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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the iron lady: not the war horse she’s cracked up to be

David Broder went to see The Iron Lady, with Meryl Streep starring as Margaret Thatcher

After the adverts for the merits of cinema advertising, and the adverts for the cinema itself, came a trailer for War Horse. Based on Michael Morpurgo’s novel, this is a film about a horse from a humble farm who is deployed for use in World War I, runs around a lot through battlefields as carnage rages all around him, and ultimately saves the day and warms all our hearts. This plot is more-or-less identical to about half of The Iron Lady, although seeing Maggie Thatcher rise from grocer’s daughter to Prime Minister and obstinately press ahead with austerity as rioting and mass unemployment wreak havoc on all around her… it’s just not as uplifting

Indeed, the message of The Iron Lady is rather curious. Structured as a series of flashbacks by the now seriously mentally ill Baroness Thatcher,  she repeatedly recalls people giving her saccharine nuggets of advice: ‘Be yourself’, ‘Don’t let anyone tell you what to do’, ‘You can achieve anything’, and so on. Thatcher’s children Mark and Carol apparently considered the film a ‘Left-wing fantasy’; while they are wrong insofar as the film portrays its hero largely sympathetically, it is nonetheless a sort of liberal mystification of who Thatcher was: her fight against class and gender prejudice is pushed to the fore, and through her determination she manages to overcome these barriers and thus forces the establishment to accept her. Continue reading “the iron lady: not the war horse she’s cracked up to be”

gaddafi in space

Jack Staunton reviews Suicide of the Astronaut by Muammar al-Gaddafi

Colonel Gaddafi is, without a doubt, one of the greatest science fiction icons of all time. Who could forget the 1985 Infocom game A Mind Forever Voyaging, where the Libyan dictator dies in a nuclear test predicted for 2011? Add to this the opening scenes of Back to the Future, released that same year, when Libyan gunmen shoot Doc Brown, angry that he has stolen Gaddafi’s plutonium to fuel his time-travelling DeLorean.

No less of a contribution to the genre is Gaddafi’s own sci-fi volume, celebrated 1998 collection Escape to Hell. The lion of Tripoli set pen to paper to lay bare the moral emptiness of our fast-paced, instant-thrills modern society. Continue reading “gaddafi in space”

“our time is coming again”

Sheila Cohen reviews New Trade Union Activism: Class Consciousness or Social Identity? Sian Moore, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Yet another pricey, “academic” book – but one with an interesting message. In New Trade Union Activism Sian Moore, who teaches trade unionists at London Metropolitan University’s Working Lives Research Institute, examines the increasing – and, to some of us, questionable – phenomenon of new forms of worker representation. By contrast to the staunch shop steward of the past, who simply took on whatever problems the daily toll of workplace exploitation threw up, the last ten years or so have seen the growth of specific “reps” for apparently every conceivable contingency – learning reps, equality reps, environmental reps, etc., etc. Continue reading ““our time is coming again””

the art of decadence: in east london

by Joe Thorne

I visited three exhibitions in a relatively small area of East London on Saturday.

The first, at Foto 8, was of photographer Robert Gumpert’s portraits from inside San Fransisco’s jails.  In their own right, the pictures are compelling: dark and confrontational.  Most prisoners square up to the camera blankly, bare chested and thick-muscled.  Tattoos loop around their arms and throats.  But if the pictures are dark, the social reality which they represent is darker.


Continue reading “the art of decadence: in east london”

a strike made in hollywood

‘Feel-good’ hit movie Made in Dagenham didn’t make Sheila Cohen feel very good…

A film about a strike that really happened, a strike that brought a huge multinational to a standstill, a strike that was waged and led by women… What’s not to like? Only that Made In Dagenham fails to tell the true, and far more significant, story of the 1968 Ford sewing machinists’ strike – a story of class rebellion against exploitation rather than of softly gender-focused togetherness.

For its first half hour, Made In Dagenham looks good. Apart from the stripping-off scenes in the sweaty factory, unanimously repudiated by strike survivors, the film more or less tells it like it was – i.e. that the sewing machinists were involved in a grading dispute. The emphasis is necessary, because, along with almost every account of the dispute over the last 40-odd years, the next two-thirds of the film stubbornly present it as a “strike for equal pay”. Continue reading “a strike made in hollywood”

permanent revolution in the andes?

David Broder reviews S. Sándor John’s history of Bolivian Trotskyism

It is commonplace for western leftists to reduce Bolivia to a mere appendage of developments in Venezuela and Cuba. Yet it is in Bolivia itself that there is the strongest movement from below of any country in the Americas. Despite its relative economic underdevelopment and the small size of its working class, the rich heritage of class struggle in the country is the envy of most of the rest of the world.

Moreover, Bolivia is unique for its political culture. This has been shaped by the failure of Stalinism and classical social democracy to sink roots; significant indigenous and peasant movements; it is the only country apart from Sri Lanka and Vietnam where Trotskyism has found mass influence.

S. Sándor John’s book Bolivia’s Radical Tradition is a history of Bolivian Trotskyism written by a member of a Trotskyist organisation in the USA, the Internationalist Group. It offers a valuable insight into a much-ignored history, and is also important in what it tells us about Trotskyist politics more generally. Continue reading “permanent revolution in the andes?”

where does resistance come from?

Sheila Cohen reviews Workplace Conflict: Mobilization and Solidarity in Argentina by Maurizio Atzeni (Palgrave Macmillan 2010).

This is a book which should be read by anyone interested in and committed to rank and file activism. There are two obstacles – the price, which as with so many “academic” texts is absurdly high [1] and the English, which can be hard to get your head around. This is no fault of the Italian author, but the publisher clearly has not forked out for the necessary editing – which, at £60 a throw, is a bit of a cheek.

The content and theoretical approach of Workplace Conflict make it more than rewarding, despite these obstacles. In fact it is something of a landmark in the analysis of working-class consciousness, carrying as it does theoretical and strategic perspectives which depart from the static and non-dialectical approaches found in more conventional analyses. This is a book which can suggest ways forward for the rank and file working-class movement. Continue reading “where does resistance come from?”

a revolution in retreat

Adam Ford reviews The Russian Revolution in Retreat, 1920-24. Soviet workers and the new communist elite, by Simon Pirani, Routledge, 2008.

“I cannot be that sort of idealist communist who believes in the new God That They Call The State, bows before the bureaucracy that is so far from the working people, and waits for communism from the hands of pen-pushers and officials as though it was the kingdom of heaven.” – excerpt from the resignation letter of a Bolshevik Party member

Within what is usually labelled ‘the left’, your answer to the question ‘When did the Russian revolution go wrong?’ is a kind of touchstone. Each organisation seems to have its own One True Answer, and giving the wrong response at the wrong meeting can earn you the kind of scorn that the very religious reserve for those whose beliefs differ ever so slightly from theirs. Cue many weary Life of Brian jokes. Continue reading “a revolution in retreat”

robin hood in the 21st century: rallying the poor for the civil liberties of the rich

by Sebastian Wright

Robin Hood: a populist yarn and surefire crowd pleaser if ever there was one. He lives in the woods with his merry men, stealing from the rich, and redistributing to the poor; all the while engaging in a tit for tat with his arch nemesis, the feudal lacky the Sheriff of Nottingham. What could go wrong? Continue reading “robin hood in the 21st century: rallying the poor for the civil liberties of the rich”

why don’t we side with the humans in avatar?

by Sam Parsa

Recently director James Cameron returned after 12 years of absence since his Titanic (1997) to make Avatar. Costing somewhere between $200 to 300 million to make and returning a profit of over $1 billion, Avatar is a sci-fi film about a hired crew of humans who take over a planet called Pandora in 2154 in order to exploit its resources – mainly a substance called unobtanium.

Predictably, the large company of soldiers (and ex-Marines) are equipped with huge battleships and robot-soldiers. These end up being very hostile to the Na’vi, the native humanoid species, who are very traditional with their own strong cultural and religious traditions. As expected and as commentated by many, the storyline resembles the invasion of Iraq. However apart from the predictable romance between the native girl and the heroic white man, the story has a little twist: some of the scientists decide to defect to the Na’vi side, organise them, fight back with the humans and even win the battle. Continue reading “why don’t we side with the humans in avatar?”