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.