Trade Unions and the fight for civil liberties


Last Saturday, the White Horse TUC hosted a fantastic day of talks around the broad topic of civil liberties. Around 30 people came to the event in Chippenham, most of them staying all day, and several participating in the discussion.

I think that it is no disrespect to the other speakers to acknowledge that the stand out highlight was the session addressed by Phil Chamberlain about the scandal of blacklisting. Phil lives locally in Colerne, and has stood as the Green Party candidate for the last two general elections, but he is better known for being the co-author, alongside Dave Smith, of the book about blacklisting, published by New Internationalist: Blacklisted : The Secret War between Big Business and Union Activists

I first came across Dave Smith when involved in the industrial action at Swindon’s Great Western Hospital in 2012, of cleaners who worked for Carillion. In February of that year, there was a meeting between the union and, amongst others, Carillion’s HR director, Liz Keates, which failed to resolve the issues and suggested that Carillion were adopting a hard nosed approach. It transpired that Liz Keates was the main contact for Carillion with the Consulting Association, the shadowy but rather ramshackle organisation which operated a blacklist on behalf of major construction companies. Keates had been involved in the blacklisting of Dave Smith, for no more than carrying out normal trade union activities, thus denying him the opportunity to earn a living for several years, despite him being a skilled engineer.

Phil’s involvement with blacklisting was through a different route, having been commissioned by the Guardian back in 2008 to research and write an article about it. Although I have had some peripheral involvement myself with the campaign, I found learned a great deal from Phil’s talk, which was completely fascinating. He showed slides of the shoddy green door that led to the Consulting Association’s office in a small town high street; and of the file cards, and manila folders full of tittle tattle, which were used as the basis for blighting the lives of thousands of blameless victims.

As Phil talked through the content of the index cards, it became obvious that the “tradecraft” of the Consulting Association was modeled on Special Branch and security services protocols, partly due to the cross over between their work, but also because the rather sad individuals involved in this shabby snooping had sought to invest themselves with a crusading purpose, the vigilance against what they saw as communist subversion, but which was in truth nothing more remarkable than day to day exercise of trade unionism and diversity of opinion in a liberal democracy. Far from a Moscow led plot, all the Consulting Association documented was the everyday struggle of working people to ensure a safe workplace, and to be treated with decency and respect.

The extraordinary lengths that these powerful companies, household names like MacAlpines, Kier and Skanska, were prepared to go to to protect and preserve their wealth and privilege was echoed by another speaker, Paul Dobson, who originally comes from Trowbridge, but currently resides in Caracas, where he works as a journalist. We were lucky to catch Paul on a visit to the UK. He described the process of destabilization and misinformation by which the rich in Venezuela seek to undermine the current socialist government. The opposition manage to dominate the foreign perceptions of Venezuela as they not only control most newspapers and TV channels, but are more likely to speak English, and more likely to be socially amenable to the expectations of commentators from Europe and North America. Among the poor and disadvantaged the government remains popular, but few foreign journalists listen to their voices.

Ray Packham gave a very informative talk about his experience living in Hebron, in the West Bank. Ray explained very well the culture shock for anyone who has visits Palestine, where whatever you have read, the oppression is worse than you were expecting, and the resilience and social solidarity of the Palestinians more inspiring.

Steve Gilbert, the author of the excellent book about Jeremy Corbyn – Accidental Hero, described the events of the last few months, where a sustained and malicious campaign of intimidation, misrepresentation and bureaucratic obstruction has been unleashed to seek to thwart the democratic expression of radical opinion through the Labour Party, which has included absurdly concocted allegations of violence at meetings, vandalism, and anti-Semitism.

The thread running through all these sessions was that the rich and powerful will stop at almost nothing to defend their position. Indeed, the day of talks was organized to commemorate the memory of Thomas Helliker, the Trowbridge Martyr, who was framed for a crime he did not commit, and executed in 1803 on his 19th birthday. His execution was aimed at thwarting the fight by shearmen to prevent the introduction of machinery. Helliker refused to save his own life by incriminating the real arsonist, believed to be his older brother.

However powerful and ruthless our enemies may be, the talks gave examples of how ordinary working people have proven that we have the power to overcome.

Finally, there was good interest and sales of both Phil Chamberlain’s book on Blacklisting, Steve Gilbert’s book on Corbyn, and the book by the White Horse TUC’s chair, Rosie MacGregor about Angela Gradwell Tuckett, Remembering Angela. There were also good sales of cards and candles from Scarlet Banner

Who holds companies to account for false claims about corporate ethics?

GMB at M&S 2

The report from BBC’s Panorama about the use of Syrian child refugees to manufacture garments for the UK retail industry is shocking.

The youngest worker was 15 years old and he was working more than 12 hours a day ironing clothes before they were shipped to the UK.
A spokesperson for Marks and Spencer said … “Ethical trading is fundamental to M&S. All of our suppliers are contractually required to comply with our Global Sourcing Principles, which cover what we expect and require of them and their treatment of workers.

GMB has previously exposed how Marks and Spencer’s Global Sourcing Guidelines are not worth the paper they are written on. At their distribution centre in Swindon, M&S have hidden behind a convoluted supply chain and staff costs have been reduced by use of so-called “Swedish Derogation” contracts which had unethically evaded the equal pay provisions of the Agency Workers Directive. The GMB union has been campaigning on this issue for over two years now, and as a consequence of that campaign the agency who directly employs hundreds of staff working at the Distribution Centre recently replaced the Swedish Derogation (also known as Regulation 10) contracts. The result has been pay rises of between 11% and 44% for GMB members, depending upon shift payments and numbers of hours worked.

However, it is worth noting that M&S took no responsibility for conditions in its own Distribution Centre in Swindon, and did not consider the abuse and exploitation of the agency workers thereto be a breach of their Global Sourcing Guidelines.

This is why we are justified in being sceptical over M&S’s claim, quoted by BBC that:

Marks and Spencer says its inspections have not found a single Syrian refugee working in its supply chain in Turkey.

Indeed the BBC says:

But Panorama found seven Syrians working in one of the British retailer’s main factories. The refugees often earned little more than a pound an hour – well below the Turkish minimum wage. They were employed through a middleman who paid them in cash on the street.

Companies like Marks and Spencer invest in their brand image, and it is highly unfortunate that the corporate spin is effectively rubber stamped by the Ethical Trading Initiative, which includes trade union endorsement.

M&S are not the only company to boast of their ethical credentials, which actually behaving like exploitative sharks. In February the GMB called for Fyfes to be expelled from ETI

14 women workers in Honduras were hospitalised in December after being poisoned by the noxious chemicals they were forced to handle without any personal protective equipment says GMB.

GMB is calling for Fyffes, the Irish multinational fruit company, to be expelled from the Ethical Trade Initiative because of sustained and repeated violations of human rights on its plantations in the Central American republics of Honduras and Costa Rica.

Bert Schouwenburg, GMB International Officer, said “If the Ethical Trading Initiative fails to take action against Fyffes given this appalling record, it will confirm suspicions that it is little more than a talking shop which does not merit UK taxpayers’ support. Fyffes should immediately be expelled.”

It is excellent work from BBC in exposing the exploitation of child labour in the M&S supply chain. The company can claim they did not know, but they ought to have known, and the clues would be in the prices submitted to them by their suppliers, and the clearly visible conditions that the workers were enduring, that would surely have been apparent to any genuinely rigorous audit programme.

But the TUC, and trade unions, need to look hard at how they effectively allow rogue companies to parade an endorsement from the Ethical trading Initiative without sanction when they are actually behaving unethically.

Scottish independence is now a necessary antidote to the reactionary beast of Brexit

by John Wight

scottish-independenceIt was already the case that the Scottish National Party’s Nicola Sturgeon was the only political leader to emerge from the Brexit debacle with any credibility. During her initial public statement after the result of the EU referendum was confirmed on June 24, she extended the hand of friendship to EU migrants and other immigrants living and working in Scotland, assuring them they were welcome and would remain so. It was a powerful statement of solidarity with people who’d found themselves reduced to the status of ‘the other’ during the course of a political campaign over Britain’s membership of the EU that plumbed new depths of indecency and mendacity. Strip away the embroidery and Brexit was driven by a tidal wave of xenophobic and British/English nativist hysteria, whipped by the the right wing of the Tory Party and UKIP.

Now, four months on, Sturgeon has placed the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence back on the table, at the very point at which Brexit starts to make its presence felt economically and politically. In this the SNP leader’s hand has been forced by a Prime Minister, Theresa May, who is no mood to compromise when it comes to wrenching Scotland out of the single market, regardless of the fact she has no mandate to do so.

As someone who opposed Scottish independence in 2014, writing numerous articles and appearing in public debates to put the case for unity across the UK on the basis of class, rather than division on the basis of nationality, I now believe that independence for Scotland is not only desirable but necessary. Not only is it necessary in the interests of people in Scotland, but even more significantly it is necessary in order to lift the banner of progressive politics out of the mud, where it currently lies, and raise it as a beacon of hope across a European continent engulfed by the ugly politics of racial and national exceptionalism to an extent not seen since the 1930s.

It is now inarguable that the dominant political culture in Scotland is at odds with its counterpart in England. Even while opposing independence in 2014, I did so while acknowledging the progressive character of a Yes campaign that was a tribute to political engagement, progessive ideas, and discourse. It was inclusive, idealistic, and driven by hope and the expectation of something better, more humane and just than the Westminster status quo. Compare this with the ugliness of Brexit and how it unleashed a poisonous anti-immigrant and triumphalist white British nationalism, legitimising xenophobia as a political current.

If anybody had allowed themselves to believe that this explosion of right wing reaction was merely an aberration, the Tory Party conference in Birmingham confirmed it is the new normal. With their verbal broadside against immigration, Theresa May and the Tories have aligned themselves with the working class rump that constitutes the British jobs for British workers crew — a demographic won to the fallacious argument that dwindling public services and the assault on jobs, wages, and conditions of the past six years is due to immigration and free movement rather than Tory austerity. The Tory Party conference confirmed that Brexit Britain has set sail for the 19th century, back to a time when Britain ruled the waves and Johnny Foreigner knew his rightful place as a lesser breed of a lesser culture.

Whether we care to admit it or not, the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence raised and awoke a national consciousness that is not going back to sleep anytime soon. It dictates that politics in Scotland is now viewed through this national prism, with Brexit likewise raising its British and English counterpart. The result is that politics across Scotland and the UK has been distilled into a choice between two competing nationalisms.

Who in their right mind, either north or south of the border, could possibly argue which of the two is the more progressive? When the late Jimmy Reid said, “Nationalism is like electricity; it can kill a man in the electric chair or keep a baby alive in an incubator,” he could have been describing the fundamental difference between the nationalist current that has taken root north of the border and its counterpart south of the border.

As for Jeremy Corbyn, his attempt to return the Labour Party to something approximating to its founding values has only served to confirm that it is a party doomed to disunity and internecine war for years to come.

But even if that were not the case, it is too late for Corbyn to have any serious impact on politics in Scotland. The test of political leadership is one he failed during the EU referendum, fighting a dispassionate and lacklustre campaign of a type consistent with allegations that he wilfully sought to sabotage Remain and in truth supported Brexit. And even if he did not sabotage Labour’s campaign to remain, he inarguably failed to understand the true character of this Brexit beast, which is unforgiveable for someone widely considered the most progressive leader Labour has ever had.

The question now, then, is not if there will be another referendum on Scottish independence, but when. The case made in the 2014 White Paper was nowhere near strong enough and will have to be reconfigured in light of the proven volatility of oil prices and the need to rethink the issue of a national currency. Overall, the vision needs to be more radical and bold, signifying a clear break with the status quo politically, economically, constitutionally, and, not to be underestimated, also morally and ethically. Key, too,will be the role of the EU in supporting the prospect of an independent Scotland as a member of an EU that is long overdue for reform. If the Scottish government receives a pre-guarantee in this regard it will be game on.

Scottish independence is now the last redoubt behind which everyone across the UK who believes in human solidarity, internationalism, and a multicultural society must gather to stem the rising tide of Brexit poison that threatens to drown us all.

This article originally appeared at the Huffington Post

Oceania was at war with Eastasia: Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia


We are truly entering the world of the surreal. The BBC and other news outlets report in breathless tones how Iraqi government forces and Kurdish soldiers are entering Mosul to fight ISIS with American air cover, and possibly the support of the RAF. The Iraqi government has invited military support from the Americans and other Western powers.

Meanwhile the same news channels report that Syrian government forces and Iranian soldiers fighting Islamists in Aleppo with Russian air cover.The Syrian government has invited military support from the Russians and Iran. According to the British government, the Syrians and Russians are apparently committing war crimes by bombing an urban area.

Meanwhile the British government supplies planes and munitions to Saudi Arabia who bomb civilian areas in Yemen.

I have respect for consistent pacifists. I once asked Bruce Kent what the alternative to war is,for example in self defence, and he said “”the alternative is not to fight”. I don’t agree with this point of view but it is intellectually and morally consistent.

In practical terms, armed operations to defeat a determined and organised military force in an urban battlefield cannot avoid civilian casualties. The law is complicated, not least as both the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts are internal armed conflicts, where legally the Islamist forces are not soldiers of a belligerent power.

I am not an expert on the laws of war, though I have been trying read up on it to gain some understanding, but from what I gather, while it is illegal for those besieging Mosul and Aleppo to target civilians, it is not unlawful for them to target military assets where they anticipate proportionate civilian casualties. It is furthermore unlawful for the besieged forces to deliberately site their military assets so as to be using the population as a human shield.

As a question of fact, I don’t know whether the Islamist rebels in Aleppo,or iSIS in Mosul, have located their military forces close to civilian buildings. However, if they have, the choice given to the besieging forces is to either disengage their attack, or to calculate that the number of civilian casualties that it will consider proportionate has increased by the actions of the defending forces.

What is clear, is that peaceful and political solutions are to be preferred. The actions of the British government in seeking to raise the temperature with ill considered and reckless sabre rattling aimed at Russia are at very best unhelpful.

Who will save us from America?

img_0169The first two US presidential debates did not reveal anything new when it comes to either candidate. They only served to confirm that Donald Trump is a slobbering megalomaniac who should be kept away from political office in the same way a three-year-old child is kept away from a box of matches. A poster boy for unfettered capitalism, he is a man so divorced from reality — and, with it, his own humanity —that every word that leaves his mouth comes over as a cry for help.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is a passionate disciple of US exceptionalism – someone who believes there is no country that cannot be improved with a shower of cruise and tomahawk missiles. She and her husband come as a package of liberal opportunism who have made a successful and hugely lucrative career out of speaking left and acting right. The fruits of this opportunism are mass incarceration, the entrenchment of Wall Street as the golden temple of the US economy, and perpetual war and regime change overseas. Christopher Hitchens perhaps put it best when he opined that they [the Clintons] “haven’t met a foreign political donor they don’t like and haven’t taken from.”

Such is the parlous quality of both candidates for an office which, even in its better years, is synonymous with war crimes and crimes against humanity, it is tempting to conclude that we’re fucked. I say this as a non-American given that the occupant of the White House is a matter of grave importance for a world by now grown weary of Washington’s vast and ongoing experiment in democracy, along with the moral sickness which fuels its untrammeled power and the doctrine of ‘destroying the village in order to save it’ that has long underpinned its foreign policy.

It begs the question of who will save us from America?

Writing these words while on a recent visit to Los Angeles, I was struck by the ocean of broken humanity that fills Hollywood’s mythical gilded streets. Anyone who believes that America is a classless society need only take him or herself over here to realize how utterly wrong they are. Indeed not only will they be assured that there is no society more defined by class than US society, but that every minute of a every day a fierce class war is raging in its towns and cities, with up to now only one side in this war, the 99 percent, taking all the punches and doing all the bleeding.

Across America the abandonment of the poor, the downtrodden and the sick to their fate in service to the rich has been so brutal and cruel that its human consequences given new meaning to Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. America’s poor are a colonized people, be assured, which is why Malcolm’s assertion that, “You can’t understand what’s going on in Mississippi if you don’t understand what’s going on in the Congo,” remains one of his most cogent.

Yet as much as I loathe America for the scale of injustice, brutality, and mendacity that informs its treatment of the poor at home and abroad, hope arrives in the tremendous litany of rebels, dissidents, and counter-hegemonic movements which the country has produced in response. Oppression breeds resistance and throughout US history there has been fierce resistance against overwhelming odds — Sitting Bull, Nat Turner, Denmark Vesey, the San Patricios, Frederick Douglas, John Brown, Mother Jones, Big Bill Haywood and the Wobblies, Eugene Debs, the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, MLK, Malcolm X, SNCC, the Panthers, anti-Vietnam War movement, Cesar Chavez, and on and on.

Each of them, along with the movements they led or were a part of, were sustained by the same fierce moral outrage at the injustice they experienced and witnessed being inflicted in the name of progress and might is right. Many people experience at some level and point this burning sense of moral outrage at the injustice that defines the world they live in. The difference arises between those who learn to make their peace with it and those who refuse to make their peace with it – who instead choose to grapple with this monster in what they know before they start will be a losing fight.

This is the human condition at its most inspiring, the willingness to fight even while knowing you can’t win. But, then, such a reductive and one dimensional interpretation of victory has no place when we understand history as a river that flows without end and not a monument separating it into neat and tidy chapters, as in a book. Fighting is winning and winning is fighting in a struggle that will continue so long as injustice continues.

The race for the White House is a race for power engaged in by those Chaplin famously described as “machine men with machine minds and machine hearts.” It is a contest between two representatives of a psychopathic ruling class for the keys to a kingdom of despair. But lest they allow themselves to become smug and complacent as they wallow in lives of privilege and decadence, they should hark the words of Crazy Horse, spoken days before he died while resisting imprisonment. “The Red Nation shall rise again and it shall be a blessing for a sick world; a world filled with broken promises, selfishness and separations; a world longing for light again.”


Theresa May’s conference speech


What’s my vision for Britain? My philosophy? My approach?
Today I want to answer that question very directly.
” Theresa May

Who am I? And what on earth am I doing here?
Let me be clear. Each time I stand up to speak
as your Prime Minister, the church organist at Midsomer
kills again: the village florist gets it savagely
across the back of the head with a cast iron frying pan
that’s been in the family since seventeen seventy six;
or her lover, the sexton, turns up strip-jack-naked
at the bottom of the better variety of slurry pit…

In my Britain the brothels that serve
next year’s Conservative Party conference
will only employ girls with ‘Best of British’ tattooed
tastefully across their lower backs. Trust me,
when all the relevant members of my cabinet
have had their faces sat on for a fee
by Staffordshire’s finest, the British people will see
we, as a government, are ready to grasp
this once in a generation chance for change.

I will glue our United Kingdom back together,
and never let divisive nationalists,
with the exception of those here amongst us today,
tear us asunder. To this end,
the children of Dundee and Kirkcaldy
will be made recite every morning before Latin
the collected works of Rudyard Kipling;
and every homeowner south of Rickmansworth
on a salary over thrice the national average
will be given a toy Glaswegian each
with a tiny can of Irn Bru preinstalled, courtesy
of the new Department of Citizenship & Ethnic Integrity.

We are not just a party for the big people,
the sort who know what’s in the compromising photographs
the average person must never be allowed see;
we also rely on the votes of those many millions
of little people who believe in
what the big people have in store for them.

Come with me as we rise
to meet this challenge and take
each of them – be they gay
or straight, white or a bit yellow,
complete slap head or hairy all over –
coldly by the gullet
and give them the shaking
we know they deserve.


Abbott – cometh the hour, cometh the woman


The appointment of Diane Abbott as shadow home secretary has received a predictable cacophony of faux outrage. The coverage in the Express is typical, replete with sexist references to her sexual history and insults.

The appointment of Ms Abbott, a close ally, supporter and one-time girlfriend of fellow north London MP Mr Corbyn, was seen as a particularly provocative move.

She moves from Shadow Health Secretary to replace Andy Burnham who has stood down to focus on his campaign to be elected Greater Manchester Mayor next year.
One anonymous Labour MP commented: “Diane Abbott is now in charge of our response to security, terror and immigration. Do they want anyone to vote for us again?”

Another branded her “incompetent” while former Labour HQ official Jo Green Tweeted: “Labour’s top three are Corbyn, (Shadow Chancellor John) McDonnell and Diane Abbott. Electoral suicide awaits.”

Last week, Ms Abbott told a Labour conference meeting that voters backing limits on European Union immigration simply “want to see less foreign-looking people on their streets”.

In fact it is a very smart move. The senior leadership of the shadow cabinet is now in hands of those who are loyal to trajectory of the party, as now twice endorsed by the membership.
Like McDonnell and Corbyn himself, Diane Abbott has historically been a figure outside of the golden circle of the Westminster elite, and the last year has clearly required adjustments from all of them, in response to their greater responsibility. However, over the last few months she as done extremely well as shadow health secretary, and she is accomplished in front of the television camera.

But most significantly, a time when the Conservative Party is seeking to polarize British politics over the issues of race and immigration, hoping to seek the shift the centre ground on the issue as a smokescreen for their problems over Brexit, then Abbott’s appointment is the clearest signal that Labour will not follow them down that path.

Let us be clear, the wisdom of the centre-right in the party that Labour should not drift too far way from the Conservatives over policy simply doesn’t work when politics is in flux. The economic prescriptions which the three defeated candidates in last year’s leadership elections were triangulated around George Osborne’s policies, and would – in logical terms – be to the right of the current government.

Triangulation is part of a tired process that the electorate is disillusioned with. What is more, the chaos in UKIP and the opaqueness of what Thereas May’s government actually believes in, shows that all political parties are struggling to position themselves in a dramatically altered political landscape.

Abbott is the right choice, and she will do well.