Archive for October 2011

New Statesman: The revolutionary moment

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It was a few days before Margaret Thatcher marched into Downing Street in May 1979, but as far as the then Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, was concerned, the game was already up. “You know, there are times, perhaps once every 30 years, when there is a sea change in politics,” he told his adviser Bernard Donoughue. “It does not matter what you say or what you do. I suspect there is now such a sea change – and it is for Mrs Thatcher.” His pessimism was well founded. The postwar consensus, with its pillars of a mixed economy, strong unions and high taxes on the wealthy, was coming to an end. Callaghan could no longer preserve the disintegrating centre. What became known as Thatcherism – or neoliberalism – emerged victorious.

As I stood in Finsbury Square just outside the City of London, on Sunday 23 October, I could not help but be reminded of “Callaghan’s Law”. Around me was the first offshoot from Occupy the London Stock Exchange, a protest camp set up eight days earlier. A couple of dozen tents were neatly arranged in rows (apparently to comply with health and safety regulations) and several protesters were dancing cheerfully as a brass band called Horns of Plenty belted out left-wing anthems. It was just the latest addition to the fastest-growing political force on earth: the Occupy movement, which now has a presence in up to a thousand cities. Was this the most compelling sign yet of a “sea change” – of a global repudiation of the neoliberal order that began teetering when Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008?

Read the rest of the article at the New Statesman

Written by Owen Jones

October 31, 2011 at 11:46 pm

LabourList: The left needs to find its voice on the EU

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This post originally appeared on LabourList

The EU is seen as that perennial obsession of the Tory right-wing fringes: the sort of issue that excites only bigoted, Daily-Mail-reading Little Englanders who peer suspiciously out of velvet curtains to rant about gay gypsies scrounging off Incapacity Benefit. When Conservative MPs staged the biggest post-war rebellion over Europe over David Cameron’s refusal to hold a referendum over EU membership, Labour activists gleefully tweeted about a renewed bout of Tory wackiness. It was an issue that helped sink John Major, and now it was back to haunt the Tory leadership.

But there is a real danger in the left abandoning a critique of the EU to the right. It should not only be knuckle-dragging right-wingers who have a problem with the EU as it is currently constituted.

It shouldn’t be forgotten that it was actually Ted Heath’s Tory Government who brought Britain into what was then known as the European Economic Community in 1973. In part, this re-orientation towards Europe was triggered by the collapse of the British Empire as former subject peoples liberated themselves from colonial rule. But it was Labour that was most fiercely divided over the issue. A year after returning to power in 1974, Labour delivered a referendum about British membership; and, acknowledging the divisions within its own ranks, it allowed Cabinet Ministers to campaign on the basis of their conscience. The fear of many of the left was that membership of the Common Market would strip Britain of its economic sovereignty, prohibiting radical, interventionist measures.

Labour’s 1983 manifesto even went as far as to pledge withdrawal. Neil Kinnock may have ended up as a European Commissioner, but he was once a passionate Eurosceptic. It was the traumatising experience of Thatcherism that led to a sharp turnaround on the left. After being battered by the most regressive Government since World War II, it seemed as though the then-European Community was the only hope for progressive legislation. Support for the EU on the left, then, was born of pessimism in the face of the neo-liberal assault.

The story is very different in other parts of Europe. In Scandivanian countries and France, for example, it is the left that is the standard-bearer of opposition to the EU project. It was the French left that led the successful opposition to the European Constitution, for example.

To begin with, Labour activists have to acknowledge that strong hostility to aspects of the EU – if not the entire project – is widespread. It is not confined to the lunatic fringes. A stronger argument would be that – during an economic crisis which is destroying jobs and living standards – voters have far more pressing issues to worry about.

We have to accept that there are real grievances about democracy that have to be addressed. The EU is now a source of huge amounts of unaccountable power in Britain. All real democrats should argue that power is only legitimate when it is accountable. The largely toothless European Parliament can either accept or veto a slate of Commissioners put to it – but their source of power can hardly be said to be the European people, most of whom wouldn’t be able to name a single Commissioner if pressed.

But the EU has also helped to drive forward a neo-liberal agenda here, across Europe, and abroad. Successive EU treaties have enshrined “free competition”, which in practice promotes the privatisation of public services. For example, the Lisbon Treaty includes the following clause: “A European framework law shall establish measures to achieve the liberalisation of a specific service”. And while it was the Tories who privatised our railways, it was EU directive 9/440 that made it a legal requirement for private companies to be able to run train services.

While the Working Time Directive (which, shamefully, the UK secured an opt-out from) sets out a maximum working hour week, a number of attacks on workers’ rights have been introduced through the EU. For example, the European Court of Justice has issued judgements that have directly attacked workers’ rights – making it possible for employers to sue unions, or allowing workers posted to another country to be employed with the same conditions as their EU state of origin, encouraging a “race to the bottom”.

The left needs to be making these arguments about the EU, because they have real implications for working people in this country. Too often, the left has been paralysed on the issue, for fear of being lumped in with the UKIP brigade. But did anti-war activists line up with the BNP just because they too opposed the Iraq war?

As a socialist, I support building ever-stronger links between working people here and abroad – and not just arbitrarily confined to other workers in Europe. Given the globalised nature of capital, this is more important than ever. But the left needs to start to find its voice on the EU – and stop dismissing all critics as bigoted, insular nationalists.

Written by Owen Jones

October 27, 2011 at 3:21 pm

The Independent: Protest without politics will change nothing

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This piece appeared in The Independent

My first experience of police kettling was aged 16. It was May Day 2001, and the anti-globalisation movement was at its peak. The turn-of-the-century anti-capitalist movement feels largely forgotten today, but it was a big deal at the time. To a left-wing teenager growing up in an age of unchallenged neo-liberal triumphalism, just to have “anti-capitalism” flash up in the headlines was thrilling. Thousands of apparently unstoppable protesters chased the world’s rulers from IMF to World Bank summits – from Seattle to Prague to Genoa – and the authorities were rattled.

Today, as protesters in nearly a thousand cities across the world follow the example set by the Occupy Wall Street protests, it’s worth pondering what happened to the anti-globalisation movement. Its activists did not lack passion or determination. But they did lack a coherent alternative to the neo-liberal project. With no clear political direction, the movement was easily swept away by the jingoism and turmoil that followed 9/11, just two months after Genoa.

Don’t get me wrong: the Occupy movement is a glimmer of sanity amid today’s economic madness. By descending on the West’s financial epicentres, it reminds us of how a crisis caused by the banks (a sentence that needs to be repeated until it becomes a cliché) has been cynically transformed into a crisis of public spending. The founding statement of Occupy London puts it succinctly: “We refuse to pay for the banks’ crisis.” The Occupiers direct their fire at the top 1 per cent, and rightly so – as US billionaire Warren Buffett confessed: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

The Occupy movement has provoked fury from senior US Republicans such as Presidential contender Herman Cain who – predictably – labelled it “anti-American”. They’re right to be worried: those camping outside banks threaten to refocus attention on the real villains, and to act as a catalyst for wider dissent. But a coherent alternative to the tottering global economic order remains, it seems, as distant as ever. Neo-liberalism crashes around, half-dead, with no-one to administer the killer blow.

There’s always a presumption that a crisis of capitalism is good news for the left. Yet in the Great Depression, fascism consumed much of Europe. The economic crisis of the 1970s did lead to a resurgence of radicalism on both left and right. But, spearheaded by Thatcherism and Reaganism, the New Right definitively crushed its opposition in the 1980s.This time round, there doesn’t even seem to be an alternative for the right to defeat. That’s not the fault of the protesters. In truth, the left has never recovered from being virtually smothered out of existence. It was the victim of a perfect storm: the rise of the New Right; neo-liberal globalisation; and the repeated defeats suffered by the trade union movement.

But, above all, it was the aftermath of the collapse of Communism that did for the left. As US neo-conservative Midge Decter triumphantly put it: “It’s time to say: We’ve won. Goodbye.” From the British Labour Party to the African National Congress, left-wing movements across the world hurtled to the right in an almost synchronised fashion. It was as though the left wing of the global political spectrum had been sliced off. That’s why, although we live in an age of revolt, there remains no left to give it direction and purpose.

Much of the Occupy movement’s rank-and-file understandably wish to bypass a political process that seems either irrelevant or part of the problem. But the stakes are far higher than they were during the heyday of the anti-globalisation movement. Capitalism is in a crisis without apparent end; Western governments are manically hacking chunks off the welfare state; and millions are being stripped of secure futures. In these circumstances, anger will inevitably grow; but unless it is given a political focus, it is set to erupt in ugly, directionless ways. We could be staring at a future of desperate youths rampaging through city centres; and masked riot police officers charging at crowds. But those with economic and political power would remain safely in place, possibly helped by an even greater backlash at rising disorder than that witnessed after the August riots.

Those swelling the ranks of dissent have to choose: are we making a point about the 1 per cent, or are we trying to dislodge them from power? We’ve certainly achieved the former. But – unless we develop a coherent alternative that resonates with the millions being made to pay for the banks’ crisis – the people at the top aren’t going anywhere.

Written by Owen Jones

October 23, 2011 at 9:20 am

The outrage of Dale Farm

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Here’s a quick reaction I wrote for the Telegraph on today’s forcible eviction of Dale Farm

Along with Romani Gypsies, Irish Travellers remain an object of widespread prejudice in British society. What we’re seeing take place at Dale Farm today is the culmination of years of intolerance. The last Conservative government removed the duty of councils to provide space for travellers.

As a result, settlements like Dale Farm had no choice but to buy their own land and apply for planning permission; in practice, very few applications are accepted by local councils. There’s a lot of talk about the travellers breaking the law – but, in reality, it’s a position they’ve been forced into. Rather than spending millions of pounds to forcibly throw families out of their homes, we should be looking at how build a society that’s far more accepting of minority groups. As things stand, riot police charging protesters has become one of the defining images of Cameron’s Britain.

Written by Owen Jones

October 19, 2011 at 11:58 am

Posted in Dale Farm, police, travellers

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LabourList: Twigg’s surrender

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Last week, I predicted in the Independent that Ed Miliband’s appointment of Stephen Twigg as Shadow Education Secretary would mark a capitulation to Tory policies on free schools. A few Blairites took me up on this over Twitter: I was wrong to pre-empt him before he’d even got his feet under the desk.

It took him all of a day to announce a U-turn on free schools to the Liverpool Daily Post. It gives me no pleasure to say I told you so. When I read Toby Young’s declaration of victorymy initial panic was whether I’d keep my lunch down.

There all sorts of reasons for Labour members to kick off. Firstly, there’s the substance of the policy. In Sweden – where they were unleashed in the 1990s – they have simply failed. Sweden has gone backwards in literacy, maths and science according to the OECD. The evidence suggests free schools have increased social segregation.

Indeed, a Guardian study suggests the first 24 free schools are tilted towards middle class areas. A significant proportion are faith based, accelerating the segregation of our kids along ethnic and religious grounds. Free schools are independent of local authorities and are therefore not accountable to their communities.

As I suggested in the Independent, if we are going to look to a Nordic education system, it should be Finland. It consistently tops global education rankings and has an integrated comprehensive system, no selection, few private schools and universal free school meals.

But there are other issues, too. How is it right to have policy suggested by reshuffle? Without consultation with members, Twigg announces a u-turn to a local paper.

But there is a broader political point Labour members and supporters should bear in mind. I was attacked for quoting Michael Gove bragging about Twigg’s appointment in Parliament last Monday. But the point is this deeply radical right-wing government is committed to building a new political consensus – just like Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher forced their opponents to accept the key pillars of their policy programmes. Using the economic crisis, they want to build a permanent small state consensus.

After World War II, marginalized Tory right-wingers complained about the failure of Conservative governments to unpick Attlee’s consensus. Labour governments came to power and shifted things to the left, they felt, and the Tory administrations failed to reverse it.

Things have now switched. Tory governments are shifting things to the right, and Labour is failing to provide a coherent alternative. The danger is we face a long-drawn out retreat – Labour accepting the fundamentals of what the Tories are doing, and making it clear it is politically impossible to reverse the bulk of it.

Labour activists could find themselves asked to rage against Tory policies, only to have their leaders embrace them a few months down the line. Free schools are just the start – those traditionally called Blairites, but who more accurately could be described as Labour’s ‘surrender tendency’, would have us accept the basic underlying programme of this government, with just nuance and emphasis to distinguish ourselves.

Labour activists therefore have a choice. We can be asked to remain silent as our party leadership slowly capitulates to Tory policies without our consent, out of fear we’ll be accused of attempting to provoke an internal civil war rather than (supposedly!) sticking it to the Tories. Or we can organise and put pressure on our leadership to develop a popular coherent alternative to the Tories at a time of national crisis – as frankly the Tory right cleverly managed to do in the other direction with Cameron.

Twigg’s surrender could be a turning point. Forcing the leadership to return to Labour policy – rather than embrace hard right attacks on comprehensive education – could make similar capitulations less likely in the future. We must not allow Twigg’s surrender to go unanswered.

Written by Owen Jones

October 19, 2011 at 11:34 am

The Independent: Private school parents are wasting their money

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Our comprehensive schools are under attack and barely anyone in public life is defending them. As part of an ideologically charged campaign to strip the state of all but its most basic functions, the Tories are fragmenting the education system by building a patchwork of privately run free schools and academies. Forced into retreat, champions of the comprehensive ideal have adopted a purely defensive posture. But it’s time to stage a counter-assault. The case has to be made that we need to drive all forms of segregation and selection from our education system. And it will take some courage, but the idea that differences in educational achievement are purely down to the quality of the schools has to be challenged, too. Class is largely to blame: but it is almost completely absent from the debate.

It is a case that Labour has failed to make: the Government can boast that it is merely building on the policy foundations laid by New Labour. And now, there are worrying signs the Tories may be building a new consensus. Ed Miliband has handed the shadow education brief to arch-Blairite Stephen Twigg to the obvious delight of Education Secretary Michael Gove. “On the basis of everything that he has said so far,” he crowed “I think there may be a real change in the Labour Party’s approach towards the issue, so I encourage him on the path of virtue and say no more.”

It marks a dramatic turnaround for the party that unleashed the comprehensive schools revolution. New Labour’s leading lights often claim Tony Crosland, the standard bearer of the party’s post-war social democratic right, as their own. But he was a passionate advocate of comprehensive education. “If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England,” he supposedly told his wife. “And Wales and Northern Ireland.”

Alongside the tireless education campaigner Fiona Millar, I took the case to enemy territory this week: City of London School, which charges over £13,000 a year in fees – or nearly two-thirds of the median pay-packet. Despite a spirited defence of private education by Eton-educated Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, a show of hands revealed that far more pupils had been swayed by our arguments. If we can win the debate there, we can win it everywhere.

Separating children on the basis of their parents’ bank balances denies children the opportunity to mix with others from a whole range of backgrounds, fostering divisions at the earliest age. What’s more, private schools are a form of taxpayer-subsidised class privilege: because they are absurdly granted charitable status, they save up to £100 million in tax breaks.

But the key point I made to the City of London boys was that – as well as being unable to grow up with kids from non-privileged backgrounds – their parents were wasting money. Above all else, it’s class that determines how well children do at school. This August, a study by the OECD unsurprisingly found that privately educated students did far better than those at state schools. But it also found that those with middle-class backgrounds did just as well at comprehensives.

My own experience backs it up. My primary school was in the bottom 5 per cent by results: I was the only boy to end up at university. That’s not because I was naturally brighter, but because I had odds stacked in my favour: university-educated parents, an environment free from the stresses that poverty can impose on everyday life, a comfortable living space, and so on. It’s a horrible expression, but “cultural capital” – in part, having middle-class parents with degrees – gives you a massive head-start whichever school you go to. A recent study in Scotland revealed that, by the age of five, children with better-off, degree-educated parents have, on average, a vocabulary 18 months ahead of their poorer classmates. No wonder, then, that another study looking at middle-class children sent to inner-city comprehensives found most “performed brilliantly”. Indeed, 15 per cent of those who went on to university ended up at Oxford or Cambridge. That’s why academies and free schools completely miss the point. But they’re also deeply damaging. Academies are not accountable to local authorities; it’s claimed that their results are rising faster than other schools, but – except for maths and English – they don’t release a breakdown by subject.

Free schools are an even greater threat. Drawing inspiration from Sweden, where they were introduced in the 1990s, they are taxpayer-funded schools set up by private individuals or businesses. And yet according to the OECD, Sweden has slipped back significantly in literacy, maths and science throughout the noughties.

If we’re going to look to a Nordic country for inspiration, it should be Finland. It has no league tables, no selection, few private schools, and free school meals for all. It also has the best performing education system in the world. But it also has another key ingredient: far lower levels of social and economic inequality. Ending the segregation of our children would be good for them and for society. But if we really want to transform education, we have to wage war against our society’s ever-growing economic divisions. The obsession of New Labour and the Tories in tinkering with school structures is a damaging distraction. If the consensus on education is to be taken on, the comprehensive dream and the struggle for equality must go hand in hand.

Written by Owen Jones

October 14, 2011 at 12:37 pm

The Guardian: Britain could be a model unhappy family

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This article appeared in The Guardian

Like so many others, the history of my family straddles the nations of mainland Britain. My father’s north Wales relatives have been Welsh-speaking nationalists for generations. And yet my grandfather was a hero in his village when he joined Britain’s merchant navy at the peak of the empire. A proud Welsh identity meant something very different to my great uncle, who played for the Independent Labour party’s football team in the 1930s. He represented a passionate blend of Methodism and socialism; class solidarity had the edge over national allegiance.

I’ve rarely visited Wales, but I spent part of my childhood in Falkirk, an ex-industrial town in Scotland, and much of my extended family settled in Edinburgh. My cousin was born to English parents, but he is a patriotic Scot. His ancestry can be easily accommodated by the rise of an inclusive nationalism with no interest in bloodlines – after all, the SNP can even boast the first Asian MSP.

Though I largely grew up in northern England, my family background instinctively leads me to self-identity as British rather than English. But is it really possible to shoehorn my Welsh-speaking, rural-dwelling relatives and my proudly Scottish cousin into one category? Take other, starker examples: a supermarket checkout assistant on the minimum wage in Dundee and a multimillionaire hedge-fund manager in London may as well live in different universes. Applied to contrasting individuals, national identity can seem hopelessly abstract.

The problems with Britishness become a lot clearer when compared with, say, French identity. France’s revolutionary traditions are at the core of being French: the universal republican ideal is so entrenched that the government refuses to include questions of ethnicity and religion in the census. But Britishness was traditionally inextricably linked with empire. As a country, we are far from coming to terms with the horrors of colonialism, but it is over 50 years since Empire Day was scrapped, and there is virtual state-enforced amnesia about the era. And while we have a revolutionary tradition of our own – the 17th-century civil war between Parliamentarians and Charles I was the first great European revolution – it remains (again, intentionally) a largely forgotten episode.

With revolution and empire airbrushed from our collective identity, the vacuum was partly filled by the postwar settlement: above all, nationalised industries, a welfare state and a powerful labour movement. But Margaret Thatcher’s governments launched a dramatic assault on each of these pillars. The class solidarity my great uncle fought for dramatically weakened as industries collapsed, and trade union membership fell from half the population to little over a quarter in a generation.

In Scotland and Wales, there was a deep resentment at voting against Thatcherism in the 1980s but suffering its worst excesses. I remember the fury, as a five-year-old, when I marched with thousands of Glaswegians against the poll tax in 1990. That experience was a boost to nationalist sentiments, but New Labour’s shift to embrace Thatcher’s settlement was a game-changer too. Nationalism fused with the kind of social democracy once championed, and then ditched, by Labour. No wonder Plaid Cymru broadened its appeal beyond the likes of my Welsh-speaking relatives to Labour’s old heartlands in south Wales.

English nationalism too is partly a response to the unravelling of old social bonds. Growing up in Stockport, I remember the growing numbers of St George’s flags appearing in the windows of housing estates. English pride became more than an enthusiastic commitment to the national team at some point in my childhood. But, unlike its Welsh and Scottish counterparts, there is a disturbing, racially exclusive element to English nationalism. At its most strident, it is on the march in the form of the anti-immigrant, Islam-hating English Defence League.

The most enthusiastic supporters of the new nationalisms can be found among my generation. Today’s youth face a future of insecurity and declining living standards. With no coherent leftwing movements making sense of an economic crisis without apparent end, nationalism stands to benefit.

An Ipsos/Mori poll in August found nearly half of Scots under 25 aspired to independence; less than a third of those over 55 felt the same. Crucially, separatism was strongest among those without work or who lived in the poorest communities. It’s a similar story with Plaid Cymru, which draws most support not from the likes of my ageing relatives, but from those under 35. A new generation has no truck with Britishness. If Britain disintegrates, it will be at the hands of today’s disenfranchised youth.

Is there any hope of preserving the strained bonds that link my Welsh, Scottish and English relatives? I hope so: my own family is proof of how intertwined we all really are, and there is something perverse about founding ever-smaller countries increasingly at the mercy of globalised capitalism. But the new assertive nationalisms cannot be simply wished away, and a looser association is inevitable. I do believe a common identity can be forged, but it will mean a rejection of the discredited top-down model of Britishness.

My socialist great uncle was part of a long history of collective struggle against authority that is common to all the peoples of this island. Our neglected history includes the revolutions of the 17th century; the Chartists, who were the world’s first working-class political movement; the suffragettes; and the trade union movement. These struggles are not just part of our heritage – they helped construct a common identity. Here is a tradition that could form the basis of a radical, inclusive form of Britishness. The case is waiting to be made.

Written by Owen Jones

October 12, 2011 at 3:21 pm

The Independent: Power to the bosses is the Tories’ goal

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This article appeared in The Independent

Never let a serious crisis go to waste, was the advice of Rahm Emanuel, Barack Obama’s former chief of staff, at the height of the 2008 financial crisis. His old boss may have struggled to embrace the wisdom, but it appears to have become a mantra for Conservatives gathered in Manchester this week.

So much for detoxification: the party that replaced its logo with a tree is now talking about watering down carbon emissions targets. Those traditional Tory bêtes noires – the unemployed and immigrants – are getting a renewed kicking in speeches. But it is in the proposed two-pronged assault on workers’ rights that the Cameron Project becomes clear: to use a crisis unleashed by the banks to re-order society in the interests of the people at the top.

To begin with, George Osborne declared his intention to make it easier for bosses to sack workers – perversely, as a means of combating rising unemployment. The qualifying period for unfair dismissals will be increased from one year of employment to two; and workers who take their former employers to industrial tribunals will have to pay an initial deposit of £250, and another £1,000 if a hearing is granted. Osborne claims this will encourage companies to take workers on, but John Philpott, chief economic adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes it will simply “make employment less stable over the economic cycle”.

Here is an attempt to scapegoat workers’ rights for rising unemployment, rather than a lethal combination of government cuts and a lack of demand in the economy. Indeed, the only OECD country with a worse record on employment protection is the United States.

The second front being opened – perhaps predictably – is against the Tories’ old trade union foes. Union reps in public services are given paid leave to represent workers: across the whole Civil Service, it accounts for just 0.2 per cent of staff time. But according to Francis Maude, it “has got way out of hand”, so a crackdown beckons. In actual fact, union reps play a key role. A TUC report last year found that they saved billions in productivity gains and reducing working days lost to injury and illness. Their numbers have certainly increased, but largely because the last Conservative government abandoned national bargaining in the mid-1990s, leaving industrial relations issues in a tangled mess of departments and agencies.

Using the economic crisis as cover, the Tories are carrying on where Thatcherism left off: redistributing power from working people to their bosses. The last Conservative governments achieved it largely through anti-union laws, a clampdown on workers’ rights, shifting the burden of tax from direct to indirect taxation, and mass unemployment. It was remarkably successful. Back in 1973, nearly two-thirds of national wealth went to workers’ pay; today, it’s just 53 per cent.

It is Labour’s job to oppose these attacks, but its leadership remains paralysed by fear of getting slammed for being in the unions’ pockets. Few politicians make the case that unions have any legitimate place in public life. They are “vested interests”, not our biggest democratic movement, representing 7m nurses, supermarket checkout assistants, factory workers and others who keep the country ticking. The Tories – bankrolled by City firms and multimillionaires – can implement policies benefiting their backers without facing accusations of being their puppets.

I asked Neil Kinnock last year if the Conservatives were the class warriors of British politics. “No, because they’ve never had to engage in a class war,” he answered. “Largely because we signed the peace treaty without realising that they hadn’t.” After this week, it’s time to put those illusions to rest.

Written by Owen Jones

October 6, 2011 at 8:24 am

LabourList: We need to talk about Socialism

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This article originally appeared on LabourList

I’ve written enough posts bemoaning the genius of the right in transforming a private sector crisis into a crisis of overspending, Yes, it sucks. I’ve also whinged about the failure of the Labour leadership to offer a coherent alternative to the Tories’ attempt to re-order society even further in the interests of the wealthy than it already is. That sucks too. But both problems have a common source: the disappearance of the left as it was traditionally understood.

We need to talk about socialism. No, I don’t mean the “socialism” that made a guest appearance during the Labour leadership debate, when (to caricature slightly) the contenders defined it as people basically being nice to each other. I mean the vision of a different society to the one we currently have – one organised in the interests of working people. For generations, that’s what motivated large numbers of Labour activists – as well, of course, as addressing the basic bread-and-butter issues of the people the party exists to represent. The “vision thing”, if you like.

Times have changed so dramatically that to even talk about “socialism” risks being dismissed as a fringe nutter. In large part, that’s because the left was caught up (cliché alert) in a perfect storm. In the 1970s, capitalism was – like today – in crisis, but, as Peter Oborne puts it: “For a while, it was wholly unclear which side would win, and indeed for long periods it appeared that the Left was in the ascendancy.” Then Thatcherism swept all before it; the Labour opposition fractured; the trade union movement – the backbone of the left in the broadest sense – was pummelled; and then the Soviet collapse unleashed a tidal wave of capitalist triumphalism that swamped even democratic leftists who abhorred Stalinist totalitarianism.

The combination of these factors appeared to rule out even the possibility of an alternative to capitalism. And – because it all happened when the neo-liberals were the ascendancy – it seemed to write off even the cuddlier welfare capitalism established in the rubble of World War II. As author Mark Fisher puts it: “It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism.” Even after three years of perpetual capitalist crisis – a crisis that remains without any obvious end – that simply has not changed. Capitalism can collapse all it likes, but there does not seem to be any apparent alternative to nip in and take its place.

It’s easy to explain the long-standing existential crisis of socialism. But why do we even need a Labour left? Well, I’d argue that it’s even in the interests of those Labour activists who don’t place themselves on the left of the party. It would help drag the whole political consensus to the left. And it could give the Labour leadership political space it simply does not currently have.

It’s easy to attack Ed Miliband over, for example, buying into the caricature of welfare scroungers. But accusing him of betrayal is pointless, because there is no mass movement to betray. Where is the grassroots movement making the case for the unemployed in modern Britain? The truth is that he is simply tapping into a prejudice that is widespread – including (and in some cases particularly) in working-class communities. If you are in a low-paid job you don’t particularly enjoy and just scraping by in life, the idea of so-called “welfare scroungers” often annoys you more than anyone else.

If there was a strong Labour left, it could make the case about so many people being on benefits because (radical idea here) there aren’t enough jobs to go around; that benefit fraud is exaggerated (costing £1.2 billion compared to £70 billion lost through tax avoidance); and that it is an often complicated phenomenon.

When a business lobby group rounded up 20 right-wing economists to sign up to a letterurging the scrapping of the 50p tax band for those earning £150,000, a Labour left could have counter-attacked by demanding the threshold was dropped to £100,000. It would have transformed the debate.

But of course a socialist wing of the Labour party would not simply jump on bandwagons, or be purely defensive. It would have to outline a coherent vision of a different society – just as the neo-liberals do.

It would need to make that relevant to people’s everyday lives, of course. In truth, most people do not think in terms of left and right: they think of issues that need to be addressed. The right have been so successful that, for many, “the left” simply means taxing them more individually, and subsidising minority groups that aren’t them. A socialist left would have to communicate in everyday, commonsense language, and addresses people’s basic concerns. That would mean socialist answers to issues often abandoned to the right – like crime and anti-social behaviour which (after all) working-class people are more likely to be victims of.

It would have to demonstrate that it could marshal support, too. Blairites are successful at marginalising the left because they portray them as an electoral liability: as self-indulgent radicals who would keep the Tories in office. That’s in part how Tony Blair managed to get away with so many violations of traditional Labour principles: those who experienced 18 years of Thatcherism were desperate to get rid of the Tories, whatever the cost. I remember that desperation among my own (ex-Trotskyist activist) parents. A socialist movement would have to build and demonstrate mass appeal and support.

The actual substance could not just be a regurgitation of 1970s Labour leftism, because British society is completely different. Its starting point would be challenging a society organised around the profit principle. The answer to that isn’t old-style nationalisation, which was bureaucratic and top-down, and didn’t involve either workers or consumers. Instead, it could build a model of social ownership – where representatives of workers and consumers helped manage, say, the railways or the energy companies. It would mean economic planning, but it would be democratically organised – not run by a bunch of bureaucrats in Whitehall, as happened in the past.

It would have to think in international terms. Capitalism has globalised at a dramatic speed, and it has stripped national governments of autonomy over their own economy. That means the threat of de facto strike action by capitalism against policies that challenge it – through capital flights, for example. This has to be answered by a globalised labour movement – and socialists have to be at the forefront of fighting for it.

I’ve been intentionally vague, because it would be arrogant of me to draw up a detailed agenda for a new socialism. But a new socialism is what needs to be debated. It would be good for Labour and it would be good for working people. And – above all – it would offer an optimistic future, instead of the gloomy austerity being promised by neo-liberalism.

Written by Owen Jones

October 6, 2011 at 8:22 am

Posted in Labour, socialism

Sunday Mirror: Millionaires and bankers’ friends…no wonder we have the most right-wing Tory government ever

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This article appeared in the Sunday Mirror

YOU have to admire the Conservatives’ courage as they launch their annual get-together in enemy territory today.

Manchester is a Tory-free zone. Not one of them sits on the council and the city hasn’t sent a candidate sporting a blue rosette to ­Parliament for nearly three decades.

The party faithful won’t be rattled by a bit of hostility from the locals, though. Expect a week of cheerful flag-waving.

In Opposition, Cameron was ­dismissed as a “shallow salesman”, ridiculed for hugging hoodies. He now leads the most right-wing Government of modern times, going further than previous Tory Prime Ministers ever dared.

As Tory minister Greg Barker crowed back in April: “We are ­making cuts that Margaret ­Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of.”

The Tories should have romped home at the last election. We had a woefully unpopular Labour PM and faced the worst economic crisis since the 1920s.

But Cameron is only in No10 because the Lib Dems dumped their promises over tuition fees, VAT and cuts for a few ministerial limos.

The Lib Dems have proved useful shields but, as the Tories toast their first 16 months, let’s remember they failed to be straight with everyone. They promised “no more top-down ­reorganisations” of the NHS. Yet Health Secretary Andrew ­Lansley is unleashing the biggest ­changes since the NHS began in 1948.

One firm standing to benefit from creeping privatisation is Care UK – whose former chairman, John Nash, handed Lansley £21,000 to fund his private office before the election.

Another Cameron pledge was: “We will not cut the deficit in a way that hurts those we most need to help.”

But letters are going out to 700,000 terminally-ill patients telling them their benefits may be taken away. And the proposed cap on ­housing benefit will drive thousands from their homes.

The Tories promised a Big Society. They are delivering an Ugly Society. Cameron said he had no plans to get rid of the Educational Maintenance ­Allowance, which helped poorer kids. But that was chopped too.

In Cameron’s Britain, it’s boom time for the rich and recession for the rest.

Families face the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, while boardroom pay in the top 100 companies went up 55 per cent last year.

But this Government has made it clear whose side it’s on. The so-called party of low taxes hiked VAT, a tax that hits the poor hardest. Meanwhile they boost the bank ­balances of their pals in the City by slashing Corporation Tax.

And senior Tories say they’ll drop the 50p top tax rate when they can – a tax only the richest one per cent pay.

There’s little mystery why the Tories are making decent, ordinary people pay for a crisis caused by the banks. After all, 22 out of 29 Cabinet Ministers are millionaires.

The Government could hardly be less representative of modern Britain. Hedge funds and private equity firms shovelled millions into the Tories’ war chest.

Ministers are just standing up for those they grew up with, worked with and those who funded them.

As the Tories dance and ­celebrate this week, thousands of Mancunians outside face unemployment, falling living standards and insecurity.

Cameron and his Cabinet of ­millionaires are building a divided, unequal society. This week, it will be showcased in a city that rejects all the Tories stand for.

Written by Owen Jones

October 3, 2011 at 8:46 am

Posted in Thatcherism, Tories


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