence of progress in how the media reported the 60th birthday of veteran gay rights activist Peter Tatchell on Wednesday. Throughout his tireless campaign for gay equality and dignity, he has been pilloried, demonised, and marginalised; but this week, journalists patronised him as a “national treasure”. It’s a fate which befalls radicals who are no longer regarded as a threat: iconic left-winger Tony Benn, who has been transformed from the “most dangerous man in Britain” to a kindly grandfather figure, is another classic example. But in Benn’s case, it was because the left was beaten; Tatchell is no longer a threat because the gay rights movement has vanquished nearly all before it.

You can read the rest of the article at The Independent

Written by Owen Jones

January 28, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


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