Remembering Tony Benn – a year on

10007410_10203287173237568_1625975512_nIt was a year ago today that we heard the news that Tony Benn had died. I don’t do heroes as a rule. I’m of the opinion that movements change the world, not individuals. But Tony was obviously very special. A great communicator of simple, socialist common sense. Some people wanted more than that, and I can understand that – but to me, that is the thing that is most needed at our end of the political spectrum.

He was also a deep-down kind and generous human being. A few years ago, when this photo was taken, I had written to Ruth Winstone, asking if Tony wanted to visit the People’s Bookshop. She explained that Tony was too frail to get up the stairs, but would love to meet me before his gig at the Gala Theatre in Durham. When I got there, my heart sank. He was surrounded by dignitaries and Labour councillors (quite a few of them nasty, austerity-happy old rightwingers). Someone was wearing a silly chain around their neck.

Ruth spotted me, and had a word with Tony. Like a flash, he extricated himself and found a spot for me and him to have a lovely chat. I know I wasn’t special in this kind of treatment, it’s just that he had an enormous respect and understanding for activists, people who campaigned and got things done. And he had no time for those people who wrapped themselves in the Red Flag, but fundamentally sought the trappings of power and fought for no one but themselves.

That evening, I gave him a People’s Bookshop mug, knowing that it would be too small for him to use – he used to drink his tea out of pint mugs. However, a year or so later, a friend of mine went to see Tony at his house and was brought his cuppa in a People’s Bookshop mug. I got a little buzz out of that.

But more than the personal stories, Tony Benn leaves us with a moral. And that is partly to do with the fact that, despite all his oratory, all his wisdom and foresight, Bennism was a cry in the wilderness. Why? Because we thought Tony Benn could do it all for us – we were his audience – and we forgot to keep building a vibrant, political movement on the ground. Tony realised this himself, and he was keen to quote Lao Tzu whenever he could on leadership:

“A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

Leaders may have their role in encouraging others, but at the end, it’s down to us to get together (in whichever ways and in whichever forums we choose). We have to get ourselves organised and build from the grassroots. Everything else is just for show.

Tony Benn, 3rd April 1925 – 14th March 2014.

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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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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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