Archive for July 2011
I can recall few events that have devastated me as much as Norway’s terrorist atrocities. I’m far from alone. I confess that I cried when I saw the island where dozens of young Norwegian socialists – as young as 13 years old – were gunned down by the right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik. As soon as you see that tiny island – with no escape but the water surrounding it – you can instantly imagine the horror and desperation of the nightmarish 90 minutes of Breivik’s murderous rampage.
Norway has been traumatised by the initial bomb attack in Oslo and the subsequent massacre of teenagers. It has no experience of this form of violence. But the way it has reacted is nothing short of inspirational. Finally, the world has been gifted with a model response to terrorism.
The Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg did not stand up and speak of revenge and retaliation. Unlike George W Bush, he did not bellow: “We’re gonna hunt you down” or pledge to “smoke them out of their holes”. He did not promise a crackdown on civil rights and democratic freedoms, which were rolled back in the aftermath of terrorist attacks across the Western world. There was no threat of a spiral of violence that would end up with even more bloodshed; no following the terrorists’ script by allowing (or using) their actions to subvert and corrupt democracy. Instead he promised to respond with “more democracy”, “more humanity” and “more openness”. We must all learn from Norway.
Contrast Norway’s response to the posturing of some in Britain. The Sun’s initial front page described it as Norway’s 9/11 and implicated Islamic terrorism: topping off a dire few weeks for News International. While Twitter was full of horror and solidarity at Norway’s events, hard right Labour MP Tom Harris saw an opportunity to score a political point at the expense of his enemies: ‘Even after Oslo, we’ll still have the apologists for terrorism saying it was caused by “foreign policy” or by “disrespect to the Prophet”.’ There was no evidence “Islamist” terrorists were involved, but Tom felt it was the appropriate time to take on the supposed muesli-eating neo-appeasers he detests. I am ashamed to be in the same Party as Tom Harris.
The speculation about “Islamist” terrorist involvement had costs: reports came from Norway of Muslims being harassed in Oslo. But, as it turns out, the gunman was a supposed “Christian” with far-right views who himself detested Muslims. And I say “supposed ‘Christian’” because these despicable acts have as much to do with Christianity as other terrorist actions have to do with Islam.
The far-right has been growing in much of Western Europe for many years, and we will soon find out if this is part of a broader plot. If so, the gutwrenching atrocities in Norway could mark the beginning of a new horrifying phenomenon.
But, today, we must all stand in solidarity with the people of Norway and with the families of the young Norwegian Labour party members – and pay tribute to a government that has responded commendably to these unbearable atrocities.
Owen Jones’s first book, “Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class,” begins more like a Noël Coward play or a late-model Ian McEwan novel than like a rumbling social polemic. That is, it opens with a misfired witticism uttered at an elite East London dinner party.
Here’s how Mr. Jones sets the scene. “Sitting around the table were people from more than one ethnic group. The gender split was 50-50, and not everyone was straight. All would have placed themselves somewhere left of center politically.” Each guest “would have bristled at being labeled a snob.” Disaster arrived, as it always seems to, with the black currant cheesecake. That’s when the talk turned to the economic crisis. One of the party’s hosts joked: “It’s sad that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will all the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” The other guests tittered. Mr. Jones stewed.
The word chav, if your subscriptions to British periodicals have lapsed, is a noun that essentially means “ugly prole”: loutish, tacky, probably drunken and possibly violent. The stereotypical chav is a hormonal 20-something lad in an Adidas tracksuit, sideways Burberry baseball cap and bling, but women can be chavs, too. Think of Snooki with a cockney accent.
I’ll be honest. A couple of weeks ago, I was in utter despair with Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party. I bet many of you reading this were, too. He was stuck on repeat (literally) attacking public sector workers driven to strike by the government, leaving it to PCS leader Mark Serwotka and the BBC’s Evan Davis to shred Francis Maude’s fatally flawed arguments. He looked weak, directionless, spineless – and with no apparent prospect of leading Labour to victory at the next election.
But the British political scene has been transformed in just a fortnight. The wrongdoings of News International – a criminal syndicate that has corrupted and subverted British democracy for a generation – have repulsed the nation. David Cameron’s links with the Murdoch clan have raised the first question marks over his premiership. And – against the odds – Ed Miliband has tapped into public anger and led a remarkable crusade against Murdoch’s empire – which played no small part in forcing News Corporation to drop its bid for BSkyB.
What Ed Miliband has done is not without risks. Much of the power of Murdoch’s empire depends on terrifying politicians, not least with the presumption his goons have a bigger file on them than MI5. His advisors have already been warned by the empire that are seeking revenge.
One of the most frequent criticisms of my book is that it supposedly conflates ‘chav’ and ‘working-class’. They are two completely different things, the critics say. ‘Chav’ is a word widely used – and that includes by working-class people as well as middle-class people. Indeed it’s argued that working-class people hate ‘chavs’ – so in what meaningful sense can ‘chav’ be used to demonise working-class people?
Although the book is called Chavs: The Demonization of the Working-Class, it could easily have been called The Demonization of Working-Class Identity (not as catchy, admittedly). Polling organisation BritainThinks has just conducted a detailed survey into attitudes to class: a staggering 71% self-identified as middle-class, compared to just 24% who felt they had any working-class identity. But the most interesting – and disturbing – finding in my view was this:
There was a strong feeling in the focus groups that the noble tradition of a respectable and diligent working class was over. For the first time, I saw the “working class” tag used as a slur, equated with other class-based insults such as “chav”. I asked focus group members to make collages using newspaper and magazine clippings to show what the working class was. Many chose deeply unattractive images: flashy excess, cosmetic surgery gone wrong, tacky designer clothes, booze, drugs and overeating. By contrast, being middle class is about being, well, a bit classy.
The ‘working-class’ label was no longer something people felt that they could be proud of. Far from it: it had become effectively synonymous with ‘chav’. For that reason, many who most of us would describe as clearly working-class rejected the label because they felt it was a pejorative. The demonisation of working-class identity has had an impact on the attitudes of both and working-class and middle-class people. With a political consensus that we should aspire to become middle-class, and with few positive representations of working-class people, this is as unsurprising and it is depressing.
It is a myth that we have a free press in this country. We have a press that is free of direct government control: that is certainly true. But, instead, the mainstream press is almost exclusively dominated by media barons with their own political agendas.
The News of the World phone-hacking scandal is becoming grubbier and, frankly, more stomach-churningly sickening by the day. But it also shines a light on the nature of power in modern Britain. A door has opened slightly, and we can catch a glimpse of the murky links that exist between the political elite, media barons and the police.
It is crucial that we don’t get sucked into a narrative of ‘bad eggs’: that a purge of a few rotten individuals is all that is needed, and things can broadly carry on as before. This sordid story should put the way the British media is run into the spotlight.
This was my piece for LabourList in the aftermath of the public sector strikes
Yesterday’s strike by teachers and front-line public sector staff was a triumph for the trade union movement. I joined the demonstration through central London, and it was as inspirational as the game-changing initial student protest in November. These were young workers (I would estimate the majority were under 35); and the mood was both cheerful and determined. This strike was no desperate throw of the die. The workers involved know this is just the start, but they think they can win.
It was a strike that enjoyed broad popular support and sympathy. Before the strike, a YouGov poll for theSun had 40% supporting the action, with 49% against – already suggesting it was all to play for. Another poll for ITV’s London Tonight had 53% in support; and a staggering 77% expressed their support in a Channel 4 poll. Despite all the fuss about inconvenienced parents, hundreds of mothers posted their support on Mumsnet - not famed as a bastion of socialism, if we’re going to be honest. Given there are no prominent voices in politics or the media making the case for the strike, these are remarkable findings.