Thursday, 5 June 2008

Pits, Pongs and Politics

The story starts back in 1981. I’d been involved in politics for about 7 years starting as a shop steward when I was about 19, and quickly getting involved in the local Trades Council, and the Labour Party. Most of my activity centred around Trade Union work. Even though I was involved in Chile Solidairity, and the setting up of a local Anti-fascist organisation, this too basically centred round Trade Union work because virtually all the comrades involved came to it from a Trade Union background, mostly the Trades Council, because the Labour Party was so moribund.
I remember going to my first Labour Party meeting. My wife and I had both applied to join just after we got married in 1974. It was a year later when we actually got invited to a meeting, and then only because my mother had harangued one of the local Councillors that week at the village Community Centre, as the Councillor supervised that week’s bingo. We turned up to the meeting at the Labour HQ. The flat we were living in at the time was pretty damp and mould ridden, but the Labour HQ was even worse, at least the walls of the flat didn’t look like they were about to fall down. Inside the massed ranks of the advanced section of the local Labour Movement were assembled. They comprised 2 brothers who, at the time, seemed old enough to have been founding members of the Labour Party, but as one at least of them is still alive, obviously must have seemed older to me as a 21 year old than they actually were. They had inherited the local cinema, so weren’t short of a bob or two. Both were City Councillors, and one was also a County Councillor. In addition to them was a younger man who was an USDAW full timer who was also a City Councillor. Another middle-aged man who I knew from my Trade Union activity as being a member of the local Pottery Union National Executive, having represented my union ASTMS in spheres of influence negotiations with them. He was also a City Councillor though for a neighbouring ward. The only other people at the meeting were the wives of the aforementioned, and the woman Councillor my mother had harangued.

The meeting began, and as it was just before local elections (literally about a week before) they decided that perhaps they should put out a leaflet or two. That decided within about 10 or fifteen minutes, they got on to the more important issue of how much money had been raised at bingo. The date of the next meeting was set to be held in six months. That was typical of the state of the Labour Party throughout North Staffordshire at the time. When a few months later, having recruited half a dozen young people from my workplace, who I discussed Trade Union issues with every lunchtime, to form an LPYS branch, I was looked on with deep suspicion. When we met with the MP, who was also the CLP Secretary, he more or less accused all of us of being Trotskyist infiltrators – the fact that in my case this was true, I still felt was somewhat besides the point. In the end we were turned down on the basis that the last time they encouraged young people to join a table tennis table had been broken! The MP, though, did know something about Trotskyists. He had been the Secretary of the local Communist Party before joining the LP after Hungary in 1956. He not only brought some of the other CP’ers with him, but all the old Stalinist organisational practices.

You can understand why I gave most of my attention to Trade Union activity, and even when I went to University in 1977 I kept my old union membership, and continued to be a delegate to the Trades Council.

Anyway back to the future, or in this case 1981. A re-organisation of boundaries had brought a couple of new militants into the local LP, one an AUEW TASS Branch Secretary and his wife an ASTMS shop steward. Shortly afterwards, another Trade Union activist from what was then the POEU also joined with his wife who I had known from school. But no matter how many other individuals we managed to recruit whenever it came to a vote the old guard always seemed to produce just enough people to come and vote us down – mostly they seemed to be pensioners they’d signed up at the bingo the previous Friday.

Anyway, one night my mate from the POEU came round with a copy of a document he’d read from the last meeting.. It was a copy of a Planning Application to tip hazardous waste in a marl hole (a marl hole is a big clay pit) that was right behind the houses on the estate where I lived. At first I didn’t know how to respond. I wasn’t geared up for community politics, all my activity was based on what I thought at the time was “real” politics. But at his prompting I typed up a petition and we churned out some information and copies of the petition on the duplicator which was essential equipment for revolutionaries at the time, and which sat in my back bedroom surrounded by pictures of Trotsky, and assorted papers and journals.
To my surprise the response was amazing. My neighbours had said, “Oh you won’t get anybody to do anything.” And I thought they were probably right. But before long the petition was full, and people were asking us what we were going to do next. Like any good revolutionary we decided the first thing was – to call a meeting.

My mate had rang one of our local Councillors, the brother who was the County Councillor, and told him what we were doing. That was when the shit began to hit the fan. We were told we couldn’t do this because we were going against a decision of the Labour controlled County Council to permit this Planning Application. My mate, even though the campaign had been his idea was told he was being led astray by me. I know because I listened in to the conversation on his phone extension.

I think it was the next day that the Chairman of the County Council’s Waste Disposal paid me a visit. I’d not long got home from work, and my wife was about 8 months pregnant. He came in and began by shouting and bawling threatening to have me expelled from the LP, and threatening to sue me for defamation, which was not particularly what my wife wanted to hear in her condition.

We found out that they were going to try to undercut us by calling a meeting of their own, and bringing in their full-time officers to calm everyone’s fears. But by this time, I had spoken to Les Hearn, who was writing the science column for Socialist Organiser, and Les had given me details about the chemicals proposed to be tipped, and pointed me in the direction of some relevant articles in the New Scientist. I went back to University and prepared our arguments. Meanwhile my mate had obtained the phone numbers of various news organisations, and begun contacting TV stations.

When the Public Meeting took place around 400 people overflowed the school hall. The Council officers couldn’t answer the scientific data we put forward. The Councillors sat quietly. Despite all the opposition the County Council refused to reverse their decision, and the go ahead was given for the private company to begin tipping its toxic chemicals. Shortly, after we called another meeting of our own, and the same large turnout came along. The meeting elected a steering group, and people divided up – some doing publicity, others taking it in turns to stand outside the gates of the tip checking the contents of the lorries going in – a concession we had won from the Council.

This went on for a few months. Linda Berry came up from Central News and interviewed us, and an amazing level of support was maintained, when it would have been easy for people to have been demoralised once the tipping began. I think the reason it didn’t was because we had a strategy, and ensured that the campaign was all about the people involved, not about those of us leading it. In fact we went out of our way to get other people to take on responsibility, and because we had a strategy – basically we looked for every breach of the planning permission, and reported it to the Planning Committee, and kept up a political campaign for the decision to be reversed – everyone had something to do. We also didn’t burden people with meetings, but let each work group organise itself, and produced a regular newsletter. We also made our own cine film, which looked at what had happened with other similar tips, and the problems that had been caused with leachate.

But the campaign had some far wider effects. A couple of miles away a plastics factory exploded again near to houses. We were asked to go an speak to relate our experience and activity. Faced with the size of support we had, no longer were we being threatened with expulsion from the LP, but the local Councillors were claiming they had been in support all along. Of course, the local people knew differently. Around 25 of them joined the branch labour party, and that year the Left swept the board of all the branch positions. The next year we began replacing the Councillors. Instead of the Branch meeting being around 8 people as it was when I first joined, every month we were having branch meetings of 50 people, and over 100 at the AGM. But rather like the story about for the want of a nail a shoe was lost etc. The same thing began to happen. Within the CLP there had been one branch that was not controlled by the old right. Now there were two, and the effects began to snowball. Within a couple of years we threw out the MP.

But before that let me finish off the story about the tip. One day during the Summer I’d been out for the day. When I got back my mate came round, and told me the BBC and central News were on their way. Their had been a big explosion at the tip. Apparently, the bulldozer had crushed some large drums, the chemicals inside had reacted with other chemicals in the tip, and it had gone up. Anne Diamond arrived and we got a prominent spot on the Central and BBC news. Within a week the County Council had decided to buy the tip, and fill it with building rubble, though there were still some who tried to claim that somehow I had caused the explosion!!!
Over the next few months the campaign over the tip became a template for a lot of our activity. People in an area of old terraced houses were threatened with demolition, and next to no compensation. We got them to organise themselves into a residents Association, which pressured the local Council. They brought in Prince Charles’ architect, who drew up alternative plans, which have saved most of the houses, created living space, and green areas etc. Based on that the local LP made it a policy to set up Residents and Tenants Associations throughout the ward, giving whatever assistance we could, showing them how to produce their own newsletters etc.
Often the people involved in these activities were not class conscious workers – far from it. I remember on one occasion having to take my mate to one side. A young couple from the tip campaign were thinking of joining the LP. We were sitting in the pub talking to them, and they came out with a load of racist crap. My mate thought I would react strongly, but in fact nothing they said was any different than you would hear on many shop floors amongst your own union members. I had to explain to my mate that its necessary to make distinctions between this kind of racism which you have to deal with by educating those coming out with it, and the kind of hardened racism of what was then the NF. It put me in an awkward spot. In the end I simply explained to the young couple that we could not accept racist sentiments in the LP both because, they are wrong and divisive, but also because we wanted to encourage people of all races to join. What these kinds of activities do allow, however, is to challenge these kinds of ideas within an environment, where you are beginning from a position of agreement on something. If you can win people’s confidence and respect for doing something which immediately affects their lives you are a good way to being able to get them at least to listen to what you have to say, and that is the first step in educating people, and building class consciousness. A very slow process, but one I don’t believe can be short circuited if you really want to transform society.

Just as a couple of postscripts. The next year the Manifesto for the City Council elections contained a commitment to oppose all toxic waste tipping within the City, and the final one I am especially proud of. One of the young people who joined the campaign was a geologist. He worked for an oil company, and his expertise was invaluable. At first, he didn’t really want to get involved because he was worried how it might affect his job. A few months ago I was in the car listening to Radio 4. I’d missed the first part of the interview, but learned that it was about someone who had gone to live in Colombia and had become involved in their local community to the extent that the people in the village had asked them to stand for local mayor. As I listened to the interview a few more things came into place. The person involved had been working in the North Sea, and offered a job, by their oil company. It turned out that this man who had become involved in community politics in Colombia, and had been the local mayor for the last few years, was the same geologist who had reluctantly joined our campaign over the tip.


a very public sociologist said...

An excellent and inspiring story, comrade. I know you're a long-time stalwart of the labour movement round these parts so I look forward to you disinterring more tales for your blog.

Speaking of which, I've added you to my blog roll.

Arthur Bough said...

Thank you comrade, Later today I intend to publish an account of the "Birth of a Labour Movement" about the development of the Trade Unions and the Chartists during the 19th century, and perhaps an account of the TUC Congress of 1905 in Hanley.

I had started work on these back in the 1970's when I was at Keele, and did some of the research alongside my friend and fellow student of the time Jim Barrow.

I never actually got round to finishing the work due to the level of political commitment of the 1980's, and then the burdens of bringing up a family after that. But, I think they are of interest even so. I hope you enjoy them, and find something of use in them, and perhaps for the younger generation some inspiration and ideas.