Thursday, 31 March 2011

No alternative to the cuts- a response to Sentinel editorial

I along with a large contingent of people from North Staffordshire was on the March against the cuts last weekend. I am proud that I attended. I also feel that the arguments advanced in the Sentinel editorial – No alternative to the cuts- need to be counted.
I have to admit that when I hear the view that a majority of the political establishment are of one opinion that we have to go through this economic pain then both my thumbs begin to itch. Is this the same establishment that got us in this mess in the first place? Is this the same  establishment that gave us Iraq?
Firstly the level of deficit that we reached in 2009-10 is not a historical high. We were at a level of around 60% debt in relationship to GNP compared to the 240% figure we reached in 1947 when the post-war Labour Government embarked upon the social reforms culminating in the foundation of the NHS. It is not even a national high has many other countries such as France, Spain, the US and Japan have a higher rate of indebtedness in relation to GDP. The arguments that we need to make cuts and balance the books were exactly the same arguments advanced in the 30s when North Staffordshire suffered grievous levels of unemployment an experience it looks like we will repeat.
The principle that needs to be followed outlined by the economist Keynes in the 30s is right now as it was then 'look after Employment, and the Budget will look after itself". How can we reduce the deficit against the current backdrop of rising unemployment, falling tax revenues, growing inflation, dropping consumer confidence and negative growth? It looks like a perfect storm to me.
The level of cuts and job losses that the area will shortly endure will be very damaging to the local economy and most importantly to people who will be loosing their jobs. It is likely that for some especially those in their middle years that they will never again achieve the standard of living they previously enjoyed. A cursory glance at the Wednesday edition of the Sentinel offers proof that many jobs currently on offer are either part time, temporary or commission only. Those who have been earning a salary around the national average of 24K are shortly to find themselves facing a great shock.
I will say that I do not parrot the mantra of no cuts. I am pleased that the coalition has stopped the nonsense over ID cards. I am happy that the database state is being curtailed and the amount of money spent on consultancy and obsessive monitoring carried out by the last Government reduced.
But the level of cuts to basic services and the damage it will do to individual lives, usually the poor and the most vulnerable must be a cause for concern. And it must be unacceptable that many of the top FTSE companies consistently avoid paying tax. Tax avoidance has been estimated to cost the UK economy £95 billion whilst the pay of senior executives of top companies has risen by 55% in recent years. It cannot be morally justifiable that those who are responsible for the global crash should be able to walk away scot free with salaries and pensions enhanced.
I agree that the economy needs to be rebalanced. North Staffordshire needs jobs and we need to rediscover the skills that we had in making things. It was shameful that the local economy was loosing 3, 000 jobs a year in the manufacturing sector during the New Labour years, and linking this with the investigative reporting on the failure of regeneration in the area, woeful that previous efforts have been so disastrous.
We need to rebuild our economy on the principles of environmental sustainability- and given its engineering tradition North Staffs is well placed for this- durability, inventiveness and developing the potential that this area has. Miring people in welfare dependency, a low wage economy and impoverishment that naturally follows a rapid rise in unemployment is both repugnant and bad economics. Our obligations as good workers in the North Staffs economy must be matched by Government and business working for a common good to secure decent jobs, secure homes, proper pensions and fair finance objectives that underpinned the march in London last Saturday
Bill Cawley

Monday, 28 March 2011

Stoke City and I

My first memories of Stoke City encompass the bizarre and the disgusting. I will get the second point out of the way first. The earliest recollection of the Victoria Ground was collecting cigarette butts for a relative who had a Rizla machine to roll fags. I would be child labour and about 5. The butts were the means of obtaining the tobacco supply. It did not do this particular relative harm as they lived to a great age. The curious memory is of sheep grazing on the Victoria Ground in the 60s to keep the grass closely cropped. There might be a picture somewhere in the Sentinel archive. I am sure that I am not making this up. I went to school at St Peters next to the ground and the club were kind enough to let the school hold their sports day there. I was in a relay team that won the sprint. My first and only ever sporting achievement on any Stoke City pitch

But back to football
My first Stoke match was in March 1962 when I was just short of my 7th birthday. We played Swansea Town and it ended as a 0-0 draw. It’s strange how memory plays tricks as I thought that there were goals. We lived in Lytton St and in the promotion season of 1962-3 the roar of the 40,000 plus crowd could be clearly heard where we lived the other side of Stoke. An early opportunity to make a bit of money was offering to look after supporter’s cars. It was done innocently and not in the modern day way of " looking after cars" as practised around Anfield or Eastlands.

I missed the centenary game against Real Madrid in 63 although my father went and bought back the programme. Years later a woman living in Hartshill showed me a Real Madrid medal she was given by some of the players who she met wandering around Shelton.

However I did go to the Matthews testimonial match in April 65 and, unlike Tony Blair, saw "Wor" Jackie Milburn play in the veterans game before the International XI v Matthews XI main feature. Milburn patted his expanded midriff when he was unable to reach a ball much to the amusement of the crowd.

When the "galloping major" Puskas died a few years ago the sports writer for the Guardian named him as the 5 greatest footballers in the last 50 years along with Pele, Best, Cruyff and Maradona. I saw 3 of the five at the Victoria Ground.

In the 60s I went to the Victoria Ground regularly and my 1969 diary mentions seeing games against Spurs, Burnley and Manchester City. Again its strange how memory plays tricks and the clearest memory I have of a game was a 1-1 draw against Spurs when half the Stoke team was laid low with illness. The Spurs team was riding high in the League and the draw was considered miraculous.
By this time we were living in Abbey Hulton and the games were a highlight of the weekend. We took the bus from Leek Rd into Stoke although money was tight and only allowed for a programme and travel. On one occasion I tries to smuggle one of my brothers under my coat to try to get in for nothing. My nerve failed and we paid up enduring the long walk back to the Abbey.

I saw some iconic games in the 70s as well including the 73 match against Leeds and a 75 2-0 win against Liverpool. The 70s was of course Stokes heyday and the exciting football of the time gave Stoke something of a swashbuckling image.

The first of only a few away matches was an early 70s cup replay against Huddersfield at Old Trafford. Dennis Smith scored and I mentioned the game when he spoke at a dinner that I went to at Baddeley Green Working Men’s club. He said that he had pain killing injections to get him through the match. I recall the atmosphere of the match and above all the excellent fish and chips in a shop somewhere close to Warwick Rd.

My youngest brother and I went to Goodison in January 1977 to see Stoke well beaten by an Everton side that included Duncan McKenzie who gave perhaps the greatest performance I have ever seen by a player against Stoke. My brother was fully decked out in the red and white stripes. We were the only Stoke fans on the bus back from Stanley Park. It was a sea of blue and an uncomfortable journey.

I saw some great Stoke players such as Hudson and Mickey Thomas who always gave a 100%. For some curious reason I liked a player called Kelly who they got from Wigan who could pass brilliantly, although from his bulk he probably liked the sauce.

I also played with one or two Stoke players. Alan A’Court used to run the sports centre at Staffs University. As a teenager of the Abbey I used to have a kick around with Garth Crooks- we always knew that he had great ability- and I turned out for a CND team for a five a side competition at Bucknall Park in the early 80s. Griffiths who Stoke got from a non-league team from Devon turned out for one of the other teams

I also saw some terrible games. I was there at Wigan in February 1991 when an abject performance by the team saw Alan Ball sacked and another wretched performance in the cup against non-league Telford. I made the mistake of mocking a friend at University who was a Leicester City supporter who that year- 1978- were knocked out by Walsall. He returned the mockery in spades when Stoke were knocked out by non-league Blyth Spartans. Nemesis always follows hubris.

I also went to most of the games in the season we went down from the old First division in the " holocaust season". The Boxing Day victory against United was a rare victory. As a Stoke Councillor in 1985 I played in a friendly organised against Liverpool Council before a match against Everton. I scored a goal that was disallowed a header although I climbed over the militant member Tony Mulherne in order to get at the ball. He lay on the ground and cried "foul"- O irony. "Deggsy" Hatton also turned out in brand new Everton kit and broke down after a few minutes. Everton went on to win the real match later that day. I think they won the league that season

On the subject of the Vale. I used to go to the occasional match in the 70s when Stoke were playing away and I was in Stoke with University mates from York. It was quite common for people to alternate between the Vale and Stoke. We used to go up to Burslem for a pint beforehand at the time Burslem had a few really good pubs like the "Foaming Quart" which has since closed. It helped that one of my brothers Tim was an apprentice at the Vale in the late 70s. I also worked in the Education Department with Albert Leake, a true gent, who played in the 54 Semi Final team. From 07-9 I worked on an oral history project called Port Vale Tales. It involved interviewing the older supporters and players who had played with the team in the 50s to the 80s. It was really enjoyable talking to the old players such as Graham Barnett, Hancock and Harry Poole. (I used to the newspaper deliverer for Poole when he ran a newsagent on the Abbey in the 60s). He told what it was like to play against the Roker Roar.

I don’t make many matches working at weekends works and I only made a couple of games since they returned to the Premiership. A disappointing game draw against Fulham and the draw against Wigan last season.

Before I went to the Fulham game in December 2008 I called in to the "Staff of Life" and had a pint to toast the memory of John McCready. He was a Fenton Councillor and we used to go to the "Staff of Life" in the doomed 84-5 season. I hope he is smiling down from wherever he is.

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists- 100 years on

In 1911 a struggling, unsuccessful writer Robert Tressell died in poverty in a Liverpool hospital. A 1,600 page unpublished novel lay in a tinbox under his bed. That book, which was published many years after his death, "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist" secured his fame albeit posthumously. An explicitly political work, it is widely regarded as a classic of working-class literature. It is a work that many Socialists would cite as having a transformative impact upon them. Ricky Tomlinson of "Royle" family fame believes it the "best book ever".

The book concerns itself with a group of working men in a mythical town Mugsborough and their struggles against poverty wages, insecurity and tyrannical bosses.

The author embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Tressell's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their superiors.

One might argue that all this was a long time ago. But is it? I have a friend who works at a major food producer in Leek. He works for an agency. The agency also employs many foreign workers. All are on minimum pay. It remains the case that casualisation of labour is increasing. Growing evidence reveals what being part of a "flexible" workforce means, low pay, job insecurity, poor safety and few rights.

The book concerns itself with a group of working men in a mythical town Mugsborough and their struggles against poverty wages, insecurity and tyrannical bosses.

The author embarked on a detailed and scathing analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The "philanthropists" of the title are the workers who, in Tressell's view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their superiors.

One might argue that all this was a long time ago. But is it? I have a friend who works at a major food producer in Leek. He works for an agency. The agency also employs many foreign workers. All are on minimum pay. It remains the case that casualisation of labour is increasing. Growing evidence reveals what being part of a "flexible" workforce means, low pay, job insecurity, poor safety and few rights.

It has social fallout in terms of increased child poverty, where women are denied occupational maternity pay. It will mean increased pensioner poverty, as more people are excluded from occupational pensions. It encourages the payment of poverty wages and increases the burden on taxpayers of paying means-tested benefits. It reduces job satisfaction for permanent staff who train the constant stream of new entrants, whose employment is often cut short.

Shortly many people will shortly be forcibly leaving well paid, secure work as the recession impacts. Some in desperation will turn to agencies to find employment practices not far removed from Victorian times.

In age of fat cats and bankers' bonuses, the message behind The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists rings clear.

It's just a shame that after 100 years after Tressell’s death, we're still falling for the same old trick


Sunday, 27 March 2011

Revolting for 40 years

40 year’s separate the Kill the Bill demonstration against the Industrial Relations Act bought in by the then Tory Government of Edward Heath and the demonstration against the cuts held in London last Saturday. I was on both of them and it is interesting to reflect now in my 50s and as a 15-year-old the great gulf that divides these two events.

 There are similarities as about the same number of around 300,000 were on both marches and Hyde Park featured in both marches. When I marched through London last weekend I could not one major and telling difference- the music. In the 70s most Trade Unions would have had their brass bands. My fathers union the POEU definitely did. And I recall as we marched through the West End fellow three floors up dressed in a dinner jacket conducting the brass band below him. There were many cheers at this. The only sound that was heard was incessant drums and whistles which reached a crescendo outside Downing St. The demise of the union brass band reflects the decline in the trade union movement which was approaching its high water mark in the 70s with a membership of 11 million. It is barely half that figure today.

Another indicator of the changes was the absence of trade union banners. I did see an old ASLEF (Doncaster) branch which must have dated from the 50s, but the magnificent works of art especially from the Miners Union- for obvious reasons- were absent from the demonstration last Saturday. A report of the 71 march recalls the names of the unions that took part that Sunday, the boilermakers, engineers, miners, shipbuilders, and steelmakers. We lined up to start the march in Hyde Park and the POEU found itself close to the actor’s union Equity. I have a photograph union as some of the acting fraternity stood chatting to each other including Robert Morley, Marius Goring and Alfie Bass. The cult of personality was evident then.

But the main difference between the 1971 and the 2011 was the dominance of the public sector unions. I would estimate that there were only public service union banners on display last Saturday although someone told me that they had seen my union USDAW banner on the march.

The General Secretary of the Trade Union Movement that day in 1971 was Vic Feather an affable Yorkshire. I recall him being heckled by the Spartacists. There was no violence back in 1971 but I cannot help but think that the largely middle class memberships of the Spartacists were mirrored by the anarchists that caused mayhem in Oxford St last weekend. I can safely bet that many of the Trotskyists who gave the working class Feather a hard time went on to have successful careers in the City and advertising. One of the leading Trots at York University had a father who had a senior position in Barclays. The son was jailed for throwing a petrol bomb in the Brixton Riots in 1981.

I have been on many demonstrations in those 40 years. I was at the big CND demonstration against Cruise in 1983. I went on a number of the march for jobs in the early 80s. I supported the ANC in the same decade and I went on the anti war march in 2003.

I think such events can change things and I am equally sure that direct action has its place. Both marches went by the National Gallery. About 100 years ago a supporter of the Suffragettes attacked a painting by the Spanish artist Velaquez the Rookeby Venus. Do people think that the Suffragettes cause was not helped by taking the fight to the Government? I rest my case

Friday, 25 March 2011

Our response to natural disaster

The news of the earthquake in Japan made me think about the reaction that we have toward national disaster. In Leek we are fortunate that that this is an area that avoids the extremes. We have earth tremors which are minor compared to the earthquakes that countries as disparate as Japan, Haiti, China and Pakistan have suffered over the last decade.

Interestingly the biographer of Doctor Johnson James Boswell was in Leek on the 12th September 1777 when the town was hit by a tremor so strong it forced the parishioners of St Edwards Church into the street in fear. Yes, Leek as are many communities in the UK is fortunate that natural disasters are rare, not only that but the effectiveness of the public services make recovery a speedy process. Perhaps the last great disaster to hit this island was the great floods that hit East Anglia in the early 50s when over 300 died.

 We have to go back to the middle ages to think of a time when calamity struck Leek with the great fire at the end of the 13th century and 50 years later the impact of the Black Death, which will have killed many. Historians suggest that a third of the population died over the bubonic plague. Of course at that time people would have been intensely religious and the superstitious will have responded to the wrath of God with fervent prayer and seeking out a scapegoat. In other parts of Europe this usually meant the Jews.

The attitude to calamity changed markedly during the 18th century especially when a massive earthquake flattened Lisbon in 1755. Over 40,000 died in one of the most Catholic countries in Europe. Surely a questioning person began to say if this is the will of God then why direct it at the pious Portuguese? The event called into question the notion of a benevolent creator and to be a sign that a new kind of knowledge was required. These early scientists began the process of questioning the world around them in a process that would ultimately lead to Charles Darwin. The view that disasters are gods will has not entirely gone away as fundamentalists in the US blamed both Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti Earthquake last year on human wickedness.

The terrible event in January 2010 in Haiti encapsulates the best and worst of human responses to such events. The speedy response, the questions around the impact of non governmental agencies in Haiti and the suspicion that many regarded the event as a publicity opportunity rather than a humanitarian one. The media concentration on rioting as desperate people fought for meagre supplies. And then a failing away of interest as that wretched place was left to its own devices as the world’s focus shifted elsewhere.

Like it or not our reply to disaster in other parts of the world is not a balanced one witness the massive response to the Christmas 2004 Tsunami in South East Asia and the paltry one to the Pakistan earthquake a year or so later

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The day the bailiffs came

Some one I know had a shock one morning when bailiffs acting for SMDC turned up and clamped the family car because of late payment of Council Tax. They were a few months in arrears. The bailiffs place "sensitive" stickers on the car informing everyone of their plight. My friend paid money that would have gone for the rent to assuage Duke’s who wanted all the money immediately, even though it risked the family’s accommodation.

I am outraged. This person has their own business. This person has tried very hard to make their own way. This person is not a drain on society. They work 6 days a week And yet they have been humiliated.
If anyone deserves indicting before the court of public opinion it is not my friend. In my role of prosecutor I accuse the following.

Governments are culpable, both Labour and Tory, whose actions have wrecked the economy. We used to have an economy where making things mattered. Instead we have surrendered by the spivs of the money markets. The movement of huge amounts of money around the global economy have not produced one bolt or screw. We have destroyed what we as British do best for the false god of finance.
I accuse the banks whose greed and stupidity has destroyed our security. Banks once supported meaningful activities rather than a casino economy. Only recently I heard that RBS failed to meet its target for lending to new enterprise. Banks seem to forgotten the saying of an Ancient Greek that "those who have no history are destined to remain a child". They forgot the greed of the past speculative "bubbles" that led to the need to regulate. Bailed out by the taxpayers they exist, it seems, only to feather their own nests. Over 2,800 people in the 5 major banks earn £1million or more.

I point the finger at the Council who have abandoned small businesses. The Council made redundant Town Centre Managers who were tasked to support local enterprise. Initiatives that were set up have now drifted. The district is gripped by listlessness. What is required is a vision from officers and Councillors for without vision decent people suffer and their businesses die.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

I love libraries

I love libraries. There you are! I have nailed my colours to the pole at the start of this piece. I am not the only one. Stephen Fry, himself something of an institution, put the British Library system at the top of things of institutions to be venerated. I have used libraries for all my life and it comes as something as a shock to discover that others do not share my admiration. The first library I used as a child, Fenton is to be closed which is, for me, sad because it was through the libraries that I was introduced to books.
It was at that the local Library that I became aware of the world outside. I am afraid I am against the trend in modern libraries for relevance as far as a child’s view was concerned. When I went to the local Library I wanted escape and I was first drawn to the histories of the Ancient World.Then there were the legends of the Greeks and Romans. I knew at one point all the Labours of Hercules.

Later it was "Treasure Island" and as a boy it was the character of Jim Hawkins that I readily identified with. Then HG Wells, Jules Verne and CS Forrester’s "Hornblower" series followed by the time I got to 11.I was well on my way.

The buildings helped as well. They are magical places where the sense of earnestness and learning permeates the very brick work. These sentiments certainly apply to our own Nicholson Institute whose dome has graced the town skyline for over 130 years.

But the whole tradition is under threat as a consequence of the cuts. Libraries represent values which seem to have fallen out of favour that society aspires to better things for its people.

They are a leveller- no person would be unable to access public knowledge because of their poverty. The Victorians established a service imbued with a sense of publics duty and private philanthropy as in the case of the Nicholson. This role has not shrunk today where the need to access information has become the more crucial. Even in the age of the Ipad.

Do not let the irreparable cultural vandalism of library closure happen without a fight.