by Ian Stewart
As reported in the press, Con Shiels, the last participant in the Jarrow Crusade died at the age of 96 on Boxing Day. With him dies perhaps the last living link to the great interwar struggles of the Labour movement against government indifference to suffering and want under the Tory and coalition governments of Baldwin, Macdonald, and Chamberlain.
No doubt Atul and Pete will come up with something more iconoclastic and humorous for this period soon, but I feel like sticking to the story right now.
I suppose that many of us, at least if we are over thirty, “did” the Jarrow march at school. I seem to remember it being of the same set of lessons when we were told that the then Prince of Wales visited depressed areas and murmured “something must be done”. We certainly did NOT learn at school that proud Edward thought that the answer to unemployment lay with Mr Moseley and Mr Hitler.
We did learn about “red” Ellen Wilkinson, and Jarrow, and unemployment, and “buddy can you spare a dime?” What we didn’t learn was that the 1936 Jarrow march was part of a bigger picture of resistance to unemployment and vicious cuts in outdoor relief.
From its creation by the Communist party, the national unemployed workers movement (NUWM) sought to do something that many trades union and Labour leaders thought undesirable, if not impossible – organise the unemployed to fight for a better deal.
And they did it. The NUWM had a life of its own, for despite leadership opposition, ordinary trades unionists and Labour members worked alongside the communists to make it work. There were marches to London in1922,1929,1930,!931,1932,1934, and 1936. From Cardiff and Glasgow they marched, to Bristol from the Rhondda in their tens, hundreds and thousands.
One hundred thousand ended up marching from Glasgow to London in 1932, and the riot in Hyde park, during which the police used overwhelming force as well as agent provocateurs, led to the creation of The national council for civil liberties (Liberty today).
But it wasn’t just the big events – when the coalition government of the day cut relief for the unemployed to starvation levels, local groups protested in their own ways. In the port of Lowestoft in Suffolk, the wives of unemployed fishermen marched with their kids to the town hall, and in furious desperation they left their babies on the council steps. “If you won’t give us the means to look after our young, you do it!” We certainly never heard about that in class.
Of course, there was another more personal, heart-rending hunger march that was completed by tens of thousands throughout the period. When that right wing polecat Norman Tebbit sneered at the unemployed of the 1980s, telling them to emulate his dad and get “on your bike”, many of those crushed by poverty in the most depressed areas of Britain had indeed done just that.
They walked, men, women and children – from Scotland, from Tyneside, from Cornwall and Wales to wherever they could earn a crust. They emigrated as well – to Australia, New Zealand and Canada, as well as South Africa and the USA.
Some of them joined the armed forces like Con Shiels, for want of productive work in the outside world (he spent twelve years in the Royal Navy, before returning to civilian life as a fitter). Today the factories are gone, and the army is full, to steal from Billy Bragg.
During all this time, the leaders of the Labour party refused any official support. In 2011, the second Jarrow crusade, organised by the Socialist party was able to muster official support from Unite, the PCS and RMT Unions, but once again Labour as a party sat on its hands.
This will not do anymore. Labour must not leave protest against unemployment, against poverty to the political margins. Our supporters, our members will not thank Ed for such masterly inactivity, nor be fobbed off with a few words in parliament and opposition to cuts in welfare whilst simultaneously proposing more of the same. Anyone still puzzled as to our slippage of support in areas we consider to be our heartlands need look no further than a glaringly simple, bread and butter issue such as this.
And what of the Labour leadership today? Just this week, Ed Balls announced not only how awfully Coalition plans to cut welfare will hit the poorest in Britain, and then he – unveiled a re-jigged form of workfare. As we now know thanks to The Independent last week, the misconceptions as to the welfare budget, and to who actually gets benefits (as well as how much) are riding at an all time high. George Osborne must b sniggering into his Chateau d’Yqem, as our party leaders swallow palpable lies, and timidly ask for small changes, and small change.
Yet the double dip has meant that the pain of unemployment has fallen not only upon the workers and junior managers in the private sector, it has hit the middle managers too.
The traditional Tory supporters have also felt first hand what it is like to try to fill in a claim, and be treated like dirt. Hence the terrific anger at tax dodgers across the press (oh the irony, given the tax affairs of most media companies), even in the home counties. Why is it that neither Ed can honestly stand up and explain calmly, clearly that the economic crisis is not the cause of benefit claimants, who take up a tiny portion of GDP compared to rich tax cheats and the banking bailout?
That true job creation really needs much more than subsidising cut price wages? That a living wage is not only civilised and desirable, & will pay for itself through local economic spending?
I suppose it would be too much to ask, that after the economic debacle of Thatcherism and its continuation under New Labour, even though the election of Ed Miliband promised at least a modicum of new thinking.
The wider Labour movement, along with British society is crying out for an honest change in the way government works, and in which peoples’ interests too. Albert Einstein once described insanity thus: “doing the same thing over and over again, yet expecting different results”. Can it be that Ed Balls and Ed Miliband are truly content to follow Philip Snowden Ramsay McDonald, Mr Blair and Gordon Brown along the path of irrelevance?
Finally, as a tribute to all the marchers, I can think of nothing better than this song by Alan Price:
Ian Stewart is a Labour party member and blogs athttp://clemthegem.wordpress.com/