Friday, 8 January 2016

Polemic: Histories of the Present

From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter # 57 (January 2016)

 Histories of the present

Eric Hobsbawm talked of Marxist historians becoming ‘historians of the present too’ in the 1950s. For those who enthused about ‘actually existing socialism’ in Eastern Europe that was difficult not least because the line about what the history was often changed. More recently the late John Saville advocated a total history approach arguing that you can't understand the world just by studying the working class and the labour movement. There is a need to understand what the other side, the ruling class, is up to and how it interacts with organised labour and the left. His book on 1848 is something of a model for this approach. Below is a much more modest attempt to look at a very recent period of ruling class history and the impact this had on the class struggle.

 Mark Clarke and the Trade Union Reform Campaign: How union activists were bullied

  Tory candidate for Tooting at the 2010 Election Mark Clarke has been excluded from the Tory Party for life following allegations of bullying and the unfortunate death of a Tory activist in September 2015. Mr Clarke has denied the allegations but stories across the media from the Daily Mail to the Guardian continue. Former Tory chair Grant Shapps has been forced resign his Ministerial post for failing to follow up earlier complaints about Clarke. Clarke’s most recent role in the Tory Party was to run the campaign bus in the 2015 Election. The media’s obsession with Jeremy Corbyn has meant that Clarke’s wider background has gone unremarked.

After his failure to win Tooting (Labour’s Sadiq Khan is the MP) Clarke was soon involved in another role. The Trade Union Reform Campaign was launched in late 2011. Clarke was the Chief Executive. Former Tory MP Aidan Burley was briefly associated with it before he got caught up in a story about hiring a Nazi uniform for a stag party. Other Tory MPs were involved, including crucially Tory leader David Cameron. Also in the TURC circle, although not it appears on board with all its ideas, was Harlow MP Robert Halfon, who has featured in the current Clarke media story too. A further TURC officer was Harry Cole, now the Sun’s Westminster correspondent. Some of these were matters were clearly laid out by journalist and union activist Tim Lezard at the time.

The TURC did not play a significant role in the discussion around union rights and the law which culminated in the current Trade Union Bill. Indeed as far as can be seen it has done nothing at all since the autumn of 2013. The date probably relates to the appointment of a QC, Bruce Carr, to lead a review of union activity and the law. The supposed motivation for that was the ‘scandal’ about Unite members and the Labour Party in Falkirk. It may well be that the TURC felt its work was done, or it may be that leading players like Clarke determined that with a General Election coming up their political energies were required elsewhere. In the event, while Carr did produce a report in 2014 he refused to make any recommendations because by this time details of the current TU Bill had been revealed, and he felt his efforts had been undermined it seems.

That might be that, except for one issue. Clarke in particular was obsessed by trade union facility time. His view was that in the public sector union activists should not get any paid time off for union work and that any such activity should be paid for by the trade unions concerned. It is a view which suggests a complete ignorance of how the world of work actually works. Even so Clarke used his media contacts which included Paul Staines who runs the right-wing Guido Fawkes operation to focus on trade union reps with facility time. This was not just a general political campaign. It focused on individuals. Clarke called reps ‘pilgrims’ because his original focus had been a union activist he had come across in Tooting called Jane Pilgrim. The numbers of reps who were focused on was probably quite small but those who were unfortunate enough to come to the attention of Clarke and the TURC might well find themselves the subject of critical articles in papers like the Sun and the Daily Mail. Given the current allegations about Clarke it is perhaps no surprise that the TURC stooped to such unpleasant tactics.

This piece appeared in the Morning Star on 2 December 2015.

Keith Flett

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