United We Stand is a gripping theatrical account of the case of the Shrewsbury 24, currently on tour around independent theatres in Britain.
Some episodes in working-class history remain stubbornly in the collective memory, resisting all efforts either to consign them to oblivion or ‘reinterpret’ them to make them fit the bourgeois falsification of history. One such episode was the persecution of building workers back in the seventies, thrown into jail for the ‘crime’ of picketing construction sites to persuade workers to join the 1972 builders’ strike.
The central issue of the strike was the battle against the ‘lump’ – the practice whereby workers were hired on a daily basis and paid in cash, robbing them of all employment rights and also putting downward pressure on the wages and job security of contracted employees. The strike itself, which achieved some of its aims, concluded after three months. But for the Shrewsbury 24 the nightmare had just begun.
The use of ‘flying pickets’ to spread the strike had been a runaway success, helping to close hundreds of building sites, and was a tactic which the miners were to develop in 1972 (against Edward Heath’s government) and 1984 (against Margaret Thatcher’s government). The threat of such a good example, cheering to the working class but terrifying for the capitalist state, was not lost on the powers that be, who decided to pick on one routine picket in one particular town and do their utmost to criminalise it.
Accordingly, police in the west country and north Wales spent a full ten weeks investigating what did or did not happen when 24 building workers dropped in for a chat at a construction site in Shrewsbury on 6 September. Police interrogated over 800 witnesses in a frantic effort to find, or manufacture, evidence of intimidation.
Then, on 14 February, months after the strike was over, police raided houses in north Wales, arresting six men, including Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson (later of Royle Family fame). Further arrests thereafter brought the number up to 24 – the ‘Shrewsbury 24’.
After a jury had acquitted eight of the defendants of the charge of intimidation on the grounds of zero evidence, overruling the judge, the state shifted its ground and hit Warren and Tomlinson with ‘conspiracy’ charges – charges which were more vague but carried heavier sentences.
Both were sent down, Tomlinson for two years and Warren for three. Both correctly asserted that they were political prisoners; both took the blanket sooner than wear prison clothes, and both also undertook hunger strikes. Because of his defiant stand, Warren was subjected to a ‘liquid cosh’, consisting of increasing doses of tranquilliser – a form of violence which left him with the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and contributed to his early demise.
Last chance to see Neil Gore’s fantastic play about the Shrewsbury 24, United We Stand, in Bristol on Tuesday 5 May. Call 07718 666 593 for tickets. £10 / £3.
As election day approaches, the Labour PR machine has scented a cost-free opportunity to strike a ‘progressive’ pose on the issue and pull in a few ‘left’ votes.
Labour’s shadow minister Lisa Nandy pointed out that the government had “no justification” for keeping the Shrewsbury 24 files under wraps, declaiming that “The minister may refuse to act, but a Labour government will act. We will release those papers with the urgency that the situation demands.”
Stirring words. Yet when Heath’s Tory government was replaced by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration in 1974, at a time when the issue of the Shrewsbury 24 was convulsing the whole labour movement, how did Labour approach the question?
Did it bravely denounce this naked exercise of class war against workers? Did it release these political prisoners? On the contrary: the Labour home secretary Roy Jenkins withstood all pleas and kept them under lock and key.
And what about when the papers relating to the case came up for release under the 30-year rule in 2002? Did the Labour Lord Chancellor Lord Irvine (Tony Blair’s former pupil master) release the papers as expected? Not a bit of it. Did the then Labour home secretary David Blunkett insist that he do so? Of course not. He duly signed them away for another 10 years under the pretext that their release was ‘not in the public interest’.
How about the TUC, did it support the campaign? Quite the reverse. The TUC did nothing beyond issuing a few ritual declarations to get the convictions overturned and the prisoners released. Still, on his release in 1975, Tomlinson sought the help of the TUC. Instead of assisting the campaign, the TUC refused to let him address the annual conference, obliging him to disrupt the proceedings to hold the labour aristocracy to account.
And what did Des Warren think? In his book The Key to My Cell, he made his disgust at the cowardice of the trade-union movement very plain, writing: “I feel bitterness, anger and loathing when I think of some of our trade-union ‘leaders’ bemoaning the nation’s ills and how the workers must endure a cut in their living standards in order to save the country from disaster – even my kids would recognise that as a load of crap. [But not evidently those who today campaign for a Labour government committed to austerity!]
“Their phoney dealing with the government (which is holding me prisoner) is to batten down the working class and force them to accept capitalist answers to capitalism’s problems. Leaders? As far as I can see, the only time some of them take a lead is when they go to the front of the queue when honours are dished out.”
Scorning those who supposed his anger was just a subjective response, Warren had this to say:
If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a thousand times that I don’t take my imprisonment personally.
The Tory government wasn’t interested in me or my 23 co-victims. They were attacking the trade-union movement and, by failing to stand by us, the Executive Committees of Ucatt and the T&G failed to protect the movement – a job they were well paid to do. (The Key To My Cell, 1982, p190)
Fight the blacklist
What has helped stir the pot and bring this burning historical injustice back to the boil is the continuing struggle to expose and resist the blacklisting in the construction industry of union reps who dare to blow the whistle on unsafe practices.
Such practices took the lives of 42 construction workers last year, 14 of whom were self-employed (the lump by any other name). Whilst the construction industry only accounts for 5 percent of the working population, it accounted for 31 percent of fatalities.
There are secret political police in the UK; they are called Special Branch, MI5, GCHQ, Netcu and SDS. These coercive arms of the state see their role as supporting big business against anyone who may threaten their profits.
Trade unions and peaceful campaign groups are viewed as the enemy. Undercover police infiltration of justice campaigns set up by bereaved relatives, anti-racist and environmental groups and trade unions is an affront to democracy – it is essential that this is part of the remit of the public inquiry announced by Theresa May.
Blacklisted workers should be consulted before the inquiry starts. Blacklisting is no longer an industrial-relations issue: it is a conspiracy orchestrated by directors of multinational companies and the security services against trade unions.
Blacklisting is not just in construction, it is endemic across UK industry from NHS whistleblowers, airlines, North Sea, retail and railways. We now know that the fire brigades’ union, Unison, CWU and NUT were also targets of this national scandal. The full extent of the corporate and police spying against trade unions demands that blacklisting is given a full standalone public inquiry of its own.”
Less then a week after publication of the book, Dave Smith was arrested on a peaceful protest outside the Construction News Awards in the Park Lane Hilton. The protest was to highlight the sacking of workers on the Crossrail project for raising health and safety issues.
One example was the sacking of employees who objected to working in the darkness without torches on their helmets. Days after the sackings, 13 workers suffered falls. Campaigners reported that the police went in mob-handed at the demo and made a beeline for Smith.
As Smith’s own book makes plain, such arrests are entirely political in character and demand a political response from unions.
As was to be expected, ‘left’ Labour luminaries are now clutching onto the coat-tails of this momentous grass-roots revolt for all they are worth in the hope of getting some reflected glory and a few more working-class votes. The reality, however, is that blacklist operations have been in full swing throughout Tory and Labour administrations alike – an immutable necessity for the functioning of the secret state.
What’s more, when the notorious Consulting Association was busted in 2009, the then Labour government declined the opportunity to criminalise the actual practice of blacklisting itself, outlawing only such instances where it could be proved that someone had been forbidden employment on the sole grounds of a negative comment on a blacklisting database – a basically impossible requirement which lets MacAlpine and the rest of the unsavoury bunch completely off the hook.
He reported that the previous week Unite had decided to recommend “the deletion from our rules of six little words that have governed our union’s actions: ‘so far as may be lawful’”.
McCluskey reassured the fainthearted that “Our executive wants these words gone not because we are anarchists, not because we are suddenly planning a bank robbery, but because we have to ask ourselves the question: can we any longer make that commitment to stick, under any and all circumstances, within the law as it stands?”
The answer, coyly withheld until the final paragraph, was basically ‘No’. “When the law is misguided, when it oppresses the people and removes their freedoms, can we respect it? I am not really posing the question. I’m giving you the answer. It ain’t going to happen.”
McCluskey then pointed out the way in which the vagaries of the postal ballot undoubtedly help capitalism to sow confusion and litigation whenever a strike ballot is under way, and seemed to unveil a plan whereby future ballots would be conducted electronically. “We will drive forward with modern technology and use it to increase turnouts in our ballots without being shackled by prescriptions – such as postal ballots – imposed in another age. We are not going to let the Tories destroy our democracy by shackling us to archaic procedures.”
What this ‘grand new plan’ (or storm in a teacup) neatly sidesteps is the rather more important fact that, under both Tory and Labour regimes, ‘our democracy’ has been comprehensively violated for decades by legislation that dares to impose preconditions on the exercise of the right to strike.
In truth, the right to strike, curtailed as it is in practice, is not really ‘hanging by a thread’ (as McCluskey suggests) but has long since ceased to have any real meaning at all. Modernising the method by which unions submit to state scrutiny of their internal affairs does nothing to deal with this fundamental reality.
McCluskey is right: unions should resume their proper function and act as fighting organs of the working class. Yet so long as the argument is cast exclusively in terms of the need to struggle against evil Tory governments, letting Labour off scot free, the real character of the political struggle of labour versus capital will remain obscured.
At one point in the article, Len tells us that the Labour victory in 1997 was “one of the happiest days of my life”, and it is clear that, even after experiencing what followed, he still preserves the belief that a vote for Miliband will somehow soften the blows of austerity and give the unions a fairer deal in the courts.
The happiest day for the trade-union movement, meanwhile, will be when it wrenches itself free from its enslavement to the imperialist Labour party and uproots the debilitating influence of social-democratic misleadership.
“Hypocrisy, the most protected of vices.” Moliere (Jean-Baptiste Poquelin, 1622-1673)
Last week, a little more was learned as to the circumventions in Whitehall and Washington delaying the publication of the findings of Sir John Chilcot’s marathon inquiry in to the background of the Iraq invasion.
The UK’s Chilcot Inquiry, was convened under then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, to establish the decisions taken by the UK government and military, pre and post invasion. It ran from 24 November 2009 until 2 February 2011 and cost an estimated £7.5m. The as yet unpublished report is believed to run to 1,000,000 words.
The stumbling block – more of an Israeli-style ‘separation barrier’ in reality – has been the correspondence between Tony Blair and George W Bush, prior to an invasion and occupation that former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan finally told the BBC was “illegal”, and that “painful lessons” had been learned. ‘Lessons’ clearly not learned by the current British government. (16 September 2004)
The communications, in Sir John Chilcot’s words to former Cabinet Secretary Lord O’Donnell, related to “The question of when and how the prime minister (Tony Blair) made commitments to the US about the UK’s involvement in military action in Iraq, and subsequent decisions on the UK’s continuing involvement, is central to its considerations.” (Guardian, 17 July 2013)
Further: “Chilcot said the release of notes of the conversations between Blair and Bush would serve to ‘illuminate Mr Blair’s position at critical points’ in the run up to war.”
The inquiry had also been seeking clarification from O’Donnell’s successor, Sir Jeremy Heywood, regarding inclusion of references to “the content of Mr Blair’s notes to President Bush, and to the records of discussions between Mr Blair and Presidents Bush and Obama”. The wall remains in place.
Sir Jeremy Heywood, now the country’s most senior civil servant, was Tony Blair’s private secretary during the period of the trans-Atlantic lies that led to the Iraq war and during the creation of the Blair regime’s ‘dodgy dossiers’.
Interestingly too: “O’Donnell had consulted Blair before saying the notes must remain secret.” Effectively, one of the accused – in an action that has destroyed a country, lynched the president, murdered his sons and teenage nephew and caused the deaths of perhaps one and a half million people – is deciding what evidence can be presented before the court. Chilcot has seen the documents, but seemingly needs the accused’s permission to publish them.
A stitch-up of which any ‘rogue’ or ‘totalitarian’ regime would surely be proud.
Centre to the dispute between the inquiry, Cameron and his ennobled gate keepers is material requested for inclusion in the final report: “to reflect its analysis of discussions in Cabinet and Cabinet Committees and their significance”.
The documents being denied to the inquiry include 25 pieces of correspondence sent by Tony Blair to George W Bush and 130 documents relating to conversations between these lead plotters of Iraq’s destruction. Additionally: “dozens of records of Cabinet meetings”.
Ironically, on 31 October 2006, David Cameron voted in favour of a motion brought by the Scottish National Party and Wales’ Plaid Cymru (‘The Party of Wales’) calling for an inquiry into the Blair government’s conduct of the Gulf war.
On 15 June 2009, in a parliamentary debate, the terms of the Chilcot Inquiry were presented in detail, duly recorded in Hansard, the parliamentary records.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Blair’s successor stated: “In order that the committee is as objective and non-partisan as possible, the membership of the committee will consist entirely of non-partisan public figures acknowledged to be experts and leaders in their fields. There will be no representatives of political parties from either side of this House.”
David Cameron, then Leader of the Opposition stated piously:
“The whole point of having an Inquiry is that it has to be able to make clear recommendations, to go wherever the evidence leads, to establish the full truth and to ensure that the right lessons are learned … in a way that builds public confidence.”
Cameron was particularly concerned about: ‘openness’. How times change.
Further, said Cameron:
“The inquiry needs to be, and needs to be seen to be, truly independent and not an establishment stitch-up … The prime minister was very clear that the inquiry would have access to all British documents and all British witnesses. Does that mean that the inquiry may not have access to documents from the USA … On the scope of the inquiry, will the prime minister confirm that it will cover relations with the United States …”
Cameron concluded with again a demand for “openness and transparency”.
In response, Gordon Brown stated:
“I cannot think of an inquiry with a more comprehensive, wider or broader remit than the one that I have just announced. Far from being restricted, it will cover eight years, from 2001 to 2009. Far from being restricted, it will have access to any documents that are available, and that will include foreign documents that are available in British archives. [Emphasis mine.]
However, four years is a long time in politics, and last week, as David Cameron traveled to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, it transpired that the documents Sir John Chilcot had been pursuing and been denied for six months have been also blocked by: “officials in the White House and the US department of state, who have refused to sanction any declassification of critical pre-and post-war communications between George W Bush and Tony Blair”.
David Cameron is apparently also blocking evidence “on Washington’s orders, from being included in the report of an expensive and lengthy British Inquiry.”
However, ‘shame’ clearly not being a word in Cameron’s lexicon, he landed in Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon, a British Colony 1815-1948) as the above shoddy details broke, in full colonial mode.
Spectacular welcoming ceremonies barely over, he launched in to an entirely undiplomatic, public tirade, at this gathering of the ‘Commonwealth family of nations’ alleging that his host, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, was guilty of war crimes during the civil war with the Tamil Tigers.
It is not disputed that, as in any conflict, terrible crimes were committed on both sides. But these are accusations from the man both covering up the genesis of massacres of genocidal magnitude – and who enjoined in the near destruction of Libya, the resultant lynching of the country’s leader, the murder of his sons and small grandchildren and uncounted others in another decimation of a country that had threatened no other.
Cameron’s Libya is Blair’s Iraq. As in Iraq, the dying continues daily.
The pontification also from a prime minister backing funding for the cannibalistic-orientated insurgents in Syria – the beheading, dismembering, looting, displacing, kidnapping, chemical weapons lobbying, child killing, infanticide-bent crazies – including those from his own country.
In Sri Lanka, he demanded the country ensure “credible, transparent and independent investigations into alleged war crimes” and said if this did not happen by the March deadline he arbitrarily imposed, he would press the UN Human Rights Council to hold an international inquiry.
Further: “truth telling”, he said, was essential. To cite hypocrisy of breathtaking proportions has become a redundant accusation, but words are failing.
In the event Cameron “left Colombo having failed to secure any concessions from President Rajapaksa or persuade fellow leaders to criticise Sri Lanka’s record in a communique”. (Guardian, 16 November)
As the prime minster slunk out, President Mahinda Rajapaksa delivered an apt, withering reaction: “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” he responded.
Ironically, in spite a tragic recent past, Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia rated high on the Human Development Index. The UK and ‘allies’ recent victims Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan barely make it to the bottom.
David Cameron returned to Britain still having to grapple with how to evade delivering truth to the Chilcot Inquiry.
Hopefully, he will read a letter from writer Lesley Docksey:
“It was British taxpayers’ money that funded the Chilcot Inquiry, and this taxpayer wants her money’s worth. All the British government papers concerning the sorry affair of an invasion of another country belong to this nation – not to the United States, not to Tony Blair and not to the current government. Taxpayers aren’t here to save the faces of politicians.
“Nor is it, in the words of the Cabinet Office, ‘in the public’s interest’ that exchanges between the UK prime minister and the US president are kept secret’ – sorry, ‘privileged’ – from those who are paying their wages. The phrase ‘in the public interest’ only ever means the interests of the government of the day.
“Unless Sir John Chilcot and his team can publish a full and honest report, no lessons will be learnt by future governments. But then, if those lessons were learnt, and we the public knew (as in fact we do) what they were, this country would find it difficult to ever invade anywhere ever again.
“So, Sir John, in the words of a former PM, the Duke of Wellington, ‘Publish and be damned!’” (Independent, 18th November 2013)
Oh, and as David Cameron was lecturing Sri Lanka on ‘transparency’, the Conservatives were removing “a decade of speeches from their website and from the main internet library – including one in which David Cameron claimed that being able to search the web would democratise politics by making ‘more information available to more people’”.
The opening paragraph of Stop the War’s latest email to members in Bristol ploughs a familiar furrow:
Yesterday’s vote in parliament is welcome. MPs reflected the majority view in the country and rejected the government’s plans to join an attack on Syria. It represented the victory of mass anti-war opinion over the interests of the UK elite that has been enthusiastically participating in US-led wars over the last decade and more.
There can be no doubt that the hundreds of demonstrations, protests, rallies and pickets of the last twelve years have been central to bringing the war makers low and making it impossible for Cameron to join in another catastrophic attack.
But we need to resist such mutual congratulation over the alleged effectiveness of ten years of rudderless protest and remind ourselves of a few salient facts.
1. The vote at Westminster was indeed a breathtaking upset for British imperialism, reflecting as it did the panic and disarray of our masters faced with a choice between drinking poison (plunging into another Iraq or Afghanistan) or dying of thirst (seeing US hegemony crumble).
2. Open war against Syria is most likely still on the agenda anyway. Labour complains that war against Syria is being prepared “in a rush”, just as it used to complain that the cuts were happening “too fast”. Slacken the timetable a little and the objections melt away.
Labour complains only that the UN inspectors need more time, with the unstated corollary that an adverse report would legitimise missile strikes. All Miliband’s posturing amounts to is the demand for a bigger fig leaf to cover this criminal enterprise.
3. Under imperialism, though any given war may not itself be inevitable, war in general most certainly is, and the more urgently so as the capitalist crisis deepens.
Workers don’t need to be hearing right now that parliamentary democracy has proved itself a reliable bulwark against militarism. Least of all do they need to be hearing that Labour (or Labour ‘lefts’, or an anti-war movement dominated by social democracy) is going to deliver “peace in our time”.
4. We congratulate the government and people of Syria whose steadfast resistance to imperialist subversion has weakened and divided their enemies.
Unite’s support for Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership contest has backfired in spectacular fashion, as ‘Red Ed’ calls in the rozzers to investigate allegations of malpractice against the union in regard to the choice of Labour candidate in the Falkirk by-election.
That election was itself precipitated by the conviction of the incumbent Labour MP, the self-described ‘New Labour’ man Eric Joyce, on a charge of common brawling in the Westminster bar. This paragon of law-abiding virtue has now availed himself of the columns of the Guardianto berate Unite for its “amateur, hubristic and irresponsible actions” in allegedly rigging the candidate selection process, whilst Miliband himself repays Unite’s unflagging support by unveiling plans to scrap the right of unions to automatically sign up union members as Labour party members, instead requiring that aspiring party members actively opt in to membership.
So it is that Miliband, whose own elevation to a leading position in any large organisation could only conceivably be explained by a prevailing culture of degeneracy and bureaucratic sclerosis, is now posing as a champion of transparency and accountability!
If Miliband’s craven eagerness to demonstrate his party’s immunity to influence from the organised working class actually translates into a weakening of the bonds that mutually sustain the labour-aristocratic union leaderships and the Labour imperialists, this can only be heartily welcomed by class-conscious workers.
The real scandal in Falkirk is not whether or not Unite packs Labour wards in order to lever its chums onto the parliamentary gravy train. The real scandal is the fact that Unite has squandered getting on for £9m of its members’ hard-earned subs on propping up the Labour party – and that’s just in the period since Miliband took over.
Unite statement fails to point out the racism spread by imperialism's wars or the connection between imperialist war crimes abroad and attacks such as the one on Lee Rigby at home.
In the course of a public statement commenting on the death of British soldier Lee Rigby, issued by the Greenwich branch of Unite with the stated intention of promoting “unity in the fight against racism, division and terror”, the union includes the following intriguing health warning:
“We … recognise that there will be many other groups and organisations who will wish to seek to organise against the forces of racism and division. While welcome, there will be those who may not have roots in the area.
“Our request as a large, representative trade union that organises working people in this area is that there is a recognition that the trade unions based in the borough will along with others play a lead role. Therefore, let us unite and work together against those who seek to terrorise and divide.”
What can this mean? Who are these mysterious folk without ‘roots in the area’ whose ‘welcome’ must be tempered with caution? What are the mysterious ‘other groups and organisations’ which, it is hinted, might disrupt the even flow of Unite’s campaign against racism? This we are not told.
Is the worry perhaps that someone, anyone, might actually stand up and point out the elephant in the room: the obvious connection between Rigby’s death and the death of so many millions of Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans and others at the hands of imperialism?
The absence of even the slightest reference anywhere to imperialism’s global racism – played out in an endless string of criminal wars and assassinations – is indeed remarkable in a statement intending to unite workers in a struggle against racism, and can only be explained by the pernicious influence of Labour on the union.
After scurrying in the first paragraph to “totally and without any reservation condemn the senseless and barbaric murder” of Rigby, not a peep of condemnation is to be heard of the innumerable war crimes that bloody the hands of British imperialism, and which inevitably bring in their train such individual acts of terror.
Many of the union leaders who are giving their ‘support’ to the People’s Assembly, and who will certainly expect to have a deciding say in whatever it does, are supporting Labour’s austerity plans.
Unite’s Len McCluskey said: “If Ed Miliband continues in this vein, then we will win working people back to Labour.” He even endorsed Ed’s forced labour scheme, offering to “bring these promises to life”.
Such statements by leading trade unionists show what a blatant fraud the PA is. Far from being a “national forum for anti-austerity views”, developing a “strategy for resistance to mobilise millions of people”, the Assembly is being conjured into life merely to help get the anti-worker, pro-austerity imperialist Labour party elected in 2015.
As if to prove the point, the leadership of the Stop the War Coalition (StW), who wrecked the anti-war movement in the service of the Labour party, have now moved on to the PA for a repeat performance.
In 2003, 2 million people demonstrated in the hopes of stopping the Iraq war – the biggest demonstration London had ever seen. StW was supposed to be the umbrella organisation that would bring about the unity necessary to stop the war. What it actually did was to ensure that the mass response to the war was as muted and ineffective as possible.
First, the leaders flatly refused [despite the members voting for it] to organise any action to disrupt or sabotage the ruling class’s war effort (such as urging rail unions not to transport weaponry or media unions not to transmit war propaganda).
Is this what we want for our anti-cuts movement? If you call a plumber to fix a leak and instead he floods your house, would you hire him again?
We need to do better than this if we’re going to defend ourselves against this all-out attack by the ruling class.
A real people’s assembly is a soviet - a council of workers deputies. It is a body of workers who come together to represent the real interests of workers, and to fight for them.
The ‘People’s Assembly’ as planned is nothing but a political sausage mincer aimed at turning all our anti-austerity anger into a monopoly-capital-friendly Labour party government – which will give us yet another dose of misery and exploitation once elected.
Meanwhile, John Rees (or one of his friends) has already written the ‘declaration‘ that the Assembly delegates will be ‘asked’ to ‘endorse’ on Saturday. So what exactly will they be talking about all day??
The true spirit of '45: A Soviet soldier hoists the red flag over the Reichstag in Berlin, marking the complete defeat of Nazi fascism.
There are some good bits in Spirit of ’45, the new film from Ken Loach. Some of the interviews and archive footage about working-class life in the 1930s are a poignant and timely reminder of the social horrors inflicted by capitalism in the throes of a global overproduction crisis – right down to the vermin-infested blankets and deadly absence of health care.
And the juxtaposition of such cruel personal reminiscence with the end-of-war scenes of jubilation and hope from 1945 could have set the context for a much more interesting film, taking a fresh look at the birth (and premature death) of the welfare state.
Instead, we are offered yet another panegyric on the supposed achievements of ‘old’ Labour ‘heroes’ like Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison.
Not a word is said about the imperialist superprofits upon which the ruling class crucially depended to subsidise these temporary and partial concessions to the working class.
Not a word is said about the poisonous pro-imperialist policy of the Labour government, hell-bent on preserving those same superprofits, no matter what the cost to the hundreds of millions of people locked in colonial bondage around the world.
It was that threat of a good revolutionary example set by the Soviet Union that emboldened workers to demand “no return to the ’30s”. And it was the special role of Labour imperialism to help deliver a ‘welfare state’ – a pale capitalist imitation of the Soviet original – in such a way as would simultaneously tie the working class to the colonial agenda of monopoly capital and clear the way for the post-war reversion to anti-communist red-baiting (on a script written by Orwell, another of Loach’s ‘heroes’).
All of this is a closed book for the filmmaker.
Starved of any international context, the film stumbles on impressionistically, locked always behind the little-British narrowness that remains the trademark everywhere of ‘left’ social democracy.
After airing some woolly criticisms of the earlier shortcomings of the reforms (same old managers at the National Coal Board, failure to nationalise all transport), the film hastens on to the sudden arrival of the Bad Fairy, Thatcher, and her (unexplained and apparently personal) crusade to smash everything up.
Just one of the film’s talking heads makes a single brief reference to the overproduction crisis, but beyond that there is no attempt to explain what was fuelling the assault upon workers’ conditions and rights. In fact, having finished its history-hopping journey from the ’30s through ’45 to the advent of Thatcherism, nothing remains but to open the screen to a few soundbites from some pale anti-communist ‘left’ luminaries like Tony Benn, John Rees and Alex Gordon, before the film finally runs out of steam and the credits roll.
As the deepest ever overproduction crisis is pushing Britain’s ruling class to accelerate its dismantlement of the welfare state, Spirit of ’45 is an opportunity missed to examine not only what brought Britain’s hard-bitten imperialist rulers to make such serious concessions to workers in the first place, but also why those concessions were only ever going to be temporary while the capitalist system remained in place.
These are questions whose answers are urgently needed to permeate the workers’ movement if we are going to be successful in breaking out of the downward spiral of imperialist poverty, crisis and war. Lasting rights for workers will not be won by going back to the ‘good old’ reformist dreams of ’45 – days that inevitably led to where we are today – but by smashing the capitalist system and going forward to build socialism.
Protest in central London against cuts to welfare, 2012
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 9 February meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Another illustration of the role played by Labour councillors in implementing so-called ‘ConDem’ cuts – actually capitalist cuts – is the behaviour of the local Labour group in Harlow.
Harlow Trades Council has long supported the work of Harlow Welfare Rights and Advice in its efforts to serve the often hard-pressed local community. Recognising the clear need for the services provided by HWRA, Labour’s General Committee supported its retention before Christmas. What’s more, when the continued existence of the body was challenged on some dubious legal technicality the GC voted for a mediated solution that would not deprive the people of Harlow of this service.
Yet at 7.30pm on 28 January, Labour-run Harlow council abruptly changed the HWRA locks, banning staff from entry and at a stroke bringing its vital work in the local community to a halt.
Whilst this act of vandalism was initiated by a civil servant (the council’s chief executive Malcolm Morley), one very disgruntled Labour councillor noted that “It is clear from my discussion with members of Labour’s cabinet that the leader and a majority of the cabinet are in agreement with the officers. Most notable for their full and active support of Malcolm Morley are leader Mark Wilkinson and cabinet member Tony Durcan.”
The yawning gap between Labour’s words and its deeds prompted the councillor to reflect: “I am very disappointed that councillors don’t have much of a say in running the council. The reason I became a councillor is to help people in Harlow, but so far I have not seen any changes apart from what the government want us to implement.”
The secretary of Harlow Trades Council, David Forman, has drawn some interesting conclusions from this experience, noting that “Labour councillors hide behind the law like a matador hides behind his red cloak, which merely conceals the tools of destruction.
“A failure to understand the class-based nature of the state, with the law and judiciary being key weapons in the armoury of the ruling class, leads those on the right and centre ground to see the state as neutral and benign.
“A deliberate rewriting of history … allows the labour movement to be lulled into thinking fine oratory and legal manoeuvres by the middle classes produces reforms. In reality, it is a series of struggles on the industrial front by a militant working class that leads to changes on the political front.
“All this obfuscation is designed to disarm the working class and make them dependent on their so-called ‘betters’, thus allowing Labour and reformist union leaders to spout the worn-out phrase: ‘There is no alternative’.”
It is indeed social democracy (including its ‘left’ face) that blunts the edge of class struggle and conceals from workers the only real alternative: socialism.
Trade unionists protest against blacklisting in central London, 9 February 2013
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 9 February meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Three years on from the half-hearted raid on Ian Kerr’s ‘Consulting Association’ blacklisting scam and his conviction on data protection offences, the scandal is refusing to go away. (See Proletarian, December 2012)
Instead, thanks to the efforts of the Blacklist Support Group and workers fighting for redress both in the High Court and in the European Court of Human Justice, more and more is coming to light about the blanket surveillance of workers – in the construction industry and elsewhere.
It turns out that the CA blacklist was used for high-end government projects including the Olympics, the MOD, Portcullis House and the Jubilee Line, and speculation is mounting that blacklists were used in recruiting for Crossrail.
Whilst the range of building companies involved in snooping extends to just about every major operator, pride of place in this rogue’s gallery has gone to McAlpine, run by family scion Callum. He acted as chairman of the CA between 1993 and 1996, and all CA meetings took place at his office.
Under scrutiny by the Scottish Affairs Committee, McAlpine pleaded ignorance or a poor memory, but confessed to heavy use of the blacklist throughout 2008, ‘excusing’ himself on the plea that he was chasing ‘illegal’ immigrants, not union militants! Just how much there was to cover up became clear given the circumstances surrounding the company’s action in paying off Kerr’s £5,000 fine, his legal expenses and the redundancy pay-outs to CA’s staff.
Whilst Callum McAlpine got out the violin, claiming that the pay-off was a “humanitarian and reasonable action”, everything was done at the time to conceal the cosy McAlpine connection. McAlpine’s head of human resources, David Cochrane, himself acting as the last chairman of the CA, warned Kerr to hide the hush money in his daughter’s bank account.
As Kerr told the Scottish Affairs Committee in November, shortly before his death: “I had put myself at the front and took the flak … so that they wouldn’t be drawn into all of this. They would remain hidden.”
Now that Labour is out of the driving seat, there is much sound and fury to be heard at Westminster, with indignant opposition benches deploring the refusal of the ConDem government to take the blacklisting scandal seriously. It will be recalled, however, that Labour had the opportunity in 2009, when the scandal broke, to deal with the issue.
Indeed, Mandelson put an amendment to the Employment Relations Act through in 2010, supposedly fixing things. Yet it rapidly became clear that nothing had really changed. As the law stands, blacklisting as such is still neither unlawful nor a criminal act.
To get redress, it is necessary for the blacklisted worker not only to prove that he has been blacklisted, but also that his inclusion on that blacklist is the sole reason he is turned down for a job – a well-nigh impossible task, especially given the legal resources commanded by the companies.
And in any case, how can you seek redress if you don’t know you are on a blacklist in the first place? As of autumn 2012, only 194 of the 3,213 workers known by the Information Commissioner’s Office to have been blacklisted are aware of the fact. Nor is this surprising, since you can only find out if you are on a blacklist by phoning up the ICO and asking them.
Some might not unreasonably fear that asking the question is itself asking for trouble.
Labour in government had ample opportunity to ban blacklists in 2009. It failed to do so for the same reason as every other Labour government in history: because Labour is just as much a servant of the bourgeoisie as are the Tories against whom it rails.
Surveillance of workers did not begin with Kerr’s racket. The Consulting Association began its career in 1993 by paying £10,000 for an already-existing database of blacklisted names. The source of that database was the Economic League, of which Kerr was himself an employee.
The League was founded in 1919 to root out communist and left-wing organisations and individuals. Working closely with the British Empire Union fascists, it played a key role in attacking the general strike in 1926. Its founder had led the Naval Intelligence Division of the Admiralty through the first world war, and the chairman of the BBC sat on its council.
Through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the League ran a comprehensive blacklisting service. Despite being regularly exposed in the press of the time, it seemed to enjoy a charmed existence, until the heat from a parliamentary inquiry in 1990 finally obliged the company to formally dissolve itself – only for its work to be taken up again by Sir Robert McAlpine and the Consulting Association.
The bourgeoisie can have every confidence that Kerr’s work will now be taken up again by other hands working to an identical agenda – until such time that the workers’ movement frees itself from the suffocating Labour embrace and takes meaningful action to stop it.
Just how corrupting an effect social democracy has upon the trade-union movement is clear from the evidence now emerging of collusion between some unions and the Consulting Association.
According to Construction News: “Evidence has emerged that suggests union representatives may have ‘liaised’ with contractors to blacklist workers from construction jobs. But an investigation by Construction News has uncovered documents that suggest union officials may also have provided information to the blacklist.
“One of the files from the blacklist, seen by CN, describes a worker, Michael Anderson, as ‘not recommended’ by Amicus … Mr Anderson’s redacted file says: ‘1997–1999. Worked at JLE [Jubilee Line Extension] during electricians’ dispute but not involved in any actions. 2005 Oct 26: Information received … that the above is ‘not recommended’ by Amicus.’ It adds: ‘Above information came from [redacted] of Amicus.’”
Mr Anderson’s summing up is damning: “I am an ordinary spark. I have spent long periods in unemployment. It is not just financial. It is everything.”
This echoes the testimony of another blacklisted electrician, Steve Acheson, the leader of the EPIU’s Manchester branch. Confronted with evidence related to union involvement in the collection of blacklist data, he told Construction News: “I have been a union member my whole life. It is a very hard decision whether to sue. But I have worked just two years in the last 12. Knowing that part of the reason is because of union involvement is very difficult to take.”
The January 2013 edition of Site Worker had this to say: “When it came to light, after the Information Commissioner’s Office exposed the Consulting Association’s construction blacklist in 2009, that some Unite and Ucatt officials had allegedly been supplying information about rank-and-file union members directly to the CA, a new trade-union low had been reached …
“Unite and Ucatt are disgustingly and disgracefully trying to cover up the conduct of these officials and to sweep this under the carpet. It has been reported that, in 2006, the then general secretary of Unite, Derek Simpson may well have known about the CA and its activities yet did not act.”
Cleaning up the unions must begin by breaking the link with Labour.
This article is part of the industrial report that was presented at the 8 December meeting of the CPGB-ML central committee.
Last November, substantial coordinated strike action behind the pensions issue took thousands onto the streets in Britain. Since that struggle was sold out by the TUC, and despite the subsequent unanimous passage at the TUC’s annual congress of a motion tentatively mooting the possibility of a general strike, the momentum has drained away, thanks to the continued left-social-democratic character of even the most militant sections of organised labour.
On the eve of this year’s 14 November ‘day of action’, faced with the looming failure of the British TUC to mount even token support, the National Shop Stewards’ Network (NSSN) couldn’t advance any higher goal than to ‘get back to’ the glorious heights of last year’s ‘N30’ action, yet again calling upon the TUC to ‘name the day’ for a (one-day!) ‘general strike’.
A recent rally in defence of the NHS in Bristol illustrated the problem clearly. Speaker after speaker repeated the same mantra: “Labour must stop implementing Tory cuts.” Whilst this approach came in ‘militant’ wrapping – “Don’t let the Labour councillors get away with it! Don’t give them any peace! etc” – the subtext that got reinforced was inescapable: stick with Labour, it’s the only show in town.
The Bristol march was well supported (and barely reported), and drew attention to the way that the NHS is being prepared for balkanisation, with clinical commissioning groups purchasing services from NHS trusts and private companies.
Particularly flagrant have been the efforts of the so-called South West Pay Cartel to introduce regional pay agreements, undermining the existing national banding of jobs and preparing the ground for cuts in pay and conditions.
It appears that the Cartel’s honesty has made even the government a little nervous, with health minister Dan Poulter describing the consortium as “somewhat heavy-handed” during a Commons debate. It’s clear enough that the Cartel’s flat feet are trampling in the same direction the rest of the NHS is destined to travel in due course.
However, rearguard defence of national banding alone is not enough to mobilise health workers in the struggle, any more than rearguard defence of Joint Industry Board arrangements is enough to mobilise electricians in the construction industry or rearguard defence of the Agricultural Wages Board (now threatened with the chop) is enough to mobilise agricultural workers.
What is needed across all sectors of employment is a class-wide struggle to break with the social-democratic politics of the Labour party and all its friends and overthrow the crisis-ridden capitalist system.