Friday, December 23, 2011

The Mass Murders In Baghdad

Statement of the Political Bureau of the Iraqi Communist Party:

More innocent victims and bloodshed are the price
of policies of ruling political blocs and their infighting

Our people have once again paid the price for the crimes of terrorists who exploit the unprincipled power grab of political leaders and their infighting. Baghdad and its inhabitants have been terrorized by a series of cowardly bombings that have targeted several areas of the capital today, killing and wounding hundreds of innocent people, in addition to considerable material damage inflicted on the houses of citizens, their shops and other property. These criminal acts, carried out by the remnants of the former regime and their allies, remnants of Al Qaeda and other religious extremists - the enemies of the people, freedom and democracy - have been timed to coincide with the precarious conditions experienced by our country as a result of the grave crisis which the political and security situation has descended to during the past few days, and the intensifying conflict between the leaders of the Iraqiya bloc and the Rule of Law bloc, which has taken a dangerous new turn.

Iraqi patriotic forces, along with millions of our people and also the Iraqi Communist Party, have for years been warning the leaders of the ruling political blocs to stop playing with fire, disregarding the fate of the homeland and the blood of its citizens, and sacrificing them on the altar of their narrow differences and selfishness and their endless fight over the spoils of power.

The Iraqi Communist Party, while condemning the crime that has taken place today 22nd December, and calling for firm punishment of the criminal perpetrators, holds the leaders of the competing political blocs responsible for the deterioration and bloody breaches of security that have occurred this morning in the streets and areas of Baghdad. It also appeals to everyone to heed the voice of reason and rise to the challenge of the grave events that no longer only threaten the fate of the political process, but also threaten the fate of the Iraqi people and homeland and their future. We call upon the masses of our people and the conscious forces to close their ranks and support the armed and security forces in tracking down the terrorist criminals.

These serious developments stress the importance of responding to the sincere calls, and the urgent need, for an all-inclusive National Conference that encompasses all the forces and parties involved in the political process. The convening of this conference should be expedited in order to put an end to the continuous deterioration experienced by the country, and to ensure that it is led to safety through the national program of action that is binding on all.

The danger threatening the country is escalating and there is no time to waste.

We express our sympathy to the families of the victims and our sincere wishes for the recovery of the wounded and injured.

HAT TIP - Iraqi Letter

Friday, December 16, 2011

Chartism and the Suffragettes

The Suffragettes and the Chartists shown on these two photographs were involved in mass campaigns which finally led on to a full franchise in the United Kingdom. But the electoral register has now been seriously corrupted. The Electoral Commission's latest report shows that no less than six million people are currently missing from our electoral registers: 17.7 per cent of the eligable electorate. It is a democratic disgrace - and has been gathering momentum for well over 20 years - boosted under the operation of the Poll Tax. We need to force this issue to the top of the political agenda. A combination of modern Chartists and Suffragettes would help. (Also see the links here.)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Death Of The Franchise

The latest Report of the Electoral Commission shows that there are now six million people missing from electoral registers. The numbers of missing voters are especially high amongst the young, ethnic minorities, the poor and the mobile/rootless. One consequence is that the electoral boundaries which are currently being redrawn will be massively distorted as those missing from registers are not evenly spread throughout society. Overall, it will fiddle election results - disenfranchising many of those most in need.

This is the BBC's coverage of the Report
: it provides a link to the full report itself.

What is needed to overcome this democratic disgrace is a proactive registration system which uses modern technology to track people and provide for full and regular canvassing by registration officials. To ensure that young people who have just attained registration rights are not excluded, the voting age should be dropped to 16 and the initial registrations should take place via their schools whilst they are still 15. The sale of electoral registers to commercial interests should be banned, as some people avoid registration to hide their details from those who are, say, pursuing them for debt re-payments.

In the 1992-93 Parliamentary Session, I ran a Private Members Bill which attempted to tackle the above problem. I had the support of the then Labour Leader, the late John Smith; whilst even Tony Blair as Shadow Home Secretary pressed for its support. But it was defeated by the Conservative Government. My proposals were stimulated by the negative impact which the Poll Tax had had on electoral registration. Technology has been transformed in the past 20 years, so the details of my proposals now need to be brought up to date. Nor at this initial stage had I seen the relevance of "votes at 16" to my proposals.

I went on to press the issue regularly in other legislative attempts; especially in the 1999-2000 Parliamentary Session, when I put up a stream of what I saw as "improving amendments" to what became Labour's Representation of the People's Act. The Act did, however, introduce a weak version of one of my proposals which was for Rolling Electoral Registration. This allows people to transfer their registration to their new residence when they move, rather than having to wait until a full new register is being constructed. The measure has only ever had a slight impact on the safeguarding of electoral registration. It is swept aside by other factors.

The Labour Frontbench needs to pick up the issue and act (in a modern setting) upon the type of principles I started to propound almost 20 years ago.

Whilst democracy requires much more than a system of one person one vote, it must be based on that principle.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Saturday, November 26, 2011

How To Turn This Map Red

Democratic Socialists should think in terms of campaigning for a social, democratic and federal Europe.

Germany also has an internal federal structure, with Landers. A Federal Europe would require it to operate within a three tier structure in which democratic parliaments operated at its regional, national and federal levels. A similar constitutional pattern is appropriate for both social and democratic reasons within Britain. Our third tier could appropriately be based on the present devolved facilities in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Whilst a pattern for England could be based on the North-South divide, which rests upon clear social and political distinctions.

The federated structure would, however, enable voters to concentrate on their overall common concerns at both federal and national levels, as well as their seeking to further their regional well-being. There needs, of course, to be careful thought given to the powers and authority which is appropriate to each of the three tiers. But at the top federal level itself, the operation of a democratically controlled common currency then becomes a priority; as does the move to a common language being taught in all schools.

We should aim for a pattern in Europe which could, in time, commend itself for wider use across the world. Short term campaigning on improving arrangements within the European Union should always have the above wider objectives in mind.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Politics of Education

The following includes two quotes from the important book opposite.

(1). Our formal education system was founded on the notion of equipping people for work.

Foster's Education Act of 1870 (which needed to be activated by local bodies) catered for 5 to12 year olds and was directed at helping to turn them into more effective hired hands. It basically established a capitalist system of education.

Yet other values gradually emerged within and upon this formal system, to humanise it somewhat.

Within the system, some teachers and pupils began to ask the awkward question “Why”? Why should we do x? Why should we accept that z follows from y? And even, why should we take anything for granted?. Whilst the forces for conformity were powerful, the intellects key weapon of “why?” kept finding its way forward and partially helped to adjust the formal educational system.

Outside influences also came to impinged themselves upon the formal educational system. Working Class adults had for a long time educated themselves in what is known as the Autodidactic tradition (1) and had united together in ventures such as the 1842 Sheffield People's College (2) and had established collective facilities such as reading rooms for and by miners in the North East in 1850 (3). When school education spread from 1870, elements of the working class then pressed individually and collectively for improved education for their children.

The long term impact of such pressures came to their highest fruition with moves to full employment, a welfare state and forms of public ownership around the time of the ending of the second world war. A mixed model of education began to emerge alongside that of a mixed economy. For a period it seemed to open up the possibility of a vastly improved democratic model of education. But when a period of consensus politics emerged, further significant educational progress was somewhat placed on hold. Then from Thatcherism onwards, we have seen the earlier hopes dashed and (as with economics and social welfare) a dramatic shift back to the capitalist model. Today's difference being that modern capitalism needs numbers of people to have modern skills to handle a new and ever changing technology– even though many modern equivalents of the earlier wage-slaves end up working in inhibiting call centres and there equivalent, rather than in mines and factories. Many more (including the young) become long term unemployed.

(2). What then should we look for in an alternative democratic socialist model of education - even though we need to recognise that its very achievement will also require many other economic and social changes to be taking place at the same time? Here we need to recognise that the very ideas we carry in our minds are the key to wider social change.

First : Facilities and opportunities for Individual Self-fulfilment.

It is a characteristic of humanity that it developed intelligence as an evolutionary characteristic to ensure our well-being and survival. There is no end to our intellectual endeavour if it is encouraged and not destroyed.

Secondly : Avenues for our Collective Well-being and Advancement.

Democracy itself needs much more than a universal franchise and periodic elections (as important as these are). It needs a widespread interest in the search for the means by which we can build and maintain a fair and just society.

Thirdly : Everyone is shaped and influenced by their environment and experiences.

But too many of today's influences via the media, advertising and commercial values have undermined the previous mixed economy of formal and informal educational values. We need to work for an overall environment in which questioning, enquiry and the quest for understandings are to the fore. This has consequences for the quality of life, which goes well beyond an intelligent interest in political activity (important as this is).

Fourthly : Education should be for life.

People should have ready access to formal and informal educational avenues outside of their basic years at school or as college or university students. Minds that settle have died.

Fifthly : The stress on all the above forms of education, does not ignore the need to equip people for work.

But it does go way beyond such a concern. Not only can skills-training be part of a wider educational system, but those who are drawn into intellectual pursuits will find there is a spin off when they approach the world of employment. For intelligent people are well equipped to learn new and passing skills in what is a highly technological and changing age.

Finally : Democratic Socialist Education will only fulfil its potential if it recognises that nothing can ever be known with absolute certainty outside of claims of an analytic or tautological nature.

Whether people involve themselves in investigations in the areas of the arts, social studies or the sciences, they need to be aware that the person who only knows their own side of the case, knows little of that. We need to understand counter-ideas and to engage with them intellectually. The sciences are the area which are normally perceived as being able to supply us with the greatest reliability. Yet some of the scientific certainties that seemed to have been discovered by Newton were later replaced by the ideas of Einstein. And now some of Einstein's established ideas are being challenged by serious scientists. The reason that doubt is healthy in both education and life is that if we ever drop the question “why?” from our investigations we become intellectually inert.

Footnotes -

  1. See Jonathan Rose “The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes” (Yale Nota Bene, 2002. The following quotes are from his book.
  2. "The Sheffield People's College, founded in 1842, was governed democratically by its students: in 1849 the President was a shoemaker. The College taught geography, history, modern languages, Latin, Greek, science, and philosophy, and students were encouraged to discuss politics. Thanks to the People's College, observed one radical artisan, 'There is a peculiarity in the town of Sheffield above all others I have noticed: in that town, all classes of labourers dare to speak the truth that is within them, ay, and labour while they think' .” (p 190).
  3. Around 1850, nineteen out of fifty-four collieries in Northumberland and Durham had some kind of library or reading room.” (p 238).

Friday, November 04, 2011

Electoral Registration Problems

The Commons Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform has just published this important report on individual voter registration. It is summerized here by the BBC as well as on the Parliamentary web-site.

My own assessment of wider electoral registration problems can be found here.

Monday, October 31, 2011

You, Me and the ILP

Independent Labour Publications (ILP) is an educational trust, publishing house and pressure group committed to democratic socialism and the success of a democratic socialist Labour Party. The ILP was formed in 1893 as the Independent Labour Party (by Keir Hardie and others - his portrait appears above), which then became a co-founder of the Labour Party at the beginning of the 20th century.

Today it remains committed to Labour's aim of creating 'a society for the many, not the few' and seeks to engage with others in discussing how this vision can be turned into reality.

The statement below was drafted by the ILP’s National Administrative Council and received broad endorsement from ILP members and Friends at the ILP Weekend School in Scarborough on 7/8 May 2011. I was one of those present at Scarborough and the statement expresses an approach to politics which I share.

You can contact the ILP at welcome contributions to their website as well as comments on the articles they post. If you’d like to contribute please send submissions or ideas for articles to

The ILP: Our Politics

The ILP comes from a long tradition of organisations on the left of the political spectrum that have sought collective solutions to the inequalities and destructiveness caused by capitalism. We seek to continue that tradition today, to extend cooperative solutions to human problems by democratic means.

In seeking social justice and equality, a broader and deeper democracy, and more co-operative and mutually supportive ways of living, we set our sights high. We believe it is possible to improve the quality of life for many, not just the few; that a humane society is possible. We want to widen the recognition that human society is based upon our interdependence. We are not isolated individuals, communities or states but mutually dependent on each other for our futures.

But in aiming to create a good society, the left faces challenges as formidable today as at any time in its history. We recognise that we are embarking on a lengthy journey.

Ours is a damaged society where political disenchantment is tangible – and quite understandable. Both at home and globally, too many lives are governed and wasted by poverty, inequality and deprivation, or by fear and insecurity, or bigotry. While many are governed by the mindless pursuit of materialism, others turn to religious or nationalistic zealotry. None of this is simply due to fate. Instead it is the outcome of how our world is organised, a product, ultimately, of political choices.

We cannot embark on this journey too soon. Humanity is approaching a crossroads. The actions taken and the choices made in the coming years are likely to be of great significance not only to us but to future generations. To create a sustainable society will, of necessity, demand curbing and controlling those forces that propel us towards environmental catastrophe. It will be vital to overcome the sense of powerlessness that so many people feel, both in their own lives and about the wider world, not least because it can lead to desperate and destructive reactions, political and personal.

Broad political and moral movements for change are key elements in this process. But we also need a progressive political party or parties to enact wide-ranging reforms, and progress will depend on alliances and sometimes tensions between these two. Incremental gains along the way can highlight both what is possible and how people can become part of a process of change.

The context

Writing about contemporary western society, the historian Tony Judt sums up his view this way: “Something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today. For thirty years we have made a virtue of the pursuit of material self-interest; indeed, this very pursuit now constitutes what remains of our collective purpose. We know what things cost but have no idea of what they are worth…”

“Much of what seems ‘natural’ today,” he says, “dates from the 1980s: the obsession with wealth creation, the cult of privatization and the private sector, the growing disparities of rich and poor. And above all, the rhetoric which accompanies these: uncritical admiration for unfettered markets, disdain for the public sector, the delusion of endless growth.”

His comments are particularly applicable to Britain today. We face a Conservative-led coalition government which, in flagrant disregard for its election pledges, is hell bent on a brutal programme of public sector cuts. It combines this with promises to build the ‘big society’ and to ‘free’ people from the state. It doesn’t promise freedom from the market. Indeed, the government hopes the private sector will be able to mop up the large numbers made unemployed by the cuts. The poor, women in particular, public sector workers and students form the new front line in the coming conflicts over cuts.

But this programme of attacks on public, collective provision has not come out of the blue. Rather, it continues more than three decades in which the free market has been promoted over state intervention. After 1979, the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher embarked on a programme of radical change, restructuring the post-war welfare state, diminishing the power of working people, and expanding free enterprise, in particular by loosening controls over banking and finance.

The new Labour project was the product of successive election defeats and the deep desire of many to get the Tories out of office, regardless of the political cost to traditional left politics. To win power in 1997, Labour largely accommodated itself to this neo-liberal framework. While committed to some redistribution of wealth, it relied on taxes from a deregulated and rampant financial service sector to fund the expansion of state expenditure. Labour often devalued the public sector even while it further centralised state power. It continued down the path of privatisation, creating markets within public services on an unprecedented scale. Yet, after promising ‘no return to boom or bust’, the Labour government used the state to bale out the banking and financial sectors when economic meltdown was imminent.

Despite the use of taxpayers’ money and despite the crisis, the Labour government, and the left more generally, failed to present a credible narrative for progressive change. Instead, new Labour paved the way for many of the Tory policies that are now unfolding – in the economy, in the NHS and in education. The result is a Tory-led government intent on the wholesale subordination of public provision to the market and private sector.

Capitalism, markets and democracy

This Tory programme reinforces the natural tendencies within capitalism. For ours is a capitalist society and the logic of capitalism is to turn everything into commodities to be bought and sold in the market. It is a system that violates our humanity and the environment; it devalues and debases human beings and social life. Unregulated, it destroys all in the pursuit of material gain, whether families or forests. While we recognise the historic advances in human development brought, to some, by capitalist development, in terms of life expectancy and material well-being, we also recognise that these come at a colossal price, paid in inequality, social upheaval, political oppression and environmental destruction.

More recently, we have seen the ruin that modern banking and finance leave in their wake, leaving others who can ill-afford it to pay a huge price for decades to come. This should not come as a surprise. By their very nature, unfettered market forces lead to excess, encouraging greed and selfishness at the expense of others, putting possessive individualism before collective endeavour. Capitalism corrodes and corrupts, eating away at our social fabric.

The basic character of capitalism cannot change. It is defined by the pursuit of profit at the expense of collective social needs. Its agents will always balk at ‘red tape’ and attempts to restrict their freedom of action. They will always complain of ruination when they do not get their way, as the employers did in the 19th century when the long working day was restricted. They will always threaten to up sticks and find places where their actions can go unchecked. They will always seek to exploit cheap labour across the globe, and to divide and rule, and use their vast resources to cut corners and bypass democracy. They will always seek to avoid paying taxes.

Markets can be very creative but they have a destructive, dark side. Markets in the capitalist economy are capable of doing great damage because, put simply, people are subordinated to the pursuit of profit.

Moreover, there is a fundamental conflict between capitalism and democratic society. Never has this been more obvious than in the wake of the financial crisis. Despite colossal bale-outs by democratic governments and the enormous human costs of the crisis, our political options are still subordinated to the interests of the bankers. As Doreen Massey wrote: “The judgement of ‘the markets’ hangs over everything, setting the parameters within which political debate can operate.”

Having said this, we do accept that markets in some shape or form are necessary to how a democratic society operates – the evidence of Communist societies in the 20th century suggests as much. But a more democratic society would subordinate markets to the collective, democratic interests of the country; in our society, it is democracy that is subordinated.

The conditions in which markets are allowed to operate should always be closely monitored and carefully regulated. In some social democratic systems – in Scandinavian countries and some other western European countries at various times – restrictions on markets have delivered real benefits such as reduced inequality, greater social provision and fairer distributions of wealth and opportunity. They show some of the direction in which we want to move, not a utopian end point. But these gains are always fragile and are easily undermined, especially at times of economic crisis. They require more active support and defence than top-down social democratic systems have typically encouraged.

Some areas of life should be removed from the influences of private profit entirely – health, education and public transport, for example. In part, this means defending the role of the state in regulating the market, redistributing resources, coordinating public services and ensuring the needs of all members of a community are met.

The Tories characterise the state as overbearing, all-powerful and interfering – and at times parts of the public sector have been too inflexible and unresponsive to people’s needs. But the state in a democratic society is the means by which we collectively provide for our needs, and those of each other, out of our common wealth. It is our protection against the free market.

Yet the Tories’ goal is to marketise the public sector and shrink the state. We need vigilance and a democratic culture to counter their destructive aims and the destructive tendencies of free markets. This will have to be undertaken at several levels – locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. It will also involve more democratic, co-operative ways of organising business and production.

In fact, while capitalism exists, a struggle has to continue. The battle may ebb and flow in different directions. This is why it is vital movements and progressive parties counter capitalist values with social values based on human relationships and a respect for the natural world. Of course this is not to deny that we also need vigilance and a democratic culture to prevent excesses by the state.

Our recent history has seen us move in the wrong direction, creating in the words of Paul Mason, BBC economics editor, an “abrasive, selfish, unequal society”. Indeed, as the academic Edward Skidelsky wrote, “…economics and its jargon have penetrated every corner of social life… Doctors, priests and scientists are lumped together as ‘service providers’ … school teachers are urged to ‘add value’ to their pupils’…” And as the centre-left group Compass pointed out, even childhood has become commodified. The current attacks on public provision will, according to academic John Gray, “leave people more exposed to the turbulence of world markets than they have been for generations. Inevitably they will seek protection.” We agree and believe it is time to change direction.

Political parties and Labour’s role

The ILP started life as a political party in 1893 as a reaction to harsh working conditions and the widespread poverty that unregulated capitalism brought to Britain. The perspective of the ILP has inevitably changed and developed as the world about us has changed and developed, but our essential humanitarian concerns have remained. We hold fast to the ethics and principles relating to care and compassion, fellowship and fraternity, mutuality and cooperation, social, political and economic equity, and democracy, which constitute the foundation of our politics.

We believe there is a need for a plurality of political movements, experiments in alternative ways of organising society, and for cooperative and democratic businesses. Indeed, it is to be hoped that protests against the current cuts will galvanise into a broad movement. But we also recognise that there is a continuing need for political parties.

Sooner or later any campaign or movement for change in society has to deal with the process of government, how collective decisions, whether national or local, are made and upheld. Actions by national governments have a vital and potentially crucial role in addressing many of the problems we face, whether nationally or, by acting collectively, internationally.

In Britain, that means we have to engage with the Labour Party. While many on the left wish to avoid the Labour Party, to denounce or live outside it, we think this is a cul-de-sac. Any attempt to progress radical change will have to go through a social democratic agency.

However, we have no illusions about the current political and organisational state of the party, about the corrosive effects of new Labour’s dominance over 16 years. Now is a time for the Labour Party to reflect upon its record in office, to see whether it can present a credible narrative for progressive change. It has a long distance to travel to win back public trust. There is much debate in and around the party, by the left and centre-left, which is showing clear signs of creative thinking about how the party and its politics might be transformed for the better.

We see ourselves as part of that process. We want to encourage Labour to reinvent itself as a more radical party, to democratise itself and to make party membership matter in ways that it has not done for decades. However, unlike many on the centre-left, we are sceptical of the notion that there is a ready-made progressive majority in the country waiting to be led. Unfortunately, we have further to go than that – the foundations of a progressive majority still have to be built.

The extent to which Labour’s politics can become imaginatively social democratic will therefore depend on the forces and movements that align with it, with the political space that they can create for Labour to become more radical and yet electable. It also means that Labour has to do its part – defending, supporting and encouraging those involved in campaigns up and down the country, and leading them too. The challenge this presents should not be underestimated, but it has to be faced.

The future left

It should be said that the left bears much of the responsibility for its failure to offer a credible politics for our times. True, it has faced a barrage of opposition from various vested interests, not least in the media. But it is also true that while it has fought many a good fight, it has not been at its best when offering pathways to a better society.

Many have abandoned any hope of a changed world and surrendered to the the politics of the present and the next election. Others promise a glorious dawn in some unimaginable future with no sense of how to get there. Between them, we need to find ways to be both practical and visionary at the same time.

Our political actions must also uphold the principles by which we stand. We believe that the character, actions and morality of political movements prefigure the change they will create. Social movements are a vital component of securing change but they have an obligation to act with morality, honesty and self-criticism.

The weakness of the left, and the dominance of market values today, means any progressive change in the short term will be hard won. But in lessening social inequalities, we may see a range of social improvements in society, in health, social solidarity, and general well-being. It will never be perfect, however. There will always be arguments and conflicts and, in a society based on democracy, that is absolutely necessary. The imposition of harmony from above is the road to dictatorship and not one we should ever contemplate. While people deserve respect, no-one and no organisation is above criticism.

Living democracy is a lively business; controlling capital is a constant process. One thing is certain, if we look at the world as it is then we can surely do better than this. We should certainly try to. And, along the way, perhaps we can rebuild the kind of movement which, as well as fighting for a better world, conveys the collective joy, humour and warmth which helped sustain earlier generations of socialists.

Labour's 2011 Five Point Pledge Card

For Labour's Five Point Programme for Jobs see here.

Hat Tip : Grahame Morris.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Why The Economy Has Gone Wonga

Yesterday's 'Independent' reported that Adrian Beecroft, the author of the report proposing the scrapping of unfair dismissal legislation "chairs Dawn Capital, whose portfolio includes which offers short term loans to tide people over until their next pay cheque. A recent probe by the consumer watchdog 'Which?' found it quoted £36.72 interest on a 30 day loan of £100 - equivalent to a 4,394 per cent annual interest rate."

You couldn't make it up - could you? sponsored the above Blackpool team in last year's Premiership. Which is a pity as there was much to admire about the Blackpool team's season. I saw them play three times.

Hat Tip - David Connolly

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Still Needed - A Full Franchise

In addition to the three and a half million people who are missing from electoral registers as assessed by the Electoral Commission prior to the last General Election, there are many additional problems about the accuracy of existing registrations - let alone the mass problems that would arise from current Government proposals to make registration a purely voluntary matter.

How accurate are the forms which are currently returned to electoral registration officers? How many people just confirm the information sent to them on the registration forms either in error or to hide the details of all the qualifying residents within a household - a habit which was given a boost by the poll tax and has not died out. There are also shortcomings in the range of people who are entitled to register. Surely anyone who is established as a resident in the UK should be entitled to be enfranchised as they are subject to the nation's legal requirements as established by Parliament, including taxation - what of "no taxation without representation?" The only limits on enfranchisement should be (a) a qualifying age and (b) a carefully monitored exclusion of those with a very serious mental impairment. Yet residents from overseas are only currently entitled to registration if they come from Commonwealth nations or the Republic of Ireland. Why not others?

A proactive electoral registration system needs putting into operation. It would help if the vote was given to 16 year olds. Whilst "attainers" at 15, they could first be registered via their schools. This would make them easier to be tracked for registration purposes later in life. Regular canvassing should also take place by electoral registration officers to gain more accurate registration. Then modern technology could be used by electoral registration officers to help in the compiling of registers and to make effective use of the provisions of the Rolling Registration system - i.e. to see that names are placed on the relevant registers as people move their residence within a mobile society. This would also end the dubious need to allow some people to have their names appearing on more then one register.

Tom Paine and the Chartists (with the important addition of the Suffragettes) knew the significance of the franchise. A full franchise was thought finally to have been achieved in the UK in 1928, but we have allowed it to wither on the vine. Establishing a full franchise should be a priority for all democrats and especially for democratic socialists who have a special belief in the importance of social equality.

When I was an MP I sort to tackle the matter via a Private Members Bill in the 1992-3 session and became involved with a body called "Full Franchise". Then I pushed various Ten Minute Rule Bills and amendments to legislation, especially to what became the 2000 Representation of the People's Act. But the only success I can claim (as the Government took it up) was the initial and perfectly inadequate provisions on Rolling Electoral Registration. Since those times information technology has bounded forth and the hopes contained in my proposals could be considerably polished and advanced.

Labour should be pressed to take these matters on board. Ideologically they don't need even to frighten middle England by saying that it is a socialist measure. If they need a vested interest before they can take up a principle, then a full franchise would lead to a future redrawing of constituency boundaries. This time in Labour's favour. For the Electoral Commission shows that those who are missing from the registers are a high percentage of the poor, ethnic minorities, the young and the highly mobile such as those in bed-sitter land. The only problem for Labour is that it would have to start paying serious attention to the well-being of these categories.

Added 5 November - Professor Iain McLean of Oxford University, told the Guardian in May 2010: “…to move straight to individual registration risks moving straight to mass disenfranchisement of the young, the urban, the mobile and ethnic minority voters. The rot dates back to Margaret Thatcher’s disastrous decision to make the electoral register a source of the poll tax register. It is also a source of jury lists. In the late 1980s, millions of people looked at the costs and benefits of being on the register, and rationally decided to disappear. They are not yet back, nor are their sons and daughters … At worst, a move to immediate individual registration could make Britain in 2011 like Florida in 2000.” Hat Tip - Grahame Morris MP.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

A Death Of Party Democracy

Peter Hain, Chair of Labour's National Policy Forum and Guru of "Refounding Labour". Architect of this death of Labour Party Democracy. At one time he claimed he was a "libertarian socialist", but is now neither. And to think that some 5 years ago, I argued that he should stand for the leadership of the Labour Party. Well even at my age, you can live and learn.

Mass Changes Made To The Rules Of The Labour Party.

I was not present at the Labour Party Conference, but it seems to have carried out a mass of changes to its rules on the basis of only one card vote which was carried with a Yes vote of 93.9% (88.3% of CLPs and 99.5% of affiliates). Given the wide ranging complexity of the changes concerned (even though many were mundane), these are percentage votes which are normally associated with totalitarian or whipped structures.

My understanding is that the amendments were made on the back of a last minute report entitled “Refounding Labour to win – a party for the new generation”. This was a 39 page report which appeared in a pack containing a total of some 100 pages which delegates were only first able to collect on the opening day of Conference, when the rule changes were themselves about to be voted upon.

The rule changes were based upon 40 sets of recommendations made in the above “Refounding Labour to win” document. On a rough count, there were no less than 138 separate points contained in the 40 sets of recommendations.

A further key 100 page book entitled “Labour Party rule book – including Refounding Labour amendments” was also made available on the day and in the run up to the vote. Between a fifth and a quarter of what are now the old rules of the Labour Party appeared in red with lines through them. It was being proposed that these should be replaced by lengthy sections which appeared in purple. Perhaps the colouring had an ideological significance. I doubt whether many delegates had the opportunity to digest the relevant documents which had just been made available to them. As they covered some 200 pages, how could anyone engage in an assessment of what was being proposed when they needed also to be in the Conference itself to keep an eye on developments?

Ignoring what seem to me to be minor and repeat changes, I give below a bare-bones summary of the main changes in this new rule book. I have truncated these into 22 items and may well have missed matters of importance – yet unlike delegates needing to vote, I have spent a few days looking at the key documents. At the close of my summary, I also add a three point NEC Statement which was issued to clarify or adjust what was put to the delegates.

It should be noted that (1) although many changes were given justification on the grounds that they arose from a consultation procedure within the Party about “Refounding Labour”, many of the proposals had never appeared in the earlier consultative documents relating to this process and the ordinary membership of the Labour Party had had no means of knowing they were on the cards, (2) as a matter of natural justice and internal party democracy, all the proposed rule changes should have been circulated well in advance of Conference to CLPs and affiliated bodies to enable them to mandate their Conference delegates, and (3) the matters placed before Conference were so huge that they should have been put off to a special Conference; this could also have allowed amendments to the rules changes to have been considered.

I don't object to losing a vote, but I do object to being disenfranchised. It is even worse when I am disenfranchised as part of a procedure that seems to help guarantee my future disenfranchisement.

It should also be noted that we are not at the end of the above “Refounding Labour” procedure. The NEC Statement given at the close of my summary, states that these consultations will now continue until March 2012. We need to push for democratic procedures this time round; including the clearing up of what happened at this Conference. For a start, we need to know exactly what ideas were submitted to the supposed consultation by the much maligned rank and file. For the style of the claims in “Refounding Labour to win” are merely that earlier consultations had given “widespread support” to x, “throughout the submissions” y was clear and “an extensive number of the submissions highlighted” z. Yet none of the x,y and z's came out of any of the six consultative, Party and Labour Discussion Group meetings I attended. So excuse my scepticism. It would be appropriate for us to be provided with hard evidence of what came out of such meetings.

I will not pass judgement at this stage on the nature of the changes which are summarized below. But I do contest their democratic legitimacy. My case is that non-democratic procedures were followed and the rights of the membership were violated.

Addition 21 October : Ann Black of the NEC states " Policy-making seems to have moved not only beyond the NEC but beyond the national policy forum and conference." See the rest of her revealing report here.


p 1. OBJECTIVES - “the party will bring together members and supporters”.

p 2. FINANCIAL SCHEME – this spells out accountancy arrangements for CLPs and others.(See also pp 99-100 below).

p 4. PARTY LEADER – gives the leader additional powers and responsibilities.

p 10. MEMBERSHIP SUBSCRIPTIONS – includes reduced rates for new members from affiliated Trade Unions and a minimum allocation to CLPs of £1.50 per member.

p 12. CONFERENCE DELEGATES – 6 added from the Association of Councillors (ALC) and 2 from Young Labour (YL).

p 14. CONTEMPORARY MOTIONS TO CONFERENCE – can now be up to 250 words. Nominating and voting rights are spelt out.

p 17. LEADER OF THE SCOTTISH LABOUR PARTY – gives the procedure for his or her election.

p 18. PROCEDURE FOR FILLING NEC VACANCIES – this relates to posts which are appointed by Conference on a two yearly basis.

p 19. NATIONAL POLICY FORUM – additions to its membership.(These changes are minor, yet the “Refounding Labour to win” document devotes four pages to the NPF. It is supportive of its role, whilst wishing to develop it. This gives a hint of the shape of things to come.)

pp 21-22. RIGHTS AND RESPONSIBILITIES OF ELECTED MEMBERS – a new clause II relates to all elected representatives. The NEC can introduce candidates contracts and there will be a 2% levy on their salaries and on set personal allowances, including all payments resulting from elected office and on salaried positions in the Lords.

p 23 and pp 69-82. SELECTION OF WESTMINISTER PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATES – covers new arrangements arising from the current Boundary Commission's proposals for the redrawing of parliamentary boundaries.

p 26. DISCIPLINARY RULES FOR CLPs – relates to those who operate in a CLP which has no Executive Committee.

pp 29-35 and pp 97-98. CHANGES TO THE RULES OF CLPs – These are wide-ranging and allow CLPs to “adopt any method of organisation currently approved by the NEC” whether delegate structures or all member meetings. The changes available include establishment of workplace branches and forums for interest groups. Whilst "The annual meeting should no normally be held before May in any year" and a “team of officers and coordinators, together with the parliamentary candidate and/or member of Parliament and the campaign co-ordinator, shall provide a strategic lead to the development of the Party in the constituency” (p 33).

p 36. ARRANGEMENTS WHERE CONSTITUENCY AND DISTRICT/COUNTY BOUNDARIES ARE COTERMINOUS – these are deleted. (Some of us were looking forward to the convenience of joint CLP and District Meetings in NE Derbyshire which has arisen under the Boundary Commission's proposals, but now these are ruled out.)

p 37. RULES FOR BRANCHES – This includes “to provide an opportunity for members to participate in the activities of the Labour Party within its area with the approval of the Executive Committee of the CLP and in line with the development action plan; to play their part in the Party's policy-making processes; to work together to run effective election and issue-based campaigns; to maximise the Party's engagement with organisations and individuals in the branch area and join with them in working for social justice. Work to meet these objectives shall always have high priority in the branches plans and meetings.”

p 45-46. YOUNG LABOUR - given Regional Representation and additions to its National Committee.

p 47-50. LOCAL GOVERNMENT COMMITTEES – are replaced by “Local Campaign Forums” with the NEC given the role of providing guidance on model structures. The membership of the LCF shall be focused around campaign delivery, the recruitment and selection of candidates and the development of opportunities for wider engagement with council issues.”

p 52. RULES FOR LOCAL LABOUR GROUPS ON PRINCIPAL AUTHORITIES - “Members of the Labour Group shall pay an annual levy to the Labour Party of 2% of their total income from the Council and joint body sources....For the purpose of effective and vibrant electoral organisation , members of the Labour Group shall pay an annual contribution of a recommended minimum of 5% of their total income from council and joint body sources.”

p 60. MODEL STANDING ORDERS FOR PARTY UNITS – in certain circumstances people resident in an area but who are not on the electoral register can be delegates. Plans for campaigning on local issues and strengthening links with members, affiliates, supporters and communal groups will be central to all business.

p 83- 89. PROCEDURES FOR THE SELECTION OF LOCAL GOVERNMENT CANDIDATES - “The timetable should be set so that, as far as possible, candidates are selected six months in advance of the election (12 months where the council elects on a two or four yearly cycle)” An LCF may apply to the NEC to pilot new or innovative procedures.”

pp 99-100. MINIMUM GUARANTEE OF SUPPORT TO CLPs - “Every CLP will receive a cash payment based on the number of paid up members in that CLP....A minimum payment to every CLP and no national deductions.”

NEC Statement - Refounding Labour.

(A) Electoral College - Leadership Elections.

1. Registered Supporters.

It is our aspiration to extend the reach of our party by registering people who are Labour supporters as the first step towards turning them into full members. As a sign of our willingness to embrace a wider span of Labour supporters, we will create a new section for Registered Supporters within the Electoral College for electing the leader of the party. In so doing we are clear that the existing sections of the College should retain the primary shares of the College. Hence three key principles will underpin NEC procedural guidelines regarding the leadership election:

1. The Registered Supporters section of the Electoral College shall only come into being when there are more than 50,000 supporters registered with the party;

2. The supporters section shall, subject to point 3, constitute between 3% and 10% of the Electoral College, and shall never constitute more than 10%;

3. A member's vote shall always be worth more than a registered supporter's vote.

So the Electoral College for future leadership elections shall be comprised of:

- Affiliates
- Party Members
- Supporters (maximum of 10%)

(B) Multiple Voting.

Clear expressions of concern have been made about the ability of party members to cast multiple votes; particularly in respect of MPs and MEPs who already have the ability to nominate candidates in addition to having their own section in the Electoral College. Other multiple votes exist within the affiliate section and submissions voiced support for the universal application of "one member one vote" in this section. It is therefore proposed that MPs and MEPs should be restricted to just one vote in their own section and not permitted to cast any ballots in any other sections. It is also proposed that affiliated members shall cast no more than one vote in the affiliates section.

(C) Partnership in Power.

Discussions during this consultation have focussed on the need to make a reformed policy making system more accessible and responsive to Party members, with a fresh empowered annual Conference with even greater democracy. We are determined to take a new approach to policy making which meets those objectives and will take more time to develop the details. The NEC therefore agrees to further consult between now and the end of March 2012 on how to make the policy and decision making processes more dynamic, open, and democratic with a view to taking forward proposals to the NEC next spring, ahead of Conference.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Birth Of Easington Colliery.

This photo was taken at Easington Colliery around 1902, some three years after the start of the sinking of the pit. The single storey huts in a terrace on the right were known as "Sinkers' Hut" and were for the families of those working on the sinking of the pit. There were 36 huts in all, in two rows. In numbers of cases these were also occupied by lodgers, who also worked as sinkers. The dirt track which a number of people are standing on is Seaside Lane. It ran for a mile and a quarter inland to an ancient settlement which became known as Easington Village and whose detailed history (in contrast to the Colliery area) goes back to Anglo - Saxon times. The handful of terraced houses on the left are probably the start of a large estate of similar permanent houses for miners. The huts on the right were later replaced by similar housing. Some 700 yards to the back of the photographer are cliffs leading down to the beach and the sea. The pit seams would eventually operate both under the bed of the North Sea and inland.

Under the title "The Birth Of Easington Colliery", a 6,000 word article of mine has recently been published in the Journal of the North East Labour History Society,Volume 42 (2011). The article covers the period from 1899 when efforts were first made to sink the pit, until 1911 when the local Miners' Lodge was finally established. In that time, the population around the immediate mining area grew from less than 50 people to almost 800. However, the bulk of the newcomers arrived only from 1909, when technical problems in the sinking the pit had been overcome. The first coal was drawn in 1910.

1899-1911 was very much a pioneering period for Easington Colliery. In the following 20 years its territory expanded and its population peaked at around 10,000.

I am now researching a follow-up article for the period 1912-26, which contains a series of dramatic events within a period of rapid growth. These include the Minimum Wage Strike of 1912, unofficial strikes, the impact of the First World War, the 1918-19 Influenza Epidemic, a start of Labour Politics via a local Branch of the Independent Labour Party, a significant Methodist leadership of the Lodge, Jack Lawson being the unsuccessful Labour Candidate in 1918, the impact of the Sankey Commission's Report, the 1921 Lock Out, Sidney Webb as the successful Labour Candidate from 1922, whilst Beatrice Webb organised the local Women's Section, ending with the General Strike and Lock-Out of 1926. It was also in 1912 that my paternal Grandparents and their established family of seven children settled firmly at Easington and were solidly part of the period I am now researching.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

From "Dronfield Blather" on Labour's Conference

Labour's Conference Agenda

The BBC has published this agenda for the Labour Party Conference.

The three consultations which we have been trying to track on Dronfield Blather will be dealt with under the following brisk timetable.

14.00 Sunday 25th September - Conferences Opens. Then after the normal wide range of introductory sessions, Lim Bryne will give a Report about the Policy Review - this was our submission. Then as the final item of the day Peter Hain will Report on the two other Consultations on which decisions are likely to be made (1) The National Policy Forum Report and (2) Refounding Labour - this thread trawls back on these (logically you need to start at the end and work your way back to the top.) There will probably later be a single card vote to push these two through. That is virtually it comrades. Then at 16.15 on Monday 26th, Tuesday 27th and Wednesday 28th; there will be a set of brief Policy Seminars. The final one ends at 17.00, but we are not told how long the others last. These will probably relate to the areas covered in Lim Bryne's Sunday Report.

That is all. Now you see it. Now you don't.

Labour's Confusing Conference

With three days notice for blog watcher's, this seems to be what will be put to the coming Labour Party Conference. But you don't have to agree with it - or with the process under which it has been pursued.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Email to members of Labour's NEC at 13.38 today.

To all members

Dear ....

As you know, final recommendations arising from the Refounding Labour consultation will be going to the NEC next Tuesday, ahead of consideration by the Annual Conference in Liverpool.

Peter Hain promised to keep you up to date with developments and wanted me to provide you with a summary of the some of the recommendations agreed by the recent Organisation Committee, and which will be discussed by the NEC next Tuesday.

The Committee is acutely aware that delegates will be receiving the final recommendations for consideration quite close to Conference, and was therefore keen for these initial conclusions to be communicated now.

The Committee agreed in principle that rules changes will be proposed in the following areas:

Purpose and objects

  • Clause I concerning the party's objects will be updated, giving greater emphasis to Labour's role in local communities.

Rights and responsibilities

  • Rights and responsibilities of the party leader will be defined for the first time, including control over appointments to the Shadow Cabinet.
  • Rights and responsibilities of Labour candidates and elected representatives will be defined, and provisions made for the use of model contracts.
  • Rights and responsibilities of elected members of the Parliamentary Labour Party will be defined, including the right to be consulted on any positions taken by the leadership in the context of a hung Parliament.
  • The ALC subscription will be abolished and councillors will instead, in line with other Labour representatives, pay a 2 per cent levy on total income arising from their elected role.

Enabling structures

  • Local Government Committees will be replaced by Local Campaign Forums (LCF), which will allow for local adaptation and different models of structure and membership. LCFs may apply to the NEC to pilot new and innovative procedures for selections. CLPs will be free to adopt different models of organisation to suit local circumstances, with certain common features, to allow joint working across constituency and geographical boundaries. There will be a new model of CLP finances to help redistribute resources more equally, and lift struggling CLPs out of debt.

Encouraging recruitment

  • The minimum age for becoming an individual member of the party will be lowered from 15 to 14 years old. There will be a lower local join rate for new members, to encourage recruitment.

Policy making

  • We will open up the process to ensure a greater voice for members in a system that is more transparent and accountable, and which reaches out to the public. We will create a process that ensures the voices of young members, women, BAME, disabled, LGBT and other under-represented members are heard in policy development. One representative from Labour International will be added to the membership of the NPF; and a textual omission regarding the Northern Ireland CLP, which already has one representative, will be corrected.

A bigger voice for councillors

  • The Leader of the LGA shall have the right to attend meetings of the political Shadow Cabinet when in opposition and the political Cabinet when in government. There will be better services provided for our councillors with a new website and enhanced online facilities, more training, design support for templates, and increased support for all Labour groups, large and small.

Full details of the actual textual rule book changes arising from these points will be sent to you as soon as the NEC has agreed the final recommendations to be put to Conference. The above recommendations do not represent the full extent of the changes likely to be proposed from Refounding Labour, and further issues are currently under consideration.

In addition, a number of reforms that do not require rule changes, such as new and improved technology for communication across the party, will also be proposed as part of the overall Refounding Labour package, and we will endeavour to ensure that you receive details of the final recommendations as soon as possible.

I hope this information is helpful and I will be in touch with further updates in due course.

Yours sincerely

Ray Collins signature

Ray Collins

General Secretary

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Derbyshire Miners

The photograph was taken in 1983 and it shows a class from a Sheffield University Course for Derbyshire Miners' which was held at the Workers" Educational Association, Hurst House, Abercrombie Street, Chesterfield. Over three year's the students obtained 120 days paid release from work to study industrial relations, economics and politics. (See the final item below).

Ashes & Diamonds Exhibition

A tribute to the Mining Industry and those who fought to defend it by Darren Coffield at Hurst House, Abercrombie Street, Chesterfield

September 19th to 23rd : 10am to 4pm

Official Opening 12.30pm Monday 19 September by John Burrows,
(Leader Chesterfield Borough Council and ex NUM Official)

For examples of Coffield's work see - here and here.

September 20th at 7pm

Derbyshire NUM Day Release Reunion and Discussion with former lecturers Harry Barnes & Bob Heath.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Three Week's To Save The Labour Party - From Zero Democracy

It seems that the blame for Labour's heavy electoral defeat has at last been determined. It was not the fault of New Labour nor of its leadership - nor even of the economic collapse. The fault rested clearly on the persistent failures of the activists amongst its membership. After all they attended closed local meetings. They told delegates to Constituency Meetings what to do. They organised all that unsuccessful local electoral activity. And they went out on the doorstep and frightened the public.

As it is impossible to get those who attend Labour Party Branch Meetings to mend their ways, it would clearly be counter-productive to ask them to agree with the reforms which are necessary to transform the current state of affairs. So instead, the necessary changes will only be unveiled within the next three weeks and just prior to the coming Labour Party Conference. This gives a chance for the Party Structure to be transformed in one fell swoop on a take-it-or-leave it basis. For as a Labour Party spokesperson said to the Guardian "We want to give more influence to party members" but only "if they open up". This is to be done (a) by training and drafting in some three or four constituency organisers to each Constituency Labour Party, (b) under the guidance of the body "Movement for Change" (which most of these non with-it, individual Labour Party card carrying members aren't even aware exists), (c) opening up Branch meetings to non-members and (d) getting all Labour Candidates to sign bits of paper to say that they will be good boys and girls if they get elected.

There is only one danger about this reform package not winning the day. The Guardian has revealed what is happening to all those Guardian reading geeks who go to Labour Party Branch Meetings. They have suddenly been alerted to the fact that they now have three weeks to mobilise to stop such changes. And what is left of inner-party democracy within the Labour Party could now turn very nasty - I hope.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

On Your Marx

In a ten minute talk on Radio 4, John Gray made an important contribution about Marx's analysis and its relevance to the contemporary nature of capitalism. The full script of the talk is available here , where for the time being a link can also be found to the iPod version of the talk itself. It is not to be missed.

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Shack's Back

Here are links to snippets from six football matches involving Sunderland in 1955-6, during the days of the great Len Shackleton. I missed them all, due to the fact that I was undertaking my National Service in Iraq. But now after 55 years I get to see them, including the famous 6th Round FA Cup tie between Newcastle and Sunderland. Everything comes to he who waits. As Len Shackleton said "I'm not biased when it comes to Newcastle, I'm not bothered who beats them!" - especially when it is Sunderland. Here you can hear him being interviewed.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Michael Foot : from "Suicide Note" to Salvation?

Gerald Kaufman's claim that Labour's 1983 General Election Manifesto was "the longest suicide note in history" has helped to fuel the impression that Labour's subsequent disastrous election result rested primarily on the shoulders of its policy proposals. To this, is normally added the argument that Michael Foot looked like Worzel Gummidge, which in a television era helped to destroy Labour's popular image.

The above crude analysis conveniently ignores two major alternative explanations for Labour's drubbing.

(1) In 1981, the Labour Party suffered a massive split with the defection of the "Gang of Four" and the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP) under the leadership of Roy Jenkins. As it takes two to tango, the blame for Labour's split can not be laid exclusively (or even mainly) on the shoulders of its leftward move. Jenkins and company made the break, refusing to accept the legitimacy of Labour Party Conference decisions. In the 1983 General Election the combined Labour and SPD vote was almost exactly the same as that which an undivided Labour Party had achieved in October 1974 when it won an election under Harold Wilson's leadership. A united Labour Party in 1983 could have achieved something similar.

(2) Prior to the split and then the 1982 Argentine invasion of the Falklands, plus Margaret Thatcher's popularist response, Michael Foot had been ahead of her in the public opinion polls. So much so at one time, that Thatcher was seen as being the most unpopular Prime Minister in British history. But the Falkland Factor (added to the split) was played out to her considerable political advantage.

It is also a paradox that Michael Foot was seen to have had a bad television image, for back in the 1950s he had been a popular and regular television performer in discussion programmes. But by the 1980s, television had become an avenue for those with a simplistic style, rather than those with great oratorical skills, passion, intellect and feeling.

See this article by Jon Williams which stresses the contemporary relevance of the much maligned 1983 manifesto. It is likely to turn out to be far more important for the modern Labour Party than anything that is likely to emerge from its current policy reviews.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Iraq In Crisis - Again

In the spring of 2011, Iraq witnessed major protests across the country. See this article, which addresses the causes of these demonstrations. It also discusses the obstacles toward forming a stable government and the nature of sectarianism and government corruption. Finally, it gives its consideration to the implications for U.S. policy.

State Interference With Political Parties : Iraqi Style

See here.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Well Written, Well Argued and Correct

There is a fine article on the socio-economic background to this month's riots in England on page ten of today's "Morning Star" by Martin O'Donnell. It has been edited in the version on the Morning Star's Web-Site, but it is still worth reading - see here.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Pitmen's Requiem

Perhaps as you get older, your total experience has accumulated to such an extent that your world seems to get more inter-related and condensed. This may be why since I recently reached 75, I have identified so closely with two books I have read. The first of these, I reviewed here. It deals with a book that was first published before I was born. The second book was only published last year and I feel that it was written especially for me - although I may not be alone in this thought. The book is "The Pitmen's Requiem" (Northumbria Press 2010) by Peter Crookson.

The starting point of Crookson's book might not only seem to be of general relevance to myself, as its theme will appeal to many. Crookson sets out to write a biography of Robert Saint who wrote the music for the miners' brass band hymn "Gresford" - which can be listened to via this link. I, like numerous others, feel a special attachment to this music. I recently heard it played at a telling occasion at the cemetery at Easington Colliery on the 60th anniversary of its major pit disaster. I have since heard it played at the Durham Miners' Big Meeting, which still continues a tradition started in 1871.

The tune was composed in memory of 256 men and boys who were killed in a massive explosion at Gresford Colliery near Wrexham in 1934. It is played after all mining disasters,their anniversaries and on most occasions when brass bands play a programme in past or present mining areas.

The tune was not, however, composed by a Welshman, but by a former coal miner in County Durham. Robert Saint was born in Hebburn on the south bank of the Tyne, in an area which was then part of County Durham. Between the ages of 14 and 27, Saint worked at Hebburn Colliery until it closed in 1932. He then spent two years on the dole in an era of deep economic depression; supplementing his small allowance by being a saxophone player in a local orchestra and also by giving piano lessons. He then moved on to work with the National Equine Defence League showing a special interest in the well-being of pit ponies.

Whilst Crookston writes a telling tale about Saint, he also ran into trouble in seeking to unearth research material. For working class people seldom hold onto written material about their lives. Crookston spells out the problem in a beautiful chapter entitled "No Shoebox in the Wardrobe". So the author then starts to ask a well selected group of people what "Gresford" means to them and then gets them to elaborate about their own experiences of the Durham and Northumberland Coalfields. It is a formula of genius.

I mention five sets of these people below, as I see myself as having some forms of link with them.

(1) I was in the same class as Cecil Peacock in the Infant and Junior Schools at Easington Colliery. After the recent service of remembrance for the 60th anniversary of the Colliery's pit disaster, I reminded him that for a period when we were at school we were taken out of play periods so that he could help me to improve my spelling. Cecil became on expert on brass bands, "Gresford" and music in general; becoming the administrator for musical education for the Durham County Council. He started his working life as an electrician at the local pit and appreciated something which I never knew. He tells us that the explosion at Easington Colliery which killed 81 miners and then two rescue workers, occured at an underground spot almost two miles inland from the beach. I knew that the pit's operations went out under the north sea and had assumed that that was it; even though my own father was in the pit in a safe seam at the time of the explosion. In fact I was so astonished by Cecil's claim that I checked it out. I could find nothing in the official report of the disaster: but Mary Bell, a local historian and writer, tells me the following - "The explosion was inland where Cecil pointed out. I have a record of a rescue worker from Murton. He told me that he was working down the inland pit at Murton at the time and he was very near the disaster area. He felt although he had to go by lorry to Easington he wished he could have gone through the 'wall' and got there much quicker. Also people living up Canada (a district of Easington HB) said that sometimes they could hear when 'firing' was going on down the pit." On a school bus a few hours after the explosion, I passed what was a greyhound track above the point where the explosion took place. It has taken me 60 years to discover the significance of the spot.

(2) I have recently been in phone, postal and email contact with Heather Wood and she is also interviewed for Crookston's book. She chaired the organisation "Save Easington Area Mines" (SEAM) in 1984/5 and provides an important description of the role of women during the miners' strike of those years. She has recently written a book entitled "Fight To The Finish" (Northern Voices Community Projects, 2011) published about her late father, Gordon MacPherson who worked at the pit at Easington. Luckily Heather (and her mother) have kept the equivalent of "a shoebox in the wardrobe" and her book includes poems and stories by her father. He had a keen sense of humour, which he used for serious purposes.

(3) Additionally, I have been in touch by phone and correspondence with Alan Cummings who was Easington Colliery's Lodge Secretary when both the 1984/5 strike took place and the pit was closed in 1993. He still continues with his duties today, covering compensation cases and keeping Easington's mining tradition alive. Easington was as united during the period of the long drawn out conflict as any other colliery in the country. Cumming's gives a gripping account of those tough days.

(4) Tony Benn is also interviewed, for he selected Gresford as a tune when he was on Desert Island Discs and because he is a regular at the Durham Miners' Gala. You can hear him speaking for himself on these matters on the second video shown via this link. My connections with Tony have been substantial. Not only were we members of the Socialist Campaign Group in the Commons, but the Constituency I represented lapped around Tony's in Chesterfield in a "C" shape. In fact, Chesterfield was our common meeting ground via the Derbyshire Miners' Offices. For the area I represented had a very similar mining tradition to that of the Durham Coalfield.

(5) Crookston also interviews Arthur and Vera Bartholomew from their home in Byron Street at Easington Colliery. Although I know neither of these, I knew Byron Street well. My first girl friend lived there. Her father had been killed in the 1951 pit disaster. Arthur Bartholomew was 92 at the time of the interview and has a memory going back to his starting work in the pit at Dawdon Colliery (two miles north of Easington) at the age of 14. He was fore-overman at Easington at the time of the explosion, which was also the job held by my former girl friend's father.

There are many other elements of Crookston's book which I identify with. He takes a walk down the main street at Easington - Seaside lane. The strangers he passes are very friendly. In retirement my father walked down the length of most of Seaside Lane on almost a daily basis, enjoying the banter. But Crookston's is also depressed by the dereliction of closed shops and the abandoned Junior and Infant Schools which has had preservation orders placed on them. One of these schools was the scene of the count for Manny Shinwell's dramatic electoral victory over Ramsay MacDonald in 1935, but even Cecil Peacock now wants it to be demolished. Yet I remember the Seaside Lane of the post-war years with affection. For its main stretch, one side of Seaside Lane was dominated by a row of private shops, with a mix of two cinemas, a club, a pub, a barbers, a billiard hall, the functioning infant and junior schools and the Co-op. Then it reached the block of colliery houses. The other side of the Lane had some of Easington's posher houses, a doctor's surgery, well kept allotments near the waterworks, two Methodist chapels (a third for the Wesleyan's by then being used as a warehouse), churches for the Anglicans and the Pentecostals, an opening leading to the Miners' Welfare and to the Welfare Grounds with its football pitches, bowling greens, tennis courts and a cricket pitch; then at the bottom Walter Wilson's and Byron Street. (There are some enthralling poems by Roy Sanderson and Mary Bell about Easington. These contrast my own past experiences with Crookston's modern ones. I am unable to provide the link to these at the moment, but will add them sometime if I can.)

I was, no doubt. biased. But I felt that Easington was a cut above other Colliery areas. Inland pits often had ugly pit heaps and their coal dust to contend with, but Easington dumped its waste out of immediate sight, into the sea. It ruined the beach, but did not effect daily life. Nowadays the beach has been cleaned up; but the communal provisions have massively declined.

I am mistaken if I am giving the impression that Peter Crookston's book is mainly about Easington. Its central theme is about "Gresford" and its composer who was based in the Tyneside area, which I never even travelled to before I was 12 or so. I have homed in on the bits I relate to. Some of this now takes me into the areas close to Easington.

Peter Lee, an earlier leader of the Durham Miners is dealt with. He became the first Labour Leader of the Durham County Council in 1919 and had a new post-war town near Easington named after him. I knew Peterlee in its early days well. My grandmother, Uncle, Aunt (and her family) were amongst its early occupants. Following on from my becoming Secretary of the Easington Colliery Branch of the Labour Party, I became Secretary of the Peterlee and District Fabian Society. Although our monthly meetings were held in Peterlee, our biggest event was a day school held at Easington Secondary Modern School with 78 people attending.

Crookston takes us to coastal Collieries close to Easington, including Seaham where I started work as a railway clerk. Horden where I next worked at their railway station and Dawdon where as a young teenager I fixed up a football match and John Fickling on our side scored from his own half on a full sized pitch. But above all, Crookston takes us in and out of the inland area of Shotton Colliery, where my wife comes from. Her father was an onsetter at the local pit, with its pit heap almost spilling out onto its Front Street. It was described in J.B. Priestley's "English Journeys" in 1932. Invariably, Crookston has a chapter entitled "The People Priestley Admired" - although the references here are again to Tyneside.

Even when we return to the story of the man who composed "Gresford", I am still sent off to my own recollections. In a chapter entitled "Lament for a Vanished Culture". Crookston writes of his father and Robert Saint in deep conversation about the writings of Robbie Burns in 1948. This leads to a description of miners' home libaries and the self-taught tradition. Numbers of miners in the tradition of the autodidact, built up their own serious libraries. One collection of works stressed by Crookston is the Odhams Press "Home University Library". To this he could have added the Odham's Press "British Encylopedia." Next to my computer, I hold 24 hard book volumes of these two Odham's collections. They were the prize possession of my Uncle Bill (William Gray) who worked from the age of 14 to 65 in the pits; first at Sunniside in the south-west Durham Coalfield, then at Easington.

The fact that Peter Crookston hits all the right cords with me is that he is a skilled writer from a Great Northern Coalfield's background. It is also deeply significant that we were both born in 1936 and then each left the north-east in 1963. We are both at a time of life when we want to know more about our roots. Not in the sense of "Who Do You Think You Are?", but in the sense of what immediately shaped our early life.