By Jim Kelly (first posted on the United Left website)
To Be Heard We Need A Voice
The current debate about the Labour Party – trade union link is the most fundamental since the TUC voted back in 1899 to establish what became the Labour Party. It isn’t a debate we asked for, because we’d rather concentrate on winning back millions of voters including our own members to ensure we end austerity and restore the hope, decent jobs and social justice the British people deserve. But it is one we cannot shirk.
In three weeks our executive council is due to consider our position on this debate. Most other major unions have already agreed submissions to Ray Collins’s review, and they have much in common. Whilst they all support strengthening the link, they all strongly defend the principle of collective affiliation rather than a union voice dependent on individuals opting in to some form of individual membership. On this the left and the traditional right are agreed.
On this more than any other issue, it is important that trade unions stand together. As the party’s biggest affiliate by far, Unite should be in the forefront of the campaign for a stronger voice, just as under Len McCluskey’s leadership, we have been in the forefront of the campaign against austerity – against Labour being “a pinkish shadow of the coalition”.
We know that there will be no report available from Ray Collins, but there is no sense in waiting until February for the executive to take a position when it will be too late to change the options and we will be forced to choose only between supporting or opposing them. Len initiated a debate on the issues we face back in July when he set out his thoughts – it is time the union decided what we think about those issues and started arguing our case.
If unions stand together, with half the votes at Labour’s conference, and supported by many constituency parties worried about the severe threat to the party’s finances from Ed Miliband’s proposals, as well as the negative impact on the left within the party, then the link can be successfully defended. The changes that were proposed were not thought through, and they are both bad for the unions and bad for the party. But that is not enough.
As Len said in July, “for a long time we have been taken for granted by people who welcome our money, but not our policy input, who want to use our resources at election time but do not want our members as candidates”. We know that, as the GMB’s Paul Kenny said at the Brighton conference on behalf of all affiliated unions, our experience under New Labour was of “collective voices ignored in favour of free market dogma”.
Len was right in July to argue that “the status quo is not an option” but not because there is anything wrong with collective affiliation, or with the “block vote” itself. In a democratic, federal party, there is no collective voice without block votes – constituency parties have them too.
The trouble with the block vote is that in the last twenty years, the trade unions have used them, however reluctantly, to undermine the very party democracy we now need and miss. We voted away the right to submit motions and amendments and the right for Labour’s national executive to oversee policy-making, until the party conference was left with almost no purpose at all, except as a circus where bag-carriers and careerists tout themselves in a political version of X -Factor.
We allowed power to be centralised. And even where we did manage to extract a few policy concessions, we have to vote for all sorts of bad policies alongside them to get that little benefit.
We need to restore democracy to the party. We need a Labour conference that makes policy again. We need a Labour executive that manages the party. And Unite is the union that should be leading the way. So it is wrong to say “don’t let anyone say that the status quo is worth defending” because some aspects of the status quo are worth defending:
• The Labour Party itself is worth defending. There is no better option for Unite and the other trade unions. • What levers of power we have in the party are worth defending. Trade unions have half the votes. That means a veto on changing the rules of the party. A level of influence we should use to restore democracy. Without more democracy, we can never have enough influence on what Labour does.
It is true that “significant numbers of Unite members do not support Labour” but far fewer support the Tories than in the general population, and the vast majority of our members favour having a political fund and a political voice which they know perfectly well is used to support and influence the Labour Party. The real problem is that too many of our members don’t vote or are seduced by false hopes like those offered by UKIP, or the SNP (even though it is far closer to big business than Ed Miliband’s Labour Party).
We cannot agree that our main aim should be “to ensure that as many Unite members as possible, already paying our political levy, now sign up individually, by whatever means have transparency and integrity, to be affiliate members of the party.” Whilst it is right to encourage Unite members to join the party and become more active, it is inconceivable, especially after our experience in Falkirk, that we will succeed in large numbers, until we have succeeded in changing Labour.
And to do that we need to make Labour more democratic. That should be our main aim.
Jim Kelly (chair London & Eastern region, Unite) in a personal capacity
Adapted from the London RMT’s website London Calling:
RMT General Secretary Bob Crow and London Transport Region Executive Council member Janine Booth have signed a letter expressing solidarity with Nepali and other migrant workers in Qatar. Other signatories so far include NUT General Secretary Christine Blower. London RMT invites others to put their name to the letter. If you wish to do so, post a comment with your (real) name and union/position (if any) below the line here or contact: email@example.com
We are writing to express our solidarity with Nepali and other migrant workers in Qatar.
As the Guardian has extensively documented, Qatar is severely abusing the rights of its overwhelmingly migrant workforce, in many cases literally working people to death. Abuses of Nepali and other migrant workers in Qatar include the use of forced labour, not paying workers for months, confiscating passports and refusing to issue ID cards, refusing to allow people to go home, putting workers ten or more to a filthy room with few or no facilities, providing grossly inadequate food and even denying free water in the desert heat. It is no wonder that hundreds have already died.
The Anti-Slavery International campaign has rightly said that these things “go beyond forced labour to slavery”.
Labour movement, student movement and Nepali community activists will be protesting outside the Qatari embassy in London on Saturday 12 October. We demand an end to these abuses and for Nepali and international trade unions to be allowed into Qatar to verify changes and inform workers of their rights.
The 1963 March on Washington is one of the most-remembered events of the civil rights movement — but what you learned in school left out a lot, writes Elizabeth Schulte at the US Socialist Worker website (no longer associated with the Brit SWP):
The march was about jobs and housing, as well as racism
THEY CAME from every corner of the country–from New York, Ohio, Georgia, Mississippi–to be at the largest demonstration that Washington, D.C. had ever seen.
Organizer Bayard Rustin captured the mood of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, held 50 years ago this August. “It wasn’t the Harry Belafontes and the greats from Hollywood that made the march,” Rustin said. “What made the march was that Black people voted that day with their feet. They came from every state, they came in jalopies, on trains, buses, anything they could get–some walked.”
More than 30 chartered trains and 2,000 buses brought people to the nation’s capital. The Brooklyn chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) walked the 230 miles from New York City to D.C.–over a period of 13 days.
The United Auto Workers, one of the march sponsors, printed hundreds of signs with slogans such as “UAW Says Jobs and Freedom for Every American.” But other marchers brought homemade signs, with messages like “There Would Be More of Us Here, But So Many of Us Are in Jail. Freedom Now” and “Stop Legal Murders.”
An airplane full of celebrities, including Ossie Davis, Sammy Davis Jr., Sidney Poitier, Lena Horne, Paul Newman, Josephine Baker and Marlon Brando, was organized by Harry Belafonte. Singers Mahalia Jackson, Odetta, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Freedom Singers performed. CBS canceled all its daytime shows to broadcast the entire event, and Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech was televised around the world.
By 9:30 a.m., some 40,000 people had gathered in the Mall. Two hours later, there were twice as many. When the march stepped off, the crowd was estimated at a quarter of a million people. They were of all ages–college students, union members, families with children, older people. About a fifth of the crowd was white–this was overwhelmingly an African American march for jobs and freedom.
Excitement among the protesters was so great that they began marching on their own–the official heads of the march had to run to get to the front.
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THE YEARS leading up to the historic 1963 march were marked by explosive civil rights battles throughout the South and a growing radicalization among many of the people who took part.
The second wave of the civil rights movement had been kicked off three years before by a handful of students in North Carolina who organized sit-ins at segregated lunch counters starting in February 1960. In two months’ time, lunch counter sit-ins had spread across the South, involving some 50,000 Black and white youth.
In 1961, activists from the recently formed Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) joined the Freedom Rides organized by CORE. The goal of the Freedom Rides was to desegregate interstate bus lines throughout the South. The Freedom Riders were attacked by racist mobs, as local cops looked on.
The instinct of the national Democrats–who the civil rights activists initially looked to–was to try to tame the struggle. Attorney General Robert Kennedy offered civil rights activists tax-free status if they would agree to abandon their sit-ins and Freedom Rides, and focus on voter registration.
Recognizing this opportunity for further activism, activists seized on the offer and set up headquarters in Mississippi to register Blacks to vote. Organizers from CORE, SNCC and other groups initiated a campaign to register as many Black voters as possible in Mississippi. In the process, they established Freedom Schools, community centers and other initiatives to aid Blacks living in the poorest state in the country.
At every step of the way, the activists were met with violence from racist terrorist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan and the White Citizens’ Councils. While they were harassed, jailed and beaten, the Kennedy administration, unwilling to intervene for fear of offending the segregationist Southern Dixiecrat wing of the Democratic Party, continued to look the other way.
In April 1963, civil rights activists targeted Birmingham, Ala.–home to notorious segregationist Gov. George Wallace and racist Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor. When Connor ordered his cops to use clubs, dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protesters, it was televised, showing the whole world what Jim Crow rule in the South looked like.
For the activists, the violence begged the question: Why isn’t the Kennedy administration doing anything to stop it? And furthermore: How can a country that proclaims itself to be a beacon of democracy to the world be attacking Black children in its streets?
The event helped educate a wider audience about racism in the U.S. South. According to polls at the time, only 4 percent of Americans saw civil rights as a pressing issue before Birmingham. Afterward, that number grew to 52 percent.
The movement didn’t stop with the streets of Birmingham. The fight for civil rights spread across the South and around the country. 1963 saw more than 900 demonstrations in more than 100 cities, with more than 20,000 arrested and at least 10 deaths to the civil rights struggle. These protests were putting the Kennedy administration on the spot–pressuring it to make good on its promises of passing stalled civil rights legislation.
The 1963 March on Washington would bring together activists from the movement, but also people who had been radicalized by these events–and by the realities of everyday life for Blacks in the North and the South.
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THE OUTRAGE over Bull Connor’s crackdown forced Kennedy to introduce a civil rights bill in Congress–and fueled the enormous turnout to the March on Washington. But the aims of the Kennedy administration–and the leadership of the march as well–didn’t always match the aspirations of marchers.
In their conception of the march, many SNCC activists, including John Lewis, envisioned mass civil disobedience–staging sit-ins and lie-ins across Washington, particularly in the offices of Southern members of Congress. But these more radical plans were halted by more conservative forces that seized leadership of the march organizing.
President John F. Kennedy had tried to stop the march from happening. When that failed, he set out to co-opt it.
In July, there was a march organizing meeting involving the “Big Six” civil rights leaders–A. Philip Randolph, who had led the aborted March on Washington movement in 1941; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; James Farmer of CORE; John Lewis of SNCC; Whitney Young Jr. of the Urban League; and Martin Luther King, representing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
In the eyes of the more militant activists of CORE and SNCC, the march should be an expression of the growing frustration of Blacks at the federal government failing to take a side in the fight against the Jim Crow South. But for the more conservative civil rights leaders, such as the NAACP’s Wilkins, the focus was on simply getting a Kennedy-backed civil rights bill through Congress. The self-appointed march leaders made every effort to keep the march acceptable to the administration.
This didn’t stop FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover–who was particularly inflamed by the march button’s image of black and white hands clasped in solidarity–from treating the demonstration as a terrorist plot in the making.
When telling Kennedy that King was under the influence of communists didn’t get the march called off, Hoover spared no expense preparing for the violence that never came. Kennedy and the military even drafted a proclamation that would give the go-ahead for 4,000 troops assembled in the suburbs of Washington, D.C.–and 15,000 paratroopers–to break up the demonstration.
Meanwhile, march leaders cut speakers who might sound too radical, such as writer James Baldwin. Others were censored. The day before the march, the planned speech by SNCC John Lewis was revised by organizers. ” The original version, to which several SNCC activists had contributed, read:
In good consciousness, we cannot support the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little, too late. There’s not one thing in the bill that will protect our people from police brutality…What is in the bill that will protect the homeless and starving people of this nation? What is there in this bill to ensure the equality of a maid that makes $5 a week in the home of a family whose income is $100,000 a year?
Objections were also raised to Lewis’ angry tone in the original speech, exemplified by this section:
We will march through the South, through the Heart of Dixie, the way Sherman did. We will pursue our own “scorched-earth” policy and burn Jim Crow to the ground–nonviolently. We will fragment the South into a thousand pieces and put them back together in the image of democracy.
Even with the revisions, however, the speech Lewis did ask a critical question: “Where is our party? Where is the party that will make it unnecessary for us to march on Washington? Where is the political party that will make it unnecessary to march in the streets of Birmingham?”
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THE CLIMAX of the day in Washington was King’s speech. In it, he gave voice to the widespread frustration with the unkept promise of racial equality in the U.S.
[W]e have come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”
King expressed the urgency of these demands for the civil rights movement–and the fact that activists were no longer content to sit and wait for equality:
We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God’s children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.
It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.
Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.
For most people, this is King’s most recognized speech. It’s been used and misused by politicians of many political stripes. As Gary Younge notes in his new book The Speech:
The ability of America’s powerful to co-opt and rebrand resistance to past inequities as evidence of the nation’s essential and unique genius is as impressive as it is cynical. Such sleight of hand is often exercised at the same time as attempts to correct the inequalities that made such resistance necessary in the first place are ignored or marginalized… Sanctified after his death, King’s speech would eventually be celebrated by those who actively opposed his efforts whilst he lived.
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THE MORE radical version of King–for example, the man who spoke out against the U.S. war in Vietnam a few years later at the Riverside Church in Harlem–hasn’t been included in the history books.
By the same token, when we talk about the march itself, it’s important to emphasize the struggles that came before and after–including the many much smaller and modest actions and events. The activists who defied Jim Crow to organize the movement should be remembered as the heart and soul of the March on Washington–more so than the people who spoke from the front.
The march drew together both the activists from these fierce struggles, as well as people who were inspired by them–and because of this, it was inspirational on many levels. But it didn’t mean that the fight was anywhere near over. The Democratic Party, in particular, continued to drag its feet on civil rights legislation, while simultaneously trying to curb the movement’s more radical demands.
After Kennedy’s assassination later in 1963, his successor, Lyndon Johnson, pushed the Civil Rights Act through Congress in 1964, finally outlawing Jim Crow segregation. This was followed the next year by the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which guaranteed Southern Blacks the right to vote.
The laws passed not because Democratic politicians had a change of heart, but because of the pressure of the mass civil rights movement across the South and throughout the U.S.
The Democratic Party establishment showed its real allegiances again at the 1964 national convention in Atlantic City. SNCC had organized delegates from the non-segregated Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to claim the state’s seats from the Dixiecrat delegation. But party liberals led the way in trying to push a rotten compromise on the MFDP. When civil rights delegates refused the urging of figures like Hubert Humphrey–and even Martin Luther King–to retreat, they were escorted out of the convention by police.
These and other betrayals would lead some civil rights activists to reject relying on the Democratic Party–and turn to the more radical ideas, like those of Malcolm X. This set the stage for the the Black Power movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s. “Never again,” SNCC’s Cleveland Sellers later recalled, “were we lulled into believing that our task was exposing injustices so that the ‘good’ people of American could eliminate them. After Atlantic City, our struggle was not for civil rights, but for liberation.”
Others, like John Lewis, would dedicate themselves to the Democratic Party, despite its broken promises.
One of the greatest lessons of the civil rights era is that what we do makes a difference. It was the mass mobilization across the South that defeated Jim Crow segregation–and it was the hundreds of thousands who came to D.C. who made the March on Washington the historic occasion it was.
From Pete Firmin of the Labour Representation Committee:
If you are interested in signing this statement, please comment on the post
at the link above rather than email me, please forward this
email on to other activists, tweet and facebook the link etc
Apologies if you have already received this or already signed in support, it is not possible to always monitor this.
Following various conversations with labour movement activists at Tolpuddle, the following campaign statement has been launched by the Labour Representation Committee, but with the aim of .putting the campaign in the hands of a broad organising committee once significant support has been won.
There will be a meeting to discuss the campaign on the 3rd September at
Conway Hall Red Lion Square London with speakers including Keith
Ewing, Manuel Cortes General Secretary TSSA, Maria Exall and Marsha Jane Thompson.
Other initial signatories below.
“The creation of the Labour Party opened up the possibility of political
representation for working class people.
The relationship between the trade unions and the Party has been and remains
central to the role of the Party in representing the interests of working
We therefore support:
- the collective affiliation of trade unions to the Party;
- collective decision making by trade unionists within the Party;
- representation for, and involvement of, trade unions at every level of the
We will campaign for this throughout the Party and trade unions and call on
all labour movement activists to make submissions to the Collins review in
accordance with the above principles.”
Professor Keith Ewing Institute of Employment Rights and Trade union freedom
Ian Hodson National President Bakers’, Food ; Allied Workers Union
Maria Exall CWU and TUC General Council
John McDonnell MP
Jeremy Corbyn MP
Marshajane Thompson UNISON and LRC Vice Chair
Ben Sellers Red Labour
Val Graham Chesterfield CLP TULO Officer
Graham Bash Chair Labour Briefing Editorial Board
Jon Rogers UNISON NEC
Pete Firmin Trade Union Liaison Officer, Hampstead & Kilburn CLP and chair,
If you would like to add your signature to this statement, or host a
meeting in your area, then please comment on this post.
In Solidarity, Pete Firmin
Below is an edited version of the speech given by Jim Kelly, the Chair of London and Eastern Region of Unite, at a Unite ‘Reconnecting with Labour Forum’ in April. It was previously published on the United Left email list, and obviously pre-dates the present row over Falkirk and Miliband’s proposed changes to the unions’ relationship with Labour:
Living in the world of Neo-liberalism
From 1979 onwards successive governments have been dismantling the institutions of the welfare state and replacing them with those of a no-rights, deregulated market economy – what has become known as neo-liberalism.
On any indices – workers’ rights, the gulf between rich and poor, we are increasingly living with the consequences of the rise of the neo-liberal state. For example child poverty:
· 3.6 million children living in poverty in the UK .
· 27% of children, – more than one in four.
· Almost two-thirds (62 per cent) of children growing up in poverty live in a household where at least one member works.
Contrast this with the obscene profits and greed epitomised by the bankers. Rather than an aberration poverty and greed are the foundation stones of the neo-liberals’ creed. When the likes of Johnson or Osborne defend bankers’ bonuses they are then defending a principle on which the society they wish to rule is organised. Such people are out to privatise the world and they are winning.
In my opinion we are near the end game; the institutions of neo-liberalism are all but in place… Such an assertion may seem alarmist, however consider the raft of measures which were enacted on April 1st – Welfare reforms, access to legal aid and of course the Health and social care bill the privatising of the NHS, what other litmus test do we need to signal this change? We have arrived at this place due to the bankers’ crisis, which facilitated a radical acceleration in the pace of change.
Some members of Unite viewed the crash, foolishly in my opinion, as sounding the death knell of neo-liberalism. Clearly it is a broken form of economics, but the idea the elites which rule us would simply give up on it with the concentration of wealth and power it affords them over working people was mistaken. Underneath the ConDem’s smokescreen of ‘we are all in it together’ of austerity Britain we have seen the embedding of the deregulated market over the state and people.
Strikes campaigns and politics
We are then at a tipping point, and the only question is what should we do about it? Our starting point is necessarily to defend union rights and working people in any way we can – strikes, protests, campaigns, demonstrations all are the tools at our disposal. Unite members are fortunate in that our General Secretary has supported all such forms of activity, and your Region has been in the forefront of fighting back…
Unite is then fulfilling the basic principle then, to defend our terms and conditions and our basic rights such as the NHS we have to struggle against those who wish to take them away – no one will do it for us….
Through strikes demonstrations and campaigns across the county we have then the beginnings of a movement. However if this is to go beyond being a protest movement it can only culminate, outside of a general strike, in a movement to change the law.
We need legislation to get rid of the anti union laws, we need legislation to end the reign of the loan sharks, legislation to throw out the privateers. So while some legal changes directly impact on the unions we also need laws which impose wider social controls over the vagaries of the market.
Unite then is driven not just to protest, campaign and undertake strike action to defend and advance workers’ rights, we along with the rest of the labour movement need wholesale legislative change which can only come about through a political party enacting such change through Parliament. It was this need which drove unions into politics at the turn of the 20th century and what is driving us now.
Labour Party and change.
Trade unions and working people need a party that is electable and is going to act in our interests in the here and now. Within Unite there are many who are unsure about engaging in any form of political activity. It is incumbent on all of us who understand the pressing need for a political solution to explain to these members why they should actively support our union’s policy.
There are also many Unite members – often the activists, – who have given up on Labour. You just need to consider New Labour’s role in the march from the welfare state to neo-liberalism to understand this. While New Labour was never its architects, they put their shift in, working overtime to dismantle the post-war state and establish the institutions of neo-liberalism. For example PFI or the NHS internal market, New Labour was up to its armpits in shaping the institutions and political consensuses that dominate the second decade of the new century.
Of course those Unite members opposed to working with Labour would say what do you expect? However such policies did not come out of thin air – they came out of a struggle within the Party which Blair won and the left lost…There are however a number of problems with this ‘what did you expect’ approach. Firstly it is fatalistic, as if the outcome was pre-ordained, second, it has seen them leave the field; if they were attempting to organise a factory would they give up on the war after losing a battle. To put it clearly such a stance is not serious. Third it fails to look reality squarely in the face. Someone needs to tell me what other party is there? So while we must talk and convince Unite members who are unsure that we should be undertaking any form of political activity, we should also ask all those disillusioned with Labour to stop sitting on their hands and get involved and help us in reconnecting with Labour.
In spite of these differences within Unite our drive to reconnect with the Party has met with a number of initial successes most notably the election of Ed Miliband. It is also extremely welcome that the present Labour leadership have distanced themselves form some of the worst excesses of New Labour not least with Ed Miliband’s statement on the Iraq War.
However, despite the pronouncements by Labour’s leaders, the banker’s crisis and election defeat it is clear many in the party remain wedded to New Labour
There are many reasons why they cling to the wreckage; timidity, routinism, conservatism, lack of vision all play their part. However behind the bureaucratic edifice that Blair created are human actors and for them it is a simple matter of self-preservation. The positions and lifestyles of those who put the shift in to build New Labour are absolutely dependent on the continuation within the party of Blair’s neo-liberal agenda. This grouping finds its main organisational expression in the Progress faction…. This conservative faction is already dominant within the PLP. The time, effort, and money they have spent on orchestrating the nomination of ‘their’ people as PPCS, show clearly their intention to try and continue their dominance of the PLP.
I should point out that many Unite members may well be supporters of Progress and of course that is their right. The position taken at this forum is based on union policy.
We are then, as in the 1980s moving inexorably to a struggle over the direction, shape and function of the Labour Party. However this will not be a simple rerun, there are some very important differences.
Firstly the impact of the left losing that struggle in the 1980s not only shaped policy it also enabled the imposition of a hugely undemocratic structure within the party…. Second the bankers crisis has not gone away we are not as in the 1980s entering a period of prosperity. Third rather then being at the start of the neo-liberal project we are now at its conclusion… and finally unlike in the 1980s when the drive for change came from the CLPs and with some notable exceptions the unions were on the side of the status quo today the biggest union in the country is leading the demand for change. Read the rest of this entry »