Nostalgia for old Labour

2 02 2012

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

Owen Jones describes how hatred of the working class finds expression in  negative images and gross exaggerations and distortions of working class experience in the media. It’s the myth that we are all middle class except the chavs. Owen explains how the mockery of the working class demonstrates their social inferiority for their tormentors and superiors. It’s a culture which blames the victims rather than social injustice or structured social inequality in capitalism. It’s the way the “working class rump” lives that’s seen as the problem. But what is Owen’s alternative?

Owen argues that it all begins with Thatcherism. Contempt for working class people build up under Thatcher. The lingering demise of the working class started with Thatcher. The real culprit is not the life style of the workers, but the industrial collapse, first unleashed by Thatcherism. The destruction of industry left the economy dangerously reliant on the financial institutions of the city of London. Deindustrialisation also destroyed working class communities. Working class pride, community spirit, and collective values were dismantled. Local working class identity which formed around factories and pits where workers families were rooted for generations disintegrated. But this process did not end with Thatcher, it was continued by New Labour. This is the idea that the interests of the wealthiest are essential for the well being of society as a whole. But old Labour were different.

Owen laments the lack of old Labour parliamentarians and the lack of opportunities for working people to rise through parliament from the pit, dock and factory to represent the working class. Parliament has become a closed shop to Labour politicians from a working class background. Owen asks where are the Herbert Morrisons, Ernest Bevins and Nye Bevans. Why do we not have these old Labour statesmen anymore? His answer is that the idea that Labour gave a voice to the working class and championed their interests, and needs, was weakened during the 1980’s. Yes, in Owens view, old Labour remained committed to the idea of raising the conditions of the working class. But Owen seems to be aware of the history of the Labour party since he immediately adds a significant qualification : even if this sometimes amounts to lip service. For Owen, parliamentary old Labour can rise again, because unless working class people can be properly represented Britain faces the prospect of an angry right wing populism. This is not an endorsement of working class self activity and the ability of the working class to transform itself and capitalism.

This grim Labourite perspective of a right wing popular reactionary movement or workers entering parliament to represent the lived experience of the working class glosses over the history of the parliamentary Labour party. If we look back to the origins of parliamentary Labour Party over a hundred years ago, it was Keir Hardie who set the mould of the Labour Party by winning the argument that the Labour Party should not be a socialist party or class party since the working people in Britain are not a class, but a nation, and Labour should not stand for class war anyway since this was unchristian. The result was working men in parliament with conservative and liberal views  lead 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 an historical continuity here since Dennis Healy, the Labour government’s chancellor in 1976, returned to economic liberalism, blazing the way for Thatcherism. James Callaghan, given by Owen, as an example of good old Labourism, announced at the party conference in 1976, that the Keynesian era was over: the nation could not spend its way out of recession.

His history of working class communities is suspect as well. Owen stresses geographical community as the bonds of working class solidarity, which he associates with manual workers mainly in the old pit communities. But, historically the working class has been recomposed many times in terms of local community and workplace. He offers his experience of Stockport, as his home town, as typical of a rooted community. But in Stockport, again like Owen, speaking from experience, there was deindustrialisation or factory closures long before Thatcherism. The Cotton mills such as Broadstone Mill closed in the late fifties and early sixties. Engineering factories like Cravens closed in the late sixties and early seventies. In any case his talk of roots going back to grandfathers is largely a myth. There was a movement of workers in and out of Stockport and other industrial areas as jobs and community changed complexion. Working class identity is also about exploitation and oppression in the workplace, whether this is a call centre or a local authority council office. The old parliamentary Labour tradition does not speak about alienation in the workplace or replacing it with workers’ control and self management.

Owen asserts that the idea that Labour gave a voice to working class people, that it championed their interests, and needs, was weakened during the 1980’s. Yet striking miners in Wales during the great strike of 1984-5 had a more historically accurate view of what the Labour party stands for when in a strike meeting they hung a noose from the ceiling of the meeting room with the words ‘RamseyMckinnock’. This linked two Labour Party leaders, Ramsey Macdonald, from the interwar years, and Neil Kinnock from the 1980s. Both had left the miners to fight alone and go down to defeat. Old Labour union bosses and the TUC sided with the state or refused to provide solidarity for the striking miners in both these periods. Owen’s nostalgia for old Labour is very selective. Where are the old Labour statesmen today of the stature of Herbert Morrison, Ernest Bevin and Nye Bevan, he asks. But Owen’s working class heroes of the post war Labour government all opposed strikes and supported the use of troops against striking dockers and other transport workers. All three were committed to administrating and modernising capitalism without giving power to the workers in their workplace. Nationalisation was a form of bureacratic state capitalism applied to those public utilities and industries which were deemed to be inefficient: mines, railways, electricity and gas providers. 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 Owen presents. Why nearly a quarter of workers earning less than £7 an hour can be found in the public sector, and why modest public sector pensions, on average a little over £5,000 can be seen as excessive and unaffordable, while 100 chief executives earn 200 times the wage of an average worker. 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 have 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 political tradition, Labourism, which has been responsible for maintaining capitalism, and the inequality, exploitation, and oppression that goes with it. Old Labour is not an alternative to capitalism, but an alternative way of managing capitalism.

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6 responses

2 02 2012
ann arky

An excellent article, highlighting a few truths that should be well know to the general public.
Anybody that knows a little about working class history should know that there is no political party that is in power, or believes that it can hold the reigns of power, puts the working class interests before that of the state, and we all know that the state is there to protect that status-quo. It is there to give the stamp of legitimacy to the exploitation of the working class. As soon as the working class starts to show its strength the party in power and those who believe they will be in power, will act against them. Labour is no different from the rest. Today people are beginning to see the irrelevance of political parties to their lives, this can lead to apathy or to a more direct action confrontation approach to the problems in their lives.

7 02 2012
Ollie S

This was an excellent article.

7 02 2012

‎”But deindustrialisation also destroyed working class communities. Working class pride, community spirit, and collective values were dismantled.”

It’s terrible that in just 20 years the idea that you can be proud to be working class has vanished.

The working class culture that grew out of the industrial era was possibly the most defining moment in British society/identity and social structure since the collapse of the feudal system. In the space of 20 years we went from being primarily an agricultural nation with many market towns to being the worlds first truly industrialised country whereby everyone was interlinked with everyone else and everyone supported each other.

Neo liberalism destroyed our industry, thus destroying the 100’s of working communities dependent on it and making every person independently reliant on themselves in a service job.

Subsequently we have now that if you don’t strive to be/pretend to be middle class then you are “scum/chav/scroungers” and that the only people who can truly exceed in life are those with a degree, any other choice is worthless. The thing is the whole idea of “benefits scoungers” would never have existed in pre-Thatcher Britan because our country still have the means of providing decent employment to millions.

The other point I picked up on in relation to having a degree, there is no way that someone could rise to the top of the labour party if they were not educated to degree level. In only having a party core made up of middle class graduates how can they ever hope to represent the workers, especially those who do not actually see themselves as working class despite being constantly exploited in a free market wage system in which they must sell their labour.

Labour was founded as a party for proud working people to demand workers rights. It has succeeded in changing it’s whole electorate to run parallel with the torys and together with the tabloid newspapers they have convinced millions that they are no longer even working class.

I like 10’s of thousands of other young people once supported the Liberal Democrats and Clegg. We saw them as a force for good, for progression and equality and something different to Labour and the Torys. This last year has shown everyone that all politicians are the same shade.

This government has categorically lied to it’s young people about fees, systematically attacked the NHS and has presided over the biggest youth unemployment rate ever. Are they really surprised that myself and 1000’s of other young people are starting to see workers self management, grass roots community politics, local committees and an equal share of the wealth as the only viable alternative.

Furthermore they should really be very careful how they tread. The Sun and the Mail can ratchet up their anti-working class rhetoric, but it will carry on getting a lot worse before it gets better and it will just take a flash in the pan for these million unemployed kids with little futures and those who remember the days of the old labour movement realise that we put a hell of a lot more into the system than we ever get out of it there will be big things happening.

And if the government doesn’t give, well then the summer riots of last year will look like a fucking playground scuffle in comparison to what we can expect in the coming years.

7 02 2012
ann arky

Sadly riots and uprisings don’t always result in a greater social society. The riots and uprisings must have some purpose and direction, those involved must have some idea of what they want, when people are looking for change our ideas have to be on the table, if they are unaware of the ideas of mutual aid etc, then they will not use them. Anger alone is seldom enough, it needs direction to implement the real change that we want.

Anguish for family and friends,
all in the name of profit;
now that really does offend.
Our anger without direction
is a blind archer behind the bow,
we have to use our anger
to smash the status-quo.

7 02 2012

Hi Benjamin

There are some serious misunderstandings about the history and origin of the Labour party. The labour party was never a mass workers party in terms of class struggle. Indeed its origin was unconnected with mass strikes or mass workers struggles. Indeed its entire history shows its oppossion to class struggle. Its origin is in the TUC and the trade union bureacracy. Its origin was about putting working men into parliament who could lobby within parliament for legislation to protect trade union funds and hence trade union official jobs. It was timid and defensive and not about asserting working class rights. Indeed it was not about working class or class at all. It was founded in opposition to a class party or a socialist party. Thats why its been against class struggle and mass strikes ever since.

You do not have to have a degree or be educated to be in the leadership of the labour party. Putting working men into parliament does not call for degrees or militancy. Some of the uneducated working class men have been the most reactionary and conservative. For example the first Labour chancellor Phillip Snowden who keeped to the gold standard in the 1920’s to help the rich and cut miners pay and working class living standards. Todays austerity is a return to the level of these cuts. Or take a more recent example, two jags prescott. Very working class but reactionary.Its not about sociological roots but working class politics or communism /socialism.

working class is not simply about living in the same area working in the same factory, shopping in the same shops. Its about sharing a similar experience of exploitation or alienation, even though people might live miles apart. For instance, you pension will be cut and you will have to work longer for less is you work in the public sector in Glasgow or sheffield.

unemployment and de industrialisation are not specifically Thatcher or Tory, but capitalist. There have been very high levels of unemployment under old and new labour.The labour party closed many coal pits prior to Thatcher. Post war neo liberalism was initiated by james Callaghan and a labour Government prior to Thatcherism.

7 07 2012

Reading the above, one can’t help but think of Will Crooks MP. He never led the Labour Party, but he stood for everything the Labour Party was originally created for back in the day. Crooks by the way was only the fourth ever Labour MP and the first ever Labour Mayor in London. He was one of the leaders of the great dock strike of 1889 although he doesn’t get much credit for that nowadays. He had many offers in his life that would have set him up financially for life, but he spurned these offers and chose to remain living among the poor and working class that he represented. In regards to Barry saying “You do not have to have a degree or be educated to be in the leadership of the labour party”; this reminds me of an episode when Crooks was elected to Parliament and the Conservative Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour answered one of his questions in Latin. As a working man from the East End of London, Crooks obviously had no knowledge of the language and so he asked for Balfour to repeat his answer in English. After laughter from the Tory benches after the answer was put into English, Crooks told them “I was busy learning life when you other boys were learning Latin. This learning of life gentlemen, carrying with it an intense love of truth and justice has proved more useful to me and the class I serve than any knowledge of a dead language could.” Ha, excellent.

If you’re not familiar with Will Crooks MP, then there’s a couple of books available on his life. One is called “Where there’s a Will, there’s a way: The remarkable life story of Will Crooks MP’. The author’s website is good because he goes into more detail about the life of Will Crooks and his many achievements. We really do owe him a great debt of gratitude for the things he fought for and won on our behalf, such as old age pensions and the unemployed becoming the state’s responsibility. He was a true working class hero. The link to that book’s website is:–sample-chapter.html


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