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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

New Statesman: Ed Balls’ surrender is a political disaster

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This article originally appeared on the New Statesman’s Staggers blog

I never expected to become a defender of New Labour’s record, let alone against its own most zealous supporters. At this point, I should clarify that I haven’t been kidnapped by Peter Mandelson and transformed into a Blairite drone. What I mean is that among all the disappointments and betrayals of the New Labour era, there were genuine social advances. They are now being shredded at lightning speed by a radical Tory government – but with the increasing complicity of the Labour leadership.

Just after news broke on Friday that Ed Balls had regretfully announced the next Labour Government is ‘going to have to keep all these cuts’ and declared his support for the Government’s public sector pay freeze, I spent my evening debating Tory ex-Minister Edwina Currie on Stephen Nolan’s 5 Live show.

Currie was in full-on triumphalist mode, gloating that Labour had accepted that the Tories were right all along. I couldn’t blame her. Before coming on air, I listened to a spokesperson for the hard-right Taxpayers Alliance similarly praising Balls to the hilt. At the same time, I scrolled through Twitter, wincing as prominent Tories and Liberal Democrats proclaimed victory. ‘You lose,’ tweeted right-wing blogger Harry Cole to Balls’ political advisor Alex Belardinelli.

Tory MP Robert Halfon couldn’t contain his glee, either: he promptly cobbled together a blog post entitled ‘Ed Balls comes out… as a Conservative’, bragging that the Shadow Chancellor had appeared ‘to sign up to Coalition economic policy’. ‘After months of opposition, the Labour Party appear to have conceded defeat,’ he boasted, adding that he thought ‘Coalition Ministers will be able to sleep safer in their beds in future’.

The stifling of Labour’s internal democracy is taken so much for granted that no-one has even bothered to pass comment on the lack of consultation before Ed Balls’ announcement. One leading MP was stunned, telling me that the Parliamentary Labour Party was given no prior warning and would be ‘shellshocked’ when they returned to Westminster. As for trade unions or party members — well, you are well within your rights to chuckle that I’ve even bothered to mention them.

Ed Balls’ surrender is a political disaster. It offers vindication for the Tories’ economic strategy, even as it is proven to fail. Growth has been sucked out of the economy. Consumer confidence has plummeted. Unemployment is soaring, with no sign of the promised ‘private sector-led recovery’. Even on its own terms, the Government’s austerity measures have failed disastrously: George Osborne will borrow more than Alistair Darling’s plan, so derided by the Tories at the last general election. As for the impact the cuts are beginning to have on our communities and those groups being pummelled hardest (women, young people, and the disabled, for instance) – well, that’s simply incalculable.

But rather than trying to push a coherent argument against this disastrous austerity programme, it is now being treated as a fait accompli. Sure, the cuts are now necessary because of George Osborne’s mistakes, but they are nonetheless here to stay. Labour can no longer talk about how these cuts are inherently destructive, because otherwise it would have to commit to reverse them. Neither can it aim fire at their ideological nature, as when Cameron announced they were permanent before the election: that is, after all, now Labour’s starting point too.

And it will surely fuel the sense that the Conservatives are making the necessary tough economic decisions, and Labour are simply playing catch-up. This is a large part of the catastrophe that has befallen Labour since the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s began. The Tories were allowed to transform a crisis of the market into one of public spending because Labour failed to offer a coherent alternative narrative. The role of collapsing tax revenues and rising welfare spending as unemployment rose barely got a mention; the Tories managed to get away with the fact they backed Labour’s spending plans pound for pound until the end of 2008.

When I complained about this suicidal strategy – or, rather, suicidal absence of one – to a shadow minister at Labour Party Conference in September, they responded quick as a flash that we did indeed have a deficit because Labour overspent. I confess that – at this point – I felt that if senior Labour figures were happy to accept dishonest blame handed out by the Tories, then it was hopeless.

This latest surrender to the Tory cuts agenda comes after a protracted struggle at the top of the leadership. One faction argued that, once you started specifying cuts, there would be a loss of focus on their deflationary impact, and that the Tories would come back for more and more detail on Labour’s spending plans. We now know this argument has been decisively defeated.

Arch-Blairite Jim Murphy – who harbours ambitions to stand for leadership should Ed Miliband fail – began rolling out the new strategy earlier in the month by calling for Labour to avoid ‘shallow and temporary’ populism over spending cuts, setting out his own proposed cuts as an example to his colleagues. The equally devout Blairite shadow education secretary Stephen Twigg has partly endorsed Michael Gove’s attacks on the scrapped Building Schools for Future programme, and has outlined £2bn of his own cuts. And Liam Byrne has committed Labour to a renewed attack on the welfare state, currently being hacked to pieces by the Government. I bet the word ‘vindicated’ will be used liberally around the corridors of Conservative Campaign Headquarters next week.

And so former arch-critics of Blair and Brown such as myself are forced to defend large chunks of their record from their acolytes. New Labour’s major departure from Thatcherite orthodoxy was investment in public services. It is now being torched with the approval of Blairites and Brownites. Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher headed the two transformative governments of post-war Britain, each establishing a new political consensus by forcing their oppositions to accept the key tenets of their programmes. Cameron looks set to follow in their footsteps, with New Labour an interregnum that temporarily tinkered with the Thatcher consensus, much like the Tory governments of the 1950s and the Attlee consensus.

As the usually thoughtful Tory Peter Oborne put it:

A sea change is at work. In practically every area of British public life – state spending, the economy, education, welfare, the European Union (where Ed Miliband refused to condemn Cameron’s pre-Christmas veto), mass immigration, law and order – Conservatives are winning the argument and taking policy in their direction.

It is not inevitable, of course. It is being allowed to happen because there is a lack of countervailing pressure from below. If a broad coalition of Labour activists and trade unions united around a coherent alternative and put concerted pressure on the leadership, this surrender can be stopped in its tracks. With the Shadow Cabinet set to continue its suicidal course, time is running out – but it is the only hope to stop Cameron transforming Britain forever.

Written by Owen Jones

January 16, 2012 at 7:37 pm

Posted in cuts, economy, Ed Balls, Labour

LabourList: Labour’s broad church

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I feel for Luke Bozier, I really do. He’s going through the sort of trauma Labour lefties of all stripes will recognise: a distressing sense that the Party you thought you knew has abruptly disappeared. His recent LabourList post, coupled with a glance through his Twitter feed, reveal a man going through much soul-searching about whether he can retain his Party card in good faith.

Luke joined Labour four years ago – unlucky timing for an arch-Blairite, because that was on the eve of Tony Blair’s departure. From my understanding of Luke’s political background, it was Blair’s brand of New Labourism that brought him into the party’s ranks in the first place.

Without getting out the world’s smallest violin, I want to explain my own allegiance to the Labour Party. I joined aged 15 partly because it was in my blood: my ancestors were among its earliest supporters; my grandmother was a Labour councillor; and my parents met canvassing for the Party in Brixton in 1968. But above all I inherited my family’s analysis of the Party which is that – however imperfect, however limited it may sometimes be – it is the only shot at political representation that working people have. That is, after all, what it was set up for – and it is a purpose institutionalised by its link with the country’s biggest democratic movement, the trade unions.

Read the rest at LabourList

Written by Owen Jones

March 29, 2011 at 4:07 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

Share your private sector horror stories

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Bloated. Inefficient. Wasteful. Pampered. Manned by the lazy and incompetent; administered by shameless fat cats with salaries that make the Prime Minister look like a pauper. All-expenses paid trips to exotic locations. Non-jobs like ‘Executive Officer to Protect Endangered Snakes’.

This is Britain’s public sector, if the relentless campaign of bile directed against it by the Conservative Party and their allies in the right-wing media is to be believed. In a political campaign with few parallels in modern times for either genius or audacity, this axis has transformed one of the greatest private sector disasters in human history into a crisis of public spending.

The Government’s propaganda offensive has had one simple aim: to soften public opinion up for the biggest programme of cuts (sorry, ‘savings‘) since the 1920s. Long gone are the days when David Cameron berated New Labour for its “knee-jerk attacks on public sector workers”, or – astonishingly – proudly declared:

Anyone working in the public services could easily have heard a pretty negative message from my Party: “there’s too many of you, you’re lazy and you’re inefficient.” This is far from how I see things.

But trashing the reputation of public services isn’t just about devastating cuts. It’s about opening the door for private firms to help themselves to whatever is left. Already, vultures are circling the expected carcasses. As the Government and its right-wing allies would have it, the private sector is more efficient, more competent and better value-for-money.

On Saturday, Polly Toynbee hinted at challenging this narrative: she referred to the frustrations she’s had with Homebase, and described witnessing a “fraught mother” being treated poorly by HSBC.

So I had an idea. Why not challenge the Government’s propaganda offensive by collecting together the many horror stories involving Britain’s private sector?

I’ll get the ball rolling. The biggy, of course, is the near-collapse of the world’s financial system, caused by the greed and incompetence of the banking industry. The consequences include a narrowly avoided (for now) Great Depression, millions of job losses and questionable prospects for economic growth for years to come. And, of course, it was the state that had to charge to the rescue. Take the United States: George ‘Lenin’ Bush was forced to undertake the biggest nationalisations in human history.

It’s going to take a few more headlines about a council-chief-executive-in-four-course-meal-at-taxpayers-expense to top that one.

Or, on a personal level, I had a weeks-long battle with Optical Express to order in the correct contact lenses. I won’t inflict the details on you – partly because reliving the trauma will end up with my keyboard as collateral damage – but needless to say, after having been their customer since the age of 10, I had no choice but to part company with them and order lenses online. Not that it was the workers’ fault – I’ve always thought there was a special place in Hell reserved for customers who yell at staff who are paid poor wages to administer a crap system devised by overpaid executives higher up the chain.

So – what are your private sector horror stories?

Written by Owen Jones

March 16, 2011 at 4:07 am

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