Sunday, March 16, 2014

Two very different fighters lost

TONY BENN at Bread and Roses club in Clapham, welcoming American trade unio nits from US Labor Against the War.

Below, MICK ABBOTT, wearing Shrewsbury pickets tee shirt, with Ricky Tomlinson and other campaigners, at Westminster.   

AS though the death of RMT leader Bob Crow was not enough, we have lost two other fighters from our side, two men from very different backgrounds, TONY BENN and MICK ABBOTT, both of whom dedicated their lives to the cause of socialism and the working class, and both of them sadly missed. 

Warm tributes have poured in to Tony Benn from all sorts of people who genuinely admired him and appreciated his contribution to the movement and British politics. Often they come with memories of this or that speech which inspired the listener, or occasions when  they were grateful for Tony Benn's support. It must niggle Labour's self-styled "modernisers", if they are not too thick-skinned, to reflect that Benn's popularity is unlikely to ever accrue to the likes of Tony Blair.

There's some question which the genuine Benn admirers have found more sickening, the hypocritical and patronising praise for Tony Benn now he's dead from politicians who opposed eveything he stood for when alive; or the way some old adversaries have been coaxed back out of obscurity to denounce Benn before he is buried. He has been accused of splitting Labour, and being "destructive", and this by people like Shirley Williams who broke from the Labour Party to form the SDP and encourages her Lib Dem colleagues to back the coalition's attack on the NHS. 

They accuse Benn of "resisting new ideas", and Williams, whose own "new idea" when a Labour minister of Education was to propose replacing student grants by loans, says "Tony was yearning for a world that was gone. …He didn’t really recognise that the world was becoming global." Really? Is that the man I remember as Anthony Wedgwood Benn, dragging Parliament into the 20th century so he didn't have to become Lord Stansgate? The Postmaster General who opened the GPO Tower in London to the public? The champion of Concorde (part built in his Bristol constituency) who restored that "e" at the end as an earnest of Anglo-French co-operation?  

I was never one of Tony Benn's uncritical fans, and won't pretend so now. I even attacked him on occasion. (Like when he fell into bad company -i.e. Socialist Action and its Serb nationalist chums who formed the 'Committee for Peace in the Balkans'.) 

But on the positive side, I remember my Mum and Dad, admonishing my youthful cynicism, saying that " At least he fought to stay out of the House of Lords when most of them could not wait to get in there". My Dad, one of the disappointed generation,  still jeered bitterly about "Earl Attlee" and rarely had a good word for any politician, so praise from him was praise indeed. Benn earned it,and thus probably persuaded a lot of people that politics and voting was still worthwhile..

Second, I saw a message on Facebook (unfortunately I did not save it) from someone involved in support for the Hillingdon hospital cleaners' fight. These were mainly Asian women, who found themselves in the frontline fighting the privatisers, as they resisted having their wages cut. They were delighted when Benn accepted an invite to speak at a public meeting in their support in Southall. Apparently more than they got from Southall's then Labour MP (or some in the union).

Thirdly, talking of new ideas, during Benn's time as Industry Minister he took his belief in democracy beyond the palace of Westminster by supporting workers who took over their factories to resist sackings and closures. Skeptical as we were about things like the Meriden co-op for their utopian aspect, and the danger they could descend into class collaboration before reaching a dead end, it is worth thinking about them again today's context (as well as contrasting Benn's efforts with New Labour's distance from anything involving workers). One workers' occupation may be worth a thousand words about "nationalisation" in a left-wing paper.
  And  even naive co-operatives are better than Labour MPs and councils demanding, as some recently did, tougher action against squatting.

I don't know whether Tony Benn was ever associated with the campaign for the Shrewsbury building pickets. (perhaps someone can tell us?) .But Mick Abbott, who died at his home in Wigan on February 27, most certainly was. I think Mick was one of the Wigan building workers who brought the issue of the jailed pickets on to a march in Preston called by the union in 1974, and he was one of the leaders of the march from Wigan to London the following year, as well as accompanying Ricky Tomlinson to the TUC in Blackpool. Having worked so hard to keep the issue alive when others, not least the Labour and trade union leaders, preferred trying to bury it, Mick came to the fore in the more recent campaign to bring out the truth about what happened to the pickets, hidden in still secret government documents, as w ell having the sentences squashed.

Unlike Benn, Mick was not born into a privileged background and did not have a career in politics. He was one of 12 siblings born in Kirkdale, Liverpool, on March 24, 1939, and he worked most of his life -when he could - in the construction industry. Married to Mary, and a father of four, he was a warm, friendly man with a typically Scouse sense of humour, but he could be serious, whether patiently reasoning with employers, or winning the confidence of fellow workers.

There were 400 people, relatives and friends, at his funeral to pay tribute, but as for fame, if his name did not make the papers or television, he had a different kind, in the dossier compiled on him for over 40 years by the secretive Consulting Association, financed by big construction companies. Like more than 3,000 other building workers and others, having acquired a name for asking for decent conditions and reporting safety breaches, Michael Abbott found himself not wanted time and again for work that was going on the sites.     

 Working as a scaffolder, Mick was also a TGWU shop steward on several sites, and with his brother Terry, also TGWU, he led a strike at  Stanlow oil refinery in Cheshire. An earlier major dispute came during the construction of Fiddlers Ferry power station near Warrington. A 1964 CA entry states: “Mr Abbott said: ‘I started on the Monday morning and the guy who was in charge said to us he wouldn’t take his lads up on the wet steel. At about 10.30am that morning an old man about 62, a steel erector, came hurtling down and was impaled on the steel barriers. We are always having to fight for safer conditions in the construction industry.’”

When I met the Wigan building workers contingent on that Preston march in 1974 they were surprised to hear that I was working on the Heysham power station site, having used somewhat irregular methods to get on site without going through Taylor Woodrow, the main contractor. They told me that none of them, who had been at Fiddlers Ferry, had been able to get a job at Heysham.

Taylor Woodrow was a major subscriber to the Consulting Association, and before that, to its predecessor, the right-wing Economic League.
When the the CA's offices in Droitwich were raided in 2009 as part of an investigation by the Information Commissioners Office, a total of 3,200 names were discovered on its database. Among documents found were invoices showing that 44 construction firms, including some of the UK’s biggest, were regularly using the database. David Clancy, ICO investigations manager, gave evidence to an employment tribunal that some of the information in files used to blacklist workers “could only be supplied by the police or security services.”

It was during the 1972 building strike, the first national strike in the industry, that Mick Abbott got to know Des Warren and Ricky Tomlinson, who were later jailed on "conspiracy" charges for their part in organising pickets during the strike. At his trial, Des Warren famously said that the only conspiracy had been betwen the big employers, the Tory government, and the police. When Labour got in Home Secretary Roy Jenkins -another of the SDP "gang of four" - refused to release the two pickets, who spent more time in jail under Labour than they had under the Conservatives. A later Labour Home secretary, Jack Straw, told MPs that government documents concerning the Shrewsbury trial must be kept secret for reasons of "national security".

Talking about the CA blacklist, Mick Abbott said last year; “My file goes back to 1964, and the last entry says that I rekindled the campaign for justice for the Shrewsbury picketers in 2006. They have been watching me all these years and passing this information around, blighting my life over four decades.”

Banned from sites, Mick became self-employed, installing kitchens. But he continued campaigning, including support for the Construction Safety Campaign, and the Blacklist Support Group, as well as the Justice for Shrewsbury 24 pickets campaign. In 2012 he met MPs on the Scottish Affairs select Committee who were discussing the effect of blacklisting. He had previously been with Ricky Tomlinson and other activists to a meeting in the Commons about the Shrewsbury case, and he carried on campaigning even though he was seriously ill.

But then Mick Abbott along with other campaigners found themselves up against another kind of obstruction, something which we have been aware of for some time, but refuses to explain itself and therefore remains to be explained. Some people within the Shrewsbury campaign have set themselves up as the "official" campign, according to their website, casting aspersions on activists, and winding the campaign down. Here, added to a tribute to Mick Abbott, is some experience narrated by Pete Farrell:
In December 2013 Mike dispite suffering from just having had chemo went along with others from the Justice for Shrewsbury National committee to the press conference at Parliament. We were prevented from going in by Police who had been told by E.Turnbull we were not invited.  (Eileen Turnbull is a researcher and treasurer for the campaign) Mike had re-established the present campaign in 2006 after having looked after Des Warren and promised Des before he died he would, a man of his word. Mike had as a young man marched from Wigan to London with others demanding their release ! Why is this woman so frightened of the truth ? Why did she walk away without explanation from the National Committee which had a democratic constitution and ignore it ? Why did the Annual Shrewsbury march get cancelled listen to Bob Crow and R.Tomlinson at the rally Ricky states Mike Abbott has spent 30 years fighting for Justice, where's Justice for Mike ? Lets have the truth !

SHREWSBURY marchers ready to start. The marches attracted a wide range of trade union activists and some young people learning about the pickets' case for the first time. Why did the marches stop?

Obituary for Michael Abbott 


MPs vote for release of papers 

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