The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain
Week commencing 24th May 2019

Our heritage: and future

LAST WEEK saw thousands of people take part in the annual With Banners Held High festival in the Yorkshire city of Wakefield, which recalled the 1984/5 miners’ strike. This is just one of labour’s packed annual calendar of events to remember its proud history, which starts with the marches on the first of May.

Wakefield is also one of the more recently established festivals. This year’s Durham Miners Gala is the 135th and the commemoration of the Tolpuddle martyrs in Dorset has been a major event since the centenary event of 1934. Other well-established events are those remembering the contribution of the British working class in opposing fascism on the battlefields of in Spain at the Jubilee Gardens memorial in London, the defeat of Oswald Mosley on the streets of east London and the long running Strike school at Burston in Norfolk.

There are some recent ‘invented traditions’. This year Derby marks a strike by silk workers in 1833—34. An event marking the important match-girls strike of 1888 at the Byrant & May factory in east London that sparked off ‘New Unionism’, which effectively organised unskilled workers, has been running for few years. Another newcomer is the celebration of the 1910 women chain-makers strike at Cradley Heath in the Midlands. Commemorations of the17th century Diggers at Wigan and the Levellers mutiny at Burford in Oxfordshire take us further back in time.

All these festivals are worthy of support as they can combine an agreeable day out with political work, which can be fruitful because the more established events can attract a large audience that includes those whom Christian missionaries politely call the unchurched.

It has to be said that sometimes the messages arising from these events is a mixed one. Those with official trade union backing all too often imply that the days of militant struggle are only worthy of remembering but not of repeating.

Although the days when a one-way ticket to Australia was the penalty for attempting to organise a trade union are gone, at least in Britain, that of course does not mean we should listen to those who say we can leave it to trade union officials to negotiate us an extra 50 pence per hour and simply elect a nice Labour MP to raise our points of concern in the House of Commons on our behalf. Some of the trade-union rights won by the Dorset farm labourers were undone by later governments and the battle to repeal Thatcher’s trade union reforms still has to be won.

Making or listening to rousing speeches about Peterloo in 1819, Red Clydeside in 1919 and Cuba in 1959 are no excuse for a lack of action in 2019. Whilst raising a glass or two in a worthy cause is most enjoyable, any international solidarity that limits itself to supporting the workers at the Havana Club distillery does nothing to advance the cause of international labour.

There are gaps in labour’s calendar. Chartism, which was the first political movement of the British working class, does not have a national focus, despite local commemorations of worthies. The co-operative movement is largely forgotten and it would be difficult to build enthusiasm for a mass event marking the foundation of the Trades Union Congress in 1868.

The day will surely come when a public holiday will commemorate the Great October Revolution and another holiday will commemorate the future seizure of power by the working class in Britain — but until then there are plenty of events to make our voice heard this summer and autumn.