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Labour needs to remember what it is for

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This piece originally appeared on LabourList

As we approach Labour’s 106th annual conference, it’s worth remembering what Thomas R. Steels envisaged the party was for. Steels was a railway signalman from Doncaster and, in 1899, drafted a motion for his local branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants calling for the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee to assemble a congress with the support “of all the cooperative, socialistic, trade union and other working class organisations” to look how it could secure “a better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons.”

At the 20th century approached, there were two major political parties in Britain: the Liberals and the Tories. They both represented particular wings of the ruling class. Working-class people, on the other hand, lacked a meaningful political voice. But Steels’ motion was deeply divisive: there were those trade unionists who felt the best way of serving workers’ interests was by supporting the supposedly progressive members of the Liberal Party. Steels’ proposal was passed at TUC Congress, but by a relatively narrow margin – 546,000 votes against 434,000 against. The Labour Representation Committee was formed with the specific brief of, well, giving labour representation; and, in 1905, the Labour Party was born.

With Britain in the midst of the greatest crisis of capitalism since the 1930s, many would today struggle to define exactly what the Labour Party is for. Thirteen years of New Labour muddied the water: although there were reforms that – however limited – certainly benefited working-class people (like the minimum wage and increased public spending), Blairism accepted the key tenets of Thatcherism. Low taxation on the wealthy and big business; the rule of the free market; weak, shackled trade unions; many communities still bereft of secure, respectably paid work; historic levels of inequality – all of these remained in place.

During the leadership election, Ed Miliband certainly alluded to the original purpose of the Party in a way that very few senior Labour politicians had during the New Labour period. He spoke of a “crisis of working-class political representation” – a phrase that had, until then, bounced off the walls of thinly attended left-wing meetings for years, and I should know, because I attended many of them. We haven’t, however, heard much of this since he was elected leader (I’d say “safely ensconced” but, with the ever-powerful Blairites continually biting at his heels, that’s not true).

But, if this Conference is to demonstrate that the Labour Party is relevant, we need to reaffirm its original purpose: to give working-class people a voice, and to fight for their interests. What’s more, it needs to do this with the same grit, determination and cleverness the Tories are capable of when fighting for their lot – the people at the top.

Of course Labour’s working-class base is very different to what it was in Steels’ time. Rather than working in docks, factories and down mines, people are more likely to work in shops, call centres and offices. Retail is now the second biggest employer; there are around a million call centre workers – as many as there were working in pits at the peak of mining. The working-class has changed in shape, but it remains Labour’s actual and potential base.

While the average Britain is experiencing the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s, it remains boomtime for the people at the top. Last year, the income of FTSE 100 chief executives went up by 55%. “There’s class warfare, all right,” as billionaire American Warren Buffett put it, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” It’s not about Labour waging the class war – it’s about accepting that it’s happening and working out which side it’s on.

For years, the New Labour mantra was that, unless the Party kept onside ‘Middle Britain’ (i.e. affluent voters, not the real Middle Britain who are the median income of £21,000 a year) it would never win an election. After all, working-class voters had nowhere to go, or so New Labour advisers thought. But this strategy died its final death in 2010. Five million Labour voters disappeared between 1997 and 2010, but the Tories only won a million.

The ‘ABC1DE’ model of social classifications used by pollsters has all sorts of flaws, but it certainly gives us some understanding of who abandoned Labour. While Labour support among the middle-class professional ABs went down by just 5 points over thirteen years of government, among skilled and semi-skilled workers (the C2s), it collapsed by 21 points; among DEs at the bottom, Labour lost 19 points. Much of this is to do with the fact that working-class voters are increasingly sitting on their hands rather than vote: the class gap in turnout grows with every election. Universal suffrage is unwinding by stealth.

As Ed Miliband himself pointed out during the leadership election (but not, again, since), if Labour had just kept hold of its DEs, it would have emerged as the biggest single party at the last election.

So how does Labour win those voters back? It’s far from straightforward, however easy some of those on the left like myself might sometimes claim. The left barely exists as a political force in this country; three decades of Thatcherism has, undoubtedly, had a profound impact on social attitudes; and we remain dominated by a right-wing media that regarded the 50p tax (one of the most popular policies of the last government) as new wave Bolshevism.

But it means addressing the lack of work; job insecurity and the lack of rights in the workplace; the fact that wages were stagnating or declining even before the crash; and a housing crisis that has left 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. All of this means defying the free market system that New Labour was virtually married to.

And at a time of economic crisis, it means developing a coherent alternative to the Tories’ attempt to use the crash to re-order society and – in the process – send Britain off the same cliff Ireland jumped off. We face a generation of austerity that will leave a generation of working-class young people without a secure future and, therefore, hope; and millions facing the threat of unemployment, declining living standards and ever-deteriorating living standards.

That’s the debate Labour needs to be having next week. Because of all the assaults on Labour Party internal democracy over the last generation and how stage-managed its Conference now is, I doubt it will happen. But the truth is, unless Labour remembers what it is for and makes that purpose relevant in these crisis-ridden times, it will never win an election again. This is no longer about principle; it’s about survival.

Written by Owen Jones

September 23, 2011 at 1:06 pm

Independent: Bring politics back to the real world

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I’ve written a piece on BritainThinks’ report on attitudes to class in modern Britain; there’s others point I want to make, so I’ll cobble something more detailed together this week

“It’s not the existence of classes that threatens the unity of the nation, but the existence of class feeling.” Those words appeared in the Conservative Party’s statement of aims in 1976, just three years before Margaret Thatcher began to transform British society. The document’s authors would undoubtedly find much satisfaction in the complex and disturbing portrait of attitudes to class uncovered by the research firm BritainThinks in modern Britain.

 The most striking finding is that fewer than a quarter of those surveyed define themselves as “working class”. The findings depend heavily on question wording. Ipsos MORI found that two-thirds described themselves as “working class and proud of it” in 2002; and the 2007 British Social Attitudes survey found that 57 per cent called themselves “working class” or “upper working class”.

Read the rest of the article at the Independent’s website

Written by Owen Jones

June 26, 2011 at 4:28 pm

It’s time for a debate on the C word

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Below is an article I’ve written for the Independent

Margaret Thatcher was nothing if not ambitious. As part and parcel of one of the most audacious attempts at social engineering in British history, her government set about stripping class – ‘a Communist concept’ – from the nation’s vocabulary. Even as wealth and power became increasingly concentrated at the top, the conspiracy to deny class has faced few challenges. Both New Labour and the Tories alike preached the myth that – as Tony Blair put it – ‘we’re all middle class now'”. Narrow definitions of ‘aspiration’ and ‘social mobility’ have encouraged the idea that being working class is something to escape from.

Things have begun to change: there’s nothing quite like an economic crisis to highlight profound injustices in the distribution of wealth and power. When the paypackets of FTSE 100 directors go up by a third, while the average working Briton suffers the biggest squeeze in living standards since the 1920s, denying the existence of class becomes a form of Flat Earth-ism.

That’s not to say class has been entirely squeezed out of the nation’s conversations, but it often emerges in a deeply pernicious form. A few years ago I sat at a dinner table surrounded by middle-class professionals when one quipped: “It’s a shame that Woolworth’s is closing. Where will the chavs buy their Christmas presents?” It’s a scenario that many will recognise. Chav-bashing by those from pampered backgrounds is a continuing national scandal and must be opposed. But – whether people use the word “chav” or not – there’s a deeply distorted, but entirely mainstream, view of class that must also be challenged. It was most eloquently summed up by The Daily Telegraph’s Simon Heffer: “Something called the respectable working class has almost died out. What sociologists used to call the working class does not now usually work at all, but is sustained by the welfare state.”

For the right, those outside the new supposed middle-class majority were the “underclass”, whose numbers were expanding because of supposed behavioural defects and the collapse of marriage. But New Labour’s spin on it – “social exclusion” – has had an equally damaging effect on the popular view of class. With class no longer an accepted way of describing divisions in society, those at the bottom of the pile were held partly responsible for their lot in life.

It’s a theory that’s trickled into popular culture. Take TV comedy: it either showcases nice middle-class people, like My Family; or, on the other hand, grotesque or one-sided caricatures of working-class people, like Little Britain’s feckless Vicky Pollard or The Only Way is Essex, which caricatures the supposedly “tacky aspirational” working class who can’t spend money with the taste and discretion of the middle class.

But the real working class – the 16 million manual workers, clerks and sales assistants who make up half the workforce – has been all but airbrushed from existence. Part of the confusion is down to the fact that the working class looks a lot different than it did thirty years ago. Before the Thatcherite assault on industry, more than 7 million worked in manufacturing; today, it’s little over 2.5 million. Instead of working in factories, mines and docks, most working-class people now earn their keep in call centres, supermarkets and offices. There are a million call centre workers: that’s as many as worked in pits at the peak of mining. A woman who works part-time in a supermarket is as good a symbol for working-class Britain as any: but she is all but invisible as far as our politicians, journalists and TV programme-makers are concerned.

Denying class has proved all-too-convenient in ignoring the concerns of working-class people. We don’t talk about the fact that people from unskilled backgrounds are ten times more likely to be unemployed than professional people or that five million working-class people are languishing on social housing waiting lists. Nothing makes sense without class. If we don’t talk about it, millions will remain disenfranchised, marginalised and ignored. Thatcherism closed the national debate on class: now is the time to re-open it.

Written by Owen Jones

June 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm

LabourList: Labour’s working class problem

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There are a whole range of reasons for the British left to be disappointed with Barack Obama’s Presidency, and the US political situation is radically different from our own. Right, I got the caveats out of the way. But is there anything that Labour can learn from his historic election victory in 2008? Predictably, for a leading question, the answer is ‘yes’.

Obama was the first Democratic Presidential candidate to win a majority of the vote since Jimmy Carter narrowly won the 1976 election in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal. Sure, Obama rode a wave of disillusion with the utterly discredited Presidency of George Bush. But his victory owed much to a strategy of ‘expanding the electorate': focusing on registering and getting out the votes of those traditionally less likely to vote – like African-Americans and younger voters.

If Labour is going to win the next election – which, let’s face it, is hardly in the bag – it must adopt an ‘expand the electorate’ strategy. Here’s why. According to pollsters Ipsos MORI, Labour’s support among the top social categories (the ABs) declined by just five percentage points between 1997 and 2010. But among the bottom two social categories (the C2s and DEs), a fifth went AWOL. While just half a million AB voters abandoned Labour, 1.6 million voters in each of the C2 and DE groups evaporated.

Read the rest of the article on LabourList

Written by Owen Jones

May 19, 2011 at 8:58 am

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

Aaron Porter and the sorry state of British democracy

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UPDATE: Aaron Porter has announced he is not standing after all. However, his statement on Twitter is somewhat liberal with the truth. He spent Saturday ringing round local Party members and members of Labour’s NEC for support. Close colleagues were informed of his decision. Following a backlash, he decided against. As Matt Chorley (the journalist who revealed the story) put it when Labour Political Advisor Phil Taylor put it to him that he was not known for getting stories wrong: “ha! Well sometimes, but not when I speak to the individuals involved who later ahem… have a rethink”

A hundred and twelve years ago, the Doncaster branch of the Amalgamated Society of Railway Servants passed a motion drafted by a railway signalman named Thomas R. Steels. It called on the TUC’s Parliamentary Committee to assemble a congress with the support “of all the cooperative, socialistic, trade union and other working class organisations” to look how it could secure “a better representation of the interests of labour in the House of Commons.”

There was a growing feeling across the labour movement that, while the bosses were represented by both the Liberal and Conservative Parties, working-class people lacked a political voice. Steels’ motion was, however, divisive. Some trade unionists felt that workers’ interests were best served by supporting supposedly progressive members of the Liberal Party. They were the Lib-Labbers – a tradition that continues today in the shape of Compass. Despite opposition, the proposal was carried at TUC Congress with 546,000 votes in favour and 434,000 against.

It’s easy to get dewy-eyed about the Labour Party. Its leading lights have ranged from toffs like Clement Attlee and Tony Benn, to working-class heroes such as Ernie Bevin (on the right) and Nye Bevan (on the left). As well as its working-class base, Labour has always won the support of progressive middle-class people. And, of course, today’s working-class looks a lot different than it did a century ago.

But I have to admit I’m depressed at news coming out of the race to succeed Peter Soulsby as Leicester South’s Labour MP. It’s being touted as a straight fight between Ed Miliband’s spin-doctor Jonathan Ashworth and the disgraced President of the NUS, Aaron Porter. I can’t help but think: was this really what Thomas R. Steels had in mind back in 1899?

The case against Labour sticking a red rosette on Aaron Porter is straightforward. He has been forced out of his NUS office because of his inept dealings with the movement against the trebling of top-up fees. He is one of the few political figures in Britain to be followed by angry protesters wherever he goes – and he’s only 26, and yet to enter the House of Commons.

Yes, we all know that the NUS Presidency is a launchpad for political hacks who invariably end up as identikit New Labour Cabinet Ministers. But for a sitting NUS President to attempt to launch his political career while still in the job – after being forced out – is frankly breathtaking. Even fellow NUS hacks privately bemoan Porter’s synthesis of crude, naked ambition with a lack of any obvious heart-felt political principles. Perhaps this is why his predecessor as NUS President, Wes Streeting, tweeted that it was: “Surely a joke rather than a serious proposition?”

I strongly doubt that Aaron Porter will end up representing the good people of Leicester South. Local party members would be bonkers to select an intensely divisive character who will inevitably attract mobs of angry students wherever he goes, particularly during a crucial byelection.

But I think this contest says a lot about what has happened to the Labour Party, and to British democracy as a whole. Parliament has become an increasingly professionalised, middle-class closed shop. Fewer than one in twenty MPs started out as manual workers: a number that has more than halved in twenty years. A startling two-thirds of MPs had a professional job before they entered the Chamber.

With every new election, it gets worse. One in ten members of the 2010 intake have a background in financial services, or twice as many as the 1997 landslide that swept Labour to power. One in five already worked in politics before they took the Parliamentary oath.

When you look back at the 1945 Labour Cabinet that constructed the welfare state after the ravages of World War II, the contrast is almost obscene. The giants of Clement Attlee’s government were Ernest Bevin, Britain’s representative on the global stage; Nye Bevan, the founder of the National Health Service; and Herbert Morrison, Attlee’s number two. All were from working-class backgrounds, starting life as a farm boy, miner, and grocer’s assistant, respectively. It was the trade unions and local government that had provided them with the ladders to climb, enabling them to end up as towering political figures and respected statesmen.

Because the powers of trade unions and local government have been so systematically trashed, the two key routes for working-class people to become Members of Parliament have become increasingly sealed off. The democratic revolution that the founding of Labour represented is being reversed. That’s why we’re seeing contests between disgraced NUS Presidents and senior spin-doctors to become prospective Labour candidates.

I hope that a good local candidate emerges in Leicester South to take on both Aaron Porter and Jonathan Ashworth. The people of Leicester, the Labour Party and British democracy deserve so much better. I’m sure Thomas R. Steels would agree.

Written by Owen Jones

March 13, 2011 at 3:12 am

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