Monday, 20 December 2010

Unite and fight!

Good to hear that Len McCluskey, the new leader of Unite, has called today for trade unionists to oppose the cuts and work with all the other groups who are fighting cuts. He called for co-ordinated industrial action to fight the cuts in public services, including education. Of course, no sooner had the words been published than the usual suspects - in this case via a Guardian editorial - began to attack him on the predictable basis that this was a return to 'old fashioned' 1970's trade unionism.

These people are daft enough to think we should hold on for five years until the general election in the hope that another (Labour?) government will make things better. Well, don't believe it - that is the politics of failure. Why? Because there is no guarantee that an incoming Labour government would reverse the cuts, in fact it is unlikely that they would do so. What we have is a Tory lead government which is desperate to change Britain for good - to slash the welfare state and privatise what is left of the public sector. At best this would take us back to the 1930s.

This is a government which has no mandate for this change. Cameron and Osbourne kept quiet about slashing welfare during the election and suddenly found after being elected that it was 'necessary'. This is also a government which is vulnerable to pressure and nervous about the recovery that they have promised. In June I predicted that there would be an economic collapse and that we would slide back into recession. At the moment, that is looking like a pessimistic view but I'm still sticking by it. With the rise in VAT, a stagnant housing market, the remaining mountain of toxic debt and rising prices forcing a rise in interest rates there is a very good chance that we will have a jobless 'recovery' and economic stagnation in the longer term - which I also predicted.

There is cause for optimism. The coalition can be cracked apart under the pressure of protest. But McCluskey and trade unionists have to box clever. We need to forge alliances with all the other groups who are affected by the cuts. We have to support the protests of the students, UKuncut, the Coalition of Resistance and all the other community groups who are fighting the cuts. Strike action will play a part but it must start when we have those groups behind us, not beforehand. I think McCluskey has recognised this in his article today. Now we have a short break before we have to begin again in earnest in the new year. I'll be active in Cheshire West Against the Cuts, and if you live near here I hope you'll join me.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Capitalism defies the laws of physics

How long have we had capitalism? In its modern form, in the UK, less than 200 years. According to Karl Polanyi, capitalism started in Britain in 1838, with the introduction of the Poor Laws. It was these laws which finally lead to the commodification of labour, a necessary condition for capitalism.

The title of this post is slightly flippant but the point is this; because capitalism has existed as an economic system for nearly two centuries people think it is inevitable - like the laws of physics. Of course, capitalists would like you to think this, and since it's the only economic system you have ever known it's not surprising if you do. But capitalism isn't like gravity. It is neither inevitable nor necessary. It exists because the conditions it requires to function have been manufactured and are maintained. In other words the rules are set to enable capitalism to function - through legislation. In his book, The Great Transformation (an essential read if you want to know how capitalism came about) , Polanyi focussed on three key conditions; the commodification of land, labour and money. There is no reason why any of these things should be commodities, and they weren't in the past.

Lets take money as an example. Money can be simply a means of exchange. There is no particular reason why it should be a commodity in itself. There is no need for people to be able to buy and sell money. Neither does labour need to be a commodity. Because it is a commodity, workers need to sell their labour to capitalists in order to survive - work or starve. But before the commodification of labour, 'workers' (who at that time were not workers in the modern capitalist sense) had no need to sell their labour because they had alternatives, including access to land to grow food and have a measure of self-sufficiency. Of course, they could choose to sell their labour if they wanted to, and often did. The point is they were not forced to sell it as they are now. Part of the process of forcing 'workers' to sell their labour was the enclosures of common land - essential to the process of commodification of labour.

The idea of 'workers' being able not to have to sell their labour is simply unacceptable to capitalists. If you and I were able to choose freely to work for others when we felt like it, because we had a large measure of independence, it is very easy to see that capitalism couldn't work. We therefore have to be forced to do it. And that is what happened in the 18th and 19th centuries here in the UK.

It is clear, therefore, that socialists must end the commodification of land, labour and money. This is what happened in the Soviet Union. However, the mistake the Communist party made was to put everything into the ownership of the state, on the basis that it was 'owned' by all. This didn't work, as we know, because of the lack of democracy and the dictatorship which was established by Josef Stalin. Land, for example needs to be put into common ownership, not state ownership, as some of it was here before the enclosures. Naturally, there are some people who cannot conceive of how that collective ownership could work - but the point is that it did work then - and there is no reason why it could not work again.

Capitalism is not inevitable - it was created, and we can choose democratically to change the rules to create a more equitable society in which people are freer and not dependent on the whims of the capitalist system. When the rules have been changed capitalism will melt away like the snow did last week.

Please note that this post needs read within the wider context of previous posts such as this one and this.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Solidarity with the Miners

I thought I'd post this as a reflection on what happened the last time we had a Tory government determined to attack working people:

In 1984 I was a student at Essex University. When the Miner's Strike started in March 1984 I was in my second year. Essex University in those days was ‘Red Essex’. In my first year the Communists dominated the students union. By the second year the ‘Broad Left’ had taken over. From what I can remember now this was an unholy alliance of the Communists, Labour and Liberals. Naturally I was a part of the left opposition to this ruling clique. We consisted of non-aligned socialists, leftie Labourites, Troops Out, the SWP, and anarchists.

Thatcher’s government pulled out all the stops to beat the miners and the police were drafted in from all over the country to the front line, which was south Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. Along with the cohorts of police - reputedly on £500 a week - in 1984! – came the army, who posed as policemen in unmarked uniforms, as well as special branch and all manner of spooks determined to break the strike (read GB84 by David Peace). It was a bloody battle, as close as we have come to civil war since the General Strike in the 1920s. Whole parts of the north Midlands and South Yorkshire were a ‘no go zone’ controlled by the police. Towns and mining villages were occupied. The police set up illegal roadblocks to try and stop the miner’s flying pickets.

So what has Essex University to do with this? Well as the strike wore on the government pulled all the stops to try and break it. Essex University is a campus university outside Colchester and near to the Essex port of Wivenhoe. The government started to ship coal in through Wivenhoe and soon after flying pickets arrived at the university. There were about 300 in all. From as far afield as Yorkshire, Durham, Kent and South Wales. This was their first time at university and didn’t they, and we, enjoy it.

Essex University had two bars at the time. The University Bar, which was where the Tories went, and the Union bar, which is where the rest, that is most of us, went. The Union Bar was a great cavern of a place with subsidised (decent) beer at about 60 pence per pint. It was always heaving at night and you had to queue to get served. When the miners came the place exploded. And wasn’t it just wonderful? The singing - “ Here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go-o, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go, here we go!” - the carousing, the craic – as it is know in Ireland - was fantastic!

I spent many nights in that bar drinking with miners and they were some of the best nights of my life. Yes we were separated by class – but so what? We all wanted the same thing – to beat Thatcher and bring down the Tory government. Nobody had any illusions about that. As a socialist it was nirvana. I felt privileged to be taking part in a struggle, however small a part that was, alongside the vanguard of the working class. And the miners enjoyed it too, for sure they had all left problems at home, but at Essex they were welcomed with open arms, with beer, fags, wacky baccy, and young women of a socialist persuasion who wanted to shag a miner. And those women were real feminists – not the effete lot you get these days. So, all in all, it was an education for them and for us. But we got on like a house on fire. Even the Tories treated the miners with respect. They had very little choice.

All these goings on didn’t impress the University - but those were different times. The student union was strong. We had won on a number of issues whilst I had been there. They took us seriously. And that was the best of the students’ union – we had our internal battles but they always backed their members – even the lefties like us - like a proper union should. It was very difficult, if not impossible, for the University to pick out and victimise a student there. So, although the university wanted to get rid of the miners – they couldn’t. The miners were there for the duration, and once they arrived it wasn’t long before things began to hot up.

My best friend, and socialist activist, S, had deserted me and gone off to university in the USA. He went with a mutual friend, A, and they got into a number of political scrapes over there, including getting arrested and being chased by gun-toting security guards. S and I had been involved in a number of escapades at Essex including an exam boycott - where we had to jump out of a first floor window to avoid getting caught out. When he returned in the third year we immediately got hold of a couple of buckets, plastered ourselves in Coal not Dole stickers, and got down to Colchester town centre every Saturday collecting money for the miners. Colchester is a Tory, and army garrison town so we got a fair amount of stick as you can imagine. But we didn’t give a fuck. The best of it was we collected a fair amount of dosh. Little old ladies and gentlemen, and ‘housewives’ gave us money. I would guess that on most Saturdays we collected between 30 and 50 quid. Not bad money for those times.

There were a number of mass pickets of Wivenhoe and it’s a testament to the times how organised the enemy were. At the ‘big picket’, which I remember clearly, there must have been about 1000 police officers and 1000 pickets. The picket consisted of miners, students and local ne’er do wells (local people who supported the cause). The night before the picket I went out with my mate N - who was a committed socialist and really great bloke. Despite getting completely leathered we were up at five am to get to the picket.

As the whole thing got off the ground N and I were at the centre of the picket near the gate. I remember quite clearly a wagon coming in – regardless of the pickets - someone could easily have got killed. It was slowed by the crush of bodies at the gate and Nigel jumped up and managed to stick his head through the driver’s window giving him a load of abuse. He was grabbed and carted off by several police officers. There was lots of pushing and shoving as the police tried to keep us away from the gates. The pickets linked arms and the melee swayed backwards and forwards. I lead a charmed life that day. At one stage the police lifted the guys on either side of me but I survived. I guess that is because they were burly miners and I was a weedy student. The police grabbed a friend who was already on bail for an 'offence' committed during the strike and a frantic tug of war over him ensued. We knew he couldn’t be nicked again. With a gargantuan effort we wrested him from the police and he was passed backwards along the ground through the legs of the pickets to safety.

The bad news for N was that when they got him back to the station they searched him and found some speed in his jean’s back pocket so he got busted. He’d forgotten to take it out the night before. As for the students that got arrested they were piled in police vans, driven about thirty miles into the middle of nowhere and left to walk home. Suffice to say a lot more happened, including the infamous disciplinary committee that I was elected to serve on. Not to mention real picketing after being smuggled into south Derbyshire in the middle of the night. But the miners stayed at Essex University until the end of the strike and one or two of them were still on campus about six months after it ended.

The end of the strike was traumatic for all of us. The miners and their wives, and families were heroes. They were a million miles away from the smug bankers and Capitalists who have been riding on our backs ever since. We had invested a lot of time, energy and passion in the strike. We didn’t have as much to lose as they did. The unemployment, repossessions, marital break up, crime, and shattered communities. But we cared. I hope they look back on that time of solidarity with as much fondness as I do.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Its time that the Met Police were brought under democratic control

On Thursday 9th December the ConDem government managed to pass legislation increasing tuition fees to up to £9,000 per year in the face of student protests. The protests were once again mainly peaceful and good natured. There was some damage to property around Parliament Square including the Treasury and the Supreme Court. As usual, the media had a field day, focussing almost entirely on damage to property. But something has changed. There was a reasonably widespread questioning of police tactics, which I have no doubt provoked much of the violent response.

I watched a couple of hours of live coverage on BBC and Sky and it looked to me that the Met Police had come with an agenda to break a few heads - which they succeeded in doing. One of the protestors, Alfie Meadows, was beaten unconscious by police and had to be taken to hospital. Incredibly, according to reports, the police objected to him being treated at the same hospital as some of their own officers and tried to have him turned away. What have we come to in this country where this sort of barbaric behaviour by police officers can be tolerated?

This is the same police force that lied about the death of Jean Charles De Menezes and the death of Ian Tomlinson and recently kept schoolchildren kettled for nine hours in freezing temperatures without food water or access to toilets. It seems to me that the Met Police are out of any kind of democratic control and are becoming a law unto themselves. Of course, I wouldn't expect our democratically elected government to do anything about that - that would be too much to expect.

The kind of tactics we have seen from the Metropolitan Police cause problems rather than solve them. High profile aggressive policing of the kind we saw last week is not the way to police demonstrations. Even the 'good folk' of the Countryside Alliance experienced that during their demonstration. Of course a cynic might argue that the Met have a vested interest in this type of policing. The more violence they can provoke the better they can argue for more resources and draconian powers. If our current set of 'waste-of-space' parliamentarians (with one or two exceptions) continue to let the Met Police behave in this way it is inevitable that the police will come to be seen as merely an arm of the state - which in truth they are - and that they will end up alienating a whole generation of young people, their parents and supporters.

We have lived for many years with the fiction that the police are there to protect us but their real role is to defend the interests of the British State which are the same as the interests of international neoliberal capitalism. I witnessed that first hand myself during the Miner's Strike, and it has no place in a democracy.

Sunday, 5 December 2010

Coalition of Resistance Conference

On the 27 November CoR held its inaugural conference in London. I travelled down by train from Cheshire and was joined by 1200 others in the Camden Centre. The train was delayed so I arrived a bit late, by which time the main hall was full. The morning consisted of a plenary session with speakers from the Labour Party, Green Party and trade unions including; John McDonnell MP, Bob Crow RMT, Mark Serwotka PCS, Jean Lambert MEP, Ken Loach, Clare Solomon NUS, and Lindsey German. After a chilly journey the speakers soon got the audience warmed up and there were some particularly good contributions from Mark Serwotka and John McDonnell.

The plenary was followed by a series of workshops on such topics as; organising against the cuts locally, mobilising the unions, and analysing the crisis. I attended a couple of these workshops, both of which were absolutely packed. The most promising thing about the workshops, and the whole day, was the fact that there were many young people attending. There was a really positive atmosphere of co-operation and determination. The now well worn arguments about the causes of the crisis were aired but what interested me most was alternatives. It's not enough to want to stop the cuts, the left has to have a workable alternative agenda, and that is one of the things I have been focussing on in my blog - see here and here. It's early days but it's not clear yet exactly how this agenda is going to shape up. The afternoon passed in similar fashion ending with some rousing speeches, and a standing ovation for Tony Benn, who was elected as President of CoR. He was looking frail but was truly inspirational.

On Thursday night I attended the first local meeting of an embryonic campaign against the cuts in West Cheshire. All in all, I'm very optimistic that the anti-cuts movement can wring changes from the ConDem government and crack the coalition apart. The problem is - what happens next? The Labour Party is paralysed by its past 13 years in power and unable to articulate an alternative to the government's programme of austerity. The Green Party, alone, of all the mainstream parties has a robust, costed and viable alternative but we are not going to be in a position to implement that programme after the next election. Our task has to be to persuade others to adopt the economic programme. Meanwhile the students continue to inspire us all with their campaign against tuition fees, and the anti-cuts movement is still taking on the tax avoiders. Next, I will be doing my best to promote the campaign here in West Cheshire.