Monday, 24 March 2014

She shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her

Mancunians do nothing in half measures. And so, when E Vincent Harris was looking for inspiration for the design of Manchester’s central library in 1934, he reached for the Pantheon in Rome, knowing that only one great civilisation should speak unto another. OK, so as a proud Mancunian, I am prejudiced, but Manchester’s name is derived from a long period of settlement by Romans after all, so the link to Rome is not contrived.
(Sadly, tonight as I posted this item the photo function of blogger wasn't working. So, sorry that this post doesn't project the glory of which I speak.)

Now that the central library has had a £50m makeover the library has not only been returned to its former glory, but the majority of the building, and its long-stored treasures, are open and available to the public.

My particular fondness for the library is that it was here, in the spring of 1989, that I wrote the assignment which accompanied my application to Ruskin College. As computers were not the norm in libraries (or homes, colleges etc.) at this stage I sat in the domed glory of the grade II listed building  earnestly and laboriously drawing on several weighty legal text books to answer a question along the lines of, is the British judiciary impartial in its rulings on trade union strike action? Invariably you can guess my answer, and although I would cringe at the juvenile approach to my writing and analysis if I could see that assignment again, it did the trick and forever after I was in debt to this mighty institution.

There has been some great coverage of the restoration work (e.g. and having visited recently with my daughter the visionary new building that houses Birmingham’s central library, I am pleased that Manchester stuck with a project to restore our/my library to its neo-classical glory.

Legions of Mancunians, and other welcome visitors, have poured through the doors of this magnificent institution, maintained for decades with a strong, confident pride in the principles of municipal socialism. Manchester looks and feels today quite different from that groggy, disparate place that I left in the late 80s to re-enter education, but it is with great pride that I look upon the remarkable change in the fortunes and landscape of the city now, knowing that legions more will benefit as I did from a source of such inspiration and hope.

By the way, the title of this post is taken from the statement which circles in carved stone across the vast domed interior of the main building. Taken from Proverbs 4: "Wisdom is the principal thing therefore get wisdom: And with all thy getting get understanding. Exalt her, and she shall promote thee. She shall bring thee to honour when thou dost embrace her. She shall give to thine head an ornament of grace; A crown of glory she shall deliver to deliver to thee."

Good luck Manchester central library.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Men of Vision, Men of Action


I have  just presided over a minute's silence in respect of Bob Crow and Tony Benn with BA labour and trade union students who are here at Ruskin this weekend. We are fortunate to have Steve Skelly with us as part of the 2010 cohort, and who sits on the NEC of the RMT, to provide a personal perspective on the leadership and personality of Bob Crow.

Many thanks to Andy Danforth of UWE for forwarding the two pictures below, taken by Robert Byford a PhD student at UWE and researching the last dispute at BA.

This has been an incredibly difficult week for the British labour movement, and I don't feel I have much to add amongst the massive outpouring of commentary and retrospectives, so I'll just comment from a personal perspective, and leave you with some of my favourite quotes of Crow and Benn.

Before I do though, I should add that the title for the posting draws on the chapter from the book by Richard Lewis, Teachers and Leaders. The book examines the impact of miners on the development of worker education in the UK, and in particular the impact of the South Wales Miners Federation (SWMF) in sending miners as trade union activists to Ruskin College, and thereafter what happened to workers' education through the rise of the Pleb's League and the creation of the labour colleges movement.

For me, the link with Bob Crow and Tony Benn was firstly their very proud association with Ruskin College, and secondly their acknowledgement that movements for social justice typically rest of the acquisition of a layer of knowledge on the part of working class women and men.

Bob Crow embodied that which makes the union strong (to draw on the title of Tony Lane's book) in that no struggle for workers' right, be that in the form of improved terms and conditions, or improvements in the law, has historically note come through little or no struggle. When I listened this week to Londoners bemoaning the transport strikes led by Crow I wondered why they didn't ask how the rights they enjoy (weekend leave, sick pay, maternity leave etc etc) came about, nor why they didn't query the role of Boris Johnson in forcing the hand of the RMT in pursuing industrial action as a legitimate response to his attempts to reduce the quality and standard of London transport.

On being told of Thatcher's death "I wont shed one single tear over her death. She destroyed the NHS and destroyed industry in this country and as far as I'm concerned she can rot in hell."
"I was brought up according to Labour movement principles and to believe that the 11th commandment is 'Thou shalt not cross a picket line"

I first heard Tony Benn speak in the mid-80s at Manchester Town Hall in the aftermath of the riots in Moss Side. I was soon to join the Labour Party and a comrade insisted I come along and hear the old geezer. From that afternoon and thereafter I was in awe of Benn's passion and conviction in that the fight against oppression and injustice was a moral one, and that I was part of a long, historical tradition of radical movements fighting class elites, corporate power and state corruption. I first get the opportunity to read Benn's prolific output when I got to Ruskin as a full-time student in 1989, and I remember distinctly spending time first with Arguments for Socialism, and being transfixed with the idea that the fight for working class democratic representation could be rooted in a Christian socialist perspective.
"I’m not frightened about death. I don’t know why, but I just feel that at a certain moment your switch is switched off, and that’s it. And you can’t do anything about it."
"If one meets a powerful person ask them five questions: 'What power have you got? Where did you get it from? In whose interests do you exercise it? To whom are you accountable? And how can we get rid of you?' If you cannot get rid of the people who govern you, you do not live in a democratic system."
Although many people internationally will necessarily mourn the loss of Tony Benn and Bob Crow, it is, from my perspective, that with which they leave us that it more important. It is the sense that the fight for social justice is a moral one, and that this fight can be made orally, and in words and writing, as well as on the streets through strike action and protest. It is that there is no shame or fear in standing up to power in the form of elites, the state or employers, and ultimately, that history tells us that we can and do win when we act with conviction and in solidarity.

RIP Tony Benn and Bob Crow

In Solidarity


Sunday, 2 March 2014

Where is the Workers' Party?


Yesterday's Labour Party special conference in London voted overwhelming to renounce the century's old traditional relationship of the British labour movement with an industrial and political wing.

This occurred in the same week that the Tory party, with no sense of irony whatsoever, attempted to re-brand itself as the workers' party.

Thus we need to seriously ask which mainstream political party clearly and evidently places the interests of working class women and men squarely as a core value, and seeks to represent these values through Parliamentary and other representatives drawn primarily from this constituency.
Where is the British workers' party?

My personal view is that the Labour Party has capitulated to a right-wing assault on the trade union movement, a view neatly captured in a recent article by Seumas Milne in The Guardian. His piece cogently compared the opaque donations to the Tory party of corporate lobbyists and big business with what is arguably the cleanest, most transparent and honest money in British party politics - that from trade unions and from the membership fees of trade union members.

Miliband has essentially used the allegations of trade union manipulation and/or bullying tactics at Falkirk and Grangemouth as a smokescreen to smash the only real direct link the Labour Party has to the mass working class. As Milne argues:

That is the context of the permanent onslaught on Labour's links with the trade unions, the only force still connected to mainstream politics which sits outside the corporate merry-go-round and gives political access to working class people. That's why the media keeps up its Orwellian denunciation of elected union leaders as "bosses" and "barons", while company bosses are described as "business leaders" – and why every strike is treated as tantamount to high treason.
It's also why the only media and Westminster test of Miliband's Labour reforms is whether they cut union influence enough. At the moment they're not entirely sure, perhaps partly because most reporting of the issue is so wildly inaccurate. In any case, nothing short of the exemplary arrest of a few union leaders would satisfy some of Miliband's tormentors. (
Whilst a formal relationship will still exist, and trade unions will still be able to make donations to the Party, the decision yesterday to implement in full the recommendations of the Collins report ( means that the Party will have moved away by 2020 from its capacity to legitimately claim that it is a party of the working class - although arguably there are many within and without the party who do not wish that to be so in any case.

A key initial outcome of Collins' adoption yesterday is that individual members of the Labour Party who gain their Party membership and pay their membership fee via a trade union will no longer be able to do so and must now join the Party directly. Miliband's narrative is that this direct democracy will be healthier for the Party and more representative of an approach to "letting people back into politics".

His gamble however omits to acknowledge two inconvenient truths:

1. Party membership via trade union membership does not actually translate into a loyalty to the Party. UNITE and UNISON polling before the 2010 general election portrayed a dominant rejection of Party policy across a significant minority of members who were Party members.

Although this analysis may form part of Miliband's approach here (i.e. we should only have as members those who support the Party), what needs to be understood is that those current Party members who are swing voters (or reject Labour altogether) are not likely to join the Party directly once their membership is severed.

2. The national and international trends are heavily indicative of a movement away from membership of established political parties. I have blogged previously about the phenomenon of millennial momentum ( which predicts a continuing, increasing tendency of people to avoid formal affiliation with organisations, whilst at the same time possibly remaining loyal through voting for example.

I joined the Labour Party when I was 16 and despite a remarkably bumpy ride past 30 years - including a period of suspension linked to what I can only describe as a miscarriage of justice - I have retained my membership regardless of central contradictions in my personal political values and the changing character of Party policy.

I am not sure whether I shall retain my membership, but it is quite clear that yesterday's events will place thousands of trade union activists in Party positions (elected and voluntary) in a very difficult position and which will invariably weaken Party organisation on the ground.

I'll come back to this issue later in the year and confirm my decision at that point.

In Solidarity