Putting Socialism back on the agenda

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Estelle Cooch and Jack Farmer spoke to Owen Jones, a left wing member of the Labour Party and author of Chavs, about New Labour, capitalism and the demonisation of the working class

What was it that first motivated you to write Chavs?

Above all it was to put class on the agenda. I wanted to challenge this idea that we're all middle class now and that all that remains of the working class is a feckless rump. The point is that if you don't have class, then you don't have class politics and if you don't have class politics, then you don't have a left.

New Labour's strategy was partly predicated on the idea that there's no such thing as the working class any more and therefore any notion of socialism is obsolete - it died with the working class. As a socialist this is what I wanted to do - because if you don't have class politics you're a liberal. Class is at the heart of what socialism is.

My motivation was also to do with the community I grew up in. I grew up with kids who had all the odds stacked against them yet there was this idea that social problems didn't exist - they were just individual failings. If people were poor and unemployed it was their own fault. Thatcher hammered that into people's heads in the 1980s. I wanted to take that on.

Have you been surprised at how much of a resonance the book has had?

As much as I'd like to take credit, it had nothing to do with me. Class had crept back onto the agenda. The crisis of capitalism has focused people's attention on unjust distributions of wealth and power. In this last year the average family has experienced the biggest squeeze on living standards since the 1920s but directors of FTSE 100 companies have seen their pay go up 49 percent. There is also the fact of having a Tory government - 29 of the cabinet are millionaires; the prime minister is an Old Etonian.

What do you think is New Labour's legacy?

As the left we're supposed to look at politics at the top as being in part a product of what's happening below. I think sometimes there's this "big man" view of history that creeps into the left - things are right wing because a few leaders at the top are right wing. That's not what happened. New Labour is a product of the legacy of defeats the labour movement and the left suffered after the 1980s.

So it wasn't just that Labour shifted to the right. The left as a global force has disintegrated - with the exception of Latin America. That's to do with neoliberalism first being introduced into Latin America on a mass scale, and therefore the first wave of resistance happened there. But the left almost disintegrated as a global force. Communist parties, social democratic parties, African liberation parties like the ANC - they all shifted to the right in an almost synchronised fashion. So New Labour has to be seen in that broader context. People on the left can say: well, the Labour Party is crap - but New Labour was part of the broader perfect storm which consumed the left.

But in terms of what New Labour did - it accepted Thatcher's consensus in the way that the Tories were forced to accept Clement Attlee's post-war consensus. This was always based on the assumption that so-called "Middle England" - that was the key to electoral success. What they meant by "Middle England" was actually very affluent voters. In Britain the median wage is £21,000 - but they weren't talking about people on that wage. New Labour expected working class voters to always vote for them. That didn't happen - Labour lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010. The Tories only got an extra million votes. The class breakdown shows that the ones who deserted were from places like where I grew up, frankly. They didn't vote Tory. They just sat on their hands in disgust.

It's difficult to make the case to join Labour. I remember the march on 15 February 2003. People were pretty fucked off - because Labour had invaded another country in partnership with the most right wing US administration of modern times and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis were slaughtered. But for me the whole point about the Labour Party is a tactical point. The trade union link with Labour remains in place, and so it remains a potential vehicle for working class representation. Unfortunately, the unions don't use their potential power within the Labour Party. On the NEC their representatives end up voting with the leadership; with MPs, nominations they'll back right wing candidates against left wing candidates. So if we can't get the unions to use their potential power within the Labour Party even now, how can we build a new workers' party which would have to be based somehow on the unions? So for me that's the tactical case. I've always been affiliated with the Labour left, and John McDonnell in particular.

How would you put the case for socialists and left wingers to join Labour rather than a revolutionary party like the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)?

It's a difficult one. The Labour left is marginalised and lacks organisation. Labour was only kicked out of office 18 months ago and people were really pissed off with New Labour for very understandable reasons. A lot of the foundations for what the Tories are now doing were laid by New Labour. Ed Miliband's leadership so far hasn't articulated a coherent alternative to cuts - just fewer and slower cuts. For lots of people that would still mean the biggest cuts since the 1920s.

When you make the case in terms of being on the Labour left then it can be a bit complex to have to explain the distinction. Often I end up just having to apologise! I understand people's anger and frustration and it's difficult to navigate.

There has been a problem not just for people like me but for all of what's regarded as the "old left". I'm not sure that the traditional parties of the far left have made significant inroads in the last year, given the upsurge in struggle. There remains a suspicion towards all political parties. If I could be accused of trying to co-opt these movements, so could the SWP! This matters because we live in an age without a mass left. The legacy of Stalinism and of New Labour means what is wrongly called the "old left" - socialists of different stripes - find it difficult to get much traction.

In the aftermath of the riots there were calls for state repression, with young people being denounced as "feral rats". What do you think was the fallout from the riots?

There was a tremendous right wing backlash after the riots. David Starkey's outburst on Newsnight was terrible. For my point of view [appearing on Newsnight opposite Starkey] it was a total ambush. He needed to be taken down in a way he wasn't on the programme. His racist argument was that black culture has colonised white people and turned them into thugs. He's trying to find a way of scapegoating black people while taking into account the fact that the rioters came from diverse ethnic backgrounds. More white people have been charged than black people. The way he got around that was by saying] the white people who rioted have become black. It was an outrageous racist argument.

Cameron has used the riots to justify his crusade against the welfare state. The threatened eviction of council tenants who rioted, is collective punishment because it means evicting family members who had nothing to do with it. They also talked about taking benefits away from criminals. This establishes the principle that if you are poor or unemployed you will be punished twice in Cameron's Britain.

This idea of a "feral underclass" is about saying there are poor people who are not just undeserving - they're like animals. They live on council estates and depend on benefits. They're spongers and scroungers and they're trashing their own community and they're coming to get you. This idea was used for very cynical political purposes by the right. The right do this with crises. The crisis of neoliberalism (as we know it) was caused at the top in the private sector, yet they've turned it around to say that it was a crisis of the public sector and public spending. They're doing the same with the riots.

In Chavs you talk about how the BNP have latched onto the idea that there is a "white working class" - a label that wrongly implies that white workers have interests different from non-white workers. Do you think an analysis of class can help the left to combat the far-right?

I argue against the idea of a "white working class" in the book. New Labour began by saying "We're all middle class", and then when the BNP started breathing down their neck they started talking about the "white working class".

It's this idea that there's this marginalised "ethnic minority" whose problems can be explained by their whiteness. They're obsessed by immigration, disorientated by multiculturalism and when they're not taking out benefits they're voting for the BNP. Look at London - take Newham, Hackney or Tower Hamlets: these are working class communities that are ethnically diverse in a way many Home Counties suburbs aren't. Compare the jobs people do. If you work in a supermarket you're far more likely to mix with people of a different ethnic background than if you work in a high-powered legal firm. But no one talks about the white middle class.

Issues to do with jobs, wages and conditions are to do with class and are held in common on a class basis. Of course some people face a double oppression. Over half of people from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi background are in jobs that pay less than £7 an hour. There is a concentration of people from ethnic minority backgrounds in jobs that are low-paid and insecure. In terms of the BNP - look at somewhere like Dagenham. We've got a housing crisis in this country because New Labour failed to build new council houses. That's left 5 million people languishing on social housing waiting lists. So in a place like Dagenham the BNP say, why are we giving council houses to X, Y or Z instead of people like you?

There is a lack of a coherent left narrative that says we need council houses for all. That's the failure of New Labour. The BNP is one of the products of the way New Labour always looks to the market and fails to address the social needs of working class people. The left should be fighting for the territory of those people. Just reducing it to racist attitudes is problematic. Racist attitudes were far more entrenched 60 years ago but because of the struggles of the anti-racist movement they've been pushed back. In the 1950s the vast majority of people rejected interracial marriages. Very few people would even dream of making that case now. Yet we didn't have a mass racist party in the 1950s.

What do you think about the Occupy movement? What opportunities does it raise for a renewal of the left?

Well, first we had the student movement, which was a detonator. Before that we had this idea that people in Britain won't protest. The TUC-organised demonstration on 26 March gave people renewed confidence. People thought, if the students can resist why can't we? They showed it was possible to fight back. Then we had 30 June which managed to get a lot of public sympathy despite Ed Miliband's wrong-headed and ridiculous denunciation of the strike.

The problem is this though: we live in an age of revolt, but an age without a mass left. What that means is that you have these exciting mobilisations that lack any coherent political direction - although that might change. In the student movement the autonomists and the anarchists have made a lot of headway. But I'm a socialist, not an anarchist. I was part of the anti-globalisation movement, which was really exciting at the time. That's not to write it off - a lot of it went on to be the core of the anti-war movement. But the anti-globalisation movement was derailed by 9/11 and it lacked any coherent political direction.

The Occupy movement is great because it refocuses people's attention on the people who caused the crisis. As a consciousness-raising exercise it's really good and people should be proud of what they've done. But this can only be a first stage, because unless you actually build a coherent political alternative, there's no threat to capitalism.

But the Occupy movement has meant that suddenly people are talking about capitalism and how it could be challenged. Ed Miliband has responded by talking about "productive" as opposed to "predatory" capitalism.

I was recently on the radio in a discussion about capitalism - I pointed out that the only reason we were having the discussion was because of the protest on St Paul's steps. For that reason it's been a huge success.

The idea of getting rid of capitalism seems for some people less realistic than the end of the world or something! For some it seemed that the only serious alternative to capitalism was Stalinism - totalitarianism. For the left to challenge capitalism we should get away from the old-style top-down bureaucratic reorganisations with no involvement of workers. In place of that I'd have social ownership. In the railways, for example, you'd have an elected board - a third for the government, a third for the workers and a third for passengers. That's a way of having economic planning while also democratising the economy in favour of working people.

Do you define yourself as anti-capitalist?

Yes. It's irrational to have a society run in the interests of private profit in which the levers of power are in the hands of a tiny privileged elite and where working class people are exploited. In terms of a democratic socialist society - I say democratic but of course democratic and socialist are completely interchangeable terms - socialism is about extending democracy into every sphere of life. But we have to flesh this out as a coherent alternative. Sometimes the left fails to use a language which connects with the everyday struggles of working class people.

We need to talk about things to do with people's everyday lives like housing. We have to talk about things we're not traditionally comfortable talking about. Take anti-social behaviour - we can understand the causes of anti-social behaviour. At the same time the poorer you are the more likely you are to suffer from it. When you say that to people, they'll say, "Well, I'm poor and I don't behave like that." The left has to have a way of responding to people's everyday concerns and coming up with coherent alternatives.

30 November is an important first step for the left - getting hundreds of thousands of people on strike in different sectors is a massive step forward. We should be aware of where we're coming from. We shouldn't say it's 1926 or nothing - there was a big build-up to that strike. In the same way 30 November can be a detonator for wider struggles. It widens people's view of what is possible. What seemed impossible yesterday becomes realisable today. It shows the power of organised workers.