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.