Owen Jones and Chavs : Nostalgia for Old Labour

Barry Biddulph reviews,  Owen Jones, Chavs:  The Demonization of the Working Class, (Verso 14.99) 

Owen Jones describes how class hatred of  working people finds expression in  the gross  distortions of working class experience in the media. His book is also about why the working class is ridiculed. For Matt Lucas and David Walliams in Little Britain: the working class is foulmouthed,  feckless, and benefit dependent.  Owen explains how the mockery of the working class demonstrates their social inferiority. It’s a culture which blames the victims rather than social injustice. It’s the way the working class ‘underclass’ lives that’s seen as the problem. Owen blames class war:  the move away from true parliamentarianism and class harmony -the spirit of 1945. In Owens old Labour view “at the heart root of the demonization of working class people is the legacy of a very British class war. Margaret Thatcher’s assumption of power in 1979.” [1]

Owen has a very uninformed view of how workers were portrayed on TV prior to Thatcher and Neoliberalism. The comedy, The Rag trade , was not a sympathetic look at the life of sweated labour in the clothing industry. It ridiculed  mindless militancy and the supposed ignorant overconfidence of workers. Everybody out :  What a hoot! And what about the hatred of factory workers and shop stewards in the film, I’m all right Jack. The shop steward is a bigot who leads card playing lazy workers who have been put to shame by a new middle class employee who does not see the point in trade unions. Again Coronation street in the 1960’s was not a realistic portrayal of working class life. All the stereotypes were there. Elsie Tanner the single mother with dubious sexual morals and her son Dennis with a bad attitude to work and everything else.

For Owen “the dog eat dog individualism unleashed by Thatcher has also undermined the collective spirit at the heart of trade unionism.” [2] But the spirit of trade union officialdom is sectionalism and support for parliament and the state. It’s the spirit of defeat:  calling off  the General Strike in 1926, and the failure to show political solidarity for striking miners in the Great Strike of 1984-5. Even Thatcher was surprised at the lack of the fighting solidarity from the trade union leaders. They allowed Thatcher to put on the legal shackles that restrain the rank and file to this day. Thatcher’s destruction of industry in the 1980’s did leave the economy dangerously reliant on the financial institutions of the city of London. However, deindustrialisation has always been an essential part of  the way capitalism works. The idea that the interests of the wealthiest are essential for the well-being of society as a whole did not begin with Thatcherism and Neoliberalism, it has always been the dominant view at the top of the Labour Party and the Trade Unions.

Owen’s alternative to Neoliberalism is a return to the presence of  old Labour working class parliamentarians. He regrets the lack of opportunities for working people to rise through parliament from the pit, dock and factory. Once upon a time Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin and Nye Bevan who were responsible for state capitalist administration, reactionary wars in support of American Imperialism, and keeping most of the economy in private hands in the post war Atlee government are supposed to have been a voice for workers outside parliament. In Owens view, old Labour remained committed to the idea of raising the conditions of the working class until the 1980’s. But outside Owen’s old Labour view, the real history of  old Labour  is rather different. For instance, Old Labour did not organise the unemployed in the 1930’s, the Communist party did that. And Harold Wilson’s Labour Government’s tried to prevent the militant rank and file workers and shop stewards, in the factories of the 1960’s, raising living standards by winning wage demands.

For Owen, we can build up old Labour again, because unless working class people can be properly represented in parliament Britain faces the prospect of an angry right-wing populism. This is a grim perspective of a choice between a right-wing popular reactionary movement or workers entering parliament. Owen Jones  is fearful and pessimist about class struggle outside parliament. Owen shares his values of class harmony through parliament with the Liberal origins of the Labour Party. It was the liberal politics of Keir Hardie which were decisive in the fledgling Labour Party. He argued that the Labour Party should stand for the nation not class war. The result was working men in parliament with conservative and liberal views  led by parliamentary reactionaries. Many of Labour’s politicians such as Phillip Snowden, were profoundly conformist. Snowden was an economic liberal who kept to the Gold Standard which destroyed working class living standards, communities, and jobs, long before Thatcherism. There is historical continuity, since Dennis Healy and James Callaghan returned to economic liberalism in 1976, prior to Thatcher.

His history of working class communities is old Labour mythology. Owen stresses geographical community as the bonds of working class solidarity, which he associates with manual workers mainly in the old pit communities. He stresses contentment and pride in  factory work. On the other hand he gives an isolated example of his friend Liam who hated every second of his boring work in a print factory:  alienation in the work place has never been a strong point in the Labour tradition. Historically, the working class has been recomposed many times in terms of local community and workplace. Owen offers his experience of Stockport, as a typical of a rooted community. In Stockport,  like Owen, but speaking from more experience, there was deindustrialisation or factory closures long before Thatcherism. The Cotton mills closed in the late fifties and early sixties. Engineering factories were shut down in the late sixties and early seventies.  His talk of roots going back to grandfathers is also largely a myth. There was a movement of workers in and out of Stockport and other industrial areas as jobs and community changed complexion.

The old parliamentary Labour party also closed coal mines and refused to support miners striking in defence of their communities.Ramsay MacDonald, from the interwar years, and Neil Kinnock from the 1980s, both  left the miners to fight alone and go down to defeat.  Old Labour shares a big responsibility for the decline of the value of solidarity. Owen’s nostalgia for old Labour is also very selective. Owen’s working class heroes of the post-war Labour government all supported working class austerity and used British troops on a mass scale to break strikes. All three were committed to administrating and modernising capitalism at the expense of working class living standards.  They opposed any challenge to capitalism such as encouraging more power to the workers in their workplace. Nationalisation was a form of bureaucratic state capitalism applied to those public utilities and industries which were deemed to be inefficient. Despite Nye Bevan’s parliamentary rhetoric, he was in favour of leaving 80% of industry in the hands of private capitalists.

Trade union bosses and Labour party leaders still believe the interests of the wealthy are essential for the well-being of society. This explains the facts of inequality Owen presents.  It also explains why Ed Miliband can support a pay freeze for public sector workers, and refuse to oppose the cuts or promise to reverse them. Union bosses such as Brian Strutton of the GMB and Dave Prentis of Unison  sided with the state in the pension dispute or are leaders the government can do business with. Business interests come first, way above the interests of workers in the public or private sector. It is not enough to describe the demonization of the working class, if like Owen, you support a parliamentary tradition, which has put the working class  down and kept them away from any real power or influence.


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opposition and the cuts

The Commune’s editorial

BBC presenters sat mouths-gaping on 26th September as City trader Alessio Rastani proudly boasted on live TV of the financial sector’s power and its disdain for the victims of the recession. He proclaimed that a crisis was a great opportunity to make a fast buck and that he dreamt of the next such meltdown. Reeking of arrogant class prejudice, here was the true face behind our rulers’ democratic and liberal mask.

That same week, Ed Miliband spoke to Labour conference, calling for a ‘new morality’ rewarding the ‘hard-working’. Yet asked by a member of the public whether he would endeavour to protect workers’ pensions, ‘Red Ed’ said he could promise nothing, since workers getting older is no longer ‘affordable’. Not only did he drive a wedge between the employed and the ‘undeserving poor’, championing harsh penalties for rioters and ‘scroungers’: he disavowed strike action as a means of standing up for workers’ living standards. Continue reading “opposition and the cuts”

The Hollow rhetoric of Miliband’s New Politics

Barry Biddulph argues that Labour will never be on our side 

Striking is irrelevant for Ed Miliband. He had an awkward lesson for September’s TUC conference: trade unions should offer better relations with their employers. What Labour needed was a continuation of the partnership between business and the unions. The way forward was not negative strikes, but a positive “new economy” built on the Labourite value of cooperation, not conflict in the workplace.


Ed Miliband


But this  desire for social peace is traditional Labour politics. The Labour Representation Committee originally founded Labour on the basis of  Keir Hardy’s resolution rejecting class war in favour of parliamentary  constitutionalism. Ramsay MacDonald, the leader of the first Labour Government in 1924, advocated and acted on the commitment to growing  capitalist society, not building a working class alternative. Continue reading “The Hollow rhetoric of Miliband’s New Politics”

no support for labour: no support for the lrc

At a Communist Students’ Exec meeting on the 13th of December, a decision was made to affiliate to the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). This statement was issued by members opposed to this decision, and we republish it here in the interests of debate.

The driving force behind this was Ben Lewis of the Provisional Central Committee of the CPGB, which has recently adopted a set of theses on the Labour Party.[1] Some points of which would get support within the ranks of the LRC, for example the democratisation of the Labour Party.[2] Crucially important though for the issue at hand is the dangerous conception of a permanent united front between Communists and the Labour Party contained within the theses. Where the CPGB’s contradictory perspective of simultaneously organising a political force independent of social democracy and at the same time trying to transform the Labour Party into a “real party of labour” and putting the Labour Party into office in order to expose its leadership, is made. Continue reading “no support for labour: no support for the lrc”

Miliband is no Militant

by David Broder

Yesterday afternoon Ed Miliband loomed large on a TV screen near where I was sitting. The sound was turned off, so there were only subtitles. “Whatever your view on the Iraq war it led to an appalling loss of…” A few seconds before the next word flicked up on the screen. ‘Life’, right? No. “Whatever your view on the Iraq war it led to an appalling loss of trust for us”.

But never fear, Ed, there are many on the left who opposed the war but are now pushing the anti-cuts movement towards Labour. Not just saying we need to pull Labour voters into our struggles, but focussing on the structures of the party and making plaintive appeals for Labour leaders to fight the cuts and fulfil their promises to the Trades Union Congress. Continue reading “Miliband is no Militant”

what use an abbott in a ‘broad church’?

As Diane Abbott wins sufficient nominations to stand for Labour Party leader, Taimour Lay looks at her and her party’s credentials.

What use is a ”broad church” when the pews are empty, the foundations are subsiding and the high priests at altar turn their backs on any shout of dissent? The Labour leadership election, far from being ”saved” by the  inclusion of Diane Abbott, has merely continued to go to form – token ‘left’ candidate takes on four former cabinet ministers of varying degrees of conservatism, ”enlivens” the hustings with some maverick, contrarian and media-populist rhetoric before the vote concludes with a Miliband, Balls or Burnham promising to lead Labour back to ”electability”.

Abbott’s candidacy is theatre designed by the New Labour establishment to present a democratic, inclusive party. For misguided Bennites, it’s also part of their message: come home to Labour, disillusioned socialists, in opposition we will rebuild and steer the party left. Continue reading “what use an abbott in a ‘broad church’?”

the left and new labour in opposition

by Dave Spencer

After a recent “public consultation” meeting of our local NHS I was approached by an old right-wing Labour councillor.  “Have you considered re-joining the Labour Party?” he asked. “We need people like you to re-build the Party, get us back to our roots.”  He went on about the ‘good old days’ – the 1980s – when we had “great discussions” and we could get 150 delegates to a District Labour Party meeting.  Now they cannot get a quorum for meetings and the new members are just careerists.

I was a bit taken aback.  I didn’t like to remind him that I had been expelled along with 125 others in 1992 for objecting to the rigging of ballots for the shortlist for MP, or that I and others had been told on a number of occasions that we had no chance of promotion or another job working for Coventry City Council if we continued as left activists.  I remember seeing good comrades turn round and leave a meeting when they saw Bob Ainsworth (later Labour MP for Coventry North East and Minister for War) sitting in the corner with his tape recorder and note pad ready to get evidence – for what purpose one can only imagine.  That is how it works in the Labour Party – threats or bribery to gain power or keep power. I remember one leading councillor telling me that everyone has their price and that I was pitching mine too high. He said, “It’s amazing what you can get people to vote for if you just offer them a couple of tickets to the Queen’s garden party!” Continue reading “the left and new labour in opposition”

no choice on may 6th

by Danny Ryan-Smith

With an election with less choice than ever shambling across the horizon, most of our time not spent working seems to be dominated by the question of elections, or specifically- who should we vote for?

With even capitalist media and the introduction of presidential style debates unable to drum up excitement among the general public for a contest that most of us see as largely a race between three identical parties, the time has come that we face the reality that nobody can be a substitute to represent our own needs and interests but ourselves. Continue reading “no choice on may 6th”

3rd may london forum: should we vote?

Our next London public forum will see a debate on whether we should support candidates for Parliament. The meeting takes place three days before the general election, from 7pm on Monday 3rd May at the Artillery Arms, 102 Bunhill Row, near Old Street.

Many on the revolutionary left and labour movement are advocating the re-election of the Labour government. So should we tag along with Gordon Brown, vote for ‘socialist’ candidates, or have nothing to do with electoral politics? Join the debate. The discussion will be led off by Danny Ryan-Smith (The Commune) and Andrew Fisher (LRC). Continue reading “3rd may london forum: should we vote?”

a future fair for all: ‘blair plus’ for five more years

by David Broder

“Five more years”, the Brown loyalists chanted yesterday as the outgoing Prime Minister launched the Labour Party’s election manifesto. But what would Labour do if re-elected? A future fair for all is supposed to have the answers.

Asked whether the 78-page manifesto was ‘Blairite’, Peter Mandelson told the BBC that the document was in fact ‘Blair-plus’. So what in this document justifies the view common to much of the left that voting for this programme is a “class vote” against the Tories? Continue reading “a future fair for all: ‘blair plus’ for five more years”

the cuts consensus and the general election

by Dave Spencer

The 2010 general election will be a watershed for the politics of the British left.  Business as usual will not be an option because of the scale of the attacks on the working class that are coming. No matter which party wins the election or even if there is a hung parliament, it is clear that the ruling class has decided to make the working class pay for the economic crisis and the bailing out of the banks.

The left groups have failed over 14 years to form a united alternative to New Labour. If they use the same methods and politics as in the past, they cannot possibly be up to the tasks ahead. Continue reading “the cuts consensus and the general election”

no surprises as rat boards sinking ship

by Chris Ford

There is a long history of British trade union leaders becoming Members of Parliament. This has often represented the next step by individuals whose primary concern is the advancement of a cause very dear to their hearts – their own self-interest.

In some cases however there are those who have genuinely sought to take the workers’ struggle in the industrial front into the political arena: individuals with principle who have sought to maintain a loyalty and commitment to the labour movement, such as John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn. The coming general election should see a new recruit from union ranks – Jack Dromey, the Deputy General Secretary of UNITE. Continue reading “no surprises as rat boards sinking ship”

a labour of love? cut the union link

editorial of The Commune

As the general election nears, millions are worried by the sweeping public sector cuts planned by all three main parties.

Labour and the Tories’ plans are not the same. Gordon Brown’s government plan a more gradual process of cuts in public service provision and jobs.

However, the intention of this policy is to avoid stalling UK plc’s economic recovery by cutting the budget deficit too fast. It is not borne out of a desire to defend or promote free and high quality public services, still less the jobs of those working for them. Labour’s cuts will not seem too benign or ‘gradual’ to the 20,000 council staff due to be made redundant this spring. Continue reading “a labour of love? cut the union link”

michael mackintosh foot, 1913-2010: the case for…

by Sharon Borthwick

“So lets put a stop to defeatism, and put a stop too to all those sermons about Victorian values. The Labour Movement – the Labour Party and the Trade Unions acting together, came into being, as one of our poets, Idris Davies, said, to end ‘the long Victorian night.’ It was a fight to introduce civilised standards into the world of ruthless, devil-take-the-hindmost individualism.”

So went a part of Michael Foot’s 1983 Labour manifesto, the so called, “longest suicide note in history” (Gerald Kaufman). And with Michael Foot’s death yesterday, dies too the idea of socialism brought about via parliamentary means. The current ‘Labour’ government would hardly even dream of using terms such as a Labour Movement and are only seen to attack the Trade Unions, ever favouring the concerns of big business; New Labour is just that – New Business. Continue reading “michael mackintosh foot, 1913-2010: the case for…”