The Cambridge Strike March – 01 Feb 2023

Continuing a long tradition of protest against central government policies (now joined by Australia’s Juice Media with their NSFW Honest Government Ad!) – with some links to publications about our civic, campaigning and political past.

You can read the reports in the Cambridge Independent and the Cambridge News. Also not forgetting north Cambridgeshire & Peterborough in CambsNews reporting here. I won’t repeat what they’ve said as they cover the essentials.

Lots of you turned out on what was one of the biggest co-ordinated set of strike actions on a single day in Cambridge and across the country. I filmed a time lapse outside Great St Mary’s Church on King’s Parade despite my zombified state. (CFS).

Above – if I forgot to wave, I apologise!

I missed the early part of the speeches on Parker’s Piece – there are a few videos I have to upload which I’ll put into a playlist at a later date. In the meantime, three of the speeches – from Julia Drummond (RCM), Daisy Thomas (Cambridge SU) and Liz Brennan (Unison) are below:

Speaking on an historic stage in Cambridge where the founder of the Independent Labour Party, Keir Hardie spoke in the early 1900s.

Want to know how Mr Hardie got on in a town full of Tories at the time? You can read the newspaper transcripts Part 1 here, and Part 2 here, – with the inevitable TWs of violence, sexism, and racism from the chaps in gowns. One of the young Newnham women on the platform was Amber Reeve – who went onto greater things. One of the group that organised the event was the war poet Rupert Brooke – who was a radical liberal at the time, and also a member of the Cambridge Fabian Society. He gave a speech on Democracy and the Arts in Cambridge in 1910 – you can read the transcript here produced by Sir Geoffrey Keynes – younger brother of economist John Maynard Keynes. All the more important given the issues around the Arts Council of England, which was founded by the latter.

Trade unions not new in Cambridge

The first major trade union demonstration in our then town’s history (We didn’t become a city until King George VI said so in 1951) was 110 years ago when our predecessors demonstrated for an eight hour day. (You can read about it here). Following the horrors of war, trade unionists and the Cambridge Labour Party invited a close friend of Rupert Brooke and Sir Geoffrey Keynes to stand for Parliament as Cambridge’s second only Labour candidate. This was Dr Hugh Dalton, who served as an artillery officer on the Austro-Italian front (in the snowy mountains) during the First World War. He lectured at the London School of Economics but commuted from Cambridge. At the first large post-war trade union gathering on Parker’s Piece, he gave a keynote speech. Although ultimately unsuccessful in Cambridge, he went on to become Chancellor of the Exchequer in Attlee’s Government. Furthermore, he would return regularly to Cambridge for anniversaries and major events, such as the opening of the Romsey Labour Club and the 25th Anniversary of the Cambridge Labour Party. (I digitised my copy of the booklet for their 75th anniversary here)

Also based in Cambridge was the University Labour Federation based on King Street, which published many pamphlets including this one from the interwar period (before the atrocities of Stalin were widely known) including this one – Songs for the People.

One of the institutions we’ve sadly lost – mainly because it bankrupted itself in a move to the Beehive Centre was the Cambridge & District Co-operative Society. There’s a thesis waiting to be researched and written on the rise and fall of that society which, when it celebrated its 50th anniversary just before the outbreak of World War II, counted a fifth of all residents in Cambridge as members. You can read the history of that half century here. Given that long history, I remain surprised that the Co-operative Party – one of Labour’s sister parties and affiliated societies, is not more prominent in Cambridge. Over 20 Labour MPs are also members of the Co-operative Party – as is the Labour Mayor for Cambridgeshire & Peterborough, Dr Nik Johnson (who ran on a Labour & Co-operative ticket).

Learning from the past to inform the future

I concur with what several of the speakers said today about the younger generations leading the way. (Labour published a charter for young people in 1986 – how would you improve it?) Now in my 40s with the best of my health behind me, many of the things that I once wanted to do are no longer possible. Furthermore, the action and organising talent I’ve seen shown by so many people half my age is inspiring to see for someone who lost their job and career in the civil service in 2011 with not so much as a whimper from both of the trade unions I was a member of. (PCS and FDA – serving as a branch officer in both). Such was the pace of the cuts that by the time the first strike action had been organised by the national unions that I had already been forced to decide whether to accept redundancy or stay on serving the Coalition Government. I chose the former.

The way the new generations of activists are organising – making use not just of social media but also of data analysts and legal experts has been impressive in some of the new agreements that a number of unions have signed with employers. For example employing teams of forensic accountants to unpick the annual reports of big corporations to calculate what they can and cannot afford in pay negotiations. Hence some of the double-digit pay rises reported of late. Hence the advice to join a trade union.

“What have the unions ever done for us?”

Exactly! (You can read this pamphlet on the inter-war era campaign for paid holiday, something that a number of trade unions had already negotiated with their employers.)

Furthermore, volunteering as a branch officer opens up a wealth of opportunities for training and learning – especially for younger workers that might otherwise not be available. It was my responses to detailed cross-examination on handling personnel cases representing my fellow members that got me promoted in the civil service and transferred to London. (How else can you show you might make a half-decent line manager or team leader if you’re in your early 20s and have no such responsibilities in your day job?)

Protesting against privatisation – more learning from history

The Tories cannot say they were not warned.

Above: Paying the Price (1987) by the Labour Research Department; Privatisation 1979-1994: Everyone’s a winner – by the Tories. Feel free to compare the two.

Money down the drain – sound familiar? It’s on the privatisation of water. Social security now social insecurity. The same thing happened in the 1980s. Corporate lobbyists with too much access to ministers? There’s a whole book on how they did it in the 1980s and it still reads well today. Selling off council housing? They were told about that too.

There are more historical numbers worth looking at – including the trade unions that went head-to-head with the Thatcher & Major Governments.

Above – The National Union of Public Employees – a century of service, and the Confederation of Health Service Employees at 75 years – both merged to form Unison in the early 1990s.

The National Education Union – formerly the N.U.T. and A.T.L.

The NUT published a centenary publication in 1970 here – would they have published on for 150 years in 2020 had it not been for the pandemic? One of their presidents who went onto become an MP was Cambridge teacher Dame Leah Manning of Homerton College – you can read her memoirs here.

A century separates the teachers that came to Cambridge for the 1899 annual conference of the National Union of Teachers. The guidebook tells its own story. The man who brought the conference to Cambridge was probably Homerton College principal John Horobin, who died an untimely death aged still in his 40s. Had he survived, chances are he’d have stood for Parliament for the Liberals in Cambridge, and may well have switched to Labour after the First World War as many did.

The second is a fascinating piece of research when in the early 2000s The Observer Newspaper repeated a study from the late 1960s where children were invited to design The School I’d Like.

Above – given where we are now I’d say there’s a political imperative to follow up the book by Burke and Grosvenor (above-left) and ask today’s generation of children about the school they’d like. Then make their top recommendations happen.

“Will there be more strikes and protests? Bigger ones?”

I expect there will be given the ‘hold on until the last’ strategy from ministers similar to what John Major did in the 1990s running a government that was ‘in office but not in power’. Furthermore, as we move into spring and summer, the warmer weather will inevitably increase turnout. It was a cold and windy day today, so to get such numbers for a weekday strike was…striking!

That’s not to say I want more strikes. Personally I’d prefer a general election with a new, competent government to turf out the Tories and significantly improve things for everyone. But that isn’t going to happen given there is no parliamentary mechanism for opposition movements to make the government of the day fall – not least with its current majority and disposition of Boris Johnson loyalists. Which is why the continued negative headlines nationally will make for interesting watching come the local elections three months time. Will the local issues in Cambridgeshire & Peterborough be swept away by a tidal wave of non-regular voters turning out to turf out the Tories? That for me is the biggest question which, without a significant on-the-ground door-to-door canvassing operation will have to wait until early May.

Food for thought?

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

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