Friday, March 14, 2014

A Memory Of Tony Benn



I first heard Tony Benn speak when I was an adult student at Ruskin College in 1961 and I last heard him speak at a Conference run by the Society for the Study of Labour History over 50 years later. He  always spoke well and from his depth of understandings and from his socialist commitments. Like all good speakers, he was particularly keen to enter into a full and frank debate with his audience. I was tucked away in the audience the first time I heard him, but on the final occasion we had our last talk together after the meeting. He had been surprised to spot me in the audience.

Although I came across him at Labour Party Conferences and at fringe meetings in the 1970s and early 1980s; I never met up with him face to face until 1983. It was an exceptional occasion. He had been selected to stand for parliament in a by-election at Chesterfield. I was a tutor on an Industrial Day Release Course for Derbyshire Miners which was held at the Adult Education Centre at Hurst House in Chesterfield. As I was teaching politics, I arranged for the candidates from the Labour, Conservative and Liberal Parties to address us. They preferred to address and debate with us separately. As we had four hourly sessions in class between 10 am and 4 pm (with breaks for coffee and lunch), this was easy to arrange. Ideally with candidates covering three of the hourly periods, it would have been educationally advantageous for the fourth hour to be at the start or the end of the day. That would have allowed the class to prepare itself for the event, or to have an inquest over what had transpired. But the candidates had other commitments which cut across this neat plan. So for the session from 11.15 am to 12.15pm, I arranged for the late Bas Barker to address us. He was Chair of the Chesterfield Trade Union Council and the only fourth Party candidate up to then who had ever contested the Chesterfield seat - as a Communist. He was an ideal fourth choice. Eventually 17 candidates stood in the 1983 Chesterfield bye-election. But none of the "extras" had come forward in time for our  discussion. The media took a great interest in the event and turned up to mingle with us during the two coffee breaks, which were held in a "common room". When Tony was speaking the door opened quietly and a microphone was poked into the room. I quickly chased the intruder away. John Halstead was teaching a parallel course to mine as their economics tutor, so we placed the two classes together and shared the chairmanship and organisation. (The class I was teaching is shown in the top photo here). It was an exceptional day of serious debate. Tony in particular contributed to the quality of the day's activities. I considered it to be a great educational success. In the year after Tony's bye-election success, he found that his constituents faced the impact of pit closures and the 1984 Miners' Strike. Those he had addressed at Hurst House a year earlier where now at the forefront of local developments and had Tony solidly and actively on their side.

During the 1983 Chesterfield Bye-election, Tony made an incredible impression. It was not a good time for Labour. Egged on by the media, people turned up at his packed meetings intent to "sort him out". Yet they normally left with posters and leaflets to advance his candidature. I had given him my full support two year's earlier when he was very narrowly defeated in a contest for the Deputy Leadership of the Labour Party. I was at the Labour Party Conference where this vote took place and remember an official whispering in his ear to tell him the result. I still remember the "wow" look on his face.


Four years later, I joined Tony in parliament as the MP for the neighbouring seat to Chesterfield - North East Derbyshire.  The constituency I represented laps in a "C" shape around Chesterfield. Our Constituency Labour Party Meetings and half of my MPs surgeries were held in Chesterfield as it was a central point to meet given the distribution of the NE Derbyshire population. But the links with Tony were not just those of convenience. Once I settled into parliament, I joined the Socialist Campaign Group where he was a major figure. For 14 years we were often together joining in the same debates in the Commons. In the early years, there was the unsuccessful fight to save the remaining pits in our area. Even after he retired from parliament in 2001, he continued to attend meetings of the Socialist Campaign Group and we were together on the platform at the launch of "Labour Against the War" at the time of the invasion of Iraq. In the Commons we met weekly at Socialist Campaign Group meetings. Whilst in Labour rebellions against Blairism we normally met up in the same division lobbies.

Even when people have basic shared horizons in politics, they can't (and should not) agree on everything. On one occasion, Tony and I had a joint meeting of our two Constituency Labour Parties to discuss the situation in Northern Ireland. We did this as Tony and I had different views on what the correct approach should be. He was a solid advocate of a united Ireland. Whilst I was content with that as a long term aspiration, I felt that the fact that the Unionists were in the majority meant that their stance could not just be overridden; it needed accommodating to. Tony, of course, tested my contrasting stance to the full. But invariably in a comradely fashion. We took similar lines in debates within the Socialist Campaign Group itself.

No socialist can ignore Tony's contributions over the years and we need to draw from them. Tony would not, however, want us to do this dogmatically. But in the spirit he pursued matters - through the dialectics of comradely debate. What mattered to Tony was the values which people adhered to. Differences of interpretation on how to relate these to passing events, were of lesser importance. 

 

         

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Manifesto For Europe

 
The Party of European Socialism (PES) is made up of 33 political parties within the European Union, including our own Labour Party. On the 1 March in Rome, the PES adopted its Manifesto for the coming European Elections. It is divided into the ten sections, as below -

1. It is time to put jobs first.
2. It is time to relaunch the economy.
3. Putting the financial sector at the service of the citizens and the real economy.
4. Towards a Social Europe.
5. A Union of equality and women's rights.
6. A Union of diversity.
7. A Safe and Healthy life for all.
8. More democracy and participation.
9. A Green Europe.
10. Promoting Europe's influence in the world.

It is a progressive document and it can be found via the link here

Labour is not planning to publish its own programme until it starts its own short campaign for the European elections. This could still be a few week's away. Why at least, in the meantime, does it not push the above manifesto? It has already been launched by our sister parties in numbers of other European Nations.  If, however, Labour plans to ditch some of the PSE's programme, then we are entitled to know why.

On the PSE, see here.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Mining and Me


Derbyshire Miners at an Industrial Day Release Class in 1983 - outside the WEA Centre at Chesterfield.


Although I have never worked in a coal mine, much of my life has been shaped by the nature of coal mining communities. Today is the 30th anniversary of the start of the 1984-5 Miners' Strike. It is an appropriate time for me to indicate something about what my mining inheritance has meant to me.

I was born in 1936 at Easington Colliery. At that time my father and all of his five brothers worked at the local pit, as did the husband of his only sister. His own grandfather had been killed following a fall of  large stone at Monkwearmouth pit, where Sunderland"s football ground now stands. This is telling, because my eight year old grandson is now a sixth generation Sunderland supporter, going back to our ancestor who was killed. My mother also came from a mining tradition. One of her brother's also worked at Easington's pit and her younger sister married a miner from the neighbouring Horden Colliery. Of my nine relatives who worked at the local pits, only my Uncle Arthur moved jobs by joining the RAF before the second world war. When Easington Colliery suffered a pit disaster in 1951 and 79 local miners and two rescue workers were killed, none of my relatives (which now included cousins) were amongst the fatalities. Yet my father and others were working in the pit at the time. They were in separate seams to the one in which the disaster struck. However, the father of the person who was later to become my first girlfriend was amongst those who were killed.

Mining communities weren't without their internal rivalries and disputes, yet they generally showed an exceptional form of communal coherence and self support. I came naturally to share in these co-operative norms, even though I did not always live up to them. I also followed them in their support for the Labour Party. It started as a form of tribal loyalty, but developed into a commitment to democratic socialist norms by the time I became Secretary of the Easington Colliery Branch of the Labour Party at the age of 21.

Apart from the period of my National Service and term-times when I was a full time adult student, I lived at Easington Colliery until I was 27. I then married Ann, whose father was an onsetter at nearby Shotton Colliery. We moved to Hull where I was studying. But we regularly returned (eventually with our children) to the two Colliery areas, until our parents died. So I joined the picket line on a visit in 1985. My mother was the last of our parents to survive, finally dying in 1999.  Easington Colliery and Monkwearmouth being the final two pits to close in the Durham Coalfield six year earlier.

My links with the coal miners were not, however, confined to my early and fading links with County Durham. From 1966 to 1987, I was an Industrial Day Release Tutor on courses run for Trade Unionists via the Sheffield University Extramural Department. The solid core of this work was with classes of miners from South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire. These classes ran from 10 am until 4 pm, including coffee and lunch breaks. I spent the full period with the men who attended. The main break normally being spent at a local pub for lunch and drinks. Miners attended over a 24 week period each year for three years. The South Yorkshire Miners attended one day per week, whilst the Derbyshire miners attended a second day each week in their second and third years. We studied together as equals and the tutors learnt at least as much from the experience as the students did. The main topic areas we covered were student skills, industrial relations, economics and politics. I dealt with aspects of all of these, except that I did nor specialise in economics - although it is a subject area which can't be excluded from the study of politics.

I had a range of other commitments, with classes from bodies including the Steel Industry, the Railways, my own ASTMS branch, shop stewards and mature students seeking entry to full-time higher education. These were all fine groups of dedicated students - the few exceptions tended to pack in their studies as they thought they were too much like hard work. The miners came from closely knit and inter-related communities and readily and fully joined in a form of shared education from the start. When I later became an MP, I often missed the depth of discussions in day release classes. For too much parliamentary politics is about point scoring and personal advancement. But at least I had some of my former ex-mining students around me such as Kevin Baron and the late Martin Redmond, Kevin Hughes and Terry Patchett. Then there was the late Micky Welsh who had been a fellow student at Ruskin College and had then returned to the mines, whilst teaching on our preparatory courses which were run for those looking for places on our miners day-release programme.

I had the privilege of taking miners' day release classes during the 1984-5 strike itself. Students took time out of their strike activities to attend. In the 1984-5 session itself, I was tutor for two classes of Yorkshire Miners who met on a Thursday and Friday. One student was missing for four weeks as he had been in Lincoln Prison because of a judgment about his strike activities. So immediately on his return he came to the front of the class to tell us of his experiences and to sustain a full mornings debate on policing, the courts and the prison system. He did an excellent job without any notes or any prior warning. I arranged for extracts from the classes' essays on their strike experiences to be published. One of these was from a fine, concerned, able and dedicated student called Bob Genders. Within a year of his return to work after the strike, he was killed in an accident at Rossington pit.

My first experience of meeting these miners was a telling occasion. I had been appointed to a position in the Sheffield Extramural Department, but was still employed at the North Notts College of further education at Worksop. But I was informed that it would be helpful if I participated in a selection conference to determine a fresh intake of Yorkshire Miners. This was held at the NUM Offices in Barnsley, which later became known as "Arthur's Castle". Well over 100 people attended, seeking the 20 places for a new intake. First a tutor gave an explanation of how to takes notes from a talk. Then another tutor gave a clearly structured talk from which they took notes. This would give us an indication of who had problems with writing. Yet some who had such problems were encouraged  to join one of our preliminary courses to tackle such problems. These courses produced numbers who then moved onto the normal day release programme and often became some of our best students. After the note taking exercise, those at the selection conference were divided into groups to discuss two separate topics. One of these would be about the mining industry and the other on a political issue. Tutors would chair the groups, but would swap places with a fellow tutor between the discussion of the two topics. I was initially placed on the platform which the Yorkshire NUM leadership normally operated from and had a group of about ten applicants with me. My job was to encourage everyone to contribute and see how people responded to each others points. The debate was of a telling quality, better than what I had been used to when an undergraduate. I wondered where I had landed myself and how I would manage in class. We were the only part of the University who had Government Inspectors. For a number of years an inspector came to our Yorkshire Miners' selection conferences. Not because she saw problems, because she enjoyed the day so much.

I taught the group of 20 students we selected (but as I was the novice I shared the teaching). Amongst the students were Norman West who went on to become the MEP for South Yorkshire, Terry Patchett a future Barnsley MP, Ron Rigby later leader of the Barnsley Council and Jack Wake from Cortonwood. The miners at Cortonwood walked out when faced with the closure of their pit on 5 March 1984, as the prelude to the lengthy strike. Jack was their Secretary. In all I was the tutor on 30 miners' classes, taking in 720 day sessions. Especially given the decline of the mining industry, numbers of our students moved on to adult education colleges and some went straight into university. One period of decline in coal mining reduced the size of a Derbyshire Miner's third year class to only nine students. Seven of them then moved on the full-time adult education colleges, especially Coleg Harlech.  Numbers ended up as lecturers, teachers, social workers, full-time trade union officers, NCB officials, councillors and the like. But the courses should not be measured in terms of social mobility, but in advancing commitments to the bulk of its participants to use their abilities to serve their communities - even though pit closures helped to destroy much that was best about their home territory. The impact on the tutors is probably seen in the fact that I helped establish and worked with the Miners' Support Group in Dronfield in Derbyshire. Where Ann and I have lived since 1969.

Eventually, in 1987 I moved on and served as  the MP for NE Derbyshire for 18 years. The mines were closing, although the Derbyshire Miners' Day Classes held out until 1994. I hope that I was not seen as a rat that was leaving a sinking ship. Although I could not join the NUM Group of MPs as I was a member of ASTMS (which eventually became part of present day UNITE), I attempted to take an active role in the parliamentary wing of the Coalfield's Community Campaign who operated from Barnsley - its Chair was the leader of the Chesterfield Borough Council. One of my ploys was to introduce a Energy (Fair Competition) Bill in 1993 as an alternative to Heseltine's energy policy which was finally closing Derbyshire's pits. But I was up against the Conservative Government. When the local pits finally went, efforts had to be turned to seeking proper compensation for those who had suffered from their mining experiences, over matters such as chest diseases and vibration white finger. So I was part of that general struggle.  Alternative job openings were also pushed for, but these pressures even gained negative responses when Blair became Prime Minister. I followed the miners tradition in that era of normally being on the best side, but losing out to the worst. Paradoxically, the small pit I aided the most effectively was a small non-NUM drift mine in my constituency. First, I was part of the struggle which got them added to European Union funding. Secondly, I was involved in efforts which got them added to power stations purchasing some of their output. Finally, when they could not obtain insurance cover for the mine, I vigorously pressed their case. But that effort would have failed. It was the owner who saved the day. He transferred the ownership of the mine to the men. They were then able to obtain individual insurance cover and continue their operations. It was worker's control, thanks to the boss!
 
In retirement, my interest in my past mining connections have led to me researching what the local heritage was which I inherited. As the pit at Easington Colliery was first sunk in 1899, I wanted to know about its past in the years before I was born. The fruits of my labours can be found in three articles which were published in the 2011, 2012 and 2013 editions on North East History which is the Journal of the North East Labour History. For more related material on the above themes, see the links provided at the foot of this page.    

 Anger: Men hold a sign called 'Thatcher's prayer' as they travel to Easington Colliery Club
From Easington Colliery at the time of Thatcher's funeral.