Owen Jones first acquired his prominent national media profile in the wake of publishing his excellent 2011 book Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class. This book provided a devastating critique to the anti-worker politics of the New Labour machine that still dominates the Parliament Labour Party to this day. The main difference now, however, is that the growing grassroots of the Labour Party has once again given a massive mandate to a principled socialist to reclaim their party from New Labour, precisely so their party can be used to fight for the needs of the 99% not for the 1%.
Presently, hundreds of thousands of socialists are keen that Jeremy Corbyn takes the necessary democratic steps to oust the New Labour old guard – who, after all, still represent the majority of Labour’s elected representatives — from their positions of influence within the Labour Party. It will not be easy to democratize the party, but it is necessary all the same because since at least the 1980s genuine socialists have been sidelined from positions of influence. As Jones explained: “On issue after issue, Labour under [Neil] Kinnock capitulated to Thatcher’s free-market policies. Any who resisted were sidelined.” (p.70)
In Chavs, Jones makes it abundantly clear that, under Tony Blair’s influence, “New Labour’s approach was to stigmatize and demonize… vulnerable working-class people.” (p.92) “New Labour, through programmes like its welfare reform, has propagated the chav caricature by spreading the idea that people are poor because they lack moral fibre.” (p.94) Owen draws attention to New Labour’s “near-obsession with ignoring working-class voters…” (p.101) and “New Labour’s introduction of competition and market principles into education.” (p.178) He adds:
“Of course, New Labour never had any intention of abolishing inherited wealth or private education. It argued for ‘meritocracy’ with a society rigged in favour of the middle class. Meritocracy ends up becoming a rubber stamp for existing inequalities, re-branding them as deserved.” (pp.96-7)
New Labour actively engaged in class warfare against the working-class, “skirt[ing] the issue of inequality… by following in Thatcher’s footsteps and pretending that class no longer existed.” (p.98) “[I]t was New Labour’s relentless sidelining of working-class Britain that led to its thorough defeat in 2010.” (p.254) Indeed, one should recall how “New Labour’s approach to crime as a whole was authoritarian, disregarding the main root cause: poverty… Between 1993 and 2010, England and Wales’s prison population nearly doubled, from 44,500 to around 85,000.” (p.214)
But even when New Labour ostensibly “attempted to tackle the scandal of working poverty… it did so within the framework of neoliberal economics – that is, allowing the market to run amok.” On this point Jones writes:
“A leading union-backed Labour MP, John McDonnell, sums up the [New Labour] government’s approach thus: ‘We will introduce tax credits, and we will redistribute wealth, but we’ll make sure what we’ll do is force you into work where it’s low paid, with the lowest minimum wage you could possibly think of. In that way, you then become the guilty person if you can’t afford to dig yourself out of poverty. There’s a Victorian, patronizing attitude towards working people.’” (pp.203-4)
Jones understands why New Labour politics should be consigned to the dustbin of history, and concludes:
“It is not surprising that so many working-class people felt alienated from Labour. They felt it was no longer fighting on their side. Some succumbed to apathy – but not all. Deprived of a narrative to explain what was happening to their lives, some began to grope for other logics. It was not the wealthy victors of Thatcher’s class war who found themselves on the sharp end. The frustrations and anger of millions of working-class people were channelled into a backlash against immigrants.” (p.220)
“The rise of the far right is a reaction to the marginalization of working-class people. It is a product of politicians’ refusal to address working-class concerns, particularly affordable housing and a supply of decent, secure jobs. It has been fuelled by a popular perception that Labour has abandoned the people it was created to represent.” (p.223)
So while we should be thankful that Corbyn is presently at the helm of the Labour Party, it is critical to remember that the overwhelming majority of elected representatives serving beneath him are still committed to the destructive old days of New Labour. This is why these poor representatives will continue in their desperate efforts to depose Corbyn if left unchallenged and unaccountable to the grassroots of the party.
When Jones published Chavs he was clear that the Labour Party “no longer offers an overarching narrative that working-class people can relate to. To many former natural Labour supporters, it seems to be on the side of the rich and big business.” (p.246) But sadly, despite a change in leadership, the same is true of the Labour Party today, particularly with regards those in the Blairite Progress faction of the party. This is why it is so important that socialists place demands upon Corbyn to support democratic efforts to replace New Labour representatives with genuine socialists who are willing to take the fight to the Tories, not emulate them.
Unfortunately, this is not the type of advice currently being offered up by Owen Jones. Instead he says: “Talk of mandatory reselections should be abandoned… Common ground should be emphasised.” (The Guardian, 22 September 2016) What this common ground might be is not clear, especially given the fact that the New Labour old guard are totally opposed to Corbyn’s socialist ideas. Nevertheless, Jones understands that: “The most hardened anti-Corbyn and pro-Corbyn factions are united by one belief: that they are in a war not of attrition but of annihilation, and that if they do not prevail they will be destroyed.” (The Guardian, 24 September 2016) Although it would be remiss not to add that the pro-Corbyn faction is represented by the majority of the Labour Party’s half a million members, while the anti-Corbyn faction is represented by the New Labour stalwarts who unfortunately dominate the elected positions in the Labour Party.
Tragically, earlier today Jones took his desire to emphasise common ground with the rightwing of the Labour Party to its logical conclusion by hugging an unrepentant advocate of New Labour’s politics (Progress Director, Richard Angell) live on Sky News saying “there’s so much that unites us”. “On everything from workers’ rights, opposing the government’s attacks upon trade unions, investment in the economy, the housing crisis, there’s actually quite a lot of agreement.”
All I can suggest is that Jones wakes up to the reality facing the future of Corbyn supporters within the Labour Party and spend a night or two at home rereading Chavs — his own exposé of the anti-democratic, anti-working-class practices of his newfound New Labour friends he thinks he has so much in common with.