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 ascendancy — 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 writing), Ed, had actually 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 rendered 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.