Friday, 23 April 2010

Democracy Revisited

Further to Roundup #2 (this blog, 11 April 2010), Unlock Democracy have now published the results of their survey of the various parties` policies, when measured against their own manifesto.

The resulting booklet., which is quite detailed, looks at the policies of 9 parties, Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Plaid Cymru, SNP, UKIP, Respect, BNP.

Policies have been measured by a points system, which is expressed as a percentage. The front runners are the Liberal Democrats (81%), closely followed by the Greens (80.5%), then the SNP  (57%) , The Conservatives (46%) and Labour (45.5%). The remaining parties score very low points.

It should be stressed that these markings only relate to matters within  UD`s remit, i.e. democracy and constitutional reform, and not, for instance, economic matters. The other point I would make is that these overall figures are a guideline only unless you refer to the way the parties performed on specific issues - Labour scored very badly on Preventing Voting Fraud, whereas that was a strong area for both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.

UD have also taken this opportiunity to launch an "online tool to help people decide how to vote in the general election".

Monday, 19 April 2010

Asbestos Awareness and `Advocacy` - For Chris

Not so long ago, my oldest friend died of an industrial disease, malignant mesothelioma, contracted whilst working for a short period mixing asbestos fibres for use as roofing insulation and then for a time working as a roofer installing the material.

He spent only a very short time working for the company in question, and that quite some time ago. So much so that I hardly recall him mentioning it during the twenty-plus years we knew each other.

Recording a verdict of death due to industrial disease, the Coroner commented, "His death is associated with working with asbestos. This is just the tip of the iceberg, really, with asbestos. It is causing all these deaths."

Clearly he was right. The most perfunctory of searches on the web soon uncovered a similar case, a man who lived near to me. He worked as a fitter/welder in a power station for only five years in the `70s, and then moved on to other work, but tragically the consequences of working inside the towers with no protective clothing struck him in later life.

My friend did at least have the comfort of knowing his family were provided for. He was a member of one of the country`s largest trade unions, and they employed a specialist solicitor. The solicitors already had half-a-dozen ongoing comparable cases involving the same employer, who had already indicated they would admit liability.

Others do not have that comfort. In another case I found on the web, a man had contracted an asbestos-related disease whilst working for a company that no longer exists today. Attempts to trace their insurers had failed, leaving him with nothing. Understandably, the man was adding his voice to calls for the government to step in and provide compensation in these circumstances. More recently, campaigners have pressed insurance companies to set up a Fund of Last Resort for those who find themselves in this situation.

There are a number of sites which may prove helpful to anyone needing to know more about the issues surrounding asbestos-relate illness ;

Health and Safety Executive -

British Safety Council -

Trade Union Congress -

Hazards magazine -

Labour Start -

(trade unions/international)

Derbyshire Asbestos Support Team -

(The name is a little anachronistic now. DAST is actually based in Chesterfield on the Notts/Yorks border and it`s activities cover the  East Midlandsas a whole and not just Derbyshire. It`s site provides links to equivalent bodies in other areas and to some national bodies.)

Building and Woodworkers International -

(I must admit I know next to nothing about this one. I`ve had a quick look at the site and as far as I can see the views expressed are perfectly reasonable. In any case, I assume most people reading this know their own minds and don`t need too much guidance from me.)

(American site - once again, I don`t know much about this one but it seems it might be helpful)

Canada is one of the last asbestos-producing nations in the world and the second largest exporter of the substance, which is banned in Europe, New Zealand and Australia. The Canadian government provides funding for the Chrysotile Institute, an `asbestos advocacy body` which promotes the export of Canadian asbestos abroad, mainly to India and Indonesia. The Institute claims to educate developing countries on the safe use of the product, though campaigners are unconvinced, pointing out that symptoms of  asbestos-related illness can take 20 years or more to show up.

Despite worldwide condemnation, the Chrysotile Institute, business groups and, disgracefully, a number of Canadian trade unions have formed a lobbying group, Partners for the Use of Asbestos, to lobby for the Canadian asbestos industry. One wonders how many of them would be happy to have it in their own homes.

In the interest of balance, I was going to provide a link for Partners... but could not trace their site. I did find  and .

As you`ve probably gathered, there are various issues around asbestos and it`s uses and I`ve only really scratched the surface with this brief account. Hopefully it will provide some helpful links and comments for anyone wishing to know more about the subject.

Lastly, it`s worth noting that 28 April is Worker`s Memorial Day - visit for details.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Civil Rights Showdown Revisited

"America`s pretensions to greatness will remain just pretentions until the benefits of freedom, democracy and opportunity are enjoyed by all of our citizens" - W E B Du Bois

My  article headed `Civil Rights Showdown` (this blog, 13 March 2010)  looked at a call for a "new Civil Rights movement", centred on the fight for jobs, by leaders of America`s United Steelworkers trade union.

It looks as if they`ve got their wish as a new coalition, Jobs for America Now, brings together trade union related bodies such as the AFL-CIO (a trade union federation), Change to Win and the Blue-Green Alliance (see my article `John Muir`s Blue Sierra`, this blog, 12 December 2009) with traditional civil rights groups such as the NAACP, the  Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

This is not new ground, but is not without it`s hazards. Both W E B Du Bois and Martin Luther King felt the need to break away from `traditional` civil rights and engage with wider issues. Both had trouble taking their adherents with them on that journey and are often characterised as `leaders without followers` during the periods in question. My own feeling is that times have changed, though I`d have to concede I`ve never so much as visited America, so my opinion may not be worth much !

Be that as it may, J4AN is only one of a number of like-minded groups springing up in the US at this time, and in my judgement they deserve our attention.

Recently, the  Cleveland branch of Jobs With Justice, a coalition of trade unions, religious groups, community organisations and student bodies, took up the cause of former employees of a firm named InkStop Inc, who had been `locked out` when the company`s owners decided to declare bankruptcy. Apparently, the company failed to pay three weeks wages or health insurance (leaving their former staff ineligible for certain types of benefits) and failed to give notice. In a surprise move, District Judge Solomon Oliver ordered the 15 board members to pay the 660,000 US dollars to the 629 former employees from their own pockets.*

Such disputes are not so uncommon in the US - there was a celebrated campaign by steelworker  Frank `Saint of Chicago` Lumpkin and his colleagues in the Save Our Jobs Committee in a similar situation. Mr Lumpkin`s battle took 17 years ! Fortunately, the InkStop workers didn`t have to wait that long. What is unusual is the decision that the  Board should  pay the workers from their own personal funds.  Lawyers for the staff are convinced a highly visible campaign by Cleveland JWJ played it`s part in that.*

For the moment, JWJ and J4AN seem to be striking a chord with many Americans. How they will fare in the future is perhaps a `watch this space` situation. Time will tell.


* It`s worth noting that a statement from the worker`s lawyer praising Cleveland JWJ`s efforts has been removed from their web site and replaced with a statement from the group praising the Board of InkStop for "stepping up to do the right thing" by agreeing to the settlement.



For facts relating to JWJ, J4AN and Frank Lumpkin, I drew on articles in the People`s World by Paul Hill, Joe Sims and John Bachtell, plus a bit of background from the websites of the two organisations..

 Martin Luther King

1) Jon Power - Martin Luther King : A Reassessment - Peace Pledge Union, London, Revised Edition  1983

2) Martin Luther King / Unknown Editor/Compiler (Jon Power ?) - Quotations On Peace and Justice, Racialism and Nonviolence by and about Martin Luther King - Peace Pledge Union, London, 1982

These two were reprinted many times during the `80s.

W E B Du Bois

I`ve read many books by and about W E B Du Bois - try for further evidence of my ongoing obssession !

Monday, 12 April 2010

JBP Gets it Right !

An article in UK newspaper the Mail on Sunday has stated that "millions of visas allowing foreigners to enter Britain are being issued by an American company and a High Street travel agent".

Mail journalist Jason Lewis pointed out that the system had never officially been announced to Parliament and that many applicants were being directed "to commercially run offices around the world" and that "hundreds of thousands of applicants simply fill in a form on a website run by the US company".

The two companies concerned, Computer Services Corporation (CSC) and VFS-Global (part of Swiss package holiday group Kuoni) handle roughly 80% of visa applications, according to Mr Lewis. 

He stated that a Home Office inspection of CRC`s Worldbridge visa office in Rome had raised concerns about "unhelpful" and "generic" wording of replies to customer queries.

A Home Office report in December had gone further, stating that CRC/Worldbridge staff running a visa advice hotline "were polite" but "had no information", rendering the service "completely useless". The report also drew attention to the high charges for using the service, said to be 14 US dollars (roughly £9.00) per call, payable by credit card.

VFS fare even worse. According to Mr Lewis, a member of their staff inolved in providing visa services to Pakistani nationals was arrested last year for allegedly taking £22,000 in bribes but absconded. He sounds a dependable character !

My own personal view is that even if the two companies were providing the best service in the world, the policy of outsourcing in this way should have been announced to Parliament. Clearly, the performance of the firms is subject to official scrutiny in the form of inspections etc, but ultimately elected politicians should be overseeing this and should have all relevant details placed before them promptly in an open and transparent fashion.

Inevitably, the Mail on Sunday, a Conservative newspaper, uses an otherwise excellent article for a bit of Brown-bashing, plus, arguably, a bit of xenophobia,  but while I think we`ve all had more than enough of petty political point-scoring by politicians and their allies, I have to concede that Ministers, including the Prime Minister, should absolutely be held responsible for their secretive and high-handed approach to these matters.

Having said that, this is only the tip of a very big iceberg and Labour are not the only culprits.

 Since the 1980s, the old government departments have been divided into Agencies, normally run by Chief Executives brought in from the private sector on three-year contracts and often relying heavily on casual staff. Hardly a recipe for stability, and certainly not a model of accountability (though thankfully, the original idea that Chief Execs should be `autonomous` has been quietly dropped, as it was perfectly obvious from the start that it would be). In truth, instead of providing a breath of fresh air from outside (which might well have been needed), the result has been to provide us with Agencies that are a weird hybrid of public and private and are often completely dysfunctional.

I don`t believe that either left or right can avoid a degree of blame for the excesses of the `80s. The ultra-left always distrusted the Civil Service as being too involved with a system of checks and balances and likely to be an obstacle to change. Mrs Thatcher agreed, but with very different objectives. `Orthodox` Marxists believed that civil society - the Courts, the Civil Service etc - was made up of `class-based institutions` which were ultimately reactionary (In Marx`s day this was almost certainly true). Prior to the Thatcher era, Labour and the Conservatives to a degree presided over a `post-war consensus` (a kind of  "welfare capitalism" as Tony Wright describes it in his book Socialisms) but failed to make it sufficiently responsive to people`s needs to engender any real sense of shared ownership.

 In modern times, of course, both major parties have been apostles of `globalisation`. I suspect that either would at one time have been only too happy to outsource public services to foreign firms.  

I do not claim to have any magic formula for a perfect society. I do not trust `perfect societies` ! If Mrs Thatcher did one good thing for public services, it was the decision to move many of the newly-formed government agencies out of London, and I do give her credit for that. A little decentralisation goes a long way, you may think.  We need to remind ourselves that public services are supposed to be accountable to Parliament and that Parliament is accountable to the people. I`ve never been very good at finding an ending for articles, but as ultmately we`re talking about how to make a democracy work, you might want to reflect on the words of J B Priestley in his wartime book Out of the People ;

"Let it be admitted, once and for all, that you cannot have democratic government long, cannot make a democracy function properly, if you have an apathetic and passive people."  


Sunday, 11 April 2010

Roundup #2

I`ve heard a rumour that we in the UK have an election coming up. In light of that, let`s continue to ignore political parties and see what some other organisations are doing.

1) Race Relations - The Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust are publishing a series of books by MPs representing the main UK political parties, in the Political Platforms (also known as the Runnymede Platforms) series. Publications to date are ;

Dominic Grieve QC MP - Conservatism and Community Cohesion

RT Hon John Denham MP - Labour and Cohesive Communities

Lynne Featherstone MP - Race Equality and the Liberal Democrats

2) Democracy / Constitutional Reform - Unlock Democracy

UD have issued their own Manifesto and are now looking at the policies of the main political parties, to see which comes closest to their aims. They will publish their findings fairly soon, no doubt. It will be interesting to see how the different parties fare. 

3) Democracy / Constitutional Reform - Power2010

Power 2010 have launched their Power Pledge, advocating various reforms. They ask supporters to visit their site and send a letter on these matters to all their local candidates (not just the incumbent) .

4) Transport / CPRE

CPRE and the other parties to the Heathrow court case have scored a significant victory. While the judge was at pains to make it clear that his ruling didn`t rule out the provision of a third runway and sixth terminal, but it is clear that any future Government will have begin the public consultation all over again, but in a revised form, before they can even think about proceeding. Full details of the ruling can be found at the CPRE web site.

5) Transport / Brake

Road safety charity Brake have a number of ongoing campaigns - visit Often overlooked - perhaps regarded as a bit `worthy but dull` - this organisation has come a long way since it was formed in the 1980s as `Brake - The Campaign for Safer Lorries` - I recall that it was heavily backed  by the trade union I was in at the time and it`s been interesting to see how it`s developed over the years.

6) Environment / Beauly Denny

Pylon Pressure have echoed the call made by Ramblers Scotland to make the Beauly Denny powerline an election issue, calling on supporters and sympathisers to lobby their MPs / MSPs on the issue.

7) Miscellaneous

Save Our Valley, Tripping Up Trump, Mr Peckham`s Pit Pony Petitions, Save our Waterways etc are, of course, ongoing but with no developments since I last mentioned them.

8) Trade Unions / Heath and Safety

The trade union movement will be marking International Worker`s Memorial Day at various locations around the country on Wed 28 April 2010. I will return to this theme in the not-too-distant future.

9) And Lastly...

With an election on the way, politicians and pundits will have little interest in regional matters outside of key marginal seats, and grassroots groups will find it even harder to be heard. I always like to buck a trend when I can, you can keep up to date with  life in parts of the Midlands and the North with these listings ; 

5 April 2010 - Yorkshire Snapshot

5 April 2010 - Derbyshire Snapshot 

17 March 2010 - Snapshot

all of which can be found at

Blasts From the Past ; Angus Cameron on McCarthyism

Blasts from the Past will be pretty much what the title implies, a series of quotations from books and articles, largely taken from my own collection, which for one reason or another I think may be of interest for others.


Angus Cameron was for many years publisher-in-chief at Little, Brown, having previously worked at Bobbs-Merrill. He was noted for his progressive views, but according to the UK newspaper The Independent, was not an idealogically-minded person. 

In 1951 he came under fire from a US-based organisation named The American Legion, who claimed Little, Brown were publishing a disproportionate number of  left-wing writers. Cameron was championing a wide range of writers and indeed had friends across the political spectrum, but as the McCarthy era dawned, the accusations continued (I don`t propose to taking up too much time discussing McCarthyism - for the uninitiated there is a reasonable explanation of the term on Wikipedia).
Cameron`s bosses put pressure on him to abandon his progressive activities. He refused, and resigned from the firm. Shortly afterwards he formed a new company, Cameron and Kahn.  His business partner, Albert Kahn, was a noted left-winger and opponent of McCarthyism, suspected by many (with some justice) of having pro-Soviet views. Perhaps inevitably, Cameron soon found himself summoned to defend himself before the Jenner Committee, a McCarthyite investigative body.

Left-wing magazine Masses and Mainstream published his statement to the Committe in their June 1953 issue. Like Cameron`s choice of business partner, the choice of M and M as his vehicle was perhaps a little provocative. The openly pro-Soviet periodical represented both the best and the worst of the American left of it`s day, a question we will be returning to in later articles.

Cameron began by deploring "the atmosphere of hysteria" leading to the inquiry, pointing out that "Congress has no right to legislate and therefore no right to investigate...the rights of free speech and free press". However, he continued "I welcome the chance to make a statement about the committee and its works."

Indicating that he regarded the various McCarthyite committees as "inquisitional", he expressed the view that they were acting "illegally" by "investigating into the political beliefs, affiliations and associations of American citizens, not in order to search out subversion, but actually to intimidate and terrify the people, to silence democratic criticism not only of these committees themelves, but of the policies and action of the administration."

"As a book publisher," he continued, "In consider that I have a special function to oppose these activities since they attack the right of the people to say and print what they believe without fear of smear or persecution.

I believe that the freedom to explore through books the real world around a freedom which cannot be limited in the slightest degree."

After expanding further on his thoughts, he commented "I welcome the chance to add my voice to the rising tide of opposition to this committee and the thinking in the administration which makes it possible. I am glad to express my confidence that the people of this country will soon discover the true purposes of the witch hunt and sweep it they have swept away similar practises in the past."

In conclusion, he stated "I am proud of the books which I have had a part in publishing, of the organisations which I joined or supported, and of the educational ventures in which I participated...I intend to continue my activities for books, causes and organisations in which I believe, regardless of disapproval of this committee. My own knowledge based on study, my own observations of the real world around me, and my own conscience based on convictions will continue to determine my actions whatever this committee may think or do to the contrary."  

Subsequently, Cameron took over the running of the left-wing Liberty Book Club, before eventually being hired by Knopf. He began work at Knopf in a fairly minor editorial postion, apparently, but rose to become vice-chair of the company.  He was the author of a number of books in his own right, mostly reflecting his love of the outdoors and fondness for cookery.

There are few sources on the web concerning Cameron, and they do tend to contradict each other. I`ve largely drawn on John Calder`s obituary of Cameron for The Independent (5 December 2002) as it seemed to be the only one penned from the persective of someone who knew him personally. Calder describes Cameron as a `liberal` rather than a leftist, though it is clear he had left-wing connections, including some contact with the American Communist Party.


Friday, 2 April 2010

Fighting Slavery and Climate Change in Yorkshire

Launched in May 2009 after a sucessful three-year pilot, the British Museum`s `Campaign - Make an Impact` project encourages active citizenship and an awareness of history amongst youngsters.

`Active citizenship` and `historical awareness` are key interests for this blog, so it was interesting to learn how the scheme has  been put into practise in Yorkshire recently.

Staff of the Dales Countryside Museum, the North Yorks County Record Office and researcher Audrey Dewjee  have been working with pupils from Richmond looking at the abolition of the slave trade and it`s relevance for their area, examining archival material such as a notice from Dent concerning an escaped slave and the baptism record of John  Yorke, described as a "black servant".

Having looked at the historical issue, the pupils went on to explore the techniques used and to mount their own campaign on a modern issue, that of climate change. Museum employee Jane Sammells  commented "we feel this is a wonderful way of encouraging young people to engage with their heritage whilst enabling them to consider contemporary issues".

Interestingly, Morris Birkbeck, a prominent opponent of the American slave trade, was born in the Dales, in the town of Settle. Accompanied by his children and a frind, George Flowers, Birkbeck emigrated in 1817 after the death of his wife. The two men hoped to found a colony where "the insolence of wealth and the severity of pauperism..are alike and unknown".

They settled in Edwards County, Illinois and founded a township named Wanborough. Birkbeck was moved to action when moves were made to introduce legislation allowing slavery in Illinois, and his `Appeal to the People of Illinois` is held to have been influential in leading the people to reject the proposal. 

Of course, Birkbeck was not the only opponent of slavery, many others played a part, including Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce. Escaped slaves like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman also played an important role. In Jamaica, a band of former slaves called the Maroons (from the Spanish  Cimaron, meaning "an untamed person") fought the British forces in the 18th century. There was slave insurrection in Haiti, and some believe this contributed greatly to the end of slavery, not least because slave traders were afraid to sail too near to the newly freed country, fearful the Haitians would attack them to free their human cargo.

Back in present-day Yorkshire, Ms Sammells and her team are currently repeating the exercise,  still focusing on slavery and climate change, but are planning a future project looking at the campaign to create National Parks.


I don`t claim this article is particularly original. I drew heavily on two articles ;

J Sammells - Campaign - Make an Impact, Dales Heritage, Issue 11 , January 2010
Brian Goodall - Morris Birkbeck 1764 - 1825, Dales Heritage, Issue 11 , January 2010

and a visit to

On The Web

If any of the issues touched on here interest you the following sites may be useful ;

Anti Slavery -  - The UK`s oldest pressure group, this organisation was formed under the name The Anti Slavery Society by Thomas Clarkson and others in 1839 to fight slavery worldwide.

Also interesting is the unsigned article A Look at 21st Century Slavery ( 29 July 2010) at

Climate Change - these two American sites are interesting - and .

National Parks - . Two articles on this blog, `Kinder Scout and a Historic Mass Trespass` and `After Kinder`, touch briefly on issues relating to National Parks, though not in any depth, and have useful links.

Yorkshire Heritage -


Talking of young people getting in touch with history, I learnt recently of Hidden Herstories, a project involving a group of young budding film-makers. Their film looks at the lives of four women (Octavia Hill, Amy Ashwood Garvey, Claudia Jones and Jayaben Desai). I must admit, I haven`t had time to look at it myself yet, but it can be found here ;