Monuments are big news. The toppling of Colston in Bristol and the calls for the removal of Rhodes from Oxford remind us of the legacy of Empire and a built landscape that, all-too often, commemorates, celebrates and perpetuates injustice, the pursuit of power and a language of cruelty and racism. But there are other monuments, more-often than not raised by working people that tell a different story.
On the crossroads at Crossakiel, in County Meath, red flags flutter beside the Irish Tricolour. It was here, in 1918, that Jim Connell addressed his last meeting in Ireland. Since 1998, it has been the site of an imposing memorial to Connell, in carved stone and bronze, and of an annual commemoration of his life and work that brings together British and Irish trade unionists.
Connell is a figure who unites people. Charismatic, flamboyant, and idealistic, he is a far cry from the stereotypical trade union bureaucrat. He was a true revolutionary, who thought, wrote, and dreamed but who also acted. He instinctively knew that the people required both bread and roses. His career bridged the divide between rural and urban activists, taking the hard lessons learned during the Irish Land War and grafting them onto British Socialism and trade union struggles. He went against the grain in almost every area of Victorian life: from his rejection of empire and racism, to his modes of thought, dress, and lifestyle
Yet, if he knew the full force of the blacklist that costs him his job on the Dublin docks and the scorn and hatred directed at him personally – by landlords, the church and the industrialists in East London – for his politics and championing of free thought: then he was never soured or brought low by the experience of want and electoral defeat.
Poet and poacher, friend to Keir Hardie and James Connolly: his writings on Marxism, popular science, animal rights and ecology breathe hopeful passion and remain strikingly original, and pertinent, to our concerns today. His best-known songs were set to jaunty tunes borrowed from the earlier Jacobite or Fenian movements, while his Red Flag – written over the course of a 15 minute train ride across London in tribute to the 1889 dock strike – remains unsurpassed as a rousing call to Socialist Internationalism. Within days of its publication, the song became a recognisable ‘hit’ and was heard on the streets of Liverpool, London and Glasgow. It greeted the election of Attlee’s Labour Government in 1945 and the deaths of striking South African miners: marking both our triumphs and our tragedies.
The monument at Crossakiel has, since its unveiling, taken on new layers of meaning. It reminds of us those – like Bob Crow, Tommy Grimes and the GMB union’s own Mary Turner – who are no longer with us but who helped to realise its creation, marched in its shade and spoke on its steps. However, monuments do not have to be only of metal and stone. They can be fashioned through our shared ideas and ideals; our love for humanity and desire to do what is right. That is why the Left is a movement of optimism and of grand projects. It lends hope to the hopeless, and delivers practical help through its achievements, not least of which is our NHS.
That is why every exercise in cynicism, hypocrisy and realpolitik on the part of those who would lead and represent us – whether in the unions or in the parliamentary Labour Party – needs to be resisted or called out for the betrayal that it is. The cleaner who forgoes a night out, buying a magazine for the journey into work or a toy for a child, in order to pay their monthly union subs puts an enormous trust in us. We should remember that, and that we act and exist for them, not they for us.
Jim Connell understood that with every fibre of his being. If, today, we are downhearted at the scale of the challenges facing us and the defeats suffered: then we should look at the even greater obstacles faced and surmounted by him and the small band of fellow Socialists in Victorian and Edwardian Britain and Ireland. Not for them the fight for momentary gain or the shoddy, careerist compromise. Rather, the ability to question everything, the adherence to principle and the belief in Socialism that would elevate everyone, rather than just a chosen few. In this way, their fight laid the foundations for a mass movement, the Welfare State and the National Health Service.
Socialism Connell wrote in 1908, “will come. The reader may stand on the sea-shore when the tide is rising, and watch the waves as they roll in. He may watch each wave recede apparently to the point from which it started. He may watch a long time without being able to perceive that any advance has been made. But let him wait a little longer, let him wait long enough, and he will see the tide infallibly reach its mark … We know what is coming. Today Capitalist individualism seems firmly rooted and strongly knit … It may hold its ground for many years yet, but the time is coming when the waves of the evolutionary tide will break and roar far, very far above it”.
That change of the tide is the true monument that we should all celebrate.
GMB North West & Irish Region.
1945: The Image and the Reality of
the Labour Movement’s Finest Hour
The Labour Movement takes understandable pride in the achievements of 1945: in the bold legislative programme of Attlee’s government which changed Britain, permanently for the better. Forty years of Neoliberalism have still to undo much of the Welfare State or to complete the privatisation of the NHS. When it came time to define the nation, at the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics, it was the National Health Service that was showcased as the crowning achievement of this island’s story. The onset of the pandemic has confirmed that, through the spontaneous outpouring of public support for the NHS through painted rainbows and nightly applause for staff and care workers. The fruits of Socialism work and are popular.
Yet, these achievements did not happen by chance, or come without a fight. It took over half a century of campaigning and organising by the new unions to establish the arguments for Socialism and the terrible advent of the Second World War to shift attitudes – among both the public and civil servants – towards planning and market controls, and from the private sphere to the collective. Yet, it was the trade unionists who forced the tempo: they sat on the trades boards and the wages councils, delivered in terms of production, and did the essential hard and unglamorous work. It was Ernest Bevin who was the architect of industrial victory as minister of Labour from 1940-45; it was Manny Shinwell – the Clydeside MP from a Jewish background – who nationalised the mines; and Aneurin Bevan who drew up a comprehensive model for the NHS, virtually from scratch. Despite different personalities and priorities, they shared a common grounding in the experience of work and trade union struggle; they offered hope; and most of all they worked to a plan.
The scope and the success of that which was achieved between 1945-51 has provided an enduring definition, and political legitimacy for the Left. It is one of the few things that we can all seem to agree upon. The trouble is that the Labour Movement rapidly came to see the achievements of 1945-51 as a final settlement, that could not be bettered or extended. It did not seek to push further down the roads of full economic and industrial democracy, towards worker participation and control, the replacement of competition with co-operation, the regulation of markets, and an assault upon rentier capitalism and private monopolies. It did not, as Bevan had wanted, extend the reach of the NHS to the opticians and the dentists, and to invest in preventative health measures alongside doctors’ surgeries and hospitals. It abandoned industrial planning and market regulation. It forgot collective rights and began to pander to individual needs. As a consequence, we have been forced back upon the defensive and perversely in the language of the free market Right have seemed “conservative” in the face of assaults by “radical” deregulators, hedge-funders and multi-nationals.
Those very qualities that delivered the victories of 1945 – tenacity, self-belief, the engagement with big ideas and the pursuit of seemingly unrealisable ideals – have been precisely the things that have been jettisoned through partnership schemes, ‘new realism’, and the adoption by the unions of managerial methods and language. In short, we have become scared of our own shadows. We have no programme, no core belief, no red standard to rally around when the tempests rage.
So, instead of paying a dull and formulaic lip-service to the achievements of the past, it is perhaps high-time that we sought to reclaim the values, the tenacity and the vision that made them possible. This, naturally, involves risk, invites derision and mobilises – as the recent history of the Labour Party demonstrates – the full-force of the mainstream media and power of the capitalist and rentier classes against us. But, it is the fight that we must have if we are to remain a movement and not only regain but exceed that which has been lost since 1979.
The pioneers of our Movement would have had no trouble instinctively grasping this point. It was a long march from 1889 to 1945 and many of brightest and best – such as Eleanor Marx, Robert Tressell, Keir Hardie and John Maclean – were derided as hopelessly idealistic dreamers and did not live to see the day when Attlee’s government took its seat on the government benches, to the strains of ‘the Red Flag’. Yet, they thought ahead, delivered the hard detail, and fought through the abuse, hardship, ruin and despair.
A brief overview of the successes and the problems faced by the Labour Movement will demonstrate how they did it and those principles, in thought and action, that will secure us victories once again.
The Labour governments of 1945-5 inherited an unprecedented system of wartime controls, regulations and initiatives that had already acknowledged the importance of collectivity and a universal right to welfare, regardless of the ability to pay. If there could be a fair distribution in wartime, then there should also be fair shares during peace. This resulted, within two years, in the creation of the National Health Service, a national insurance scheme, and the nationalisation of the Bank of England and the power generating industries, with transport, iron and steel not far behind. Furthermore, this was accomplished against the backdrop of a war-ravaged nation, where 4 million homes had been bombed, where many thousands of lives were shattered through disability, where the largest external debt in history had been accrued, and a $650 million bill was called-in, almost overnight, by the Truman administration’s decision to halt Lease-Lend in an attempt to destroy British Socialism in the bud. So much, then, for the ‘special’ relationship.
Yet, as Labour’s 1945 manifesto pointed out: “the test of a political programme is whether it is sufficiently in earnest about the objectives to adopt the means to realise them”. These included “drastic policies of replanning and … keeping a firm constructive hand on our whole productive machinery” and, significantly, a commitment to the “freedom of the Trade Unions” whose members had done so much to ensure victory. This commitment involved the removal of all the anti-union legislation enacted in the Trades Disputes and Trade Unions Act of 1927. Can we honestly envisage our unions, collectively, forcing through such an unequivocal argument for their worth, centrality, and democratic freedoms to fight and organise, today?
Against these essential, true, freedoms were the false ‘freedoms’ that served to “exploit other people … to pay poor wages and push up prices for selfish profit … to deprive people of the means of living full, healthy, happy lives”.
These same false freedoms have been used to dazzle us and we have been all too keen to accept them in recent years. How often have we heard senior trade unionists talking the language of ‘professionalism’, ‘realism’, and ‘compliance’? A thousand-and-one ‘buzz’ words have eroded our self-confidence and replaced belief and gut-instinct with greyness, calculation and smug spin.
We have retreated away from arguing for progressive taxation, the complete unshackling of our own movement, and from expressing the fire in our bellies that defines us and drives us forward. We cannot live on a borrowed vitality. If Socialism has no blueprint, no remedy for the crisis and misery inflicted by gangster capitalism, then all we have left are the forms and not the reality of 1945.
The unions remain an instrument – and perhaps the best instrument – for transforming the economic structure of society.
We need to be clear about our own role and our own constituency. We need, once again, to take to heart the need to define those “objectives to adopt” together with “the means to realise them”.
For, we – and nobody else - represent those who do the work: the work that keeps the lights bright and the power on; the work in our NHS hospitals which makes the difference between life and death; those who manufacture and create; those who feed us and restock the supermarket shelves; those who care for our children as Teaching Assistants and those who look after the elderly in retirement homes.
They represent the truly productive class and also the squeezed middle, whose taxation makes all else possible. We need to listen to them, to hear and amplify their voices, and to reforge the world of work around them in order to replace fear and insecurity with purpose and solidarity. In doing this we will be far closer to the spirit and content of 1945. And to succeed, we will need to fight not just against Tory austerity but also the self-imposed austerity that we have shackled upon the ideas and ideals of the Labour Movement, itself. The great only appear great – as Connolly echoed Desmoulins – because we remain on our knees. It is time that we stood up and were counted.
GMB Scotland Secretary.