|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 191 September 2015
Challenging the political establishment
The Establishment: and how they get away with it
By Owen Jones
Published by Penguin, 2015, £8.99
Reviewed by Michael Barker
Owen Jones’s account of the ruling class serves a useful purpose in popularising criticisms of those who are mis-running our democracy. Yet, contrary to socialist analyses that focus on the pivotal role of popular struggle in setting the parameters of democracy, a central theme in 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.
While Marxists would challenge this approach, what comes through in this book is the remarkable level of contempt the political establishment holds for us, their electorate. Indeed, given their false sense of insulation, Jones does the working class a great service in astutely knitting together extensive documentary research with frank interviews from members of this elite – Tory and Labour alike – such that many of the stories are told in the establishment’s own words.
"Today’s Establishment is made up – as it has always been – of powerful groups that need to protect their position in a democracy in which almost the entire adult population has the right to vote", Jones explains. "The Establishment represents an attempt on behalf of these groups to ‘manage’ democracy, to make sure that it does not threaten their own interests". This is similar to the view propounded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, whose classic text, The Communist Manifesto, Jones states, "had described capitalist governments as a ‘committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie’, or a sort of technocratic front for heads of big business".
While Jones spends much of his book illustrating the devastating lengths by which the establishment engorge themselves at the public’s expense, a key section turns around his analysis of the decline of the Labour Party. "Labour’s accommodation with the Establishment, from 1994 onwards", as he puts it, "was engineered by both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown". The unions may have "won some battles" during the 1970s, but "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".
This is where Jones moves onto more contentious ground: 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, as the post-war boom that underpinned reformism came to an end. In 1977 it was Labour which cut government expenditure by what was then an astounding sum of £8 billion. It is surely not a coincidence that Margaret Thatcher came to power around the same time that Thatcherite policies were being embraced by Labour’s right-wing leaders.
Jones 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 leadership of the Labour Party that sold out the unions, in particular 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 attack against the National Union of Mineworkers. Jones remains silent about such problems.
But he need only turn to the work of fellow Guardian columnist Seumas Milne to learn about Kinnock’s noxious role in undermining working-class organisations – recounted in Milne’s The Enemy Within: The Secret War Against the Miners (1994). Yet the closest that Owen comes to delving into Kinnock’s murky history is revealed only cryptically, through a discussion of Patricia Hewitt’s political career.
Firstly, Jones paints Hewitt as a one-time "firebrand leftist... who backed socialist Tony Benn’s campaign for Labour’s deputy leadership in 1981". He then skips ahead some decades to conclude: "She would end up a staunch Blairite". In fact, Hewitt had moved on from being the "guardian of a publicly run health service", to being involved in all manner of private healthcare corporations, like Alliance Boots and the private equity firm Cinven. Hewitt acted as press officer for Kinnock between 1983 and 1987, before moving on to become his loyal policy co-ordinator. She actually co-wrote Kinnock’s controversial 1985 conference speech that had so viciously attacked Liverpool council, then under the political leadership of supporters of the Militant (predecessor of the Socialist Party). Jones is certainly aware of this sordid history, but ignores it to his readers’ peril – even though he does reference Defeat From the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party, by Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee, which documents the insidious role played by Kinnock, Hewitt and their fellow travellers in ditching the working class.
Despite Jones’s biting criticisms of the contemporary Labour Party, he still champions it as the lesser evil, compared to the Tories or the Liberal Democrats. "Following Tony Blair’s assumption of the Labour leadership... New Labour curtailed party democracy", he writes. But, because he only traces the problems back to Blair and his anti-trade union cronies – who "kept in place the most restrictive anti-union laws in the western world" – Jones still feels the Labour Party can be reclaimed. He wrote the book before Jeremy Corbyn’s bid for the Labour leadership and is on record elsewhere as not anticipating that a left challenger would even get on the ballot paper. But even if Corbyn proves successful, it seems doubtful that sufficient democratic structures remain in place within the party to enable it to be salvaged by the working class.
Arguably, the political 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, as demonstrated by the fact that a majority of Labour MPs failed to oppose the hated Welfare Bill. Or the fact that in January only five Labour MPs opposed the Con-Dem austerity programme. Jones touches on 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".
Instead of building a new democratic socialist alternative "with the aim of challenging those with wealth and power" (Jones’s words), his actions have served up to now to put the brakes on such progress. In many ways his counsel has seen him acting like a modern-day counterpart to the conservative 19th-century trade unionists who opposed the formation of a new political organisation, because they "still believed that the best hope of the Labour movement was to remain attached to the Liberal Party". Owen Jones somehow holds to this outdated position in spite of his own analysis of the opposition to the founding of the Labour Party. He does this at the same time as maintaining that all the mainstream political parties, rather than being "democratic movements with roots in communities", are now merely "hollowed-out… husks".