Saturday, 14 December 2013

Film Review: The Happy Lands

"In a rare portrayal of working class struggle, BBC 2 is showing Happy Lands on Sunday 15th December at 9pm. 
Below is the Review I did of it in early February 2013. 
No socialist, trade unionist or anyone interested in the epic struggles of the working class in this country should miss such an inspiring portrayal of the showdown between the working class and ruling capitalists and their state in the 1926 General Strike - an event that shook Britain to its very foundations."

It's a rare thing indeed for the working class to be sympathetically portrayed in film - without being patronised.

Rarer still for the movie's narrative to be based on the true stories of real working class people's family histories, as told by them, and indeed mostly acted by them. And just about unique when the stories are not of couthy, folksy whims, but of naked class war.

I had the rare privilege of seeing Theatre Workshop Scotland's 'The Happy Lands' in a pre-launch showing, with director Robert Rae and some of the cast present.

The film is a moving, epic account of the 1926 British general strike, as experienced by the mining communities of Fife. Although the three central families portrayed are fictional, the story told is rooted in undoctored reality.


Robert Rae and his team achieved this primarily through the unique methodology used: this is collaborative art at its best, where over the course of four years they sought the participation of Fifers from the (ex-)mining villages to capture what happened in the biggest confrontation between the working class and the capitalist rulers and their state forces in the history of this island.

A thousand local people took part in the project, gladly and freely giving 88,000 hours (equivalent to a combined 10 years!) of their time to telling stories handed down by family members involved in the 1926 general strike and subsequent 9-month lockout of the miners; training in theatre workshops, and eventually in many cases becoming the actors in a superb historical film of keen relevance today.

This methodology echoes some of the best traditions of real-life solidarity that the film seeks to portray.

The film itself is a montage of fact-based fictional narrative, interspersed with occasional newsreel from 1926 and clips of interviews with Fifers whose forbears suffered the heartbreaking hardships imposed by the ruthless mine-owners and government - and the state brutality they meted out.

Moving portrayal 

Gritty it sure is, and spoken in the unadulterated Fife tongue (with sub-titles!), but this film is in turn funny, heartbreaking, moving and uplifting. It ranges from making you cry at the hardship of little kids, and feeling fury at the employing class and their callous methods, to hilarity in the courtroom and vivid portrayal of an indomitable spirit of working class solidarity that makes the hair on your neck stand up.

It invites you in to the miners' rows, the tiny houses they and their families lived in at the mercy of the capitalist mine-owners. It draws you into the worry, anger and fierce, determined solidarity of the miners and the women and children of their tight-knit communities - as they respond to the government's Samuel Commission decision to cut pay (by over 13 per cent), increase working hours, and grind more profit out of the miners.

One of the central characters, Dan Guthrie, is a miner, a communist, a superb and witty speaker, rooted in his own class, and a magistrate to boot. He exposes the class nature of society in his explanations to the entire community, at meetings, picket lines, in his magistrate's courtroom chair! And the authenticity of the acting owes much to the fact he is played by real-life Fife miner, Joki Wallace, himself a veteran of the momentous 1984/5 miners strike, as well as being the grandson of two miner grandfathers at the heart of 1926. The same goes for several of the female characters, played by women from mining families.

The film brings to life the automatic solidarity of the women for the strike, in full knowledge of the hardship it will mean; indeed the women participate in the meetings where it is decided, and go on to be the mainstay of making sure families and kids survive near-starvation.

The Happy Lands pulls no punches - without descending into sensationalism - in showing state brutality towards a working class that dares to challenge the rule of the rich, with kids arrested for picking bits of coal off bings to warm their houses; evictions; imprisonment of workers who dared fight back; the attempt to break the spirit and bodies of communities as they fought long and hard under the slogan "Not a penny off the pay, not a minute on the day".

It avoids being crude or preachy in depicting the transformation of consciousness and understanding of workers through struggle, as the devoutly religious veteran of World War One changes from being the miner opposed to strike action into the next generation of working class socialist tribunes - through his harsh experiences of being assaulted by 'Black and Tans' on behalf of the government and mine-owners.

The film evokes the power the organised working class had in their hands at the time, for example the way the strike committees decided whether or not to grant permits for the movement of goods, protecting emergency services whilst shutting down the vast majority of production.

It shows miners drilling with sticks, an under-developed reference, presumably, to the Methil workers' militia at the time of the general strike, where not only did workers challenge the power of the capitalists to produce and distribute their ill-gotten wealth, but also their resort to armed protection of the class interests of the capitalists, which is ultimately what the state forces are.

Class war - then and now

This film is working class people telling working class people's stories, real history, of stupendous significance.

The central story - a general strike that poses point-blank the issue of which class rules the country - is not just a bit of ancient history. It is immensely relevant in today's conditions, where some sections of workers are arguing for a one-day general strike against the Westminster boot-boys' assaults; perhaps a conscious filmic warning of what might yet happen as capitalists and their politicians wage class war on the rest of us.
Even the Sunday Mail editorial was moved to write:

"Class war sounds a little quaint now. Like socialism, we're meant to be past all that.
Well sometimes class war doesn't sound so quaint after all. Times like today.

When the RBS think it is just about acceptable to suggest their executives can get £250million of bonuses even as they work to convince taxpayers to pick up an expected £500million fine for fixing interest rates.
When our welfare state, our benefits and pensions, built by the blood, sweat and sacrifice of our parents and grandparents, is under unprecedented attack from a pack of Eton-educated millionaires."

Absolutely! But let's not fall for the tale that the working class no longer exists, nor is capable of fighting back; that 1926 is just ancient history.

There may not be many miners nowadays, but millions of workers being exploited for millionaires' profit remains the nature of the capitalist beast. Solidarity in struggle, and indeed socialism, are relevant now as in 1926.

See 'The Happy Lands' if you can. Laugh, cry, rage and resolve to emulate the spirit and dignity of those working class heroes, to avenge their defeat, to build the socialist future that so many of them dreamt of and sacrificed to achieve.


Originally published in the Scottish Socialist Voice 411

Monday, 9 December 2013


sign ePetition for MPs on a skilled worker's wage

Cartoon by Martin Rowson
It makes your blood boil.
The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority has proposed an 11% pay rise for Westminster MPs!
According to these parliamentary chancers, when it comes to workers' wages the level of inflation is rock bottom, way down about 2% - they claim. 
Back on the planet 99% of us Earthlings inhabit, of course inflation on energy, food, rent, transport, and other daily essentials makes a bitter mockery of such claims. 

£40 an hour for them - £6.19 for us

According to MPs about to be awarded a RISE of £7,600 - to a mind boggling £74,000 a year (near enough £40 an hour) - workers who produce the wealth of society only deserve to be guaranteed a minimum of £6.19 an hour.
The same parliamentary elite have presided over the longest sustained fall in real wages for workers in this country since the 1870s; no that's not a typo, the 1870s.
And of course they prattle on about us 'all being in this together' whilst slashing benefits for the poorest, sick and disabled people included. Even after we pounded Ed Miliband into moving a Motion to abolish the monstrous Bedroom Tax, 47 Labour MPs thought it far too minor a matter to even bother turning up to vote for Labour's own Motion - allowing it to fall by 26 votes, thus prolonging the agony and poverty inflicted on nearly 90,000 Scottish households and 600,000 across the UK. 

Snouts in the Trough

The mainstream party politicians give politics a bad name. They drive people into cynicism and abstention from the electoral process. These parliamentary pigs have their snouts in the trough.
But it doesn't have to be like that. Politics has always been populated by principled people, idealists devoting time, money and energy to fighting for change and transformation of the lives of millions. 
Scottish miner Keir Hardie fought selflessly for working men and women, motivated by his repugnance at the terrible exploitation he witnessed first-hand. When he was elected as the first working class Labour MP 125 years ago, he spurned the pomp and ceremony of Westminster, horrifying the 19th century Hooray Henry's with his working man's clothes, and more especially his socialist aims.  

From No Wage to Obscene Wage for MPs

At that time the House of Commons was stuffed full of landowners and industrial capitalists, who wandered into parliament for a few hours in their spare time to pass laws to their own class advantage. 
There was no wage for being an MP, which suited the capitalists and landlords of the day immensely. It effectively barred workers from being able to afford to enter the Commons to stand up for the working class. They had to hold pit-head collections in the mining villages to prevent MP Keir Hardie's family from being evicted due to rent arrears.

I firmly believe MPs SHOULD have a wage, precisely so working class representatives can afford to be elected to use parliament as one forum for popularizing socialism. But the key is what level of wage.

The British ruling class are past masters at buying off their opponents. They went from no wage for MPs to one that over the years has rocketed into the stratosphere, in many cases literally buying off former fighters, in others simply attracting the lowest form of careerists without two principles to rub together. 

Socialist MP on a Worker's Wage

One of my fondest political memories is organizing the election campaign of socialist MP Terry Fields in Liverpool. Terry was a former firefighter who remained on a firefighter's wage when he was elected to parliament - 'the madhouse' as he passionately denounced it every time he mentioned the place. He donated the rest of his MP's salary to workers on strike, communities fighting to save schools or hospitals, and to the socialist cause he devoted himself to without ever a wobble towards careerism.

More recently, the Scottish Socialist Party MSPs likewise lived on the average wage of a skilled worker, to keep rooted in the realities facing the working class they sought to represent.
That's not just a measure of accountability for the here and now over elected politicians, but also a glimpse of a democratic socialist future, free of privileged elites, with those elected to government at every level remaining on the same income bracket as those who elected them. 

SSP Principle

400,000 workers in Scotland earn less than the so-called Living Wage of £7.45 an hour. How could MPs on £65,000, let alone the recommended £74,000, have the first inkling of what life is like for the rest of us? 

That's why it's a core principle of the SSP that MSPs and MPs should receive no more than the average skilled worker's wage. Then they would be more likely to fight for higher incomes for the 99% rather than living the high life themselves of the 1%. 

Instead of rising out of the working class, they would rise with the rest of the working class, fighting for use of the nation's vast resources to be deployed to eradicate poverty and inequality. 

Sign the Petition

That's why I've launched the online Petition demanding all MPs reject and hand back the disgusting £7,600 rise, that they condemn the £74,000 on offer to them, and go much further still by nailing their colours to the demand for MPs on a skilled worker's wage.

I don't expect any Tory or LibDem worthies to support the latter. Nor do I intend to hold my breath for the numbers in the parliamentary Labour Party with such sound socialist convictions. 

But let's try. Let's show them up, and more importantly in the process also show ordinary people that politics doesn't have to be a dirty game of private gain and unprincipled self-seeking.  

Idealism is Alive and Well

Idealism is alive and kicking back outside parliament. Let's help build the forces that will send principled socialists into the lions' den in the near future, fighting for decent living incomes for all, including MPs/MSPs, putting an end to the obscene gap between those elected to represent policies and principles and those who elected them.

Sign the Petition. Express your fury. Tell the MPs to get their snouts out of the trough. And join the crusade to cleanse the pigsty by helping to get socialist MSPs elected who will remain on the wage of a skilled worker, not the ill-gotten fortune of a skilled careerist. 

Please sign the Petition.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013


The SNP government's White Paper on 'Scotland's Future' contains many welcome reforms, and certainly represents a massive step forward from the jail-house conditions working class people currently endure. But a Freedom Charter for workers it is not.

Many of the measures pledged by an aspiring SNP government in an independent Scotland would substantially boost the living standards of Scottish workers and their families. Abolition of the bedroom tax, calling a halt to the dreaded Universal Credit scheme, scrapping of Trident - such plans would halt attacks on the poorest, and potentially release a fortune for spending on jobs, public services and people's incomes that is currently squandered on devilish weapons of mass destruction.

The headline-grabbing promise of free childcare of 30 hours a week during term time for all 3- and 4-year-olds and vulnerable 2-year-olds is a powerfully welcome key to many, many women (and some men) being able to realistically choose to work - provided of course the jobs were created.

Promises of a Youth Guarantee of either education, training or employment as a constitutional right for all aged under 24 is in stark, glittering contrast to the wasted generation under Westminster rule, and is indeed something socialists have demanded for years - again, provided we fight to ensure it is based on provision of a living income or student grant and is not a device exploited by employers to displace unionized, older workers with cheap youth labour.

Renationalisation of Royal Mail has been welcomed not just by Communication Workers' Union members but workers in general, as a means to reverse profiteering and service cuts at the hands of the privateers.


With 630,000 workers organised in trade unions - and probably at least as many again willing to join but terrified of victimization, job losses and blacklisting if they openly joined a union - the White Paper was a golden opportunity to enlist the support of the working class majority population of Scotland. But for those hesitating, or even being dragooned into the No camp by the scurrilous Fear Factory that is Better Together and their offshoot United with Labour, a bold, striking vision of a markedly different future under independence is the necessary method of persuasion. 

Again, measured against what we suffer now under Westminster's rule by and for the millionaires, the SNP's prospectus is progress. But nothing like the advances the likes of the SSP or the broad-based Trade Unionists for Independence are striving for.

Labour's Social Contract provoked strikes‏


What do we face as a future if a No vote is cast next September? 

The UK already boasts the infamy of some of the lowest pay, longest working hours, shortest holiday entitlement and most savage anti-trade union laws in the western capitalist world. And things can only get worse! 

The Tory-LibDem boot-boys have slapped prohibitive fees on Employment Tribunal cases, pricing workers out of any measure of justice. They are hammering the right of union reps to function and represent members in the civil service. London's Tory Mayor Boris Johnston, an obnoxious reactionary disguised as a boisterous buffoon, has pioneered a drive towards banning the right to strike in the public sector, and for a 'review' of union balloting laws on industrial action whereby those members who abstain would be counted as voting against any proposed collective action. And as well as ushering in further cuts to the block grant to Scotland from Westminster, a No vote would embolden the Old Etonians to lay waste to what little workplace rights remain. 

So trade unionists don't even face a choice between the status quo and independence, but between a further clawing back of gains won by past generations of trade unionists and socialists in struggle - or a chance to improve our lot as workers by voting for the right to get whatever government the Scottish people elect!

Irish Social Partnership increased inequality


The White Paper rightly states that under Devolution, "the Scottish government is responsible for training the present and future workforce, equipping them with the skills and knowledge they need, but has no say in how they are treated once they are in a job." 

It makes the welcome pledge that an SNP government with the full powers that independence provides would "reverse recent changes introduced at Westminster which reduce key aspects of workers rights. For example, on independence we will restore a 90-day consultation period on redundancies affecting 100 or more employees." 

Likewise they will abolish the 'shares for rights' scheme recently initiated by the Coalition, bribing workers into surrendering fundamental redundancy and unfair dismissal rights, etc, for a few non-voting company shares.

Welcome promises, but very timid. Not a word about scrapping the bulging package of anti-union laws ushered in by Thatchers Tories in the 1980s, retained by Blair and Browns Labour regimes, brutally added to by the current Thatcherites - both Tory and LibDem!

No mention of the guaranteed right to be in a union, the right to strike without fear of victimization,  the right to take solidarity action with fellow workers.

No sign of Worker Director at First Scotrail RMT strike in 2010!


In sharp contrast to the vilification of trade unions offered by the Better Together parties, 'Scotland's Future' sets as its priority "working directly with the trade unions, employers' associations, employers and voluntary sector to build a partnership approach to addressing labour market challenges". 

The Paper goes on to promise "particular focus on encouraging wider trade union participation and recognition of the positive role that can be played by collective bargaining in improving labour market conditions."

The central proposals on offer from the SNP are the formation of a National Convention on Employment and Labour Relations, involving employers and trade unions, and a subsidiary Fair Work Commission.
The latter "will deliver the mechanisms for uprating the national minimum wage", with the "guarantee that it will rise, at the very least, in line with inflation, to ensure work is a route out of poverty".


Considering the UK minimum wage has lagged inflation for years, leaving workers at least £675 worse off than if it had tracked price rises for the past 5 years, this is better than the No campaign can offer hundreds of thousands of workers. 

But it is miserably timid, with no pledge nor proposal for a guaranteed living level of minimum wage, legally enforced.  

Matching inflation but starting with the current £6.19 an hour for those over 21 - and the White Paper is silent on the lower youth rate - would certainly not be 'a route out of poverty'. 

The SNP swear their allegiance to the Living Wage Campaign, and are right now funding a Poverty Alliance Accreditation Scheme - seeking to persuade employers to pay at least £7.45 an hour. 400,000 Scottish workers earn less than this. But again this is not a legally enforced government figure, merely an aim that they seek to cajole employers into paying, based on the core faith the SNP has in businesses big, medium and small.


These proposed structures are founded on a central philosophy of 'social partnership' between employers, trade unions and government. 

The SNP even raises the idea of worker directors - imitating the actions of 14 out of the 28 EU states where workers have some form or other of representation on company boards. They advocate "employee representation to bolster longterm decision-making and improve industrial relations". 

Given the way workers' trade unions have been cast out into an industrial Siberia the last 30 years, frozen out of important discussions, with dictatorial management all too common, this is a very seductive prospectus. But it is strewn with pitfalls and lethal traps. 


Of course, elected union representatives having direct access to discussions on their employers' plans would be a massive advantage compared to, for instance, the capitalist dictatorship on display by INEOS boss Jim Ratcliffe at Grangemouth. Access to secret company accounts would help unions restrict the shenanigans of employers.

But the problems arise because the interests of workers and those of their capitalist private employers clash; in essence there's a conflict over who gets the bigger share of the wealth produced, whether in wages and conditions for the workforce, or profits and dividends for the big shareholders. 


Social partnership amounts to the partnership of the rider and the horse - not two people with common interests, equals.

In many cases worker directors are gagged from speaking out on company secrets, or at the very least bound by the decisions the majority on the board. That seems to be the situation already in the NHS.
The SNP White Paper lauds First Group as a local example of their model for the future, mentioning the transport giant has had a worker director since it was set up in 1989. That begs the question: where was this 'workers' voice' when First Scotrail launched its savage assault on rail workers a few years ago - when in fact it was uncovered that the SNP government had secretly agreed to subsidise the company for any losses they incurred through strike action by the RMT union? Is that what social partnership entails?


In some retail companies, committees exist with handpicked workers on them, partly in an attempt to bypass the collective union and it's elected stewards, partly to pass down the message of top management to the shop floor, disguised as the 'decisions' of these workers on the carefully moulded committee. Despite all the window dressing, this is an attempt to undermine, not enhance, the collective bargaining of organised workers.


The proposed Convention is of course a welcome arena for the unions to independently advocate  measures that meet the needs of their members - ranging from advocating a formula for a living level of legally enforced national minimum wage for all over 16, to a charter of workplace rights. 

Scotland's trade unions should welcome the Convention, and use it to put forward the views of independent trade unions. But they need to thoroughly discuss the lessons of experience here and abroad when it comes to so-called social partnership and 'worker directors'.

Back in the 1974-79 Labour government, something very similar was implemented, named the Social Contract, initially popular with some of the lower paid who won wage rises in the first phase, but bitterly nicknamed the Social Con-trick in the following years - until it was smashed on the rocks of workers' strike action in 1978-9. 

The core problem was that the government could control (i.e. hold down!) wages, but they couldn't control prices in a capitalist economy, leading to rip-roaring inflation and a collapse in workers' real wages. 

Union leaders who were the architects of this earlier edition of 'social partnership' were discredited, workers confused, Labour defeated, and Thatcher elected by default!


More recently, workers in the South of Ireland have been hamstrung and made to pay the price of horrendous capitalist crisis because their national union leaders sold them a pup - successive National Agreements that allegedly ensured bosses and workers were 'all in it together', which drastically hampered their ability to fight back collectively and defend living standards.


Of course, in all probability an independent SOCIALIST Scotland would include properly elected workers' representatives on workplace committees, to control day-to-day operations, and a working class majority elected onto boards of publicly owned industries, services and cooperatives. But that is a far cry from what is on offer from this White Paper, which is rooted in the open continuation of privately owned capitalist enterprises, which in fact are promised cuts of up to 3 per cent in Corporation Tax.


Trade unions and their members cannot afford to be neutral on the Referendum. We have far too much to lose if we don't help win a majority for independence. More wage cuts. Even worse assaults on services. Catastrophic removal of the remaining rights we have at work. And all of these regardless of what colour of rosette the capitalist Prime Minister in Westminster wears.


The SNP government's White Paper is one version of independence, but only one. It says itself, "Each of Scotland's political parties will bring forward policy proposals at the future election to an Independent Scottish parliament." 

Absolutely. And the duty of trade unions, as the biggest single collective body in Scotland, is to seize the unique opportunity offered by national self-government, and combine with socialists to carve out a future that goes far beyond the vision painted in this White Paper. 

Fight for public ownership of key sectors like energy, North Sea oil and gas, the banks and industrial giants - with new forms of democratic control and management by working class people that go way beyond a few token 'worker directors'. 

With socialist change we could build a genuine social partnership. 

This White Paper is a very substantial improvement on what we have in the capitalist UK; it is pale and timid compared to what socialists and the trade union movement need to campaign for on the road to a Scottish workers' republic.