Concrete events showed me the way to become a socialist.
I come from a traditional Labour family and grew up on a council estate in North-West England. There was mum, dad and five kids. We voted Labour and just about everybody in the neighbourhood voted Labour. That’s the way it was.
Voting for them had made a difference. The party was connected to the trade unions as if by an umbilical cord. After WWII, workers now had the NHS, free at the point of use. There was almost full employment. Working class kids could get a university education on a living grant, rents were low and there was a bus every ten minutes.
My grandmother died in the 1950s still owing medical bills from the 1930s –the decade of mass unemployment, the Jarrow Hunger March and fascism.
So Labour helped transform our country and the Tories dared not drastically reverse those changes. A little cut here, a little cut there. The years 1945 – 1973, once we were past the first five years of austerity, were the golden years of prosperity, post-war boom and jobs aplenty. You really could leave a job on Friday and start a new one on Monday. As I grew up, all I had to do was go to school and plan for the future.
By 1973, though, the future was cancelled because of a lack of funds. The Yom Kippur War broke out between Israel and several Arab countries. Due to the West supporting Israel, the Middle East oil trading organisation OPEC retaliated by quadrupling oil prices. The American cash cow was drying up due to its commitments to its own boom and the black hole of the Vietnam War and international investments and loans had begun to be called in. Money was tight. High inflation, unemployment and cuts followed. Sounds familiar? Yes. When the kingpin capitalists on Wall Street sneeze, we all catch pneumonia.
In 1974, I was eighteen and voted in two general elections. One to get Labour back in and the second to make sure they had a working majority. I didn’t understand at the time but Labour had been lacking in its support for the working class. Big brother Stan told me. He read the right papers.
‘Labour’s no friend of the workers anymore,’ Stan said. ‘They cut jobs as well as any Tory. They tried to betray the unions by controlling their right to strike.’
I learned later he was referring to the ‘In Place of Strife’ Bill that Labour Employment Minister Barbara Castle had tried to impose in 1969.
‘And the Tories thought they could get away with it with the Industrial Relations Bill,’ he said, ending his history lesson. I remembered those strikes. Masses of workers on picket lines, marches, politicians arguing on the TV news at tea time, somebody called Tony Benn linking arms with shop stewards while smoking a pipe.
‘So if Labour are bad,’ I said, ‘who do we vote for?’
‘Labour, of course –you don’t want the Tories in.’
What he meant was, the Labour cabinet were little better than our natural class enemy but the Labour Party itself still had the means to select a better leadership through its democratic channels – the party conference, MP selection, the union block vote and the rest.
But it was under this second Harold Wilson Labour government where I found myself unemployed. I signed on for more than twelve months and was then shoved into a ‘Youth Job Creation Scheme’ in the Forestry Commission building fences and digging ditches for my dole plus five pounds. This wasn’t what I’d got my ‘O’ levels for.
Then came 1976: Labour went begging to the IMF and agreed to make even bigger cuts and wage restraints for the privilege of being in hock to the international banks. To me, it just meant more signing on.
Rather than being unemployed, I thought I’d better go to college and learn a trade, to better to increase my chances for employment.
The nearest I came to politics there, where I was taking photography, was a couple of middle class spotty ‘herberts’, their jacket lapels festooned with badges of political slogans trying to sell me copies of the ‘Socialist Worker’.
Revolution was in the air – ‘Rock Against Racism’ had been started after Eric Clapton had drunkenly praised racist Tory Enoch Powell and John Lydon had already sworn on the telly. There was no anarchy though. But what there was by 1978-79 were mountains of rubbish bags stacked up in the streets and reportedly the dead weren’t getting buried, as tens of thousands of workers were taking prolonged strike action against its own government because of low pay – and who could blame them, in my view? It gave us some days off college because the heating and lights were off.
Trade unionists were demanding that the Labour government act like a Labour government and stop attacking its own people. They wanted change, a different kind of Labour. Instead, in early ’79, they got Maggie and the Tories.
That was it for me. College finished, I was already back on the dole and it wasn’t going to get any better. For me, Labour or Tory, there was no difference. I figured I could just as well be jobless but in sunnier climes. I hitch-hiked to Germany where I had friends and landed on my feet there, working as an editor of an American army community newspaper.
I worked with Americans but mainly socialised with Germans. Most German young people were still stuck in the hippy era; alternative lifestyles, marijuana, Green Peace and all that. I went along to a couple of anti-nuclear demonstrations in Bonn, Berlin and Saarbrucken but that was the extent of it for me. Demonstrations were never going to stop the bomb.
Five years down the line, I’m back in England. It’s 1986 and I’m doing a degree course and due to Maggie’s many cuts and a frozen student grant, working a night shift at the same time at a motorway service station, cleaning the toilets.
I met a friend of a friend who was in the Militant Tendency, which was the Marxist faction of the Labour Party. I’d read about them in the papers. Derek Hatton was portrayed as the ‘mouthy’ one, the working class hero who wore expensive suits and drove a flash car with personalised number plates. He was Deputy Leader of Liverpool City Council. Neither the Tories or Labour liked the Militants so I thought there must be something in this.
My local Militant man, George, used to come around to discuss politics. He wanted to recruit me. There were two local branches already. He was insistent and initially, I just used to enjoy the talks, and enjoy trying to pick holes. After a year, I agreed to go to a meeting. They had a ‘guest speaker’ from Liverpool who gave the facts and cut through the media untruths. I agreed to join. They worked in the Labour Party to fight for socialist policies that would benefit working class people. That was good enough for me.
I helped out on the paper sales and attended Labour Party meetings where we would challenge Labour policies and the party’s failure to properly challenge Thatcher. I read books and magazines on various aspects of socialist history – Trotsky and Lenin’s stuff, history of the Russian Revolution, the British General Strike of 1926, the Miners’ Strike of 1984. It was an education.
After the Liverpool Militants were expelled – for belonging to a ‘party within a party’ – it seemed to fall a little flat. I understood the theory, but it was the practice I wanted to see in action.
By 1989, Thatcher introduced the poll tax, first in Scotland. It was heading our way.
I went round to George’s and threw the newspaper headlines on his kitchen table: ‘What are we going to do about that?’
He smiled in that way of his – I used to call him the ‘Vicar of Socialism’ because he always used to come round on a Sunday when neither of us were working; ‘That’s what the next meeting’s about.’
Up and down the country, the poll tax meant everybody, no matter what their income, was to pay between £300 and £400 for local council services to make up for the cuts in the rate support grant (what the government pays local councils.) This also meant the rich and super-rich would pay the same as us. It was a blatant transference of wealth from the poor to the rich – ‘Robin Hood in reverse’, as we called it.
We started our campaign, sticking up posters everywhere we could, running press publicity campaigns; we hired the main concert hall and filled it beyond capacity, more than 600 people. Our ‘Anti Poll-Tax Union’ was up and running and nationally 18.5 million people refused to pay. We demonstrated outside the courts, in other towns, in Manchester, Glasgow and Trafalgar Square, supported people in the dock, we disrupted council meetings and we chased away bailiffs.
By November that year, 1990, Thatcher was forced to resign in tears, an electoral liability. The ‘Iron Lady’ had been turned into ‘iron filings’. We’d succeeded where Kinnock’s Labour Party had failed. Jokes in Parliament were not enough.
Now that, to me, was the theory put into practice, to have a hand, no matter how small, in making history.
For the first time in a long time, I was awake…and it took concrete events to awaken me, to give history a shove…concrete events.