Monday, November 20, 2006

Brentford, Bridgwater...and Budapest

KEIR HARDIE was elected for Merthyr in 1906, and became leader of new Labour Party.

"YOUR grandfather was with Keir Hardie", was something I heard more than once as a kid, before I had much idea who Keir Hardie was. except that this assertion was made with pride, and often preceded by "Your grandfather was a proper Labour man." What a "proper", or "real" Labour man or woman is may go undefined, except that you are unlikely to hear Tony Blair described as such.

Sadly, whether from poor working and housing conditions, bad nutrition when young, or standing at too many pickets and factory-gate meetings in the cold and rain, granddad died quite young. This meant that Mum had to leave school at 12 and sew buttons on overcoats, and I never got to learn directly how an immigrant worker from Latvia decided to switch his much-prized vote from the then Liberal Winston Churchill to this upstart Scottish miner with his idea that the workers should have their own party.

This year was packed with significant anniversaries for socialists - 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin, 1926 British General Strike, 1936 civil war in Spain, Moscow Trials, and, in East London, the Battle of Cable Street. 1946, postwar squatters movement, 1956 Khruschev's "secret speech", Hungarian revolution, and Anglo-French-Israeli invasion of Egypt, 1966 seafarers' strike under Wilson government, 1976 siege of Tel al Za'atar, civil war in Lebanon. . . .One anniversary that almost passed without notice was the centenary of the parliamentary Labour Party.

It was in 1900 that a conference of socialists and trade unionists agreed to a motion from James Keir Hardie that Labour MPs should form a distinct group in parliament. But it was not until 1906, with an increased Labour presence in parliament helping secure the Trades Disputes Act, safeguarding unions from legal sanctions for strikes, that this became the Labour Party.

Last week I attended a meeting organise by Labour Heritage at Brentford and Chiswick Labour hall in west London to commemorate the centenery. The meeting was chaired by former MP and London MEP Stan Newens.John Grigg spoke about the movements history in west London and south-west Middlesex, former draughtsmen's leader and Labour national secretary Jim Mortimer spoke on Labour and the Trades Disputes Act, and Hayes MP John McDonnel, left-wing candidate for the party leadership, related past struggles to the effort today to put Labour back on track as a party to defend workers' rights and fight for equality.

I'm happy to say this was a history meeting for activists, not mere academics.
Making the point that trades uniionists today have fewer rights than they were given in 1906, John McDonnel said it was a disgrace the way his constituents working for Gate Gourmet at Heathrow airport had been sacked, and that under the Tory anti-union laws which this government had kept, fellow trade unionists were penalised if they took solidarity action.

Despite other events, including a major trade union rank and file conference that weekend, the meeting was well-attended, and the discussion was keen. Yet as we heard, the official Labour Party at the top had shown little interest in marking this centenary. One of Blair's key advisers had been on record as saying the formation of the Labour Party was a big mistake, and that they'd have been better remaining with the Liberals. As for the intake of New Labour types into parliament under Blair's leadership, they cared little about the party's history and some were so ignorant that when pictures of past Labour leaders were displayed as part of a previous commemoration, they failed to recognise Keir Hardy's bearded visage, but thought it might be Jeremy Corbyn! (I'm sure the left-wing MP for Islington North won't mind the suggested comparison !)

Evidently what was once said of the US Democrats has more truth applied to New Labour - like the mule, it has neither pride of ancestry nor, we must wish, hope of progeny. The fact that the Blairites show distaste for the labour movement's history is all the more reason why we should both celebrate and study it.

Saying which, I see that Somerset postman and trade union activist Dave Chapple, whose book based on interviews with veteran Henry Suss I reported in an earlier blog,, has a new book coming out on the General Strike in Bridgwater. To mark the launch, Dave is giving a talk about how his home town fared in the Hungry Thirties. He intends to cover unemployment and child poverty, trade unions and housing, as well as the politics of the time, including the 1938 Bridgwater by-election when Vernon Bartlett won the seat as a popular front anti-appeasement candidate.

The talk is at Bridgwater Library, Thursday 23 November at 7.30pm


TALKING of history, I was wrong to say in my blog on November 1 that Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker correspondent who tried to tell the truth about what was happening in Hungary 50 years ago was unable to attend the British Communist Party's congress after he was expelled from the Party.

Attending Peter's funeral on November 8, Ron Lynn, who remembers the period well, told me that the left-wing Labour weekly Tribune made Peter its correspondent so that he could attend and cover the congress, and he also wrote it up for The Newsletter.

After the funeral , joining friends and family back at the jazz bar where Peter enjoyed playing piano, I bought a copy of Remembering 1956 (Revolutionary History, Vol.9, no.3, ) which has articles on what happened in the Communist Party in 1956, here and in France and Italy.

Also, at long last, Balasz Nagy's work How the Budapest Central Worker's Council was set up is available in English, from the Living History Library, 28 Canning Street, Liverpool L8 7NP. Describing in detail how working class democracy took shape and sought to defend both social ownership and political freedom, the pamphlet has a fresh preface by its author re-affirming that the revolution offers a progressive way out of capitalist crisis, rejecting "the false alternatives of capitalism or Stalinism, which even today still seems to hold back and paralyse the revolutionary action of working people".


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At 7:17 PM, Anonymous Chris Baldwin said...

"One of Blair's key advisers had been on record as saying the formation of the Labour Party was a big mistake, and that they'd have been better remaining with the Liberals."

I missed that, who was it?

At 8:42 AM, Blogger Charlie Pottins said...

Checking my notes, and deciphering my scribble, I find that John McDonnel was referring to Philip Gould. And he presumably had in mind this, from Gould's book "Unfinished Revolution":
‘In establishing itself as a socialist party immutably linked to trade unionism, Labour broke with Liberalism and cut itself off from the other great radical movement in British politics. The separation of Labourism and Liberalism stopped dead the possibility of building one progressive party, similar to the broader coalitions in the United States and Scandinavia. The division of the left gave the Conservatives a dominance in government which their electoral support rarely justified.’
See also:

At 6:51 PM, Anonymous Chris Baldwin said...

The fact that he sees the Democratic Party as a positive model is very revealing.


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