Saturday, 29 May 2010

Blasts from the Past - J B Priestley on Democracy

Yorkshire is believed by many to be the cradle of civilization, and among it`s finest exports we find the writings of J B `Jack` Priestley, novelist, essayist and somewhat reluctant political activist.

This legendary literary grumbler made a passing appearance in this blog in `JBP Gets it Right` , 12 April 2010.

Schemes to extend and deepen democracy take many shapes and forms.  I suppose one could validly come up with a number of names, often from different and/or conflicting political backgrounds, all of whom could stake their claim with some justice. I personally would name-check W E B Du Bois, Manning Marable and Sam Webb, though in each case it would be a critical appreciation.

Having said that, there is one man who has been an influence on me for a much longer time than any of these, a man whose plays, essays, short stories and novels have obscured his credentials as a political thinker, and that`s our old mate Jack.

I`ll leave discussion of the various causes our grumpy literary lion embraced for another time, and concentrate for the moment on the views expressed in his wartime book Out of the People (1941).

At the time he wrote this book he had for a time been one of Britain`s most popular radio broadcasters, second only to Churchill in the people`s affections. This period of his life had lasted for six months before his programmes were cut due to complaints that he was becoming too political. He himself claimed to have received abusive letters from his detractors, though one assumes that a man who had fought in World War One was not unduly troubled by the odd crank letter.

Tellingly, when Priestley considers democracy, he does not see it as simply something that happens every few years, not merely a method by which people elect politicians and nothing else. Neither does he simply see it (as I tend to) as an ongoing process of representation and accountability. His version seems to be a more complete vision, taking into account the interplay of different and sometimes opposing forces.

In  the passages I`ll be quoting he looks at those factors in British life which seem to him to offer bulwarks against totalitarianism. In places he is obviously discussing a rather different world than the one we now live in, but his underlying message, in my view, still stands. I`ve edited out references that are very dated, but have left the substance of his remarks unaltered ;

Tellingly, his democracy is not in fact the democracy of politicians, but the democracy of, as the title of his book implies, the people. In the Britain of his day, he tells us ;

"A whole world of conduct and values persists outside...official authority. This means that although that authority might be as strongly organised and centralised here as it is elsewhere, the effect could not possibly be the same. There are Courts, those of popular and private opinion, where it`s writ does not run."

Leaving aside these slightly intangible factors, he goes on to look at organisations ;

"Fortunately too for Britain the central authority has not suppressed various large and powerful associations that are the first to disappear in a totalitarian state.

Among these of course are the trade unions...Some of us have always tended to deplore the direct political influence of trades unionism, on the ground that it is uncreative and really bolsters up the capitalistic system. The trade union official, after years of negotiation, is not easily transformed into a boldly constructive political leader. If he is a member of Parliament...he is apt to regard himself as having "arrived" more or less like the Tory politician who finds himself in the House of Lords, and may do little more than obey routine orders. Most of us have at some time or other condemned that political machine known as Transport House. But now I for one am glad that it still exists."

Remaining with the subject of the unions, he then looks at them from another angle ;

"The organisation of so many workpeople into powerful unions...does mean that such workpeople, no matter how wide the gulf between them and the real executives, do not feel powerless and helpless, mere cogs in a vast machine. There still exists a sphere in which they can to some extent assert themselves. They may find themselves dominated by the political machinery of Transport House, but at least this is another kind of machine, capable of resisting if necessary the power of the central authority."

Moving on, he turns his attention to the Co-Operative Movement (then rather different to the one we know today), and to professional associations ;

"Another example of a strong the Co-Operative Society, which might use its vast membership, elaborate organisation and wealth in a more boldly creative fashion than it has done up to now.

And then there are the various professional associations, some of which, notably the British Medical Association, could if necessary offer some resistance to any unreasonable and tyrannical government demands, and might prove very useful allies to any democratic movement."

He goes on to give what seems to me to be his strongest argument ;

"The fact that it is always one of the first acts of a dictator to suppress or control such associations as these only proves how fortunate we are still to possess such associations. But indeed the part they play in English life is very important, and most outside observers, concentrating too much on our Parliament and Cabinet system, nearly always make the mistake of underestimating their influence. The network of them gives a certain democratic toughness to the fabric of English life that is not perceptible to the foreign theorist. They are...capable of playing an even greater part in the new Britain."

Clearly these matters are important to him as a couple of pages later he returns to his theme ;

"Fortunately the network of associations, whether trade and professional or educational and cultural, remains with us. Their continued existence - and in spite of so many adverse conditions they are astonishingly alive - means that people can meet and freely exchange ideas and opinions. At these times they are all something more than servants of the machine. They are real citizens. They throw off any resemblance to the featureless folk of `the masses` and turn into real people. The true democratic spirit, which can only exist among real people, is born among them."

(The latter comment may seem a little odd. He is referring back to an earlier passage in which he argued that  Fascists and orthodox Communists view the population as an undifferentiated mass (`the masses`), rather than the infinitely varied body of people (`real people`) he himself encountered. )

There, for the moment, we`ll leave JB. The important thing here, to me, is not that he is arguing for an uncritical appreciation of the bodies he mentions - clearly he has his own criticisms of the trade unions and the co-operative movement, and I`m sure he could have found aspects of the work of the BMA he was unhappy with. His specific contention, that the organisations he referred to provide obstacles in the path of any tendency towards totalitarianism or over-centralisation seems to me to be well-made. More relevant today is to consider the role these organisations play and whether, each in their own way, they contribute to a healthy democracy.

We`ll return to JBP at some later date, right now, I`m going to have my dinner !

Thursday, 13 May 2010

Nick Clegg Plays Jazz Saxophone !

Yes, it`s true ! Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg plays jazz saxophone and has his own Charlie Parker tribute act. Other members include author Terry Pratchett, TV presenter Adrian Childs and a man called Barry who they met when he delivered a pizza to the rehearsal rooms they use in Dartford , Kent.

Actually, that`s not true at all, I made it up. Having got your attention, I`d like to return to the subject of the recent UK general election - the reason for that little trip to the outlands of my imagination was just to spice things up a bit.

More than any other recent general election, this one seemed to me to be all about disaffected Labour voters, particularly in the Midlands and the North.

 In a surprise move, the Tories seemed to target this group. Where I live, numerous advertising hoardings presented themselves to passers by with images of blue-collar workers accompanied by the slogan `I`ve Never Voted Tory Before, But...`. As I mentioned before, David Cameron seemed to distance himself from the legacy of Mrs Thatcher and speak the language of  unity and the common good, a message that some say displeased his backbenchers.

The Liberal Democrats, as we know, increased both the number of votes they received and the proportion of votes cast, though the number of seats they held fell. The reason for this, I suspect, is something else  I commented on before, that the non-Tory vote in traditional Labour strongholds divided itself between Lib and Lab. This was a big concern for Labour, as  illustrated in some of the leaflets that came through my door, one in particular carrying the slightly bizarre message "go to bed with Nick Clegg and you could wake up with David Cameron" !

Another thing that came over very strongly was the superficial worldview of many TV pundits, accustomed for so long to treating politics as a game of musical chairs played at Westminster. Again and again, pundit talked to politician and pundit talked to pundit, before (of course), turning back to the studio to see how the city was reacting.

This lack of depth revealed itself in other ways.

When David Cameron twice stressed that he numbered steel company Corus among his backers, no-one knew enough to challenge him about their appalling health and safety record (even though they acquired four further criminal convictions and fines totalling £355,000 during the run-up to the election and are currently under investigation following yet another death at one of their sites), or their boardroom instability (four senior managers having resigned in as many months), or their controversial `mothballing` of their plant at Redcar at a time when the overseas market for steel is bouyant.

When Liberal Democrats campaigning in the key marginal of Derby North boasted of their party having taken control of Derby City Council, no-one mentioned the unusual background (when Labour and Conservative Councillors entered into a pact to freeze out Lib Dem Councillors, Labour voters in a magnificent display of bloody-mindedness took ther votes way from Labour and voted Lib Dem instead) or the questions that have been asked as to whether some councillors are too close to waste contractor RRG, or the use of public funds to finance RRG`s appeal against their own Council Planning Committee.

No-one could say that Labour had a good campaign, but in truth it could have been worse. Had reporters sampled views in the increasingly resentful Labour heartlands, one feels a few home truths might have been spoken. Instead , reporters talked about such specious concepts as `Lambrini Ladies` and `Motorway Men`, oblivious to the fact the Labour`s support was draining away in cities and town centres.

Two big changes were noticeable.

One concerned immigration. At one time, when politicians spoke on this issue, they were usually `playing the race card`.  Now, you wouldn`t make that assumption - people`s concern tends to be over European immigrants and migrant workers, to be a matter of resources and not of race.

While it`s true that the BNP and UKIP weren`t able to make any political capital over the matter, there is something of a democratic deficit. As things stand, any voter of mainstream political views who feels we have given too much power to an insufficiently democratic European Union simply has nowhere to go. I was glad to see the Lib Dems switch their emphasis from being part of Europe to wanting to reform Europe, and also to hear recently that any further hand-over of power to Brussells will now be subject to a referendum (allegedly).

The other is manufacturing. Suddenly, all three main party leaders are enthusiastic supporters of  the UK`s manufacturing industry. In fairness, Nick Clegg is MP for Sheffield and so has a constituency interest in the matter, but the other two as far as I knew where apostles of globalisation and the `casino economy` of financial services. One suspects this change of heart has to do with having been brought face to face with the reality of  the roulette wheel of investment banking, as well as the need to win hearts and minds north of the Thames. Certainly it`s no bad thing. In my view we need more manufacturing, more green jobs and above all, safe jobs. I really do think we are going to lay down the law (probably literally) to companies like Corus and BP.

Anyway, that`s wot I fink about the election. Now that`s done, let me tell you about David Cameron`s secret life as an Elvis impersonator...

Blue Truck, Green Truck

An American Congressional Sub-Committee heard testimony this month about the Clean Trucks Programs at the LA and Long Beach ports.

These schemes were introduced in October 2008 to replace large numbers of old trucks with newer vehicles with lower emissions.  A `carrot and stick` approach was adopted combining strict environmental standards with subsidies to help buy new trucks.

The LA port had planned a `concession` system requiring trucking firms to hire drivers as employees, rather than treating them as nominally independent sub-contractors, and take responsibility for maintaining trucks. This went `on hold` due to a preliminary  injunction sought by the American Trucking Association. Their lawsuit against the port authority in this matter has been heard and a decision is pending.

The Sub-Committee heard from representatives of the Natural Resources Defense Council that the two ports generated "more smog-forming pollution and particle-forming nitrogen oxides than all 6 million cars in the region".

The NRDC points out that communities around the ports have a 60% higher risk of cancer from air pollution and higher asthma rates than those experienced elsewhere in the same region. They reject the trucking industry`s argument that the ports have no authority to address environmental and safety concerns.

Owner-driver Jose Covarrubias described life as an `independent` contractor, which sounds similar to the arrangement experienced by some self-employed couriers in the UK. "No matter what port truck driver I talk to, the story is the same. The companies just call us independent contractors so we can pay for everything and so that they can avoid paying their taxes."

The Committee also heard from trade unionists and industry representatives.

On the same day, the Good Jobs, Green Jobs conference, an event sponsored by the Blue Green Alliance* heard from truck driver Porfirio Diaz concerning the struggle he and his fellow drivers are waging for union rights and clean air.

Diaz has spent 25 years transporting cargo containers to and from the port at Oakland, California. Initially he regarded it as a good job with a unionised employer offering good terms. Then the company decided to make the previously directly-employed drivers into `independents` paid by the load and with no union or health and welfare benefits.

In practise, this means he is no longer paid whilst waiting to pick up a container and has to cover his own fuel and other costs, sometimes working a 70 hour week - hardly a good thing for a man driving a heavy vehicle ! His son suffers from asthma which he believes comes from smog generated by trucks idling in the port - I assume he lives nearby - and the family home was repossessed when he fell behind with his mortgage payments.

With help from the labour and environmental movements, he and his fellow-drivers are campaigning for legislation to win back the benefits they lost and force the comapnies to reduce port pollution.


This posting draws heavily on articles by Tim Wheeler and Marilyn Bechtel which appeared in the American  People`s World newspaper. The research and reporting is pretty much all theirs and my own contribution is really just in writing a new and more compact article based on their work, and in Anglicizing it a little to avoid confusion (Americans use the word `expenses` where we would say `costs`, whereas `expenses` to me means money refunded to by an employer to an employee who has incurred expenditure as part of his/her work, e.g. to pay for accomodation whilst working away from home.).

I don`t have much information on Tim Wheeler, But I do know he wrote some excellent articles on health and safety matters recently, particularly with reference to the recent US mining disaster.

Marlilyn Bechtel is a former professional musician who has been with the PW since the `80s and is active in the peace movement.


*For further reading on the BGA, see my article `John Muir`s Blue Sierra`, this blog, 12 December 2009.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Ramblers Revisited Again

Storm clouds are gathering over The Ramblers` next General Council Meeting*, following the closure of the Scottish and Welsh Offices and the accompanying redundancies.

At the GCM, Motions of Censure from a number of branches are going forward in respect of both Senior Management and the Board of Trustees. These have been merged into one composite motion which also requires the Board of Trustees to explain what measures have been put in place to prevent any further problems of this nature.

There are also separate motions requiring greater openness and better communication. A particular area of concern is that many groups and individuals are unaware of consultations addressed to them. There are suggestions that some items are deliberately hidden away in obscure corners of the national website.

One observation I would make is that Senior Management and Trustees seem to be representing member`s concerns as arising from a simple breakdown in communication. While poor communication has been part of the problem, it has only been one small part of a much wider picture. My suspicion is that they are looking for a presentable way to account for this on their CVs - it`s a nice, glossy cop-out to say "we became aware that a problem of communication existed and took steps to rectify this", which on the face of it seems very reasonable. The true picture might be more damaging to certain people`s career prospects.

Anyway, that`s enough of that. For background and further reading, you might like to look at these ;

Snapshot - May 2010 (8 May 2010)
Ramblers Revisited     (13 March 2010)
Rambling Through Adversity ? (10 December 2009)


After Kinder (10 March 2010)
Kinder Conservtion and a Historic Mass Trespass (1 November 2009)

( The last two both appeared on this blog.)



*Regrettably, time has ovetaken us and the relevant meeting has now taken place. Further news in due course.


For an update on the GCM, visit

Saturday, 8 May 2010

A Few Random Observations About the UK General Election

I deliberately avoid making this blog party political as, like most people, I associate the two main parties with petty point-scoring that ignores and/or obscures the real issues that face us all.

Having said that, there are a few things to learn from the recent general election, regardless of what you think of the outcome.

The most interesting thing to me was the way in which Labour`s traditional strongholds became their Achilles` heel. One striking thing about the run-up to election day was the way in which the Tories targetted traditional Labour voters with their "I`ve Never Voted Tory Before But..." posters. With many in post-industrial areas of the Midlands and the North having felt ignored by Labour (at leadership level) for so long, it would be interesting to know how effective this was. Personally, I suspect many normally safe Labour seats fell to the Conservatives because disaffected Labour voters took their votes to the Lib Dems.

Also interesting was the way in which the three main party leaders are now enthusiastic about manufacturing and engineering. An attempt to win votes in the Midlands and the North ? An acceptance that a `casino economy` over-dependant on revenue from the financial services sector is just not viable any more ?

Also educational was the way in which yesterday`s icon is today`s encumbrance. Labour wheeled out Tony Blair very early on in their campaign, and shunted him back to the US remarkably quickly, allegedly alarmed by negative feedback from the public. Mr Cameron appeared to distance himself from Mrs Thatcher`s legacy with his talk of a  Big Society and his claim that they don`t wish to be `The Nasty Party` (his phrase, I believe) any more.  Whether he can bring allies like Corus on board with this is another matter (- see ).

I am a believer that the best election result is a high turn-out from a motivated and well-informed electorate and the question of who wins is secondary, so in that way I`m quite happy, though in future they will have to ensure that all who want to vote, and are entitled to, can actually vote.

I would like to express some sympathy for those like Judy Mallaber who lost their seats through no fault of their own. Ms Mallaber represented my wife and myself over a constituency matter some years ago and showed herself to be a forceful and effective MP, and I know she has fought tirelessly for local industry. We need more like her and I`m sorry to see her go.

Lastly, there is still some fall-out as we all know. Personally I would welcome a hung Parliament if it makes politicians work together in the common good, but let`s see what works in practise.

In the meantime, here are some responses from the progressive community. I`d urge anyone reading this to consider these organisation`s arguments. If you disagree, or are unconvinced, fair enough - I don`t agree with everything they propose myself -  but I think they deserve our consideration ;

Friday, 7 May 2010

Still the Boss ?

Employees of designer clothes company Hugo Boss won an unexpected victory when the firm reversed an earlier decision to close it`s plant in Brooklyn, Ohio last month.

The company had planned to close the US plant and move produuction overseas, where labour is cheaper. The change of heart, hailed as "almost unprecedented" by trade union leader Bruce Raynor, came about due to global pressure of different kinds.

One man who can give himself a pat on the back is actor Danny Glover, who organised a boycott of Boss` products by Oscar nominees attending an Academy Awards ceremony and also visited the plant in person to address the workers. Ordinarily I have little interest in celebrities, but  Glover, although I know next to  nothing about his film career, does seem an interesting character. The son of two postal workers who were both NAACP activists, he has embraced various causes throughout his life and is currently chair of  Trans-Africa Forum, a Du Bois-style Pan-African organisation.

The involvement of a progressive-minded celebrity might not mean much in another industry, but in the image-sensitive world of high fashion, it is a very big deal indeed, particularly given Mr Glover`s  hands-on approach.

While it`s very tempting to say that this is a case of  "one man can make a difference", that`s very rarely true, and many played a part in the campaign to save the worker`s jobs.

 A major factor in the reversal of the closure decision was the fact that state pension funds in various parts of the US made protests. The reason their words had weight was that they all had substantial holdings in Permira, a UK company which has the controlling interest in Hugo Boss.

Another factor was that German trade union IG Metall sits on the board of Boss, and that Spanish trade unions picketed a tennis tournament  sponsored by the company. Turkish trade unions also sent letters of support to the worker`s campaign.

Many others played their part - local politicians, religious leaders,  the workers themselves and Cleveland Jobs With Justice, who I seem to recall we encountered in an earlier article on this blog.

The unions did have to take a pay cut to keep the plant alive, but overall, it`s still  an excellent result.

Over here in the UK, things don`t always seem so encouraging.

 A major multi-national that employs a friend of mine has just decided to close the plant where he works (I`m deliberately `anonymising` the details as things are a bit sensitive there at present), throwing 1200 people out of work. Part of the reason is that some of the work previously carried out on site has been contracted out to companies in other parts of the world. Although it is not a unionised workplace, some employees had joined the relevant union as private individuals. There have been consistent complaints from them for many years to my knowledge that their union ignores them, and I gather no help has been offered in this situation, despite a number of requests.

The behaviour of some European multi-nationals sparked angry responses from UK oil refinery and power station workers not so long ago, particular issues being safety matters and selective hiring processes that appear to put UK workers at a disadvantage. In the East Midlands at least, that still flares up periodically, though no longer making national headlines. The unusual thing about this series of disputes is that it appears spontaneous and not instituted by trade unions or any political grouping. The left has been divided over whether to support the workers, and those that do admit to having been taken by surprise. The far right has stayed away. While their grievances seem well-founded, the workers themselves show little knowledge of current affairs and/or trade union law, so one can assume they`ve not been briefed on the issues. Certainly, the trade unions have become involved in supporting them, but by the same token, some support has been forthcoming from Conservative MP Patrick Mercer, who has a number of constituents among the workforce.

Saving the worst till last, we now come to the shameful story of Corus.

Steel company Corus  was fined £1.3 million pounds and ordered to pay £1.7 million pounds in costs in December 2006 after an explosion in the company`s Port Talbot furnace killed three workers. The Judge in the case, Justice Lloyd-Jones, was critical of the company`s "casual" attitude to safety.

You might think that this would be enough of a warning shot  to make the company change it`s ways, but this is clearly not the case as a quick visit to will show you.

Safety magazine Hazards lobbied the leaders of the three major UK political parties over Corus` abyssmal safety record during the run up to the UK general election this year. In particular, they highlighted the fact that the company had been convicted of 8 safety breaches, including three fatal incidents, during the period August 2007 - April 2010. If anything, the firm is now offending more frequently, as during March 2010 and April 2010, Corus UK Ltd and a subsidiary, Corus Special Profiles, were convicted of four separate safety breaches, including one of the fatal incidents mentioned above, and were ordered to pay a total of £355,000 in fines as a result.

One thing that strikes me about this is that in 2006, the firm is fined £1.3 million, but after continuing to offend on a regular basis, and with a clear pattern of escalation in recent times, the highest single fine imposed in the cases highlighted by Hazards is £250,000, a mere fraction of the earlier fine and very little indeed to a company with an annual turnover measured in billions.

One factor contributing to Corus` appalling record is the fact that the company is deeply unstable at the highest level, with four senior managers having resigned in as many months. Whatever the circumstances, it is clear that effective enforcement is needed to bring about change and so far I don`t think we`re seeing this.

At time of writing, Corus are under investigation yet again following the death of an employee in Scunthorpe.

It`s clear that politicians, trade unionists and others (including the Courts) are going to find that dealing with multi-nationals throws up issues that are not at all eassy to solve. The Hugo Boss situation shows that under the right circumstances, intelligence, imagination and, above all, determination can prevail in the end.


For the Hugo Boss situation I have drawn on a number of articles by Rick Nagin* for People`s World. For the other matters my sources were many and varied, including This is Scunthorpe, Scunthorpe Telegraph and Hazards Magazine.

* Rick Nagin sounds an interesting character. A member of the Newspaper Guild and the Communications Workers of America, he has been active in journalism and grassroots politics for many years. At one time Executive Assistant to Cleveland, Ohio`s first Hispanic Councilman, he himself received an impressive 49 % of the vote when running for Cleveland City Council in 2009. He is now involved with the AFL-CIO trade union federation and Jobs With Justice.