Mark Perryman argues the need to revisit and reclaim Labour ’45
There is an astonishing moment during Ken Loach’s warmly-received documentary The Spirit of ’45. Winston Churchill is addressing a public rally during the 1945 General Election campaign and he is drowned out by the near universal booing. Not far left adventurists, these were ordinary working class men and women who in Winston saw a great wartime premier trying to turn the socio-economic clock back to the way things were the instant the peace treaties were signed.
There is not much mistaking 1939-45 as an era when anti-fascism fused with a popular internationalism. Mosley and his British Union of Fascists in the 1930s let us never forget enjoyed the “Hurrah for the Blackshirts” support of Viscount Rothermere’s Daily Mail and widespread other establishment endorsements too, including many suspect the newly crowned King Edward VIII. To suggest Mosley was on the verge of state power is of course bordering on the fantastical but fellow-travelling with the Nazis and appeasement certainly were widespread on the Tory Right and beyond. At the same time an undiluted anti-semitism was used to stoke up working class support in areas such as London’s East End by exploiting genuine grievances with false and hateful solutions.
This was an era that Eric Hobsbawm famously described as The Age of Extremes. Fascism was confronted by a mass communist party with a genuine working-class base combined with significant intellectual and cultural influence. But on their own, as they would painfully learn during the doomed class-against-class period, even the most militant and heroic of Communists would have been no match for Mosley. Rather they sought the broadest possible opposition both against the Blackshirts and for Republican Spain. A popular anti-fascism which while not enough to decisively shape World War Two for either the combatants and the home front was nevertheless a vital feature throughout. Most important of all was the increasingly evident role of the Red Army on the Eastern Front, the legend that Stalingrad, Kursk and other battles would become, the Atlantic Convoys criss-crossing the North Seas loaded with vital supplies. Campaigning for the second front to be opened to relieve the pressure on the Soviet Union and destroy Hitler via a pincer movement placed the Communists at the core of a sentiment that was a near-universal solidarity. Nowadays we are almost immune to the casual dismissal of the Red Army’s role in the defeat of Nazism, few in ’45 would make that mistake including George VI who replaced as King his younger brother following abdication. On his orders a sword, The Sword of Stalingrad, was presented to Stalin engraved “To the steel hearted citizens of Stalingrad, a gift from King George VI as a token of the homage of the British people.” Was our Royal Family a secret enclave of reds under the regal beds? Hardly, yet the act was indicative of a huge shift in British public opinion that Labour in ’45 was best-placed to take advantage of following VE day in May and the July General Election.
But Labour was bold too, not content to simply campaign on the basis of its outstanding role in the wartime coalition government, nor a sour-faced ‘we told you so’ against the 1930s appearers and apologists still represented in the Tories’ ranks. Win the Peace was the connect to a visionary future Labour made. Rehousing, nationalising the railways, mines and public utilities, comprehensive education, establishing a National Health Service, creating a post-war Welfare State. Today those policies are largely outside of the political mainstream, with the exception of Jeremy Corbyn who in Labour’s Leadership Campaign would we identify with this kind of legacy? Yet the two principle architects of Labour’s ’45 plan were Liberals, Keynes and Beveridge, not socialists. The genius of Attlee, Bevan and others was to be part of a process that shaped a majoritarian consensus around a politics which changed the face of Britain for the benefit of the many, not the few and decisively affected the balance of class privilege. The tragedy was that this became a conservative defence of the consensus which mistook the virtues of defending what we had for the necessities to deepen and extend that shift as a permanent evolution. It was the emerging inadequacies that Thatcher by the mid 1970s was able to exploit and in the end with new Labour’s muted assistance break up almost all that remained of the post-war consensus by the end of the twentieth century with nothing close to becoming any better put in its place.
Look back in hope? Bevan’s three-line philosophy for Labour in ’45, “We have been the dreamers. We have been the sufferers. And now we are the builders” helped to inspire and create most of what was good about post-war Britain, an achievement that should give us every cause both to celebrate and to oppose the enduring ideological assault under the guise of the necessities of austerity. There is no alternative? More than any other single individual in British politics Bevan in ’45 helped proved absolutely the case, there was and is.
If ever a cause was unworthy, that cause was the US Confederacy. If ever a cause was righteously defeated, it was the cause of the US Confederacy. And if ever a flag was and is an insult to human decency and dignity, it is the US Confederate flag.
The mere fact this is still being debated in the United States, the fact there are those who continue to accord a nobility, valour, and romanticism to the Confederacy – regarded wistfully as the ‘Lost Cause’ by its adherhents – this is evidence of the deep polarisation that divides a society yet to fully come to terms with its legacy of slavery, racial oppression, and barbarism.
When white racist fanatic, Dylann Roof, slaughtered nine people at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, he unwittingly exposed the truth that the US Civil War remains the defining event in the nation’s history, which still today informs a cultural divide between North and South.
The reason for this lies not so much in the legitimacy of the Confederate/southern cause – indeed, how could a cause defined by the right to keep human beings as slaves ever be considered legitimate? – but in the weakness of progressive forces in succumbing to the mythology that has been ascribed to the Confederacy and to those who fought and died for it. Indeed if ever a nation was crying out for the aggressive assertion of human rights, racial equality, and justice, it is the United States.
Racial oppression, whether delivered from the gun of a mass murderer in a South Carolinian church, or the gun of a police officer, has yet to be expunged in the land of the free, even though 150 years have passed since the Confederacy was defeated in battle.
There are historical reasons why this is so, but one in particular: namely the decision of the 19th President of the United States, Rutherford B Hayes, to end Reconstruction as a condition of his entry into the White House with the support of southern Democrats, a tawdry political deal known to history as the Compromise of 1877. It marked the end of a decade in which so-called Radical Republicans (referred to pejoratively as Black Republicans), in control of the US Congress, had driven forward a federal programme to promote and uphold the rights of former slaves throughout the South, according them the full civil and political rights that their status as free men and women demanded. This was absolutely necessary immediately upon war’s end, when local politicians assumed control of state legislatures across the South and enacted ‘black codes’ with the objective of keeping the newly freed blacks in as close to a state of slavery as was possible, refusing to grant them their rights or the vote.
The reaction of the North was to divide the former Confederate states into military districts and occupy them with federal troops to ensure the protection of blacks from white racists and to enforce their civil rights. This was accompanied by the demand that those former Confederate states support the passage of the three post-civil war amendments to the US Constituion – the 13th, 14th, and 15th – outlawing slavery and granting rights of citizenship and the vote to every person born in the United States regardless of race or colour, and in every state.
The end of Reconstruction in 1877, and the withdrawal of federal troops from states such as South Carolina, resulted in the plight of blacks in said states suffering a sharp reverse. The Klu Klux Klan’s influence and power as America’s first terrorist organisation instantly made its presence felt, measured in the rise and entrenchment of white supremacy as a state and culture of segregation returned across the South. Blacks were lynched, murdered, and tortured with impunity from then on, and their status as second-class citizens entrenched.
This mindset remains a fact of life not just across the South but across the United States, carried in the hearts and minds of right wing Republicans (one of the ironies of US politics is that where the Republicans were once the progressives and the Democrats conservatives when it came to racial equality, today the situation is the exact reverse) and a reactionary media that on a daily and nightly basis whips up divisions and spews prejudice and racial stereotypes with blithe disregard for common decency.
By far the most compelling evidence of this culture of racial prejudice, however, has been the treatment of the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama, since he entered the White House in 2009. Never has a US President been subjected to such a sustained campaign of demonisation and hate as he has.
In the face of this campaign, his dignity has never wavered, nor his understanding of the racism that scars the country to this day. His eulogy at the funeral service of South Carolina senator and pastor Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine victims of the recent slaughter, culminated in an inspiring rendition of Amazing Grace, reminding us of what might have been if he’d been president of a truly post-racial America.
At the start of the Civil War in 1861 four million men, women, and children were being kept as chattel across the Confederacy. They were sold, raped, beaten, tortured and murdered upon the whim of their owners, men and women whose barbarity finds its modern day equivalence in the barbarity of the followers and members of the Islamic State.
There was nothing noble or romantic about the Confederacy, and its defeat marked a victory for human progress. But the waging of total war that ensured its defeat was not followed by the waging of total peace to ensure that the culture which gave rise to it was likewise consigned to history.
The plight of blacks and other minorities across the US today is a daily reminder of that failure, a measure of the weakness of generations of US progressives in their attempt to foment unity and reconciliation when they should have been fomenting justice.
The most passionate Radical Republican of them all, Thaddeus Stevens, put it best: “There can be no fanatics in the cause of genuine liberty.”
Mark Perryman reviews the best of this summer’s sports books
English football’s Premiership (sic), the best league in the world? The same 4 clubs, well give or take one perhaps, could be jotted down on a scrap of paper every August with a cast-iron guarantee they will fill the Champions League places, year in, year out. Tedium, its the brand value the Premiership has become past masters at providing, yet barely a word of dissent ever breaks through the breathless excitement football’s boosterists provide across the print, TV and radio media.
Meantime despite the sportification of society levels of participation in scarcely any form of physical activity continue to rocket downwards. Football, the richest and most high profile of all sports has amongst the sharpest rates of decline in numbers taking part, unless of course we count watching it from the comfort of our own sofa.
Cutting through sport-hype takes a combination of a love for and understanding of sport with a critique of all that it threatens to become. Jules Boykoff is a renowned expert at precisely this kind of combination, his latest book Activism and the Olympics provides a chronicle of activist opposition to the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics and London 2012. Andrew Zimbalist does something similar over a longer timeframe, and taking in both the Olympics and Football World Cups. His conclusions in his book Circus Maximus are devastating, the socio-economic benefits of hosting are next to negligible and more often than not actually negative. Yet despite almost every pledge made by London 2012 remaining unfulfilled as Rio 2016 approaches the self-satisfied bandwagon that the Olympics has turned into will steamroll almost all critical voices into the margins. Perhaps what is needed to resist is the kind of ideological rigour that features amongst those profiled in the pioneering collection Sport and Revolutionaries edited by John Nauright and David Wiggins. Lenin and Che Guevara, who would have imagined the centrality they both gave sport and physical culture in the cause of human liberation? Or likewise social movements spanning Irish Republicanism, the overthrow of colonial regimes, anti-racism and civil rights. Each in their own ways , as essays in this excellent book recount, saw the importance of sport towards their ends. Two pleas though to an otherwise excellent publisher, Routledge. Why only the high-priced hardback edition limiting the sale to libraries? And why the standard, one-design-fits-all cover ? Both factors will seriously reduce the potential popular impact of what is an important book.
Getting to grips with the enduring absence of a social, economic, political and cultural dimension of too much mainstream sportswriting is vital to any kind of appreciation of how sport is consumed. If is only via this kind of project that recreation and leisure will become framed by the contribution it makes towards human liberation rather than simply consumed as a big screen extravaganza. Roger Domenghetti’s superlative From the Back Page to the Front Room provides an unrivalled account of the evolution of football’s monopoly of the sports media, with interviews and insights that are both informative and compelling. Jamie Cleland provides something similar, if more wide-ranging, in A Sociology of Football in a Global Context. This is a textbook study of the new football, ranging over almost every subject the serious student of the game might want to consider. Same publishers as Sport and Revolutionaries so same two pleas apply! Hugo Borst’s O, Louis is a supreme example of how sportswriting can capture the cultural and the social at its best without any negative impact on its ability to reach and engage with a mass audience. Van Gaal, despite his modest first season at Man Utd, remains set to be one of the great characters of English football for some time to come. His foreignness, his Dutchness, every bit as intriguing as Wenger and Mourinho’s otherness, if not yet framed by the same degree of success.
A Matter of Life and Death by Jim White is an alternative history of football told via 100 quotations’ from ‘There is Great Noise in the City’ describing 1314 street football to World Cup 2014. Jim White is a great sportswriter, he has chosen his quotes carefully while providing his own informative yet idiosyncratic narrative. Brilliant! But words alone, however well-written, can never entirely capture the appeal of football. Edited by Reuel Golden Age of Innocence is a combination of the very best world photography of football in the 1970s with a skilfully written set of introductory commentaries about the decade. Age of Innocence? This is domestic football both before the Premiership but also prior to the Bradford Fire, Heysel and Hillsborough too. Three very different events but each in their own way defining football in the 1980s. A book of global reach too, the world of football depicted as much less of a corporate enterprise than it is now.
But how to push at the boundaries of the limited meaning that modern corporatised football has become? Firstly breakdown its gendering. A process that has accelerated in the twenty-first century, from lets say the near non-existent to the painfully slow. Events recorded very well in the new book by Carrie Dunn and Joanna Welford, Football and the FA Women’s Super League (sadly though another academic publisher with a standard boring cover and high priced library edition hardback only, why?) Second, confront and expose the corruption in the administration of the global game. Heidi Blake and Jonathan Calvert’s The Ugly Game investigates in breathtaking detail the sheer magnitude of the corruption at the highest levels of FIFA. Third, provide practical examples of what an alternative might look like. Rather confusingly also titled The Ugly Game Martin Calladine’s book is a very welcome pioneering effort to do just that. Fourth, dump the ridiculous rhetoric embraced by fans as well as the corporate brand managers, that the Premiership is ‘the best league in the world’. It’s the richest yes, but in almost every other regard it is inferior to several others, most notably the German Bundesliga. Read Ronald Reng’s very good Matchdays to find out how German football gets by without foreign owners, clubs 51% owned by their fans, mainly German players on the pitch, drinking and standing on the terraces. Didn’t that use to be ‘the English way’ when Liverpool, Notts Forest and Villa won European Cups and an England side could make to it to a World Cup semi-final. All pre-Premiership no thankyou very much.
Few football books manage to provide the breadth and dept of insight with the very obvious passion for the game that Mark Doidge combines in writing Football Italia. From the country of Gramsci, Mussolini,post-war Eurocommunism, Berlusconi and more it is no surprise that Italian football also is a game of extremes. What Mark Doidge manages, definitively, to explain is how a nation’s football can never be divorced from how a national culture has been shaped too, all with a neat line in understanding why sometimes despite that process Italian football retains a fateful appeal for fans the world over.
It is only in English football’s ever-shortening summertime off-season that much of any other sport gets any kind of look in. And even that is reduced in a year of a World Cup or a Euro. For a fortnight or so the media will go overboard for the tennis at Wimbledon. Such coverage aided when the rivalry that singles tennis generates reaches out beyond the strawberries and Pimms brigade. Peter Bodo’s account, Ashe vs Connors records just such a moment from the faraway summer of 1975. This is sports writing as social history against the backdrop of towering personalities and supreme talent, all the makings of a really good sports book.
An Ashes Summer used to more or less guarantee a mass audience for cricket. But since the appallingly short-sighted decision of cricket’s governing body to dump free-to-air live TV coverage interest has plummeted and is unlikely ever to recover, despite what looks like a fast-improving England team. In his newly published autobiography Curtly Ambrose provides a compelling picture of the heights of popularity Test cricket once enjoyed. A thrilling West Indies team becoming a symbol of resistance, diaspora and nationhood. This was international sport at its very best, fiercely competitive, individuals combining for the common purpose of the team, imagined communities acquiring some semblance of the real. Will we see the like of it on a cricket pitch again? Possibly not. Rob Smyth like Jim White uses 100 quotations to track a sport’s history. This time, The Ashes in Gentlemen and Sledgers . Rob depicts the changes from the pre TV era, the broadening popularity of cricket via television and radio coverage, England’s return to glory in recent years and then the catastrophic decline on the pitch accompanied by the loss of terrestrial TV coverage. Despite all this the 5-day 5-test Ashes series remained throughout one of the most epic contests in the world of sport and Rob’s book helps us to appreciate the reasons why.
It is only in recent years that Le Tour has featured very much at all as part of the Great British sporting summer. In the era that William Fotheringham described in his classic biography of Italian cycling great Fausto Coppi Fallen Angel the 1940s and 1950s cycling up mountains was something best left to continental types. And the domestic popularity of cycling hadn’t changed so very much by the time of his latest biography, the greatest French cyclist Bernard Hinault in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But it is by reading William’s books the latter-day domestic popularity of this most extraordinary drama of human endurance can begin to be accounted for. Alpe D’Huez by Peter Cossins accounts for the kind of physical achievement Grand Tour cycling represents via the challenge of just one epic mountain these cyclists are expected to climb on their two wheels. The greatest climb? Quite possibly, though the greatness perhaps lies in the realisation that for these cyclists once they have done one day’s climbing another follows, and another, with next to no respite. It is a sport that borders on the inhuman, the biggest single reason for the scourge of performance enhancing drugs that for a while threatened to engulf cycling. Yet with dedication these climbs, or something like them, can be done. This is the dream of the sporting everyman, or increasingly everywoman too. Ian McGregor’s To Hell on a Bike rather brilliantly tells just such a tale, an ordinary cyclist who trains himself to tackle Paris-Roubaix, widely regarded as the toughest of all the one-day classic cycle races.
Two Days in Yorkshire by Peter Cossins and Andrew Enton superbly captures with stunning photography and great prose the sheer magnitude of what Le Tour starting in Yorkshire in 2014 came to represent. An unforgettable experience and one that deserves to be remembered as far more important than London 2012 in terms of its possibilities for reshaping English sporting culture. Rick Robson’s beautiful book, De Tour De Yorkshire again combines photos and prose, this time to point towards the kind of legacy Le Tour might yet leave behind. Showcasing Yorkshire as England’s capital destination for cyclists, to race or for pleasure and all points in-between.
The thrill of physical activity, recreational or competitive, for many is not only to maintain a decent level of fitness but to test what our bodies might be capable of. Natural Born Heroes by Christopher McDougall gives the active reader something to aim towards, an approach to ultra-fitness that is almost philosophical in its gritty determination to inspire ever greater achievements of endurance. This is thriller-writing for fitness junkies. Adharanand Finn achieves something similar in his new book The Way of the Runner a gripping account of the place of marathon running in Japanese sporting culture. If all these sounds a bit macho read Lucy Fry’s Run, Ride, Sink or Swim, more than enough to reassure that both sexes are almost equally susceptible to the kind of physical obsession that can drive some in search of the very limits of our body’s potential.
Our sports book of the quarter? Opportunities to play sport, any sport at any level are inevitably socially constructed. The failure to understand this both narrows the scope of most mainstream sportswriting and at the same time ensures most writers on politics to wilfully ignore sport. Gabriel Kuhn is an author who would never make either of these cardinal errors. His Playing As If The World Mattered is an illustrated history of sport as activism. Refusing to treat one as the opposite of the other Gabriel weaves together stories and episodes, some familiar, many not, to portray sport as a vital space for and method of human liberation. The writing is effortlessly informative and inspiring while the full colour illustrations do a similar job visually. Together this is a truly great book to savour for a better future as well as to read now to help improve the present, on or off the pitch, track , inside and outside the ring or pool,wherever your sporting fancy takes you.
Note: No links in this review are to Amazon. If you can avoid the offshore tax-dodgers, please do so.
Mark Perryman is the co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football
Today, on the 200th anniversary of Waterloo, we are given cause to mourn Napoleon’s defeat by the forces of reaction. This great soldier, statesman, and visionary gave us the first codified legal system – the Civil Code – under which civil and legal rights were enshrined as a right of citizenship rather than a privilege of wealth and power. He also reformed the French education system on a meritocratic basis, instituted huge public works programmes to improve roads, bridges, and infrastructure throughout France and Europe, ended the dispute with the Catholic Church in France with the signing of the Concordat (1801), and put extensive resources into scientific research.
The scourge of monarchy, aristocracy, and feudalism, he went from being a Corsican artillery officer to the heights of glory and fame with his Grande Armee, achieving greatness over a period of two decades, during which he faced seven different military coalitions determined to crush it and the Enlightenment values its bayonets spread throughout Europe.
Napoleon’s strategy at Waterloo was typically audacious. Facing two armies under Wellington and Blucher, his plan involved marching between them and after first defeating Blucher’s Prussians, turn his attention to Wellington’s mixed force of British and allied troops with the objective of delivering it the crushing blow he intended would bring the crowns of Europe to the negotiating table to agree peace terms.
In exile on St Helena after his defeat, when asked what he would have done if his plan to invade Britain over a decade earlier had gone ahead and succeeded, Napoleon said: “I would have proclaimed a republic and the abolition of the nobility and the House of Peers, the distribution of the property of such of the latter as opposed me amongst my partisans, liberty, equality and the sovereignty of the people.”
As Victor Hugo writes in Les Miserables: “…it is beyond question that the victor at Waterloo, the power behind Wellington which brought to his aid every field marshal’s baton in Europe…this power was the counter revolution.”
This counter revolution of reaction had dire consequences for many of the victorious British troops who survived Waterloo, when they returned home to families and communities in which poverty and hunger were rife, and a country in which only two percent of the population had the vote. A global economic slump led directly to the passage of The Corn Laws, imposing tarriffs and restrictions on imported grain in order to keep the price of bread artificially high in the interests of British farmers. The impact on a working class already suffering huge deprivation as factories shut their doors and they were left destutute was elemental, resulting in riots in towns and cities across England, which the nobility, Wellington included, responded to with force. It culminated in the Peterloo Massacre of 1819, when a mass demonstration of 60,00 men, women, and children, gathered in St Peter’s Square, Manchester to protest their plight, was attacked by cavalry. Fifteen people were slaughtered, with dozens more injured, on a day that lives on as a reminder of brutality of a society in which the poor and working people were regarded as subhuman, and still are in many quarters of the Establishment.
The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo invites us to consider what might have been had the man known to history as ‘The Little Corporal’ vanquished the thrones of Europe that were arrayed against both him and the revolutionary ideas that threatened their existence.
“Death,” he reminds us, “is nothing, but to live defeated and inglorious is to die daily.”
Long term readers of this blog may remember an individual who posted comments under the pseudonym “Mark Victorystooge”, real name Steve Kaszynski. His comments were often inflammatory, boasting of his exploits fighting the Turkish police, and advocating militant direct action. I once accused him of being a provocateur, and possible a spook (I am also informed that he previously used to work at GCHQ). Shortly after I suggested this about him, he stopped posting comments here.
The investigation into Stephan Shak Kacynski, a British national of Polish origin, has revealed that the suspect who was recently detained under the scope of the DHKP-C probe is a spy working for Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND).
Kacynski and several others were arrested under the scope of the DHKP-C operation on Saturday.
It was probably inevitable that as soon as Jeremy Corbyn succeeded in making it onto the ballot for the Labour leadership contest, a frog’s chorus of swivel eyed Tories and Blairites would unleash a barrage of ridicule and scorn over his prospects.
Their ire reflects discomfort at the airing of ideas that run counter to the cosy consensus that has prevailed for far too long when it comes to the economy and the role of government. For ‘them’ the economy should be a tyrant rather than a servant, its role to punish poverty rather than end it, wherein moral virtue is ascribed to unfettered wealth rather than its taxation and redistribution for the common good.
The manner in which Jeremy Corbyn and the ideas he stands for have been patronised and dismissed is instructive. In so doing, however, ‘they’ – this smug commentariat – merely evince the complacency of those sitting on top of a mountain that is about to erupt with the volcanic rage of millions whose lives have been reduced to a daily struggle against unremitting despair as destitution threatens.
The huge disparity in wealth and power that exists today in British society has created an chasm in outlook, with the decimation of Labour in Scotland irrefutable evidence of an end to politics as usual. Decades of Thatherite nostrums, embraced by both Tories and Labour alike, has left millions marginalised and effectively disenfranchised, yet going by the response of the Labour Party hierarchy to the party’s humiliating defeat at the last general election, you would think they were living in a parallel universe.
Mimicking the Tories on austerity, immigration, and welfare can be described as many things, but progressive politics it is not. Austerity is no more than a mass experiment in human despair. It is not only morally reprehensible, it is economically illiterate, given that it is designed to reduce the consumption of the poor and those lower down the income scale, and with it the demand for goods and services that forms the basis of any healthy economy.
On immigration, this is of course a symptom of austerity in diverting people’s attention away from the causes of the global recession that swept the globe in 2007/08 away from the banks onto the ‘other’. The ideological assault on working people and the public sector, using the economic crisis as a pretext – an economic 9/11 if you will – will go down in history as one of the most sustained and vicious ever seen. Immigration and immigrants has been exploited as a convenient lightening rod by the Tory establishment and their bag carriers in the media, unleashing the most base instincts residing in the victims of austerity and eminently dangerous for all that. The emergence of UKIP in recent years, the fact they managed to gain four million votes at the last election, leaves no doubt of it.
Jeremy Corbyn represents the last vestige of hope for a Labour Party that is now almost unrecognisable from its founding principles of equality and social and economic justice for working class people. Its high water mark came in the postwar period, when led by Clement Attlee it came to power committed to transforming British society from the bottom up, challenging and defeating in the process the vested interests and economic power of the elite. It saw for the first time in Britain a government acting as a check on the unfettered power of market forces rather than an enabler of them. Faced with a national debt of over 200 percent of GDP its achievements were phenomenal, responsible for forging a humane society in which working people were regarded as the end instead of the means to the end, a first in the nation’s social history.
In 2015 we are living in a cold, cruel, and desolate country in which benefit sanctions, foodbanks, poverty wages, and ignorance reign, governed by a clutch of rich, privately educated sociopaths whose conception of society has been ripped straight from the pages of a dystopian novel. Jeremy Corbyn remains one of the few members of parliament that have refused to succumb to this normalisation of brutality, and indeed is among the last of the Mohicans within the PLP who can sing the party’s anthem – The Red Flag – at its annual conference without experiencing pangs of hypocrisy.
His bid for the leadership of Labour is a serious one. The only candidate who can legitimately claim to be standing for the values the party was founded on, the political and media establishment underestimate him at their peril.
The scenes at GMB Congress last week in Dublin were electrifyingly emotional when General Secretary, Paul Kenny, announced that there would be an election for General Secretary, but that he could not commit to another five years. The affection that activists hold for PK meant that when the news that many of us were expecting became a reality, there was still shock, and a spontaneous standing ovation, with many delegates in tears.
In my opinion there are two aspects to PK’s popularity. A very important attribute is that he personally treats members and activists with respect, and the easy rapport that Paul has with president, Mary Turner, ensures that GMB Congresses have more of the atmosphere of a big family gathering.
But PK’s popularity is also based upon success. Membership has grown from 571000 in 2004 to 630000 today, including growth of 8500 members in the last twelve months; net asset values have grown from £25 million in 2003 to £69 million today, and each year under PK has seen an operating surplus, compared to regular annual losses in the preceding period. Both membership and the financial health of the union have grown year on year. To put this in perspective, the much vaunted membership growth of RMT under Bob Crow did see a boost from 57000 in 2002 until reaching 80041 in 2008, but then growth stopped and between that year and up to 2013 membership only reached 80105 (This is the last year for which a return has been made to the Certification Officer)
In addition, after one year of trading, the trade union owned law firm, Unionline, a joint enterprise between GMB and CWU now has a Work in Progress (WIP) sheet of £25 million, giving an estimated valuation of £150 million. Rule revision at this year’s Congress has embedded Unionline into the GMB’s rulebook, so that the asset could not be disposed of without reference to, and a vote by, GMB Congress delegates. In contrast, while Unionline’s profits are fed back into building the union, many traditional law firms associated with the union movement pay million pound bonuses to directors.
Participation and inclusivity has improved. Annual Congresses have been restored, and with more delegates, including measures to ensure the participation of underrepresented groups. GMB now has as many women as men in membership, and representation of delegates at Congess reflects the full diversity of the union’s membership. GMB has also undertaken a more critical engagement with the Labour Party, encouraging members to become involved and to promote candidates and policies in the interests of working people, but perhaps with less public gestures towards the gallery then other unions make.
A significant change has been the introduction of the GMB@Work organizing agenda, which recognizes that employers and their workforce have opposing interest, that it is the process of industrial relations which builds the union, and that every workplace needs to be organized so that an industrial action ballot could be run. Implementation of GMB@Work is uneven, but there are significant advances in membership density and results for members where it has been done well.
When Kenny first took over the union in 2005 as Acting General Secretary, (in the wake of a scandal surrounding the circumstances of former GS Kevin Curran’s 2003 election) the union looked in a bad way, and a shotgun wedding with TGWU on unfavourable terms looked inevitable. Kenny turned the situation around and it is therefore no exaggeration to say that the very existence today of GMB as a healthy, solvent, independent and combative union is his achievement. Kenny gave a new confidence to GMB, and swept away the old habits of industrial partnership; in his own words:
“I am sick of people trying to camouflage what we are about. We are a vested interest and proud to be one. Our vested interest is the working people of this country, the people who have no other voice than the trade union movement.……. I do not go to parties and introduce myself as an “industrial relations expert” or a “purveyor of partnerships”. I am proud of what we do, who we are, and where we have come from … The fact that there is decent pay, or a pension scheme, or proper health and safety, or respect from the management is down to union organisation”
There will now be an election for a new General Secretary, and we must choose wisely so that the union which Kenny returned to the combative traditions of its founders, Will Thorne and Eleanor Marx, and which has been returned to the control of its lay members, continues to build upon those acheivements.