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

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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

John Hutton: time for Labour to expel him?

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For comment on the Government’s public sector pension proposals, see this article by Channel 4′s Faisal Islam; and this response by >PCS’s Mark Serwotka.

Today, a report commissioned by one of the most radical right-wing governments in modern British history is being published. It recommends slashing the pensions of six million public sector workers while forcing them to contribute more and retire later.

It sums up the Government’s whole approach to the economic crisis that erupted three years ago. The pillars of any civilised society – our nurses, teachers and other front-line staff – will be forced to suffer, while the banks who caused the crisis will have their balance sheets topped up by generous cuts to Corporation Tax.

And who is the face of this assault? The author of the report, of course: John Hutton, New Labour’s former Work and Pensions secretary.

John Hutton is not alone in making the rather small leap from uber-Blairite zealot to Cameron advisor. One of Blair’s old right-hand men, Alan Milburn, is another: and he’s currently bludgeoning satire to death by advising the Tories on social mobility .

When it was announced that former Labour ministers had become advisors to the Conservative-led Government, former Labour deputy leader John Prescott denounced them as “collaborators“. I wouldn’t go that far, because it is intended to bring up memories of France’s Nazi-aligned Vichy regime, and I recoil at carelessly throwing Nazi parallels around.

But both Hutton and Milburn were appointed not for their expertise, but as political figleafs – and it is pointless to suggest otherwise. They are helping to confer legitimacy on a government that failed to win it at the ballot box. The Tories won just 36% of the popular vote last May, but are now ruthlessly implementing a hard right agenda. ‘Ah,’ they can say, ‘we are a moderate government drawing on talents from right across the political spectrum.’

I’m not calling for Ed Miliband to expel either Hutton or Milburn, because I favour process over arbitrary top-down expulsions. Instead Labour’s National Executive Committee must surely launch an urgent investigation into the conduct of both – and ‘poverty tsar’ Frank Field, for that matter. They are using their status as leading members of the Labour Party to provide political cover for Tory policies that will devastate communities across the country. If that is not “bringing the party into disrepute” – an expellable offence – then I don’t know what is.

As the Independent‘s thoughtful, nuanced Chief Political Correspondent Steve Richards has put it: “Ultra Blairites, Cameroons and Cleggite Liberals could all happily dance together in the same party.” I agree: and perhaps it is time the NEC gave them the chance to do so.

Written by Owen Jones

March 10, 2011 at 10:30 am

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

The trouble with All Women Shortlists

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The lack of women represented in the House of Commons is nothing less than a national disgrace. We’re over 80 years on from winning universal suffrage, but only one in five Members of Parliament don’t have a Y chromosome. There are 56 countries on earth with more women represented in their legislatures, including well-known citadels of feminism like Pakistan, Sudan and Lesotho.

Laudably, Labour has done more than any of the three main parties to tackle this scandal. Its principal instrument has been the All-Women Shortlist. When there is a vacancy for a prospective Labour candidate in certain seats, applications are only accepted from female would-be politicians. In part, this is how the Party has upped the proportion of women Labour MPs to 81 – or nearly a third of the Parliamentary Labour Party: more than all of the other parties combined.

But the All-Women Shortlist shows us what happens when you strip class out of politics. It may have helped redress the yawning gender gap in politics: but the politicians who have benefited are often far removed from the lives of millions of women in modern Britain.

Women in this country are disproportionately concentrated in low-paid, part-time jobs in the service sector or public services. Take retail: it’s now the second biggest employer in the country, and among the lowest paid. The average pay of a checkout worker is £6.12 an hour. Two-thirds of shop workers are women.

These are not the women who have been promoted by All-Women Shortlists. Like their male counterparts, they are disproportionately university-educated professionals. As the number of women represented in the corridors of power has steadily risen, the number of people from working-class backgrounds has continued on a steep decline. Fewer than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers, a number that has halved since 1987. A staggering two-thirds of MPs hail from some sort of professional background.

When I interviewed women shop workers for my (shameless plug alert) upcoming book on class, I was struck by the fact that they lacked any real political champions. The woman shop worker must be among the least represented groups of people in the country.

The fight to properly represent women – unfashionably driven by the Labour left in the 1980s – was absolutely correct. “Basically, what the London left was doing [in the 1970s and 1980s] was rebelling against that Old Labour culture because it was quite sexist and racist,” Ken Livingstone told me. “It had huge weaknesses, and in a sense so much of what we were doing in the 1970s and 1980s was forcing the labour movement in London to recognise that it had to organise women and ethnic minorities.”

But the tragedy is that we have ended in a situation where it is not working-class women who have benefited. Instead, the All-Women Shortlist has been most successful at expanding the career options of a tiny elite of professional, university-educated women.

Of course I’m not saying we should scrap the All-Women Shortlist, which would clearly make the situation a whole lot worse. But it is clearly far from enough, on its own, to secure genuine women’s representation in Parliament.

Above all, it means strengthening the role of the trade unions within the Labour Party. One of the major reasons for the decline in working-class political representation in general is the battering of the unions, which once provided one of the chief means for catapulting working-class people into political office.

Over half of today’s trade unionists are women – even if, despite some improvements, they remain scandalously underrepresented among the upper echelons of the labour movement. Trade unions have a major role, not only in promoting women rank-and-file activists within their own ranks, but in getting them elected at every level of political life.

Whether it is the struggle for the emancipation of women or of ethnic minorities, class has been stripped from the debate. Successes in achieving these goals have been measured by how many women or, say black Britons, are represented in political circles, or (more depressingly) in the ‘boardroom’. But we will only address the specific issues facing women or ethnic minorities – like low pay or higher rates of unemployment – if we have more working-class politicians.

That means fewer lawyers and businesspeople in Westminster, and more shop and call centre workers. Only then will we be able to say that we are winning the battle for women’s representation.

Written by Owen Jones

February 16, 2011 at 12:19 pm

Ed Miliband will protest on 26th March – and why it matters

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UPDATE: Peter Hain now says: ‘My mistake. Ed has said he will speak at a rally, but don’t hold your breath that he’ll march‘. So obviously we need clarification as to what “speak at a rally” means – but I’m sure the thousands of Labour members and supporters who march will expect their leader to do so alongside them…

Peter Hain deleted his original tweet, but thankfully PoliticsHome’s Paul Waugh has a screenshot as proof.

So, it’s official. Ed Miliband will be at the TUC’s ‘March For The Alternative‘ demonstration on 26th March. Well, that’s what Peter Hain told me on Twitter today, and I’m willing to take his word for it.

Cue right-wing hysteria about ‘Red Ed’. In other countries, no-one would blink if the left-of-centre opposition leader joined his supporters in marching against an aggressive neo-liberal government. In this country, the legacy of Thatcherism’s war against the labour movement is that trade unions are savagely demonised by the right. We have got to the point that both Tory party and press barely recognise their legitimacy in public life.

Well, whether they like it or not, trade unions are by far the biggest democratic movement in the country, representing 7 million workers. Not that that secures them a place in David Cameron’s Big Society, of course.

It matters that the leader of the Labour Party will be among the hundreds of thousands who take to the streets in March. It will be the first big opportunity for all opponents of the Government to come out in force. That’s the majority of us, by the way. According to YouGov, just 30% of us approve of the Government, compared to 55% who disapprove – and that’s before most of the cuts have hit. Like all the other protesters on 26th March, Ed Miliband will be marching with the mainstream.

Ed Miliband will also show that Labour stands with all of those who will be hit by cuts: those who will lose their jobs (or even their homes); those who will see their pay drop, or their benefits slashed, or their pensions attacked; those who will have their services taken away from them; and all of us whose communities will suffer because of each of these things happening to people around them.

This is important because – God help us – if Labour ends up losing the next election, it will likely be due to the disillusionment of its own supporters. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour lost 5 million voters – and 4 million of those were under Blair. But the Tories only gained a million votes. Some went Lib Dem – tragically thinking that they were a progressive alternative – but many others simply sat on their hands. If they see a Labour leader willing to stick his neck out and fight for them, they will be so much more likely to return to the Labour fold.

When we are holding Ed Miliband to account when he fails at his job – which is fighting the Tories’ class war agenda – it is worth reflecting that Labour has shifted in recent months. Can you really imagine Tony Blair or Gordon Brown joining a TUC march against a Tory Government?

Of course, this doesn’t mean we stop putting pressure on Ed Miliband. Replacing Alan Johnson with Ed Balls as Shadow Chancellor was a step in the right direction, but Labour has still to come up with a coherent alternative to the Tories’ cuts offensive. The strategy current remains one of accepting the logic of a sweeping cuts programme, but with the caveat that it is being implemented too soon and too fast.

Ed Miliband has also issued a number of unfortunate attacks on trade unions. He thinks this will satisfy the Tory press, but in reality he is only fuelling them.

We should also call on him to throw Labour’s resources as a party behind the TUC march. My own party in Hackney is on a real drive to get as many people demonstrating as possible. We need as many Labour party members and Labour placards on the demo as possible – to show that Labour really is on the side of working people facing a wholescale attack on their living standards.

But Ed Miliband’s appearance at the demo will be an important symbolic gesture, and one that the left should applaud.

Written by Owen Jones

February 10, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Labour’s future depends on repudiating its Blairite past

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If you’re a Labour party member or supporter, you’re probably currently angrier than you have ever been. The Tories lost the election, but that hasn’t stopped them pushing through the most right-wing agenda of modern times. Using the deficit as a pretext, they are going further than Thatcher could even dream in their determination to tear down the remnants of the post-1945 settlement established by Clement Attlee’s government.

But, beneath all the anger, there’s a nagging, inconvenient truth. Much of what the Tories are doing hasn’t suddenly come from nowhere. They are building on the foundations carefully laid by New Labour. And what’s more, the Tories aren’t shy about this fact. Far from it: they’re bragging about it.

When I was a trade union flunky, I co-ordinated a campaign called ‘Public Services Not Private Profit’ which as the name suggests, directed its fire against privatisation. In 2006, I wrote a pamphlet for the campaign entitled ‘The Case Against Privatisation‘, which – using material given to me by various unions and campaign groups – documented New Labour’s experiments with driving private companies into essential public services. Having a flick through for the first time in years, I was struck by how much political space New Labour gave the now-governing Tories.

At the time, Labour lefties protested against many of these policies because of what we labelled ‘the direction of travel’. New Labour was introducing principles which, under a future Tory government, would be taken to their logical conclusion. It genuinely gives me no pleasure to say that we have been vindicated.

Angry about the tripling of top-up fees? Rightly so, but don’t forget who introduced them in the first place.

Furious about the privatisation of the NHS? Good: but it was New Labour that promoted the scandal of PFI, introduced the market principle through Foundation Hospitals, and brought in private sector contracts.

Perhaps you’re worried about the Tory marketisation of our education. You should be – but who introduced Trust Schools and Academies in the first place?

Many Labour activists I know were particularly shocked at the end of secure contracts for council house tenants. I know I was, but I couldn’t help but remember that it was staunch Blairite Caroline Flint who floated the idea in the first place. Similarly, the so-called ‘welfare reform’ measures that will drive hundreds of thousands into poverty are building on the work of James Purnell. Again, the Tories are quite open about it.

As we know, underpinning the Tory-led government entire agenda is its disastrous programme of cuts. But let’s not forget that New Labour’s former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, suggested before the general election that Labour’s cuts would be worse than those of Thatcher. He surely must have known how that went down with millions of Labour supporters who live in or near communities devastated by Thatcherism.

One of the tragedies of New Labour’s period in office is that many Labour MPs loyally trooped through Parliament’s ‘Aye’ lobby in support of policies that, if introduced under a Tory Government, they would have been spitting blood about.

I joined the Labour Party when I was 15-year-old, and I know that the ‘worst’ Labour government is a huge improvement over the ‘best’ Tory government. I would never lump New Labour and High Thatcherism together. New Labour may have failed to put back together those communities battered and bruised by Thatcherism, but it was far from devastating them further. No Tory government would have even toyed with the idea of a minimum wage.

It will probably rankle with many of those who have taken to the streets in the past few months, but they are marching to defend gains introduced under the previous Labour governments: like the Educational Maintenance Allowance and genuinely sustained investment in public services.

But there is no denying that Labour’s opposition to the Tories remains compromised by the ghost of New Labour. “We are only carrying on what you started,” the Tories and their media apologists can taunt.

That’s why it was so important that Ed Miliband won Labour’s leadership election. Blairites assailed him during and after the contest for distancing himself from Labour’s record in office. In the aftermath of Labour’s second-worst election result in post-war history, anything else would have been pure madness. The hardcore Blairite right comforted themselves that Gordon Brown’s personality flaws were responsible for Labour’s rout, conveniently ignoring the fact that 80% of the 5 million voters the Party has lost since 1997 went AWOL under Tony Blair’s leadership.

I’m a left-winger, so I of course applaud Ed Miliband for distancing Labour from its Blairite past. But it’s Labour’s only option if it is to be taken seriously as an opposition. The leadership must repudiate many of the policies introduced during the Blairite era before it can oppose the Tories taking them to their logical conclusion.

Although Ed Miliband’s leadership has at least gone in right direction, it has yet to go far enough. Part of the problem is that, although demoralised and in retreat, the Blairite right remains powerful. I’m sure many of them would line up behind the policy prescriptions suggested by Tony Blair in his recent memoirs, which basically amounted to a wholesale embracing of the current Government economic policies – which did nothing to dispel suspicions that the genuinely progressive things introduced during Labour’s term in office happened in spite of him.

At a time when communities across the country face another dose of Tory devastation, it is crucial that Labour returns to power as soon as possible. The party has every chance of doing so – but only if it presents coherent alternatives to Tory policies, rather than softer versions.

Written by Owen Jones

February 3, 2011 at 5:20 pm

The anti-cuts movement needs direction

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It is easy to take for granted that we have a movement against this Government at all. We’re only 9 months into Cameron’s Britain, and already thousands of people are willing to march again and again, often in freezing temperatures. On Saturday’s anti-cuts demo in London, I felt the same feeling of pride I have felt at each protest. It is an inspiring thing to march with thousands of equally angry and determined protesters. Significant numbers of young people – until recently, mocked for being more interested in X-Factor than something as uncool as politics – have become radicalised in a very short period of time. That has never happened to quite this extent in my (relatively short) lifetime.

You were waiting for a ‘but’, so here it is. A familiar comment I heard at the protest was: ‘Where are we going?’ They were actually talking about where the actual demonstration was heading, but that wasn’t the only thing that felt directionless. Unless the emergent anti-cuts movement develops a coherent political strategy, I do not believe that it will maintain momentum.

If you’ve endured my ramblings on this blog before, you will know that I have previously argued against the ‘leaderless movement’ strategy that still retains its popularity. I have never been in favour of it, but at least before the critical tuition fees vote there was an obvious goal to keep a coherent movement together. It was the most striking example of a Government implementing policies for which it had no mandate. We occupied our universities and built protests in the run-up to the vote. But when that Parliamentary vote was (predictably) lost, that one unifying, immediate cause was lost.

Saturday was the first big demo since tuition fees passed the big Parliamentary hurdle, and the tone was very different. It felt aimless: both in terms of where we were physically marching to (which was unclear) and what we were actually marching about. There was no clear message: just general opposition to the Government and its cuts offensive. There was nothing obvious we were building towards; no overall strategy for stopping Cameron’s policies in their tracks, or even bringing the Tories down.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by Owen Jones

January 31, 2011 at 7:20 pm

Alan Johnson’s departure is a step forward for Labour

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Alan Johnson was put in charge of Labour’s economic strategy for two reasons. The first was for fairly gimmicky purposes. It was taken as read by the media that Ed Miliband would appoint Ed Balls or – on an outside chance – Yvette Cooper. By not doing so, he won plaudits from  right-media commentators as a leader with the capacity to ‘surprise’.

But the second reason was more important: it was to placate the still-powerful Blairite faction within the Labour Party who were incandescent that their man, David Miliband, had his supposedly rightful place on the throne usurped by his cocky younger brother. Ed Miliband had won the leadership race fair-and-square by a healthy margin of votes, but the Blairites believed that his election was illegitimate because he owed his victory to trade union members. Blairites have even hinted that the Party should dispose of the section of the electoral college that is most representative of Labour’s base and – for that matter – the public at large.

Alan Johnson was not appointed for the good of Labour’s economic strategy. He was a sop.

His defenders argued he had a likeable, chatty demeanour that went down well with the electorate. The fact he hails from a working-class background certainly contrasts sharply with the middle-class closed shop that the Westminster Bubble has become. But, to begin with, he was clearly out of his depth, particularly up against the extremely capable Tories and Lib Dems who are proving more than competent at shredding the Welfare State, bit by bit.

The key issue wasn’t competence for me, however. The Blairite faction have been pushing for Labour to accept the Tory cuts agenda, but to just quibble on details and timing. Their  political godfather, Tony Blair, effectively endorsed the Government’s economic strategy in its entirety in his memoirs. Under Johnson, the Labour leadership has effectively accepted the Tories’ underlying logic, but with the added caveat that it is being pushed too far and too quickly.

Johnson has also acted as a figurehead within Labour’s higher ranks for Blairite dissent. Displaying the Blairites’ contempt at Ed Miliband’s election, he refused to endorse his Leader’s graduate tax position (certainly not a policy I support, but Johnson wanted to stick with the top-up fees introduced under his watch – fatally undermining any Labour opposition to the Tories’ trebling of those fees). He argued for Labour to drop the 50p tax band imposed on the top 2% of the population, one of the most popular policies the last Government introduced.

Perhaps most outrageously, Alan Johnson called for Labour to water down its trade union link. Here was a man who owed his entire political career to the trade union movement: he rose from shop steward to leader of the Communication Workers Union, the launchpad for his political career. If ever there was an example of ‘kicking the ladder from beneath you’, here it was.

Labour’s hard right is in retreat: the likes of John Hutton and Alan Milburn have thrown the towel in altogether in favour of advising the Tories. Alan Johnson’s resignation has weakened them further, and they will be feeling rather demoralised this evening.

Ed Balls offers the promise, at least, of a different course. In a key speech he made during the leadership contest, he moved towards rejecting the logic of the cuts agenda in favour of a growth strategy. I don’t expect him, as things stand, to present a coherent alternative to the Tory onslaught, but he will be more amenable to pressure from below to do so.

What the Labour left needs to do now is get its act together and start pushing for that alternative. Despite the efforts of the likes of the Left Economics Advisory Panel, it has been a long time indeed since the Labour left has had anything like a detailed economic programme on offer. There is now the biggest potential opening for these ideas that there has been since the Blairite take-over of the Labour Party in 1994.

The Tories are currently using deficit hysteria to brush off the file entitled ‘Tory Right Wet Dreams That Are Politically Impossible In Normal Circumstances’. The danger remains that, without genuine opposition, they will establish a new political consensus. Today’s resignation of Alan Johnson has undermined that project: we’ll see in the coming months by just how much.

Written by Owen Jones

January 20, 2011 at 6:16 pm

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