By the day I grow more implacably opposed to Scottish independence

The event to mark the 25th anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster at Anfield this week was as moving and inspiring as it gets. The sight of those remarkable people gathered together to mark one of the defining events of my lifetime reminded me that for working people unity really is strength, that solidarity is the key to victory against seemingly insurmountable odds, and that regardless of race, creed, religion or nationality, the things that unite working people are much greater than anything that could possibly divide them.

And yet, as a Scot, I am being invited by an increasingly bitter and intolerant Yes campaign for Scottish independence to cast a vote on September 18 that will separate working people in Scotland from working people in Liverpool and every other town and city in England and Wales, and instead express an affinity with any number of rich and affluent Scots on the basis of nothing more than the fact I happen to live in the same part of this island as them.

How can this possibly be described as progressive? And how is it that so many socialists and progressives in Scotland have swung in behind a nationalist project that offers constitutional change but not the social and economic change required to transform the lives of working class people not only in Scotland but throughout Britain?

Fighting the Tories by vacating the field of battle, abandoning other working class people to their fate in the process, can be called many things but socialism is not one of them. Just as a border cannot keep out bad weather, it won’t keep out neoliberalism, and there is nothing progressive in pretending that the SNP – with its desire for an independent Scotland to reduce corporation tax to 12.5 percent, retain an unelected monarch as head of state, and join the nuclear-armed military alliance of NATO – offers anything better than the status quo.

Many on the left of the Yes campaign assert that the upcoming referendum isn’t about Alex Salmond or the SNP. But this is about as absurd as claiming that a tree is a lamppost in disguise. Scottish independence and the SNP constitute two sides of the same coin in the hearts and minds of the overwhelming majority of the Scottish people. It is the SNP’s vision that is dominating this campaign and whether socialists in the Yes campaign care to admit it or not, people in September will be casting a vote either for or against the vision set out in the SNP’s White Paper, launched at the tail end of last year.

As for the Better Together campaign, being led by Alistair Darling, this does not speak for me or for any Scot who knows better. The sight of Tories, Lib Dems, and New Labour dinosaurs preaching to the Scottish people as to why they should vote No is both unedifying and political manna from heaven for the SNP. Indeed, with every utterance these people merely increase support for a Yes campaign which by now has clearly lost the economic and political argument in favour of independence, and is now focused on accentuating a regressive emotional argument involving the painting of Scotland as victims of perfidious Albion.

To the simple minded it is compelling stuff, providing an opportunity to brush up on Mel Gibson’s speech to the troops in Braveheart. However to the rest of us it is transparent and reductive nonsense. The Scots are not and never have been colonised by England or the English. On the contrary, Scots played a key role when it came to forging a British Empire which stands to this day as a badge of shame to any right thinking citizen of this country.

No, I just won’t have it. Nor will I have being told that progress for ordinary people in Scotland means turning the people of Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester and London into the citizens of a foreign country on September 18.

While the emergence of nationalism as a viable alternative to the status quo may be rooted in understandable despair over one of the most vicious Tory governments we’ve ever seen, my hope for the people of Scotland and throughout this island remains with the kind of solidarity and unity we witnessed being displayed in Liverpool this week and over the past 25 years..

Ultimately, working people are only as strong as they are united, and as weak as they are divided.

A Tribute to Tony Benn (meeting in Bristol)

tony-bennThanks to South West TUC for organizing what looks like a fantastic event in tribute to Tony Benn

Date and time of event: Thu 1 May 2014 – 19:00 to 21:00
Venue and town/city: The New Room – John Wesley’s Chapel, 36 The Horsefair, Bristol, BS1 3JE
Costs: free, but pre-registration is essential

Tony Benn was the Labour MP for Bristol South East for over thirty years. During his time in the city he fought for his right to stay in Parliament, he championed many progressive causes and opposed racism. He ensured that Concorde was built in Bristol and helped many individuals with their issues.

He was a towering figure of British politics and inspired thousands through his speeches and books.

The Tribute to Tony Benn will hear people talk about Tony Benn’s legacy in Bristol including Kerry McCarthy MP; Dawn Primarolo MP and Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons; Paul Stephenson, leader of the Bristol bus boycott; David Worthington, New Rooms; Harold Clarke, Methodist (tbc); Lew Gray, ex Aerospace Convenor; Nigel Costley, South West TUC Regional Secretary; Helen Holland, Labour Leader on Bristol City Council; Roger James, Oxfam and CND (tbc) and others plus a short film (tbc); Miles Chambers, poet and the Red Notes choir

Battle with Balfour Beatty over union derecognition.

From the Western Daily Press:

Roadworkers given the massive task of filling thousands of potholes in Wiltshire, the West’s largest local authority, are considering industrial action after council chiefs sold their jobs to a new firm that refuses to recognise their trade union.

Some 300 Wiltshire Council highways and maintenance workers were told last year that they were now employed by Balfour Beatty as part of a £50 million deal which sees the large plc in charge of all ground works, parks and roads.

After two harsh winters, council chiefs decided to spend another £100 million fixing potholes on the county’s roads after they were labelled “a disgrace” by residents, and claims for damage to cars soared.

But the workers given the job of repairing them are said to be furious after Balfour Beatty told them they no longer recognised their union – and would organise their own “staff associations and employee forums” to handle agreements over pay rises.

The three unions who represent the new Balfour Beatty employees at Wiltshire Council are Unison, the GMB and Unite – and all three have now signed a joint letter expressing their fury at the move, while opposition Liberal Democrat councillors have branded the situation “outrageous”.

The ruling Conservative group at Wiltshire Council said that the staff were transferred with their rights to have the same pay and conditions intact, but union recognition was not part of the deal.

“This is simply outrageous,” said Lib Dem leader Jon Hubbard. “Staff should have the right to choose whether they are represented by a union and not have the choice taken away from them at the whim of contractors.

“The rights of staff have been ripped up and thrown in the bin.

“The Conservative administration’s policy of privatising out council services has meant that the rights of council staff are being stripped away.

“This will severely damage the support staff get when it comes to negotiations over pay and conditions,” he added.

Carole Vallelly, the GMB rep for Wiltshire, said: “This means that our members have lost all their collective bargaining as well as pay and condition negotiations support.

“In theory, this allows Balfour Beatty to decide not to give pay rises out with no form of redress.”

Balfour Beatty Living Places has stated its intention not to recognise unions for collective bargaining on council contracts, and has I understand derecognised unions not just in Wiltshire, but also in Southampton.

Wiltshire branch of GMB has a motion to this year’s Congress deploring Balfour Beatty’s anti-union stance, and calling for a national campaign against Balfour Beatty Living Places getting future public services contracts, until they change their policy.

The role of PCS members in the bullying of benefit claimants

Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are engaged in the widespread bullying and intimidation of benefit claimants in Jobcentres up and down the country. The evidence can no longer be denied and the union’s leadership must now take steps to educate its members that solidarity is more than just a word on a leaflet during a PCS pay dispute, or else face the accusation of collaborating with the government’s vicious assault on the most economically vulnerable in society under the rubric of austerity.

The upsurge in the number of claimants having their benefits sanctioned for increasingly minor infractions correlates to the upsurge in the demand for the services of the nation’s food banks. This shocking revelation was contained in a report by MPs in January, the result of an investigation by the Work and Pensions Select Committee, which called for an independent review into the rules for sanctioning claimants to ensure that the rules are being applied “fairly and appropriately”.

Among its findings the report stated:

Evidence suggests that JCP staff have referred many claimants for a sanction inappropriately or in circumstances in which common sense would dictate that discretion should have been applied.

The report continued:

Some witnesses were concerned that financial hardship caused by sanctioning was a significant factor in a recent rise in referrals to food aid. The report recommends that DWP take urgent steps to monitor the extent of financial hardship caused by sanctions.

The majority of Jobcentre staff are members of the 270,000 strong PCS, the sixth largest trade union in the country, which represents thousands of Britain’s civil servants and public sector workers. The PCS has been a strong critic of the coalition’s austerity policies, making the case for an investment led recovery from recession and calling for mass opposition to spending cuts that have ravaged the public sector and been accompanied by a concerted campaign of demonisation of the unemployed and economically vulnerable that is unparalleled in its viciousness. This only makes the role some of its members are playing in intensifying the hardship faced by the unemployed and people on out of work benefits even more deplorable.

It is unconscionable that any trade union would allow its members to engage in the wilful and systematic sanctioning of benefit claimants without offering any meaningful resistance. It flies in the face of the very principle of social solidarity that is the cornerstone of a movement founded on the understanding that the interests of working people – employed and unemployed – are intrinsically the same.

The human despair not to mention humiliation being inflicted on people in the nation’s Jobcentres is evidence that the Tory campaign of dividing working people section by section has borne fruit. It has reached the point where the oppressive atmosphere found in your average Jobcentre is on a par with the oppressive atmosphere associated with a district or sheriff court. Jobseekers are not criminals and those sanctioning them so readily are not parole officers, yet you could be easily mistaken in thinking they are after spending just a few minutes in a Jobcentre anywhere in the country.

Enough is enough.

This culture of bullying, harassment, and intimidation against the unemployed must be confronted by the leadership of the leadership of the PCS as a matter of urgency. By no means are all PCS members working in Jobcentres guilty of this shameful practice – indeed many are low paid workers reliant on various benefits to survive themselves – but enough are involved in the practice to leave no doubt that we are talking about an institutional problem rather than the actions of a few rotten apples.

Many of those being sanctioned are being trapped due to mental health issues or language issues making them more vulnerable to violating the plethora of rules regarding the obligations they must fulfil when it comes to searching for work. Many are being sanctioned for turning up five minutes late to a scheduled appointment, regardless of the reason why. In some cases suicide has been the result.

You would hope that the leadership of the PCS would at least acknowledge the despair their members are inflicting on the most economically vulnerable people in society. You’d be wrong. In an article which appeared on the PCS website back in February, addressing the volume of criticism being levelled at the DWP over sanctioning, the union denied culpability in the process. On the contrary they assert in the article:

PCS believes our members do the best job they can in very difficult circumstances. Rather than face criticism, this work should be recognised and valued by management and they should start by ensuring a proper pay increase for DWP staff in 2014.

Any trade union member who allows him or herself to be used as an instrument to attack the poor and the unemployed is deserving of contempt. And any trade union leadership that fails to act to prevent it happening is reactionary.

Public Meeting on Ukrainian crisis

What's behind the crisis?

6.30pm, Tuesday 15 April
The Wesley Hotel, Euston Street, London NW1 2EZ

The crisis in the Ukraine continues, with tensions between the big powers growing day by day. There are several factors militating against war in the immediate future, including Russia’s nuclear arsenal and trade links with EU countries. But as the establishment think-tank Stratfor has argued, it would be naive to rule out a conflagration.

Already NATO air drills are taking place over the Baltics, and the UK and US are sending extra jets to patrol the skies. Poland has requested 10,000 NATO troops to be stationed on its territory and MPs in Kiev have voted to hold joint military exercises with NATO. In the medium to long term, NATO is looking at establishing permanent military bases in Ukraine.

Swindon Borough Council adopts tough anti-blacklisting stance

Moved and seconded by Labour, passed with Conservative support last Thursday:

Swindon Motion – Opposition to Companies that Operate Blacklists

“That Swindon Council deplores the illegal practice of blacklisting and requests that the Lead Cabinet Member and Officers seek a way to ensure that any company tendering for construction and civil engineering contracts to be awarded by Swindon Council will be asked to provide information that they have not conducted any “grave misconduct” by way of blacklisting. This will include questions in relation to:
1. Membership of the Consulting Association.
2. Employment of individuals who were named contacts for The Consulting Association.”

This follows the successful motion passed through Wiltshire:

‘That Wiltshire Council deplores the illegal practice of “Blacklisting” within the Construction& Civil Engineering Industry and will ensure that any company tendering for Construction & Civil Engineering contracts by Wiltshire Council will be asked to provide information that they have not conducted any “grave misconduct” by way of blacklisting. This will include questions in relation to;

1. Membership of The Consulting Association.
2. Employment of individuals who were named contacts for The Consulting Association.
3. Identifying the steps taken to remedy blacklisting for affected workers.
4. Identifying the steps taken to ensure blacklisting will not happen again’.

Chippenham radical history

jeremy corbyn in chippenham

Jeremy Corbyn MP, originally from Chippenham, pictured on Saturday with Andy Newman and Pete Baldrey, the Labour parliamentary candidates for Chippenham and North Wiltshire constituencies.

Saturday’s radical history event in Chippenham, organised by the White Horse Trades Council was a spectacular success, with around 100 people attending to hear talks about Dame Florence Hancock, (the leader of the 1913 Nestles strike in the town, and later a woman organiser for the Workers Union, and later the TGWU, before becomming president of the TUC), about Angela Gradwell-Tuckett, (an indefatigable Communist, who was also one of the country’ first women solicitors, a folk singer and concertina player, and who played hockey for England, famously refusing to give a Nazi salute in 1935 at an international match in Berlin, and who later settled in Swindon).

Jeremy Corbyn spoke powerfully about his parents and childhood in Chippenham, and about his lifelong desire for social justice. Other talks were given on the role of hangings and the gibbet in Hanoverian Wiltshire, and about West Country rebels.

The speakers alongside Jeremy Corbyn were Melissa Bartlett from Chippenham Museum, Rosie MacGregor, chair of the South West TUC, Nigel Costley, Regional Secretary of the SW TUC, and Steve Poole from the University of the West of England. The mixture of professional academicians, trade unionists, politicians, and local historians proved as potent as the earlier event organised in Bradford on Avon in 2011; not only drawing in diverse audiences, but also fusing contemporary political debate with a sense of history and geographical content.

The organisers will be arranging a third event probably in Melksham in the future.