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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

The Independent: Beware the assumptions the Lawrence verdict gives rise to

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This article originally appeared in The Independent

That two of the racist thugs who murdered Stephen Lawrence have been locked up is, finally, some justice. But this is no moment of catharsis; nor can we say this is the long-awaited righting of an extreme injustice which we can put behind us. That’s certainly true with the Lawrence family: they have still been robbed of their son, and will grieve for the rest of their lives. Some of the other racist gangsters who murdered him nearly two decades ago remain at large.

But it’s also true about the fight against racism. Doreen Lawrence has been an inspiration throughout her family’s 18-year ordeal. And she has a message for all of us that should be a rallying cry in the aftermath of this verdict: “The fact is that racism and racist attacks are still happening in this country, and the police should not use my son’s name to say that we can move on.” With nearly 40,000 race hate crimes in 2010 (with many others undoubtedly unreported), it is no time for complacency in the struggle against all forms of prejudice and bigotry.

That is not to gloss over what has already been achieved. On the contrary, we should draw strength from it. Just over 50 years ago, a Gallup poll found that 71 per cent of Britons opposed interracial marriage. The number of people who still hold this view is so small that pollsters have stopped recording the figure. Indeed, Britain has the highest levels of mixed-race marriages in Europe. Only 3 per cent of people now admit to being “very racially prejudiced”: undoubtedly many others are not being honest, but the fact that the figure has fallen is testament to the degree to which overt racism has become unacceptable.

We should also not fall into the trap of portraying racist gangsters like Gary Dobson and David Norris as somehow emblematic of the bigotry of the so-called “white working class”. Of course, racism remains a problem within working-class communities as it does at every level of society. But inner-city areas are far more mixed than many leafy middle-class suburbs. Some 35 per cent of London supermarket workers hail from an ethnic background; the figure is 10 times lower among partners of Britain’s top 100 legal firms. In London Boroughs such as Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham, working-class people of all ethnic backgrounds work, socialise and sleep together. Around half of British-born black men are in relationships with white partners, and it is in these sorts of communities where such mixing is taking place most.

But race and racism continue to loom large over British society. It is a point that was made to me forcefully in the aftermath of the August riots. I spoke to a number of young black men about their experiences with the police. Like me, they had never been charged with a crime. But while I have never been stopped and searched by the police in my life, it was an experience many of them had had to endure since they were as young as 12. Sometimes, the officer stopping them was respectful, even almost apologetic; but at other times they came across as aggressive or intimidating. For some of the young men I spoke to, the police acted as though they were “the biggest gang around here”. It is a shocking statistic, but black people are 26 times more likely than whites to be stopped and searched by the police under Section 60 of the Criminal Justice and Pubic Order Act in England and Wales.

Some parts of the media retain their pernicious role of fanning prejudice. Because of its relentless pursuit of Stephen Lawrence’s murderers, the Daily Mail is receiving much kudos, including from its normally diehard left-wing critics. But let’s not forget that newspaper’s role in promoting dangerous myths about immigrants and ethnic minorities. Take these Daily Mail headlines: “Maternity units turn away British mums as immigrants’ baby boom costs NHS £350m”; and, “Want to see a GP? Gypsies come first as NHS tells doctors that travellers must be seen at once.” This is the kind of reporting that perpetuates the dangerous myth of white Britons being undermined by ethnic minorities – and thus helps inflame divisions within our society.

Some forms of prejudice have actually become worse since Stephen Lawrence was murdered. I’m not one to normally agree with the Conservative Baroness Sayeeda Warsi but she was right to say that Islamophobia now passes the “dinner-table test”. It is a bigotry even indulged by some progressives. The 19th-century German socialist August Bebel once described anti-Semitism as the “socialism of fools” because of its rhetoric about Jewish financiers; Islamophobia today could be described as the “secularism of fools”. A study at the end of 2007 revealed that 91 per cent of articles about Muslims in one selected week of coverage were negative; I doubt things have improved since. For the British National Party – as is the case for the far-right across Europe – Muslims are now the main target of choice.

That’s why it’s so important that we take heed of Doreen Lawrence. Racism and prejudice retain their ugly presence at every level of society. The fight against it has a long way to go.

Written by Owen Jones

January 7, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Attitude: Being gay is a class act

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This article first appeared in ‘Attitude’

Recently, a close straight friend made a slightly startling, off-hand comment. “Being gay is more common among middle-class people, isn’t it?” He hadn’t thought it through and, when I challenged him, he felt a bit silly. But he was merely expressing a commonly held prejudice – that there’s something a little bit bourgeois about rolling around with other men.

Jokes about what public school boys get up to in shower rooms have long been common. The myth of the affluent homosexual has even been used by dictatorships to crack down on gay rights. Although the Bolsheviks decriminalised homosexuality after the Russian Revolution, Josef Stalin banned it as a “bourgeois decadence”. Today, talk of the “pink pound” often suggests the pockets of gay men are overflowing with dosh (to spend on Kylie concert tickets and camp tat, obviously).

There’s also a presumption that acceptance of gays is confined to the sorts of middle-class Guardianistas you might find crammed into Islington wine bars. Working-class people are often portrayed as knuckle-dragging bigots who are about as keen on gays as they supposedly are on immigrants. Interesting, then, that a recent survey for social research group BritainThinks found that 76% of working-class people felt that gay couples should have the same rights as straight couples. The figure was only 70% with middle-class people. Another poll for the Times revealed that skilled workers were more likely to have an openly gay family member than middle-class professionals.

The findings don’t surprise me. When I worked as a barman in Manchester’s Gay Village, both the staff and the clientele were almost exclusively working-class. Mums and dads would have nights out with their out-and-proud sons; and groups of straight Mancs would pop in for a pint after a day slogging away at work.

On the other hand, I’ve encountered numerous heartbreaking examples of middle-class homophobia. When my first boyfriend came out as gay aged 15, his well-to-do mother sent him to a pseudo-doctor to “cure” him of his “illness”. Other friends who hail from leafy Home Counties suburbs have told me of growing up in an oppressive atmosphere of intolerance.

The term “gay community” is bandied around as though we can all be easily lumped together just because we like sleeping with other men. But in reality, we’re as socially diverse as the rest of the population.

Our massive class differences even emerge in our sexual tastes. There’s currently a study underway at University of Leicester into so-called “class tourism” among gay men. Above all, it focuses on the appeal of so-called “chav culture” to middle-class gays. Some go “slumming” it at “chav” nights in clubs, occasionally dressing up as the stereotype for the occasion – above all, baseball caps, sportswear and bling.

A whole genre of porn exists starring young men who live on council estates and so-called “scally boys”. Even the lust for so-called “straight-acting” gay men is wrapped up in class. Sometimes it springs from an insecurity about being gay; but often it’s a desire for a caricatured, rugged version of heterosexuality associated with working-class men.

Class tourism isn’t only a fantasy of gay men: after all, from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to Titanic there’s a whole tradition in fiction of straight people turning the class system upside down in the bedroom. Crossing class divides – or the privileged being sexually dominated by those lower down the social pecking order – is a big turn-on for some gays and straights alike.

But we rarely ever get to see the real diversity of gay men – not least because, more often than not, we appear on TV as one-dimensional uber-camp clowns being served up for entertainment. It’s starting to change, though. Last year, former Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas came out: unlike in England, rugby is a working-class sport in Wales. Here’s an example of a working-class gay icon that can help puncture the stereotype.

We’ve come a long way in our battle for legal equality, but the struggle for social acceptance is still far from won. In part, that means taking on the narrow images of gay men that appear in the mainstream. We’re a diverse bunch; let’s face it, we’re just as complex and divided as everybody else. It’s a reality that’s waiting to be shown.

Written by Owen Jones

December 30, 2011 at 5:55 pm

Posted in class, gay rights

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

‘Chavs’ and the working-class

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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.

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Written by Owen Jones

July 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm

It’s time for a debate on the C word

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Below is an article I’ve written for the Independent

Margaret Thatcher was nothing if not ambitious. As part and parcel of one of the most audacious attempts at social engineering in British history, her government set about stripping class – ‘a Communist concept’ – from the nation’s vocabulary. Even as wealth and power became increasingly concentrated at the top, the conspiracy to deny class has faced few challenges. Both New Labour and the Tories alike preached the myth that – as Tony Blair put it – ‘we’re all middle class now’”. Narrow definitions of ‘aspiration’ and ‘social mobility’ have encouraged the idea that being working class is something to escape from.

Things have begun to change: there’s nothing quite like an economic crisis to highlight profound injustices in the distribution of wealth and power. When the paypackets of FTSE 100 directors go up by a third, while the average working Briton suffers the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, denying the existence of class becomes a form of Flat Earth-ism.

That’s not to say class has been entirely squeezed out of the nation’s conversations, but it often emerges in a deeply pernicious form. A few years ago I sat at a dinner table surrounded by middle-class professionals when one quipped: “It’s a shame that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” It’s a scenario that many will recognise. Chav-bashing by those from pampered backgrounds is a continuing national scandal and must be opposed. But – whether people use the word “chav” or not – there’s a deeply distorted, but entirely mainstream, view of class that must also be challenged. It was most eloquently summed up by The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer: “Something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.”

For the right, those outside the new supposed middle-class majority were the “underclass”, whose numbers were expanding because of supposed behavioural defects and the collapse of marriage. But New Labour’s spin on it – “social exclusion” – has had an equally damaging effect on the popular view of class. With class no longer an accepted way of describing divisions in society, those at the bottom of the pile were held partly responsible for their lot in life.

It’s a theory that’s trickled into popular culture. Take TV comedy: it either showcases nice middle-class people, like My Family; or, on the other hand, grotesque or one-sided caricatures of working-class people, like Little Britain’s feckless Vicky Pollard or The Only Way is Essex, which caricatures the supposedly “tacky aspirational” working class who can’t spend money with the taste and discretion of the middle class.

But the real working class – the 16 million manual workers, clerks and sales assistants who make up half the workforce – has been all but airbrushed from existence. Part of the confusion is down to the fact that the working class looks a lot different than it did thirty years ago. Before the Thatcherite assault on industry, more than 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it’s little over 2.5 million. Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any: but she is all but invisible as far as our politicians, journalists and TV programme-makers are concerned.

Denying class has proved all-too-convenient in ignoring the concerns of working-class people. We don’t talk about the fact that people from unskilled backgrounds are ten times more likely to be unemployed than professional people or that five million working-class people are languishing on social housing waiting lists. Nothing makes sense without class. If we don’t talk about it, millions will remain disenfranchised, marginalised and ignored. Thatcherism closed the national debate on class: now is the time to re-open it.

Written by Owen Jones

June 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

‘Chavs’ round-up

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My book ‘Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class‘, published by Verso, is now out. It’s a slightly bizarre feeling that it’s actually hit the bookshops – I started writing it back in December 2009, which now seems like another age. And I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been a nerve-wracking few weeks: it’s such an important issue that it’s better not to write it at all than screw it up. (I hope I haven’t).

But so far so good. It was the Times’ ‘Book of the Week’ on Saturday although, I’m afraid, the review is behind the paywall.

Polly Toynbee talked about it in her column yesterday:

“A superb and angry new book, Chavs by Owen Jones, published next week, pulls together the welter of evidence on the demonisation of the working class. Read it for a strong analysis of the conspiracy to deny the very existence of a working class, even to itself. New Labour colluded with this vanishing act but Ed Miliband’s espousal of the “squeezed middle” may be tiptoeing towards giving a voice back to the great disappeared.”

And Michael White has also mentioned it in a piece on class on Monday.

You can also hear me debating with the Telegraph’s James Delingpole on whether posh people are an oppressed minority (yes, seriously) on BBC’s Radio 4 Today programme, broadcast on Monday.

Richard Seymour has also written a really fascinating piece on ‘chavs’ and class over at Leninology; and I’ve read an absolutely fantastic piece on ‘chavs’ and council tenants, written by two housing policy experts. Thoroughly recommended.

If you want to hear me rambling about the book, here are some upcoming events. My first event is at Stoke Newington Literary Festival this Saturday at 4pm at Abney Hall. I’m very privileged to be doing the event with the journalists Johann Hari and Suzanne Moore. You can book tickets here – and say hello if you come along.

Above all I’d be really interested to hear people’s thoughts on the book when they’ve had a chance to have a shufty. If this book has any purpose, it’s to get people talking about class again – however small my contribution to that will be.

And, finally, I’m writing a post later which will try to answer ‘is chav-bashing really attacking working-class people?’

Written by Owen Jones

June 1, 2011 at 11:44 am

Cracking open the middle-class closed shop

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I thought there was a really good debate after my Comment Is Free post on social mobility. There were a few, though, who objected. Their concern was that I was basically arguing in favour of kicking the ladder beneath me, or even of reinforcing the class system.

In that case I probably didn’t explain my argument properly – because that certainly isn’t my position, or even close.

What I was arguing against was the political consensus around creaming off a small minority of working-class people and catapulting them into the middle-class. Social mobility, I argued was about accepting inequality and the class system, but simply making it easier to be move between classes. The same number of people would be cleaners, call centre workers or checkout staff, even if they would end up being slightly different people.

Instead, my argument was that we should support working-class collective struggles to improve pay, conditions and even the dignity of work. That would actually better cater for individual aspiration, too: you can’t afford a family holiday in Spain or a new car if you’re lying awake at night panicking about the gas bill, because you’re subsisting on poor wages.

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Written by Owen Jones

March 6, 2011 at 8:18 pm

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

Can we win middle-class people to socialism?

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How about I start by answering my own question. Yes, of course we can. Why not?

And I’m not talking about “socialism” as New Labour (and even Tony Blair in the early days of his leadership) would have it, which basically boiled down to ‘being nice to people’. I mean the full-blooded, Real Thing.

I should probably define who I mean by ‘middle-class people’. We’re all used to ‘Middle England’ being thrown around by politicians and journalists, and in an entirely misleading way. For example, in 2006 New Labour ultra Stephen Byers floated the idea of abolishing inheritance tax in order to win back ‘Middle England’, despite the fact that only the wealthiest families in Britain were liable to pay it. If you are slap in the middle of the country’s income distribution, you are earning just £20,000 a year.

As a former senior adviser to Tony Blair put it to me a few months ago: “You’re probably right that we did misportray Middle England, but that, I’m afraid, is not just a kind of Labour characteristic. It’s characteristic of the middle-classes as a whole.”

By middle-class people, I’m talking about people taking home about £26,000-£36,000 a year, in professional jobs (either in the public sector or private sector). They’ve got a mortgage, they probably shop in Sainsbury’s or Waitrose, and they read papers like The Guardian, The Independent, The Times or even – perhaps more controversially for my argument – The Daily Mail.

As one New Labour politician put it to me last year, it is the “politics of despair” to stand on the most conservative of programmes, merely “because you’ll never convince those people in Surbiton.” That was Hazel Blears, and I happen to agree with her on that.

Let’s start with measures to take on the rich. There is no reason to presume that middle-class people – who are a fair few rungs down the ladder from the wealthy – should oppose making the rich elite cough up more. Take a poll for The Independent on Sunday last October. Overall, 54% of those asked supported hiking the top tax rate on those earning £150,000 a year or more from 50% to 60%. As you might expect, the DEs (defined as “semi and unskilled manual workers” by pollsters) were most in support. But when it came to the middle-class ABs, 57% were in support.

Or take tax evasion by the wealthy – an issue that UK Uncut has helped force to the top of the political agenda. You may well find that a middle-class person is most passionate about this injustice. After all, they feel that they pay their way, despite earning far less. So why shouldn’t the rich? That’s why even the Daily Mail has been sympathetic about protests against tax evaders. The newspaper is tapping into a deep-seated resentment felt by its middle-class readership.

And then there’s investment in public services. Newspaper owners and leading journalists often attack public services that they don’t even use: they largely use private health care and education, and resent their taxes being spent on them. But middle-class people haven’t opted out of society like this. Far from it, they overwhelmingly rely on the same public services that everyone uses. Bear in mind that only the top 7% of children attend private schools. The case for taxing the wealthy to pay for good public services should be a real vote-winner among middle-class people.

What about the central pillar of socialism as it has traditionally been understood: public ownership of the economy. That’s the sort of socialist policy you’d think would scare off the average middle-class Brit. But I’ve proposed a form of democratic social ownership that I think would go down very well with middle-class and working-class people alike. Each industry would be run by a management board: a third of which would be elected by workers, a third by consumers, and a third would be appointed by the Government.

This would be a big boost for consumer power, and I think middle-class people would be most likely to vote for consumer representatives. You can see how this would appeal to them in key services. Middle-class people are surely among the most frequent train users, for example, and suffer the frustrations of spiraling ticket prices and poor service. I bet they’d love to have a say in running the rail industry. I’m sure the same would be true with, say, energy companies (another target of the Daily Mail).

Public ownership of finance could also prove hugely unpopular – after all, middle-class people are as likely as anyone else to be disgusted by the Government bailing out the banks without demanding anything in return. Small businesses have gone to the wall because of the banks’ failure to lend, and middle-class people have shared the nation’s collective horror at booming bonuses.

Free university education should be a no-brainer. Practically all middle-class parents expect their children to go to university these days, and they fear them being saddled with debt for the rest of their lives.

On the other hand, the case for affordable housing might seem a tough sell to the homeowning middle-classes. But  the dream of home ownership promoted by Thatcherism is falling from the grasp of middle-class children. We may have to invent a new word for council housing – the legacy of right-to-buy, the failure to build new stock and its effective ghettoisation has left it demonised. But in the 1970s, council housing was generally of a far better standard than private housing and – perhaps surprisingly – the backgrounds of council tenants reflected fairly accurately the social make-up of the country as a whole.

If we built a new generation of high-quality, affordable, environmentally friendly socially owned homes, that would prove a lifeline to millions of middle-class people who will otherwise find themselves spending a fair chunk of their lives as the tenants of private landlords.

And, lastly, there’s the issue of foreign policy. The Iraq war was often unfairly caricatured as a middle-class issue: I remember going to the famous 15th February 2003 anti-war demo with a coachload of car workers. But, to put it crudely, it is difficult to prioritise something happening thousands of miles away if you are struggling to put food on the table. There has been huge opposition to the neo-con foreign policy of recent times, and the country’s submission to Washington’s demands. The cause of peace should surely go down well in middle-class households across the country.

Socialism must always have working-class people at its heart. It is unlikely to ever win the passionate support of most middle-class people. But I don’t see why a renewed socialism, adapted to the challenges of the 21st century, cannot win over a substantial chunk of middle-class Britain. And, as The Spirit Level recently showed, a more equal society is better for everyone – whether you are working-class or middle-class.

Daily Mail Readers for Socialism, anyone?

Written by Owen Jones

February 11, 2011 at 2:52 pm

Posted in class, the left

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