Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Liverpool People

Stephen Shakeshaft
National Conservation Centre, Whitechapel (18th September 2009 - 24th January 2010)

"We call them photographs but they are also history; telling of men, women and children and their place in passing events. Once the buton on the camera has been pushed these people are given a kind of immortality, for the camera is a third eye, adding permanence to the sight it sees."

This exhibition of more than sixty Liverpool photographs by retired Liverpool Echo and Daily Post picture editor Stephen Shakeshaft showcases his skilled and sensitive - if somewhat uncritical - approach to his craft. But more than this, it provides a pictorial glimpse into the city's past, a 'foreign country' dominated by heavy industry along the docks and strong working class community spirit everywhere else. By showing us what once was, it necessarily points out what is no longer.

The Echo took Shakeshaft on at the tender age of sixteen, in 1962. The Beatles were just beginning their assault on the charts, having built a solid local following from their gigs at the Cavern and elsewhere. From this time, with its Scottie Road doorstep scrubbers and the nearby Limekiln Lane wash house, we see history progress for better and worse, through to the Toxteth uprising and its aftermath. Liverpool fans hang their heads in anguish at the 1977 European Cup final defeat, and supporters of all teams and none gather at Anfield to commiserate over a true disaster - which took place at the Hillsborough Stadium in 1989.

In short, almost all Liverpool life is here, and the overall effect is a nostalgic glow from what Shakeshaft calls the 'magic' of the place, which ultimately boils down to the dogged determination and group solidarity of working class people. Of course, these factors are not only to be found in this one city by any stretch of the imagination. However, the history of especially high unemployment levels and the particular mixture of ethnicities gives the 'magic' a certain flavour.

Shakeshaft demonstrates great empathy with his subjects, which is vital for any serious artist. Using this, he developed a knack of knowing when the chance of an evocative photo would present itself. Nowhere is this more evident than in his portrait of an elderly Edge Hill woman, who with no electricity available keeps a candlelit vigil over her cloth-covered kitchen table. The same applies to the very different image of a young boy playing amongst high tide waves on New Brighton promenade.

Though the region has changed dramatically, Shakeshaft's video commentary gives no great insight into his perspective on these changes. Certainly, working for a major advertising-dependent newspaper for so long, it would have been very difficult to be particularly critical and remain in his relatively comfortable job. For Shakeshaft, a fine photo would seem to be one that gently surprises with a quirkily unusual scene, or a marked contrast of any kind. Still, that's not a bad starting point, and any aspiring photographers in this digital age of ever more extreme contrasts would do well to pay this exhibition a visit.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 20

Postal workers have begun their national strike against job cuts, worsening conditions and potential privatisation, with two days of stoppages. In doing so, they have engaged in a political struggle to save a service everyone in the UK relies on, and they are lined up against Royal Mail bosses, the Labour government, and the leaders of their own Communication Workers Union.

Royal Mail has done much to provoke the strike, with management bullying becoming endemic all over the country over the last six months. In response, local workforces have held unofficial wildcat walkouts, requested held many local ballots and strikes, and finally dragged their union tops into a national strike they have desperately tried to avoid.

Throughout this time, general secretary Billy Hayes (who claimed a £83,530 salary and £14,190 in pension contributions when selling out the 2007 strike) and his deputy Dave Ward have offered management their services as peacemakers, and a moratorium on strikes. In the last minute talks before Thursday's strike, Ward proposed “a three-year agreement aimed at providing long-term stability for the business, employees and our customers” on the sole condition that attacks on postal workers are "introduced by agreement".

A leaked internal 'Strategic Overview' showed that Royal Mail want to make the strike an "enabler" of these attacks, which include tens of thousands of sackings and the impossible speed-ups which these would make necessary. The document claims that even if the CWU bureaucracy doesn't force through a deal, "there is “shareholder, customer and internal support for implementation of change without agreement" (emphasis added). The only 'shareholder' in Royal Mail is the state.

From the government's perspective, the smashing of this strike would serve to intimidate not only postal workers, but also the workers across the public sector who will face huge cuts after the next general election. For this reason and so many others, it is vital that posties receive maximum solidarity from the working class.

A three day strike is scheduled to begin on Thursday. The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

Meanwhile, striking refuse workers show no sign of giving up their struggles against wage cuts, despite the severe hardship they are suffering. On Wednesday, 92% of strikers at a mass meeting rejected Leeds council's "final offer" of substantial attacks on pay, sick pay and conditions. This was despite a Yorkshire Evening Post article alleging that GMB and UNISON negotiators had all-but caved-in to the council's demands. The 'Leeds supports its Refuse Collectors' Facebook group is here.

Similarly, Edinburgh street cleaners are angry with council leaders' suggestions they are "set to give up their protest", according to Indymedia. The 'Edinburgh Muckraker' reports that nothing has changed since their mass meeting on 9th October, when hundreds of council manual workers agreed to continue their work-to-rule and overtime ban. “Nothing’s changed,” a street cleaner argued, “This is council PR". The Edinburgh Evening Post had reported the council's claims as fact on the 19th.

Meanwhile, there was been more unrest in Greece, which last year saw a huge uprising, trigged when a cop fatally shot fifteen-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos. Since the election of a new 'Socialist' government at the start of the month, there has been massive police repression in the Exarcheia district of Athens - traditionally an anarchist stomping ground. Meanwhile, the death of twenty-year-old Pakistani immigrant Mohamed Kamran Atif at police hands sparked clashes with the state forces, and a short-lived occupation of the town hall, which received the support of the local Municipal Workers Association before it was brought to an end. According to LibCom, the Workers Association demanded:
"...that the forces of repression leave from within the boundaries of the historic City of Nikea. The occupation of the City Hall by the protesters is a political act, and the attempt to criminalise it is unacceptable and undemocratic."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Question Time: Did the Straw Man Really Slay the Griffin?

Photograph by Mike Fleming (

Viewers of the BBC's Question Time were confronted by many truly repellent outbursts from the platform on 22nd October. The screening - which had generated massive controversy due to the debut appearance of British National Party chairman Nick Griffin - often broke out into shouting and boos as the audience expressed their disgust with Griffin's barely disguised racism and homophobia.

But a significant early comment by another panellist went almost unnoticed amidst all the fury: Jack Straw claimed that Labour and the other 'mainstream parties' have a "moral compass". In this article I will examine that claim, look at the ideological role of Question Time, and criticise the tactics of Unite Against Fascism and the Socialist Workers Party.

Since it began in 1979, Question Time has been a centrepiece of the BBC's political courage. During that time, it has played a significant role in framing the national policy debate, in determining which views are (and which are not) acceptable as 'mainstream'. When the programme began, in the early days of Margaret Thatcher's first Conservative government, there were four panellists - one each from Conservatives, Labour and the Liberals (as the third party were known at the time). The fourth panellist would be a prominent 'talking head', often from the fields of academia, the media or religion. In 1999, the panel was expanded to five guests, and the show experimented with 'outsider' figures, such as comedians, but this was quickly ditched.

The 'mainstream' of British politics has travelled far to the right since Question Time first hit the screens, as a result of accelerating globalisation and the ever-widening chasm between the richest and everyone else. Over that period, Question Time's panels have marched in lockstep. For that reason alone, Griffin's appearance during a time of economic collapse marks a deeply worrying lowpoint. Though the fourth and fifth guests can't be from one of the three main parties, their views are normally broadly in line with the 'mainstream' consensus. On the rare occasions when a panellist's views are outside the boundaries of ruling class respectability - either to the left or to the right - they can expect to be taken to task by the presenter. This serves to solidify the current boundaries in the public consciousness.

This is what happened yesterday. Nick Griffin - the representative of a racist political party which has recently had electoral success at the expense of the hated 'mainstream' - was hauled over the coals by David Dimbleby, who had the disrespectful air of a public school teacher reprimanding a wayward pupil. At one point, Dimbleby even asked Griffin "why are you smiling?" - a question that would never be asked of a politician from one of the three established parties.

Nowhere was this beating of the bounds more noticeable than in the section dealing with the BNP's attempt to claim Winston Churchill - that cuddly totem of British imperialism - as one of their own. While it's hard to imagine quotes such as "I am strongly in favour of using poisoned gas against uncivilized tribes" going down badly at fascist meetings, Churchill has become a cherished icon of the British ruling class, thanks mainly to the fact that he was in charge for most of World War Two, he made some speeches, and Britain didn't lose. In the mythology, this virulently anti-working class aristocratic eugenicist - and not the workers who fought Franco for example - is portrayed as having 'defended freedom' from Hitler's Nazis. The BNP's attempted appropriation of all this imagery is therefore their ultimate challenge to the 'mainstream'.

While leading MPs had called on the BBC not to allow Griffin a platform, Labour's 'Justice Secretary' Jack Straw, Baroness Warsi of the Conservatives and Chris Huhne of the Lib Dems took the opportunity to appear relatively reasonable and progressive. This at a time when all three are backing calls for massive attacks on working class living standards as a remedy for the unfolding historic crisis of the capitalist system. However, it was often hard to tell Griffin's 'concerned citizen' act from Warsi - the Yorkshire-born daughter of Pakistani parents - who claimed that a Conservative government would set a cap on the numbers coming in. Huhne also complained that Labour had "lost control" of the borders.

But the prize for hypocrisy must surely go to Straw, whose "moral compass" always seems to guide him towards his own self interest as a spokesman for the UK capitalist elite. This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, deceived the country in the build-up to the Iraq invasion - aimed at winning control over the country's oilfields - which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives. As Home Secretary, he pushed through draconian attacks on civil liberties, and was in charge of the fortress conditions that saw fifty-eight Chinese migrants die as they were smuggled into the UK. And in 2006 he launched his own anti-Islam provocation, when he denounced women who choose to wear the niqab veil.

It is a healthy sign that so many people opposed Griffin having such a public platform for his views, and the protesters who invaded Television Centre acted bravely. But in the run-up to the appearance, the Socialist Workers Party-led Unite Against Fascism showed its reformist colours by appealing to the powers that be. The Socialist Worker even claimed that Griffin's invite "...flies in the face of [the BBC's] responsibilities as a public service broadcaster."

This painting of the BBC in 'neutral' tones misleads and disarms the working class. Day after day, it propagandises in favour of the elite, whether dealing with cuts and repression at home, or the state's imperialist adventures abroad. It is less than a year since the Corporation - in the name of "neutrality" - refused to screen an emergency appeal for the Gazan victims of Israeli aggression. Question Time plays a key role in this whole process. What's more, a party with more than fifty elected representatives could legitimately (in the purely legal sense of that term) demand significant airtime from a "public service broadcaster" following the norms of capitalist 'democracy'.

It is certainly a terrible shame that BBC viewers were faced with Nick Griffin last night, but anyone calling for 'mainstream' politicians or establishment figures to step in and prevent certain political views being expressed should not be surprised when working class perspectives are also excluded. It is precisely that working class which must become conscious of itself as the capitalist crisis deepens, and make its own independent decisions about who gets airtime.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

'New' Tactics Vs Rubbish Bosses

Also published in Issue 8 of The Commune.

With the economic collapse and inevitable banker bailouts hitting national and local government budgets, politicians from all parties are determined to make working class people pay for the crisis of their system. While national Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems are courting big business support by swaggering into TV studios, boasting of how tough they will be next year, local officials are wasting no time in going on the attack.

Under these conditions, the recent and ongoing struggles against refuse worker wage cuts are serving as a taster for the far bigger fights that will soon be upon us. So yes, bin men and street cleaners in Liverpool, Leeds and Edinburgh have withdrawn their labour in union-led campaigns. But perhaps more significantly, they have had active support from various groups, which has gone far beyond the passive routine of letter-writing and appeals to politicians. Desperate times clearly call for more militant measures, and though these isolated events have not tipped the balance in the strikers' favour, they point towards new workerist strategies in the months and years ahead.

The Liverpool dispute began on 28th August, and lasted for three weeks, before the GMB union reached agreement with Enterprise Liverpool on a slightly improved pay offer. The deal leaves the company needing to find a mere £270,000, instead of the alarmist £15 million they were talking about before the work to rules, overtime ban, and mini-strikes began. The local GMB leadership touted the mini-strikes as being a way of preventing strike-breaking, but it soon became clear that Assist Streetcare (based in the Aintree area of the city) were indeed providing scab labour.

In response, a number of activists from outside the mainstream 'labour movement' organised a picket and virtual blockade of Assist Streetcare, on the morning of 15th September. The gathering outside the Aintree depot was small enough to be safely ignored, but the numbers phoning, faxing and emailing their displeasure caused a shutdown of the company's phone and email systems.

This virtual strategy seems to be relatively new in terms of UK class struggle. Last year it was used in support of Industrial Workers of the World member Chris Lockwood, who had been fired from his bar job at the Showroom Cinema in Sheffield for organising. Previously to this, it had been quite a long-standing tactic of animal rights campaigners targeting businesses and research facilities deemed to be abusers.

The Edinburgh cleaning workers have also been undermined by scab labour, but activists from the IWW and Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty amongst others have found their own method for dealing with it. At the time of writing, the 'scab stoppers' have blockaded scab lorries three times, detaining them for hours and exchanging views with the strike-breakers, before police cleared the way for the onward march of capital. However, no arrests have yet been made.

The same can not be said in Leeds, where the all-out strike against £6,000 pay cuts began on 7th September, and emotions seem to be running especially high. Supporters of the strike took bin bags of their rubbish to the doorstep of the man they called "the source of the problem", council leader Richard Brett. Six people were arrested and bailed to return in November.

Of course, none of these tactics are entirely original; variations of each have been used by previous generations of class fighters. What makes their modified reappearance so significant is that such militancy must surely increase as the historic crisis confronting working people continues to deepen, and the union tops reveal themselves to be class collaborators. Furthermore, the widespread availability of internet technology provides the opportunity for such struggles to link up with each other, forging class solidarity around the globe, and allowing workers of all nations to truly unite.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Workers' Fightback: Update 19

If your post hasn’t been arriving as regularly recently, it’s because UK postal workers are desperately trying to save their pensions, their jobs, and the future of the service you rely on. In doing so, they are confronting Royal Mail, the government, and the leaders of ‘their own’ Communication Workers’ Union.

Posties are currently deciding whether to hold a national strike, having forced the union bureaucracy’s hand with a series of local stoppages – both official and unofficial. If – as expected – they decide to take the action, it will be against attacks on working conditions agreed by CWU general secretary Billy Hayes and his team at the end of 2007. The deal was aimed at making Royal Mail attractive to buyers, and though Business Secretary Peter Mandelson can’t find one in the current market, he’s determined that the company should press on with plans to cut the payroll by 40%.

Although the corporate media has started stoking fears that the Christmas post could be delayed, for example, it has been silent on the chaos that would follow if so many posties were forced out of work. Neither is it examining the potential impact on the remaining 60%. As industrial commentator Gregor Gall suggested in an article on The Commune website:
"Ironically, the only serious hope for a stable and lasting resolution to the current dispute is the prospect of a national all-out postal strike. This would use the autumn return to official parliamentary politics to put pressure on the government to tell Royal Mail management to negotiate an acceptable outcome. It looks like it’s going to be a case of going to war to bring about peace."
The 'I Support the Postal Workers!' Facebook group is here.

In a historic development, plantation workers in Sri Lanka have openly declared that they oppose ‘their own’ unions, who have clearly stabbed members in the back one too many times. In their statement, the newly formed Balmoral Estate Action Committee announced that:
"We, the workers of the Balmoral Estate in Agarapathana, have formed our own Action Committee to fight for our rights and call on workers throughout the plantations and other sections of industry to do the same.

"We have taken this step because we have no faith in any of the trade unions that have sold us out time and time again. All the plantation unions are working with the employers and the government to force us to accept another two years of poverty-level wages."
"Workers cannot put any trust in the unions, which operate as industrial policemen for the government and employers. We say workers everywhere must rely on their own independent strength. That is why we are calling for workers in other estates as well as in factories, schools, hospitals and other workplaces to form their own action committees independent of the unions. We are all finding it impossible to make ends meet."
As the economic crisis facing working class people intensifies, it is becoming increasingly apparent that trade union bureaucrats act as "industrial policemen for the government and employers". In the UK and around the world, the same lessons must be learned, and acted upon.

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