And again on Lindsey

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Portavogie is not what you’d call a very progressive place. Even in the early stages of the peace process, the villagers were inordinately proud of not having a single Catholic living there. Today, on the other hand, the majority of workers on the Portavogie fishing fleet are migrant workers, mostly East Europeans but including some thirty Filipinos. Due to some visa restriction, the Filipino trawlermen may not lodge on land but have to sleep on their boats. The locals are campaigning to get this changed. In a time when economic crisis is likely to stoke racism, it’s a little heartwarming story.

In a related note, the Lindsey strike has ended in a small victory for the workers, with the employment of some one hundred local workers on the construction contract in question, without this being at the expense of the Italian and Portuguese workers already in situ. I think this is probably the best outcome available. And, after all, it’s not like we see victories very often. Never underestimate the value of even a small one.

There have been a couple of aspects thrown up by this that I want to take a bit of a look at. The first is the question of protectionism, which Brown and Mandelson have had such a bee in their bonnet about. (By contrast with Alan Johnson, who didn’t endear himself to me as a union bureaucrat but who does actually realise that sometimes workers have legitimate grievances.) Actually, I don’t have a problem in principle with a little protectionism. One of the left’s big beefs with the European Single Market was opposition to open tendering for public services, and the enshrinement thereof in European law. And, if we were going to be consistent advocates of the global village, on what basis would we oppose the European Commission’s regular attempts to destroy Irish agriculture?

In fact, everybody is pretty realpolitik on this issue, but most people just don’t like to admit it. The free traders in government are all in favour of the free movement of capital, but, largely for electoral reasons, oppose the free movement of labour. One of the endearing things about the Economist is that, being in favour of genuinely open borders, it likes to twit the political class about this. On the other hand, the socialists also have an inbuilt contradiction in favouring the free movement of labour in the form of abolishing immigration controls, while wanting to restrict the movement of capital. Since movements of labour generally follow movements of capital, you’ve got some tensions either way.

Anyway, let’s take a look at the left again. There’s a basic issue in Marxism over the respective roles of conscious programme and spontaneous struggle. To put it another way, there is a particular elitist type of Marxism, usually rooted in a one-sided reading of What Is To Be Done?, that lays its main stress on the role of intellectuals in bringing socialist consciousness to the workers from the outside. You get a lot of this in Lukács, and you used to in Norman Geras, which might explain something about Normski’s latter-day Decency. On the other hand, there’s that side of the Marxist tradition, often associated with people like Luxemburg, or less consistently with Lenin’s stance after 1905, or with Draper or James amongst others, that stresses the spontaneous tendencies towards socialism of a working class in struggle. This is a gross simplification of course, and you have to talk at greater length of what you mean by spontaneity – the pseudo-spontaneism of James in particular is long overdue a deconstruction – but it’s a real tension.

One thing I found fascinating about the left’s responses to the Lindsey strike was that a clear dividing line arose, but with some people in juxtapositions that you wouldn’t necessarily expect from their formal politics. Basically, I would moot that you had a more ideological or propagandist corner (the SWP, Socialist Resistance, the AWL) for whom the BJ4BW slogan and the implications thereof were the key thing, as against a more workerist corner (the Socialist Party, George Galloway, the Morning Star) who weren’t thrilled about the slogan, but who laid more stress on the class dynamic behind the strike. Of course, you did have extreme positions, with Workers Power condemning the action outright as a reactionary nationalist strike, and on the other hand Arthur Scargill finding nothing wrong with the slogan whatsoever. But these absurdities are easily explained. Arthur is working from a paradigm of the British manual working class in the 1950s, while Workers Power are working from… well, some sort of total idealist disconnect from empirical reality, though I’m glad to see their capacity for sub-Maoist gobbledegook remains undiminished.

But between these extremes, there is quite a lot of ambiguity and overlap. The view I arrived at was one that critical support for the strike was necessary, and it was vital to muck in there and try to turn things around politically, steering the politics of the thing away from the potentially ugly aspects of the nationalist slogan. In this respect, I think the Socialist Party played a blinder. And actually, since they were lucky enough to have a couple of people on the ground, there was nothing else they could do – had their members taken an abstentionist line or even opposed the strike, they would have found it far more difficult to get a hearing. And it’s not least thanks to them that, as the demands were concretised, they took on a form that made the strike much more supportable by socialists.

Which is not to say that the flip side, the nationalist undercurrent, was not there. There were, I think, three aspects to this. There were some workers who, with a microphone or a reporter’s notepad thrust in front of them, expressed themselves in a not very intelligent way. There was the media’s determination to make this a race issue. And there was the right wing, notably the BNP, also trying to make this a race issue. It was heartening that this diminished as time went on, with the shop stewards changing the tone of their statements and the fash being chased off the picket line. The modulated line of the AWL at least shows they caught onto this dynamic even though, like most far left groups, they aren’t very good at admitting their position changed.

So I do think that it was necessary, particularly at the beginning of the strike, to point out the dangers. I don’t criticise the left groups who did so. Nor do I criticise the individuals who did so – I place particular weight on Madam Miaow, who has a track record of flagging up things that the white blokes on the left don’t pay enough attention to. These were things that needed to be said.

I have been scratching my head a little at the position of the SWP. I know that the original, quite abstract, statement was not universally popular with the party’s trade union cadre, and I expected that to be softened, although probably without acknowledgement. But this week’s coverage in SW marks, if anything, a hardening. Well, it’s not perhaps what we might have seen if John (“It’s British workers that count”) Rees was still at the helm, and for that we should be grateful. But all the same, it’s a bit puzzling when you remember that Cliff used to be the great promoter of spontaneity (just not within the ranks of the party) and was frankly contemptuous of formal programmatic statements. Whether he would have put quite so much weight on the slogan is doubtful.

I think there are a couple of elements to this. One is that for the last dozen years or so, the SWP had been operating a super-optimistic perspective. This has stubbed its toe on events, and is further discredited by its close association with the Rees-German camarilla. The culture of stick-bending being as entrenched as it is in the SWP, some people will take this to mean a return to the downturn and propagandism. There’s also the economic crisis, which, although the party has quietly dumped Cliff’s “30s in slow motion” perspective, will inevitably lead to a revival in catastrophology. This (along with the Respect and SSP splits) has led to a stress on the rivers of blood dividing reformists from revolutionaries, and a return to the “expose and denounce” school of dealing with official labour movement figures, except for Mark Serwotka who has the advantage of being a close personal friend of Martin Smith. (By contrast, the SP, which has a much more sectarian formal position, is a good bit more pragmatic in its practice.) There’s also the assumption that, if the BNP leaflet a picket line, workers will find the playing of the race card irresistible. One would hope Lindsey had put that one to bed. This will take a while to work out. There is of course an inbuilt tension between propagandism and catastrophology, and while Gerry Healy successfully combined the two for years, I think this will be resolved a bit quicker.

By the way, this is quite important, and I really hope the different sections of the left can draw up some honest balance sheets. We can expect some much uglier stuff round the corner, and this could be a very important learning experience.

Thoughts on the Lindsey strike

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I’ve held off writing anything about the refinery strikes up until now, partly because there was good work being done elsewhere (Phil has been particularly good, and there’s lots of stuff as always at SU) and partly because I needed to get my own ideas clear on the dispute. Facts have become clearer, the situation has developed, so I’m just going to sketch out a few tentative thoughts.

To begin with, I had mixed feelings about the strike. Some of that, I’m sure, was just down to lack of information. But mainly it’s been this “British jobs for British workers” slogan that everybody has been so het up about. This derives of course from Gordon Brown’s speech at the 2007 Labour Party conference, at a time when the media were giving him lots of stick about his Scottishness (they still are) and as a result he could barely speak for five minutes without throwing in the word “British”. The adoption of a slogan that could have come straight out of the BNP playbook has certainly come back to haunt him now.

And this is the sort of thing that worried me. At a time when there’s been large-scale immigration over recent years, and now there’s a rapid rise in unemployment, you would expect to see all sorts of racist eruptions. Certainly, New Labour are well aware that racism can be a useful safety valve in a recession. It’s not that I was prepared to condemn the Lindsey strike out of hand as racist, but there was clearly a potential for it to develop in an ugly direction. It didn’t help that the media have been keen to flag up the migrant workers angle, or that an assortment of racist wingnuts (the BNP in particular) have sought to associate themselves with the strike to advance their agenda. At the very least, that potential was something to be wary of.

Now, while I’m sure that in a substantial workforce you can find someone with some backward ideas about immigration, there are two major causes behind this dispute. The underlying cause is insecurity in a time of economic crisis, and the fear that will breed in somewhere like Hull that wasn’t very prosperous in the first place. The proximate cause is undercutting. Even Labour minister Alan Johnson, who knows a thing or two about trade unionism, was quite good on this on Sunday’s Andrew Marr show.

You have to start with the European Single Market, which is supposed to guarantee free movement of labour as well as produce within the EU. This applies to Poles or Italians working in Britain, of course, but also the million or so Brits working in other EU countries. (Johnson raised the analogy of a British construction company winning a contract in Italy and not being allowed to use its skilled workforce. In those circumstances, one might assumed the Sun and the Mail would go apeshit.) So, whatever Gordon Brown might say in a flight of rhetoric or whatever Sammy Wilson might want, you can’t legislate a preference for British workers over EU citizens or non-EU workers who are legally part of the workforce.

And that’s what raises the danger of undercutting. There are regulations, notably the Posted Workers Directive, that are supposed to guard against this, but the ECJ judgements in the Viking and Laval cases have seriously weakened these. Finally the British government – or Alan Johnson at least – have figured out that something needs to be done to strengthen legal safeguards.

So, there were the grievances. But, as we know, there are right ways and wrong ways to go about tackling grievances. It’s a bit like those towns in Cornwall where eighty or ninety percent of the housing stock is taken up with holiday homes, and as a result the town is dead for nine months of the year. But how do you respond – do you try to lay out a campaigning strategy around social housing and sustainable communities, or do you try to blow up Jamie Oliver? Annoying as Jamie can be, the latter is plainly a wrong strategy.

And so it’s been pleasing to see that the Lindsey strike hasn’t radicalised to the right. In fact, as the workers have clarified their demands, you’ve seen good old trade unionist demands coming to the fore. And, best of all, the BNP getting short shrift with their interventions, which will surprise those on the left who imagine workers to be unable to resist the blandishments of the fash. This of course hasn’t happened spontaneously, but has had to be argued for. A great deal of credit must go to the Socialist Party, who have been lucky enough to have a presence on the ground, and who seem to have been doing exemplary work in preventing the strike sliding into what could have been dodgy territory. It just goes to show the good that the presence of a couple of socialists in one of these disputes can do.

Finally, and apropos of this, a bit of a word on the left. Some interesting alignments have sprung up, and a lot of this (unsurprisingly, with a left full of ideologues) has centred around whether a strike with the BJ4BW slogan so prominently displayed is supportable. Andy writes:

There have been attempts by both left and right to play the race card. Obviously the BNP have tried to intervene, but have actually been given short shrift by the strikers themselves. The AWL tried to organise a picket of Unite headquarters and invited migrant workers to attend it, trying to pit migrant workers against white workers for their own interests.

The strikers slogan obviously did strike a chord – it was catchy, and ironic against Gordon Brown; but could also be expropriated by racists. To a certain extent the reaction to the slogan was opportunist from right-wing populist newspapers who sought to misrepresent the dispute as being anti-foreigner, and to a certain extent there was a prurient frisson from middle class trendies who loved having their anti-working class prejudices confirmed by that interpretation. But in terms of the strikers themselves and the wider labour movement, the class aspect has become better understood as the dispute goes on. The Morning Star, and left MPs like Jon Cruddas have stood by the trade unionists, and fought their corner. And the Socialist Party have obviously played an absolutely brilliant role, that should be reflected in improved prestige for that organisation, and respect for its judgments.

I agree with a lot of this. It’s no surprise to see the AWL or Students Power declining to support an industrial action that isn’t “internationalist” enough. Maybe, in a Brechtian sense, it would be better if the vanguard abolished the working class and replaced it with a more advanced one. On the other hand, the SP has been very supportive of course, as have both left formations in Scotland. There is also, and not for the first time, some excellent commentary from Permanent Revolution (the sensible faction of Workers Power, not the crazy faction who kept the name), who are not a million miles from my own thinking.

Where I would depart slightly from Andy is in terms of his polemic against the SWP. I read the SWP statement on Saturday morning and thought “Hmm, this isn’t too bad. A bit abstract, but not bad.” I think the issue here was that the misgivings expressed by the SWP leadership were not too distant from my own early reservations, particularly when it came to the dangers inherent in the BJ4BW slogan. Now, obviously the SWP would have looked vindicated had the strike indeed radicalised in a Powellite direction, but what’s actually been happening makes their statement look a bit behind the curve. Not to mention that, whatever about all the care that evidently went into the statement, some of the SWP’s more enthusiastic supporters in blogland have been eager to bang on about the “racist strike” and to hell with nuance. I hear that the position is being revised and the agitational material now being produced is more positive. This is good.

Anyway, this is the most important thing going on in the industrial sphere about now. If we can’t turn this in a progressive direction, we really are in trouble.

The Easy Rider minister

Do you know, here was me lamenting Sammy Wilson’s low ministerial profile. And no sooner is that done, but Sammy comes streaking back into the headlines:

Environment Minister Sammy Wilson last night branded the law which saw him fined for riding his motorbike without tax or MoT as “absurd”.

The Minister, who has responsibility for road safety in Northern Ireland, was caught by a camera detection unit on the Newtownards Road in east Belfast — a short distance from the Stormont Parliament Buildings.

And so the multi-tasking Sammy – minister, Westminster MP, Stormont MLA, Belfast councillor – finds himself forty quid out of pocket.

Meanwhile, we find a superannuated politician, Patricia Lewsley of the SDLP, sticking her oar into the Movilla teachers’ strike.

The background to this is fairly straightforward. There is an allegation that a pupil at Movilla High School in Newtownards assaulted a teacher. Other teachers refused to teach the pupil concerned. On having their pay docked, they went on strike. Efforts have been ongoing to resolve the situation.

These efforts have not been helped by Patricia, who is no longer a Stormont MLA but does enjoy a comfortable position as Children’s Commissioner, and who has branded the strike an abuse of children’s rights.

I’m rather sceptical about the whole concept of children’s rights – we raised children fairly well for centuries without them – and have never quite seen the need for a Children’s Commissioner to advocate on their behalf. Nor has Patricia particularly made the case. What next, I ask myself? We have a Children’s Commissioner, we have four (4) Victims’ Commissioners – can it be long before a Hoods’ Commissioner is appointed?

Stand by the airport workers!

The good news is that Gordon McNeill is out of hospital and back into the fray. This marks the latest development in the saga of the sacked airport workers, a slow-burning dispute that’s sparked into life a few times recently.

The background, very briefly, is this. Way back in 2002 twenty-three workers at Belfast International Airport were sacked for taking part in strike action. They filed a claim with the Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal against the employer, ICTS, and further alleged discrimination against four shop stewards on account of their socialist political beliefs. Last year, they won their case and were awarded substantial damages.

The ongoing dispute relates to the workers’ beef with their union, most having belonged to the ATGWU (now part of UNITE). There’s a lot of bad blood dating back to the union’s repudiation of the original strike, and it’s been stoked up further by the union’s performance since. The main thrust of the current dispute is the workers’ demand for the union to pay their legal costs, as well as a promise by Tony Woodley that they would be compensated for mismanagement of the dispute. Hence the barracking of UNITE regional secretary Jimmy Kelly at the Belfast May Day parade, and hence the hunger strike by shop stewards Gordon McNeill, Madan Gupta and Chris Bowyer, which is aimed at scandalising the union into moving in the workers’ direction.

It’s a dispiriting story all around. Mismanagement of an industrial dispute by the bureaucracy is, of course, nothing new. What’s even more depressing is Mick O’Reilly and Jimmy Kelly, two of Ireland’s most prominent trade union leftists, behaving in no way differently from the bureaucracy as a whole. (Not to mention Jimmy’s erstwhile comrades, who have somehow managed to avoid any public criticism of the UNITE leadership.) And so the struggle goes on.

Anyway, this is a good cause well worth supporting, and readers should feel free to pass on the word. You can get regular updates at the airport workers’ dedicated blog, and it’s also worth paying a visit to the Socialist Party, whose work around the issue has been exemplary. This in-depth article by the SP’s Peter Hadden gives further details.

Aer Lingus and the return of the Saorstát

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To rousing cheers all around, I’ll not be bothering with a full Gail Walker Watch this week. I read Gail’s column – a piece on the death of a pensioner and what that says about the decline of close-knit communities, some slagging of Dawn French and David Shayler – and a profound sense of ennui came upon me. Much more of this, and I may lose the will to live.

I do however want to comment on one issue that Gail has a bit of a giggle about, namely the Aer Lingus relocation. You can hardly be unaware that Aer Lingus is setting up its UK hub in Belfast, which means dropping London-Shannon flights. The political and business establishment up here – especially those who are gung-ho for the “all-island economy” – are rather pleased at this. The peasantry of Shannon are rather less charmed at business heading to the Black North.

The story has been getting big play on the RTÉ news for days on end. To listen to the locals, you would believe that children will be going barefoot in Shannon if the London route is scrapped. Local TDs and councillors are up in arms. Prominent among these is Defence Minister Willie O’Dea, a member of the cabinet that privatised Aer Lingus a couple of years back. Does Willie sense a touch of irony in the situation? If so, he’s keeping it to himself.

The Catholic and Protestant bishops are also speaking out against the relocation. And, just to add the final Ionesco touch, enter ebullient Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary, wielding his 25% stake in Aer Lingus like a blunt instrument and threatening to block the move. Say what you like about O’Leary, he never lets the opportunity for a populist gesture pass him by.

In related news, the discrepancy in pay between North and South has led to strike threats from the pilots. These unlikely union militants won’t settle for anything less than seventy grand plus benefits. I am a good bit more sympathetic to the workers represented by my old comrade Jimmy Kelly of Unite, who are on a substantially lower rate than the pilots and who do have a legitimate gripe about equal pay and conditions.

But the whole affair puts me in mind of the old satirical ballad:

God save the greater part of Ireland!
Three quarters of a nation once again!

Yes, it seems that 26-county nationalism is alive and well, and, the peace process notwithstanding, there is still a considerable body of southern opinion that would be quite happy to see us float off into the Atlantic.

Rud eile: I was startled to see no less than Bobby Friction discussing Indian independence on Newsnight. But startled in a good way – he was just as good a panellist as his record on the wireless would suggest. It was noticeable, too, that Kirsty introduced him by his Punjabi name, for the benefit of those of us who may have thought Bobby Friction was his real name. Nice to see our main man on, though. News and current affairs going trendy might not be such a bad prospect if it means more Friction on the box.

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