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Corporations at the very heart of power

United Kingdom

Policy Exchange

Owen Jones’ latest book, The Establishment: And how they get away with it (Allen Lane), is a pithy retelling of recent political scandals, studded with dozens of revealing interviews with power brokers.

It has hugely important things to say about the state of our democracy, the shocking pace at which the gains of the post-war settlement (the National Health Service (NHS), the welfare state) are being rolled back, and the extent to which bankers and corporations are now sitting at the very heart of power. It concludes with a call for a democratic revolution and sets out proposals for reform.

One of the things I found most disturbing in your book was the extent to which those at the heart of government enjoy close personal friendships with the people they are supposed to be governing and regulating – this can’t be healthy for a democracy.

The most extreme example is Tony Blair, who ended up as godfather to Rupert Murdoch’s kids and turned up to the ceremony dressed in a white robe, next to the River Nile. You get these social relationships, whether it’s thinktank breakfasts or off-the-record dinners or going on holiday with each other.

Then there’s the revolving door where journalists, for example, end up working for politicians and politicians end up working in the media. If you take associate editor of The Times, Danny Finkelstein, he’s not only a friend of [Chancellor] George Osborne, he helps write his speeches. The Times was formerly the paper of record, yet one of its top members of staff is basically an adviser to the government that the paper is supposed to be scrutinizing. And that helps this sense of ‘we’re one coherent élite with similar interests who are bound together’ rather than having – in the case of the media – this independent scrutinizing of power.

Geoff Hoon, who was Secretary of State for Defence, gave a contract to a helicopter company, which he went on to work for after he stepped down; Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Health, ends up working for private healthcare firm BUPA; same with Alan Milburn, Secretary for Health, who now works for private healthcare companies.

And people are frequently ‘seconded’ into government from corporations or accountancy firms, doing what looks like almost writing government policy…

You have accountancy firms that work for government, helping draw up tax laws; they then tell their clients how to avoid the laws they themselves have written up. You have energy companies seconded to the Department for Energy and Climate Change.

People work for government and business at the same time. Of the 50 top publicly trading companies, 46 per cent have a member of parliament that is either a shareholder or director. A quarter of Conservative Party MPs are private landlords, which ensures that their interests align with landlords and tenants. That helps cement this sense of a corporate political élite, whose interests are very much aligned to those of big business; they know that it’s a springboard to lucrative contracts, jobs and posts. David Miliband made £1 million ($1.6 million) in his last year as an MP, for his work with private equity companies and the dictatorship of the United Arab Emirates.

I’m not sure we yet have the popular language for what’s going on. It’s cronyism, isn’t it?

Yes, it is, clearly. I think the idea that so many MPs work for private companies, so that rather than looking out for their constituents’ interests – the people who vote them in – they’re looking out for their rich friends, is quite an accessible idea, really.

What phrase do you think best describes the ruling élite we have now – corporatocracy, plutocracy, corporate oligarchy?

I think those terms go over most people’s heads, to be honest. I use the word ‘establishment’, because it’s a word most people understand. The challenge is reaching people who aren’t consciously political. The term ‘establishment’ was coined by a conservative journalist, Henry Fairlie, but there’s no reason why it can’t be reclaimed to mean what I regard as the people who have power in this country. I think it has more resonance than those other words.

So the current situation is that the majority of people no longer have a major political party that represents their interests. And that includes the Labour Party. Obviously, the Labour Party grew out of the trade union movement and used to represent the interests of working people – until Tony Blair.

You have Cameron’s Conservatives, Orange Book Liberal Democrats and Blairites. They could happily coexist in the same party. They’re all socially liberal neoliberals. By that I mean they’re generally accepting of LGBT rights and all the rest of it whilst believing very passionately in free markets, privatization and cutting taxes on the rich. The whole New Labour project played a big part in consolidating that, by branding ideas that were once mainstream and acceptable as defeated. ‘Go back to the 1970s where you belong, you old dinosaur’, sort of thing. And a lot of the things this government is doing, New Labour laid the foundations for, like the privatization of the NHS.

You have accountancy firms that work for government, helping draw up tax laws; they then tell their clients how to avoid the laws they themselves have written up.

Most MPs are drawn from relatively privileged backgrounds and there is the growing phenomenon of MPs who have only ever worked in the political world.

So there’s a sense that there’s a single political élite sharing all the key underlying assumptions, personally profiting from the order they helped create. That’s what we’ve got and that’s what we need to sweep away.

When it comes to the media, we have a disproportionately rightwing press that has immense power and reinforces the ideology of the ruling élite.

Yes, the media helps police the acceptable boundaries of debate. So most of the population – according to the polls – want renationalization of the railways, energy, utilities; they want higher taxes on the rich, they want rent controls, they want a programme of council-house building, accountable publicly owned banks. That’s all mainstream public opinion, but obviously the media regards that as ludicrous and that’s because we don’t have a free press: we have a press which is in the hands of a small group of politically motivated moguls who use their power to subvert democracy.

And what they do is keep the conversation constantly on the terms of the interests of those at the top. Even mild policies, such as [Labour Party leader] Ed Miliband’s policy of freezing energy bills, mean that the media swoops in and characterizes him as some reincarnation of Vladimir Lenin, who’s going to nationalize your grandmother.

Genuinely radical ideas are seen as completely beyond the pale. The biggest democratic movement in the country is the trade unions, representing over six million workers, who either don’t appear in the media, or if they do appear, they’re demonized. It’s as if they have no legitimate role.

The question is whether the hegemony of the mainstream media will be maintained. With social media, the position of the mainstream media is more open to challenge and that’s what we’ve got to hope for.

How do you think the media should be reformed?

I think you should ban any media owner from having any more than one national media outlet – that would mean breaking up any big media empire like the Murdoch empire. It would mean abolition of all unpaid internships, which help turn the media into a closed shop for the privileged people who can afford to get in in the first place, and instead have apprenticeships and scholarships for people with different backgrounds.

At the same time, it’s important what we all do in civil society; I think there’s the opportunity to create genuine alternative news sources online, which challenge the existing order and give voices to those who are otherwise ignored. Not just marginalized sources which only appeal to a few lefties, but appeal to lots of people and help challenge this establishment.

In the final chapter of your book you call for a democratic revolution. What are the six key proposals you would make to reform our democracy, so that it starts working for the 99 per cent?

It would take more than six! Take on the revolving door by banning those MPs from ending up in those sorts of jobs. Ban MPs from being directors or key shareholders of businesses. I would have a genuine crackdown on lobbying, rather than the gagging bill this government has introduced, which has a go at unions and NGOs. Cap donations from wealthy individuals and businesses. I would have a massive devolution of power over the nations and regions. Strengthen the trade unions in local government so that they can get more working-class people elected. And we need to look at proposals for taking on the City and its domination.

There’s a sense that there’s a single political élite personally profiting from the order they helped create. That’s what we’ve got and that’s what we need to sweep away.

But it’s about democracy everywhere. It’s about democratic social ownership of the economy. So with renationalization, I’d want workers and consumers helping to run those services and utilities. I want democracy in the workplace with a new charter of workers’ rights to shift the balance of power from employer to employee. I want a living wage, rather than corporate welfare, where we subsidize poverty-paying bosses. And instead of subsidizing landlords, let councils build houses.

So it’s about learning from our enemies, where you ratchet in a different direction and shift the terms of debate. The more you do that, [the] more radical proposals can come into play. It’s about how you build a society based on people’s needs and aspirations, rather than profit for a small group of people.

How do we make change happen?

The traditions of this country are such that the way we get change isn’t through the goodwill and generosity of those in power, it’s through the struggle and sacrifice of ordinary people from below. And that goes back to the Levellers and Diggers of the English Revolution, the Chartists – the world’s first working-class political movement – in the 19th century, the Tolpuddle Martyrs – the early trade unionists who fought for the rights and dignity of working people, the Suffragettes who were demonized and despised, force-fed in prison. So we have to learn from those traditions of ordinary people organizing from below. [Labour politician and MP] Tony Benn once said the way you get change is [by] burning [a] flame of anger at injustice and burning [a] flame of hope for a better world.

And there’s lots of anger at the moment, but the media is redirecting it from the people at the top with the power, to people’s neighbours, using the politics of envy. So they say to low-paid workers: ‘your wages are falling, your tax credits are being cut, so envy the unemployed person next door who’s living it up in luxury.’ Or to public-sector workers, whose pensions have been decimated: ‘don’t be angry at your boss, envy instead the nurse or the teacher because they’ve still got a pension intact.’

Frederick Douglas, the 19th-century African-American statesman, said: ‘Power concedes nothing without a demand, it never has and it never will.’ And that means building a broad coalition of all those who want to change society – people in the Green Party, or in the Labour Party, but angry at the leadership, people in other parties, or in no parties. That’s not easy, but it’s the only chance of forcing change.

Occupy London is calling for an occupation of Parliament Square from 17-26 October to demand a democracy that works for the 99 per cent. The Trades Union Congress (TUC) national march, Britain Needs a Pay Rise, is on 18 October. Owen Jones’ The Establishment: And how they get away with it is published by Allen Lane.

See our October 2014 issue for a review of The Establishment: And how they get away with it.


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