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Independent: If trade unions don’t fight the workers’ corner – others will

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Our Prime Minister certainly has few doubts about who’s orchestrating the backlash against workfare. “Trotskyites!” Cameron boomed during Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions; if he’d thrown in “wreckers”, it wouldn’t have been a bad impression of Andrej Vyshinsky, Stalin’s semi-hysterical prosecutor during the 1930s Show Trials.

And yet Cameron barely had time to put down his ice pick before news trickled out that the Government was abandoning sanctions for the work experience scheme. Here was the vindication of that well-known Trotskyist transitional demand: that people should not be forced to work for free against their will.

Workfare is battered, but not defeated. The Mandatory Work Activity (the clue is in the name) and the Community Action Programmes remain intact, all of which compel the growing ranks of the unemployed to work for free or have their measly benefits slashed. But it was a slap in the face for the “protest doesn’t change anything” brigade, and another victory chalked up for the burgeoning alliance between small groups of activists and the Twitterati.

The truth is that direct action and social media are filling a vacuum. A coherent opposition to Cameron’s Britain is as lacking as it is needed. The Labour leadership is hobbled by the fact that, from workfare to NHS privatisation, they laid the groundwork for much of this Government’s agenda. If there’s any force uniquely placed to challenge the most far-reaching transformation of British society since the Second World War, it’s our trade unions.

You can read the rest of the article at The Independent

Written by Owen Jones

March 4, 2012 at 11:38 am

Posted in trade unions

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

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

Sign up: Labour members backing our public sector workers

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If you are a Labour Party member and you back public sector workers who have been forced to take strike action by the Government, please sign below: just leave your name, CLP and any relevant position you hold. All signatures are in a personal capacity unless otherwise stated.

“As members of the Labour Party, we want to express our wholehearted support for our public sector workers who have been forced to take strike action by the Government’s unjustifiable attack on their pensions.

The Government has claimed public sector pensions are unaffordable. This is untrue. As the Hutton Commission Interim Report makes clear, public sector pensions as a proportion of GDP will fall over the next fifty years. The deal negotiated with the Labour Government and trade unions in 2006 ensured that public sector pensions are sustainable, saving the taxpayer £67 billion.

In reality, the Government is imposing a pay cut on public sector workers to help pay off a deficit they had no role in creating.

It has also been claimed that public sector pensions are “gold-plated”. This is completely untrue. For example, the average pension for civil servants represented by the Public and Commercial Services union is just £4,200 – or £80 a week.

The Conservatives’ other argument is that pensions in the public sector are much better than in the private sector. It is true that private sector pension schemes have gone into collapse over the last ten years. Two out of three private sector workers get no employer help in building up their pension. This is a scandal. But the Government’s argument amounts to supporting a “race-to-the-bottom”. Rather than dragging public sector pensions down, we should fight for decent pension coverage in the private sector.

Strikes are always a last resort. Taking industrial action is not a decision workers take easily. But we believe that the scale of the attack on public sector workers has left them with no choice. We fully support them in their campaign, and will do all we can to make sure that the Government is defeated on this issue.”

Written by Owen Jones

June 30, 2011 at 8:04 pm

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

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

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

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

Read the rest at LabourList

Written by Owen Jones

June 24, 2011 at 11:21 pm

The 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.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

April 28, 2011 at 12:15 pm

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

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

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

April 5, 2011 at 9:17 pm

About those “peaceful” suffragettes

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

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

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

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

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

The suffragettes who fought for votes for women and won.

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

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

March 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm

Why I think lefties should join Labour

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

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

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

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

Written by Owen Jones

March 2, 2011 at 10:30 am

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