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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

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

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This post originally appeared on LabourList

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Owen Jones

October 27, 2011 at 3:21 pm

The working-class and the left

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It’s easy to write a post like this and invite a barrage of accusations of hypocrisy. I’ve always been open about my background. I’m middle-class, full-stop; when I was growing up, my mother lectured at Salford University, and my father worked in economic regeneration at Sheffield Council.

My family did go through “financial hardship” (for want of a better phrase) for a number of years when we were based in Sheffield; but I was too young to remember this, unlike my brothers who spent years having clothes bought from jumble sales. In any case, it was for very different reasons than the thousands of workers in that city thrown on the scrapheap by Thatcherism’s vandalism of British industry: my dad spent years as a full-time official of the Trotskyist Militant Tendency, and fomenting revolution doesn’t pay the bills.

Like most middle-class people, I can only remember financial security, even when my dad lost his job with eight hundred others at the fag-end of Tory rule. Long before I was self-consciously political, I was aware of the contrast in my circumstances to those of most of the people I grew up with.

So let me phrase my argument like this. There are too many people like me on the left. Socialists, like myself, often talk about a crisis of working-class representation; but that’s a phrase, I would argue, that could equally be applied to the left.

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Written by Owen Jones

April 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm

What should the left say about crime?

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This article also appeared in the Morning Star

Being a victim of crime is no fun. My family’s house was burgled repeatedly when I was growing up. On one occasion – when I was 15 – it happened in the early hours when we were all in bed. I remember hearing the clunking noises downstairs and presuming (with some irritation) that my twin sister was up and about, until the intruder crept to my door and his hand rested on the handle. I coughed, and he stormed into my parents’ room. When my mother yelled: “Who’s there?”, he gave a quick-fire answer – “Father Christmas” (geddit?) – so at least he had a sense of humour.

Three years back I was beaten up and mugged on a bus in Tottenham: like many who’ve had that experience, my anger was more directed at the bystanders who did nothing than a presumably troubled drug addict looking for his next fix. And, just before Christmas, my flatmate and I had our bikes stolen: a few days later, they appeared in all their glory on Gumtree. Not that the police were particularly interested – but, to be fair, there’s bigger issues to deal with than nicked bikes in Hackney. Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

April 13, 2011 at 4:19 am

Posted in crime, New Labour, the left

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

Why are people joining the Labour Party?

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During the Blair and Brown eras, the number of people with a Labour Party card in their pockets plummeted to levels not seen since the 1930s. Whether it be Iraq, the continued lack of trade union rights, Ken Livingstone’s expulsion from the party in 2000, privatisation, the assault on civil liberties, the failure to tackle the disastrous legacy of Thatcherism, or the general perceived kowtowing to big business and the wealthy – thousands of socialists no longer felt they could stomach being on Labour’s membership rolls.

But since May 2010, there has been a sea change. People are joining even faster than they quit: tens of thousands since the general election. In my own ward, the membership has doubled. The Coalition’s shock and awe neo-liberal policies have certainly provoked fear and anger among large swathes of the country. But I wanted to ask a few new members why they’ve carded up.

You can also see Daniel Frost, Lisa Ansell and Ellie Mae O’Hagan‘s reasons online.

Kelly-Louise Hargreaves, Fine Art student at Nottingham Trent University, 23: @KellyLuise / Blog

I was brought up in a mining village in Nottingham. I’m the grandaughter and daughter of miners and I live at home with my parents.

For the second time in my life I’m seeing the Tory party systematically destroying the lives of normal, working class folk. Margaret Thatcher killed not only the industry in our village but a lot of our hopes and aspirations.

I come from somewhere the Tories ripped the soul out of during the 1980′s and 1990′s, it’s only just getting back on it’s feet. I don’t want to see the whole country having to suffer the same fate we did.

I don’t have a reason before I suppose. Not to join the Labour party I mean. I’ve always supported them. But I think it’s time to align myself with them officially because I cannot stand to see the Conservatives destroy our education and health systems. I see the NHS and education as a right, not a privilege for those with money in their wallets. I know that by joining the Labour party doesn’t automatically mean that the coalition government will dissolve infront of my eyes, but it’s my stance against them.

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Written by Owen Jones

March 31, 2011 at 11:44 am

Posted in Labour, the left

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

An age of revolt – in an age without a left

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I remember the exact moment when I realised that I was living in a different era from the politically tranquil times I grew up in. It was in a lecture theatre at University College London, a week or so after the 52,000-strong student march. An impromptu ‘what next?’ meeting had been called, and the room was absolutely packed with undergrads. Baby-faced though I am, I was probably one of the oldest people there.

I was used to the largely passive disillusionment that predominated among many young people during the New Labour era. But, when people spoke that day, I noticed something completely different. Firstly, the people talking were newly politicised. I doubt that most of them had given politics much thought before the 2010 general election. And yet they were suddenly talking in very political terms: as I would later find out, many of the students surprised themselves when they spoke. But the other change was their approach to the Government. They weren’t simply frustrated, or even just angry. They regarded the Government as their enemy, and an enemy that had to be removed.

For leftists like myself who have lived through the depressing post-Thatcherite ‘There Is No Alternative’ era, the idea of ‘ordinary’, non-lefty people becoming radicalised very quickly is as exciting as it is novel. At that packed meeting, the students overwhelmingly voted to occupy their university, which took place the following week. It was a scene replicated at dozens of campuses across the country. It was accompanied by an unprecedented wave of protests marked by their determination and militancy.

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Written by Owen Jones

February 14, 2011 at 10:15 am

Posted in the left

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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