In the early 1990s, the Conservative government introduced the community charge, which penalised millions of hardworking families through unprecedented poll tax bills. It was abolished after much opposition and replaced with the council tax.
It is now time for the council tax to be abolished, because it is actually a poll tax imposed upon those who have contributed a lifetime to the country and who should not be taxed any further once they retire. Council tax bills are dreaded by the elderly couple who have scrimped and saved for decades and who are now compelled, when their contributions should be honoured, to pay even more in taxation, even though their income has been cut.
The average family is paying £1,500 every year, regardless of the income that they earn. I believe that we should now abolish this new poll tax imposed without democratic consultation and without consideration for the financial circumstances of those who are forced to pay.
Working people are being hammered by this pernicious and intrusive tax and it is time it was abolished forthwith. The people of this country have had enough.
I’d like to respond to two letters. First that of Jara Handala (January 14) concerning the ever lower turnouts in union elections for senior full-time officers, such as general secretaries. Jara has done a much needed job in getting voter turnout figures that unions seem reluctant to publish, but which reveal much.
The same could be said concerning the varying support for industrial action. Activists like me see our union publications state how well supported their industrial action was, with pictures of happy picket lines, but never give any figures or say how membership support for one strike compares to a previous one. The Public and Commercial Services union could easily do this, given the number of national strikes it has called, whereas unions who only call a sector or regional strike would find it harder to do a direct comparison.
The union tops may consider such comparisons to be giving information to the enemy and demoralising members. To that I’d express my surprise that any employer does not know exactly how well (or not) industrial action was supported, as they always request workplace reports from managers. I would bet that even trade union NECs are not given that information! How does it help activists judge what we should do next if the employer has better information on the levels of support for strikes than what unions provide to their activists (let alone the ordinary members)?
Jara mentions my union, PCS, and how our general secretary, Mark Serwotka, has held that post for 15 years and was unopposed twice (2005 and 2014). This is not due to a complacent left in PCS. The Independent Left do mount a challenge for the NEC each year and they have narrowed the gap last year between themselves and the ruling Democracy Alliance long-running pact (between the PCS Left Unity and PCS Democrats factions). Jara implies the minimum number of branch nominations required (25, actually, if memory serves me correctly) is a blocking tactic. Well, that was a lot less than when the right controlled the CPSA (then PCS) on its creation.
Either the Independent Left have so little support, they cannot get more than 25 branches to support a challenge and/or most activists do not see anyone able to do the job better than Mark. Mark’s workload is incredible and he does a huge number of public meetings (perhaps limited now due to his heart problems?) and addressing rallies and protests. Mark also does branch AGMs and turns up without an entourage.
I suspect support for industrial action has been dropping. ‘Day here’ and ‘day there’ one-day national strikes can only be a protest - not effective action hitting the employer. However, most members are not (yet) prepared to take the serious (unpaid) longer action that will cripple the employer. Unlike other unions, PCS has to take on the most powerful employer of all - the government. Much is made of the National Gallery dispute by some on the left. However, that was a single workplace, not a nationwide department, and it took 111 days of partially paid action to win some concessions.
As someone who was amongst the first to support Mark Serwotka for general secretary (and every time since), I am concerned by the fact that PCS does now hide his earnings and pension from the membership, as Jara reports. He stood on a platform of not taking the full salary and when that was challenged by the right, declared he would donate substantial sums back to PCS and its fighting fund. We saw the declared amounts in the beginning, which grew smaller and smaller until no mention is made at all now.
Should a minimum number of branch nominations no longer be required? Should a rightwing opportunist, with the support of the media, but no support from branches, be able to topple Mark? Would that be democracy? Would that be in the best interests of the members? PCS regularly gets a turnout of 10% for NEC elections - better than most unions, but still pathetic and worrying for a left-controlled, fighting union.
Most members will not read election statements, as they do not know most of the candidates. Most of those voting do so for a faction recommended to them by trusted local reps. However, a contest for just general secretary would be able to be influenced by the media.
Jara is right to state that the reliance of unions on check-off (employers taking union subscriptions from members’ wages and sending it on to the union) indicates complacency. However, we do not have the lay reps to go back to activists having to collect money from members in offices every month, so PCS has had to approach members to get them to switch to direct debit.
To have an average 80% switch rate is fantastic compared to the government’s aim to bankrupt PCS, but to also lose 20% of members shows how some are so disconnected from their union, they have decided not to retain their membership. Some activists report that many members wanted to stay in the union, but just didn’t get around to it and will soon come back. We’ll see.
Now the restrictions on facility time (paid time off work to do union duties) and withdrawal of check-off are to be extended across the public sector, it will be interesting to see how some of the other much larger unions respond, which have relied on a ‘servicing approach’ to their members rather than the PCS’s ‘organising approach’. Nevertheless, the past year or two has seen PCS full-time officers having to concentrate on getting members to switch to DD to make up for where we do not have active lay reps. PCS has reduced its staffing levels, as job cuts have reduced membership levels.
Many members will not read anything their union publishes and, again, we do not have the numbers of lay reps to have workplace meetings in members’ own time. Members have shown they are not willing to give up their lunch breaks or time after work to hear their union reps address them - unless there is a specific workplace issue, such as an office closure or job losses, affecting them personally.
I now turn to another superb letter, this time Paul B Smith’s concerning the death of Labourism (January 7). Paul cites the backtracking of Corbyn and McDonnell on a range of issues and I have noticed this myself with growing concern.
I had registered as a Labour supporter to vote for Corbyn and his values, but was and am wary of the Labour Party still under the control of the PLP. David Callaghan wrote a similar letter urging caution and drawing parallels between Corbyn and Foot (January 21). There have been excellent articles and letters in the Weekly Worker about the setting up of Momentum and what its purpose and organisation should be, whereas other left organisations have either been sniffy about the Corbyn surge or have overly bigged up Momentum, urging everyone to join Labour and ‘pull it left’ (good luck with that ‘never tried before’ strategy).
I am a longstanding activist in PCS. I have attended every CPSA and PCS conference since the mid-1980s and now speak in the main conference debates, as I have previously reported. I buy The Socialist, Socialist Worker and other left publications where I see them, sometimes the Morning Star (but only the Weekly Worker on subscription), and am on the side of revolutionary politics compared to Labourism. PCS is one of the few unions not affiliated to the Labour Party. I note that the Fire Brigades Union has decided to reaffiliate.
I am certain that some branches will be urging PCS to affiliate to the Labour Party at our annual delegate conference in May. We have not debated affiliating to Labour since the creation of PCS in 1999. I hear Mark Serwotka and the majority of the NEC are not in favour of this for now (but the left ruling the NEC are mostly Socialist Party in England and Wales). I also know a number of SPEW members in Manchester have left to join the Labour Party. Although PCS has a political fund allowing it to support candidates who back PCS policies (such as anti-Trident, anti-austerity, anti-war, anti-privatisation, etc), PCS has yet to do so despite my annual motions at conference calling for this. They have not even gone for the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition, let alone support that very good friend of the PCS, John McDonnell, who is always invited to address conference and goes down a storm.
If that debate takes place, it will be historic. I don’t think it will even be close, though, as many will defend civil service neutrality against those who want to support Corbyn and there will be those who will cite examples of how Labour governments have done PCS no favours - especially Blair/Brown.
I do not wish to see my left, progressive union dominated by becoming a conveyer belt for full-time officers to become Labour MPs, like Unison and Unite, and every conference motion being scrutinised as to whether it will help or hinder Labour getting elected - as is the case nowadays with the major unions affiliated.
It is crystal-clear that unions bankroll the Labour Party for no obvious benefit, but are pulled to the right due to Labour’s electoral considerations rather than seek to pull Labour left. The urge to be part of the Corbyn surge and jump on his bandwagon is strong. Many on the far left have got fed up with standing outside in the cold - they have poorly attended meetings, yet they look at packed Corbyn meetings that seem lovely, warm and friendly.
For me, I have received a letter inviting me to donate to the Labour Party in readiness for the May elections. It is all about getting Labour representatives in and the Tories out. Not a word about unions, or about Labour, even under Corbyn pledging to oppose council cuts. I understand Corbyn is now full of understanding on how Labour councillors should not be opposing cuts and should set legal budgets. The whole ‘donate to Labour’ letter is based on the unquestioned assumption that ‘Labour are better than the Tories’ without a word about how Labour are different. I think Momentum should be about encouraging CLPs to go for the deselection of the 66 warmongers and any MPs who have not fought austerity cuts. It already seems that it will not do that; rather, it will resist such accountability.
The Labour right has made no concessions to the left. As other Weekly Worker writers have said, Labour Party unity is always on the terms of the right, not the left. Corbyn increasingly seems to me to be out of his depth. At his age, he well knows how the media treat the left. He saw how Livingstone was treated in the 1980s. He also knows about the PLP and the battles in the Labour Party. He has seen the constant undermining of himself by his party. However, he acts like he is new to all this. His trying to be a peacemaker is dangerously naive.
He will increasingly dismay all those who joined to support his values and - again, as other writers have said - they will be no match for the Labour right, who are organising against the new influx and will stifle any calls for greater democracy in the Labour Party (as Momentum also seem to be doing). I will wait and see what the 2016 Labour Party conference is like and the decisions it makes. Labour exists to win elections over and above standing up for any socialist principles if they are seen to be vote losers. It will again be ‘Vote Labour, no matter how bad’.
At the moment, I’m inclined to oppose the affiliation of PCS to the Labour Party unless substantial changes are evident to their internal democracy and their actual policies. I see Corbyn as continually backtracking so soon, no doubt panicking about the May council elections. He should play the long game, look to 2020 and build a massive movement. On Trident, to a hostile soundbite media, he should have simply said: ‘What do the public want - decent public services and no Trident or Trident and decimated public services?’ Dead easy to understand and win millions over.
Instead, his laughable compromise angered Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and Stop the War supporters on one side, but also had the right laughing at him. He cannot afford to keep making massive mistakes like this. He either has picked poor advisors or has good advisors, but appalling judgment. Either explanation makes him a liability.
I never forgot how ‘Red Ken’ Livingstone and his ‘loony lefties’ on the Greater London Council were pilloried by The Sun and mainstream media. I remember him appearing on BBC Question time with Robin Day ready to pounce on him (which he did) and yet Ken answered all the loaded questions with calm, ‘common sense’ advocacy. At that time I was a rightwing Sun reader ready for him to be slaughtered publicly. He won me and, I suspect, many others over. He didn’t seem loony to me, once I heard him explain his stances. He went on to be kicked out of the Labour Party, ran for mayor of London against Blairite Labour and won (but sadly went back in to Labour). He knows how to beat the vicious media.
Jeremy needs to learn and learn fast.
New Bum Blockade
“Not individuals working wherever they want, but the masses democratically controlling their collective future. Distinct national-territorial groupings determined by collective, not individual, decision-making”, wrote Stephen Diamond (Letters, January 28).
I wonder if Stephen Diamond’s Big Central Plan would have denied workers “freedom to work wherever the wage slave ‘chooses’ in a labour market” and halted the mass migration westwards during the dustbowl years? Between 1930 and 1940, approximately three million people moved out of the plains states. An estimated 300,000-400,000 (the ‘Okies’, ‘Arkies’ or ‘Texies’) moved to California and settled there during the 1930s. In just over a year, 86,000 people migrated to California. This number is more than the number who migrated during the 1849 gold rush. Today, about one-eighth of California’s population is of Okie heritage.
Maybe all Americans should now require internal passports if they choose to travel from one state to another. California’s Indigent Act, passed in 1933, made it a crime to bring indigent persons into the state. In 1936, the Los Angeles police established a border patrol, dubbed the ‘Bum Blockade’, at major road and rail crossings for the purpose of turning back those who lacked obvious means of support. Would Stephen have opposed Edwards v California (1941), which ruled that states had no right to restrict interstate migration by poor people or any other Americans.
Whites comprised roughly 95% of those moving and their white skins and Anglo-Saxon pedigree won the attention and sympathy that is not so readily given to other migrants who struggle for a livelihood. I wonder if Stephen would find advantages in the Chinese government’s practice (I believe it has now been relaxed to a degree) of depriving Chinese citizens of welfare rights, when they move from the undeveloped, rural interior to where the jobs are.
Maybe it takes Woody Guthrie to remind us what immigration law means to people:
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted.
Our work contracts out and we have to move on.
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border.
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died ’neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
Woody Guthrie, ‘Deportee’
The next meeting of Wakefield Socialist History Group, focusing on the Levellers and the Diggers, will be held on Saturday February 13 at 1pm in the Red Shed, Vicarage Street, Wakefield WF1.
One of the most prominent Levellers, John Lilburne, was born in Sunderland, the third son of Richard Lilburne, a minor country gentleman. His mother was daughter of Thomas Hixon, master of the King’s Wardrobe at Greenwich Palace. In the 1630s he was apprenticed in London to Thomas Hewson, a wholesale clothier and puritan. Through him he got to know John Bostwick, a campaigner against episcopacy.
Soon Lilburne was himself involved in the printing and distribution of unlicensed puritan books and pamphlets. It led to him being arrested in December 1637 and being taken before the Court of Star Chamber. In addition to being fined £500, he was also to be whipped at cart-tail from Fleet Prison to New Palace Yard, Westminster. There he was to stand in pillory. Then he would be imprisoned until he “conformed and admitted his guilt”. Languishing in prison, he wrote the first of many pamphlets publicising the injustices against him. And when King Charles reluctantly summoned the Long Parliament in 1640, Oliver Cromwell MP seized the opportunity to highlight Lilburne’s case. Parliament duly ordered his release.
When the first civil war broke out, Lilburne enlisted as captain in Lord Brooke’s regiment and fought at the battle of Edgehill. He resigned his commission in April 1645, however, and was imprisoned that summer for having denounced MPs who lived in comfort, whilst common soldiers fought and died for parliament. In July 1646 he was in trouble again. He was sent to the Tower for having denounced his former commander, the Earl of Manchester, as a traitor and royalist sympathiser. There he continued to write pamphlets - smuggled out and published by friends and supporters - that drew attention to examples of hypocrisy, corruption and profiteering in high places. Lilburne wanted a new form of accountable government and whilst still in prison was associated with the drafting of the Leveller manifesto: an agreement of the people.
Released on bail, he hurried to support Leveller mutineers at Corkbush field and then went to London to try to build up Leveller organisation. However, he and other Leveller leaders were arrested in March 1649. He’d already attacked the new republican government in England’s new chains discovered. But he was still found not guilty of high treason and inciting mutinies.
Lilburne died in 1657. As highlighted, Lilburne had faced a long series of trials throughout his life and became known as ‘Freeborn John’ because of his defence of rights, such as that to hear the accusation, face one’s accusers and not to incriminate oneself. Indeed he is seen as having inspired the fifth amendment to the US constitution and is cited by many constitutional jurists and scholars.
Wakefield Socialist History Group
The National Union of Mineworkers is disturbed by the smears against our union regarding our approach to the conflict in Ukraine. These smears have been promoted mainly by elements on the outskirts of the labour movement. Sadly, some who should know better have been willing to give air to such defamation. We at the NUM have long experience of those who would seek to sow divisions and discredit us and we have a proven record of defending ourselves when necessary.
It is shamefully claimed the NUM has joined the camp of our enemies and abandoned our history of working class internationalism. Some even asserting we have crossed into the same camp as fascists and taken the line of Nato. Let us set the record straight.
The NUM has not based its response to the Ukraine crisis on what the British or Russian media tell us. We have not been charmed by the opportunity to sit in their TV studios and accept without question their government’s line. Instead we naturally turned to our fellow miners’ unions, with whom we have a friendship stretching back decades: the Trade Union of the Coal Mining Industry (PRUP) and the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU). The very first statement issued by the NUM executive committee was clear: “The NUM supports the international principle of self-determination and expresses its support to our brothers and sisters in the miners’ union, PRUP, who are calling for all interference from outside Ukraine to stop. The NUM calls for a peaceful resolution to the current issues facing the people of Ukraine and our thoughts are with all the miners in the Ukraine, who we regard as our friends.”
During some of the worst fighting in Ukraine, we hosted a delegation of miners at the Durham Miners Gala in 2014 that were warmly received, yet our hospitality is now denigrated by assertions they were not miners, but national union officials from Kiev. This is untrue. The delegation was from Donbas and the speaker that addressed the gala was chairman of the Dnipropetrovsk branch of PRUP.
The NUM has sent two delegations to Ukraine; we have visited industrial areas, met national union officials, local branches and rank-and-file miners. We have also met with activists of the wider labour movement. The NUM attended and addressed the joint union congress of Miners of Ukraine on April 21. We are proud to have taken part in a protest by thousands of miners in defiance of riot police at the parliament in Kiev against pit closures.
Those attacking the NUM seek to question the legitimacy of the Ukrainian trade unions. Yet we have seen with our own eyes that the miners’ unions are not slavishly following the oligarchs and the government. They are resisting as best they can pit closures, austerity and anti-union laws. The NUM is being attacked because we support fellow trade unions that appeal for solidarity instead of the armed forces that hold a third of the territory in Donbas. Despite the wishful thinking of some, Putin’s Russia is not sponsoring a revived 1917-style soviet republic or a Spain of 1936. It is clear the takeover in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk area was initiated by rival oligarchs and Russia out of their own vested interests. In those areas the existing labour movement has been suppressed, trade unionists have been kidnapped, tortured and even murdered. This is common knowledge and has been reported to the international trade union movement repeatedly.
We have given our support to the Ukrainian labour movement in supporting the unity of Ukraine and of the working people of Ukraine, opposing the undemocratic division of Ukraine by force, which has been a humanitarian and economic catastrophe; it has divided working people and their labour movement.
At no time has the NUM given support to either Russian or Ukrainian far-right forces active in Ukraine - our solidarity is first and foremost with the labour movement. The NUM endorses the calls by the Ukrainian trade unions for justice for victims of the attacks on both the Kiev and Odessa trade union buildings, and of those killed on the Malaysian airline.
The situation was summed up in an address by the Union of Railway Workers of Ukraine to the conference of its sister union, Aslef, that “Ukraine has been squeezed between an aggressive power in our east and neoliberal economic policies from the west. The working people of Ukraine are suffering from both the terrible cost of war and of austerity.” NUM shares the view that it is for the Ukrainian people to determine their own future, free from external intervention from Russian or western imperialism. That is, we support the achievement of peace through self-determination, solidarity and social justice.
National Union of Mineworkers
Drugs, dole and despair is a description that can be applied to my home town in Cambridgeshire. The 50% of school leavers who don’t have the ability or aptitude to go to university face years of unemployment or, if they are lucky, employment in low-paid, dead-end jobs.
I have a 21-year-old relative who has never worked since he left school at 16, and is currently in receipt of employment and support allowance. He’s also spent time in prison for assault and not doing his community service. All his friends are either unemployed or in low-paid, dead-end jobs. Many of them take illegal drugs, particularly cannabis.
What is to be done? First, cannabis should be legalised and made available from licensed outlets. This would, as the experience of Colorado in the US shows, put most illegal drug-dealers out of business, and lead to a dramatic fall in the number of people taking heroin and other hard drugs.
Second, Jeremy Corbyn should come out and openly call for the building of one million council houses each year. This would create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the building industry, which would help to mop up youth unemployment.
Finally, I would like to point out something about my relative and his friends. None of them have any fear of the police or the prison system.
This will be of great significance in a future revolutionary situation in Britain.