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LabourList: A call to arms

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This article first appeared on LabourList

For those who stand outside the austerity consensus, reading Len McCluskey’s columnon Tuesday was like coming up for air.

It is a cause of deep frustration that, as the Tories’ economic policies are shown to fail (in terms of jobs, growth, consumer confidence, economic inactivity and borrowing levels), the Labour leadership has moved to legitimise them. I’ve written elsewhereabout why Ed Balls’ declaration that “My starting point is, I am afraid, we are going to have keep all these cuts” is politically disastrous, and indeed it was jubilantly used by David Cameron to beat Ed Miliband across the head with at today’s PMQs. But in truth, it is difficult for even the most diehard leadership loyalist to sum up Labour’s current strategy on the cuts and the deficit. The Tories are shaping the argument, and no coherent alternative is being offered.

What is perhaps most galling about Balls’ intervention is that it came as Standard & Poor of all institutions offered the missing coherent case against austerity as it downgraded the credit ratings of nine European nations. Justifying its decision, it said: “We believe that a reform process based on a pillar of fiscal austerity alone risks becoming self-defeating, as domestic demand falls in line with consumers’ rising concerns about job security and disposable incomes, eroding national tax revenues.” Balls has referred to it in passing, but it was of course eclipsed by the rest of his statement.

The commitment to a public sector pay freeze may have even worse consequences. Given the rate of inflation, Labour has committed to a pay cut for dinner ladies, nurses, teachers, bin collectors, and so on. A false choice is being presented – that it’s either pay or jobs. But if millions of public sector workers have less to spend, consumer demand will be hit, and considerable numbers of private sector workers will almost certainly lose their jobs as a consequence. Labour’s position is more than symbolic, though. Now the Opposition is committed to the Government’s position on pay, it completely undermines the union case against it. Labour’s leadership has allowed itself to become an outrider for the Government.

Given Labour’s failure to challenge the Tory agenda, the fact that Len McCluskey has acted as a voice of sanity at a time of economic madness is welcome in itself. Miliband talks a lot about a return to the 1980s, but McCluskey more accurately points out we’re experiencing a 1930s Comeback Tour: when all main parties converged around the same disastrous economic course. But McCluskey’s intervention is far more significant in other ways.

Many party activists and trade unionists may not happy with the direction of the Labour leadership. But the truth is that it is an expression of where we’re at politically. The left and the broader labour movement were battered and beaten in the 1980s, and never recovered. Today, there exists no left either with mass support or a coherent alternative, either within the Labour Party, or outside it. There’s lots of pressure dragging the Labour leadership towards the Tories’ position: the presence of hardened Blairite elements, a hegemonic government, the media, big business, the City, and so on. I’m afraid it also includes broader public opinion which, while believing cuts are too far and too fast, still believes them necessary: unsurprising after years of being bombarded with pro-cuts propaganda, with no alternative being offered.

If the left wants the Labour leadership to change course, it has to build pressure that currently does not exist. And that’s why McCluskey’s intervention is important and should be built on.

There is currently a divide in the labour movement between those who accept the underlying case of what the Tories are doing, with just nuances to separate them from the Government: or the Surrender Tendency as I call them. On the other hand, there are those who want a coherent alternative to the Tory agenda: I can’t think of a good label for them, so I’ll stick with the Alternatives (even though it sounds a bit like a girl band). The problem is the Surrender Tendency happen to be concentrated in the Labour leadership. The Alternatives have a lot of support in the broader membership, but they are not organised.

McCluskey’s intervention should be treated as a kick up the backside for the Alternatives. We need to organise so we can put pressure on the Labour leadership, challenge the Tory and media consensus, and shift public opinion.

McCluskey is in a good position to help lead this charge. He can’t be dismissed by Tories and Blairites as the mouthpiece for public sector “vested interests”: although his union represents thousands of public sector workers, most of its membership are private sector workers who are themselves being hammered by the crisis.

We need to get the Alternatives together: party activists, MPs, trade union leaders and members, activists from community and campaign groups, journalists, bloggers, and so on.

Then we have to move from ‘There Has To Be An Alternative’ to ‘There Is An Alternative’. We could start by calling on the likes of Nobel Prize-winning Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, both trenchant critics of the suicidal economic strategies of British and European leaders. We also have progressive economists we can draw on here, such as Graham Turner and Richard Murphy. Rather than a fragmented ideological objection to what the Government is doing, we need to develop a coherent alternative economic argument that can be communicated in a way that resonates with people. Let’s call it The Plan.

Not all Alternatives will be happy with The Plan. Some will have to treat it as a start. But we have to stick with one clear, convincing message that we can hammer away at with every given opportunity.

We’ll then push The Plan everywhere: through supportive journalists, social media, in party and union branches, stalls in every town centre, poster and leafletting campaigns, newspaper adverts, and so on. It will give the Alternatives something to unite around in the labour movement – and crucially, drag the leadership away from a course of surrender.

My fear is that – if we do not act – the Labour leadership will spend the next few years continuing to retreat to the Tory agenda. That will cement David Cameron as the third transformative Prime Minister of post-war Britain, after Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher. It will be argued that there is ‘no going back’, that reversing the Tories’ programme is politically impossible. Cameron will have transformed Britain irreversibly.

That’s why we have to get our act together, and why we should treat Len McCluskey’s piece as a call to arms. Let’s stop our sulking, and get organising.

Written by Owen Jones

January 20, 2012 at 10:34 am

Dazed and Confused: ‘We’re All In This Together’

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This article originally appeared in Dazed and Confused

2011 was the year the phoney war ended or – as the kids say these days, so I’m told – shit got real. When queues of anxious customers demanding their money suddenly formed outside Northern Rock over four years ago, it seemed like a slightly surreal – but one-off – disruption to normality, like an eerie re-enactment of a scene from Depression-era United States. As the entire global financial system faced total meltdown a year later, a sense of normality was mostly still preserved thanks to taxpayer bailouts and multi-billion fiscal stimuli. But more than one commentator conjured up the image of the global economy as a cartoon character who runs off a cliff, legs still flapping, suspended in mid-air as the scale of the fall sinks in. This year, the tumble began.

The declared strategy of the Conservative-led Government was that, as it pushed forward with the most devastating cuts since the 1920s, there would be a private sector-led recovery. By the end of 2011, unemployment had soared towards 2.7 million, a level not seen for 17 years. And while 67,000 public sector jobs were lost in the third quarter, just 5,000 private sector jobs were created. As had been predicted by those the Conservatives and their outriders had sneered at, the cuts were sucking growth out of the economy. Four years since the crisis began, Britain once again stands on the brink of another recession. Even on the Government’s own terms, its strategy is a failure, with George Osborne forced to borrow more than was projected under Labour’s plans at the last election. No wonder Osborne stood accused by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of being “a medieval doctor bleeding his patient.”

“We’re all in this together,” or so George Osborne and the Government told us. Throughout the year, it was a sentence that veered between the ludicrous and the insulting. The average Briton is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s. The majority of us will be no better off in 2016 than we were at the turn of the millennium. But there might as well be an economic boom as far as those at the top are concerned. The wealth of the richest 1,000 people in Britain surged by a fifth, one of the greatest leaps recorded. In the corporate boardrooms of the top 100 companies, pay went up by 49% – nearly as much as it did last year. Here was a silent class war waged from the top.

Bleak stuff, and enough to leave the Government in serious trouble, you would think. After all, the Conservatives had the last election on a plate thanks to the biggest economic crisis since the Depression and a woefully unpopular Labour Prime Minister – but they lost. Cameron is only ensconced in Number 10 because of the duplicity of the Liberal Democrats. But with a coherent alternative still lacking from the Labour leadership, David Cameron looked smugger with every passing month. Even as Job Centres became more crowded, the PM and Chancellor remained (perversely) more trusted on the economy than Labour. The genius of the Conservatives’ strategy of turning a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending – and the failure of Labour to challenge it from the start – was paying off.

And as 2011 advanced, the Cameron regime looked a whole lot more like a hard-line Conservative government. “We are making cuts that Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s could only have dreamt of,” boasted Tory minister Greg Barker in April. As those on benefits became more demonised than they were before mass unemployment returned to Britain, a Government report proposed forcing cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy to be assessed for their fitness for work. With little co-ordinated opposition, the Government pushed through the first stage of the privatisation of the NHS, without bothering with the courtesy of putting it before the electorate first. And as Cameron flounced out of the EU Treaty negotiations – after making sure journalists were briefed he had eaten a full English breakfast – it was clear Britain had the most Eurosceptic government since World War II. But still the Liberal Democrats – a now indisputably rag-tag bunch of opportunists – kept the Government in power in cynical defiance of their (former) voters, with just the odd bit of choreographed “letting off steam” to keep up the pretence they were anything other than Tory voting fodder.

Though Cameron remained largely untouched, economic upheavals invariably cause things to “kick off”, as the BBC’s Paul Mason puts it. The students had led the charge at the end of 2010, throwing off illusions about British passivity and proving that it was possible to resist. They had put the trade unions “on the spot”, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey put it. Many an obituary has been written for the labour movement since the hammering it suffered under Thatcher, but in 2011 it returned to the stage. Its unique potential to mobilise was showcased on March 26th, as it organised the biggest workers’ demonstration in a generation. The theme was ‘March for the Alternative’, and though that alternative remains far from properly sketched out, here was the biggest show of defiance against Tory rule yet.

But it was a Tory attempt to impose a deficit tax on public sector workers that forced the trade unions into action. Superficially, it was about pensions: they were becoming unaffordable, claimed the Government, even as a report it commissioned by ultra-Blairite New Labour ex-minister Lord Hutton revealed that pensions would shrink as a proportion of GDP in the years ahead. Indeed, the money raised from increased contributions is to flow straight into the Treasury’s coffers. On June 30th, teachers and civil servants went out on strike, and Tory minister Francis Maude had his arguments torn to shreds on national radio. Then came the biggie: on November 30th, public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to top civil servants, lollipop ladies to nurses came out in the biggest industrial action since the 1926 General Strike.

There was a sense of exhilaration that comes from sharing a common purpose on the day. It didn’t last. In the face of media hostility, the union leaderships (with honourable exceptions) failed to present their compelling case in a way that could resonate with an increasingly union-free workplace. Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, had promised “the fight of our lives”, but looks set to lead a capitulation to Government proposals. No concessions on the key issues were offered, and civil servants’ union PCS – whose leader, Mark Serwotka, had shown the most determination of the trade union leadership – was locked out of talks. And so 2011 could end with what may come to be seen as the biggest trade union defeat since Thatcher.

Resistance came in unorthodox forms, too. On 17th September, protesters set up tents in Wall Street in protest at the injustices of economic crisis; in part, they were inspired by the Spanish indignados (indignant) who occupied Madrid’s main square in protest at the political establishment in May, and they, in turn, looked to the example of the Egyptian revolutionaries who seized Tahrir Square. Occupy Wall Street was the catalyst for a global movement that finally came to the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral on 15th October. It was a drama that dragged in the usually irrelevant Church of England, forcing the resignation of three priests. But Occupy clocked up a real achievement: it reminded us all who caused the crisis, and who was being made to pay for it. Indeed, one poll revealed that 51% of Britons felt the protesters were “right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people.”

Britain’s tearing social fabric could manifest itself in uglier ways. After 29-year-old Mark Duggan was shot dead by police, riots exploded in Tottenham on 6th August; within two days, rioting and looting were tearing through London; other English communities were next. Anger and fear provoked a ferocious backlash: mid-way through the unrest, one poll revealed one third of people wanted live ammunition used. Newspapers blamed single parents; and I was all too paralysed as I sat in a TV studio while Tudor historian David Starkey attempted to scapegoat black people by arguing that what he described as their “culture” had turned white people into rampaging thugs. As Government supported plans to evict rioters and their families if they lived in council homes and to confiscate their benefits, a precedent was set in Cameron’s Britain: if you are poor and commit a crime, you will be punished twice. With talk of “feral underclass” being bandied around, there was little sympathy for those – like myself – who argued that there were growing numbers of young people with no secure future to risk.

And so Britain leaves 2011 with an increasingly triumphant right in office; a broad opposition not lacking in passion, but scattered and lacking in coherent alternatives; a Labour leadership still failing to make the case against the Government; brutal cuts and economic crisis biting away at people’s jobs, living standards and futures; and swelling ranks of people with nothing much to lose. If it doesn’t sound pretty, it’s because it isn’t.

But it’s no time to flail around in despair. 2012 could be bleak, or it could be the year that a resurgent left gets its act together, unites around an alternative that resonates, and starts building pressure from below. Rather than assailing Ed Miliband for being hopeless, political space could be created for progressive policies, and the Labour leadership dragged to support them – willingly or not. But a note of warning. If the left doesn’t tap into the inevitable growth of anger and frustration, then somebody else will. And a cursory look back over the 20th century tells us just how disastrous that can be.

Written by Owen Jones

December 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

Union News: Unions have a big task ahead of them in 2012

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This article originally appeared in Union News

It was the year that sticking it to the status quo re-entered the mainstream after an all-too-long long hiatus.

And yet 2011 showed just how far that resistance remains from mounting a serious challenge to the Tories, let alone giving capitalism much to worry about, four years into its worst crisis since the Great Depression. But the foundations have been laid – leaving 2012 all to play for.

A trade union movement that never recovered from the hammering of the 1980s apparently roared back into action. The marching, occupying students had set the example: as Unite’s Len McCluskey admitted, they put trade unionists “on the spot”. Long mocked for their irrelevance, the trade unions mobilised hundreds of thousands in the biggest show of force against the government yet on March 26th – and the largest workers’ demonstration in a generation.

As well as marches, the strike returned to the political scene after years of record low levels of industrial action. Technically, it was over government pension “reforms” (a term whose meaning long ago went from “progressive social reforms” to “rolling them back”). In reality, it was a deficit tax on public sector workers – with the extra contributions flowing straight into the Treasury’s coffers.

The first wave of resistance was on June 30th as teachers and civil servants walked out. But it proved a dress rehearsal for November 30th, when public sector workers ranging from dinner ladies to senior civil servants abandoned their post in the biggest industrial action since a previous Tory government warned of “red revolution” in the 1926 General Strike. Inspiring stuff, but Unison’s leadership looked set to lead a capitulation to the government, despite no movement on any of the key grievances. 2011 ended with a looming union defeat.

With the political left still fragmented and weak, resistance manifested itself in unorthodox ways. Taking its cue from Occupy Wall Street, tents were erected outside St Paul’s Cathedral in protest at the injustices of the economic crisis. It was a reminder of who caused the crisis – and who is being made to pay for it.

Unrest wasn’t always orderly, however. Riots spread through London and other English communities in August, originally sparked by the police killing of 29-year-old Mark Duggan in Tottenham. There was much talk of a “feral underclass”, but little appetite for understanding the growing numbers of young people with no future to risk, resentment at a heavy-handed police force, and a toxic mixture of inequality and consumerism.

And perversely – although government austerity was driving hundreds of thousands out of their jobs and giving living standards their biggest hammering since the 1920s – David Cameron looked more secure than ever. Labour’s leadership failed to construct a coherent alternative to Tory cuts, leaving Ed Miliband looking weak and indecisive. With the left failing to build countervailing pressure to the diehard New Labour elements who are still calling the shots, this was hardly surprising.

2011 was a bumpy ride, and 2012 looks set to be tougher yet. The last year proved that growing numbers of people have an appetite to fight. But unless the left gets it act together and gives growing frustration a political direction, the coming year could be one of Tory triumphalism, even as working-class communities are hammered. After the hangovers have subsided on January 1st, the labour movement has a big task ahead of it. At stake is its survival – and the futures of millions of people who depend on it.

Written by Owen Jones

December 28, 2011 at 11:10 am

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 debate shouldn’t be whether to resist, but how to resist

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In thirty years time, school kids studying history will be asked to answer the following question: “How did the British Conservative Party transform a private sector crisis into a crisis of public spending?” However it is answered, the maddening injustice of what the Tories are trying to pull off will scream through the ages. An economic collapse caused by neo-liberalism is being “solved” with the most extreme dose of neo-liberalism yet. A catastrophe unleashed upon us by a deregulated banking industry is being used to hack further chunks off the welfare state established by the 1945 Labour government. A nightmare triggered by the greed of the wealthy elite is being used to kick working people and the poor.

Resistance to this project isn’t just a right: it’s a duty. The last time the Tories won an election was 1992. I remember it well: I was 7 years old. My teachers all came to school dressed in black. The Tories lost the 2010 election, despite the worst economic crisis since the 1930s and a ludicrously unpopular Labour Prime Minister. They won just 36% of the vote, and – in any case – they did not put their extreme policies before their electorate. The government has no democratic legitimacy for what it is trying to do, and it must be forced to retreat.

That’s the moral case for resistance, if you like. But the political case is equally compelling. Unless the Tories are stopped now, there’s every chance their policies will remain in place for a generation or more. As Thatcherism forced Labour to capitulate to its key tenets, Cameronism wishes to do the same. The political consensus will be driven even further to the right.

Read the rest at LabourList

Written by Owen Jones

June 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The Black Bloc – a dead end (response to Jonathan Moses)

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Jonathan Moses – a fellow UCL occupier (and in fact one of the main instigators of the occupation) – has posted a defence of the ‘Black Bloc’ tactic over at Open Democracy. Below is the response I left in the comments box

I agree that there needs to be a tactical, rather than a moral debate. But it is genuinely beyond me how the Black Bloc ‘tactic’ is anything other than an entirely counterproductive dead-end.

I was active in the ‘anti-globalisation’ movement of the early 2000s. I was kettled on May Day 2001 in Manchester as a 16-year-old, which is where I first encountered Black Bloc-style tactics. It is interesting how the anti-globalisation movement is barely mentioned even on the left today. That is because – as a directionless, amorphous movement – it lost momentum pretty quickly and made no real lasting political impact.

Black Bloc tactics strike me as a militant twist on consumer boycotts: the same underlying idea (inflict economic damage), but posing absolutely no threat whatsoever to the capitalist system, however good it might make the participants feel.

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Written by Owen Jones

April 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm

About those “peaceful” suffragettes

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Firstly, a defence of Ed Miliband. He has been savaged from both left and right for speaking at the TUC’s historic demonstration against the cuts on Saturday. Some activists booed him as he spoke, angered by any association between Labour and the anti-cuts movement. The criticisms from the right, meanwhile, have been largely predictable: in modern Britain, any politician who associates with the largest democratic organisations in the country – our 7 million-strong unions – is automatically regarded as unelectable.

That the leader of the Labour Party would even contemplate addressing a trade union-organised demonstration against Tory cuts shows that things have shifted. It is unthinkable that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown would have done the same: the fact it is now even politically possible shows that the mood is changing.

But I do have to take him up on a point he made in his speech – not to have a go at him, but because I think it has important lessons.

In his speech to some of the 400,000 workers who took to the streets of London on Saturday, Ed Miliband declared:

We come in the tradition of movements that have marched in peaceful but powerful protest for justice, fairness and political change.

The suffragettes who fought for votes for women and won.

If you’re wondering what that sound is, it’s the upper-class political reactionaries who ran Britain at the beginning of the 20th century spluttering in their graves.

Let’s be clear. The suffragettes were despised by the Establishment in their time. They were portrayed as violent anarchists who were a mortal threat to civilization itself.

In a Parliamentary debate on the suffragettes on 11 June 1914, there was consensus in the House of Commons that the suffragettes were a terrible menace that had to be crushed. Lord Robert Cecil railed against “suffragist outrages”, describing them as a “very serious evil… Anarchy – and that was what these women were aiming at – was not the substitution of one Government for another. It was the destruction of the existing Government…. He had read with some surprise that the Government were not dissatisfied with the measures which they had taken to deal with the violent measures, which they had taken to deal with the violent suffragists, and believed matters had greatly improved.”

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Written by Owen Jones

March 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Would you march with the police?

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Relations between the anti-cuts movement and the police are bad. That’s an understatement: they are atrocious.

The left has long been suspicious of the police, and not for reasons that can be dismissed as unreconstructed dogma. Far from being neutral arbiters at times of conflict between citizens and state, they have frequently acted in a ruthlessly partisan fashion.

The 1984/5 Miners’ Strike is perhaps the classic modern example. I have spoken to miners who recall being woken up at 5am every morning by police officers banging their shields together in unison: a deliberate tactic of intimidation. One veteran of the infamous Battle of Orgreave recalled peaceful miners’ pickets being charged by police on horseback – like the force were reenacting a medieval battle scene. Several miners were arrested, but they were vindicated when their trials collapsed and they were paid hundreds of thousands in compensation.

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Written by Owen Jones

March 9, 2011 at 10:30 am

Why I think lefties should join Labour

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It’s a debate that has raged on the left since 1900, when an alliance of trade unions and left-wing groups decided that working people needed a political voice and set up the Labour Representation Committee. Is Labour the left’s only hope, or is it a thoroughly reactionary obstacle on the glorious onwards march to socialism?

So why bother wading in to an unresolved century-old debate, you may wonder. Well, for a start the left is at a particularly critical juncture in its history. We face one of the most right-wing governments of modern times, and it is planning a dramatic re-ordering of British society with “Maoist” zeal (as Vince Cable would have it). The left as a whole still remains devoid of any coherent political response. Lefties of all stripes simply cannot ignore Labour as part of any strategy to take on the Government.

The Tories’ shock-and-awe policy programme has, understandably, brought the debate back to life with unusual intensity. Many lefties would still prefer to mate with a cheese grater than sully their wallet with a Labour party card. Tens of thousands of others have wrestled with their conscience and, like Ellie Mae, joined up despite their huge reservations.

In the face of opposition of activists like myself, the modern-day Labour Representation Committee – focal point of the Labour left – recently defeated an attempt at its Conference to water down its commitment to the Party. Meanwhile, after their man won the Labour leadership race and the Party moved closer to their political agenda, soft left pressure group Compass responded in the only rational way possible: by walking away from the Party. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

March 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

NUS President election: Interview with Mark Bergfeld

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Following Aaron Porter’s announcement that he is stepping down when he has completed his term in office, the race is on for the next President of the National Union of Students. With the student movement more high-profile than ever, the contest is significant for students and non-students alike.

There are three candidates standing: Mark Bergfeld, Liam Burns and Shane Chowen. In the last of three interviews, I interview Mark Bergfeld, member of the NUS National Executive and spokesperson of the Education Activist Network. Mark tweets as @mdbergfeld.

1) What is the alternative to tuition fees and the marketisation of education?

It is interesting that you start the interview by asking about an alternative. I think the recent demonstrations, walk-outs and occupations have shown that alternatives are really needed.

We must not only propose an alternative to fees and the marketisation but also to the free market mantra of ‘there is no alternative’ and the cuts. Our struggle over education informs the latter.

The students’ movement clearly fights for a free education. This must go hand in hand with transforming our universities into places of critical learning, research and teaching. This will become increasingly difficult with higher fees and more cuts to come.

But this rise in fees has shown people what happens when you let the market into any area of our lives. The times are dark but our campuses are explosive and can act as bastions of resistance in the fight against austerity and another world beyond fees, cuts and job losses.

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Written by Owen Jones

February 27, 2011 at 4:03 am

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