Labour’s Enabler: Owen Jones and the Establishment

Last year Owen Jones published a muckraking account of the ruling-class, which has served a useful purpose in popularising criticisms of the criminals who are mis-running our democracy. Contrary to socialist analyses that focus on the pivotal role of popular struggle in setting the parameters of democracy, a central theme in Owen’s book, The Establishment: And How They Get Away With It, is that by force of ideas, conservative ideologies have risen to ascendency — including within the Labour Party. This history, especially that concerned with the undermining of the Labour Party as a vehicle for working-class activism is a critically important story for the Labour movement to learn lessons from. Hence my dismay at Owen’s total misunderstanding of how the cross-party Establishment that dominates our lives came to power, and how in the process, they succeeded in gutting the Labour Party, the former party of the working-class.

Owen’s poor comprehension of the processes of social change seem more rooted in his own familial concerns, than in the annals of the Labour movement. From the 1960s onwards, his parents had spent the better part of two decades promoting Marxism within the Militant Tendency (the predecessor of the Socialist Party). This commitment to socialist organising had a marked influence upon Owen’s own political trajectory, particular so as during his youth his parents “dropped out of politics”; it was “against their sense of defeat” Owen explains, that he resolved to “do whatever I could to help rebuild, in a limited and modest way, the British left as a coherent force” (quoted from interview with Lookleft magazine in January 2014).  This extraordinary effort on Owen’s part would mean making a decisive break with his parents Marxist forays, a break which is not so different from that taken by Ed Miliband, whose father had been a prominent Marxist author. Yet while Owen is still on a determined mission to reclaim the Labour Party, his favoured leader (at the time of writer), Ed, had actucally been moving in the opposite direction; one example being the manner in which Ed successfully brought the cut-throat millionaire businessman Charles Allen into the heart of the Labour Party as the chairman of their Executive Board (a position established in 2012).

But forget about history (past and present): Tony Blair, Owen informs his readers, is the main culprit for the ongoing decline of the Labour Party. Any references to evidence that might counter this bizarre assertion have been neatly expelled from the history establishmentrendered in The Establishment. During the 1970s Owen argues that the unions “won some battles”, but he explains that “the entire trade-union movement was on the brink of calamitous defeat. Britain was becoming ever more receptive to the ideas of the [extreme right-wing] Mont Pelerin outriders.” Yet were the British people really becoming more receptive to right-wing ideas? Arguably it was primarily the leadership of the Labour Party that was moving rightwards throughout the 1970s. Recall: in 1977 it was Labour who cut government expenditure by an astounding £8 billion. It is surely not a coincidence that Thatcher came to power around the same time that Thatcherite policies were being embraced by Labour’s right-wing leaders.

Owen refers to advertising mogul Lord Bell as “a linchpin of the Thatcherite crusade” of ideas; noting how he “helped orchestrate the National Coal Board’s media onslaught against the unions.” But it was not ideas alone that smashed the unions. First and foremost, it was the Labour Party that sold out the unions, under the leadership of Neil Kinnock during the 1980s. Here was a leader after all who in July 1984 was publicly humiliated by the 100,000 strong-crowd at the Durham Miners’ Gala because of his open turn against the National Union of Mineworkers. Owen remains ominously silent about such problems. His only mention of Kinnock’s political activities during the 1980s, refer to his Party acting as a thorn in the side of US-elites, owing to Labour’s commitment to nuclear disarmament. But Owen need only turn to the excellent work of fellow Guardian columnist Seumas Milne to learn about Kinnock’s noxious role in undermining working-class organizations — a tragic tale recounted in Milne’s classic The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (1994). This is perhaps not too much to ask of Owen given that Milne serves on the advisory board of the union-backed think-tank, Class, that has been the centre of Owen’s working life since its founding in 2012.

Identified as part of the Blairite wrecking crew, Alastair Campbell is introduced to Owen’s readers as a Daily Mirror “hack” — owing to his service as the papers political editor during the 1980s — who became “Tony Blair’s often ruthless spin-doctor.” Omitted is the fact that Campbell was Kinnock’s main link to the Daily Mirror during the miners strike (Milne, p.243). Significantly, at the time, the Daily Mirror was the only mass-circulation paper which supported the Labour Party, and when in 1984 it became the property of right-wing Labour supporter, Robert Maxwell, the new owner made it very clear that he would not allow it to support the type of militant trade-unionism that could secure victories for the working-class. Maxwell “was a man who worshipped at the altar of raw power”, Milne fittingly observed; and so it was, in the fourth month of the miners strike (July 1984) Maxwell purchased the Daily Mirror, and  immediately ran with a story on the miners headlined “The Enemy Within.” (Milne, p.225)

“As the 1984-5 strike wore on, the Mirror’s coverage became ever more poisonous towards the miners’ cause.” At the same time, with a full-scale revolt of the working-class taking place in Liverpool, Maxwell’s papers readily joined the right-wing press in meting out lies by the bucket load, in a determined effort to undermine the influence of Militant Tendency — which was playing a central role in the city’s successful  fightback against Thatcher. (A period of media lies described by Peter Taaffe as “The months of the great slander.”) Here it is worth considering that while the Mirror’s owner was clearly not as vile a press baron as Rupert Murdoch — who would soon be cozying up to Tony Blair and Mr Campbell — Maxwell’s close relationship with the right-wing of the Labour Party enabled him to play a critical role in undermining Labour from within.

The visceral anger of workers at the anti-democratic legacy of Kinnock and Maxwell was well encapsulated by a speech given by Arthur Scargill in 1991 at the National Union Mineworkers conference. This firebrand speech occurring hot on the heels of the noxious slanders against Scargill and his union promoted by the Daily Mirror and the infamous Cook Report. As Milne put it:

“Launching his most ferocious attack to date on Labour’s leadership, Scargill […] delivered a contemptuous parody of Kinnock’s denunciation of the Militant-led Liverpool council — widely seen as the man’s finest hour, inspired by Howells and used in Labour’s 1987 general election broadcasts. ‘Policies such as nationalization and unilateralism are ditched along the way, whilst the EEC and the City of London are courted,’ Scargill declared, echoing Kinnock’s rhetoric. ‘And, finally, you end up with the grotesque spectacle of a Labour leader, a Labour leader, supporting privatization in Liverpool.’” (Milne, p.252)

The closest that Owen ever comes to delving into the roots Kinnock’s role in the destruction of the Labour Party in the 1980s is revealed only cryptically, and perhaps accidentally, via a discussion of Patricia Hewitt’s political career. First Owen paints Hewitt, as a one-time “firebrand leftist… who backed socialist Tony Benn’s campaign for Labour’s deputy leadership in 1981.” He then says she is best described as a politician acting like a “weathervane that points wherever the wind is blowing at the time.” But Owen then skips ahead some decades, concluding that “She would end up a staunch Blairite.” No mention is made of the fact that Hewitt co-wrote Kinnock’s 1985 conference speech that Scargill had satirized in 1991; or that Hewitt acted as press officer for Kinnock between 1983 and 1987, before moving on to become his loyal policy co-ordinator. Jones is well aware of the significance of this sordid history, but chooses to ignore it. This much is made clear by the fact that during this section of his book, Jones actually references the best book-length analysis of this momentous period in time, Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party a book which scrupulously documents the insidious role play by Kinnock, Hewitt and their fellow travellers in ditching the working-class.

Despite Owen’s biting criticisms of the contemporary Labour Party, amazingly he still champions it as the less evil, compared to say the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. “Following Tony Blair’s assumption of the Labour leadership… New Labour curtailed party democracy,” Owen writes. But because he traces the problems in the Labour movement to only Blair and his anti-trade union brethren — who “kept in place the most restrictive anti-union laws in the Western world” — Owen still feels the Labour Party can be reclaimed to its founding glory. Hanging on to the empty shell of a once powerful working-class party, Owen therefore counsels his readers to maintain dangerous illusions, that ultimately, will be smashed as they have so many times before.

Instead of building a new democratic socialist alternative, like the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition “with the aim of challenging those with wealth and power”, Owen’s actions are serving to put the brakes on such progress. In many ways his counsel sees him acting very much like a modern-day counterpart to the conservative nineteenth-century trade-unionists who opposed the formation of a new political organization, because they “still believed that the best hope of the Labour movement was to remain attached to the Liberal Party…” Owen somehow holds to this outdated position in spite of his own analysis of the opposition to the founding of the Labour Party. He somehow does this at the same time as maintaining that all the mainstream political parties, rather than being “democratic movements roots in communities,” are now merely “hollowed-out” “husks.”

Owen calls for “A Democratic Revolution,” the title of his books concluding chapter. It is not clear why socialism fails to get a look-in in this chapter heading, maybe Owen is having his own Clause 4 moment? Either way by dropping socialism from his mandate he does exactly what he says the right-wingers have succeeded in doing, he has moved the window of what is deemed politically possible rightwards. With his books abiding fixation on the success of conservative propagandists in having shifting the political terrain, his solution for more democracy is to learn the lessons, not of working-class history, but of ruling-class strategising. “Such a revolution will only succeed by learning from the success of the Establishment,” he suggests. “Aggressively fighting the battle of ideas has proven key to its triumph.” Such conclusions are self-evidently not true.

Arguably, The Establishment rules the roost (and precariously at that) only because the Labour Party has completely vacated its position as the political voice of the working-class. Owen touches upon this home-truth when he says that the Establishment “has never won the hearts and minds of the British people: as polls consistently show, most people are in favour of higher taxes on the rich and against running public services and utilities for profit”. Yet his failure to call for the building a new genuinely working-class party, leaves his readers with little doubt about whom he thinks they should support. But in keeping with Owen’s desire for his readers to vote for you-know-who, his solutions are remarkably top-down in orientation: as opposed to being guided and informed by the type of rank-and-file grassroots activism that Marxists believe will be necessary to revolutionise society. For success Owen pleads, trade unions must throw their support behind the creation of “savvy think tanks” like his own one, Class, or the perhaps the New Economics Foundation.

Owen then lists a number of laudable reforms that would serve to redistribute wealth and facilitate “democratic representation on the boards of the banks” that the public has already bailed out. Ramping his rhetoric up to a hollow crescendo, Owen cries: “The evicting of corporate interests from the heart of power would be at the centre of a democratic revolution.” But as was most obvious during the recent elections, only the Green Party and the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition came close to presenting, dare I say, socialist, political reforms to the electorate. But instead of sticking to Owen Jones’ “modest attempt to reassert democracy,” TUSC went a lot further, and took radical working-class demands directly to the public. TUSC did this in the hope of inspiring the majority of voters that there is an alternative to the poverty of mainstream politics: an alternative that can only be taken forward politically by building a new mass based working-class party that is 100% committed to the fight for a democratic socialist future.

Michael Barker is the author of Under the Mask of Philanthropy (2017).