Current leadership must take responsibility and question their own suitability to lead our trade union

“If we achieve anything higher than a 70% turnout I honestly think we won’t need to strike. The government will know we’re prepared to take sustained action and they will talk to us”. That was, as workplace representatives drumming up support for our trade union’s national ballot on pay, the message to Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) members in our office and across our branch in north west England. A modern-day trade unionist must have, above all else, an abundance of optimism and thick-skinned resilience to handle regular disappointments. I would have been disappointed with just limping over the government-imposed 50% turnout line, but at least we would have been across it and have a legal mandate to take industrial action and strive to achieve a respectable pay rise after nearly a decade of a 1% pay cap.

There were nearly 150,000 of us in this fight and after hours-on-end of campaigning, convincing and chasing members over a six-weep period, the results of our ballot were due to be published at tea-time yesterday. We as a branch had done what was necessary: we’d achieved well in excess of a 50% turnout (our figures, if members have been honest with us, suggest close to a 80% turnout). I logged on to the union’s website and saw the words:

“Huge strike vote – but anti-union strike laws will prevent action.”

I hesitated to click on the article, that undeniable sense of disappointment flowing through my body. After throwing the lot at hurdling over the threshold dictated in the government’s 2016 Trade Union Act, we’d caught our leg and fell flat to the ground. All that limbering and geeing up at the start line and we’d managed to turnout just 41.6% of those eligible to cast a vote.

The now-to-be-expected spin was already in operation from the union leadership: the constant blaming of the Tories’ anti-union legislation and the “historic” vote lines. There can be no running away from the brutal truth of this result. It is, in my view, a disaster and failure of the union leadership to motivate and fire up thousands of members across the country. Yes, the anti-union laws passed a couple of years ago are undemocratic and restrictive – they have been since Edward Heath’s first attempt to ruin trade unions in the 1970s. Barely an hour had passed before TUC general secretary, Frances O’Grady, waded in by demanding modern voting methods. Perhaps O’Grady will need reminding of two things. Firstly, the union’s consultative ballot achieved a 49% turnout and that included three methods of voting: postal, by telephone and, crucially, online (e-balloting). Secondly, how were other trade unions able to move their membership to vote in such numbers above the 50% threshold – the main one being the Communication Workers Union, who achieved a 73% turnout of 110,000 members and went on to achieve a pay rise, a pension deal and a reduced working week – that their respective employers could not ignore their demands?

Instead of engaging in deflection tactics, it is time the PCS leadership – general secretary, Mark Serwotka, and president, Janice Goodrich – started to answer questions, especially about their suitability to continue in their current roles. We must never forget how they effectively saved this union nearly 20 years ago during a time of turbulence and treachery, but how longer are activists willing to allow them to trade on this? They continue to play an influential role in their support for union factionalism that stitches an obedient National Executive Committee and for that are complicit in these years of failure. Our 185,000 members desperately need a radical and transformative leadership that is going to achieve for them.

We have belatedly arrived on the internet, attempting to use digital communication techniques but there is no comparison with the success of the CWU’s campaigning style and effectiveness. We also need to encourage branches who are successful in campaigning and achieving high turnouts to lead the training of current and new workplace representatives instead of relying on the tired and often cliche-riddled material presently used.

Fresh ideas are needed and, despite being a supporter up to now, I now doubt if the current group are able to provide them. For now, our members will head into work tomorrow with their pay restricted and their terms and conditions under attack and, to their mind, with no end in sight.

Serwotka will have more time to implement ideas that will attract the thousands more votes required to reach the 50% target. My thoughts, although mostly committed to helping to achieve this objective, are shifting to the general secretary elections in 2019.

Results of the ballot:

Number of Individuals who were entitled to vote in the ballot                    142,673

Number of voting papers returned                                                            59,285

Yes                         50,726                   85.6%

No                            8,528                   14.4%

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A World Unkown

It might be obvious to the more dedicated writer, but I have learnt something today that I believe needs to be shared. It does seem an obvious statement: if you are continuously alert, if your eyes and ears are permanently engaged it may save a significant amount of time in your next attempt to craft a credible and attractive opening paragraph for your post, article, essay etc. I entered the local library with a firm subject idea but the usual vagueness persisted about how to begin. I have had the urge to write this for some weeks now but lacking the inspiration, like a fire lacks the initial spark, nothing has taken shape. My entering into the library was not influenced by a sudden and decided inclination to write, but to aimlessly meander as one often does in public libraries. As I snaked through the dozens of metallic cabinets that house thousands of mostly tattered, second-hand books I found myself in the section where the ‘O’ authors live. My eyes were looking for one name and they were astonished by its absence. The library’s failure to provide the fictional work of George Orwell betrays its many users; mulling it over after many shakes of my head I determine it is a betrayal of the whole toswn Of course, if I were to deflate my reaction to this situation I knew it was not beyond my wit to conclude that perhaps Orwell’s work, if stocked, was out on hire but I did intend to later browse the non-fiction section to test management’s level of cultural ignorance. Their ignorance is my ignorance, too.

It is this fascination with and eagerness for Orwell’s work that is urging me to sit down and write about it. It is not just Orwell. I have developed a sudden desire to read books written by authors that have never occurred to me, and what’s more, it has led me to entirely new territory. If I were to recall my hundreds of visits to bookshops, I would estimate that all but an hour has been spent in the history and politics sections, but this imbalance has begun to alter as a rapacious desire to immerse myself in literature has uncontrollably developed. I am hungry for new and immensely bored with old. I have questioned where this appetite has been lurking since school-age. As I walked contemplating this, I heard two familiar voices in political discussion. The voices belonged to local activists of the Labour Party of which I am a member. They were talking about the unfolding Labour Party Conference and the leader’s upcoming speech. I have paid but a fraction of attention to this year’s Conference because I am flatly bored with politics. I did not have the inclination to let on to these decent people because I did not want to be engaged in political conversation. This occurrence, if you can name it as such, provided me with the spark required to sit down and write about my current discontentedness with politics and current affairs and my new aspiration for literature. I had thus far struggled to conjure the words for the lack of spirit, but here it was. Two party members were in discussion about a topic I used to obsess about but I wanted more than anything to hunt down a novel by Charles Dickens or Oscar Wilde. My thirst to read, write and learn is far mightier than our hung parliament and our bland, banal parliamentarians. I have lost interest. I have lost interest in the wooden politician and their meaningless words and in the numb journalist and their cliché-riddled news articles.

I must quickly add that I am not relinquishing my membership of the Labour Party. I will remain a loyal member and supporter and will strive to ensure a radical Socialist government is elected as soon as the shambles we have now collapses. I mean only to take a break; I leave a fairly naïve radical, but I will return an enriched and educated radical who is able to write and speak like one ought to. I want to immerse myself in the beautifully constructed sentences of some of the finest writers from the preceding centuries. I want to learn again how to write, to rid myself of that hideous block that once removed brings into my mind’s eye but a tiresome cliché. It will take time – I expect at least a year – and I have already put together a brief list of authors and book titles to read. I have thus far allowed only one individual to guide me and that is the late Christopher Hitchens. A wondrous writer and thinker, Hitchens implored us all to submerge ourselves into the world of Orwell and it is for this reason that I have referred to him with regularity. Orwell is my starting position and there are worse authors to choose from as an entry point. I have already laid a promise that it is my intention to seek and read only literature therefore I will resist the magnetic pull towards Orwell’s vast non-fiction material until the time is right (I have read ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’ and ‘Politics and the English Language’ before now). That treat must wait.

I initially wanted to read Orwell’s six novels in order of publication but for whatever reason I started with ‘Animal Farm’ before moving on to his first published novel ‘Burmese Days’, which is based on his own experiences working for the Burmese police force in the days of the British Empire. Despite being best known for ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’, written in ill health and, in the case of the latter, in his dying days, Orwell’s early novels are proving to be damning, yet astonishingly-written, social commentaries on imperial Britain, with its vile racism and rampant exploitation, and British poverty (‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ and ‘The Clergyman’s Daughter’). I aim to have read all six by the end of October. I have read numerous reviewers and journalists state that Orwell seldom could produce wit or humour in his writing, but I – and I’m glad to have discovered Hitchens and Keith Gessen, an American novelist who collated into book form dozens of Orwell’s essays, have stated similar – take an alternative view. I found hilarious a scene in ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’ when Gordon Comstock, the book’s protagonist, is forced to secretly make cups of tea in his bedroom because his landlady refuses to do so after a certain time in the evening. As the scene unfolds, Orwell compares Gordon’s predicament of removing the illegitimate tea leaves from his room to the conundrum a murderer faces when attempting to dispose of their victim’s body. Wickedly funny.

Where I go, or rather who I go to, after these six books is still being debated. I have seen a beautiful edition of Charles Dickens’s ‘Great Expectations’, which was added to my list, but E. M. Forster’s ‘A Passage to India’ was one of the first titles to be added following the list’s birth, but now that I’m well committed to this challenge I’m more relaxed about who goes down on my list. I’ll take suggestions.

 

 

From Downing Street to Wit’s End

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

Leo Buscaglia

Crisis. It is a word we have become used to, almost numb to, in the last decade ever since the ‘financial crisis’. The global response to this particular crisis set us on a course of austerity economics that have plunged millions of people into their very own collection of crises. The word, I have since discovered, derives from the Greek ‘krisis’ meaning ‘decision’.

The political class made their decision to defund individual states of billions – no, trillions – of pounds and we can draw a pitiful line through that until we arrive at many peoples’ decision: to heat or eat; for a parent to forego a meal in order to ensure their children have enough to ensure they do not go to bed hungry; or the many other decisions that are daily made by Britain’s worst-off families. We soon arrive at the foodbank. In 21st century Britain, there are at least 2,000 foodbanks in operation each dealing with hundreds, if not thousands, of crises on an annual basis. Just last March, the Trussell Trust, the Christian charity that manages the foodbanks scattered across the country, reported that between April 2016 and March 2017 nearly 1.2m food parcels were given to Britain’s most vulnerable people.

We often talk about relative or absolute poverty, where absolute poverty, commonly associated with the world’s poorest nations, is a time when an individual does not have access to the amenities that protect again death i.e. food, shelter etc. Absolute poverty exists in Britain.

I began volunteering at my nearest foodbank in early 2016 because my new job meant I had time off during the week and it provided me with the opportunity to do something I believed was useful. The first person I spoke to was a young mother of one who broke down in tears in front of her two-year son. I came back to the sitting area to witness one of the wonderful volunteers with her arm around this sobbing stranger while another volunteer attempted to distract the young boy with a collection of donated toys in the corner. What I witnessed truly shocked, moved and ultimately disgusted me. I was shocked that a mother was crying because of anxiety and shame (she said this was exactly how she felt) caused because she was relying on charity to feed both herself and her son. I was moved because there were people willing to volunteer their time to come to these places and help and console others in sheer desperation as they struggled through the toughest period of their lives. Finally, I felt disgusted that people were living in this way and that these places existed. How had the state allowed this situation to form, let alone grow into such an enormous issue?

There are many reasons why individuals and families have to go to a foodbank, but first I want to explain the process behind how they go there. I believe there is a misconception that foodbanks have a welcome-all strategy, that there are no regulations in place and that there is an infinite amount of stock ready to be handed to anyone who might happen to walk through the front door. This is wrong. A foodbank-user has to be referred by an organisation like the Citizens Advice Bureau, a housing association or the Job Centre (there are dozens of other charitable and state service-providers that refer people to a foodbank). Additionally, due to the high level of demand the Trussell Trust created a policy that capped the number of times a person can collect a food parcel – four. Finally, the parcel itself is designed to feed a single person, a couple or a family for at least three days and is invariably made up of processed food in tins or jars. I like to donate fruit and vegetables to ensure that people, especially the children on the referral form, are at least getting some nutritious food into their bodies (who knows – it might prevent a cold and saves their parents money of a bottle of medicine or prescription charge).

In my view, the mistake to blame the majority of foodbank referrals on the welfare system is all too commonplace, particularly in the press.  It is true that four in ten referrals are due to issues with social security (Universal Credit five- or six-week waiting times, the two-child cap, the benefit cap and cuts to work allowances to name four), however there are a myriad of other reasons why people urgently require a food parcel such as low income (alarmingly 23% of referrals in 2015-16 gave this as the reason), debt, homelessness and domestic abuse. Focussing on social security benefits forces the eyes away from the devastating cuts that have been made to local authorities who have responded by defunding vital local services that have historically protected against street homelessness etc.

I managed to call in to the foodbank I used to volunteer in to see how things were since the managers got the keys to a new site (a redundant pub – a wonderfully-sized venue, with lots of space for people to have a brew and a talk, a huge stockroom and an office space). The usual faces were there; those managers who treat running the foodbank as a full-time job (one provides counselling for those at wit’s end); the volunteers who come in 8am every day; and more new faces. As I gave my apologies for my absence in recent months, the manager talked me through how they had raised over £30,000 (crowdsourced from the tremendous people of Oldham) to fit a new kitchen to allow fresh and warm meals to be served for the town’s hungry. Amongst the desperation and at times solemn atmosphere there is small community that has formed in the face of rampant austerity. To see these people, often with problems of their own, warmly greet strangers going through a hellish time and proceed to engage them in conversation for half an hour is as uplifting and heartening as anything I have seen. I may be wrong, but I often think it acts as a pick-me-up and boost for many of these people, possibly even on both ends of the table.

Only this morning did I discover that Oldham’s foodbank provided for 560 people in July – 182 children help make up that figure. I also discovered that since 1st of January of this year, 892 children have been named on the referral forms received by the foodbank. I counted today at least seven or eight children between 11am and 2pm – it leaves you exasperated, yet I cannot help but smile when I see their faces light up when offered bananas and oranges and their parents marrows, runner beans and aubergines brought in at dinner-time by an elderly gentleman who grows his own produce. I waved off a Zimbabwean father of three who promised to cook his three children an apple crumble with the cooking apples given to him by staff. But then the smile leaves my face as I attempt to comprehend how many thousands of kids across the country go hungry over the summer holidays or in the winter.

The two people I will remember from today were two middle-aged men each going through their own personal crisis and seemingly doing so alone. The first man I helped make a new social security claim and he appears to be coming out of a horrible 18-month period of his life. He has worked all his life, yet hit a wall when he became dependant on heroin. Happily, with the help of his two-year daughter (a photo of her face is saved on the screen of his mobile phone as inspiration), he has been drug-free for nearly a month and is in the process of getting his own flat.

The second chap seems to be just entering his own terrible period, having fallen into homelessness after the break-up of his relationship. He told me, as I attempted to find some emergency financial assistance to allow him to travel to friends on the other side of Lancashire who promised to put him up for a couple of weeks, he had spent the previous night in a bus shelter. His eyes glazed over when the last of the contactable services delivered more bad news and I had to explain his next hope would be a visit to the Citizens Advice Housing team – tomorrow. He looks set for a second consecutive night as one of Britain’s increasing number of street homeless. That cannot be defined as a decision seeing as he does not have an alternative, so we will have to stick with the modern definition of ‘crisis’: a time of intense difficult or danger. I hope better times for him are around the corner.

Save #OurNHS

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An estimated 250,000 people have congregated in London today (04/03/17) to stand up for the British National Health Service. Our health system, one of the finest social institutions on the planet, is being systematically starved of funding by the Conservative government. It is expected that £22bn worth of further cuts will have been made by the 2020. The crisis gripping the NHS includes:

  • Ambulance response times at lowest ever levels (66.4% hitting target response times)
  • Record NHS deficit of £2.45bn
  • The Royal Society of Medicine says that 30,000 extra deaths last year were directly as a result of the crisis
  • 66 A&E and maternity departments closed
  • 53 NHS Walk-in centres closed (an additional 51 are to be closed or downgraded)
  • The British Red Cross says the NHS is going through a “humanitarian crisis”
  • Since 2010 the Tories have closed five beds every day amount to 15,300

Amongst the speaker at the demonstration was Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who gave a rousing speech and was well received. Inconspicuous by his absence, though, was Lib Dem leader Tim Farron who no doubt was busy releasing his usual flurry of daily press statements on every topic from Brexit to the Queen breaking wind. Captain Flip Flop’s record on the NHS is bleak so it might have been for the best that he stayed away. It was brilliant to see PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka speaking after several months of recovery following a heart transplant. A welcome return from a true friend to the movement.

To quote Aneurin Bevan, the coal miner-turned-Labour MP who introduced the NHS in 1948, “it will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it”. Judging on today’s turn-out it was obvious the British people are up for the scrap.

For the record some of the above statistics have been provided by the socialist daily newspaper The Morning Star. This author unashamedly salutes its brilliant news coverage.

 

 

 

It’s time for Labour’s members to hunt down the Bob Crows

I’ve been considering starting a blog for a few weeks now. I’m big into politics and trade unionism so that is my theme. I’m not the best writer you are likely to read this week let alone one that you’ve ever read but the eventual subject of this post was not the most articulate speaker yet he was incredibly successful so sod it. I like to write as I talk in everyday life so I won’t be looking for big and fancy words. I’m a working-class lad from the north and that’s how I’ll stay, both in person and on the screen.

Right – the Labour Party. It’s in a bloody mess but before I throw together a few paragraphs on possible solutions I want to introduce you to who I am within what I consider the best political party in Britain (when on form, which it isn’t as things stand). I’ve been a member for about two years which tells you I didn’t join with the tens of thousands who did so because they heard something new and original when our current leader Jeremy Corbyn got on the ballot paper following Ed Miliband’s resignation. I joined because I heard something new and original from our current leader but well before he even announced he’d be the left candidate. I’d been listening to Corbyn speak as a backbencher for a while. I’d listened to his views on poverty, workers’ rights, equality and many other subjects. It wasn’t just Corbyn that fascinated me. There was John McDonnell and the likes of Dennis Skinner and Ian Lavery. My dad was a coal miner so I hung on to every word they said in Parliament. I was hooked with their socialist vision and ideas so I joined up. We had the leadership contest, membership rose by 300,000 and there was an enthusiasm and euphoria that erupted during Corbyn’s brilliant campaign. Sadly, a lot of that has fizzled and we’re in a serious spot of bother. We’re a mess. We’re fighting each other while Corbyn is trying to highlight the disastrous damage the Tories are doing to this country. We all know the problems but where are the answers?

The one thing I am not is a deluded Corbynite who isn’t willing to criticise when I see short-comings. I see several flaws in Corbyn’s leadership, chinks in his armour, but I go about highlighting these in a polite manner which is more than what can be said for his opponents inside the party do. I hold those who obsess about the negatives and who share constantly the (spun and exaggerated) articles that appear daily in the British press in the same regard as I hold those Labour MPs who have made it their objective to bring Corbyn down. Essentially very low (Mike Gapes being one – I consider this man a vile rat of a bloke and it’s my own mission to make sure he hears this from me and to his rotten face; I do preach unity but there are some who have done untold damage and who I no longer respect or would like to associate with).

So I’m actually going to focus this post on a criticism of Corbyn. I bet that has stumped you. The man is not a leader. It’s as simple as that. Our equally brilliant Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell calls Corbyn a “reluctant leader” which he is. Corbyn is someone who has never craved the limelight nor power. Would I trust that Corbyn has not, does not and would not abuse(d) his position of authority? Absolutely. So I’ve always agreed with McDonnell’s assessment. Corbyn has been thrust into a job he does not have the natural ability to do. It’s not a bad thing. It’s of course presented as one by the critical right-wing press but you either can do it or you can’t. Ultimately the left group of MPs is but a caucus inside the Labour Party. It’s a crying shame but that is where we are. We just don’t have the numbers. I believe it is virtually impossible for a self-proclaimed socialist – someone who not only identifies with one (even Jess Phillips MP said she would like to nationalise every shop if she could) but proposes the ideas as a way of running the country – to lead the modern-day Labour Party. It is ideologically, and hugely so, tilted in favour of the centre-right. There are some good, honest people on that wing but I fear some are easily manipulated and it this unevenness that renders Corbyn’s job impossible. Again – not his fault, He’s done a good job with a woeful hand.

He also lacks charisma and the ability to properly inspire. Again – not a reason to condemn him. He’s a product of events, as we all are. Yes, he attracted thousands of people, so many of them young and never attracted to politics before, to join the party. He triggered a movement. That is a wonderful achievement and one that even Saint Blair failed to do. However, I believe it was the ideas not the man voicing them. Socialism has been off the British menu for decades. Corbyn brought it back and dished it up. We were suddenly talking about nationalisation of public services such as the rail network and energy. We finally had a party willing to lambast the shocking effects of austerity, we talked about the ideals of social inclusion and collectiveness, we talked about the social contract again. Corbyn did that and we should be forever grateful. But does he speak to the northern working class that has congregated around the likes of the awful Nigel Farage and his UKIP mob? No. It’s a sad fact. I’ll keep fighting for Corbyn and keep presenting ideas to these people and hopefully – especially now that the lying dirt bag Paul Nuttall has been outed as an immoral leech – we can attract these people back to Labour. It’s a big challenge but our party’s image and will, all over the place as it is, is not ready to do it.

So Corbyn stays and so he should. But where next? We need charisma to charm working people, we need a bold, strong individual who is not frightened to stand up and get in the face of the Tories and the press. Someone who hasn’t come off the Oxford/Cambridge-PPE-political-researcher-turned-MP press all rigid and bland, but people who have been in the ordinary workplace defending working people for years. Preferably we need a few dozen. I’ve been thinking about who this could come in the shape of. The person I was reminded of is, unfortunately, no longer with us. I thought Bob Crow. Yes, the former General Secretary of RMT union and, in my view, best union official we’ve had since they would knock the Tories dizzy. He had the lot. He was a bullish, straight-talking fighter with a south-east London accent. He looked like an ordinary Brit, he sounded like one and he worked liked one. Like I said in the opening paragraph, he wasn’t the most articulate, he wasn’t perfect, but who is? He inspired a near 30,000 RMT membership increase in an era when anti-trade union laws have influenced huge declines in the trade union movement. What he did best though was to present the facts of the case in a language we could all understand. He defined socialism in everyday language. He was lively, full of passion and quick witted. He had a field day when he was interviewed by journalists. When your enemies are full of praise for you – Boris Johnson, who fought daily with Crow when Mayor of London, said it was a “sad day” when he passed away in 2014 – you’re doing something right. He defended working people and raised their standards of living. He won huge pay rises for workers across the country, he was on picket lines across the country, he even demanded that canteens for workers were clean because “you wouldn’t sit in a restaurant on a dirty table”. His speeches are readily available on YouTube and I can only suggest listening to them. An inspirational man who organised and charmed. I occasionally listen to them even now to fire me up.

Now this is where us members come in. We need to find the Bob Crows and get them into the main positions. I do not say this from ideological point of view. We’ve already got the ideas, but we need the personalities. People will vote for those they trust and get them going. It’s not enough to simply join the party. We need to get to branch meetings and make a difference. We need to be on the hunt for people who look, sound and act like those who we aim to represent. The studies continuously tell us that Labour has ceased representing the working class. We need people in positions of authority to recast that net and inspire people to align themselves with the working-class identity (not, as Crow said, “with a bag of chips and pint in me hand”, but a modern identity). We need dogged, unapologetic individuals who speak to ordinary people like Bob Crow was and did. At the moment the British people do not trust us to defend their interests. Us members need to find those that they will.

For peace and socialism.

“We should shove harder and harder and harder without getting fed up of doing it. I don’t know you do it ’cause, there again, it’s human nature to say “ah, lad, I’m sick” but that’s the answer: shove, shove, shove and keep shoving”.