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UK General Strike?

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 “Mick Lynch, head of the RMT union, has said there could be a general strike if Liz Truss becomes prime minister and introduces laws intended to make it harder for unions to organise industrial action. Mr Lynch is quoted calling for an “enormous response” if the measures go ahead.” BBC.

Calls for a General Strike, effectively a TUC led Day of Action, have come in the wake of the rail unions’ work stoppages. The Guardian says, “As much of Britain’s rail network ground to a halt, the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union chief, Mick Lynch, called for a general strike in retaliation to ministers’ threats to curb industrial action, warning of “the biggest resistance mounted by the entire trade union movement”.

One of the last acts of Boris Johnson was to make strike breaking by companies hiring agency workers, “New law in place to allow businesses to hire agency workers to plug staffing gaps caused by strike action.

  • Law changed to allow businesses most impacted by industrial action to fill vital roles with temporary, skilled workers
  • Reforms will help ensure crucial public services and people’s daily lives remain uninterrupted by staff strikes
  • Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng: “In light of militant trade union action threatening to bring vital public services to a standstill, we have moved at speed to repeal these burdensome,1970s – style restrictions.”

Challenger for leadership of the Tory Party and the post of PM Liz Truss has promised to extend this scabs’ charter, by effectively making strikes hard, if not impossible, in large sectors of the the economy and public services.

Truss said she would legislate for minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure in the first 30 days of government under her leadership. The pledge would go further than the Tories’ 2019 policy, which promised a minimum service should operate during transport strikes.

The new law proposed by Truss would potentially restrict teachers, postal workers and the energy sector. Tailored minimum thresholds, including staffing levels, would be determined with each industry.

What would be a General Strike against this dictatorial turn?

The word gives the impression of a replay of the 1926 events when some 1.7 million workers went out, especially in transport and heavy industry, in  an attempt to prevent wage reductions and worsening conditions for 1.2 million locked-out miners. But what may be on the cards is probably protest that attempts to be on the lines of the campaign against Tory PM Edward Heath’s Industrial Relations Act in the early 1970s. 12 January 1971 the TUC held a ‘day of action’ in protest, with a march through London. In March, 1,500,000 members of the AEU engineering union  staged a one-day strike.

A few days ago the Morning Star carried this Editorial:

FIFTY years ago today, five shop stewards were released from Pentonville prison in London.

They had been locked up five days earlier, having defied a ruling of the National Industrial Relations Court (NIRC) to cease picketing an east London container depot during an unofficial strike against job losses and the casualisation of labour on the docks.

Vic Turner, Bernie Steer, Conny Clancy, Tony Merrick and Derek Watkins came out through the prison gates, to be hailed as heroes by the waiting crowds.

A militant network of union shop stewards, branches and district committees provided the basis for the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. In many unions, broad left organisations also helped raise the level of working-class political as well as industrial consciousness.

..

Outraged by the use of naked state power to put trade union activists behind bars, strikes had broken out in ports across Britain, quickly joined by walkouts in other industries. Railway workers and engineers had already taken industrial action in defiance of the law.

The release of the Pentonville Five saved the Tories from an all-out confrontation with a working class which would have included a 24-hour general strike called by the TUC general council. The powers of the NIRC had been shredded. Solidarity won the day.

……

Since that decade mass strikes of this kind have not happened. To begin with Margaret Thatcher restricted ‘sympathy’ or solidarity strikes in 1980 and in 1990 the Employment Act outlawed solidarity work stoppages completely.

There is no ‘right’ to strike in the UK, “The problem we face is of some strikes being unlawful, which means there is no law permitting them, leaving strikers and unions that call such strikes open to civil litigation. ” (from the useful outline by Ian Allinson. When is it illegal to strike?)

“Official strike action, then, is confined, ” You can only lawfully strike against your own employer, while employers are free to divide themselves into multiple legal entities, outsource and subcontract work. The solidarity on which workers have always relied is now unlawful. Instead of any issue in connection with employment, strikes are only lawful if they relate wholly or mainly to a narrow set of issues which exclude issues such as the sale of the part of the business you work for.”

TUC co-ordindated protests have been seen in meetings and stalls run in towns and cities across the country, local (Trades Council) marches and national protests such as this year, “We demand better: March and Rally, 18 June.”

In this context the RMT chose the words ‘coordinated action’ carefully.

If in the UK national solidarity actions that halt work are not given legal protection and are open to challenge in law by employers, days of national trade union action, with strikes as well as protests, still take place in many other European countries. It may be that unions, as the term “coordinated” suggests, are exploring ways of launching these kinds of protests.

Here is one in France (2020) called by the CGT federation of unions, and joined by a number of other groups (Solidaires, la Fédération syndicale unitaire (FSU) mouvements de jeunesse.

Is there space for further action? What kind of ‘general strike’ could happen?

Sharon Graham – General Secretary, Unite the Union

Liz Truss has declared war on the trade union movement and working people.

Let’s be clear, her mad-cap proposals are an attempt to all but ban strike action and outlaw effective trade unions.

This manifesto is nothing but a charter of discontent.

The rights of working people have been put on the chopping block by an ambitious politician, hawking for the votes of a tiny minority.

At the time of a cost of living crisis, where profits are driving inflation not wages, this would be Prime Minister has instead chosen to return Britain’s workplaces to the 19th century.

Unite the union will not bow to threats and any attempt to place us outside of the law will be met with fierce, prolonged resistance.

In the Labour Party the sacking of Sam Tarry for going to show solidarity to RMT and TASSA strikers continues.

Sky: Senior Labour MP John McDonnell says he supports general strike and hits out at Sir Keir Starmer

Labour List Reports,

Sacking Tarry a “severe mistake” by Starmer advisers, McDonnell says.

Katie Neame

Appearing on Sky News, the former Shadow Chancellor said: “I don’t know who’s advising Keir Starmer, but this is a completely unnecessary row that’s been invented, just at a time when the Tories are tearing themselves apart. and we’ve got the maximum opportunity I think to gain an advantage in the polls.”

McDonnell told viewers: “Sam went on the picket, like minister after minister, shadow minister after shadow minister, over the years, in support of workers who are asking for a decent pay rise. It’s a just cause.

“And now we’re told he’s been sacked not because he went on the picket lines, but because he made statements on the picket lines. But what was he supposed to do? Go on there and wear a gag? It’s a silly, silly situation to get in to.”

The Labour backbencher said Labour needs to accept that there will be a “wave of industrial action now”, as unions members are voting “overwhelmingly” for strikes over concerns relating to pay. He declared: “We’ve got to come off the fence and be on the side of a just cause – the workers. I think they’ve got it right.”

McDonnell said he thought Starmer’s advisers had made a “severe mistake” in firing Tarry, adding that they had “dug [Labour] into a hole in the first place unnecessarily, by telling people not to go on picket lines”.

He said: “To dig ourselves into a hole like this, telling people they can’t go on picket lines, was inevitably gonna lead to something like this, a real mistake and division like this.

“I think it’s time to back off and recognise the real issue is what working-class people are going through at the moment which is a terrible cost-of-living crisis. How do we solve it? We back them by getting inflation-proof pay awards to support them. It’s as simple as that.

“So I think mistakes have been made from the very beginning. We need to stand back and actually start trying to secure unity across, not just the whole labour and trade union movement, but across the country overall.”

McDonnell argued that Starmer and his team had “completely misread the situation” and misread the “mood within the labour and trade union movement” and the “mood amongst the general public”.

Written by Andrew Coates

July 28, 2022 at 11:18 am

Conspiracy on Cato Street. Vic Gattrell. Review.

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Conspiracy on Cato Street. A Tale of Liberty and Revolution in Regency London. Vic Gattrell.

The Three Graves

by Charles Lamb

Close by the ever-burning brimstone beds
Where Bedloe, Oates and Judas, hide their heads,
I saw great Satan like a Sexton stand
With his intolerable spade in hand,
Digging three graves. Of coffin shape they were,
For those who, coffinless, must enter there
With unblest rites. The shrouds were of that cloth
Which Clotho weaveth in her blackest wrath:
The dismal tinct oppress’d the eye, that dwelt
Upon it long, like darkness to be felt.
The pillows to these baleful beds were toads,
Large, living, livid, melancholy loads,
Whose softness shock’d. Worms of all monstrous size
Crawl’d round; and one, upcoil’d, which never dies.
A doleful bell, inculcating despair,
Was always ringing in the heavy air.
And all about the detestable pit
Strange headless ghosts, and quarter’d forms, did flit,
Rivers of blood, from living traitors spilt,
By treachery stung from poverty to guilt.
I ask’d the fiend, for whom these rites were meant?
“These graves,” quoth he, “when life’s brief oil is spent,
When the dark night comes, and they’re sinking bedwards,
—I mean for Castles, Oliver, and Edwards.”

In 1820 group of ultra radicals in London began planning insurrection. They had talked of “massacring the House of Commons en masse but decided against it” – their neither had the ammunition nor did they wish to kill the innocent alongside the Ministers. By February, meeting in a “mean and ruinous” building in Cato Street, off the Edgeware Road, they had decided on a plan. Around twenty five impecunious men would descend on Lord Harrowby’s mansion in Grosvenor Square where Lord Liverpool’s privy councillors were said to be supping. Armed with pikes, pistols, swords and artisanal grenades they would “murder all they found” in the dining room, The heads of lords Castlereagh and Sidmouth would be removed, stuck on pike-heads, and carried around London. After attacks on Barracks, the Bank of England, Newgate Prison and the Tower of London they would assemble a provisional government in Mansion House.

The plot was undone, Bow Street constables followed, eventually, by Coldstream Guards raided the Cato Street redoubt. A shootout followed. Constable Smithers was felled by a sword thrust by Arthur Thistlewood. Most of the assembly was taken, with some conspirators escaping in the mêlée, to be hunted down in the following weeks. “All England rung with astonishment and horror at this dreadful instance of atrocious depravity..” exclaimed Lord Sidmouth, the instigator of the 1819 Six Acts, “curbing radical journals and meeting as well as the danger of armed insurrection” passed in the aftermath of the Peterloo Massacre.

Radicals of more measured stripe, dismissed the plans for massacre and a London uprising. such as the radical essayist Leigh Hunt (who had served time in Surrey County Gaol in 1813 to 1815 for seditious libel, describing Prince Regent George “a violator of his word and a disreputable libertine”) showed a degree of understanding. He called the conspirators, “paupers driven by desperation in unconstitutional times”. Yet the wars with France and Napoleon, Gattrell states, had left a large number of dissatisfied people, often in dire economic straits, familiar with the use of weapons, including a number of those caught in the Mews Ally. The fears of the ruling oligarchy, even if ‘loyal’ people seemed numerous, had some basis in the military potential of the poor, working, causally employed, or destitute.

Many more were, as the Charles Lamb poem (“written during the time, now happily forgotten, of the spy system”) illustrates, revolted by the state surveillance and manipulation that spawned Castles, Oliver, and Edwards. The agent provocateur George Edwards had come to the would-be insurrectionists’ meeting venue at Fox Court off Gray’s Inn Road to report on a planted advertisement in the Tory paper New Times announcing the Grosvenor Grand Cabinet Dinner. They went and got a copy. They took the bait. When it was read with “great hilarity”. One present, John Brunt, a badly off shoe-maker, exulted that the event brought together “all the ministers for us to murder them”. The spy-cop reported their violent plans, adding to an already thick dossier on their words and intentions. The Trial brought out other informers and turncoat witnesses.

The trial was short; the sentences were memorable. On 28 April most of the accused were sentenced to be hanged drawn and quartered for high treason. The death sentences of Charles Cooper, Richard Bradburn, John Harrison, James Wilson and John Strange were commuted to transportation for life. Arthur Thistlewood, Richard Tidd, James Ings, William Davidson and John Brunt were hanged at Newgate Prison on the morning of 1 May 1820 “the rooms and windows overlooking the scaffold were rented by monied people for two or three guineas each”. William Davidson prayed, wept and admitted his culpable infamy. “Four of the Cato street men had enough spirit enough on the scaffold to show their contempt for the aristocracy that was set to kill them”. One of the condemned, Ings, shouted “let it be known that I die an enemy to all tyrants!”

The story of the Cato Street has been told before. It is not the case that it has been consigned by leftist or other historians to the “dustbin of history” – a story of marginal figures without legacy in the labour movement’s many wings. Some, at least, of us, principally on the left, know the story that links Tom Paine, the London Corresponding Society, Thomas Spence’s System, common ownership of land and a democratic equality, the Spa Fields (Islington) insurrection of 1816 , and the tragedy of Peterloo. That 1819 massacre hung heavy over the radicals. Some like Arthur Thistlewood who unhinged, marked by flawed character, rows with ‘Orator’ Hunt and others, was not a loner but involved in the radical movements of the time, many familiar to the readers just indicated. He was also unhinged, in 1817, after intemperate missives, challenging the Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth to a duel, “sword or pistol”. This gesture and his truculence resulted in a year in Horsham gaol.

Conspiracy on Cato Street is a path-breaking study, expanding from outlines into richly researched detail. It threads together the plot, the players, not forgetting their wives and offspring, the mixed race black background of two of their members, Wedderburn and Davidson – the afterlife of the informers – helped to prosper in the Cape and elsewhere – with the feel and the tumult of a burgeoning outcast London (not least in that so many of the addresses are familiar), a restricted and corrupted franchise, overshadowed by a Prison system and brutal state. Accustomed as we are to looking at the history of political ideas through texts it is as well to be reminded that speeches and opinions of the Cato Street group of “liberty-minded men” indicated, “less an ideology than a melange of myths, memories, loyalties, slogans and resentment”.

Thistlewood while once a member of the Spencerean Philanthropists made more references to Roman republicanism (the street name link was purely by chance) than either Spencer or the French Revolution. Perhaps the ideas circulating in Cato Street could be said to have something like the churn of a Twitter Feed. Like that, much was “driven by fantasy”.

“The Cato Street Trials and executions dealt revolutionist radicalism a death blow, though not radicalism itself. When first announced, the arrests had amplified the trauma of Peterloo and reverberated across the West Riding of Yorkshire and the Scottish border and midlands where a general strike ended in more hangings and deportations.” Gattrell concludes, “What was left was seething resentment”. The kind of simmering indignation, Ferdinand Mount suggests in his review of this book, may come about in the aftermath of the Boris Johnson regime determined to curb judicial independence, restrict protest and voting, which, he writes, has echoes of the “Castlereagh years” (LRB).

Written by Andrew Coates

July 23, 2022 at 5:11 pm

Third Tory Debate Gets “Cancelled” by Sunak and Truss.

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Tories Adopt Cancel Culture to Avoid Further Debate.

“Sky News has cancelled the third scheduled TV debate in the Conservative leadership race after Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss pulled out of the event following a bruising set of exchanges in the first two debates.”

Guardian.

“Tuesday evening’s live television debate on Sky News between the Conservative party leadership candidates has been cancelled,” the broadcaster said in a statement.

“Two of the ​three candidates currently leading in the MPs’ ballots – Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss – have confirmed to Sky News that they do not want to take part.

“Conservative MPs are said to be concerned about the damage the debates are doing to the image of the Conservative party, exposing disagreements and splits within the party. Both are very welcome to take part in future Sky News televised debates.”

The far right loved it:

Written by Andrew Coates

July 18, 2022 at 11:47 am