Lessons learned

A few days ago I realised that I had forgotten to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the great Post Office strike of 1971.

I joined the Post Office in January 1970 and I usually had three shifts: mornings starting at around 5am for a delivery round, afternoons in the bag-cleaning room, and a night shift on parcels. In those days the Post Office comprised of letters, parcels and counter services, as well as telecommunications - though my own area of work was letters and parcels.

When I started I had a week with an experienced postman and then I was on my own. We were due back at the office at 10am for breakfast in the canteen and then out at half-past for the second delivery; it was a little while before I got a second delivery out at all! Every little gap in a hedge or a low fence helped, along with a good letter-box technique - it takes time. (And then there were the dogs!)

The bag cleaning was all right, if very dirty. They were tumble-cleaned and sometimes the bags were extremely old and full of dust. Occasionally we’d find a letter or card from ancient times in the bottom of a bag - onwards for delivery!

The parcel-sorting was more fun. There was the company, including chats in the canteen, and the room was big and airy - it was the friendliest place I ever worked. There was also a strong ‘public service ethos’ - in parcel sorting, for instance, great care was taken with broken parcels, which we did our best to put back together, along with their contents.

Just before Christmas in 1970, a big load of frozen turkeys arrived just as we were finishing. The last deliveries had already gone out and there would be no more until after Boxing Day, so these turkeys would stay in the office, thaw out and start to go off, instead of being cooked and eaten. One by one, we volunteered to deliver all of them on our way home.

In late 1970 the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW) put in a claim for a pay rise; inflation was starting to take off and so - as usual, in self-defence - there was a dispute. The first action consisted of a series of two-hour strikes, but then things escalated into a full, all-out strike. Where I worked there were almost exactly 1,000 postmen (yes, they were all men in those days) and a few hundred of us were on the picket lines on day one. Only one man scabbed and on the second day another joined him - but that was it for the duration. After the picket we all went to a rally. Lots of people made contributions from the floor and we felt so inspired that it was agreed that a rally would occur on every weekday morning throughout the strike, instead of the original plan of once a week.

But at that first rally there were also several women, and some of them were in tears. They had been picketing the telephone exchange - in those days, all the daytime telephonists were female and some were members of the UPW. But locally the strikers were outnumbered by, and subject to the abuse of, those who scabbed - together with that of their husbands, etc, who had brought them in to work. As a result, we agreed that, since pickets in the Post Office proper were clearly unnecessary, we would drop them (apart from a couple of observers), and join the women at the telephone exchange - which we did every day for the rest of the strike. On day two, faced by a couple of hundred pickets (such numbers were legal in those days), some of the women going in were in tears - and their husbands didn’t look too comfortable either.

The rallies where we went after picket duty were some of the most cheerful events I’ve ever attended. Not only were there speeches and lots of interventions from the floor, but there were songs and poems too, and everyone had a good time. There was also intense discussion about the strike, about the Post Office itself, and about the current Tory government and politics in general.

After six and a half weeks we went back - for not very much more than we were offered at the start. But there was no bitterness: we had fought, we didn’t get much out of it, but at least those of us who had turned out to pickets and rallies every day had a great time and learned a good deal.

Now times have changed, of course. There are not just the anti-union laws and the fragmentation of postal services, but a much harsher economic environment for workers attempting to defend their living standards. But the struggle was inspiring, the camaraderie was great and there was a general feeling that we were doing something - together - that was worthwhile. And, hopefully, one day …

Jim Nelson


In the reported discussion of Jack Conrad’s proposed amendments to the CPGB’s Draft programme regarding rewilding large areas of the British countryside (‘Back to nature’, April 22), this is quoted as requiring “re-establishing wild forests, natural floodplains, marshes, fens and heathland, and re-introducing native flora and fauna. And this includes bringing back the natural predators at the top of the animal food chain, wolves. Without them other animals like deer require human intervention to cull populations. Prime targets for restoring woodlands would be grouse moors, deer-stalking estates and upland sheep runs.”

Fine, but if wolves are the apex predator, who will ensure their population is kept within reasonable bounds? Without human intervention to cull them (no less violent than culling deer), many will starve to death and/or will encroach on human populations. (We could feed members of the overthrown aristocracy and capitalist class to the wolves, but this could only be a short-term fix!)

And actually deer being torn to shreds by wolves is probably more brutal or savage than being shot by humans. So, unless Jack is really advocating a return to primitive, unfettered nature, human intervention will continue to be required, including the need to cull populations of wolves, deer and other animals. And some people will continue to take pleasure in shooting such animals.

Isn’t this just one of the basic contradictions which will affect socialist society and will need to be managed rather than resolved?

Andrew Northall


I see that soft-left Corbynite MP Diane Abbott has described the upcoming Batley and Spen parliamentary by-election as ‘make or break’ for our Sir Keir Starmer. At the same time, Abbott has come out in support of Andy Burnham as a possible replacement for Starmer. This shows the complete collapse of Corbynism.

Abbott famously sent her son to a private school, costing £10,000 per year, which was a huge amount of money at the time. Burnham, it must not be forgotten, is no socialist. He voted for Tony Blair’s support for George W Bush’s invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003.

Changing the subject slightly, I recently listened to a podcast by soft-left Guardian journalist John Harris about the prospects for Starmer’s Labour Party. Harris, who comes from a northern working class background, makes an interesting point: whereas Thatcher rebuilt support for the Tories through council house sales, he says, Blair did the same for Labour in the cities by getting 50% of school and college leavers into university.

The development of ‘gradland’ in the cities reminds me of the work many years ago of an organisation called Forecasting International (FI), which predicted upheavals in places as far apart as Poland and Iran many years before they happened. FI could predict these upheavals by looking at the number of unemployed male graduates aged 21-28 - a major source of political dissidents and activists.

Changing the subject slightly, again. Phil Burton-Cartledge in his blog, All That Is Solid, has described how the Labour Party has become “radioactive” when it comes to winning back ‘red wall’ ‘leave’ voters because of its call for a second referendum. So “radioactive” is Labour that these retired, white, home-owning former blue-collar workers cannot be reasoned with. All we can do is wait for them to die off. This is unfortunate for Labour in the North East Cambridgeshire constituency where I live, which has a sitting Tory MP - Stephen Barclay (now first secretary to the treasury) - who had a 30,000 majority in 2019. This contrasts with 1970, when Labour came within 2,500 votes of winning the seat. Interestingly, in the 2016 EU referendum, 72% of Fenlanders voted ‘leave’.

Fenland is made up of four small towns, the largest being my hometown of Wisbech (interestingly, Marx, Lenin and Trotsky all grew up in small towns and the conservatism of small-town life was a major reason for these giants of the labour movement becoming revolutionaries). Wisbech currently has no Labour Party branch, although there are moves by North East Cambs Constituency Labour Party to relaunch one. In that CLP there are just two branches, which are nearer to Cambridge, and therefore have been helped by the ‘Cambridge effect’, where white-collar workers who work in the city have come to live in Fenland due to its low house prices.

So what conclusions can we make from all of the above?

  1. Labour must win over ‘generation rent’ through a policy of rent controls and the building of one million council houses per year.
  2. Labour must win over the five million self-employed, whose average income is just £11,500 per year, through cheap credits from a nationalised banking system.
  3. Labour must support a universal basic income. This is something Mark Drakeford, leader of the Labour Party in Wales, is already planning to do.

Finally, there is no point in Labour arguing with the ageing, white, home-owning Tory voters. These people are thick and cannot be reasoned with. The support for the Tories is dying of old age. Blair, just like Tito in Yugoslavia, must have been an ‘unconscious Trotskyist’, when he came out with his mantra, “Education, education, education”. Whether by intention or accident, Blair, by getting 50% of school and college leavers into university, has changed the political landscape for Labour for generations to come.

John Smithee

Stop closure

McVitie’s biscuit factory in the east end of Glasgow is to shut next year. It is owned by the Pladis company, which says it needs to close the plant and shift all production to English plants because of “excess capacity”.

Pladis, which owns a number of other biscuit companies, enjoyed a boom in business during the lockdown and even before the lockdown, in 2019, it had revenue of £2 billion and an operating profit of £154 million.

McVitie’s employees have been classed as ‘key workers’ over the last year. They have kept production going and helped boost profits, but now they are to be rewarded with the sack. The Scottish Republican Socialist Movement deplores the decision. We support the campaign by the recognised unions, Unite and the GMB, to stop the closure. We also back their calls for re-investment in the Tollcross plant.

Alan Stewart
SRSM national organiser


Thank you for publishing Mike Macnair’s review of my book, Virtue hoarders (‘American “Blue Labour”?’, April 15).

I agree with his assessment of some of the weaknesses in the book, but I’m going to stick to my guns that the professional managerial class, even as a segment of the classical petty bourgeoisie, has congealed as a class under global capitalism. It is a hegemonic force - refined by American institutions, such as the prestige, economy-based meritocracy.

This meritocracy remade European institutions of higher education under the Marshall Plan and has more recently been embraced by People’s Republic of China elites.

Catherine Liu