Monday, 30 May 2011

Bruce Kent tells of his irishness, miscarriages of justice and peace

Bruce Kent’s involvement with matters Irish has come in all shapes and sizes throughout his life. A serving soldier in the North at the Palace Barracks outside Belfast for a few months in 1948, a helper to Sister Sarah Clarke’s in her efforts to support Irish miscarriage of justice victims and a steadfast battler for prisoner’s rights and peace.
Bruce recalled when serving as a priest being asked where he was from. “I’d say Golders Green, and then the silver mines of Tipperary, where my great grandmother came from,” said Bruce, who reveals that is mother was a devout Irish Canadian Catholic.
His short time in Ireland as part of the British army nevertheless opened his eyes. “I remember seeing the papers at the back of churches in Gaelic. Then realising that all the history we had been taught in England was about Henry VIII and his wives. There was nothing about Irish partition or the civil war – it was pathetic that this was not brought up in school,” said Bruce, who realised at that time the depth of the prejudice.
Bruce Kent has spent much of his life involved with miscarriage of justice issues. Most recently he has been pressing the case of Raymond Gilbert, who remains in prison for a murder in a Liverpool bookmakers in 1981 which he insists he did not commit. The other man convicted of the murder, John Kamara, was freed by the Court of Appeal in 2000. Gilbert remains in prison partly because he will not admit to any guilt.
Bruce's involvement with the issue though really took off at the time when Sister Sarah Clarke was supporting the families of the Irish miscarriage of justice victims. “Sister Sarah used me to find safe houses and places for relations to stay when they came over visiting,” said Bruce, who was impressed with the efforts of Cardinal Basil Hume on behalf of the Conlon family. He is though dismayed that the Church today is not taking up prisoner’s issues and particularly those of miscarriages of justice.
Bruce suggests that if 10 per cent of those in prison today are innocent then that amounts to 9,000 people which is a real scandal.
One area where Bruce has been particularly involved over recent years has been with those Muslim men being held in detention either under control order style house arrest or in prison. One individual he has supported has been Mustapha Taleb. He was originally arrested and tried in connection with what became known in media parlance as the ricin plot. No ricin was found and Taleb together with a number of others accused was cleared in the courts. This though did not stop him being picked up in 2005 and placed under a control order. Since that time he has been detained in prison and then released again under control order style detention. “He and the others being detained in this way don’t know who has accused them or what they are accused of,” said Bruce, who sees Taleb as being in this limbo situation of detention for many years to come as his case eventually reaches the appeal court then the supreme court and the European Court of Human Rights.
Bruce sees this means of detaining people under anti-terror law for long periods with no recourse to a properly constituted court of law as having its antecedents in the Irish situation and successive Prevention of Terrorism Acts. He sees real parallels between the way the Irish were treated in the years of the Troubles and the Muslims today. “The difference is that the Irish did have support right up to Cardinal Hume, the Muslims have no one,” said Bruce, who believes the present approach to addressing terrorism, is likely to increase resentment and help create terrorists.
The former priest believes that the attitude to nuclear power and particularly nuclear weapons is reckless. He sees humankind not acting as a trustee for the world but storing up dangerous nuclear waste that has a life running into thousands of years.
The anti-nuclear campaigner is disappointed that there has been so little progress toward abolition of nuclear weapons. He does not believe countries are serious about getting rid of this dangerous technology. Of the big five countries on the UN Security Council, only China favour no first use. They have talked of limited deployment of nuclear weapons and are willing to start negotiations on abolition. “How can we tell Iran they should not have nuclear weapons when we are committed to developing a new generation,” said Bruce, who is pleased that the Church has spoken out for abolition. “Individuals like Cardinal Keith O’Brien and the Bishop of Brentwood Thomas McMahon have been marvellous in speaking out on the issue,” said Bruce, who is keen that the link between spending on nuclear technology and poverty be made more clearly by the Church.
Bruce is also concerned about the attacks on Libya of recent weeks, pointing out that under Article 42 of the UN Charter every other means must be pursued before a war is started. “In Libya and many other recent conflicts this has clearly not been the case,” said Bruce, who admits that he always enjoys his trips to Ireland talking on issues of justice and peace. “It is always like a breath of fresh air to me,” said Bruce.

Thursday, 26 May 2011

Living wage campaign proves collective action works

The success of the living wage campaign in London over the past decade provides a good example of what can be achieved with collective action.
The idea came from the grass roots of trade unions and community organising groups. Low wages meant cleaners and security staff working in Canary Wharf and other areas of the capital having to do two or three jobs a week to try to keep their families above the poverty line.
As a result the community organising group London Citizens began the campaign for a living wage. Research was commissioned from Queen Mary University to find what the level of wages should be for people to be able to live above the poverty line in London. The initial rate was set at £6.30 an hour.
London Citizens spoke nicely to the senior managers of companies and when this did not work a more direct approach was taken. The latter in one case involved taking lots of small coinage and banking it slowly at an Oxford Street branch of HSBC. A meeting with then chairman of HSBC Sir John Bond followed.
A big break for the campaign came in 2004 when then London Mayor Ken Livingstone agreed to set up a Living Wage unit that would set an annual rate. The first rate was set at £6.70 in 2005. Now, the living wage stands at £8.30 an hour while the minimum wage is £5.93.
Private companies have increasingly adopted the living wage, with HSBC, Barclays, Standard Chartered and KPMG among those signing up. In the public sector there were hospital trusts and local authorities like Tower Hamlets, Islington, Ealing and Lewisham which became living wage employers. All together it is believed that £40 million has been put into the pockets of the lowest paid over the last 10 years.
Unions like PCS have taken actions in favour of low paid workers most recently at Buckingham Palace and previously down the road at the Palace of Westminster.
The living wage though makes sense for the employer as well as the worker. There is better morale among staff, which leads to lower turnover and improved productivity.
Now the living wage campaign has set itself wider targets, seeking to get Tesco to use some of its £3.8 billion profits to pay all its 280,000 staff the living wage. At present the groceries giant pays its cleaners and other lowest paid people the minimum wage. The living wage campaign wants the company to pay the £8.30 living wage in the capital and £7.20 outside.
There are also plans to pressure other companies via shareholders at AGMs. A Living Wage Foundation is being set up that will operate along similar lines to the Fairtrade Foundation, awarding a mark of recognition to good employers.
Following on from the living wage campaign community organisers and unions called for a regularisation of undocumented workers. These demands came together in the Strangers into Citizens campaign that looks to introduce an earned citizenship for those who have been in the country a number of years, without papers, but contributing positively to the country.
The living wage and regularisation campaigns compliment each other because having a minimum living level for wages stops unscrupulous employers from using migrant labour to undercut the existing workforce.
The payment of low wages has been a scandal over the years, given it not only robs the worker of the value of their labour but also provides a welfare payment from the tax payer to unscrupulous companies. So a company can pay low wages knowing that the state will pick up the difference with other tax credit payments. This is the welfare cheating that is all too absent from the populist press.
The success of the living wage campaign over the past 10 years is a cause for celebration, a real example that collective action still works best when it comes to obtaining justice for all.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Blue Labour should not denigrate the past

Blue Labour must learn from Labour's past not simply denigrate it.
The latest idea to spring forth in this era of Big Society politics is that of Blue Labour. In simple terms it could be summarised as a left response to the Big Society agenda.The main architects of the idea are academic Maurice Glasman, Labour MP Jon Cruddas and Mark Stears, an Oxford University academic.Professor Glasman developed the idea out of his own experiences with community organising in London Citizens. Based on the principles of US academic Saul Alinksy, community organising brings together faith communities, student bodies, trade unions and others. Community organising focuses on bringing large numbers of people together to exert pressure on public and private bodies to achieve the aims set by the membership. There have been successful London Citizens campaigns arising from the grass roots including the living wage and Strangers into Citizens campaign, which aims for a regularisation of undocumented workers.Blue Labour is defined as a small-C conservative form of socialism that attempts to return to the roots of the pre-1945 Labour Party through encouraging the political involvement of voluntary groups from trade unions through churches to football clubs. Put simply its flag, faith and family a mixture of social conservatism and economic interventionism. "The resources for Labour's renewal lie within the practices and history of the Labour movement. Blue Labour reminds the party that only democratic association can resist the power of capital and that the distinctive practices of the Labour movement are built upon reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity," says Professor Glasman, who talks of getting away from the commodification of labour by finance and the need for the democratisation and regulation of capital. The attraction of the idea to the Labour Party leadership is no doubt its effort to win back what are perceived as parts of the working class that have been lost, while retaining those parts of the middle class (or middle england) which according to new labour folk law have been won over. Not surprising then perhaps to find former Blairite work and pensions minister James Purnell supporting the new movement. He believes the way forward is a combination of new and blue labour.Blue Labour attacks both New and Old Labour. Glasman accuses New Labour of just letting the market run wild, unregulated. Then, the withdrawal by New Labour from the economy led to a manic embrace of the state. "New Labour's public sector reforms were almost Maoist in their conception of year zero managerial restructuring," said Professor Glasman who typifies the New Labour approach to the economy as at best managerialist."Old Labour was worse. Entirely disengaged from democracy in the economy, its renewal in our cities or in the party and held in thrall by an administrative and rational conception of the state and the use of scientific method to achieve its ends, by the 1970s it could barely generate the energy to win an election, let alone redistribute power to ordinary people," says Professor Glasman.The danger here is that the Blue Labour supporters themselves adopt something of a return to year zero approach, denying history. It is not a very progressive way to move forward by claiming all that what went before was wrong. Some of the democratising of industry ideas Glasman alleges to promote were closest to fruition when Tony Benn was an energy and industry minister in the Wilson and Callaghan governments of the 1970s. It was a time when there was some genuine democratisation of the workplace beginning to take place, with legislation like the Equalities Act passing onto the statute book.It is wrong to denigrate the state, as it was the very vehicle that produced the NHS, the welfare state, decent comprehensive education and helped alleviate poverty.Similarly there seems to be an underplaying of the role of trade unions in community terms. Despite the media rhetoric, trade unions have been and remain some of the most democratic organisations in the land. They play a vital role linking to all the parts of community that Blue Labour believes so important. It was the unions who came out in their 100,000s recently to demonstrate against the government's cuts agenda. There needs to be a more nuanced approach from Blue Labour as to where the trade unions fit into this brave new world.Cruddas has been a favourite of the unions for years, supported by many of them in his bid to become deputy leader of the party three years ago. He understands the trade union movement and will no doubt have ideas as to where they would fit into the blue labour project. His own positioning in Blue Labour makes perfect sense, declaring recently that he was "a big fan of the big society." And in terms of his own formation, highlighting that Bobby Kennedy and Pope John XXIII played more important roles than Keir Hardy and other Labour Party luminaries. Cruddas and the other promoters of Blue Labour will have a careful line to tread if their ideas are to resonate with the wider labour movement. The unions cannot be alienated. The role of the state cannot be denigrated, the argument has to be for a new type of state not anti statism. The other danger for Blue Labour is that it just does not define clearly enough what it stands for, in steering a course between new and blue it could end up a mere child of the ill fated third way, much trumpeted previously by Blair and Clinton. There does no doubt need to be a way found to create the broad tent that Labour used to occupy across the races and classes. Plotting such a path though must involve learning the lessons of the past in order to build for the future, not simply adopting the position of the historical amnesiac.