Thursday, January 08, 2009

Yesterday's Heroes, Today's Celebs ...Or Unpersons?
TOMMY SHERIDAN (in red tie) with previous Big Brother contestant GEORGE GALLOWAY MP.
And above right, with loudhailer, JERRY HICKS of Amicus.

WITH the bombs killing in Gaza, banks running away with our dosh, stores closing on our high streets, and people losing pensions, homes and jobs, is there any news to cheer us up? Mindful of the 1930s, when people turned amid the gloom to street bands, comedy and musicals, I was looking for a lighter story to give readers a break. What I got was this exclamation from Hamish, a young Scot on Facebook:

'We’re on the verge of an economic crisis that will see 3 million unemployed by the end of ’09 and Tommy Sheridan is on Celebrity Big Brother, ARSE!'

Tommy Sheridan was the hero of the anti-poll tax struggle in Scotland, and was also arrested twice in protests at Faslane nuclear submarine base. He led what had been Scottish Militant Labour from the shade of left-wing entrist and small group politics via the Scottish Socialist Alliance into the limelight of winning elections to the Scottish Parliament, as the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP). Winning votes from both Labour and SNP, it took six seats, in 2003, as well as being in the forefront of community and anti-war campaigns, and gaining backing from the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union in Scotland.

Socialists south of the border, coming together in the Socialist Alliance (RIP), dreamed of emulating the Scottish breakthrough.

Then in November 2004, Sheridan announced he was stepping down for family reasons. His wife Gail was expecting their first child. But the News of the World ran articles claiming the family man had been having an extra-marital affair, and visited a swingers club in Manchester. Tommy Sheridan said he would sue. And on August 4, 2006 we were delighted to see him posing with his wife outside the court, having won his case by a majority verdict of 7 - 4, and maximum damages of £200,000.from the newspaper's owners, Rupert Murdoch's News International. Like George Galloway's triumph at the US Senate it was a moment for the Left to savour, even if you didn't entirely share the hero's politics.

But it was only a moment. Not only were members of the SSP dragged into court as witnesses, in a case which the party had advised against bringing, but News International were not going to let it go. Alan McCoombes, who refused to release minutes of the SSP executive which led to Sheridan's resignation, was summoned to the Court of Session in Edinburgh, and jailed for 12 days before the party handed its minutes over. There was evidence that Sheridan had admitted "reckless" behaviour though saying he would deny the allegations.

Although elected co-chair of the SSP in 2006, Sheridan announced he was leaving it in August that year, accusing his former comrades of being complicit in "the mother of all stitch ups" involving Murdoch, MI5, and the Bush administration. The following month he announced that he was starting his own party, Solidarity, along with fellow MSP Rosemary Byrne. For reasons best known to themselves the Socialist Workers Party and the ex-Militant supporters of the Committee for a Workers International (linked with the Socialist Party in England) forgot past differences and rallied to Sheridan's party. They have not rescued him from declining fortunes.

On December 16, 2007, Tommy Sheridan was arrested and charged with perjury, arising from the News of the World case. He is still on bail. There have been newspaper stories about witnesses claiming they were offered bribes, or threatened, not to give evidence.

On November 6, Solidarity candidate Louise McLeary got a mere 87 votes in the Glenrothes by-election for the Westminster parliament, won by Labour. The Scottish Socialist Party got 212.

Will Tommy Sheridan do better in the Big Brother House? Some SWP supporters in England seem to think so, and have formed a support group. I don't know the official line. You'd think they might have learned from having to apologise for George Galloway's performance, even though he had told his then aides nothing about going into the house, and since then he has given them the elbow. We might recall, incidentally that it was Galloway who first called on Sheridan to break with the "Trots" in the SSP, using the Scottish Daily Mail to urge him out.

Anyway, the former hero Tommy was booed by a small crowd before he entered the house - I don't know whether they were a claque got up by the News of the World , or disgruntled Scottish Socialists! Last thing I heard the bookies were laying odds against Sheridan lasting long in the house.

Several blogs have been watching Tommy Sheridan's rise -or decline - into "celebrity" status. Dave Osler commented on him being lined up for Big Brother, then denying it, over two years ago.

Two others who have commented are "Stroppy Bird" and "Madame Miaow" (Anna Chen).

The next guy I want to talk about is a very different character to Sheridan, or George Galloway, even though he is in the latter's party, paradoxically. I'd hesitate to mention him in the same article, except that his case too shows us something about 'the Left'. So far as I know, Jerry Hicks has not been approached to enter the Big Brother house, and does not consider himself a celebrity; but he is a popular trade unionist, and now he is a contender for one of the most important union positions in the country, general secretary of the Amicus section of Unite the union. This mainly involves engineering workers, and electricians, but also has print, scientific and medical sections. Besides, whoever becomes Amicus secretary would also be in line for next general secretary of Unite as a whole, if the merger proceeds.

Jerry is also a socialist activist, - my photo above shows him campaigning outside Uxbridge magistrates' court in west London where he was up for distributing leaflets inside Heathrow airport as part of an anti-deportations campaign. It also shows a banner of the then thriving Socialist Alliance, members of which had travelled from Bristol to support Jerry that day.

Jerry Hicks started work as an apprentice at Rolls Royce in Bristol, famous for making the Concorde's engines,in 1975. Elected a shop steward in 1984, he became convenor for the Test Areas in 1990, and in 2003 he was elected to the Amicus union's national executive.

In June 2005 the workers in the Test Areas staged a 48 hour occupation to save the jobs of two fitters who were facing the sack. Six weeks later Rolls Royce sacked Jerry Hicks himself. Union efforts to get him reinstated were unsuccessful, even though a tribunal pre-hearing found that in all probability he was sacked for his union activity.

Three years before this, Jerry Hicks had supported Derek Simpson's bid for the leadership of Amicus. In 2003 Simpson offered him a job in the union, but Jerry, a believer in elected officers, had turned it down. Some felt Simpson could have done more to back Jerry in his 2005 fight.

Derek Simpson had to use a legal judgement to challenge Sir Ken Jackson, a former leader of the EETPU, staying in office in the merged union, before he could defeat him in an election. Jerry Hicks has successfully used the precedent to challenge Simpson, pointing out he was never elected by the former MSF (technicians)and GPMU (print) sections in the union, and yet would be carrying on beyond retirement age if he remained general secretary now. He also made clear that if his challenge succeeded he would stand for the post himself.

There is disappointment with Derek Simpson's leadership among left-wing trade unionists who supported him. They say that though he criticises government, he remains close to it. He firmly opposed union affiliation with the Stop the War movement. So you might think there'd be some satisfaction that Jerry Hicks challenge has forced an election, and readiness to back him as candidate. Yet a couple of months ago, I saw messages going out asking support for another "left-wing candidate", and no mention of Jerry Hicks at all. I had to ask friends in Amicus whether Hicks was standing, and find out more from his own weblog.

A few years ago Socialist Worker was full of Jerry Hicks and his fight at Rolls Royce, and criticised the union for not backing him enough. For example:

But now you'd think Jerry Hicks did not exist. Here's the SW again, on November 22 2008:

"Nominate Laurence Faircloth in Amicus election

Branches of the Amicus section of the Unite union are nominating candidates for a crucial election for general secretary.Socialist Worker supporters in the union are backing Laurence Faircloth, the candidate of the Amicus Unity Gazette broad left group."

This eagerness to jump in behind the Unity Gazette broad left contrasts with March 2006, when an Amicus member complained in Socialist Worker: " Amicus broad left group falls under Simpson’s control"

But then two years ago, Jerry Hicks was a member of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). He followed the SWP line to join Respect, as a broad "left" alternative to Labour (for which they ditched the Socialist Alliance). He gained 25 per cent of the votes in the Lockleaze area of Bristol, south of his former workplace at Filton, where he stood as Respect candidate for the council.

Then came the row between George Galloway and the SWP, and instead of following the SWP back out into the wilderness, Jerry Hicks resigned from the SWP and published his own criticism of the way they had conducted themselves.

I don't know whether I'd agree with Jerry Hicks, and I know next to nothing about Laurence Faircloth, except that he apparently came from the EEPTU. I do know that having two "left-wing" candidates stand is likely to benefit neither, and might give Simpson back the post, after all that fuss. I also think that if the SWP had any good reason to oppose Jerry Hicks, apart from sheer spite, they ought to be capable of explaining it, rather than pretending their ex-comrade no longer exists. As it is, he has been able to announce that he has enough nominations to get on the ballot paper, without their help or that of the "broad left" . Not being in Amicus, but in the T&G, I don't need to decide whom to support in this contest. But I am watching this "broad left" as it has now linked up across both sections of Unite. And I distrust anyone who expects us to "forget" awkward people, in the manner of some discredited "socialist" traditions. They can't airbrush them out of the photographs anymore!

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At 8:56 AM, Blogger Red Green Nick said...

I just hope Sheridan doesn't make quite such an arse of himself as Galloway did.
As a adopted Bristolian I have a lot of time for Jerry Hicks, would be great to se him getting that union post. I am also in favour of my party (Greens) not standing a candidate against him if he is running for Bristol City Council, although I am in a minority on that one!


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