Socialism: it’s nothing personal

1st February, 2012 4:56 pm

I’m almost feeling sorry for Fred the Shred. ‘Humbling of Mister Godwin’, mocked the Daily Mail; ‘Goodwin is shredded’ (geddit?) bellowed the Daily Telegraph; ‘Once A Knight Fred’, echoed the Sun, a newspaper always keen to win the most imaginative pun stakes.

It’s more than tempting for the left to jump on this populist bandwagon. After seething with anger as those who had nothing to do with the crisis have been expected to pay for it, finally, one of the those responsible for the current catastrophe has been held to account in some small way.

But this is where the left should have a different approach to the right. The crisis was not caused by a few “bad eggs”; the odd greedy banker who can be treated as a fall guy, and then we can all move on. It was a system – not a few individuals – which plunged the world into economic catastrophe. This is a crisis of unfettered capitalism, red in tooth and claw, not the unfortunate consequences of some cock-ups by the likes of Fred Goodwin. We forget this at our peril.

I’ll give you an example: James Dyson, a businessman who gave his name to the pioneering vacuum cleaner. He was once hailed as leading a renaissance in British manufacturing, until he shut his British factory down and upped sticks to Malaysia in 2003. It’s not because he’s a bad person, or morally questionable: it’s because capitalism is about making profit, rather than putting the good of society first.

In short, a good slogan could be: “Socialism, it’s nothing personal.” The left stands in opposition to the way society is currently structured, not to the fact there are greedy or selfish individuals running the show.

Apologies for quoting myself, but in the introduction of my book Chavs I wrote: “We are all prisoners of our class, but that does not mean we have to be prisoners of our class prejudices.” I could be accused of hypocrisy here: after all, like others, I’ve railed against the fact that we currently have a government of multi-millionaires, and the fact that Parliament is full of middle-class professionals. That’s not to say the well-heeled have no place in politics whatsoever: but unless working-class people are properly represented, their interests will not be properly championed (as indeed they’re not). When I asked Hazel Blears why New Labour had let 5 million people languish on social housing waiting lists, for example, one reason she gave was that there simply hadn’t been anyone sufficiently interested in housing. Yet if there were people in Parliament who’d actually experienced the housing crisis, the odds of something being done about it would dramatically increase.

It should be how we understand politics, too. Some on the left offer a lazy critique of New Labour, effectively arguing that the Labour leadership swung to the right in the mid-1990s because a coterie of right-wingers (led by Tony Blair) made it that way. But New Labour was really the product of a whole range of factors: the rise of the New Right, the battering of the labour movement in the 80s, repeated electoral defeats producing massive disorientation and desperation, and the capitalist triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War.

It’s easy, too, to castigate Ed Miliband personally for the concessions the Labour leadership has made to the Tory cuts agenda. But, again, it is in large part a product of the weakness of the left (which barely exists as a coherent political force).

That doesn’t mean individuals should not be beyond criticism: after all, we’re not all robots – we all have agency. Attacking a politician for hypocrisy is completely legitimate. For example, I wrote a pretty blistering attack on Liam Byrne on LabourList back in January. But it was a political, rather than a personal point: if you demonise some of the poorest people in society who receive money from the state while wrongfully claiming far larger sums yourself, then you should expect to face accusations of hypocrisy.

But because the right believe that the left is motivated by personal hatred towards those from privileged backgrounds, there’s nothing they like more than going for “posh” lefties. If you’re from a middle-class background or above and have anything other than a commitment to naked self-interest, then you’re a hypocrite, or so this line of attack goes.

Sometimes this is taken to absurd lengths. For example, one senior right-wing journalist attempted to pressure his fellow columnists to write a piece about the fact my ex-boyfriend was privately educated. I don’t mind right-wingers taking pot-shots at me – it’s what I expect – though I do object to others being dragged into it; at the time, I had to explain to him that he might be about to be publicly outed while he was being treated for cancer. Unpleasant, but the point that the journalist was trying to make was – “oh look, here’s a left-wing journalist who rages against privilege, but look who he’s sleeping with”.

My whinge aside, there’s always been a long tradition of people from relatively privileged backgrounds in the ranks of the left, such as George Orwell and Tony Benn, for example. And as long as they don’t crowd others out, and make sure they defer to working-class experiences, then there’s nothing wrong with it.

Above all, the left’s beef is with a system that is as unjust as it is irrational. Taking pot shots at the odd banker, or those who had no say over which school they went to, misses the point. After all, socialism is nothing personal.

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  • Anonymous

    Your comments on Orwell and Benn remind me of something that the great Paul Foot, another traitorous scion of privilege, said at a meeting.

    Accused of being unable to relate to the working man as a result of his “middle class” background, he subjected the unfortunate speechmaker on the evil of dismissing the truth of a system of social relations based on oppression on the fact that the person telling you about it has a different accent.

    And in any case, he went on, he wasn’t middle class, he was ruling class. If anyone knew about exploiting proles, he should.

  • Anonymous

    I think the best way to increase the number of working class people in the Labour Party is to practise some form of affirmative action. At the moment, when working class people look at the Labour Party, they see a party of privately educated, middle class people who are as far detached from everyday life as the Tories. When another middle class person becomes an MP for the Labour Party, there’s not just the crowding out effect, but it makes it more likely that working class people are put off from joining the party, therefore creating a more long term effect of decreasing the working class voice within the party.

    The party can’t claim to be representing Labour without members who genuinely know what working class people go through on a day to day basis. Otherwise, you end with the situation where the Labour Party is seen out of touch on issues that are serious issues in many working class constituencies, like the effects of globalisation on wages and immigration.

    • GuyM

      Are you really suggesting that middle class people are “detached from everyday life”?

  • Syg21

    Socialism: Keep it buddy…I want no part thanks so don’t force it on me.

  • Briankelly121

    Owen is quite right….it is attractive for right wing elites to scapegoat so they can then proceeds with their rapacious activity of transferring wealth from the majority to the minority thus forcing the latter to borrow to purchase the goods that keep the economy moving.

    They also like the idea of going down the argument of not paying for failure but as we see with Hester whatever these characters do – lose money, sack workers, plunder the public purse, fail to lend and offload branches, reduce profits and wreck the share price …..all become signs of success in this madness. We should not pay for ‘success’ if it means impoverishing people and letting tax credits make up the difference , or shrinking thworkforce and productive capacity. In fact they are reducing the wealth of the nation and transferring to offshore accounts. How can this ever be progressive?

  • GuyM

    If someone like James Dyson is to unable to make decisions on where to base his company (or parts of it) why would he or anyone else want to start a business in the UK?

    Are you seriously suggesting he should be blocked from closing a factory down? How would you manage that? If a parent company refuses to employ a workforce any longer and moves production overseas what would you do? Nationalise that factory without all the supply network or support of the parent company?

    You would fall foul of every court in the UK and EU if you tried to appropriate a brand name etc.

    In the end you’d be left with a factory no one wanted, with no supply side or corporate support and unable to use the brands, products or corporate structures (R&D, finance, HR, sales and marketing etc.) of the company who had withdrawn in the first place.

    Your only option is to basically overthrow the capitalist system on a global basis, something which despite the dreams of leftists for years has about zero chance of occurring.

    So, out of all politeness Owen, what exactly is your realistic and well thought out alternative to allowing people like Dyson to determine where he wants his production facilities to be based?


    By the way Mark, I seem to have gone from being able to post reasonably freely, to in the last couple of weeks getting virtually nothing through at all.

    I have no problem with the current state of affairs if the editorial control of the site has shifted in terms of allowing dissenting views. It is after all a guest’s privilege at best. However if you could just let me know not to bother it would, out of politeness, be appreciated. Cheers.

  • charles.ward

    “My whinge aside, there’s always been a long tradition of people from
    relatively privileged backgrounds in the ranks of the left, such as
    George Orwell and Tony Benn, for example. And as long as they don’t
    crowd others out, and make sure they defer to working-class experiences,
    then there’s nothing wrong with it.”

    If you treat middle-class people in the party as second class citizens then the middle class will assume that you will treat them the same way.

    If someone said that working-class people should defer to middle-class experiences and should not crowd out the middle class you would (rightly) assume they were a deeply prejudiced person.  Even for a soldier in Ed’s “class war” I don’t think this sort of language is appropriate.

    • Anonymous

      Re treating middle-class Labourites as second-class in the party – I think this is absolutely fair and right and probably wise in the long run to defer to working-class experience where it would be most beneficial, i.e. where issues affect the working class specifically. It’s playing to your strengths and makes practical sense. However, I don’t think this needs to be mutually exclusive with excluding those from a more middle-class background from discussion or leadership.(I’m assuming that sentiment was implicit in the piece. ) 

      • Anonymous

        But at the moment the middle class are doing exactly that to the working class, for god sake Brown thought he was working class, then you have the Frank Fields the Huttons the Purnells the Byrnes the, well you could name 95% of the new labour brigade or the newer labour  lot.

        • Anonymous

          It’s true, they are.
          They should really stop, and bring in more diversity of opinion. It’s one of the many problems the current Labour lot have, I guess.

          • Anonymous

            To quote – was it Nietzsche? – “Have you not heard? The working class is dead?”

          • Anonymous

            I think it was God rather than the working class that Nietzsche declared as dead, Mike. I’m just saying. Perhaps you’re thinking about Peter Mandelson.

          • Anonymous

            Mandy, horns and red eyes are his trade mark

          • Redshift

            Even Mandy is no longer relaxed about people getting filthy rich….

          • Anonymous
    • Redshift

      Surely Owen’s point is that middle-class members of the party have a wide range of distinct advantages when trying to become elected representatives, and that has a direct impact upon our party’s politics – not necessarily in all areas but certainly areas such as housing (I would actually argue about lax laws around agency firms too). 

      Arguably what Owen is in favour of is less controversial than all-women’s shortlists (which I do support, even if occasionally we go a bit overboard). The fundamental problem with implementing it is where to draw the line. 

      My view is that whilst it wouldn’t be a working class shortlist per se, you could undermine the advantage some many middle class PPCs had in selections in their mobility by having an ‘all-local list’. 

    • Anonymous

      Some people talk damned nonsense “Ed’s ‘class war’.

      I think you must be unique in noticing it.

      What many people believe – myself included – is that because so many Labour figures – including both Milibands – know so little about the day to day problems of  the poorer people in society – the working class if you want to use that term – the woman who works on the supermarket checkout, the man who has an unskilled job in a factory etc – they are not best placed to understand their problems. They also show little interest in wanting to learn, either – they have their own solutions and nothing will change their opinions. They don’t go out and talk to people, except at election times, and they feel their solutions have to be right (or “Right” in the case of D Miliband) and we should all accept that. If we don’t we are naughty little proles, because they know best.

      It’s damned insulting

      • charles.ward

         ‘ Some people talk damned nonsense “Ed’s ‘class war’.” ‘

        Are you saying Ed was talking nonsense when he declared class war in PMQs or me for repeating it.

        ‘ I think you must be unique in noticing it. ‘

        Google “Ed Miliband class war” and I think you’ll find I wasn’t the only one to notice.

        • Anonymous

          In my day if you mentioned class it was the working class against the rich or the well off, it was so simple thee have nots fighting the have it all.

          That was what labour was all about not them against the bankers for god sake.

          Since we now have the min wage Labour believes that took everyone out of the poor category into the middle class grouping, so no need to mention working class because well we are all no Middle class.

        • Anonymous

          It IS ridiculous for ANYONE to talk about “class war”, especially when you have had a fairly priveleged upbringing like EM has. You have to take it with a hefty pinch of salt IMO.

          I don’t like the term anyway – I came myself from what would nowadays be described as a quite poor working class background, but I have never considered myself at war in any sense, with anybody. The only thing that gets my goat is when some people (and I am not speaking of you personally), think that by virtue of their origins they are somehow superior. I am a great believer in equality, and I find it unpleasant when, because they feel themselves superior, automatically imagine that certain people are inferior to themselves. For example we have one poster on LL who makes no bones of the fact that he dislikes the working class, would never employ anybody who he regarded as such and so on. I would respectfully suggest that sort of attitude smacks more of “class war”, but none of the Blair/Brown/Miliband team have the credibility to suggest they are class warriors

  • Anonymous

    An interesting article, of sorts.  There needs to be more Working Class politicians in all parties, but how about some that haven’t studied at Cambridge or Oxford? That would make a difference.
    Who are the working class Mps in the Labour Shadow cabinet and who are the working class Mps in the Lib Dems?
    If anyone knows, please feel free to respond.

  • Anonymous

    The fight for labour is getting ready to explode with David Miliband holding back no longer. It will end up deciding which section of labour will succeed the  Ed Miliband Newer labour we are to the left but keep it a secret, or the so called middle right we are new labour brigade, the winners will be the the Tories.

    • But, from what I’ve seen of his latest intervention, D.M. seems to be against big government but doesn’t say what he is in favour of.

      Can’t imagine anyone saying the private sector is the way to go – not after the banking debacle.

      • Anonymous

        But he does say he sees the only way back for labour is through the middle  way or if you like New labour route, and I suspect he is seeing a weakness in the Labour party and a route for him to hit back. Any one who comes out telling the party the middle ground is the only way, then comes out telling  the Party Darling has to come back onto the front benches, I have no doubt the New Labour brigade have stated now is the time, and whether David has spoken to Darling and a few others.

        But in fighting is what kept the Tories out and gave Blair free rein in doing what he liked and now it labours turn.

        Going to be very interesting a Fight between Newer labour under Ed and his brother , what type of Party will be left is the worry

      • Anonymous

        I think what David Miliband is in favour of is – David Miliband.

        Interesting that he chose to make his intervention in a fairly good week for his brother and a week after he accepted an overpaid job for a few hours work a month with an investment company

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    There is a huge tradition in left thinking, writing and organising from Marx onwards that defaults to middle class people assuming leadership positions, talking “on behalf of” the working classes (or proletariat), but yet when in power doing absolutely nothing to help the working class.  It is particularly clear in the history of Soviet and Chinese communism, but in a gentler way also readily apparent in the Labour party.  Keir Hardie and the early leaders of the Labour Party came from genuinely working class backgrounds, but from Clem Attlee onwards none of them could have described themselves as working class.  In my own opinion, Clem Attlee was the last Labour leader who ever did anything to help the working classes, and that was more than 60 years ago.  Everything since then has been “managerial”.

    It’s a bit of a difficulty for genuinely left wing people (I am not among them).  Socialism as a political philosophy is dead in both intellectual and practical terms.  It has been repeatedly proven not to work anywhere in the world in the last 100 years, and the British electorate are not stupid.  The leadership of the only British national political party that may offer hope to socialists are running away from the philosophy as fast as they can.  But, and this I find sad, there is no one party that genuinely looks for the interests of the working class, and in that vacuum parties like the BNP find room to grow.

    • “Clem Attlee was the last Labour leader who ever did anything to help the working classes”

      Well, there’s just the little matter of the Equal Pay Act, the minimum wage and, perhaps most importantly of all, the Health and Safety at Work Act – 1000s of lives saved.

      You appear to be talking through your hat.

      • Nearly forgot: improvements (1997 – 2010) to the NHS (wink, wink).

        • jaime taurosangastre candelas

          Yes, improvements, but also a great cost.  Cost/benefit?  Difficult to tell, but on OECD 30 statistics we have declined in outcomes over the last 15 years.  Probably because we are spending a vast amount more on non-clinical items than other nations.  PFIs and admin.  They are like bindweed.

          • Yet the Commonwealth Fund survey ranked the NHS 1st in short waiting times for specialist care and quality of clinical care.

            And since the Tory-led government came to power the number of patients not being treated within the NHS waiting-time limit – 18 weeks – has soared by 43%.

            And as studies undertaken by the L.S.E. and the Nuffield Foundation have shown, health reforms implemented by Labour along with additional investment were essential to improved outcomes, especially for poorer patients.

          • Hugh

             Yet the Commonwealth Fund, despite its grand sounding name, is just a non profit lobby group in favour of nationalised health care. The WHO, which is a tad more credible, didn’t mark the UK anywhere near the top when it used to do it; nor the OECD.

          • A case of messenger shooting…

          • Hugh

             No, not really. I suspect you’d doubt the reliability of private sector lobbyists. Furthermore, since both the WHO and OECD  produce (or at least have done) data on this subject, can you give me a reason why we should rely on the Commonwealth Fund, which doesn’t quite have the same standing?

          • I wouldn’t discount any rigourous research, undertaken by any institution, just because it produced conclusions contrary to my own opinions.

            To do so would be indicative of axe-grinding inclinations.

          • Hugh

            And should the research conflict, you’d opt for the findings of a US non profit over the OECD and WHO because..?

          • Then a careful assessment it needed.
            If, at the end, it’s a level playing field, it usually becomes  a matter of political priorities and values.

          • Anonymous

            Then why is it waiting times are not from the time your GP writes to the consultant, but the waiting time starts from when your consultant says you need treatment.

            The NHS dentist were a New Labour problem, we still do not have an NHS dentist.

            It nice that people believe in labour and the NHS sadly people  see a different world when your ill.

            The time  for the waiting list starts from when your consultants says you need treatment not from the time your GP writes a letter that can mean up to a year before you go onto a waiting list.

            Targets in hospital again I saw it my self, people with a bee sting being treated before a person with a broken leg, because the bee sting is simple quick and you meet your target.

            Do not get me wrong the NHS is far better then the American model

            The pen is mightier then the waiting list

        • Anonymous

          We all know the NHS is a big massive hole which will take what ever you give it and expect more the billions labour gave it mainly in one large chunk was gone, my hospital took on a Car park manager £120,000 but had sold the car parks to a private company, the car park manager who was a sales person, then had to become a bed manager, they then employed an Art critic for £130,000 who’s job it was to check out good solid bits of art, worth many thousands of pound , he lasted three years and my NHS stated it was three million in debt, the Assembly cleared that the following year they stated they had to let the heart surgeon go because they could not afford him as they were ten million in debt, it’s now  £25 million in debt and marked for closure.

          The simple fact the NHS will devour what ever you give it and ask for more

      • jaime taurosangastre candelas

        The Equal Pay Act in May 1970 passed with opposition votes in addition to Government votes, and in the dog-end of the Government which had had several years to implement it, or more obviously 2 years since the sewing machinists’ strike in 1968.  The Labour Government also chose to put a 4 1/2 year delay on implementation, so it did not take effect until 29 December 1975.  The minimum wage was successful, but why did it take 13 Labour Governments and 100 years to implement it?  The Health and Safety Act is class-neutral.

        • Are you claiming these didn’t “help the working classes”?

          • Anonymous

            Are you saying they made that much of a difference, if so why was labour kicked so hard

          • I gave up voting for Labour over the Iraq war – lives wasted for no reason other than Blair’s vanity.

            Now Ed has recognised it as a mistake, I’ll vote for Labour again and have re-joined.

      • Anonymous

        yet rail companies still are not being charged for manslaughter for what is little  less then knowingly allowing people to be killed.  My own accident the company was found to be guilty of neglect lying and falsifying information and had a fine of £170    the company turn over was into the billions.

        Health and safety only comes into affect after the accident not before, because somebody and it’s mostly Unions have people who are safety reps, but the vast majority of builders do not join Unions.
         The equal pay act was brought in but the Government failed to enforce it as we all know,  the Min wage was set  way to low even to day JSA is equal to it if you believe that £20 difference is acceptable I do not.

        The one area Labour made a success but it has been a bigger success if he had not attacked the poorest with his ten pence tax fiasco, was of course tax and child credits, but it came to late to save Brown.

        • I’m not saying the situation is perfect but it has improved and most improvements are consequent to action by Labour governments.

          I worked in the building game when asbestos was everywhere and it wasn’t just those who worked with it who were affected it was also those at home who were exposed to contaminated clothing.

          I remember telling a lad (in the early 70s), working with a hand saw in a cloud of asbestos dust as he cut a panel for a fire door: “That stuff can kill you, if you want to refuse to do it we’ll see what we can do.” And things would have got very awkward with the management if he refused, which he didn’t.

          Today, in similar circumstances, you’d have the force of law on your side.

          And now Cameron has declared war on H & S culture…

  • Pingback: Socialism: it’s nothing personal « person in a suitcase()

  • Anonymous

    Little Owen, please change your picture. It shows a young know-all and I am sure that you cannot be that.
    People are human. Some of us – we two (even though I am a Tory Troll) for example – are already perfect and working for the good of society. We don’t need encouragement. We just do it. I am working, as it happens, because I am a Christian, you, no doubt for your own way of life and belief. Wonderful aren’t we.But there are other talented people out there who are just not up to our wonderfully high standards of behaviour. Poor little things, they need to be propped up with money, peerages, BMWs and high positions within their party.Take away those incentives and you are left with -the Comprehensive school, the current Welfare State, – Hey! Wait a minute, perhaps I had better rewrite this………..

    • Anonymous

      Take away those incentives and you are left with -the Comprehensive school”

      Mike in trying to look and sound superior you merely sound snobbish. Not all comprehensive schools are bad. You will probably need to hold your nose when I tell you that I went to the precursor of the comprehensives – a Secondary Modern school in London. Many of us actually learned things you know – not just how to steal or assault the teachers, and I and many like me went on after school (I left at 15) to attend the much-missed Technical College, and thanks to that I had a successful career lasting 45 years. I was never out of work, and I can honestly say I never cheated on my expenses, never took off “flu days” or whatever they are called, and I think did a fairly good job.

      Most of the lads I went to school with turned out to be good honest , conscentious workers. I cannot guarantee that nobody got into trouble (in fact one of our teachers ended up in court, but thats another story), but the point is, a “good” education is no guarantee of honesty, respectability and virtue. Quite a few ex public school men have ended up in prison, and even more probably deserved to, except that they have friends in high places.

      But – please – less of the condescention

  • Pingback: LabourList: Socialism – it’s nothing personal « jonesblog()

  • Anonymous

    The left stands in opposition to the way society is currently structured, not to the fact there are greedy or selfish individuals running the show.

    So totally negative, not one positive, could be the motto of an anarchist.

    I am sorry but this article is confused and  if it IS typical of left wing thinking.. then you deserve what you will get: nothing..

  • Anonymous

    Do we mean the people who the working class think are the middle class, the people who the upper class think are the middle class, or the middle class who are really confused as to what you are. My rule of thumb on this whole 3 class nonsense has been that if you are not sure which class you belong to you must be middle class!

  • Chris

    I don’t blame right-wingers for the New Labour debacle, I blame those who were once socialists but betrayed the cause. Worse than Tories? Of course.

  • Dave Postles

    That’s a good post.  Your para 2 accords with what Nikki King, MD of Izuzu Trucks UK, said last night on The Bottom Line, although it’s a shame that the trucks are assembled in Portugal from a UK perspective.  I think that Ken Keir (Honda) was in agreement.

  • Pingback: Demand Nothing | The Case Against The Labour Party – Part III()

  • peter

    well, i am a socalist. but i will admitted that there are some problems with your ideas. first of all, people are greedy, that’s why people set up a bussiness. it’s not that it’s a bad thing, it can great success and help society.

    another is the problem that you assume people actually listen to what parties say. a few do, but most vote along party lines, so labour will win the next election and the tories the one after that if the economy doesn’t picks up. the ones that do listen tend to like the back and forth more than facts (at least in my expirence).

    A few simple socalist polices that would work, and be popular, are  increase taxs on the rich to plug the budget whole, decrease corperation tax (which will incourage multinationals to come to the UK) and lift the personal allowance to £14000 a year ( as that is the minimum amount of money you need to live in the UK apparently). Creating an invetsment bank would help start ups.


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