Saturday, February 24, 2018

A Woman's Place? (1998)

TV Review from the February 1998 issue of the Socialist Standard
Last May saw the election to Westminster of over a hundred women Members of Parliament for the first time in British parliamentary history, trebling the previous total. The benches of the Commons— particularly the Labour benches, for that is the party the vast majority of the new women members represent—are no longer bedecked by the massed ranks of grey suits. There is now more than just a smattering of colour.
In a great many respects this is, of course, a good thing. That Parliament has not represented a wide variety of groups within society previously has been one of the factors undermining trust in Britain's supposedly democratic Institutions and procedures, a trust which has, in any case, always been somewhat fragile. Now it would seem, the House of Commons (if not the House of Lords) is more representative and therefore more democratic and worthy of respect.
Two programmes on BBC2 in January sought to pursue this theme. The first, Women At Westminster was an interesting meander through how the increased numbers of women in Parliament has affected the place, how they allegedly will affect it in future, and how Parliament In turn has affected the women themselves. Much of this concerned the facilities of the Palace of Westminster, an important enough concern to those affected directly but less so for everybody else.
The more compelling part of the programme was an analysis of how the culture of the Commons chamber itself is changing, for the better. It was alleged that there has been (and certainly will be in future) a decline in the "yah-boo" politics previously encouraged by a male dominated chamber. This has - most positively - been evidenced by new women members confronting the sexism of the older male MPs. Such sexism. at its worst, has involved sustained barracking and sexual intimidation of women MPs making their speeches, and has been typically directed at the massed ranks of new Labour women (though at some female Tory MPs too at times, as for instance recounted by Teresa Gorman in her book The Bastards). Unfortunately a number of the other instances of how women are allegedly changing the nature of the House were examples of wishful thinking or were trivial and superficial - like the claim that new women MPs asserted their independence from the stuffy conventions of the Commons when they clapped Tony Blair on his first appearance at Question Time (as clapping in the House is not allowed). This was a claim that was both entirely superficial - just like New Labour itself - and wrong too (ditto). Many new MPs clapped Betty Boothroyd on her election as the first woman Speaker in 1992 but soon learned not to do it again after a few quiet words from the Whips Office. History is likely to repeat itself.
We Begg to differ
BBC2s other effort on the new women MPs focused on Anne Begg, the Labour member for Aberdeen South who is not only a woman but disabled as well. In fact, Begg is the first MP to be allowed to sit on the floor of the House in her wheelchair. The difficulties engendered by her disability in a place like Westminster was brought across excellently in what was, in effect, a video diary of her first few months in the House. It was a programme which demonstrated that Anne Begg, like many of her new colleagues, is a very able and articulate woman. The tenacity she has shown in becoming the first ever wheelchair-bound MP has been tremendous. It was a programme which illustrated what, by and large, it was meant to illustrate, that having Anne Begg and all the other new women members in the Commons is indeed an advance, just as the election of ethnic minority MPs has been.
What was never mentioned is what all this is essentially a product of. It is a product of the shift away from feudal, archaic ideas of noblesse oblige, class and rank, and towards the meritocracy of capitalism. This is a meritocracy where "positive discrimination" is favoured for people who are disadvantaged "through no fault of their own" - women, ethnic minorities, the disabled, but where huge value judgments are still made about anybody else who may be disadvantaged—like the poor There is no special treatment for them, no closed shortlists to get them into Parliament or special sections in the Labour Party. They were the people who couldn't be bothered to do their exams at school, who don't want a job, or deliberately get pregnant so they can be given more benefits or a bigger council slum.
If you are of the view that there is nothing wrong with the system and that everyone but the "naturally disadvantaged" (or those clearly disadvantaged due to the persistence of outdated pre-capitalist ideas) is only disadvantaged because of their own indolence, then you end up like Anne Begg and most of the other new Labour women MPs. You end up voting to cut benefit from single mothers as nearly every single one of them did. If you can be persuaded of their indolence sufficiently, you could even end up voting to cut benefits to the disabled as well. After all, Anne Begg herself has demonstrated that the disabled can invariably do some work with sufficient "encouragement", so why should they be paid to sit at home lounging about on benefit?
It is armed with such thinking that the new women of New Labour aim to take the House of Commons by storm. Convinced - against all the accumulated evidence - that the promotion of "equal opportunities" within capitalism ensures a level playing-field, they go about their mean-spirited tasks with all the zeal of evangelist preachers. And just like evangelist preachers these are people who, underneath the rhetoric, represent a barely diluted danger to the working class and deserve the unremitting, principled opposition of socialists.
Dave Perrin

Election Notes. (1910)

From the February 1910 issue of the Socialist Standard

The meet important feature of the election of 1910 was the circulation of our Manifesto. It was the largest free distribution of literature we have yet undertaken, and Press notices from most unexpected quarters amply prove that it has found its way into many and far distant parts of the country. That we have succeeded in preventing some, at least, of the working class from being side-tracked into the sham fights of the masters is shown by the increasing number who, having gone to the poll, wrote SOCIALISM across their paper. The appearance of these intelligently "spoilt’" papers at Haggerston caused Mr. Herbert Burrows to look glum, while it told the astute politician something it would be well for Mr. Burrows and bis kind to endeavour to understand.

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Another feature, and that also a gratifying one, was the large number of meetings we were able to hold—these being attended, even in very bad weather, by large and attentive audiences. Where opponents took our platform they readily (and always favourably) contrasted our meetings with the political hooliganism of those of other parties.

Again, in heckling candidates and their supporters and in issuing challenges to debate, our comrades lost no opportunity for steady, serious educative propaganda, and have the satisfaction of winning all along the line.

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With the enemy it was different, however, and perhaps it falls to the Social-Democratic Party to provide the most illogical, as well as the most tragic, feature of the campaign. The former is found in their trying to work with the Liberals at Northampton (see front page) and in helping the Tories at Battersea while opposing both elsewhere, as at Burnley. The latter is found in their excuse for abject failure, when they say :
  It is useless to disguise the fact that we have lost. Moral victories do not count in this unequal game; unfortunately tactless blunders do: and we should have done much better in at least three of the seats contested if what we regard as distinct errors of judgment had not been committed at critical moments in the campaign. The hysterical desire of some of our comrades to correct the slightest inaccuracy on the part of a candidate or his Supporters is also a ridiculous but effective weapon in the enemy's hands. (Justice, 22.1.10. Italics ours.)
This, however, but serves to show that Mr. Hyndman was right when he described his followers as being “destitute of political aptitude." They are evidently likewise destitute of a knowledge of Socialist principles.

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The above is almost equalled by the "Independent" Labour Party in their attempt to explain away their candidate's defeat at East Bristol. Says the Labour Leader (28.1.10) : "Had the election taken place on the 15th instead of the 17th we could have won, but the intervention of Sunday permitted the Unionist gains to strengthen the electors’ adherence to their old party's traditions." As the Liberal majority over the “Labour" man was 4,549, it would seem that the 15 Unionist gains had frightened 4,549 Labour stalwarts! ! !

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In the deluge of "cold, calculated frigids" inseparable from a contest where the master class strive with each other for the votes of the working class, it is difficult to make a selection, but for sheer, unadulterated egotism and political mendacity the palm may fairly be given to Mr. Lloyd George. Angling for voles in Wales this gentleman declared : "The first thing I am going to do is this. I am going to cleanse the land of poverty and want." (Morning Leader, 18.1.10.) As a demagogue he has out-Hunnabled Hunnable, but to an intelligent audience his statement simply carried the essence of refined insult. 

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A feature of this election, showing the scarcely veiled contempt the Liberals have for their “Labour" allies, is seen in the return of Mr. Spencer L. Hughes for Stockport. This gentleman had previously entered the field to spoil the chances of Mr. P. Curran, a “Labour" man, at Jarrow bye-election (1907) and similarly at Bermondsey (1909) against Mr. Salter, another “Labour” man, and now as a reward (or as a gauge of his abilities) he is found a “safe seat" at Stockport, but — the irony of it — he had this time to run with a “Labour" man. When the result was known he declared : “My colleague and I kept 'Down with the Lords’ and 'Free Trade' to the front." Had Mr. Wardle of the Labour Party, the colleague in question, been anything more than a Liberal he would not have forgotten Jarrow and Bermondsey but would have resented association with this Liberal hack as an insult to organised Labour. Doubtless, however, four years environment "doing odd jobs in the Liberal workshop " has lowered (as Mr. Curran himself would say) the moral outlook of this Laboural M.P.

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“Motor cars lent by Lord Llangattock and Lady St. Heller conveyed five working-men voters from Raglan, Monmouthshire to Walthamstow, a distance of nearly 200 miles by road." (Evening News, 26.1.10.)

Comment it needless.

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Says Reynolds' Newspaper (16.1.10): “Seeing that statements have been made to the effect that Mr. W. Thorne is a Labour plutocrat, it is as well to give his salary as organising secretary of the Gasworkers Union, it is £3 a week. In Parliamentary allowances he has about another £3 a week. The problem is how it is done on the Money." Of course, the above sum is not all, but even at £6 a week the problem really is what the workers get for it; and there is little doubt that there are many even on the staff of Reynolds' who would willingly take the job on at a lower figure, to say nothing of many of the unemployed who would make a much better job of it at half the price.

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Our Tottenham comrades are to be congratulated on having so far cornered Mr. P. Alden, M.P. as to get him to accept a challenge to debate publicly the claims of the Liberal Party to the confidence of the workers. More particularly so as in his constituency there are two branches of the Independent Labour Party and these are severely split over the support given by their members to this gentleman — who is ready to defend the Liberal Party in debate against a Socialist.
Alex Anderson

Justice for the Miners (1935)

From the December 1935 issue of the Socialist Standard

Outstanding among the election results, admittedly disappointing in the main to the leaders of the Labour Party, are those of the mining areas, particularly those of the South Yorks, field, which embraces North Notts, and North-East Derbyshire. In spite of expressions of sympathy with the miners on the part of the Government’s nominees (some of whom went down pits and came back converted to the justice of the present demand for an extra 2s. per day), the Labour members’ majorities in these constituencies range from ten to thirty thousand. .One outstanding exception, the Bassetlaw seat was won from the Government candidate, Malcolm MacDonald, by only a small margin. He considered he would have held it but for a local strike.

For months past such strikes have expressed the ferment in this area, and the overwhelming majorities for strike action from every pit in the district supply eloquent testimony to the fact, that, if the four years of National Government has resulted in improved conditions, the miners have not noticed it. In face of this the weak-kneed attitude of the miners' leaders calls for some comment.

Before taking the ballot they openly advertised their readiness to compromise their demands and suspend the vote if the owners would negotiate on national lines. As was only to be expected, their offer was treated with lofty aloofness. Their next move was to approach the Government with a request that the provisions of the Coal Mines Act, 1930, for the setting up of selling agencies, should be applied. The Government’s reply was to request the coalowners to set them up by July 1st next.

The advantages of these agencies to the miners must remain a mystery. They (the miners) do not sell coal, but labour-power, and they would need to be childish indeed to assume that any reorganisation of the distributive side of the coal industry is to be undertaken for their special benefit. Capitalists who invest money in distributive undertakings accept the “risks" which such enterprises involve in order to gain a proportionate share of the gross profit, and if the colliery proprietors decide to invade this sphere it will be for the purpose of enriching themselves.

The miners’ only hope of gaining their immediate demands is in being better organised in their trade unions. Even existing wage-rates are difficult to maintain in the face of the ever-increasing encroachment of the machine, and the resulting intensification of the competition for jobs. Under such circumstances delay favours the masters. They can afford to wait till next summer, and beyond. If action is to benefit the miners it must be taken swiftly. The existing epidemic of local struggles is exhausting funds to very little purpose. A month will, in any case, probably decide the issue, and the most the miners can hope for is some slight check to the downward tendency in their condition.

Even complete victory in securing the present demand cannot alter the general line of development. So far from putting a stop to the introduction of machinery it will provide an added incentive.

This being the situation, nothing is more ridiculous than for the miners' leaders to declare, as several of them have done quite recently, that they “want justice, not sympathy." One can readily understand the barrenness of mere sympathy to men and women in the plight of the miners and their wives; but will "justice" prove more fertile?

Obviously it is not legal justice that is invoked. From the standpoint of the law, all contracts or bargains are just which are arrived at mutually and voluntarily, providing nothing criminal or “contrary to public policy" is involved. The law knows nothing of wage-slavery. In its eyes the worker is a free citizen voluntarily entering into a contract with his employer. He surrenders his ability to work in exchange for a wage, and the law will, if needed, enforce the payment of the wage.

Few workers know better than the miners, however, that collective agreements, signed, sealed and delivered by parties representing both sides are more honoured in the breach than in the observance, precisely because of the ever-present fear of the sack.

Perhaps, then, it is to moral justice that the Miners' Federation officials refer. If so, we invite them to tell us where they draw the line. Is an extra 2s. per day their conception of a "just" wage? On what is this notion of a just wage founded? Between the minimum limit, below which the miners cannot exist and work, and the total wealth produced by their efforts there is a very considerable difference. Out of this the colliery proprietors draw their profits, landowners their royalties, and coal-dealers and merchants get a living. These people enjoy comfort, while the miners endure misery. We can, however, rest assured that every one of these sections will resist an attack upon its income, and they will attempt to explain their resistance by saying that the attack is “ unjust.” This, quite irrespective of whether the miners demand an extra 2s. per day, 2s. 3d., or half-a-crown. The cry for justice is, therefore, as futile as the appeal for sympathy.

The miners, in common with the rest of the working class, need to rid their minds of self-deluding cant. Let them not imagine that they can delude their masters. In common with the rest of the workers, they have a commodity to sell, to wit, their power to produce wealth. So long as capitalism exists they are under the necessity of struggling for the best possible price they can get. This applies whether they are inside or outside of trade unions. In this struggle mutual sympathy and support are imperative. The struggle, however, cannot end here.

Labour leaders, political and industrial, are busy trying to persuade us that the essence of capitalism is competition, and that if only industries can be controlled by national boards, paying interest on bonds to the owners, all will be well. Apart, however, from the difficulty of establishing national control of industries depending upon international conditions for their existence, this leaves the antagonism between the classes untouched. If royalties and profits are “unjust" when appropriated privately, by what miracle do they become “just" when the Government guarantees them, which is what the Labour Party proposes should be done?

The capitalist class cannot be got rid of by any scheme of nationalisation. Their existence is based upon their ownership of the national resources and the instruments fashioned by the working class for their utilisation. These means and instruments must be made the common property of the whole people, irrespective of race or sex.

The effort to establish such a system will involve the conscious co-operation of the workers of the world. Only when they are successful will they free themselves from the need to sell their energy to masters, and become able to produce freely for the common good.

In the meantime every effort at compromise on the part of the workers' leaders weakens the workers' resistance, and delivers them still more into the hands of their enemies—the master class. Unremitting hostility to those enemies on political and industrial field alike is the only policy consistent with a clear understanding of the situation. Justice as a watchword must be replaced by emancipation.
Eric Boden