Barry Biddulph reflects on two recent speeches by Owen Jones.
Speaking at the Firebox Cafe ( March 7th) Owen Jones started on a positive note: ‘It was the kind of place you could plan a revolution’. Then Owen quickly adopted a pessimistic tone. As usual his focus or fetish was on the defeats of the Thatcher years. He presented the bald facts of defeat. The miners were defeated, then everyone said: if they can be defeated no one can win. His family was typical, experiencing decades of defeat going back to the General Strike. They were fed up. Yet despite this, he was prepared to give the Labour Party and trade union left yet another go.
The Great Miners Strike, in 1984, was one of the longest, and most determined, trade union struggles in British history. It left a fighting tradition. History could have taken another course; it was a close run thing. In July 1984, there was nearly a national dock strike to coincide with the miners strike, which could have prevented coal imports, as well as opening up another front against Thatcher. There was also the pit managers union dispute in October 1984. The presence of their members was a legal requirement for a pit to open, but the union leaders sold out for a toothless review of the closure programme. The effective solidarity action of rank and file power and railway workers to handle and remove the coal, could have been decisive if generalised, but it was undermined by trade union officialdom.
Owens failure to explain the defeats implies that Thatcherism and Neo-Liberalism were in themselves too strong for any fight back. However, the Labour Party leadership helped Thatcher, by refusing to organise support for the strike and condemning the miners pickets. The previous Labour Government, and their energy minister, Tony Benn, had introduced an incentive scheme, which divided miners on the basis of earning and productivity, which was an underlying cause of some of the miners disunity. Stuck in their traditional sectionalism the trade union bureaucracy also refused to mobilise for an effective solidarity. Nor did they seek to challenge the anti union laws. As Owen said, rather self-consciously, if not in self-criticism, ‘we must not wallow in defeat’.
Owen did make a passing reference to the successful rank and file electricians strike in September last year, against Balfour Beatty and other construction companies, who attempted to tear up national terms and conditions by imposing new contracts, with huge pay cuts. But he did not give the detail or recommend their tactics. The sparks elected their own fight back committee parallel to the Unite leadership, and beat the bosses with unpredictable wildcat strikes and civil disobedience. The Unite national construction official described their action as cancerous. Jerry Hicks supported the sparks. Owen does not support this advocate of grass-roots action, he is campaigning for Len Maclusky, the leading full-time official of Unite, in the current union election.
So it did not come as a surprise that Owen left out of his gloomy narrative the battle of Saltly Gates, where grass-roots miners and engineering workers solidarity won the day, and flying pickets won the miners strike. Owen also left out the successful spontaneous general strike by 170,000 workers to free the Pentonville Five, the dockers jailed for picketing in 1972. Nor was there any mention of the great wave of workers militancy from below, in the 1960’s, which bumped up living standards in a struggle against the Labour Party and their supporters the trade union leaders. Towards the end of the 1960’s most strikes were unofficial.
Owen stands for the rejuvenation of old Labour. For him, there are no viable alternatives to British Labourism. This was clear in his speech to the Socialist Party (Jan 3rd). He said, all attempts to build an alternative to the Labour Party had failed. For Owen, Labourism is the natural politics of the British Working Class. Forget the historical alternatives past or future. In the past, Chartism, or the great workers unrest of 1910- 1914, and the revolutionary year 1919. The future can only be Labourism. Proof? The failure of the Communist Party and the ILP to build an alternative. But the Communist Party had a terrible handicap: Stalinism. Even before the onset of Stalinism, ‘the party’ saw the way forward as transforming the Labour party and election of a left Labour government. The same failed perspective Owen offers today, nearly a hundred years later. The ILP did not have the politics for a revolutionary socialist alternative: its politics were a mixture of left Labourism and Popular Frontism.
Owen leaves out of his narrative of defeat the role and nature of the Labour Party and the trade unions. The Labour party was created by the trade union bureaucracy: it was born out of TUC constitutionalism. It was not an expression of class struggle. It’s electoralism was a product of industrial defeats and caused further defeats. In his speeches he describes the miners as the vanguard of the British working class, for their role in the British General Strike of 1926. But the trade union leaders unanimously, left and right, called off the solidarity strike when it was at its most solid. The miners were left to fight alone as they were in 1984. In both cases the Labour Party leaders refused to support the strikes. Owen talks as if the defeats were simply something which were inflicted on the Labour Movement from an unbeatable force from the outside. But the Labour Party did not and does not fight the class war.
In his book ‘Chavs‘ Owen is nostalgic for old Labour, despite the real history of the labour movement. He is correct to criticise New Labour as a continuation of the Thatcherite policies of shovelling as much money in the direction of the rich as possible, but old labour’s anti working class governments did not champion the needs of the working class either. Owen dreams of a golden age of Labourism where Labour MPs started off working in mines and factories and were the voice of the working class in Parliament. But it’s not where they started off that counts, but where they finished up, separated from their class in Westminster. Parliament converted them, they did not convert Parliament. Those who do not speak for themselves are not likely to be spoken for by others, who no longer share their working class circumstances.
Owens old labour views patronize the working class. He claims that if we do not send working class representatives out of the working class into Parliament, then working people will allow the BNP and other reactionaries to represent them in non parliamentary terms. Look to Parliament or reaction outside it. What a pessimistic perspective. Labour representation in Parliament is not an alternative to capitalism. It’s a discredited detour away from working class emancipation through its own self-activity, and organisation from below. Owen Jones looks with nostalgia to a repeat of the post war Labour government which modernised capitalism in the context of the vast destruction of capital, commodities and infrastructure by the Great Depression and WW2. Today with capitalism in a profound crisis, it’s not time to look back in nostalgia, but time to represent ourselves.