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Comment is Free: David Cameron: the master of cynical propaganda

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When David Cameron tires of this prime minister lark (don’t feel you have to take your time, Dave), he should write a self-help book for aspiring rightwing politicians. It could be titled I Got Away With It – And Here’s How You Can Too. I can think of some of the promo lines: “Are you a passionate believer in free-market economics who has been lumbered with the biggest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s?” “Are you keen to turn a crisis that looks like the death knell of all you believe in into your greatest opportunity yet?”

Since Lehman Brothers went under, I’ve watched in awe as the right transformed a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. Even as a battery of cuts suck jobs and growth out of the economy, Cameron’s Tories still define the political debate. Despite winning just 36% of the vote, they look increasingly like Britain’s third radically transformative government since the war – the other two being the Attlee and Thatcher administrations.

How are they getting away with it? Having a supine media and an opposition still lacking a coherent alternative helps. But I have to hand it to them: this government has one of the most effective propaganda machines of modern times. If Cameron was to pen a book explaining his secrets, he could blow Machiavelli’s The Prince out of the water. While he mulls it over, I’ll suggest some key tips.

You can read the rest of the article at the Guardian website

Written by Owen Jones

January 15, 2012 at 11:03 am

Posted in David Cameron, Tories

LabourList: Liam Byrne’s Capitulation

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This article originally appeared on LabourList

This is the kind of piece that delights Liam Byrne. It is an article of faith for the Blairite true believer that, the louder the left squeal, the more confident you should be that you’re doing the right thing. Another vindication is if the swivel-eyed hard right knuckle-draggers of the Daily Mail applaud you. So I’m sure that Byrne was chuffed to read the headline ‘Now Ed Miliband gets tough with onslaught against ‘evil’ of benefits scroungers’. After all, the hard work of him and his team had paid off: it was an article based on their private briefing, after all. According to a ‘source close to Liam Byrne’: ‘Decent Labour voters see their neighbours lie about all day and get benefits while they are working their socks off, and say, “Why should I vote Labour when they let this happen?”‘ I wonder how many people join the Labour Party to cynically exploit prejudices about (and among) some of the poorest members of society in the pages of the Daily Mail. A tiny number, thankfully, but Byrne is among them – and I am ashamed to share the party card as him.

I will be accused of playing the man, not the ball here, but Liam Byrne is an interesting case study of the worst elements of New Labour. In a party founded to represent working-class people, New Labour increasingly became over-run by hacks whose professional background showed no evidence of any commitment to the values of the labour movement. Byrne is a typical example: a former management consultant-turned-merchant banker.

He is perhaps most famously known for the hair-grabbingly stupid decision to leave a note for the Tories in the Treasury after the election boasting that ‘I am afraid there is no money. Kind regards – and good luck!’ Here is a concise summary of the utter failure of New Labour to challenge the Tories’ narratives. The political genius of Cameron and his allies in the media was to transform a crisis of the market into a crisis of public spending. They were aided and abetted by the failure of New Labour to push the reality – leaving arch-critics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown like myself in the bizarre position of having to defend a large chunk of their economic record against their supporters.

But Liam Byrne is also a prime example of the utter shamelessness of the British political elite. He is a politician who fuels prejudices about welfare ‘scroungers’. It takes one to know one. After all, he himself systematically milked the system, leached off the taxpayer – whatever you want to call it. He claimed £400 a month off the state for food, despite having a salary which comfortably placed him in the top 5% of the population. He rented an apartment in County Hall overlooking the Thames to the tune of £2,400 a month – paid for by you and me, of course. He attempted to submit room service bills to the fees office, which proved even too much for them (and, at the time, that’s saying something). His food bill alone was over a hundred quid more than the maximum Jobseekers Allowance payment.

His shameless hypocrisy is but a mere gripe compared to his real offence, however. The Tories are currently hacking large chunks off the welfare state, and it is Liam Byrne’s job to oppose it. After all, this is a government planning to drag cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy from their hospital beds to undergo assessments to see if they can work. It has sent letters to 700,000 terminally ill patients informing them that they may lose their benefits. It is introducing a benefits cap that will provoke one of the biggest population movements since World War II, which one Tory minister has compared to the Highland Clearances. Even Boris Johnson hyperbolically made references to Kosovo-style social cleansing.

But – with a few mealy-mouthed, heavily caveated exceptions – Liam Byrne is not leading the charge against this unprecedented onslaught. Instead, he is himself arguing for more punitive treatment of people on benefits, drawing on a completely distorted interpretation of William Beveridge’s thought.

There are a whole number of arguments that Byrne should be making. Despite the obsession with benefit fraud, the Government estimates it is worth just £1.2bn a year – or less than 1% of welfare spending. Compare that to the £70bn lost to the Treasury’s coffers through tax avoiding businesspeople.

Indeed, a far bigger problem is what could be called ‘benefits evasion’. A whopping £16bn worth of benefits go unclaimed every single year.

Byrne argues that Beveridge ‘would scarcely have believed housing benefit alone is costing the UK over £20bn a year. That is simply too high.’ Of course it is, but Byrne fails to explain the reasons why: the scrapping of rent control and the failure of New Labour to build council housing, forcing millions of people to rent from unscrupulous landlords exploiting the lack of affordable housing to charge extortionate rents. It is, after all, the landlord – not the tenant – who pockets housing benefit.

But the real travesty of conjuring up the ghost of Beveridge is that we currently live in a society blighted by mass unemployment. As George Eaton points out over at the Staggers, ‘Beveridge’s welfare state was designed for a system of full employment.’ The clue was in the title of his second report, Full Employment in a Free Society. But in Cameron’s Britain, there are 23 people chasing every available job. In some communities, it’s even bleaker than that. In Hull, for example, there are 18,795 jobseekers for just 318 jobs. There is simply not enough work to go around.

Byrne argues that, for Beveridge, ‘”idleness” was an evil every bit as insidious as disease or squalor. So he would have been horrified at the long-term unemployment breaking out all over Britain, with over a million young people out of work, and appalled at the spiralling cost of benefits.’ But this has nothing to do with ‘idleness’, with its implications of laziness on the part of the individual. Firstly, it is to do with the destruction of industry under Thatcherism: entire communities never properly recovered (including under New Labour) and were left bereft of secure, well-paid jobs. Secondly, it is to do with the biggest economic crisis since the 1930s. Thirdly, it is to do with the most drastic cuts since the 1920s. Mass unemployment is not an individual fault; it is not the product of millions of people ‘choosing’ to go on benefits out of a ‘lifestyle choice’; it is not the consequence of people failing to look hard enough for work. It exists because – to repeat myself – there is simply not enough work to go around.

The political rights and wrongs aside, it is a politically suicidal strategy. Byrne is fuelling prejudices about people on benefits that the Tories will always be trusted most to satisfy. The whole justification of Byrne’s strategy is that Labour voters felt that the party was too soft on ‘scroungers’. But New Labour could hardly be accused of such ‘softness’, either in policy or rhetorical terms. The Tories are building on the foundations laid by New Labour predecessors, including James Purnell who talked of people on benefits ‘having miserable lives where their universe consists of a trip from the bedroom to the living room.’ New Labour did increase the issue of so-called ‘benefits scroungers’ in people’s minds and fuelled the media narrative – and still ended up with the Tories most trusted to deal with the issue, and ever will be it thus.

Defenders of Byrne will look to the recently published Social Attitudes Survey, which revealed hardening attitudes towards the poor and unemployed, and argue that there simply is no choice. But these prejudices have flourished in large part because of the legacy of Thatcherism and the failure of Labour to challenge it. Attitudes have shifted in a relatively short space of time, and they can be shifted back again – if there is sufficient courage and determination. ‘We have to move this country in a new direction, to change the way we look at things, to create a wholly new attitude of mind,’ Thatcher told her party after her 1979 election victory. That’s exactly the approach the Labour leadership needs to take.

The fundamental aim of every Labour activist is to turf the Tories out of Number 10. We will not achieve that by ceding the argument to them or engaging in a competition about who can kick the poor hardest. Byrne has capitulated to the Tory deceit on mass unemployment and benefits. That doesn’t mean we all have to.

Written by Owen Jones

January 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm

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

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This article originally appeared in Dazed and Confused

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Owen Jones

December 30, 2011 at 11:42 am

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

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This article originally appeared in Union News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Owen Jones

December 28, 2011 at 11:10 am

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

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This article appeared in The Independent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Owen Jones

October 6, 2011 at 8:24 am

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

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This article appeared in the Sunday Mirror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Owen Jones

October 3, 2011 at 8:46 am

Posted in Thatcherism, Tories

The Guardian: Toryism is dead in Scotland

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This piece was originally published in The Guardian

My proudest political moment remains, aged five, starting a chant against the Tories. Along with 50,000 Scots, my family – then living in Falkirk – had taken to the streets of Glasgow in the spring of 1990 to march against the poll tax. Brandishing a small flyer, I precociously yelled the slogan “Kick the Tories out!” Not that I really knew who the Tories were (other than that they were “very bad people”) but the surrounding crowd certainly did – and they repeated the slogan with passion, rage and defiance.

The Scottish people rejected Thatcherism at the polls time and time again, but suffered the imposition of the detested so-called “community charge” a year before the rest of the country. It triggered the most successful campaign of civil disobedience in British history. Millions – including my parents – refused to pay a tax that hit the poor far harder than the rich. Even when the British electorate unexpectedly failed to “kick the Tories out” in 1992, three out of four Scots voted to do exactly that.

Recalling those passionate scenes in 1990, the plans of Murdo Fraser – the frontrunner for Scottish Tory leadership – to relaunch his party under a new name aren’t surprising. For most, it is difficult to imagine the Conservatives being anything other than a toxic political brand in Scotland. This is, after all, the country of Red Clydeside; of Willie Gallacher, the former Communist MP for West Fife; and of the hard-left Scottish Socialist party, which until four years ago had six members in the Scottish parliament.

But – despite the country’s radical traditions – the strange death of Tory Scotland is more recent than many Scots would like to remember. Nearly half the British electorate voted Tory in 1955; but in Scotland, over half voted for the Unionist party – the then-sister party of the Conservatives. The Tories have the remarkable claim of being the only party to have ever won a majority of the Scottish vote. And yet at the last general election, the near-fringe party status of the Tories was confirmed when less than 17% of Scots voted for them.

It is certainly true that the crisis of Scottish Toryism began before Margaret Thatcher demolished the post-war consensus. In 1965, the national party took direct control of the Scottish Unionists, who were rebranded the “Scottish Conservative and Unionist party”. This was a big mistake in a country with such a proud national identity. And as was once the case in Liverpool, working-class Toryism was inextricably linked with Protestantism and anti-Catholic sentiments. Indeed, when Scottish Toryism triumphed in 1955, record numbers of Scots were flocking to the Church of Scotland. But as active Protestantism and the sectarian Orange Order waned in strength after the 1950s, the base of Scottish Toryism was chipped away.

Even so, the death spiral of Scottish Toryism did not begin until Thatcher came to power in 1979. Her governments certainly found ways to affront Scottish national pride. North Sea oil was discovered a few years before the Conservatives came to power, but as Scotland was particularly battered by recession and de-industrialisation in the 1980s, there was growing resentment at the billions of pounds of revenue flowing straight to the Treasury in London – no less than £300bn in the past 30 years.

But much of Scotland’s passionate – and relatively recent – hatred of Toryism isn’t as unique as some might think. It is shared with much of northern England, all of which repeatedly voted against the Tories but suffered from the worst excesses of their rule. Outside Tory England, it was like living under a foreign occupation: my Stockport primary school teachers dressed in black when John Major was returned to Downing Street in 1992.

The destruction of British industry – particularly in the early 1980s – had much to do with this shared resentment. In 1991, the number of manufacturing jobs in Glasgow was just a third of the level two decades earlier. Two years after Thatcher’s election victory, Glasgow was 208th down the list of local authorities for economic inactivity; a decade later, it had risen to 10th place.

Northern industrial areas were similarly hammered in the two recessions of the early 1980s and early 1990s. The trauma of mass unemployment under Conservative governments has made anti-Toryism a kind of folk hatred passed from generation to generation in parts of Britain. No wonder, then, that the north-east of England rejected the Conservatives almost as decisively as Scotland at the last election: less than 24% voted Tory, while Labour – facing its second worst result since 1918 on a national level – won nearly 44%. The legacy of Thatcherism has left the Tories with a glass ceiling of support – which partly explains why the party failed to win the last election despite a woefully unpopular Labour government and the worst economic crisis since the 1930s.

What is unique about Scottish anti-Toryism is that it has fused with a powerful sense of national pride. Because New Labour accepted many of the key pillars of Thatcherism, it was unable to capitalise on this antagonism effectively. The SNP, on the other hand, reinvented itself as a social democratic nationalist party that drew on a renewed, anti-Tory patriotism. With a hardline Thatcherite government back in office in London, the SNP can present itself as the protector of Scotland in a repeat of the 1980s.

The bottom line is that Murdo Fraser can call the Scottish Tories what he likes. The Scottish electorate, however, are neither stupid nor forgetful. Toryism is dead as a mass political force in Scotland, and it is unlikely to ever come back.

Written by Owen Jones

September 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm

Posted in Scotland, Tories

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

with 2 comments

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

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

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

Read the rest at LabourList

Written by Owen Jones

June 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The Blairite ultras would lead Labour to surrender. They must be stopped

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I never thought I’d say but it but, Christ, I don’t half know how Thatcher felt. Until her administration came and put the ‘Great’ back into ‘Great Britain’ (and all that), post-war Britain was a picture of despair for Maggie. The Tories had capitulated to the political settlement established by Clement Attlee’s 1945 government, with just a few tweaks. Post-war politics were a “socialist ratchet”, she claimed: “Labour moved Britain towards more statism; the Tories stood pat; and the next Labour Government moved the country a little further left. The Tories loosened the corset of socialism; they never removed it.”

When I read an article by Labour’s former General Secretary, Peter Watt, calling on the party to accept the Tories’ cuts agenda wholesale, I was reminded about how much this has all been turned around. You could say: “The Tories move Britain towards more neo-liberalism, New Labour stands pat; and the next Tory Government moved the country a little further right. New Labour loosened the corset of neo-liberalism, they never removed it.” If the likes of Watt have their way, that is what will happen if Labour win the next election.

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Written by Owen Jones

May 19, 2011 at 12:47 pm

Posted in Ed Miliband, Labour, New Labour, Tories

Tagged with

The Tories: fear them, hate them by all means, but be in awe of their genius

with 19 comments

For many Labour supporters who woke up this morning, this is what ‘schadenfreude’ was introduced into the lexicon for. The smell of toast Lib Dem wafted through their windows up and down the country. In the year since Britain fell back under Tory domination, the most passionate vitriol has been reserved for the Lib Dems: it’s the sense many had that, after all, you expect to be screwed by the Tories, but the Lib Dems should really know better.

That’s suited the Tories just fine. They have ingeniously crafted the Lib Dems into human shields, allowing them to absorb rising popular anger at the Government’s onslaught against the welfare state.

The Lib Dems are stuck. If they withdraw from the Government, an election will be held which will wipe them out as a major political force. The Tories know this, and they also know that Labour is completely unprepared – financially as well as politically – for a snap election. With a gun to the Lib Dems’ heads, the party can occasionally squeal in staged attempts to distinguish themselves from their Tory allies – as Paddy Ashdown has done – but they are trapped in power. For a party that has been trapped out of power for such a long time, there is something deeply ironic about the Lib Dem plight.

These results have exposed a lot about the Lib Dems. Their support was always soft and, unlike the Tories and Labour, they have no real identifiable, substantial core vote to speak of. Yes, they functioned as a kind of South West regional party; in the North, they won by posturing to the left of Labour; in the South, they presented themselves as a more acceptable, rational alternative to the Tories. After a year of being allied to the Tories, many of their disgusted Northern erstwhile voters have returned to the Labour fold. Sheffield (the city I was born in) and Stockport (where I grew up) are among those who have kicked the Lib Dems out of office.

In the South, some have gone blue: after all, this Government’s programme is so polarising, if you support it, why not just vote Tory?

And, when the referendum results later show that the Alternative Vote has been rejected – forever, in all likelihood – the total humiliation of the Lib Dems will be confirmed.

It’s difficult to know where this baseless party is headed. It has a habit of splitting, with factions being absorbed by the Conservative Party. That’s what happened to Joseph Chamberlain’s Liberal Unionists in 1912 and the National Liberals after World War II. It’s certainly easy to imagine the likes of Nick Clegg and David Laws eventually defecting to the Tories although, given the plummeting Lib Dem vote, they may end up representing them in the House of Lords.

Protected by the Lib Dems, the Tory vote has remained steady (currently projected at around 35%, or around what they got in the general election a year ago). They’ve even made some gains. In other words, the Tories’ political strategy is working pretty well. Although it was easy to forget when they were languishing in the doldrums under the leaderships of William Hague and Iain Duncan-Smith, the Tories are the most successful political party on Earth. They governed for two thirds of the 20th Century. They don’t just lust for power: they expect it.

It was always comforting to pretend that anger over cuts would end up with the Tories being turfed out of power. But Labour has yet to present any coherent alternative to the Tory agenda. It hasn’t really won back those working-class voters who abandoned it, costing it the election.

It’s of course easy to overstate what has happened in Scotland, where Labour got a kicking at the hands of the SNP. It says more about Iain Gray’s woeful leadership – it seems as though the only substantial policy being offered by Labour was being tough on knife crime – than it does about Labour nationally. I strongly doubt the results would be replicated at a general election, and opinion polls suggest not. The SNP has stitched together a coalition of dedicated nationalists, disillusioned Labour supporters attracted by social democratic aspects of Alex Salmond’s leadership and, particularly in this election, former Lib Dem supporters.

But it does provide a case study of what happens to Labour when it fails to win back its natural supporters. Anyone who thinks that a lurch into hardcore New Labour territory will win Labour voters back from the clutches of the nationalists needs their heads examined.

Labour has made decent inroads in much of England and Wales. There were landslides in cities like Manchester, where it looks as though all other parties have been purged from the council. Those who believe it is not enough progress need to be quickly reminded that the party suffered its second worst result since the fall of Hitler just a year ago. The idea we were ever going to win a landslide after systematically alienating many of our supporters over so many years was always bonkers, no matter how much the Tory press cynically talked it up. And again, people need to be reminded: we lost 4 out of the 5 million voters who went AWOL between 1997 and 2005 under Blair. Blairites must not be allowed to whip up the idea that these are disappointing results in an effort to retreat to a failed New Labour policy agenda.

But, that said, there can be no underestimating just how potent a threat the Tories remain. They are political geniuses who are determined to remain in power at all costs, and unless Labour provides a convincing alternative that wins back its working-class voters, then Cameron’s cabal may well achieve that aim.

Written by Owen Jones

May 6, 2011 at 11:12 am

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