You wouldn’t let it lie! Workers’ Memorial Day and the Right to Protest, again

This post is partly a follow up a previous one posted on the People’s Bookshop blog just about a year ago, which was itself a reaction to some pretty cack-handed officialdom in the run up to last years Workers Memorial Day event in Stanley Crook, County Durham. For the background, see the article here.

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Once again, as Workers Memorial Day approaches, Durham Police and Durham County Council have managed to create a controversy where none existed. Veteran trade unionists in Durham will recall how the joint trades councils in the county have organised a Workers Memorial Day (WMD) march in Stanley Crook for several years without incident or problem – either from the authorities or from the village itself. The County Durham commemoration of WMD is held in Stanley Crook partly in recognition of St Thomas’ Church’s commitment to the event (the church also has a Workers Memorial window). The march and service has become a tradition which brings trade unionists and their banners to the quiet County Durham village to pay tribute to those men and women who have died in the course of their work, as well as highlight the dilution of health and safety legislation and the continued cuts to the Health and Safety inspections budget which sadly means that more deaths are likely to happen in 2013 and beyond. The message of the day is very firmly: ‘mourn the dead & fight for the living’. The event has recently involved Families Against Corporate Killers (F.A.C.K) who campaign to stop workers and others being killed in preventable incidents and direct bereaved families to sources of legal help and emotional support.

Suddenly, after years of untroubled and peaceful events, last year the police said that marchers would be arrested if they carried their banners through the village (even if they walked on the pavement). The council said that the organisers had to apply for the a road closure at a potential cost of £3500. Obviously, the trades council (County Durham Trades Union Council has recently been formed from several smaller trades councils in the county) simply doesn’t have that kind of money. Far more importantly, though, the process of road closures essentially entails being fleeced by a private company – and this for a road closure in a quiet village that welcomes the marchers and the memorial event.

This year, the police have not intervened directly, but the Safety Advisory Group (SAG), consisting of Durham County Council and Durham Police, have said that the organisers are “liable if anything goes wrong at the event”. Again, they have suggested road closures as the solution – at a princely sum, of course. Linda Whelan, spokesperson for F.A.C.K and  a brave campaigner whose son died in a tragic accident in 2002, has been told that she is liable. For the story, see this article in the Northern Echo:

Willington mother warned she will be liable if anything goes wrong on Stanley Crook memorial march

This is a new and worrying turn of events. However, it’s not just isolated to County Durham. In the North East, we are constantly hearing of new financial charges made on protestors and the organisers of labour movement events. All over the country, marchers are being asked to fund road closures (no matter how small the march or how cash poor the organisation). Mostly, these safety measures or “services” are not provided directly by the council, but by private companies – whose primary aim is profit.

wmd1xWhether it is deliberately designed to prevent protest is a moot point – the fact is that this “privatisation” of protest security has the effect of making peaceful protest (or in this case a memorial march and service) more difficult and potentially prohibitively expensive. The result is the same. If you want to have a say, it’s going to cost you. Are we to accept this? That is surely a very good question, not just for the trade union movement, but for our communities.

Some thoughts in conclusion: firstly, we have just spent an estimated £10 million on the funeral of a woman who decimated industry in the North East and who was reviled for her all out assault on the conditions of all but the most cherished workers in the country, including the health and safety regulations which save people’s lives.  Over the last few weeks, we have heard a lot of hectoring from those in power about the need to respect the dead. How does that square with washing your hands of the WMD event and telling the likes of Linda Whelan that she is responsible if anything “goes wrong”? More widely, we hear a lot of talk from both the police and the County Council about community engagement, listening to people, facilitating legitimate protest and community events. After all, they are the servants of the people and we pay their wages, right? Now, far be it from me to suggest that such talk is double-speak , but if they are going to convince trade unionists that this community engagement is more than a paper exercise, what better day to start than on Workers Memorial Day?

The County Durham event marking Workers Memorial Day will take place on Sunday, the 28th of April in Stanley Crook Village. For details see here. All community spirited residents of County Durham welcome.

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Thatcher’s ‘greatest achievement’ is Labour’s biggest liability

In this contribution, I want to explore the legacy of the New Labour project. From a North East perspective, it was always particularly galling that New Labour’s leading lights like Tony Blair, David Miliband and Peter Mandelson displayed such open contempt both for the traditions of the Labour Party and its core supporters whilst occupying local safe seats. Wouldn’t it have been much better if they had put their ideas to the test and stood in those marginal ‘middle England’ constituencies that they were so keen to court? I also found it really tragic that Sunderland’s Chris Mullin, who once protested so eloquently and bravely about the injustices perpetrated against the UK’s Irish community in the 1970s, ended up supporting Blair’s attack on civil liberties in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’, including the legislation which resulted in suspects being held indefinitely without trial in Belmarsh prison. For me, it typified what being a loyal Blairite could reduce someone to.

It could take several poblair-sigsts to fully discuss all of New Labour’s more appalling aspects, from its illegal and anti-democratic foreign policy to its boasts about the restrictions placed on British trade unions. However, as has been mentioned a lot recently, Thatcher famously once described New Labour as her ‘greatest achievement’ and it is this claim that I want to consider.

First of all, I think it would be inaccurate to characterise New Labour and the Tories as simply the same thing. It is inconceivable that a Thatcherite Tory government would have introduced a national minimum wage or pursued progressive social policies on gay rights. But what they failed to do in 13 years in power was to challenge, never mind reverse, the fundamental economic policies and values of ‘Thatcherism.’

I thought I’d start by providing a bit of context to explain the significance of the Thatcher government. From my understanding, what is often referred as the ‘post-war consensus’ was essentially the realisation that the only way to seriously deal with mass unemployment and ensure that there was some kind of equality of opportunity was for government to play an active role. So, vital services such as health care and education were free to access, funded by tax revenues. Transport and utilities such as gas, electricity etc. were taken into public ownership and full employment was a stated aim.

These fundamentals were accepted as mainstream or ‘centre ground’ politics until the victory of Thatcher. She created a new consensus which declared that the private sector was ‘dynamic’, ‘efficient’, provided better services while by contrast the state was wasteful, costly and incapable of delivering high-quality services. Under these pretences  huge swathes of public services were sold off on the cheap to private businesses. It was not that the state would keep out of the economy. Instead, it would play an active role in transferring wealth to the top of society by cutting public spending, cutting taxes for the wealthy and continuing to subsidise these newly privatised enterprises. According to this vision greed was good and society was non-existent.

This was not just accepted but accelerated by New Labour. Utilities and transport remained in private hands and with the creation of academies, the extension of PFI schemes and handing contracts to firms like the now notorious Atos, private companies were able to profiteer in an unprecedented way from education and health and welfare provision.

Shamefully, under New Labour the principle of universal access to higher education was discarded. In 1998, tuition fees began at £1,000 per year before spiraling to £9,000 a year in 2012. For students under the current system, the average debt is projected to hit around £53k. True to Thatcher’s values, educational institutions began to be run like businesses. Today, vice-chancellors command salaries in excess of £330k and students are encouraged to see their education, not as an enriching experience but merely as a financial investment which will pay off in a higher salary later down the line.

Under New Labour, the myths about privatisation have been exposed. One of the most shocking examples is that of Private Finance Initiatives or PFI. These schemes were started by John Major’s government and extended greatly under New Labour. As the Guardian reported last year, ‘717 PFI contracts currently under way across the UK are funding new schools, hospitals and other public facilities with a total capital value of £54.7bn, but the overall ultimate cost will reach £301bn by the time they have been paid off over the coming decades.’ How reckless to allow what are essentially loan sharks anywhere near health or education provision, yet the current government are busy signing off yet more PFI contracts while disingenuously claiming they don’t want to shackle the country with debt. Take rail travel as another example. As journalist and campaigner Christian Wolmar has highlighted, the current system is subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £4 billion, around four times more than the cost under British Rail. In the meantime, passenger fares continue to increase.

There is real public anger about being ripped off by private companies whether it is energy costs or public transport. There’s also disgust at the likes of Atos profiteering out of declaring disabled people as ‘fit for work’, at workfare schemes and the Bedroom Tax. Among young people, there is deep frustration that university is becoming unaffordable and that far too many are facing crushing financial pressure and unemployment. But having either implemented or laid the ground for much of this in the first place, those still loyal to the New Labour project cannot bring themselves to disown these polices and present a coherent alternative. They are even unwilling to state the fact that the current economic crisis had nothing to do with ‘excessive’ public spending under Labour and everything to do with the fact that the government was forced to hand over £850 billion pounds to bail out the banks. This would involve admitting that deregulation of the banking system was a disaster.

It can never be forgotten that New Labour is largely responsible for allowing the Tory-led coalition to do what they are now doing. They are not introducing privatisation into the NHS, schools or welfare provision but merely accelerating processes begun by New Labour. Had Labour won in 2010 there can be no doubt that they would have introduced £9k fees, given that Mandelson set up the Browne Review. That’s why the pathetic ‘opposition’ which said ‘’we’ll double rather than treble your fees’’ was such transparent opportunism. Those who were part of New Labour such should never be allowed to re-invent themselves. The refusal of the Labour leadership to unequivocally condemn the discredited New Labour project is the greatest electorate liability the party has.

I’d like to finish on a more positive note. A few years ago when I was doing some interviews as part of research on the history Labour Party in County Durham, I found that one of the favourite hymns of many of the party’s founders began: ‘these things shall be’, before evoking a vision of an egalitarian and humane society. This spirit of defiance, hope and self-confidence at a time when working-class people were denied some of the most basic democratic rights and social security was virtually non-existent struck me as quite incredible. Those four words say more than any of the recent sound bites we’ve heard from Blair, Mandelson and John Reid and more than any number of professional politicians will say in their whole careers.

Those of us inside and outside the Labour Party, who want a society which is worthy of the name, must fight not just to defend what we have against this current government’s attacks but also declare openly and unapologetically that we are out to transform our society into one in which the dignity of human beings is always put before profit-making.

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How to really bury Thatcher…

It has to be said that it’s quite appropriate to be starting this blog, a joint enterprise between North East activists whose politics have been framed in opposition to both the Thatcherite project and it’s Blairite shadow, on the 1st day of the post-Thatcher era.

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The death of Margaret Hilda Thatcher leaves me cold, to be honest. Not that there isn’t a deep burning hatred of everything that she stood for, but in the sense that, deep down, she was merely the talking head of a much deeper evil, cooked up by the likes of Keith Joseph in the 1970s. It has infected every part of our society & virtually destroyed our communities in the North East. I can understand, and would never condemn people, for celebrating the end, but while we live with that legacy, I see no particular reason to celebrate. There is too much Thatcherite ideology ingrained in our political culture to celebrate, even for one night.

It’s not even, in my view, about Thatcher herself. It is about the legacy of Thatcherism, the foundation for which was laid in the development of what Stuart Hall called “authoritarian populism” – in the shadowy think tanks like the Centre for Policy Studies during the 1970′s – and in reaction to Heath’s defeat by the Miners. This is what we still live with, especially so in County Durham and the North East: de-industrialisation, the erosion of the manufacturing base, the attack on workers’ rights and the casualisation of employment. Let’s not let Maggie off the hook, though. She may not have been the only architect of this ideology, but she was certainly its willing figure head in the UK. Thatcher brought a personal vindictiveness to a much broader movement for neo-liberal, laissez faire economics. Tony Benn, of course, has put it as well as anyone:

“Her whole philosophy was that you measured the price of everything and the value of nothing – and we have to replace that…there is good and bad in everyone and for 10 years it is the bad that has been…promoted and the good that has been denounced as lunatic, out-of-touch, cloud cuckoo land and extremist”.

It is worth watching his full speech at Thatcher’s departure – a fantastic dissection of Thatcherism

Thatcher, of course,  had a particular hatred for union militancy and came to power with the aim to ‘smash’ the trade unions. She made it a personal mission to destroy the NUM. To me, this hits at the heart of why she is so hated in the North East. I was recently reading Peter Crookston’s ‘The Pitmen’s Requiem’ – a book about Gresford (the miner’s hymn, which commemorates the 265 miners killed in an explosion there in 1934) which beautifully explains the sense of solidarity which developed between miners who literally depended on each other for their lives in incredibly dangerous conditions. This sense of solidarity extended to the pit villages themselves and when people say ‘everything revolved around the pit’ they really did mean it. What Thatcher and her hard right ideologues and spooks set out to do was to smash that solidarity and to do that they also had to destroy those communities. Not only did people lose their jobs and futures, many of them lost their friends, their marriages and some their lives (suicides in pit villages during and in the aftermath of the strike were far too commonplace). So, the heart of these Durham communities has been ripped out. Nobody connected with mining will ever forgive Maggie for branding the miners ‘The Enemy Within’.

Of course, Margaret Thatcher was also the political leader who supported Apartheid South Africa while describing Nelson Mandela as a terrorist; who was a close ally of General Pinochet and invited him to Downing Street; who privatised our national assets; who introduced the Poll Tax; who led us into the Falklands War principally for electoral gain and who said there is no such thing as society and meant it. However, up here it is for her destruction of the coal industry that she will be remembered – and hated. Tonight, I’ll get a ‘carry out’ rather than party in the streets, but the best memorial for Thatcher would be to rebuild a strong and vibrant trade union movement from the bottom up – both in the former Durham coalfield and beyond. She would hate that.

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