The Most Important Election For The Working Class
In March 1936, Eric came to stay in my smoky hometown for a few days. He stayed, in fact, in a small room in a miner’s terraced house a couple of hundred metres from where I now live. He chatted with local miners and earnest trade unionists and witnessed for himself violent disruptions provoked by Oswald Mosley at a meeting of the British Union of Fascists.
He saw where working men worked, and was impressed by the way they organised themselves, although he interacted mostly with single leaders of specific organisations. One of these was Herbert Wilde, Secretary of the South Yorkshire Branch of the Working Men’s Club and Institute Union, and later President of the local Co-operative Society.
He attended the Branch delegates meeting of around 300 people, followed by a buffet and whisky for the select few in a back room, and later experienced an evening of typical WMC entertainment complete with ritual mother-in-law jokes. Whilst espousing a high opinion of the organising ability of the working class, he did not appear to realise that the organising of the event was mostly done by Wilde’s deputy, Albert.
In the days that followed, Eric went down two collieries, North Gawber and Grimethorpe, without realising that Albert, the barrel-chested shovel-handed amanuensis who had organised both paperwork and sandwich fillings for the CIU was previously a hewer in the latter pit. In the 1926 General Strike, he had been picketing one of the colliery entrances, alone, when four blacklegs approached, anticipating easy access.
The subsequent brief exchange led to the solitary picket being sentenced to 9 months in Armley jail on four counts of grievous bodily harm, largely because he had not, on greeting them, forewarned the four – who were subsequently unable to work their intended shift - that he was the Northern Area Heavyweight boxing champion. In prison, he taught himself typing and Pitman shorthand which he followed up at night-school, until he landed a slightly less combative role as Wilde’s assistant, and eventually took over as Branch Secretary in 1939. But Eric, despite his elegant gift for inquiry, failed to elicit this rugged tale of self-betterment and ambition. Albert the ex-miner was my grandfather, and he for his part never mentioned his meeting with George Orwell, which I discovered on the publication of his notes and diaries in 2000.
Why this tale? Well at his brilliant best, Orwell realised the importance of organisation and literacy for working class organisation, as did my grandfather, who knew his fists would only take him so far. The CIU always placed a major emphasis on education, developing a club management diploma (CMD) based on societal Finance and Law, and organising summer schools at Ruskin College, Oxford.
Whilst the CIU itself remained formally non-politically aligned, it nevertheless fought to better the lot of working people by helping them to develop themselves in their spare time by enabling its associated clubs to link sport, sociability, entertainment, education and collective charitable activities, and access each other’s facilities. These activities softened the harshness of the inequitable society they lived in, especially its impact on families, children and those recovering from accident or illness. Such an environment was fertile ground for those who were motivated to take their workplace trade unionism into a broader social setting.
As a general trend, the “modern” world ushered in by the end of WW1 saw the income and class inequities of Victorian and Edwardian Britain begin to steadily reduce until 1976 -despite war and depression. At the same time, but most particularly after WW2, workers’ individual and collective employment rights and protections increased, reaching a peak in the 60s and 70s.
Inequality then began to increase once more, most emphatically with Thatcherism, which built on a strategy - outlined in the secret 1977 Ridley Report - to deregulate industry whilst increasing regulatory constraints on union activity and labour market protective institutions.
This was to enable the longer term ideological goal of privatising all state-run industries: steel, coal, automotive, transport, power, water, mail and the NHS. This rolling back began quickly – Jim Prior’s Employment Act (1980) restricted lawful picketing to one’s own place of work; required an 80% ballot to legalise a closed shop; restricted rights to take secondary action and instantiated a picketing code of practice; repealed statutory recognition procedure; restricted unfair dismissal and maternity rights and increased unfair dismissal qualification rights to 1 year from 6 months in smaller companies.
A long string of legislation continued with acts led by Norman Tebbitt and Norman Fowler to further erode employment rights. EU legislation which adopted many principles pioneered in the UK since the 60s, prevented the rule book from being torn up completely by the Tories in the 90s, and it is no accident that the current version of the Withdrawal Bill has refused to guarantee rollover of employment and environmental protection – these will be necessary hostages to fortune in future trade negotiations with non-EU countries, as will the NHS with the US.
Where rights were not removed, the playing field was still not level as they became harder to qualify for – for example, employers now do not have to give a written reason for dismissal unless you have worked for them for two years, which makes unfair dismissal more difficult to prove and expensive to claim, beyond the ever-rising fees. Constraints around workplace union organising became ever more impractical to comply with, making it a challenge to achieve the levels of membership needed for collective bargaining rights and industrial action.
As the grassroots means of resisting inequality became increasingly outgunned, in 2018 the country reached a shocking statistical point. In that year the lowest 90 per cent of the population strove to exist on 67 per cent of the average mean income, whilst the top 0.1 per cent harvested a staggering 6,700 per cent. A couple of years earlier there had been a blip where these fat cats had peaked at 7,200 per cent, but in that year the morbidly obese Jabba the Hutt felines – the 0.01% - trousered a breathtaking 13,000 per cent.
That’s as if the rest of the country had repaid the interest on a gigantic payday loan without ever actually taking it out in the first place – times ten. The only year before that in which this Wonga-world level of inequality was reached was 1936 – as my grandad sat down to raise a glass with Orwell in the shadow of the Blackshirts whose brothers in arms were beginning their slaughter of socialists in Spain.
As inequality rises, those at the top tend become “out of sight” economically to those below. Johnson’s dismissing his £250,000 part-time salary for his column in the Daily Telegraph as “chicken-feed” is typical of the arrogance that this normalises along with the insensitivity to the ravages of austerity – which happen “elsewhere”.
They can exert their economic influence to bend the rules to their whims, and make themselves literally untouchable – to institutionalise temporary advantage into hereditary privilege. Brexit is merely part of this strategy – one that, if successful, will set the working classes back two, possibly three, generations in some respects. It’s imperative that we see beyond the grandstanding, reveal the hubris for what it is, and turn back the tide of iniquity before the deluge. This is the most important election for decades. Don’t waste your vote on one issue.
Stephen A. Linstead is Professor of Management Humanities at the York Management School, University of York