Willie Gallacher was a prominent Scottish left winger of the early 20th century and this amazing book, discovered in Beverley’s OXFAM book shop, is his account of the struggles that faced the industrial working class and was published in 1935, just before his election to the Commons as the only ever elected Communist MP outside London.
It is an easy to read book, and if you see through the author’s obvious self aggrandisement and somewhat confused ideology, there is plenty of echoes from history for us to reflect on during yet another depressingly predictable crisis of capitalism.
There is an ad for the Simpsons on Channel Four where Homer repeatedly electrocutes himself in pursuit of beer. But no matter how many times he is pumped full of electricity he keeps on repeatedly doing the same futile action with the same futile outcome. Sounds familiar? That’s because it is. The system does not, and never has delivered for the majority and the crises always have the same ingredients. Financial “confidence” wanes, someone points out that the emperor is wearing no clothes (the banks, mortgages being worth nothing et al, ad nauseum), there is a squeeze on the workers as the boss class entrench their wealth, and the cycle starts over.
Gallacher is a protagonist in Glasgow during a number of bitterly fought social and industrial disputes. The land lords (who were generally factory owners) decided in 1915 to raise rents for those who could least afford it, without lifting wages. A rent strike ensued. The London Government advised the bosses to go to the law. One small problem. When test cases were presented, the workers mobilised in massive numbers to defend their comrades and the judiciary advised the bosses that their position was untenable. The raise was dropped and Munitions Minister David Lloyd George was forced to pass the Rent Control Act that year to prevent further such disputes disrupting the war effort.
The victory was achieved by solidarity and constant agitation in meetings and in the streets by union leaders and Labour councillors working together against a common enemy.
Interestingly one union branch decided to break ranks and settle before their comrades. They were then well and truly shafted by their bosses because the weakness and collaboration shown whetted the appetites of the owners to go for broke. This reminded me of Roy Link and the Notts NUM who defected to the Tory cause and formed the Union Of Democratic Mineworkers during the 84/85 dispute. Hesletine and Major rewarded this loyalty in 1993 when they closed pits en masse. Link protested by attempting to sit at the bottom of a mineshaft. He failed and how the Tories laughed at such a patsy.
Just as Hull City Council Labour Group are prepared to allow savage cuts (whilst trying to have it both ways in some cases by “supporting” protesters such as at Ennerdale) then the Tories in London realise they have midwives to deliver cuts ready made, who won’t make a fuss and provide a template for other areas, and future settlements.
Gallacher makes a superb point regarding so called “apathy”. “All the way there were sections of the Labour Party who sneered at our aims, and attempted to instil that deadly virus of passivity. “Just wait until we are in power””. Finish that sentence with “in 2015” and you have the arrogant, self serving and frankly presumptuous attitude of the Labour leadership right here right now.
Instead of showing the workers that they are on the right side of today’s crises and problems, they say (and we’ve heard it with our own ears), “we don’t know what we are inheriting so therefore we can’t make any promises”. So despite the crushing immorality of the Bedroom Tax, it took SIX MONTHS for the PLP to decide they didn’t like it.
Instead of striking whilst the iron was hot and getting out in to the community (anyone can vote in the Commons and then claim £15 for dinner with a free taxi back to their funded houses) to stand shoulder to shoulder with their constituents, they spent most of 2012/13 in a state of paralysis. Then when Ed Miliband set out his vision in his conference speech this year, where were the Shadow Ministers supporting him? It’s claimed we came up with so many policy ideas. Where are they?The public certainly don’t know what they are when we ask them at street stalls, especially the under 30’s.
You would be forgiven in thinking that apathy suits the political class. That way there is no scrutiny and they can carry on riding the gravy train. The public will tar them all with the same brush and the status quo will be retained (along with their seats and expense accounts).
Gallacher developed a strong template for mass mobilisation of workers. It was simple, straightforward. Work hard, talk to people, and be visible and active in campaigning. If the public see you are straightforward and can provide answers to simple questions of injustice then you are on the road to success. It takes moral courage, but it can be done.
Unfortunately the hero worship went to his head, and despite arguing for extra parliamentary activity as being in the vanguard of what socialists are setting out to achieve Gallacher entered the beauty pageant of the Commons (politics, after all is showbiz for ugly people, I never said John Prescott!) and became an unswerving Stalinist. Nevertheless this book is a wonderful story of how the power is with the workers, we just haven’t realised it yet.