The dead end politics of Owen Jones

Following the publication of his book Chavs: the Demonization of the Working Class in 2011, Owen Jones emerged onto the political stage with a call for a new ‘movement on the left to counter capitalism’s crisis’. Jones describes how ‘In the past two years of traipsing around the country, speaking to students, workers, unemployed and disabled people, I’ve met thousands who want to do something with their anger’. He is currently involved in a bit more traipsing around, addressing anti-cuts meetings and standing shoulder to shoulder on platforms with Labour MPs and trade unionists. Susan Davidson analyses the results.

In calling in January for ‘a new movement on the left’, Jones explains why he rejects the idea of a new movement of the left. Recent events within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) have convinced him of the need for what may be called the new ‘new realism’. He gives the SWP more than its fair due when he says that it ‘has long punched above its weight. It formed the basis of the organisation behind the Stop The War Coalition, for example, which almost exactly a decade ago mobilised up to two million people to take to the streets against the impending Iraqi bloodbath’. But now, he adds, the SWP is ‘imploding in the aftermath of a shocking internal scandal’. Jones does not explore whether this collapse is connected to the utter failure of the movement against the war.

Jones wants a new movement where the ‘trade unions ensure that Labour is linked to millions of supermarket checkout assistants, call centre workers and factory workers; there is a battle to be won in compelling the party to fight for working people’.

Jones has returned to base. He wishes into existence a fighting, class-based Labour Party boosted by the trade unions that, in fact, never existed. He has learnt nothing from the history of the British trade union movement and Labour Party, nor why the potential of the New Unions of the 1880s, which saw the first organisation of general workers’ unionism rather than narrow craft unions, was eventually betrayed. Ben Tillett, leader of the great London Dock Strike of 1889, became a full-blooded patriot and warmonger, recruiting working class men and boys for slaughter on the Western Front in the First World War.

The Labour and trade union movement has a long record of betraying workers. It left the striking miners, dockworkers, and railway men to be isolated and defeated. It sold out not only large but small strikes, like those of the mainly female and Asian workers at Grunwick and Skychefs, abandoning them in order to make deals with the bosses. Where union action did have the potential to seriously challenge the state – such as the Dublin Lockout of 1913, the General Strike of 1926 and the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85 – it was always betrayed by the Labour Party in and out of government. Labour refused to fight against the Poll Tax or to defend those who did. Despite Labour’s decision to keep the anti-trade union laws on the statute book, the trade unions remain committed to supporting the Labour Party, accounting for about 75% of its funding.

British trade union and Labour Party collusion with ruling class power is neither the result of a shared programme of gradual improvement for workers, nor of bureaucratic control by well-paid technocratic leaders. Rather it is the product of British imperialism which robs the poor world for surplus profit beyond what it can screw out of the workforce in Britain. There is a real material interest in the imperialist plunder of the oppressed worldwide to benefit large sections of the British working class. The distribution of better pay, conditions and status for some sections of the working class has created an ‘aristocracy of labour’ which solidly identifies with imperialism.

As the representative of those better-off sections of the working class, Labour’s record as a party of imperialism is as reactionary as that of the Conservatives. In Ireland, India, Mal­aya, the Middle East and throughout Africa, Labour’s record of militarism and racist brutality is second to none.

Its war in the service of the wealth of multinationals and corporations is reinforced by the use of racism in Britain as a tool to divide the working class. Labour in government took up the Tory 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act and extended it, placing additional limits on the entry of skilled and professional workers. Roy Hattersley MP (later Labour’s Deputy Leader) said: ‘Without integration, limitation is inexcusable, without limitation integration is impossible.’ He had no words to offer as the scandal of ‘virginity tests’ for Indian fiancées was exposed. Concessions to racism continued right up to Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s proclamation to the 2010 Labour Party Conference of ‘British jobs for British workers’.

These are the forces that Jones looks to for a fight against cuts and austerity. Yet it is clear that the fightback against privatisation of the NHS, cuts in benefits and dismantling of local education will be led by neither the TUC nor the Labour Party. It was a Labour government that imposed the current financial and administrative structures, including PFI and Foundation Trust status, that must be defeated today.

British trade union membership has halved since the 1980s and is now less than six million and falling, as a result of increased unemployment and part-time, casual and short-term contracts and zero hours employment as well as outsourcing and deregulation. The trade unions have consistently colluded with employers, arranging ‘voluntary’ redundancies and agreements to ‘flexible’ working. Pension rights have been drastically undermined and the retirement age raised with no serious opposition from the trade unions or the Labour Party.

In Chavs, Jones examined divisions within the working class that have a significant influence on the continued domination of the capitalist class over the population as a whole. He rightly describes the use of the word ‘Chavs’ as code for the poorest white working class people, often living on council estates, often unemployed and on benefits, and frequently young, unmarried parents.

This is precisely the sector of the working class who are neither represented by the Labour Party nor are members of trade unions. Indeed, trade unions have a disproportionately lar­ger number of managers and professionals as members than the population as a whole: 52% as compared to 41.9% for all employees. Their membership is better qualified than most, with 45.7% having a degree or higher qualification compared to 33.9% of all employees.

It is the impoverished post-industrial population that has been targeted by social commentators of all parties, characterising the poor as feckless and ignorant, feral predators on the welfare state. The Tories used the mantra of ‘broken Britain’ as a platform in the last general election campaign. The last Labour government’s ‘law and order’ credentials were clearly direc­ted against the poor and the youth with the use of ASBOs, talk of ‘hard-working families’ and crackdown on welfare ‘cheats’. Having exacerbated the split in the working class, the way was cleared for the full attack consisting of shrinking benefits, imposition of the bedroom tax and dismantling the welfare state. Now, with falling standards of living, declining wages and increasingly un­regulated conditions of employment, the population as a whole is paying for the crisis of capitalism.

The fightback has started with the many campaigns that have emerged to defend services, benefits and rights. It will not be UNITE or any other union leading the resistance. They make gestures – as UNISON has done, offering £5,000 to the Whittington Hospital Defence Campaign – but do not fight for the jobs of health workers who are being made redundant or redeployed at lower wages. Websites like ‘Labour Against the Bedroom Tax’ offer no information or help to the hundreds of campaigns set up to defend tenants against eviction. Wealthy and bureaucratic, the Labour Party and the TUC will only act as lobby groups standing on the shoulders of newly emerging forces of dissent from communities under attack. Their function is to contain the anger and demands of a population facing increasing impoverishment and to hold back challenges to state power.

In Chavs Jones says that ‘Four successive defeats at the hands of the Tories between 1979 and 1992 left Labour demoralised, and willing to accept almost anything to get back into power’. We say that, today, they will pose as the defenders of the welfare state and the poor solely to get a Labour Party back into government. On their way they will betray any movement that trusts them to fight and limit protest to the respectable minimum, keeping it fit for purpose – electoral victory.

Owen Jones understands very little about what is needed to build a new movement in this country. He avoids using the term ‘socialism’ but is quite happy to spin us a fairy tale about the re-election of a Labour Party supported by a militant trade union movement. This is a reactionary platform which ties the future struggle to the dead forces of the past.

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 232 April/May 2013


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