Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Football and Activism

“The thing about football – the important thing about football – is that it's not just about football.”
Terry Pratchett

I remember once going on a school trip to Salford University for a talk, during my politics A-levels. I can't remember exactly when, but it must have been 2005/2006. I have no idea what the day was actually about, but I do remember one thing. The whole area was plastered with “Love United Hate Glazer” stickers. Since then, the LUHG slogan has become commonplace on toilet doors in pubs up and down the country.

The Glazer family have treated United to the neat trick of going into debt to buy the club, then using the club's own money to pay off the debts. Why this is allowed absolutely baffles me, so for reasons of sanity I'll not try to go into the whole affair here. The point is that the threat of collapse, that has long been a reality for smaller clubs, is working its way up the leagues. Big money in football has meant that a lack of success, or a sudden decline in a club's fortunes, can lead to financial oblivion.

Millionaire control of football clubs is just another example of the lack of democracy that afflicts our entire society. And no, it doesn't matter whereabouts in the world they come from. A rich bastard is a rich bastard. Football clubs are not community organisations, they are chasing after money. Some fans have rejected this state of affairs outright, such as those who founded FC United of Manchester or AFC Wimbledon.

The latest round of anti-Glazer protests have taken the form of fans wearing Green and Gold, the colours of the old Newton Heath F.C., that became Man Utd in 1902. This seems to be invoking a simpler time in the past, when clubs were not completely detached from their fans. The disgraceful eviction of anti-Glazer protesters from Old Trafford by stewards clearly shows the contempt the club's bosses have for their own fanbase. Similarly, see the recent comments by Portsmouth's executive director Mark Jacob, directed at dissenting fans.

Big institutions more often than not change principled individuals, rather than get changed themselves. Well known man of Labour – and Knight of the Realm – Alex Ferguson, has come a long way from his days as a Glasgow shop steward and lined up fully behind the Glazers so far. An account of a recent mass meeting of United fans on the RepublikofMancunia blog contains the following interesting proposal:

“Draft a letter for as many fans as possible to send to Sir Alex Ferguson to ask for his resignation. As a socialist and a man concerned for the club, he should show the Glazers exactly what he thinks of them. Poor results and failure to qualify for Europe would mean the Glazers could no longer afford to even keep us afloat and we would go in to administration.”

Clearly a layer of fans are actively wishing for financial meltdown as the only way they can see of getting rid of the hated owners. Big clubs like United are so entrenched as institutions that it seems unlikely, unfortunately, that Ferguson or the fans could change the direction of the whole thing. The power lies where the money is. Perhaps things will have to “get worse before they get better,” with clubs folding before being bought out by fans. But the game would need massively restructuring to make sure the new owners didn't just behave like the old ones. Football as a sport rooted in the community – outside the lower leagues – seems unfathomable in a profit-chasing society.

More depressingly, the uglier politics of the football crowd was evident last weekend too. One of the biggest marches yet staged by the far-right English Defence League took place in Stoke-on-Trent. The EDL, by all accounts, came about through football hooligan networks and their far-right connections. Of course, most fans want nothing to do with organisations like this, but the Left abandoning the terraces would mean that any political stories and voices from the game in the media came from the Right.

It should go without saying that football is an important battleground for political activism. During the posties' strikes, the Trades Council here in Cambridge organised bucket-collections at a Cambridge United match. Middlesborough games have been a focus of portests against the closing of Corus's steel factory at Redcar.

Perhaps it's cliched to say that football is a microcosm of society. That probably isn't true. But a lot of it is in there. The millionaire bosses (the owners), their henchmen (the directors), the tiny minority of working class people elevated to celebrity status to give us something to aspire to (the players). Even the fans are stratified by economics. Are you in a Sky-sponsored executive box or stuck behind a pillar? Or perhaps priced-out of the game altogether by expensive tickets? Then there are people who decide what we are allowed to watch, and when, and how much it will cost us (the media). And, just occasionally in the midst of the whole slog, the chance of seeing the underdog win for a change.

Beautiful game, ugly future?

Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition: We are where we are

So at long last the formation of a new left-wing coalition has been announced to stand candidates in the general election. The Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) is backed by the Socialist Party, the Socialist Workers' Party and a handful of prominent trade unionists, most notably Bob Crow of the RMT. It is a progression from last year's No2Eu, in both name and programme. But there are undoubtedly problems.

Disappointing is the apparent decision of the Alliance for Green Socialism not to participate, supposedly because the name lacked the words 'Green' or 'Environmentalist.' If this is true, I find it difficult to understand, because they participated in No2EU last year, which had a much worse name and much less environmentalist content to its programme. Perhaps there is another reason for AGS's non-involvement, but it would be sad to lose them.

The Communist Party of Britain's executive committee have stated that they won't be participating. Again I find this hard to fathom. They are sticking to their normal 'Vote Labour' line but also imply they will be standing candidates under their own name. Well, there was nothing stopping them standing as part of TUSC and advocating a Labour vote in constituencies where TUSC wasn't standing.

As for Respect, the leadership around Galloway has declared itself against any alliance with the 'far left' in favour of the Green Party (which has already backfired on them). There seems to be a sizeable minority in Respect in favour of something like TUSC though. I'm not sure how the organisation functions, and whether local branches would be able to canvas for TUSC without getting into trouble with the leadership.

Some people may well argue that the CPB, with their soft-Stalinism, and Galloway, with his unpredictable ego and sometimes deplorable political behaviour (cup of tea, Mr Saddam?) are no big loss to a left unity project. I wouldn't go that far. There are decent people in both groups. And the CPB's Morning Star is, for all its faults, a daily newspaper.

On a more positive note it seems that the SWP are on board, and want to stand 6 candidates under the TUSC banner. This will probably include Cambridge so if I can wrench myself away from the academic hell of my final year around April time, there will be some electioneering for me to do down here.

I'm not sure on the position of locally based parties like the Wigan, Leigh and Makersfield People's Alliance that was set up a while back. They may want to keep their name and work with the coalition. The WLMPA includes members of Respect so if they did decide to back TUSC, that would be interesting.

The RMT as a national union is not backing the coalition, but individual branches can. This seems to have already occurred in Portsmouth. This will test the desire for a political alternative within the ran-and-file of the RMT in a way that No2EU did not, and will hopefully push the leadership towards more political action in the future.

As yet there is no website for the Coalition, and so nowhere to really direct interested people to apart from the Facebook group. This should be rectified as quickly as possible, preferably with details of local campaigns in places where we know TUSC candidates will definitely be standing, for example Dave Nellist in Coventry.

The main problem with TUSC is that its development hasn't come sooner. There should have been local left unity groups forming ages back, around the time the WLMPA got going. Waiting for the backing of national groups before putting anything on the ground wasn't, I think, the best way of going about it, especially seeing as some of these groups seem to have pulled out anyway. The British Left seems to suffer from a 'bullet point' syndrome. Groups get together to agree a list of demands they can unite around, and if they disagree with some of the end result they tend to walk away rather than staying and fighting their position at a future meeting, and working together in the meantime. This is, in my experience, particularly common in the student movement. TUSC has to an extent tried to overcome this by advocating the freedom of affiliated groups to put out their own material over and above the agreed common platform. So minor programmatic disagreements shouldn't, in theory, result in groups walking away at the first sign of disagreement. But, as I've said, we're not off to a great start in that respect.

Local TUSC groups should have been ready to hit he ground running, because unity discussions shouldn't have been held only at a national level. The best way of building trust and co-operation on the Left is for comrades to be working together on the ground. TUSC supporters in different towns and cities should get together, invite other interested groups and community activists, and begin selecting their candidates and planning their campaigns. After all, we don't have much time.

I'd like to see some sort of conference after the election, when TUSC has hopefully attracted a new layer of activists and 'independents'. This would be a big step forward from the national committees of interested groups meeting. No-one would be talking about founding a new party just now, but at least we could ready local TUSC groups to fight against the vicious social cuts programme to be unleashed by whoever wins the election. Hopefully supporters will canvass for comrades in organisations other than their own, and the appearance of unity will be given some substance.

Obviously we're not looking at big votes. Media coverage will be slim (we can and should blame the bourgeois biased media, but I think the Left can do better to try getting the attention of the press). Some candidates will get respectable votes. Success will be judged more, I think, on how well we sink roots into working class communities to prepare for the storms ahead.

It's been a long frustrating road to this point, but we are where we are.

Viva TUSC!

More thoughts at AVPS and Though Cowards Flinch

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Northern Lines

Northern Lines


This is where we always used to start from
In those days, a slow tide up the Thames.
Horrific, innocent days not so long ago.
I think of memory's healing properties.
I think of failure.

(Charing Cross)

No-one gets hit by love like a returning memory,
A sudden realisation of a long-held secret truth.
These changes of heart
Are too much to hope for.
I think of forcing the issue.
I think of direct action.

(Leicester Square)

London was always a mystery, a parcel
And all the joy in the unwrapping because inside it always disappointed.

(Tottenham Court Road)

When I grow up I want to be the person who says the stations on the tube,
Sounds like an easy job.
When I grow up I want to pin eras to paper
With the same truths that frighten childish bravery,
And draw out conflict in the familiar
Pulse of dead-end vibrant city life.
Want to see necessary changes displayed neatly,
Like on a tube map with nothing but time
Standing in the way,
And the world a collection of inevitable destinations.
When I grow up I want to be a writer,
Sounds like an easy job.

(Goodge Street)

Many nights I've been on coaches, distance passing imperceptibly
While I've tried half-heartedly to sleep.
On the tube there's no distance no direction
Just a consuming impatient journey
Forcing me, just for a second, to close my eyes
And wonder why I'm taking it at all.
But just because you can't see something doesn't mean it's not there
So wake up, look at the map again.
Wake up. We're moving forwards.
I think of five years.
I think of planning.

(Warren Street)

There's some angry sermon here,
Some message I could tease out if my mind
Wasn't stuck between a lost past and a stolen future.


Thanking circumstance for my
Freedom to sigh over small problems
And kicking some sort of discipline into myself,
I turn to face the next one.
Thinking of absence.
Thinking of failure.
Thinking of stops on the journey.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

the Great Unrest, 1910-1914

In the years before the First World War, Britain experienced some of the most militant and widespread industrial conflict in its history. Known as the Great Unrest, this episode is totally ignored in the accepted history of the country. Everyone is taught about the wonderful Liberal government of the time, which cleared slum houses, introduced some social security legislation, and reformed the House of Lords. No-one is taught that these grand reformers were hated at the time. Hated by suffragettes for their refusal to allow women the vote, and for their brutal treatment of suffragette prisoners. And hated by the working class.

The unions
At this point, the unions were still mostly craft organisations. Many were tiny, local organisations. Even nationwide unions, like the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, shut unskilled workers out of their organisation. This sectionalism made strike action ineffective, and maintained a hierarchy within the working class that prevented unity.

The great wave of ‘new unionism’ which had organised unskilled workers from the matchgirls’ and dockers’ strikes of 1888-9 had never fully consolidated itself, and membership of these unions was far from stable. Then, in 1901, the Taff Vale judgement shattered the economic power of unions by making them legally liable for damages incurred during strikes.

The background to the Unrest was a decline in real wages since the start of the century, the overturning of the Taff Vale judgement in 1906, and the spreading of radical ideas among important sections of the working class.

Many who tried to overcome the shortcomings of existing unions embraced syndicalism. They pushed for the amalgamation of unions within the same industry, and a militant policy of no compromise with the bosses. Tom Mann was one such figure. The veteran leader of the great dock strike of 1889 a knack for being in the right place at the right time. After a number of years in Australia, he arrived back in London in 1910 to found the Industrial Syndicalist Education League (ISEL). Within months the country would be gripped by a prolonged strike wave which was heavily influenced by the ISEL’s ideas.

Others followed the idea of One Big Union, that all workers should be organised in the same union, as elaborated by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). However, persuading workers to leave their old unions for a new, untested organisation is always difficult, and this policy met with little success, even in such a militant period.

The transport workers were ahead of others in the race to amalgamation, having founded the National Transport Workers’ Federation (NTWF) in 1910. To begin with, this was as the name suggests a federation of separate unions acting together, but it eventually became the Transport & General Workers’ Union in 1922.

Sympathy action

The watchword of all these syndicalists and industrial unionists was ‘Solidarity.’ They believed in involving the whole of the working class whenever one group was fighting for something. This appealed to trade unionists, even the leaders, who had experienced defeat after defeat due to sectionalism and isolation.

So when Havelock Wilson of the National Seamen’s and Firemen’s Union, which was pushing for a wage rise, appealed to the transport workers for help in June 1911, they readily responded and the unrest spread like a fire across the country. In the summer of 1911 most major ports and railways were paralysed by strike action. As workers joined in, they added their own demands against their own bosses. Years of quiescence fell away and demands got more and more militant. In South Wales, school students came out on strike, and some policemen.

In Liverpool, the situation almost reached general strike proportions. Companies could not move goods without a permit from the strike committee. Huge demos saw Orange and Green bands marching side-by-side, in a city that was at the time usually plagued by sectarian conflict due to the Irish situation. The results of the 1911 strikes were a mixed bag. Most workers achieved significant pay rises and other concessions. Often skilled workers would stay out until everyone in their factory was promised the same benefits. Use of wildcat action had shocked the bosses, just as it still has the capacity to do, and they were desperate to get people back to work.

Rank-and-file trade unionists began to form their own networks. Some miners had studied at Ruskin College, Oxford, and been involved in a strike to allow a Marxist curriculum (something this modern-day student can only dream of!) in 1909. They returned to South Wales and produced a pamphlet, ‘The Miner’s Next Step’, which urged the men not to leave things in the hands of their own leaders. Decisions on when and how to strike should be made by a full ballot, they argued, and any policy of conciliation should be rejected. Even the relatively conservative engineers of the ASE locked their executive, which was pursuing a policy of conciliation, out of its own offices!

From unofficial to official
By 1912 the leaders of the big unions felt confident enough to call national strikes of their own. The miners struck for four weeks, and the NTWF on the waterfronts for two months. But these strikes faltered due to a lack of sympathy action. Perhaps people were strike-weary by then. Perhaps they felt like they had achieved their own demands already, and did not see how strikes could go beyond demanding higher wages and start to change society by showing that it was the workers who run the economy. More likely, the organisation did not exist on the ground to keep pulling off such startling success sympathy action. Active shop stewards committees were a rarity and they would only come to be seen as vital due to the experiences of the First World War. But more on that another time, perhaps.

The biggest fight took place in 1913. Led by James Connolly and Jim Larkin, the legendary Dublin lock-out lasted for months, and brought the working-class of Dublin to the brink of victory, and at the same time to the brink of starvation. The Times accurately described it as ‘a state of civil war between labour and capital.’ Railworkers in major English rail centres were involved in ‘blacking’ Dublin goods, but the ‘official’ leadership of the Labour movement on this side of the Irish Sea refused to flex their muscles, and the lock-out ended in a stalemate.

The strikes were often marked by violent confrontation. The most famous was the Tonypandy Riot in November 1910, during which South Wales miners attacked shops and mining officials houses in the town of Tonypandy. In Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire, railwaymen were assisted in acts of sabotage by miners. In Chesterfield strikers set the railway station on fire and were dispersed with bayonet charges.

It was the state, however, that showed its willingness to use force.In Liverpool during the transport strike, troops were called in and one man shot dead. Two gunboats were deployed in the Mersey. There were more deaths at the hands of the police in other parts of the country, and in South Wales Winston Churchill, then Home Secretary, came close to deploying troops against the miners.

During the miners’ strike in 1912, Tom Mann was imprisoned for reprinting in his paper a leaflet, ‘Don’t Shoot’, appealing directly to soldiers. It argued that they were of the same class as those they were being used against, and passionately argued for them to rediscover their humanity and class solidarity, and not be used as tools of their rulers.

The Left
The ISEL collapsed in 1913. But, as it was only ever a propaganda body, its success can’t really be judged by the length of its existence. Its ideas spread well beyond its own ranks. It affected members of the British Socialist Party (BSP). Unbelievable as it may sound to socialists today, the leaders of this party were opposed to strikes, believing them to be a distraction from the purer work of educating people about the New Jerusalem. But many of their members, caught up in this ferment and sometimes finding themselves leading industrial struggles, saw through this crazy policy. They began a serious orientation of socialists towards union work. BSP syndicalists addressed a ‘Manifesto to railway workers’ which argued for railwaymen to ally with miners and transport workers in future battles. Birmingham BSP issued an ‘anti-political’ manifesto in September 1911, arguing that the party should turn away from elections and plunge into organising strikes.

But the leadership had tight control over the organisation. Disillusioned, over half of the BSP’s membership of 40,000, including Tom Mann himself, left during the Great Unrest. A dynamic socialist party which took industrial disputes seriously and attempted to develop strategies for winning them would have been going from strength to strength.

The Daily Herald

The Daily Herald appeared as a strike-sheet of printers in January 1911, and was relaunched as a socialist daily in April 1912. It threw open its columns to all shades of leftwing opinion, the more radical the better, and became the socialist movement’s main organ of debate. It was dynamic, at times humourous and irreverent, and revolutionary. The official Labour leaders attempted to launch a bland rival, the Daily Citizen, which soon folded. In later years they were able to take over the Herald and sell it to Lord Northcliffe, and it was to become the odious Sun. This is possibly one of the most depressing stories in the history of the socialist press, so I’ll not dwell on it.

Socialists in parliament
In 1907, a young activist called Victor Grayson won the Colne Valley constituency in a by-election. He stood as an Independent Socialist without the backing of any national party. As soon as he got to the Commons he was suspended for a one man protest about poverty, shouting, ‘I will not give order in a chamber that starves people wholesale!’ In 1910 he lost his seat, but George Lansbury was elected at the same time, and carried on Grayson’s tradition of rebellion. In a debate about the government’s disgraceful treatment of suffragettes he shouted at the Prime Minister, ‘you are beneath contempt.’ He was only thrown out of the house when MacDonald and Snowden, leaders of his own party, asked him, still shouting as he went.

Grayson declared, ‘The business of a Socialist Party in the House and in the constituencies can be defined in one word. Fight.’ But the prevailing mood in the movement during the Unrest was anti-Parliamentary. No-one thought the existing political system could do anything for them, which is perhaps what led Grayson and Lansbury to turn the House into a platform for protest in such a blunt and forceful way. At the height of the dock strike in 1911, Ben Tillett had declared that it ‘had done more for labour in the past few days than Parliament would do in a century.’ He would later become an MP himself, supporting the government during the first World War.

The Unrest convinced many of the need for amalgamated unions. For the rank-and-file this was a means to achieve militant ends, but the leaderships saw that they could not survive without adopting the position as well. As a result the National Union of Railwaymen brought most rail unions together in 1913. After the war, the ASE would amalgamate with others to form the Amalgamated Engineering Union, with Mann as its first General Secretary. Mann had stood for General Secretary of the ASE 1913, getting around a quarter of the votes on a ticket of ‘One union for engineers working class solidarity and direct action.’ He saw the value of running for union positions when the time was right, but was always aware of their limitations too.

An interesting aside to the Unrest is that it helped open up gap between bourgeois and working-class feminists. Emily Davison, who died in 1913 by throwing herself under the King’s horse, was collecting money for dockers’ families a year earlier. Meanwhile, Emmeline Pankhurst was growing more reactionary, and when she was arrested for throwing stones at Downing St in the same year, argued her crime was nothing compared to the crime of the miners, who were paralysing the country. The climate spurred her younger daughter Sylvia to separate from her and form the group that would become the Workers’ Socialist Federation, the most ardent supporters of the Bolsheviks in Britain.

The great tragedy of the period is, of course, that the Unrest did nothing to derail the world’s slide to war. The leaders of the BSP were already nationalist, but after 1914 even militants like Grayson and Tillett were standing squarely behind the ‘war effort’. The movement found itself still too disorganised to do anything to prevent the war. Propaganda had not gone much beyond industrial questions, so it was perfectly possible for many to be militant trade unionists and ardent nationalists at the same time. The lesson here is in the value of raising wider political questions inside the trade union movement.

The period saw a proliferation of different ideas coming about at the same time, from different quarters of the socialist movement. Here I have just touched on it. It is exciting, as a socialist, to look back on such militant days, when all parts of the movement were fighting side-by-side, and in dialogue with one another.

The Unrest has been written out of history because it shows up the old lie, ‘People in Britain just aren’t that radical, and we never have been.’ This was a time when working people took to organising themselves, at a pace at which most of Britain’s sleepy socialists found it difficult to catch up. They were waiting for the workers to wake up one day and decide that socialism was a good idea. Instead, they got an explosion of industrial militancy and didn’t know what to do about it. It was a wasted opportunity, but still an inspiring time.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Tory Posters

It's my favourite time on the political calendar. A fast approaching general election always gives ample opportunity to deface Tory posters.

Try it yourself at mydavidcameron.com

Lazy journalism?

The BBC website today carries an article discussing a government programme to build offshore windfarms.

Not one mention that last year the government did precisely nothing to prevent the closure of the Vestas windturbine factory on the Isle of Wight!

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Wootton Where?

Without the war in Afghanistan, I would never heard of Wootton Bassett. The announcement by the group 'Islam4UK' that they wish to stage a march through the town has provoked disgust in many quarters, including a huge facebook group. Needless to say, I disagree with the group's politics and think their planned protest, in the unlikely event that they were ever serious about going ahead with it, is crass in the extreme.

But pretending that the repatriations of the British war dead are usually apolitical events is nonsense. In today's Guardian, the local Tory MP expresses disgust that a group may have the nerve to bring a political message to the town. In the same breath, he manages to mention that he has personally attended two-thirds of the ceremonies. Why would this be worth mentioning, except to score political points? And, predictably, the odious Nick Griffin rocked up at a ceremony there recently to get his party in the public eye.

The question ignored in the mainstream media is this: who gave Wootton Bassett its significance? Most repatriations from the Afghan war come through the town from nearby RAF Lyneham. But the dead soldiers come from all over the country. Someone made the decision to turn Wootton Bassett into a focal point for national grief, and this was a political decision.

In other news Reuben over at the Third Estate comments on the appearance in court of some men arrested at a similar protest in Luton.