Barry Biddulph says the political pessimism of Owen Jones has resurfaced again, in the Independent, There out to get Cameron, but lets not laugh to Soon (20/10/12) focused on his fear of Boris Johnson. The political knives are out for Cameron in the conservative party, but for Owen, he is a lesser evil. Boris might seem to be a joke, but he is a natural right wing popular leader and “the best salesman for right wing populism that Britain has” Mass working class activity outside safe parliamentary channels is a particular worry for Owen. Any working class hatred and class war is likely to provoke a right wing populism, which is likely to repeat the defeats inflicted on the working class by Margaret Thatcher. But more to the constitutional point, if Boris became Conservative leader the “polls point to Boris providing a Tory boost, which at the very least, could deprive labour of a majority at the next election”
So Boris might play the fool, but he might wipe the smile off our faces and follow Thatcher’s footsteps as the hammer on the working class. The shadow of Margaret Thatcher haunts Owen Jones; he respects and fears Thatcher. In his article, Not all socialists want to Dance on Margaret Thatcher’s Grave ( Independent 16/09/12) he warns against the mass expression of class hate for Thatcher by football fans and a face book campaigns. He will not be in the party mood when Thatcher dies. He cautions that Thatchers death will be a “nightmarish blend of the hysteria that followed princess Diana’s tragic accident and a month long political broadcast for the Conservative Party” Owen’s overestimation of the influence of Thatcher is clear in this comparison with Diana who was seen as a vulnerable person mistreated by the Royal Family and the state who died in tragic circumstances. He is even scared of Conservative political broadcasts.
For Owen Jones we must not put in jeopardy the prospects of the re-election of a Labour government : this is his main concern. So restrain those working class instincts, don’t provoke the Tories and behave yourselves and wait to elect a Labour Government. Only by playing the parliamentary game can the working class hope to win some concessions and recreate the golden age of capitalist prosperity. As he explained in his book chavs (1) the way forward is working class representation in parliament through the Labour party. Yet this nostalgia for old Labour bears no relation to the parliamentary Labour party today, with a leader who has refused to oppose austerity or support workers in struggle, and local Labour councils who are cutting jobs and services on a mass scale. Nor does it reflect the historical reality of those Labour members of Parliament who had started off working in factories and mines. The political point is they were taken away from their work places, and the working class, to represent the state. Owen says the labour Governments of Harold Wilson in the 1960’s improved living standards, but it was the rank and file revolt from below which drove up wages. Wilson’s government opposed the great wave of working class militancy during the 1960’s, and the Labour party leaders in parliament spoke against the great strikes against the Tory government of Edward Heath in the early 1970’s when strikes peaked at 23.9 million in 1972. (2)
It was not Thatcher, but old Labour leaders James Callaghan and Dennis Healy, who first turned away from Keynesianism towards monetarism and Neo Liberalism in 1976. Old Labour from its inception did not commit to the idea of raising the conditions of the working class as he claims.(3) Beginning with the leadership of Keir Hardie, the Labour party was founded as a party of one nation, not a class party or a party that recognised class struggle. Ramsey Macdonald’s first Labour government in the 1920’s attacked working class communities to defend the gold standard. In 1984/5 the parliamentary Labour party left the miners to fight alone. Neil Kinnock not only refused to support the striking miners, their picket lines, and the miners leader, but went on an ideological crusade against them. Old labour Trade union leaders refused to provide effective solidarity action during the strike. It was not the power of Margaret Thatcher which led to her victory; without the scabbing of the Labour party, and sabotage by the trade union bureaucracy, she would have lost. It was not class struggle outside parliament which led to defeat, but the lack of class struggle from the leaders of the Labour movement.
De-industrialisation in Sheffield and elsewhere in the early 1980’s was a symptom of Capitalist recession, which we have been reminded recently, is the way capitalism works: weaker more inefficient Capitals go to the wall, capital is devalued with derelict factories and idle machinery, and all the painful working class unemployment that goes with it. But Owen blames it all on Thatcher, as if she was a ideological eccentric. When Owen’s family moved to Stockport, he failed to notice that there had already been de -industrialisation during the Labour Government of the late 1960’s and the Heath government of the early 1970’s. Cotton Mills and engineering factories were dismantled, left derelict or demolished. Working class communities in Sheffield ,Stockport and elsewhere were recomposed and restructured. workers often moved away, following the available jobs. Owen defines working class not in terms of separation from the means of production, with the working class in a situation of exploitation, lack of control and alienation; but in terms of geographical proximity to factories where the working class found their identity in the pride which came from their work. This is old Labour mythology. His old school friend Liam is typical of the unused potential of many working class people. “for six years he worked in a printing factory. It was horrible. He hated every minute of it, because it was just monotonous and soul destroying, and boring.” (4)
Owen Jones has a bleak perspective. He wants us to look to Parliament because all he can see outside it is the prospect of a right wing populism unleashed. What an alternative! Labour representation in parliament is not an alternative to Neo Liberalism or capitalist crisis, but a detour away from working class liberation through their own self activity. As for representation in parliament, those who do not speak for themselves will find that members of parliament will leave them without a voice.
1 Owen Jones,2011, Chavs, London, verso
2 Sheila Cohen, 2006, Ramparts of Resistance, London, Pluto Press
3 Owen Jones,2011,Chavs, page 82 London, verso
4 as above page 75