The workers’ history must never be forgotten

Jim O’Neill marks the Peterloo anniversary as one of many critical moments in the history of workers’ struggle, and issues a plea to elected representatives of all parties to stop leaving the hard choices to officials.

Yesterday we marked the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo massacre. For the many out there who have no idea what this is, a peaceful workers’ gathering in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, was attacked by a group of Hussars and local militia on the orders of the magistrates of Manchester.

The meeting was one of a series up and down the UK demanding workers’ rights and universal suffrage, and men, women and children were killed and injured by the unstoppable charge of men on horses wielding sabres. It is true to say that their sacrifice led to the Great Reform Act in 1832, the first to begin to open suffrage up, and also to changes in employment practices throughout the 19th century. It also led to the development of radical newspapers, such as the Manchester Guardian, who broke the story of the massacre despite the best efforts of the Manchester magistrates.

This is only one event in the long history of the workers’ struggle. Other events such as the 1888 London dockers’ strike, the creation of a mineworkers’ union in Ayrshire by James Keir Hardie, the battle of the conscientious objectors during World War One, and the Spanish Civil War, litter the history of labour’s struggle for equality with the bosses’ class.

More recently, the Labour governments of Wilson, Callaghan and Blair enshrined workers rights in law, but since 1979 it has been the aim of the Tories and their fellow travellers to diminish these workers’ rights such as the right to picket, the right to have trades unions and the right of secondary action. Despite being hated by some on the left the EU has also contributed to the onward march of workers’ right with such legislation as the Workers’ Rights Directive, the Equal Pay Directive and the Human Rights Directive. This is one reason why the Tories are desperate to break away from the EU. Those free market conservatives look forward to the right of the bosses to make money and the right of the workers to do as they are told.

This raises one of the biggest questions as to why the Lib Dems are apparently opposing a temporary Corbyn-led government to achieve a stop to a no deal Brexit, an early general election and, if Labour wins, a new referendum. Once again it seems that they are siding with the bosses’ representatives, as they did in 2010, to allow a no deal Brexit, despite Jo Swinson’s honeyed words. The message to Ms Swinson must be “get real”. The only assured way to avoid a no deal Brexit will be to show that there is a majority against it and that a different government can be formed in the Commons. There are even Tories who have already committed to this approach. Why can’t the Lib Dems?

And why can’t those in power admit mistakes? The recent cases of the Edinburgh children’s hospital and the Coatbridge schools highlight this. And Richard Leonard was right to argue recently that the much heralded replacement for PFI produced by the SNP, the Scottish Futures Fund, has been found equally as wanting as a method of funding public sector build. NHS Lothian are still paying for the hospital despite it potentially not opening for years. You couldn’t make it up.

In a my own fairly long trade union history, I fould this attitude in councils controlled by all parties and none. What the officers, and then the councillors, seem to forget is that it is the taxpayers’ money that they are spending, not their own. If North Lanarkshire had agreed with the demands for a survey by my own union, NASUWT, and many parents, that issue could have been resolved many months ago. What the Edinburgh case shows is that there must be greater monitoring of the Health Boards by the Scottish Government. This has also been shown in the Tayside cases and in the deficit in Ayrshire and Arran. But Ms Freeman does not seem to understand this, or doesn’t have the stomach for intervention. In either case she is not fit for purpose. But who else is there to take over?

I do not excuse my own party in this. Sometimes they have intervened wrongly and sometimes not at all. This happens at all levels. I remember a case in the 1980s, begun by my own union but joined by the others, that cost Strathclyde Region £250,000 by ending up in the Inner House of the Court of Session due to the intransigence of one senior education official who would not accept the judgement of the lower courts. My plea, therefore, to all elected members of all parties and none, is to factor in the costs of intervention and non-intervention when they are faced with the decisions of their officers. It is the people voted in by the electorate who should run councils and governments. Not unelected officials.

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23 thoughts on “The workers’ history must never be forgotten

  1. Hi Jim, hope you’re well. I would agree with most of your version oh history other than your summation of the Blair years. That government did little to temper the anti TU legislation of the previous 18 years of the Thatcher/Major horror show, and the things that were done were more, as you almost admit were more as a result of the Social Chapter from the much maligned EU

  2. Some interesting points but the argument lacks coherence. It starts with the example of collective workers power as demonstrated at ‘Peterloo’ which it claims led to the extension of male suffrige and other social protections for working people. But this thesis is not continued into more contemporary times and the impression given is that workers should look to judges in the EU to hand down workers’ rights without any collective pressure from below. Similarly the anti-union legislation passed in the 1980s is mentioned in the context of fragmenting the trade union movement to weaken opposition to the Tory Government’s’free market’ reforms. But it omits to mention that subsequent Labour governments under Blair (who is mentioned in dispatches) left all of that legislation in place and continued much of the neoliberal agenda started under Thatcher. Peterloo was a defining moment in building a movement for working people in the country, something which has nothing in common with the ‘centrist’ politics epitomised under New Labour.

    1. The worker’s reforms from the EU were passed partly through the pressure of the international trade union movement and not through judges’ decisions.

      1. EU law is made by unelected Commissioners and enforced by judges of the European Court. The ETUC and various trade secretariats lobby on behalf of unions but to mention them in the same breath as the people who put their bodies on the line at Peterloo is stretching it a bit.

        1. That’s like saying UK law is made by unelected Lords and enforced by judges of the Supreme Court. It is true up to a point, but what it misses out in terms of who else can create and must approve EU law makes it effectively a lie.

          1. Even people on the Blairite fringes of the Party have to admit that the EU suffers from a democratic deficit. The whole place reeks of corruption and dodgy handshakes and is in need of root-and-branch reform (if you can persuade turkeys to vote for Christmas). The European ‘Parliament’, which is made up of Parties from 28 countries representing all different political persuasions, has no legislative powers and can only ratify what comes out of the Commission. The influence of the European Bank on the drawing up of legislation, plus the ‘revolving door’ between retiring Commissioners and jobs in financial services multi-nationals, far outweighs any collective lobbying the ETUC can muster. Anyway the point of my intervention was to draw attention to the inconsistency in Jim’s argument which was built on the premise of collective workers’ struggle forcing the State into concessions for working people. To conflate the battle of ‘Peterloo’ with the workings of EU institutions is surely taking the name of the good people who died on that tragic day in vain.

        2. The people at Peterloo did not “put their bodies on the line” As far as they were concerned, they were attending a peaceful rally. Reports from the inquest showed that the vast majority did not hear the Riot Act being read. The first they knew of it was when the Militia charged the stage to arrest the speakers

          1. I agree it was intended as a peaceful demonstration. Many wore white as a symbol of peace. But they were very brave people who I’m sure knew they were taking on the might of the State which would have viewed such collective action as a threat to its authority and was unlikely to be tolerated. Although I accept they didn’t intend to go there to ‘put their bodies on the line’ that was the outcome for many of them. I think in terms of our view of history we are broadly on the same page. Where we differ is in your conflation of this historical act and various other examples you give of workers’ struggle with the policies of the Blair governments and the law-making processes of the EU.

  3. Hello Jim
    I read your article with interest and a wee bit of puzzlement over a couple of points. In particular, the line “the Labour governments of Wilson, Callaghan and Blair enshrined workers rights in law, but since 1979 it has been the aim of the Tories and their fellow travellers…” I will accept Wilson and Callaghan but Blair? Blair was as much a friend to the worker as Ted Heath. When Heath introduced the Industrial Relations Act in 1971 it was repealed immediately by Labour. Blair had the chance to do the same with Thatcher and Major’s legislation but over 10 years nothing, similarly with Brown three years – nothing. Having worked on zero hours contracts I have to say that Blair and Brown top the chart (along with Alan Johnson) as socialists without a soul. Blair: “part-time employees will no longer be treated as second-class citizens. There will be an end to zero-hours contracts.” Nothing. Brown didn’t even bother. The party itself uses zero hours workers as found out when Ed Milliband described zero hours as Victorian and then Labour MPs yes Labour MPs were found to be using zero hours contracts for their own staff.

    For the Edinburgh children’s hospital and the Coatbridge schools I would have to say Liberton High and Oxgangs.
    You correctly point out that the Scottish Futures Fund looks as bad as the PFI contracts used by Blair to finance the construction and refurbishment of circa 500 schools. The Tory Lib Dem coalition continuing its use. Where I take issue here is the ‘blaming’ of the behaviour of Jane Freeman. There is a bit too much of this these days. Its easy but, it just means scapegoating some schmuck for being in the wrong seat when the music stops as opposed to examining the whole process surrounding the fiasco. The two real questions are: why do we keep making the same mistakes? And where is the scrutiny? For me the answer to the first is easy – as socialism and the levers it can gain control over are no longer relevant in the politics of the UK today we follow the same off-the-shelf commercial models used around the world. No more innovations or even nationalisations. And Labour will never bring us a government that will bring back nationalisation. There are too many Alan Johnsons, Chukkas and dare I say it Browns in the party now. Brown used to make some very radical speeches in his earlier days but since jingling the keys of 11 and 10 Downing street in his pocket, he has become an ‘its-okay-to-dream-about socialist-solutions-but-we-have-to-find-a-more-realistic,-centralist-solution’ type politician – a rent-a-quote. The use of the word realistic by labour politicians has been used to fasten the conservative approach to its political outlook for many years now. For the second question, again the answer is easy, the press no longer serve their express purpose. They might rally against Labour, SNP, Corbyn or boost Farage and Ruth Davidson but they no longer offer a serious analysis of anything. They are only in favour of sniping once the catastrophe has occurred – and then blaming someone. Our failures are two-fold then the capitalist approach and the lack of scrutiny – and that is by press or political parties. They are all the same presently. That is why I vote independence – the oil-tanker that is the UK cannot be stopped or deflected from its course. The lifeboat of independence might (and I do mean might, not will) allow the smaller ship to steer away from the present political course we have taken now-a-days.

    I do agree in part with your last point that we have to stop running up legal costs particularly when their is an easy moral imperative that makes decisions easy if you take cognisance of them. Glasgow City Council: £1.8m spent on legal fees and a further £700,000 on “internal staff costs” to contest claims by women who were victims of wage discrimination. I know it was Labour but this is not meant to be an anti-Labour response but one that looks beyond party to ideology and morality. Labour, SNP in many ways are as bad as each other. The only thing that sticks in my craw is that Labour used to be the party of the poor and underprivileged and it isn’t any more. Labour might say it is, but all parties now say that. The removal of Clause 4 was the removal of the heart and conscience of the party. I vote SNP these days – its about as left as Labour, is fairly competent and offers independence.

    I have one last thing to say that I know will probably be controversial but the one thing I like about Nicola Sturgeon is that she answers questions straight out – easy because she is a conviction politician – not many of them around these days outside the Greens. Since the days of Blair and Brown getting an answer out of a Labour politician has been like finding the way out of a labyrinth.

    I hope, I really, really hope that the Labour party in Scotland will realise that the fate of Scotland lies outside the UK and that then we can make a reality of socialist policies to improve the lives of all our citizens and perhaps offer an example to those in England of what can be done if the will is there.

    1. Excellent post Wynn.

      Hi Jim. Hope things are going well for you. I see you have returned to your “blunderbuss” style of posting. I was wondering how the Peterloo massacre could be turned into an SNPbad story.

      The problem I have always had with elected representatives being harangued to resign over issues they had no real control over is just that …. it is something they had no control over. Jean Freeman did not install the faulty air conditioning in the Edinburgh hospital and neither did the Health Board. They could only assume that the contractor would do a competent job. That the contractor screwed up is hardly her fault. In fact, she has taken ownership of the situation and is currently “kicking butt”.

      It was the same when an SNP minister resigned over heavy snow fall several years ago. It wasn’t his fault there was a heavy snow fall and it wasn’t his fault driver’s ignored the police warnings not to travel and got stuck. But because he praised the public services for the work they were doing to alleviate the effects of the weather and rescue the hapless drivers he was hounded out of office. It was nuts.

      It was ever thus. Something bad happens within a politician’s sphere and the knee-jerk reaction is for them to fall on their sword when, in reality, there was nothing they could have done to prevent it. A train derails due to vandalism – “Resign Minister”; heavy rain causes flooding – “Resign Minister”; a dodgy Polis is caught breaking the law – “Resign Minister”; etc. It is all political point scoring and does nothing to either explain or rectify the identified problem.

      Politicians and govt (of all levels) officials should only be held to account for things they have either done or failed to do despite it being their duty. Jean Freeman is not a sparky. She had to rely on those involved in the project to do their jobs to the expected standard and those overseeing it to ensure that. The contractor failed in their duty and the inspectors did not pick it up till it was too late. None of that is something Freeman could have been expected to know.

      1. I think you may have misunderstood what has happened here and why people are blaming those with oversight rather than the contractors.

        It appears from reports that there is no fault with the air conditioning as installed in the new sick kids hospital. It apparently meets the specification to which the contractor was instructed to work. The contractor did do a competent job; they installed what was specified. That is why their payments started – everything was signed off as meeting the required spec. But it appears that what was specified is not what was required. Whose fault that is remains to be established, but it doesn’t seem to be the contractor’s.

        Your entire comment is based on the assumption that this is a screw-up by the contractor. I wonder if this simply stems from your desperation to defend the minister at all costs. In any event it appears to be mistaken.

        1. Fair enough Mr Hothersall. Maybe the contractor just did their job and it was those who designed the hospital who were at fault. Something that happened before Ms Freeman took her post. But whoever was in post at the time did not design the hospital themself. They left it to the Health Board to employ “experts” to do that.

          But my point was not specifically about that. It was a general point about why people who could not realistically have done anything about a situation have to resign for it. It includes SNP, Labour and Tories who have found themselves the victim of circumstances over which they have no control.

          It just seems illogical.

      2. Hi, Bungo me old pal. Moving towards an operation, probably in October. I do wish you would remove your SNPBad blinkers. I also criticise my own party. However, the SNP have been in Government for some considerable time. The lack of scrutiny by Government at all levels of the Health Service has been highlighted since Nicola had the job. That was the point I was trying to make. They have failed for many years to introduce an effective measure of oversight in the SNHS

    2. PFI contracts, then called PPP were introduced by the Thatcher Government. I was a local authority councillor in those days. I remember their introduction well

      1. They were Jim, but Blairite Labour promised to abolish them prior to election ….. and then embraced them with gusto when in office,

  4. Well Well Well finally I have been waiting a long time for someone to say something like this .
    Elected politicians off all parties at all levels need to remember they were elected to serve the public not the other way round .The same goes for political parties who need to be able to adapt quickly to circumstances .
    On Brexit and its aftermath I say with Labour now saying they think Indy a bad idea but they wont block a request that is a huge change for Labour and one I agree with .
    The SNP have also shown political courage by getting behind the Corbyn PM plan then an election
    Ian Blackford according to CH4 news on Friday night was speaking to Corbyn about how to stop us leaving the EU by revoking article 50 .Or extending it
    If it all goes down the drain both parties can say to the voters we did all we could .
    Jo Swinson of the Lib Dems you need to get real this is not student politics Your party in Scotland was part of the coalition with Labour at Holyrood .Which was to your parties credit .
    Then the disastrous decision to go into coalition with the Tories at UK Level This is the time for compromise Labour and SNP have made huge efforts to compromise not all of it popular with their members but they are doing it in a way I thought they never would.
    Where are you and your party Jo if this falls apart you and your party will get a huge part of the blame .
    Boris and company are who you should be opposing .
    The NHS I would love to see it taken out of Politics .Nationalizing the Shipyard well done GMB Scottish Gov in the end to save it from closure it had to be done .
    But lessons must be learned .
    Peterloo reading about it todays Times women in the crowd were particular targets for the troopers

  5. Whether you agree with AUOB or not to get between 4 and 12 thousand to march is really something

  6. Historical point, Jim. The Great Reform Act of 1832 was the Act that reformed arrangements in England and Wales. The Scottish Reform Act of 1832 was the one that reformed arrangements in Scotland.

    1. I concede your point of clarification, but were they not taken through the House together

  7. Todays so called leaked document to the Sunday Times operation Yellowhammer .
    Its about contingency Brexit planning
    The government expects the return of a hard border in Ireland as current plans to avoid widespread checks will prove unsustainable this may spark protests road blockages and direct action .
    Logjams caused by months of border delays could affect fuel distribution potentially disrupting the fuel supply in London and the southeast of England .
    UP to 85per cent of Lorries using the main channel crossings may not be ready for French customs and could face delays up to 2 and a half days .
    Significant disruption at ports up to 3 months before the traffic flow improves to 50 70 per cent of the current rate .
    Petrol import tariffs which the Gov has set at 0 per cent will inadvertently lead to the closure of 2 oil refineries 2thousand job losses widespread strike action and disruption to the fuel supply .
    Passenger delays at EU airports ST Pancras Eurotunnel and Dover .
    Medical supplies severe delays as 3 quarters of our medicines enter the country through the main channel crossings .
    Fresh Food availability will fall and prices will rise .
    Clashes between fishermen predictions that 282 vessels will be in British waters illegally on Brexit day.
    UK wide protests leading to extra strain on Police resources
    Rising social care costs .
    Gibraltar delays of more than 4 hrs at the border with Spain
    Scotland more than 7million spent so far in preparations for Brexit unrest .
    Michael Gove said it was out of date .
    Document was drawn up this month .
    Some one tell me what part of that lot we were told might be needed when we voted

  8. I would like to point out when I left school in 71 age 16 all job adverts had must have experience .
    Short term jobs factories closing overnight .
    under Labour Governments I was never out of a job .
    I don’t want todays generation to know what signing on is brew money Giro money every fortnight UB40 was not a band it was your signing on card .The social stigma of not paying my way me and friends could not afford it .
    All standing together in the pub buying your own pint hoping someone with a job would not buy a round because you would have to buy it back .
    The endless round of going round industrial estates no vacancy signs everywhere .
    My dad was waiting in the car .
    When l came back and said got a row was here last week and by waring a collar and tie I was inappropriately dressed .
    Job centre you soon learned if you saw an advert nick it .
    Which Great mind would like to take the credit for that and more Ted how about you Maggie how about you Back to basics John how about you.
    I don’t miss out the Labour leaders but I always thought and still do they were on my side
    Local job Centre had a job club met every morning staff arranged for CVS mock job interview training we turned up better prepared for lnterview better prepared than the guy conducting it .And it showed we were angry and a big part of it was not being a barrack room lawyer who takes responsibility for that Maggie .
    The job centre staff were brilliant kept us going with tea and encouragement .And in 1 case a bed for the night .
    I wrote to Geoffrey Howe told him his budget was mince exact words .
    One of Geoffreys Flunkeys wrote back Geoffrey had made arrangements for me to visit the job centre .
    Oh really I was in the job club which met in the job centre top floor I got that many letters that the post man chapped the door one day his boss had asked him to find out if I was running a business .
    Then one day I saw a job advert in the job centre in 1989 that I nearly did not apply for because I had been turned down so often .
    But my job club leader got me to go for it .Local authority job told at interview rough area no other applicants I took it .
    3 years later transferred and was in various local authority buildings until an ill health retirement in 2015 my union GMB helped get my pension after my employer asked for help .
    Now a days people have to struggle to get Universal Credit who will take responsibility for that .
    Job Centre you have to get past the security guard first who had that bright idea .DWP mail goes to Wolverhampton then back to Greenock .
    Phone 40 mins waiting time on a good day
    Todays generation are not willing to put up with the rubbish we did
    They are at University I know 2 who had the gumption to run for Parliament at the last election Still at university.
    Others apprentice ships etc and none of them staying quiet good .
    Btw Geoffrey in the 80s I cleaned the beach and worked on Garden tidy
    What brought this on today I went into a shop and met a woman who remembered me from the 80s when she helped me .
    She and others are the people who should get rewarded .
    Then I don’t forget the others who could not cope started on Cannabis went on to heroin prison in one case lost job and still fighting his addiction in another .
    Its great to see my local authority and Scottish Gov at least trying to tackle it .

  9. This blog is about politicians taking responsibility for their actions or not .Michael Gove said operation Yellow Hammer is a worst case scenario .As one of the leaders of the leave campaign if even some of it comes true will he take responsibility and resign .
    It was supposed to be so easy take our country back .
    If any of Yellow Hammer kicks in will Boris and Nigel resign .For taking our country back and handing it to America First .Along with us.

  10. PS I phoned in my gas meter reading gave the computer a breakdown when I asked in a few words for an operator haha and spoke to an operator in the callcentre in Capetown South Africa .
    She told me very warm .
    I told her rain on the way here .

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