If anyone were to ask about the 1970s in Britain they will probably hear about ‘the Winter of Discontent’, about power cuts and the refuse workers strike. A decade that opened when the optimism of the 1960s had already began to fade, and which closed with the election of Margret Thatcher as Tory Prime Minister, and the start of a concerted effort to break working class communities and the trade unions they had built.
There is plenty of film footage available on the web that tells this story. And of course, the notorious punk music scene grew out of the discontent that existed at that time. While all of this is true, there is something missing from the story. In the 1960s and 1970s children were brought up by their parents to believe that the future would be brighter than the present. Parents believed that the world they would pass onto their children would be one in which their children would have the opportunity to prosper.
Today, it would be a brave (or very, very wealthy) parent who brought their children up to believe this. For nearly four decades, the advances that had been won by working-class communities, including obtaining; ‘a fair days pay for a fair day’s work’ have been receding. Young people today often cannot even dream of renting, let alone buying a home of their own (and in the 1970s, students did not leave college with tens of thousands of pounds worth of debts, because they had a student grant, and could claim housing and other benefits out of term time). This was not because our parents had it easy, but because there was a strong and effective working-class voice with the muscle necessary to protect our interests.
However, over the last four decades, hope in our communities has often withered. There is more wealth in the country than there was in the 1970s, it’s just that a bigger share of it goes to those who are already super-wealthy. Meanwhile working-class communities, and the solidarity that held them together, have been devastated by a combination of deindustrialisation, the widespread loss of public sector housing, the restrictions on trade union rights, the fact that we all spend more time on social media than we do chatting to our neighbours, and the failure of the Labour Party to effectively communicate an alternative vision to what has come to be called austerity or neo-liberalism.
Working-class communities are worse off today than in the so-called ‘bad old days’, we have vast numbers of our children living in poverty. But here is the thing. Rather than being angry with the 1% (the rich and powerful elites) whose greed is not only stealing our children’s’ life chances, but is actually costing us the earth, many people in our communities are angry with migrants, even refugees, or people who look a little different or who follow a different religion from themselves. The working class, rather than organising to combat a sense of injustice, is instead exhibiting a deep sense of self-loathing.
At the Ella Baker School, we believe, fundamentally, that what our communities need is a redistribution of wealth and power away from the rich and towards those on middle or low incomes. We need investment in good quality education, and in good quality jobs. Perhaps as much as anything, we need massive investment in developing and installing clean energy generation, if we are to stall the coming climate catastrophe. But that will only happen when we get ourselves organised.
Working-class communities are as smart as anyone, but we recognise that vast amounts of effort are invested to encourage us to blame one another and to spend our time fighting amongst ourselves, rather than coming together to find genuine solutions to our problems. The Ella Baker School, named after one of the leading (but unsung) organisers of the African American freedom movement believes that if we review our history, we will find inspiration for the challenges we face today.
Whether it be the election of Indian Communist Shapurji Saklatvala for the Battersea constituency in 1922, the heroism of the East London Federation of Suffragettes, led by the amazing Sylvia Pankhurst (the forgotten Pankhurst) or the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott led by Paul Stevenson (which both ended the exclusion of black workers from the employment of the Bristol bus company, and set the political stage for the passage of the first legislation to tackle racism), there is inspiration to be drawn. That is why we have come together to write materials and make them available for anyone to use; in student groups, political organisations, trade union branches, or local study groups.
One final thought: If we do not come together and start to demand back what is rightfully ours, and instead continue to blame each other, then we will see our communities become poorer and more desperate, and desperate people can be fooled into voting for the most divisive of politicians. We have seen how that movie ends, and we believe that there is no ‘hero’ coming to rescue us. We will have to get ourselves organised and demand the justice our communities so richly deserve.
Join us, learn to train, learn to organise, together we can turn the tide.