Sep 29 2007

Emancipation & Liberation Index 15

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 8:03 pm

Emancipation & Liberation, Issue 15, Autumn 2007

Issue 15 Cover

Issue 15 Cover

Sep 29 2007

Lyrical Delicacy and Political Toughness

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 7:25 pm

Allan Armstrong interviews socialist activist and poet, Jim Aitken, about his life, politics and works.

Jim Aitken: socialist activist and poet

Jim Aitken: socialist activist and poet

Could you please give us some background information about your life?

I was born and raised in Edinburgh. My mother was from Wick, one of a family of six. She left Wick to work in service in London. She never saw the city because she was working all the time. She met my father in North Berwick. He was one of eight children raised in Edinburgh. His family originally came from Dublin. I consider myself a mongrel. I feel Celtic, it is part of my roots.

My mother was a member of the Labour Party, whilst my father was chair of the local branch of the old UPW, the posties’ union for 27 years. Uncles and aunts were members of the Communist Party. My aunt, Gertie McManus, was a stalwart of the Edinburgh Trades Council, as a delegate from USDAW, the shopworkers’ union. She was behind the moves to get the James Connolly plaque put up in the Cowgate.

I was brought up in a wider, literate, working class, socialist culture, which has largely disappeared today. It seemed natural to be a socialist and republican. When I rebelled as a teenager, it just pushed me further Left.

How did your interest in literature come about?

There were plenty of books in the house. There was also an atlas and I collected stamps. These all helped to arouse my interest in the wider world. This all contributed to my internationalism. I went to Portobello High School. I was fortunate that this was the period when comprehensive schools provided a real opportunity for working class kids. The teachers were committed to the comprehensive ideal, and some of my English teachers, in particular, provided me with good leads. I read Beckett in my sixth year. This led me to a whole lot of interesting existentialist writing, for example, Sartre, Camus and Kafka.

When I left school I worked for two years. I began to write poetry. I met Norman McCaig, along with Michael MacDairmid and Deidre Chapman in Milnes Bar. I became a friend of Norman’s and read my poetry to him at his flat. He did a lot to encourage me. When Norman got the readership at Stirling University I decided I would go there to study. I studied literature, fine art, philosophy and religious studies. I had some of my poetry published in the university magazine and did some readings there.

Somebody else who has had a great and continuing influence on me is Hugh MacDairmid. I recently read Revolutionary Art of the Future produced by John Manson, who was interviewed in your last issue.

How were your politics developing at this time?

I didn’t join any political party, although I went to some meetings organised by the Communist Party at the University. John Reid was the President of Stirling NUS at the time! I was more interested in particular campaigns and issues like Vietnam, Anti-Apartheid and CND.

Why did you decide to become an English teacher?

I decided that since I had personally benefited from the comprehensive system, I wanted to offer something to working class kids from a similar background. My love of English is tied up with the openings on the world which literature provides.

I taught briefly in Stirling, but since then, I have been teaching in Edinburgh. The English department I joined was a really good place, where, once again the teachers were committed to the comprehensive ideal. However, there was still the authoritarianism symbolised by the use of the belt.

Things really changed for the worse under Thatcher. She was a class warrior determined that her class should win out. She was vicious. Mass unemployment was used to discipline the working class. The schooling system was remoulded to better fit the economic system. There were fewer and fewer possibilities for real education, as everything was subordinated to continuous assessments. O grades became Standard Grades; Highers became Revised Highers (revised again and again) as more finely graded assessment procedures were imposed, to control both student and teacher.

English teachers were at the centre of the resistance to all this. I became a member of Scottish Association of Teachers of Language and Literature (SATOLL). The late Tony McManus was the inspiration behind this. Many of those involved, like Tony, were themselves writers and artists. We had a considerable impact. I had articles published in The Scotsman and The Herald.

I was also quite heavily involved in the Edinburgh Local Association of the EIS. I was on the Local Executive, alongside other left-wingers from Rank & File Teachers. I chaired the English subject section. The Edinburgh LA was to give its support to various initiatives, like SATOLL’s Sense and Worth and, more recently, the pamphlet of anti-war poetry, Magistri Pro Pace, written by Scottish Federation of Socialist Teacher members, Allan Crosbie, Annie McCrae, Andrew McGeever, Linda Richardson and myself.

How did your politics develop through this period?

When Thatcher came to power I joined the Communist Party. This is where I believed I would find the best criticism of capitalism. Somewhat mistakenly, this is where I also thought the fightback against Thatcher would begin, because of the CP’s strength in the big industrial unions. But the big debate, which was taking place inside the CP, was which way forward – the working class or the new social movements. I was with the industrial working class-based wing. However, just when the wider labour movement needed the CP, it was tearing itself apart.

Since internationalism was so important to me I continued to be active in a number of campaigns. These included Liberation (originally set up by Fenner Brockway), the Britain-Vietnam Association, Anti-Apartheid and Latin America Solidarity.

When the CP folded, I became a member of the Midlothian Peace Forum (I was living in Penicuik at the time), which combined CND, Peace groups and Anti-Apartheid. The leading figure was David Smith, a local Labour councillor, and also a committed socialist. We invited Canon Kenyon Wright of the Scottish Constitutional Convention to address one of our Burns Suppers. Scottish self-determination was becoming an important issue, under the hammer blows of Thatcher. Scottish devolution eventually came about as a response to Thatcher’s attacks.

This was also a great period of Scottish cultural renaissance. When political options run out, cultural renaissance can reach the parts that politics can not reach. World class writers such as Alistair Gray and James Kelman came to the fore. The artists, Ken Currie, Steven Conroy and Steven Campbell had a major impact.

When the EIS leadership accommodated to the Tories, and then to New Labour, they slowly strangled the teachers’ union as a vehicle of resistance, I dropped out of LA activity. I used the time to do a two year course at Edinburgh University, on Scottish Cultural Studies, led by Murdo Macdonald, followed by a two year course on European Studies. I also took a considerable interest in Latin American writers, particularly Jorge Luis Borges (despite his right wing politics) and Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Mario Vargas Llosa and Carlos Fuentes. When I finally published my book of poetry, Glory, in 2001, I included an essay on Borges.

So let’s go on to your books of poetry. Was Glory your first to be published?

No, back in 1993, I had published Twelve Poems for Mikolaj. Mikolaj Januszewicz was a close friend of mine, when I lived in Midlothian. He had just died. Mikolaj was a remarkable person and a Communist in several European parties. As a Belorussian Communist he had fought with the Partisans in the Second World War, before moving to France to fight with the Maquis. After the war he moved to London, then Midlothian, where he lived for the rest of his life. He was a member of the old CPGB.

Glory was published in 2001. It was dedicated to my children and to the Irish granny I had never met. It included poetry I had written over many years. It deals with major political events in the world, but also with my own internal life and cultural interests, My most recent book, Neptunes’s Staff & Other Formations, follows this format too. It has been the most successful in terms of sales. This book has gone to a second edition and raised money for CND.

The book launch was very successful too. Sixth year students produced a musical accompaniment to the poem, Leroy’s Rapping Lament, which links events in Baghdad and Falluja with New Orleans. Teachers and students also made a film with images from these places.

I have always tried to have my work sponsored through wider labour movement bodies and campaigns. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq led to my writing of From the Front Line of Terror in 2002, and Another Line of Terror in 2003, and my contributions to Magistri Pro Pace in 2006. This was also dedicated to Tony McManus. The Herald printed a double page selection. My other recent book of poetry, Celta Arabica, 2004, was written with the Palestinian writer Ghazi Hussein. These were all written under the auspices of the Anti-War Movement.

Palestine is obviously very important to you. How did you become involved?

Palestine is the Left’s ‘Vietnam’ for today. Palestinians are the conscience of the world today, as the Jews once were. When I met Ghazi, who originally lived in Syria, as part of the Palestinian diaspora, he said that the Palestinians were at the bottom of the barrel in the Arab countries too. This is why they are at the forefront of all the struggles against injustice.

The idea of organising poetry readings came in response to the fire-bombing of the Annandale Street mosque by racists in 2001. It was decided to hold a solidarity meeting in the damaged mosque. Tom Leonard, Liz Lochead, Aonghas MacNeacail, and others, all agreed to read their poetry. It was so successful over 40 people had to be turned away. When ever have you heard of people being turned away from poetry readings!

This led to further events being held annually as an alternative Remembrance Day. It was at one of these events that I first met Ghazi. He had written the play One Hour Before Sunrise, about imprisonment and torture in Syria. We agreed to write and publish Celt Arabica. We have become close friends.

How did your politics develop during this period?

If Thatcher’s 1979 election victory prompted me to join the CP, then the Iraq war prompted me to join the SSP. The Scottish dimension of politics is important. However, I also joined the SWP, for the same reason I had earlier joined the CP. It provided the best critique of capitalism, especially in its new virulent imperialist phase. The anti-war, anti imperialist movement is very important to me.

Now that there has been an SNP victory in the election to the Scottish Parliament, I believe it is the job of the Left in Scotland to take on the same job, pushing the SNP, that the old CP once did, pushing the Labour Party. I’m involved in Solidarity and the SWP. We believe such pressure can influence events.

People voted SNP to punish Labour over the war, privatisation and social neglect. So far, Salmond hasn’t really put a foot wrong. When, however, the SNP members, in the Edinburgh City Council coalition, initially backed the 22 school closures, Left pressure, organising the strike and other protests, was able to force them to back down. Salmond probably also pressured them, since his eyes are on the next election, so he wants to remain popular.

My main political activity, though, remains with the anti-war movement and the Palestinian Solidarity Campaign. Back in the 1970’s I had supported Palestinian Medical Aid, when it was the only organisation of any sort providing support for the Palestinians. Edinburgh now has a very active Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, which has brought prominent speakers from all over the world. They have done a great deal to raise the level of debate in this city.

The Palestinian issue prompted your first foray into play writing. How did this come about?

This arose because of the opportunity provided by the Edinburgh Festival in 2006. There is a close link between Scotland and Palestine. Arthur Balfour, the UK Foreign Secretary who wrote the original Declaration in 1917, promising Palestine to the Jewish people, lived at Whittinghame, outside Haddington, in East Lothian. Scotland has to know of its participation in British imperialism.

Due to the considerable confusion surrounding present day events in Palestine, many people just see the conflict as a war between two tribes. I wanted to get back to the source. This was British imperial sponsorship of Zionism, which then represented a small minority in the worldwide Jewish community.

This is why I wrote From Haddington to Palestine. The play imagines the ghost of Balfour confronting a present day Palestinian at Whittinghame. The actors were all activists from the Edinburgh branch of the Palestinian Soldarity campaign. The Theatre Workshop helped with the direction. It was well received by the Palestinians living in Scotland.

Your most recent book of poetry draws from your trips to Ireland and the Highlands.

This reflects my love of these two places. I visit both regularly. Joyce and Beckett are my favourite authors. One contemporary author whose writings I enjoy is Niall Williams – a sort of Irish magic-realism. I also enjoy Seamus Heaney’s poetry. The Highlander, Neil Gunn, is one of my favourite Scottish authors, whilst Sorley Maclean’s poetry is up there with Macdairmid’s. I support anything to keep the Gaelic language going.

My poem, A Drink in Doolin, is set in Gus O’Connors Bar in County Clare. It is a cultural magnet for Celts from all over the world. The Leith-born singer, Dick Gaughan, another socialist, also with Irish and Highland parents, has produced a TV programme, set in the same pub, showcasing folk music with common Irish and Scottish roots.

Since my regular visits to Skye, I have also made friends with, of all people, an Edinburgh banker, who originally hails from Uig. The Uig Banker shows the redemptive capabilities of the awesome scenery of Skye, away from crazy, crowded Liverpool Street.

The cover of your book has a plug by the well-known Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton. How do you know him?

I don’t know Terry Eagleton well, but I wrote to him. I was taken with Eagleton’s idea of extending the language of the Left. This does not mean a return to religion, but a turn to ontology, or our reason to exist. He points out that the “Left is at home with imperial power and guerrilla warfare, but embarrassed on the whole by the thought of death, evil, sacrifice or the sublime.” Even if you have a socialist revolution tomorrow, people will still have to confront the ontological and existential situation. You can’t ignore religion. It has been part of all human cultures. I am interested in Buddhism and Islam because I am interested in the world. This interest comes from my socialism.

Jim Aitken’s poems are a delightful combination of lyrical delicacy and political toughness, Terry Eagleton

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Sep 29 2007

What Socialists Stand For

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 7:09 pm

Scottish Socialist Youth

Review by Andrew Weir

Available from: for

What Socialist Stand For

What Socialist Stand For

The Scottish Socialist Youth (SSY) have put together the pamphlet What Socialists Stand For, adapted from a similar pamphlet published by the Democratic Socialist Perspective in Australia, to serve as an introduction to socialist politics. The idea is a very good one; a pamphlet-length exposition of the socialist position provides exactly the right sort of introduction to potential readers, particularly young people, who may be interested in changing the world but are not yet aware of socialist ideas and perspectives on the world.

The pamphlet is written in plain language with minimal jargon throughout. When writing material of this sort, there is always a tightrope to walk between oversimplifying our ideas – or worse, coming over as patronising – and writing in a way that will mystify (or simply bore) the casual reader. Anyone who has ever listened to the frequent debates in SSY around the style of the writing in our magazine Leftfield will know that the SSY often has to approach this problem. The SSY’s publication of a simplified, modernised version of Lenin’s The State was an excellent example of getting this balance right; and What Socialists Stand For also hits the right note in its language.

Good political health

The good political health of the SSY is reflected in the pamphlet’s contents, which are generally excellent. The pamphlet functions in the same way as an abridged version of Alan McCombes’s Imagine; but unlike Imagine, What Socialists Stand For puts forward a consistently revolutionary stance, with no illusions in the power of parliaments to change our world. I don’t intend to summarise the whole pamphlet – you should buy it for that! – but I’ll take a trip through some particular highlights below.

After a brief introduction, the pamphlet opens with a discussion of the environment. As green issues are one of the areas which most frequently radicalise politically interested youth, this is a good place to start; and the pamphlet explicitly links the destruction of the environment and wasteful over-production with the capitalist system and its need to create markets for its products, and the need to turn a profit being considered more important than the long-term future of humanity.

In a section entitled Making poverty history?, the hypocrisy of first world governments and liberal/reformist illusions in the willingness of first world governments to end poverty throughout the world are attacked. However, importantly, the notion of imperialism is also briefly but pertinently presented. For those who are disillusioned with the failure of first world governments to address global poverty, it is important to point out that the system actually requires that this be so, and that other solutions are required.

The section on unemployment addresses why capitalism needs unemployment to function and focuses on the growth of McJobs and casual/precarious labour, as well as the particularly strong alienation that comes along with these; again very pertinent issues for young people. The following section develops the idea of the socialisation of production over history and very clearly explains the socialist conception of class.

The explanation of bourgeois democracy – the Democratic Show, as the pamphlet refers to it – and the function of the state in capitalist society, which could have drifted into very abstract theoretical writing, instead remains pointed and clear throughout, without either oversimplifying the ideas or accommodating illusions in bourgeois politics.

The section on Scottish independence focuses on the republican and anti-imperialist aspects of breaking up the UK state, rather than relying on arguments about the supposedly further left-wing political centre of gravity in Scotland.

The SSY is proud of its principled feminist politics, so it is no surprise that the section on How capitalism oppresses women is particularly well-written, with a clear explanation on why capitalism actively encourages sexist ideas; this then develops into a discussion of the role of the family in capitalist society with an emphasis on LGBT oppression.

The last third of the pamphlet is dedicated to a view of the socialist alternative. It does not go into heavy details about a potential socialist system, although there are some brief suggestions about what a socialist democracy and planned economy might (not definitely will) look like in practice; but on the issue of how we get from here to there it presents a revolutionary perspective, drawing on examples such as the events of May 1968 in France to demonstrate our conception of people’s power. The pamphlet also emphasises the need for socialists and working people to organise to achieve this, consistently and persistently, whether we’re going through good times or bad; and the fact that such a revolution cannot be held in Scotland alone (and survive), but must challenge capitalism on a global level.

Youth protest

Youth protest


The highlights of the pamphlet certainly comprise the majority of it; but there are a couple of points where the pamphlet could perhaps have been sharper. For example, although the discussion of casual labour explicitly makes the point that precarious working practices make it difficult to organise workers in these industries, the suggestion offered is essentially simply that young workers should join a union. Now although any emphasis on organising young workers is welcome, the pamphlet has perhaps missed an opportunity to point out that, in a situation where workers are changing job and workplace very frequently, structures other than the traditional trade union will be required in order to organise. It is also curious that, despite the fact that the pamphlet in general does not uncritically accept the existing order in any other area, the role of trade union bureaucrats in stifling or managing genuine rank-and-file action escapes criticism in this section.

Also, the section on racism is good as far as it goes, but does not include the principled socialist attitude towards immigration controls – i.e. total opposition. It also uses the argument that Scotland, with a shrinking population, needs workers to immigrate – true enough, and it is important to counter the swamped by immigrants standard media line, but as the No One Is Illegal campaign points out, we need to point out that we are against controls under any circumstances, not just when it would be economically beneficial for our nation-state. Knowing the SSY’s politics, I suspect that this is an oversight rather than a real political fault, but it is an important point all the same.

However these are very small quibbles when put in the context of the whole pamphlet, which consistently hits all the right notes both politically and stylistically. It will be a very useful tool for the SSY and it will be a good read for new activists – and any non-youth comrades interested to know about the SSY’s political thinking should buy it too!


Sep 29 2007

To Tame the City

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 7:09 pm

Grzegorz (Greg) Rybak is Polish worker currently living in Edinburgh. He stood as the SSP candidate for the Leith Ward in the City of Edinburgh Council elections this year.

SSP election leaflet in Polish

SSP election leaflet in Polish

To tame the city

Sitting on a bicycle
With the speed of the wind
I wend my way through the city
Trying to tame the new city space.
New closes, and new bends in roads
New monuments, bridges, houses of stone,
New bus stops and brand new human faces
I tame them like I would tame an animal.
May the city quickly remember me!
I only recognise its habits with difficulty.
I stretch out my hand and try
To stroke the barriers along the road
Shaking with trepidation.
Soon I will tame it – I know this without modesty
Or with modesty, it will tame me.
Grzgorz (Greg) Rybak, Edinburgh


Sep 29 2007

Internationalist Spirit

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 6:52 pm

Allan Armstrong reviews two albums, which address the world of migrant workers – dispossession and discrimination, longing and hope, oppression and resistance.

Road of Tears

Road of Tears

The Road of Tears

Battlefield Band, £9.50

Battlefield Band released their 26th album, The Road of Tears, last year. The theme is emigration and immigration. The album makes the link between the experience of the dispossessed from Scotland and Ireland, in the face of clearance and famine, and the plight of the world’s migrant workers today. The band’s line-up highlights Scotland’s multi-ethnic character, with the Scots, Alan Reid and Alistair White, the Irish, Sean O’Donnell and Jewish American, Mike Katz (Highland pipe player!)

The title track, written and sung by Alan Reid, sets the scene by focusing on the Highland Clearances, the Irish Famine and the Trail of Tears. This refers to the Cherokees’ march to Oklahoma, in 1838. They were forcibly, removed by US President Jackson, to the Indian Territories (Oklahoma). Four thousand, mainly women and children, died on the trail. The survivors sent money to the Irish Famine Relief Fund in 1847.

The album includes fine versions of two of Burns’ poems, sung by Alan Reid, The Slaves Lament and To A Mouse. Woody Guthrie’s Plane Wreck At Los Gatos is sung by Sean O’Donnell. Many will already know this song as Deportees from Christy Moore’s Spirit of Freedom album. Battlefield’s sleeve notes link the death of 28 illegal Mexican migrant workers in 1948 with the fate of the 18 cockle pickers who died in Morecambe Bay in 2004.

The first instrumental set includes the piece dedicated to Mr. Galloway Goes To Washington. This celebrates George Galloway’s triumph in the face of the US Senate sub-committee. There are another four instrumental sets which also show off Battlefield’s musical skills. The album finishes with The Green and The Blue, written and sung by Alan Reid, calling upon Irish migrants from Antrim and Fermanagh, arriving in Scotland to:-

Look onwards to Glasgow and all your tomorrows The future lies there, and its still waiting for you As the green crosses over to meet with the blue.

Its great to see that that some of Scotland’s leading musicians can fully live up to that Scottish internationalist spirit, so well demonstrated in Hamish Henderson’s Freedom Come All Ye.

La Radiolina

Manu Chau
Nacional Records

Manu Chau

Manu Chau

Manu Chao first came to international fame for his Clandestino album, which sold three million copies worldwide, putting it just behind Bueno Vista Social Club as the best-selling world-music album of all-time. Not a lot of people know that – well not in the English-speaking world that is. Hopefully, things will change here with the recent release of Manu’s third album, La Radiolina.

Manu grew up in Paris, because his Galician father and Basque mother had to escape from Franco’s fascist Spain. Manu’s current home base is the Catalan capital of Barcelona, but he spends a lot of time in Buenos Aires, another city with a strong oppositional culture. He also visits Bamako in Mali, a major centre of world music.

La Radiolina includes songs in French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and English. It has a much rockier feel compared to his first album. This is because he uses Radio Bemba Sound System for backing. ‘Radio Bemba’ is the word-of-mouth system used by the Cuban revolutionaries, led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, to communicate with each other in the forest of the Sierra Maestra.

When Manu recently toured the USA, he played to a 90,000 strong audience, at the Coachela Festival in California. They were waiting to hear their idols, Rage Against the Machine, but he won over the mainly non-Latin audience. His band performed with a banner draped across the stage – Immigrants are not Criminals. This followed the major protests organised mainly by Latin American immigrants, throughout the USA, on May Day, 2006.

The lyrics from one of Manu’s English-worded songs give an indication of Manu’s politics and highlight the reason why so many people are forced to emigrate worldwide. After verses about the appalling conditions in war-torn Zaire and Liberia, Manu finishes Rainin in Paradize with the following verse:-

In Bagdad
Its no democracy
That’s just because
It’s a US country!
In Fallouja
Too much calamity
This world go crazy
Its no fatality

Let’s get Manu’s new album up there to equal the sales of the justly famed Bueno Vista Social Club.

Battlefield Band
Battlefield Band (Wikipedia)
Manu Chau

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Sep 27 2007

It’s a Free World

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 4:29 pm

Channel 4 showed Ken Loach’s latest film, It’s A Free World on September 24th 2007. We are reprinting this review by Corinna Lotz from ‘A World to Win’ website.

It’s a Free World follows the director’s earlier feature about the Irish war of independence, The Wind that Shakes the Barley. Producer Rebecca O’Brian and writer Paul Laverty agreed that rather than another big budget effort, they wanted to make a smaller film, more of a chamber piece about the migrants’ working conditions. After The Wind that Shakes the Barley we were keen to do something that was of the moment, with a real contemporary smack to it, explains Laverty.

Somehow the character Angie just popped into my head. She was totally fictional and from the very beginning I could smell trouble. Angie is a larger-than-life peroxide-blonde Essex girl who decides to strike out to run her own recruitment agency for migrant workers in east London after being sacked by her sexist bosses.

She and her flatmate/business partner Rose operate from an old pub near a ring road in Leyton, east London, hiring out migrant workers on a casual basis. She selects the lucky ones from clusters of Poles, Ukrainians, Spanish, near Eastern men and women who turn up at dawn each morning to be shoved into shambolic white vans, their doors hanging open as they rumble off.

When her father Geoff, played by former stevedore Colin Caughlin, turns up one morning to watch, he finds the sight disgraceful, saying, I thought those days were all over.

As Angie devises ever more exploitative ways of raising cash, she moves from legality to illegality, tax evasion, and even grassing up a group of the most vulnerable migrants forced to live in caravan camps.

The film refrains from moralising, instead showing her as a contradictory personality, drawn into in vicious spiral of debt to her workers, and unable, in the end, to protect the son she believes she is providing for.

Behind the story of Angie’s opportunism and cruel exploitation of her workforce lies meticulous research by Nina Lowe, backing up Paul Laverty’s own investigations. While the characters are all fictitious, the story is underpinned by a mountain of facts including first hand research, government and TUC reports, studies by university departments including Exeter, Queen Mary College, and work by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants.

Reality is more dramatic and stranger than fiction, Laverty says.

Mafia activity in the underworld around migrant labour is more violent than what appears in the film. I heard Mafioso stories about people having their legs broken and worse. But we wanted to show something closer to the norm, not a shock-horror expose.

Loach insists that they wanted Angie to be a likeable person and that the world she inhabits is widespread, not an aberration. It is central to the functioning of today’s economy. Angie is actually a cog in a bigger wheel. We wanted to show the logic of the system, not just a victim of it.

The film achieves a fierce sense of excitement through dramatic twists in the plot. Angie’s hot temper and naked ambition are set against the more thoughtful personality of Rose, played by Julie Ellis. The clashes between them are amongst the most dramatic moments in the story.

With It’s a Free World, Loach and his team take their political film making on to a new level. Rather than simply highlighting the scandal of how migrant workers are exploited, they challenge the prevailing wisdom

that ruthless entrepreneurship is the way that this society should develop – that everything is a deal, everything is competitive, acquisitive, market orientated and that’s the way we should live. It seeks out exploitation. It produces monsters.

At the media screening, Loach called for the repeal of all anti-union legislation and said the unions should be much tougher and stronger so they could take action together. People are sacked for even proposing to join a trade union. If unions were free, British Airways stewards could have supported Gate Gourmet catering staff, he said.

It’s a Free World has succeeded in showing – through the conflict and unexpected actions of flesh and blood characters – the skeleton beneath the surface of society.

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Sep 27 2007

May Day: Marching in the footsteps of immigrant workers

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 4:28 pm

From an article in the US radical newsletter Dissident Voice (1.5.07) by Sharat G Lin

May Day 1886

May Day 1886

Over 1.5 million people took part in May Day demonstrations in 2006 in what amounted to one of the single largest days of protest in US history. Many also participated in a general strike by refusing to conduct business, go to work, or attend school. The protests were called by immigrants groups and immigrant solidarity groups as a national day of action against House Resolution 4437, which would have criminalized those assisting undocumented immigrants as alien smugglers and turned undocumented status from a civil violation to a federal aggravated felony.

The importance of May Day for immigrant communities in the US is not only of demanding fundamental constitutional rights for immigrants, but for economic rights as immigrant workers. It was chosen because May Day is a living tradition in the Latin American countries from which most of the undocumented immigrants in the US come. May Day is also an international day of labor solidarity.

May Day itself was born, in part, out of fear of police raids on immigrant workers. In 1884 the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions, predecessor of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), called for an eight-hour workday. When implementation appeared unlikely, a general strike was called in Chicago on May 1, 1886. On that day, some 80,000 workers marched down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in what is generally recognized as the first May Day parade. In the succeeding days, supporting strikes broke out in other cities, such as Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New York City.

On May 3, four striking workers were killed by police at the McCormick Reaper Works in Chicago. At an evening rally on May 4 in Haymarket Square, called to protest the killings, police moved in to disperse the crowd when a bomb went off, killing seven policemen. Police retaliated by firing into the crowd of workers, killing and wounding an unknown number of civilians.

Determined to crush the labor agitations, police interrogations and arrests went on through the night and the ensuing days. Homes of workers, most of whom were immigrants from Europe , were raided in the middle of the night. Hundreds of immigrants were rounded up without charges. A police reign of terror descended on the organized workers of Chicago and their families.

Eight people, including five German immigrants, were eventually charged and convicted for the deaths of the policemen, even though no evidence was ever presented directly linking them to the bombing in Haymarket Square. Four of the defendants were publicly hanged in 1887.

In Paris in 1889, the International Workingmen’s Association (Second International) called for worldwide demonstrations on May 1, 1890, commemorating the struggle of Chicago workers. The international tradition of May Day was born.


Sep 27 2007

No One Is Illegal

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 4:15 pm

Affilation to the No One is Illegal Campaign is to be debated at the SSP Conference on October. The attitude an organisation takes towards the rights of migrant workers throughout the world defines whether it is international socialist or merely national labourist. We are publishing the first chapter of NOII’s pamphlet, Workers Control Not Immigration Controls, to highlight the issues at stake.

No immigration controls in the workplace!

The well known phrase workers of the world unite does not mean only workers with the correct immigration status unite. It means all workers both here and internationally. The function of immigration controls is to ensure the absolute reversal of this principal. It is to ensure the global division and antagonism between workers. This is divide and rule based on the crudest nationalism and racism. Workers’ unity means getting rid of controls. This may seem unrealistic, fantastic and utopian. It would certainly require an enormous political upheaval.

Some unions have indeed at some times adopted resolutions in opposition to controls in principle and in so doing have effectively accepted the slogan No One Is Illegal. This has been the result of the self organisation of those threatened by controls – organising either within the unions or through anti deportation campaigns.

The programme that dare not speak its name

However opposition to controls in their totality has with rare exceptions become the programme that dare not speak its name. Instead another and opposite orthodoxy is dominant in the labour movement. This is the demand for fair or benign or compassionate controls. And meeting this demand would not require a political upheaval. It would require a miracle. By their very definition controls are inevitably, unjust and malign. It is the idea that controls can be non-racist or fair that is unrealistic. There cannot be equal opportunities immigration control.

Most of the reasons why there cannot be fair controls are really transparent and don’t require much reflection. First, the initial legislative controls, the 1905 Aliens Act, were based on that most primitive of racisms, anti-Semitism, and were directed against Jewish refugees fleeing Tsarist Russia. Second, the next wave of controls, starting with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, were directed at black people (this itself being in some ways anticipated as early as 1925 in a Coloured Alien Seamen Order requiring the enforced registration with the police of coloured seafarers). None of this is much of an advert for the idea that controls can be turned inside out and rendered non-racist. Third, controls are anyhow based on the vilest nationalism – the idea that the right to come to or stay in the UK should be a reserved only for members of a privileged club who somehow have managed to acquire the franchise. This is why they should be opposed to both the present work permit scheme and also the proposed new scheme based on a points system for workers. Fourth, controls can never, by any definition or redefinition, be fair to those excluded by them. Fifth, the very first control on peoples’ global movement prior to legislation was slavery out of Africa – which again was hardly susceptible of being rendered benign or compassionate.

All this is obvious. What is less obvious, because it is less known, is that controls are in fact a result of successful fascistic agitation. The 1905 Act was largely the result of agitation by an organisation now lost (suppressed) to history – the British Brothers League. The 1962 Act followed quickly on the so called Notting Hill riots (actually racist white riots) of 1958 which were organised by fascist groups such as Oswald Mosley’s Union Movement. The idea that a political construct such as immigration restrictions which are a product of fascistic activity can somehow be sanitised and rendered harmless simply does not make sense. It is equivalent to arguing that all that is wrong with fascist groups like the British National Party is that they are unfair and we ought to fight to make them non-racist. As the saying goes – a leopard can’t change its spots.

Workplace immigration controls

The fact that the destruction of controls would require a huge political movement – maybe even a revolution – is not a statement of pessimism. It does not imply any acceptance of controls until the day of complete deliverance. Rather it is a statement that all criticisms of control, all demands made against particular controls, should be on the basis of opposition to restrictions in principle – on the basis that No One Is Illegal! Within this political framework trade union agitation becomes crucial.

This is because of something often ignored – namely immigration controls come into conflict with union organisation on a daily basis at the workplace. Immigration laws are a total system – they are about internal controls as well as exclusion and deportation. In particular most welfare entitlements (social housing, non-contributory benefits, hospital treatment) are dependent on immigration status as is the right to work itself. As a consequence of this total system it is inevitable that controls regularly and directly impinge upon workers in the course of their employment or their union activities. Of course trade unionists should oppose controls in every context in which they arise – such as detentions and deportations – because in every context in which they arise they are a manifestation of racism. However the need for trade union involvement goes well beyond this and extends into the heart of the employment relationship itself.

A danger to all workers

Immigration controls are a danger to all trade unionists – including those workers with full immigration status. One of the functions of immigration control is to undercut the wages and conditions of all workers by transforming migrant labour and labour without any immigration status into a non-unionised low-waged workforce unprotected by labour legislation. Which is why there is a need to fight for the regularisation of immigration status, for full unionisation and for equality of wages and conditions for all. In the past the trade union movement has, unfortunately, often been in the forefront of agitating for controls. For instance the very first controls –the 1905 Aliens Act aimed at Jewish refugees – was preceded by the TUC demanding controls. Again in the 1950s and 1960s the TUC supported controls against black commonwealth workers.

Today the labour movement has once again begun to change its position, to begin to take a critical position towards the present laws –and again this is due to a great extent to the resistance and anti deportation campaigns of those threatened by controls. Today it is possible to once again open up the whole debate. It is possible to start to challenge the very existence of controls.

Published by ‘No One Is Illegal’, on May Day, 2006
NO One Is Illegal
c/o Bolton Socialist Club
16, Wood Street

We are not alone!

‘No One Is Illegal’ is a phrase first used by Elie Weisel, a Jewish survivor from Nazi Germany, a refugee and a Nobel prize winner. He was speaking in 1985 in Tuscon, Arizona at a national sanctuary conference in the USA in defence of the rights of refugees to live in the USA. The sanctuary movement undertaken by religious communities in the USA (and to a far lesser extent in the UK) in support of those threatened by immigration controls is one of many pieces of resistance to controls. Over the last few years ‘No One Is Illegal’ groups have been formed throughout Europe and North America — for instance in Germany (‘Kein Mensch Ist Illegal’), Spain (‘Ninguna Persona Es Ilegal’), Sweden (‘Ingen Manniska Ar Illegal’), Poland (‘Zaden Czlowiek Nie Jest Nielegalny’) and Holland (‘Geen Mens Is Illegaal’). In August 1999 anarchists organised a demonstration in Lvov Poland against the deportation of Ukrainian workers under the banner of No One Is Illegal. In France the ‘sans papiers’ campaign under the slogan personne n’est illegal/e. There have been ‘No One Is Illegal’/’No Border’ camps at the joint borders of Germany, Czech Republic and Poland, and No Border camps at Frankfurt, southern Spain and Salzburg. In June 2002 there was a demonstration against war, globalisation and in defence of refugees under the same slogan in Ottawa, Canada. In England groups are emerging calling themselves ‘No Borders’. The demand for no controls, rather than being seen as extreme, operates as a rallying call to the undocumented and their supporters. Our aim is to encourage the formation of ‘No One Is Illegal’/’No Border’ groups throughout this country — groups specifically and unreservedly committed to the destruction of all immigration controls.

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Sep 27 2007


Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 3:58 pm

They all have their stories.
This one, young and ageing,
says that his stepfather
was ‘a brutal bastard.’

And in those greying eyes
that have seen far too much
I can still sense the child
whose world went upside down.

But this lad has moved on,
now dreams of survival
on the harsh, concrete street
where he must never sleep
must never sleep
never sleep.


Sep 27 2007

Homelessness- Who Really Cares?

Category: Emancipation & Liberation,Issue 15RCN @ 3:55 pm

The experiences of a worker with the homeless in the voluntary sector

The city of origin and writer’s name have been withheld because of the likelihood that the writer will lose their job if identified.

For the last 2 years I have been a support worker in a Homeless Hostel, and I have observed first hand the struggle of dedicated staff trying to provide a service for homeless people, often with chaotic lifestyles in a capitalist system. I wish to highlight some key areas of concern and some ideas to improve things for those who find themselves homeless.

Jack of all Trades

Firstly, I have to say that my colleagues are caring professional workers who – despite a huge case-load – work tirelessly to move residents into supported accommodation or mainstream housing or access professional services in addiction or debt. In short you have to be a jack of all trades quite literally, because service users may have drink / drug or learning disabilities or all three . This, plus the daily risk of assault from service users, means that this job is not for the faint hearted. The staff range from out and out Christians to a humble republican communist like myself. There is a great camaraderie amongst us and we support one another through thick and thin. In fact it is one of the best groups of people I have ever worked with. As support workers we are at the bottom of the heap. We are encouraged to think of our job as a vocation (where have we heard that before) – therefore we accept all the crap that management throw at us such as shift changes at the drop of a hat or double shifts when colleagues are of sick (usually with stress). Recently immense moral and emotional pressure was put on me, whilst on leave, to cover a shift in place of a sick colleague.

Normally, when a member of staff is off we use relief staff who may be untrained individuals. This puts further pressure on the staff on duty as we are now responsible for someone we have never worked with bumbling about an unfamiliar building. Training for these individuals is generally done whilst on the job and I am very uncomfortable with this added responsibility particularly if things kick off (I wonder, how are they going to react when I need help?). Butwe do our best to get them up to speed and hope that we get through the shift without harm to them or ourselves. Occasionally, we can count on trained and regular bank staff that have been with the organisation for some time but we have difficultly in retaining these individuals.

Battered and bruised

Many of these bank staff use the experience gained as a springboard into other jobs – such as social work students beefing up their CVs or simply people wanting to change careers giving something new a go. What then of staff training? In theory we should have an SVQ3 in Care. However, for the last 14 months I have been asking when my training will commence- all to no avail. It appears that they will only train 3 staff members at a time (we employ 100 personnel, company wide, but this is enough training to comply with statutory legislation). The limited training is because the company has learned that staff leave after completing this course. Nothing to do with our poor wages or working conditions or the total lack of self worth that the company engenders of course! It is a wonder that staff manage to help any one, but we do, and of course the residents are unaware of this situation. In fact they are in a worse position than us and that is a key motivating factor for me and my colleagues to stay at our post. Battered and bruised the vast majority turn up at work with a smile on their face and hope that the day will be uneventful and we can all go home with our own teeth.

Speaking of teeth, health care for the homeless is a great concern for me, and one that is ever so slowly being tackled on a piecemeal basis by the NHS and the Scottish Executive. We now have a GP (hurrah) who visits all the city’s homeless units regularly, but we recently lost funding for the Homeless Health Outreach Team (being reduced from 5 nurses to 2 nurses) which was an essential and valuable resource. The Outreach Team filled a huge gap in service provision that we could not offer. With 33 residents and usually 2 staff on duty at one time staff accompanying a resident to an appointment to ensure attendance is virtually impossible. Nor are we qualified to give on the spot treatment and advice to people who traditionally don’t use NHS Services. The Outreach Team had a profound affect on uptake of health services by our residents. In particular the psychiatric nurse who would give us and the residents the best way of dealing with a condition. We could use this team to short cut waiting lists for professional services for potentially dangerous residents. Clearly, you would assume, such a valuable and necessary resource which saved money to the NHS would be protected – but no. Short termism is the rule of thumb in dealing with homelessness. They are willing to fund pilot schemes that are beneficial and have proved themselves many times over but won’t commit to funding these projects on a full time basis.

Criminal shortfall

Add to this the criminal shortfall of addiction after-care. I can get someone to dry out fairly easily but where can I put them after the treatment? Straight back into the hostel with the same peer group of drinkers or drug users they left. Even when they are clean, I can’t keep them away from the dealers in the Hostel, the staff have a standing joke – the only thing you can’t buy in the unit is a paracetamol, they come to us for that. This lunacy means that we have residents that need a ‘wet’ hostel in a ‘dry’ hostel and clean ex-users, exposed to temptation from the minute they walk in the door. During interviews for a room, in fact, I often explain to excusers what they are letting themselves in for in the Hostel – and that if possible they should stay with family or friends rather than stay here. Sadly, despite their confidence in their ability in saying no and staying clean only about 2 to 3% manage to stay drug free. But perhaps saddest of all is those with no habit that suddenly develop one whilst staying with us. They quote boredom as a contributing factor in doing drugs. This is why all our staff try very hard to get residents to fill their day with activity. If they are occupied, preferably out of the building, then they have less involvement with the general hostel population and therefore, more chance of staying drug free.

Why don’t you stop the drugs coming in? I hear you cry. Well folks this is their home and they have rights. We cannot search an individual coming into the unit. I can ask to see in a bag or I can take an obvious item from resident such as a three litre bottle of cider (hidden down a trouser leg) – but their human rights would be infringed if I searched them. Clearly, I don’t want to have to stick my hands into another person’s pocket – they may have exposed needles or blood traces. Some residents have Hepatitis A, B or C and I am not willing to risk my life for someone who will not and cannot give a toss for my safety or that of the other residents.

We find needles hidden every where. Recently, the environmental health came round our building and removed over 200 syringes many of which were uncapped and therefore dangerous. This, despite residents having a ‘sharps’ container in every room, and a guarantee that no action will be taken against residents who ask for a fresh sharps container when theirs is full. It is particularly dangerous for staff when we clear out residents rooms. We are under pressure from management to free up the room quickly so another homeless person can join the magic roundabout. Speaking of roundabouts, this is a phrase used for someone who has been through the system several times, homeless hostel to supported accommodation to mainstream housing and back to being homeless (perhaps because of rent arrears or drug/ alcohol addiction or just an inability to cope).

Out of sight

Homelessness can happen to any one but why should society care? After all the residents are out of sight and away from general society. At least they have a roof over their heads. Yes that’s right, but what is life really like in a hostel? It is very much like prison. We have the strong and the weak, with staff enforcing rules. The strong intimidate and bully the weak and steal their benefits or beat them up under a claim that they owe them money. Most staff only deal with the after effects, the bruises, the cuts or the tearful resident at their wits end because someone is chasing them for money. Despite having cameras everywhere we cannot protect them (unless they tell us but that makes them a grass in the other residents’ eyes).

In addition, we have the vultures that hang around outside who make a living from protection of the weak. We know what they are and what they do; but have no direct evidence – ergo we can do nothing. We have the pimps that hang around looking for females that need to feed habits. One striking thing about homeless females is that within a hour of them entering the unit they have paired up with someone for protection. This is sad to see. When we have a high level of females in the unit, it is a sign that the unit is considered safe. This side of the Hostel is difficult to deal with as a republican communist and a human being – seeing young women going out to sell themselves for a boyfriend’s, or their own, drug habit. Truly it is a sad sight and one that society should not tolerate. Further, we need a change in attitude by the general public to make buying sex unacceptable in today’s society. I welcome the steps taken by the SSP towards ending this culture of tolerance in Scottish society.

So lastly, let’s speak about toleration. Why do we tolerate this situation? Because we don’t know or understand the situation that residents find themselves in. We need to build 100,000 new homes in Scotland, but we also need an immediate raft of measures. These include:

  • All female hostels – No woman should feel the need to pair up with a male for her own protection. An all female hostel would be more beneficial, for reasons of safety and help can be targeted more effectively for their specific needs.
  • A general debt amnesty for rent arrears and council tax arrears – this is one of the greatest barriers to moving someone into mainstream housing. Councils can be draconian in how they deal with debt. It is very common that paying off huge amounts of debt mean that eventually most people lose their mainstream tenancies. In some cases we have residents that have lost housing – because their benefits do not keep pace with their debt levels. This means is that the longer you are on benefits, the more chance you have of falling into debt.
  • Smaller units – no more than six residents with similar problems, wet hostels for drinkers etc. The days of the large Hostels must be numbered, for the safety of the residents.
  • Housing people with like problems together – this allows for more effective staff intervention.
  • Youth hostels for Under 25s, and full entitlement of benefits such as Housing Benefit and JSA. Under 25s tend to ‘sofa surf’ their mates. They don’t get full benefits until they are 25 years old. Equally, when they move into a hostel they do not get full housing benefits – meaning they have to pay the shortfall. I once had a resident who was left with 50p a week to his name, after paying £32.55p (the set rent charge for full board, including breakfast and an evening meal) and his Housing Benefit shortfall.
  • Old style hostel for those that cannot access these smaller units immediately. Many released from prison for go straight on the streets. This despite the fact that they must be released to a bed – councils get round this by stating they offer 28 days accommodation for everyone by Law. The only problem is that they can take a week a month or a year to fulfil this statutory obligation – because the Law states when practical. Bed and Breakfast is no longer supposed to be an option but it is still used for families – at least that means no children are removed into Care or on the Streets because of the parent’s misfortune.
  • Units must be dispersed in the community and after care support must be for as long as the resident needs it. Generally outreach support is only for six months. All too often residents moved into mainstream housing lose their homes after 6 months, just when most outreach services withdraw. This area needs more innovative support.
  • More positive police involvement around the Hostel to prevent intimidation, drug dealers and pimps. This needs to happen without criminalising the residents. This is vital. When we have problems at the unit it is generally from those outside the unit, those that I have mentioned before. But it is usually the residents that get lifted and Police often start with our unit when something happens in the area. Many residents get several visits from the Police during their stay with us. Although they are no angels it strikes me as offensive that we are the first port of call in any inquiry. Whenever there is a mugging or street robbery in our vicinity. Don’t get me wrong when we call for help the Police respond well and I have been glad to see them – on many an occasion, it is just I think they could deal better with our residents and not see us as another holding cell for them.

If we only achieve a small fraction of these measures then we will achieve something significant. We can show the homeless that society really cares; hopefully this will be the start of a debate on this subject. Try not to think to ill of the support workers who pick up the pieces of the shattered lives of the homeless day in and day out – it is a thankless job but a worthwhile one.


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