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The Establishment. And how they get away with it. Owen Jones. A Socialist Review.

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The Establishment. And how they get away with it. Owen Jones. Allen Lane 2014.

Last Tuesday supporters of the Suffolk People’s Assembly and the PCS trade union lobbied Ipswich Conservative MP, Ben Gummer. Part of the TUC campaign “Britain Needs a Pay Rise” we were there to raise concerns from the decline in the real value of public sector pay, the growing cost of living, declining working conditions, to the attacks on those receiving welfare benefits. Gummer, after admitting that he had the privileged background (Cabinet Minister dad, public school and Cambridge in case you ask) understood our worries. He knew “where we were coming from”. But tight budgets and a squeeze on spending had been needed to deal with the legacy of the last government. Now the country was on the mend.

The Honourable Member ended by evoking his recent visit to a local school Academy. Its intake includes many of the less than privileged. Yet these students were rearing to compete on the global market. Equipping them to stand up their counterparts on the East, to give them “opportunity”, was, Ben’s words suggested, a task his government had begun in earnest.

Right in the first chapter of Owen Jones’ The Establishment, one comes across Gummer’s other constituency: the TaxPayers’ Alliance. Jones meets it founder, Matthew Elliot, who founded this “unashamedly populist” campaign for lower taxation. Inspired by the American hard-right Tea Party, its influence began before the 2008 Bankers’ crash. The Alliance now boasts that it got the Tories from saying they wanted to “match Labour’s spending plans to talk about spending cuts”. The ‘shock’ of crashing banks gave them a golden opportunity to go further and further.

The TaxPayers’ Alliance awarded Ipswich MP Ben its monthly  ‘pin up’ status a couple of years ago for his attempt to rename National Insurance a Tax. (1) This is not the only link. Jones signals their campaign to end Trade Union facility time. Mr Gummer – the members of the PCS present at the lobby were well aware – has very publicly pursued this demand locally.

Needless to say the socially and (genuinely) caring liberal Ben, can quickly turn into a ferocious tigress protecting her young when the interests of one group of taxpayers, finance, are at stake. It was not so long ago that he floated the idea of reviving the ‘business vote’, an extra ballot paper for companies (no doubt with an eye on Labour controlled Ipswich Borough Council).

Dig a little and what is the core of the up and coming Conservative’s politics? For Ben Gummer the City of London, which Jones describes as marked by a “reluctance to pay taxes and an acute hostility to any form of government intervention” (Page 241) is the foundation of UK prosperity. Above all he ducks the banks’ responsibility for the economic crisis, and the government’s deficit (critics might begin with the bank bail-out….), and loads it onto the ‘tax and spend’ policies of Blair and Brown.

It is not a long journey from The Establishment to Ipswich. The previous story is an illustration of how the author succeeds in showing “how they get away with it”. Activists on the left will find many similar echoes from their own experiences of contact with professional politicians (not just Conservatives and Liberals), and “movers and shakers” in the country.

Outriders.

As most reviewers, even if they might disagree with many of Jones’ views,  have said, The Establishment is a thoughtful and thorough exploration of the world of “powerful”, who “manage democracy”. This “oligarchy”, a self-selecting elite, as Ferdinand Mount has described it, it is one profoundly changed since the 1980s (The New Few or a Very British Oligarchy. 2012) To Jones it’s “politicians who make laws, media barons who set the terms of debate; business and financiers who run the economy; police forces that enforce a law which is rigged in favour of the powerful.” What ties them together is a belief in their own rightness that they are “worth” their positions.

In their ‘heroic age’, Thatcherites could consider themselves as radicals sweeping away the old system. Now the free-market consensus has taken on a life of its own. It’s an apparatuses, helped by ‘hired hands’ and driven by the undoubted profits of financial institutions and, increasingly, a revenue flow from the state into private owners of public assets.

It is striking that “outriders”, from the Tax-Payers’ Alliance, ‘free-market’ think tanks, still consider themselves to be living in this time when they had to fight off the remnants of the post-War settlement, beat down trade unions, and remove left-wing politics from the national life. The Daily Mail, Jones observes, still thinks it is battling away at a ‘Liberal’ Establishment.  Paul Staines (aka “Guido Fawkes”)  also on the hard right says of the the political class: “I hate the fucking thieving cunts.”

The first chapter of Jones’ book underlines the contrary. The hard-right have succeeded in defining ‘common sense’, from the media, much of the public, to the highest reaches of power. They have “shifted the terms of debate and softened up public opinion” with the willing collaboration of media outlets, the BBC at the forefront, which never loses an opportunity to provide them with a platform. “They have helped shift the goalposts of debate in Britain, making ideas that were once ludicrous, absurd and wacky, become the new common sense. In the terminology of right-wing political thinker, they have shifted the ‘Overton Window’.”(Page 44)

Overton, we learn, was the vice-president of a US right-wing think tank, the grandly titled Mackinac Center for Public Policy. His concern was to ‘shift’ what is reasonable, opening a new Window of opportunity. But for policies to be Policy the outriders, scouting out the way, have to find collaborators willing to work with them.

If The Establishment covers the ideological and economic conditions for the rise of the free-market ‘counter-revolution’ in the 1970s and 1980s it does not stop there. Blair and Brown were happy to go along with what the Conservatives, starting with Thatcher, had created. “The government of both Blair and Brown were instrumental in transforming Thatcherism into a permanent settlement.”(P 61)

Owen Jones is not afraid to confront the Labour Ministers who profited handsomely from this agreement on free-market foundations. Tony Blair, and his immediate followers, are probably the most notorious. But it’s the special merit of Establishment to focus on less well-remembered instances.

Former Secretary of State for Health, Patricia Hewitt ended up as a lobbyist for private health companies. Perhaps even more startling in this particularly area is the case of Paul Corrigan a one-time activist in the Communist Party of Great Britain, and sociology lecturer, who is now deeply involved, a leading figure,  in the NHS privatisation process itself (see Wikipedia). Corrigan is married to Labour Peer,  Hilary Armstrong and is a  Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Pride of place must go to David Blunkett, former Home Secretary and subsequently in charge of the DWP. Jones meets the man himself. Blunkett can never resist the opportunity to re-enact the Monty Python Three Yorkshiremen sketch. After talking of a life existing on “bread and dripping” the former Minster bushes away how he personally profited from the largesse of the notoriously incompetent A4E (amongst his many other well-rewarded private posts, from News International onwards). There is no interrogation of how A4E’s exploitation of state revenue only happened because of his own legislation. The MP proffers only this, “I’m not living a flash lifestyle, but I’m very comfortable.”(Page 76) Though not quite as comfortable as David Miliband, reported by Jones to have made a million in two and a half years after his failed Labour leadership bid in 2010.

This ‘revolving door’, by which former Cabinet Ministers end up being rewarded by companies their legislation has helped, works for politicians of all parties. If the Tories do badly next year, and when the Liberals are drubbed, we will see another crop. Jones remind us that 46 of the top fifty publicly ranked traded firms in the UK had a British parliamentarian as either a director or a shareholder.

The problem is not that politicians are especially venal as such – a pretty hollow claim given the opportunities for far easier money-making in other walks of life. It is that, as Jones says, “Mainstream politicians had been transformed by policies that once belonged to the dreams of the outriders. A mentality of greed had been promoted amongst the business elite, now this mentality had infected the political elite too. Politicians became unapologetic lobbyists for private interests both inside and outside Westminster.”(Page 83)

When one reads this it’s hard not to think of this, possibility, cited in Tomas Picketty’s influential Capital in the Twenty First Century. That some would “privatise all pubic assets. According to the national accounts of various European countries, the proceeds from selling all public buildings, schools, universities, hospitals, police stations, infrastructures, and so will be roughly sufficient to pay off all outstanding public debt. Instead of holding public debt via their financial investments, the wealthiest European households would becomes the direct owners of schools, hospitals, police stations, and so on. Everyone else would then have to pay rent to use these assets and continue to produce the associated public services.”(Page 541 –2 Capital in the Twenty-first Century. 2014).

In many respect we are paying rent to private owners for an ever-growing number of ‘public’ services. What this means is that wealth is transferred from the majority to this minority through the mechanism of taxation and charges for indispensable common goods (health onwards). If Picketty is right about the tendency of modern Capital to favour the transformation of entrepreneurs into the holders of such claims (‘rentiers’) the free-market system may be encouraging its own cannibalism. One could also investigate the way these profiteers are directly shaping a whole range of public social policies, for the institutions they themselves run.

Democratic Revolution.

There are many other themes brought up in The Establishment, covering the media, the increasing harshness of Law and  the Police, and their use to suppress protests, the demonisation of the poor, and an array of illuminating sections on the Oligarchy’s inner courts, the City, and the Tax-dodging Tycoons and corporation. I was impressed by the grasp – not common amongst political writers – of the last decade’s coercive and shambolic changes in the Benefit system and the obstacles and misery these have created for millions of people.

But it is the political alternative to the present system that should provoke the most attention. Is the ‘elite’ at fault for the way it’s recruited? There is one area where this appears blatant: professional politics. Jones, following many others, observes is that MPs are increasingly drawn from a narrow stratum of society, often with no experience of anything other than politics, and even fewer from working class backgrounds. That this is an international phenomenon can be seen in an article in Le Monde yesterday (16.10.14). It notes that only 2,6% of French MPs come from manual or ordinary clerical occupations. But can this be changed by the kind of “equality of opportunity” that the free-market’s supporters promote?

But, as he points out, we should start by considering the corporate influence on law, from the UK to the European Union. Jones is not clear on how the EU should be approached. If it inspires unbridled hatred form one section of the Establishment, in the area of Britain’s sovereignty, another endorses it, precisely because it is remote from any democratic control. He concludes, not very confidently, that, “It is the Establishment that really reigns supreme.”(Page 294).

This sounds as if he would, or is edging towards abstention on any conflict – that is the Referendum – on UK membership. The loudest yelps for liberty come from those who wish to follow the worst aspects of US policy and politics, including its boss class of slave-drivers.  What other vehicle for ‘internationalist ‘ ambitions could be offered, other that is than a refounded and transformed Social European Union, remains to be seen.

For a democratic revolution we need democrats. The grip of the free-market outriders has, Jones, considers, to be challenged by bringing the “fragments” of opposition together. One thing that implies is that more solidly organised left-wing think tanks should be formed, and backing existing ones such as the New Economic Foundation and Class. More fundamentally The Establishment advocates public ownership. But perhaps we need the kind of public owners who can run them democratically. That is, the creation of a counterpart to the ideal of dedicated public servants of the past, educated with a feeling for the common good – and kept under control by open public mechanisms. “service users and workers”.

There are plenty of other policies to develop. Probably equally ambitious is the demand that along with clamping down on tax Avoidance we should “drive the power of Big Money from politics” (Page 311).

Will these and other proposals shift the ‘Overton Window’ “away from the Establishment” and “open up been more radical possibilities”? Change Owen concludes is “not won through the goodwill and generosity of those above, but though the struggle and sacrifice of those below.” In Le Monde Diplomatique (October 2014) Jones has written of the weakness of Ed Miliband’s alternative to the Right, and even UKIP. The French Socialist government and President Hollande, for all their initial rhetoric about challenging ‘finance’ never tried these policies, and is now drifting  ever rightwards. Will those prepared to go out on the streets to act now help turn the tide to the left, or at least stem the headlong plunge to the right? Are the embers of socialism about to be relit? 

The struggle of those people in Ipswich who lobbied Ben Gummer and all those who will be at Saturday’s TUC demonstration indicates some who are doing their best to do so……

Photo: Ben Gummer was photographed outside his office last week, when supporters of Suffolk Peoples Assembly and the Trades Council lobbied for the "Britain needs a Pay Rise" demonstration.

Ben's smile seemed a little forced, possibly because the latest polls show Labour's David Ellesemere is 7% ahead in polls for the Ipswich seat, with around 38% to Gummer's 31%.   

UKIP are currently on 19% and the Lib Dems 6%.

(photo by Tony Dooley)

Lobby of Gummer.

(1) Wikipedia. “Gummer first proposed annual tax statements to UK taxpayers, due for introduction in 2014. These will show shares of government spending in proportion to the amount of tax the taxpayer paid in the year. it was opposed by the Labour Party. Gummer’s proposal was favorably received by the press. He became The Suns Westminster “hero of the week” It was included in the 2012 Budget with George Osborne calling it “an excellent idea”. The TaxPayers’ Alliance subsequently honoured Gummer as their ‘Pin-Up of the Month‘. It also got the support of the Prime Minister.

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