Today in London guerilla gardening history, 1906: unemployed occupy empty land in Plaistow

A short history of the 1905-6  unemployed agitation in West Ham and the Triangle Camp events

One issue the ongoing Covid-19 crisis/lockdown flagged up was the issue of food distribution. Not just – how do people unable to leave their homes get access to necessities like what to eat, a question in itself, massively inspiringly addressed by a plethora of new mutual aid groups, exiting support networks, community organisations and so on (a post for another time?) –

– but also, how does food get to the shops, to the depots, the market and supermarkets? Where does it come from and are food supply chains sustainable in the face of international crises, such as pandemics (not to mention the old Brexit chestnut. Remember Brexit?)

An old socialist slogan used to be ‘England Should Feed its own people’  – Not in a nationalist way, not ‘fuck outsiders’, but in a self-sustainable way – food shouldn’t be a commodity available only for a price, shipped across the world, but as locally sourced as possible, under the control of those who produce it, and available for all of the basis of need. The urgency of this is hammered home not only by the looming climate emergency, but also by the stark realities of global distribution, supply and demand: more and more, the wealthier countries consume the products produced for crap wages in unliveable conditions elsewhere. How long is that sustainable?

19th century radicals identified the dispossession of the labouring poor from the land during the enclosures, and the divorce of the industrial working class from the growing of food, as a huge grievance, but also, the tin end of the wedge to a social system that could only exist by stealing the resources of others (via imperialism, colonialism…)

Campaigns like the Chartist Land Plan, the Land League, and so on, were attempts to re-link the urban industrial workers with access to and control of land.

On occasions, workers in the cities also attempted collectively to address the issue directly – by seizing or squatting land and attempting to work it and grow food.

one such attempt took place in the early 20th century in East London, the Triangle Camp occupation.

Here’s an account written by Nick Heath, stolen by us:

The first decade of the 20th century was devastating for the British working class with rising unemployment. In 1902 with the demobilisation of soldiers after the Boer War there was a surge in the number of unemployed. Unemployed Committees were set up in 1903 by on one hand an alliance of Radicals and the Independent Labour Party with the National Unemployed Committee, and on the other by the Social Democratic Federation, who set up their own London committee.

The SDF was the largest Marxist grouping in Britain at the time, using a combination of revolutionary rhetoric to disguise an actual policy of electoral reformism, above all at the municipal level. It had indeed a long record of unemployed agitation stretching back to 1883. As its top hatted and autocratic leader H. M. Hyndman said in his autobiography: “Nearly all our principal agitations, demonstrations and collisions with the “authorities” have arisen from efforts in this direction.”

In the (then) borough of West Ham in East London, the Stratford and Canning town branches of the SDF began a campaign among the unemployed. West Ham had been a centre of general socialist agitation for years. In 1897 a coalition of Radicals and socialists had formed a Labour group on the council and started advocating progressive measures like a direct labour scheme for the council works department, trade union wages for council workers, labour clauses in council contracts, the setting up of council housing, etc. After they won 29 seats in the council elections of the following year they proceeded with these schemes with the building of public baths, hospitals, council housing, electrification and sewage schemes, and an independent works department. In addition the secularist paper The Freethinker was put on open display in the libraries.

As a result of these measures the churches allied with conservative elements, including ratepayers associations, to create a Municipal Alliance, headed up by prominent Nonconformist churchmen. In the 1899 elections the Alliance won 9 of the 12 wards and stayed in power until 1910. In the meantime the SDF, with Will Thorne at its head, worked to increase the number of their councillors.

The alliance was itself forced to introduce relief programmes and set up a Distress Committee because of the rising levels of unemployment and the mobilisations that were happening.

The SDF unemployment campaign began in winter 1904 with a house to house distribution of bills, weekly open air meetings at The Grove and a mass meeting at Stratford Town Hall with the tamest of the SDF speakers, Hyndman and Lady Warwick.

However, other forces were at work in West Ham, far more radical and revolutionary than the SDF. The anarchist agitator Charles Mowbray had been living in the borough at off and on from at least 1901 according to the census of that year, and he had much experience of agitation amongst the unemployed. Mowbray organised the West Ham Unemployed Committee with other anarchists like Tom Hare, an unemployed painter.

As a militant who had been often victimised Mowbray was frequently unemployed himself and could speak passionately about his own situation and that of so many others. He was involved in agitation in the north of the borough of West Ham in December 1904. A heavy fog had descended on the area and lasted a fortnight, aggravating the employment situation with the laying-off of many dockers. At a meeting on December 17th at the town hall addressed by Herbert Gladstone, a deputation led by the SDF members and local union activists, Arthur Hayday and Jack Jones (who incidentally both ended up as Labour MPs , before which they had both supported the First World War) insisted on a conference with the speakers present. The situation became acute a few days later with a number of working class families becoming destitute. Hayday and Jones organised a procession to protest at places of worship in West Ham on Christmas Day, but they were threatened with arrest if this was carried out. The local Liberal candidate for West Ham North, C.F. G. Masterman, then met with Hayday, Jones and Charles Mowbray at the Liverpool Street Hotel. Masterman noted that Mowbray insisted on keeping his overcoat on throughout, it then becoming apparent that he had sold or pawned his jacket because of his straitened circumstances.

On 9th August 1905 after a week of open air meetings, where police, included those mounted on horse, attended, Hare, McGregor and Mowbray met with the Council and demanded a special meeting for the unemployed which was rejected by the Mayor. At a meeting at Stratford Town Hall attended by 1500 where there were speeches from Richard Bullen, unemployed carpenter, for the Independent Labour Party and McGuire for the National Democratic League, Tom Hare said that the ten to twelve thousand unemployed in West Ham would not keep quiet for much longer. They were trying peaceful measures but if they did not bring success they must try violent means. Soldiers, the police, and the landlords stood between them and the things that would satisfy their needs and cried “Hands off!” when they asked for food and clothing- but the time was approaching when the working class would say: “Never mind about hands off; if you stand in our way we shall say ‘hands on you’. Though he was an anarchist it would only be time to talk about violence when they had exhausted pacific means. If however they were not listened to, he would advocate it with all his might. (Long sustained cheering).

Mowbray said that they had been told that if they used violence they would alienate sympathy. They had been quiet- where was the sympathy (Cries of “There is none!”) They were nearly tired of begging for something (“Hear! Hear!)

The following week there was another fiery meeting on Friday August 25th with two of the three speakers declaring that they were anarchists. One of them, Monk, said that: “I will sail very close to the wind but not quite… All I say is that I am not afraid of prison”.

As one paper reported: “through pouring rain a large number of the unemployed workmen of West Ham marched recently to the Stratford Town Hall” in October 1905. Mowbray addressed a meeting of 1,200 where “songs, recitations, and speeches were given”. It was decided that 200 “heads of family” would march to the West Ham Workhouse the following week, and this duly happened with Mowbray at the head of the march. Mowbray said the intent was to tear down the gates and demand abolition of the Poor Law in the district and for the adoption of direct labour by the council. The campaign fizzled out but the authorities had noticed the building anger among the East London working class. As a result the ruling Alliance introduced the Unemployed Workers Act, and set up a Distress Committee.

Mowbray and co. were still agitating in the following year. At a meeting in July he declared that “Working men did not own so much as a flowerpot of the ‘Glorious land’ they fought for in the African War” (The Boer War). Speaking alongside Harry Baldock for the West Ham South ILP and Teresa Billington National organiser of the Women’s Social and Political Union he talked of the current state of distress of the unemployed in Canning Town which would be likely to lead to increase in crime, together with riot and disorder. He said it was useless to vote to put Will Thorne in Parliament as that body only protected the landlords (This was an election year and Thorne, the leading SDFer in the area, was running for the West Ham South seat supported by the Labour Representation Committee).

The SDF ‘s unemployed activists carried out occupations of land in northern England at Levenshulme, Salford, Bradford and Leeds, all somewhat short affairs but attracting some notice.

Increasing unemployment and agitation to the left of the SDF put pressure on the SDF base itself. As the plumber Ben Cunningham, SDF councillor in South West Ham, admitted, it was discontent among the West Ham working class that pushed the SDF rank and file to take action. On Friday 13th July 1906 he and 14 unemployed workers marched on to a piece of land between St Mary’s Road and Passage in Plaistow. It lies just south of the line between Plaistow and Upton Park stations. It had been a gravel pit, later filled in with dust and refuse and measuring about 3 acres. It was unused municipal property (the previous day the Council had discussed whether to allow the Unemployed Aid Society to use the land for the unemployed but this quickly developed into a fight between two councillors over insulting remarks about the unemployed). West Ham was well under way to being urbanised but quite substantial tracts of open land still existed in the area. By the end of the day 20 unemployed were cultivating the land, and by Monday cabbages were planted. The occupiers received all in all a thousand plants from donors, including broccoli and celery. Cunningham was appointed Captain, and Bill King, chief gardener or ‘Minister of Agriculture’. King decided the ground should be divided up into four triangular plots which gave rise to the name Triangle Camp. A structure made of canvas and poles was erected and dubbed The Triangle Hotel, manager Benjamin Cunningham. A sign was put up reading “You Are Requested Not to Spit on the Floor of This Hotel”.

Collections began and a lot of money was contributed, the occupiers selling a programme to raise money. One collector, James Cleaver, a 60 year old labourer, was arrested for begging by the police. The Mayor, alderman Byford, wrote to Cunningham informing him that as a Justice of the Peace he was going to take action against an illegal act. Cunningham wrote back: “with all respect to your worship’s opinion I don’t consider that I have acted illegally in taking possession of disused land which rightfully belongs to the people.”

On July 26th the authorities turned up led by the Corporation official George Blain with a large body of police. The occupiers were supported by a crowd of three to five thousand, many of them unemployed. This was a golden opportunity for collections to be taken up by the Triangle Campers. Blain, a road foreman, asked the Campers to leave the land, but this request was turned down and Blain and Co. beat a retreat. The crowd was then addressed by Madame Sorgue, the French syndicalist orator and by Herbert Thomas, an SDFer who had come down from Tottenham to support the action, who exhorted it to revolution.

George Bernard Shaw refused to “finance a revolution” whilst the writer H. Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines and She, called on Cunningham to desist. As for Thorne he distanced himself from the land occupation whilst the SDF paper Justice gave it little coverage. All these so-called radicals were revealing the true worth of their expressed ideas.

In late July Justice Bicknell granted the Mayor of West Ham writs against the Land grabbers.
On August 4th Blain and other officials returned with a large body of police, and started clearing the camp. Cunningham refused to leave and was carried off after which the other Campers left the. The Hotel was pulled down and put in the adjoining field, where the men had gathered, along with their bedding. A second group of men then occupied the land, but fled with the return of the police at night.

On September 4th Cunningham and others tried to go back on the land again but 120 police, ten of them mounted, along with 30 council officials, stopped this and only Cunningham and three others got onto the land, where they were wrestled to the ground.

Cunningham for his part was sent down for contempt of court and stayed in Brixton prison until he apologised and was released on October 11th. George Pollard, of Plaistow, a gardener of 35 years was charged with assaulting Blain by striking him on the face on Tuesday September 4th. Thomas Evans was accused of assaulting Alfred Robert Taylor, a Corporation clerk on the same day.

George Pollard and Thomas Evans appeared at West Ham Police Court. Pollard was arrested by constable Greenwood and was reported to have said: “I did not give him half enough. I went on to the field with the intention of stopping there. If all those who had promised to go on the land had gone, we should have stopped there”. In court he refused to take off his hat, and it had to be removed by the police. He stated that he was an anarchist-communist, that he had been looking for work from morning till night without success, that he had six children , yet could get nothing from the Corporation and that: “While we have capitalists, be they Christian or otherwise, we are bound to have distress”. The Court chairman replied that he “really could not listen to this rigmarole. You are charged with an illegal act. Can you say anything to justify it?” Pollard asked him not to interrupt so much. The chairman went on to say that “this sort of thing” must be put down to which Pollard replied “you won’t put it down”. Pollard was sent to prison for 6 weeks hard labour. The bench expressed sorrow for his wife and children to which Pollard riposted: “I take your sorrow for what it is worth”. Evans was fined twenty shillings or fourteen days imprisonment in default of paying the fine.

The magazine Liberty Review reported on the “Anarchist heroes” Pollard and Evans and their sentencing and that: “These are the kind of heroes who are supposed by numerous sentimental dreamers in this country to be heralding a social revolution.”

Cunningham was disowned by the SDF. He ran again for the council elections as an independent Labour candidate, but came a poor third. He was never again elected.

As Martin Crick says in his history of the SDF: “The SDF had been willing to take advantage of the efforts of its local activists but once the attempts proved abortive the Federation returned its gaze to the national arena”.

As to Thorne, here we have someone who advocated violence against the blacklegs during the dockers’ strike of 1889, who often still used revolutionary rhetoric. As Richard Hyman noted in a review of a biography of Thorne which appeared in International Socialism:
“The lesson is the strength of the pressures, inherent in even the most militant trade unionism, towards accommodation with capitalism. Concern for organisational stability leads to caution in policy and action; committed to caution, the leadership develops a manipulative attitude towards the rank and file; ‘socialism’ is relegated to the rhetoric of the conference platform, a goal of the distant future, typically interpreted in gradualist terms which do not threaten the capitalist social order; militant action by the membership which might disturb established relations with employers and governments is opposed and if possible suppressed. Only a clear understanding of these tendencies and commitment to a revolutionary alternative can provide an effective safeguard against such degeneration”.

The first decade of the 20th century was an important one but little research has been carried out on the workers’ movements of those years, unlike for previous decades which are now fairly well covered. The unemployed actions smashed the stigma of the undeserving unemployed to some extent, where it was their fault that they were out of work. The year 1906 saw the Liberals sweeping to power, along with a whole group of Labour MPs. These prove to be timid in the extreme and the likes of John Burns and Thorne were seen as examples of former militants who were now estranged from their original ideas. The sympathy for direct action and anti-parliamentarianism began to grow, whilst on the other hand the Labour Party became a part of the political scene and trade union leaders became more and more involved in accommodation to the Labour MPs and their Liberal allies.

Nick Heath

Sources:

Banks-Conney, Diana Elizabeth. Political culture and the labour movement: a comparison between Poplar and West Ham 1889-1914
Crick, Martin. The History of the Social-Democratic Federation.
Masterman, Lucy. C.F.G. Masterman
Young, David Murray. People, place and party: the Social Democratic Federation 1884-1911
The Plaistow Landgrabbers

The Triangle Camp land squat story inspired another more modern reclamation of land in Plaistow

and not so far away, a bit further east – guerrilla gardening and DIY food growing are even today being carried out in Essex, as people think about a ‘resource based economy’, self-sufficiency and taking back disused land…

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NB: Other similar attempts have been made, through time. There were Surrey’s True Levellers, or Diggers, during the English Revolution.

Another group who had some success in squatting land and holding onto it to use for themselves were the poor labourers of Ickenham, West London, who in 1834 dug up and allotted themselves several parcels of land. This was a collective act on the part of these people who had made their own claim to land in the face of the condemnation of the Ickenham manor court, who complained that

‘William Bunce and others being persons who receive Parochial relief in this Parish have lately dug up part of the Waste on Ickenham Green for gardens but no permission has been granted to them for that purpose by any tenants of this manor & such persons arc therefore trespassers but no proceedings are to be taken against them for the present’.

The manor court wasn’t sure how to deal with these Digger-like squatters. The recent ‘Swing Riots’ of 1830-31 had shaken authority, and the disturbances had come perilously close to Ickenham with troubles in Heston…  the court may have thought forced evictions were politically undesirable at that time.

The labourers were still occupying their gardens on the wastes in October 1836 when the court insisted again that they were trespassing. But instead of ordering evictions, the court ordered that the labourers pay rent to the lord of the manor at “one shilling per rod of land as a demonstration of their acknowledgement as tenants at sufferance.” However it was only a year later that the labourers attended the court and agreed to pay this acknowledgement; they were allowed to keep their allotments until the next court.

Ten years later, they still occupied the allotments, and were disputing with the manor court over the rents. By this time the labourers’ group which now numbered nineteen. The labourers had claimed from at least 1844 that they could not afford to meet the rents. By 1847 they had gained the title of tenants. By 1859 the labourers or their descendants were now tenants paying £1 per year for their gardens. Some success at squatting land and holding on to it and establishing a claim was possible! The nominal owners were not always able to remove them, and had to face up to reality and grant them some rights…

Today in London educational history, 1999: Occupation at Goldsmiths against tuition fees

Part of Goldsmiths College, New Cross, was occupied 26th February – March 5th 1999. 300 students took over college admin building, after eight students were expelled because they couldn’t pay £1000 a year tuition fees that had been imposed on them. A court granted the college an eviction order, but the occupying students refused to leave till the eight reinstated. A few weeks previously, students had held a demonstration, blocking New Cross Road outside, over same issue.

The occupiers wanted the letters of expulsion to be replaced by advice on funding for the fees from the university authorities.

The students also called for a commitment from the college that “no student should be excluded due to an inability to pay fees” and that the student union should be informed 10 days before a letter of expulsion is sent to a student.

The protest drew the solidarity of many folk outside the College, including Comedian Rob Newman, who performed a free show within the occupied building at Goldsmiths, attended by 500 students, and bands Silver Sun and Jolt, who played gigs there in support.

The occupation ended on March 5th, after a meeting of students on the Friday evening, following the High Court order. Student leaders claimed the occupation as a victory, saying that the threat of expulsion for non-paying students had been lifted, and that the university authorities promised better communication with the students’ union in future.

The Goldsmiths’ protest was part of a wave of occupations at universities including Oxford, Sussex and University College London.

Looking for ways to promote further protests in the autumn, a national conference of students involved in protests against the fees was held and a “think-tank” – the Education Funding Society – was set up to develop arguments against the principle of charging fees. Goldsmiths students also published a ‘Rough Guide to Occupations’.

Many of the 1999 student protestors come from the generation of young people who were first-time voters in the New Labour landslide election victory of 1997, but who now questioned the government’s commitment to well-funded education system.

“I voted Labour to get out the Tories, but they haven’t made enough use of their majority. They had the entire country behind them, but they didn’t push up spending in education as much as they could,” said the union’s finance officer, Denis Fernando.

The students argue not only that the current levying of fees will deter the less-advantaged from entering higher education, but there is a long-term move towards a two-tier university system.

They claimed that in future fees would rise, particularly in the most successful universities, so that access to the most sought-after places would depend as much on money as ability; and that the downgrading of the principle of free tuition would see a move towards greater involvement of private finance in higher education, with a business-sponsored private university sector emerging.

The 1999 anti-fees protests proved to be foresighted, as tuition fess were raised across the board and increased massively. The 1999 occupations foreshadowed the much larger student agitation of 2010-111, which saw hundreds of occupations and massive demos which led to fighting with the police, the takeover of the Tory HQ at Millbank, a run-in with prince Charles…

A few days after the Goldsmiths occupation ended, another college occupation started, at Camberwell College of Art (a couple of miles away), in protest at lack of tutors, equipment, space, grants and hours of access, college management used various methods to harass them, including bogus fire alarms, threats to prosecute, turning off heating & hot water. 8 students involved were later taken to court by the College authorities.

Goldsmiths was also occupied several times in 2009-2010 during the mass student agitation against tuition fees… in 2013 and 2015

and more recently, in 2019 there was the Goldsmiths Anti Racist occupation

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An entry in the 2015 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the 2015 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

Today in London workers’ history, 1972: Briant printing works occupied to prevent closure

Who needs bosses? Workers could take over running things themselves tomorrow without even a hiccup…

The firm of Briant Colour Printing was established in the 19th century, owned by the Kitson  family. In 1968 the firm moved to a brand new custom built factory at 651-87 Old Kent Road, (close to the junction of modern Hyndman Street).

Briant’s Workforce was unionised and highly organised: they had fought for, and won, some of the best pay and conditions going, including getting Mayday off as a paid holiday in the late 1960s. Apparently the workers staged a 24 hour occupation in April 1971 to prevent the management sacking 60 staff, resulting in management postponing redundancies. They also had a long tradition of supporting other workers in struggle… including striking against the Industrial Relations Bill in 1971, and supporting striking miners and dockers in 1972.

Owner Timothy Kitson was a tory MP in 1970s, Parliamentary Private Secretary to Prime Minster Ted Heath). The hardcore autonomy of the Bryant workers was not just irritating to the firm’s management, it was personally embarrassing for him… Shame.

The Kitsons sold Briant in early 1972, to Derek Syder, with James McNaughton, of paper merchants Robert Horne (Briant’s biggest creditor) installed as Managing Director.

On June 21 1972, 150 or so workers were told the firm was going into liquidation. At a mass meeting same day, the workers decided to fight the closure: they secured the place, threw out the liquidating directors & declared a work-in to save their jobs. (One manager caught inside was not allowed to leave till money owed to the social club from management was paid up!)

The Times (24 June 1972) reported: ‘About 150 employees started the ‘work-in’ at the Briant Colour Printing company, Peckham on Wednesday after the management announced the company was going into voluntary liquidation… the workers yesterday showed their determination to stay by moving in bedding and food’.

The workers then ran the factory themselves, (until June 1973, when a new owner reopened it)  a going concern during the work-in, during which they attempted to pay themselves a wage (see below in the attached account for the limitations on this). During the occupation, they published their own paper, the BCP Workers News, on 24 hr rosters, with a 50 strong security crew on a 3 shift system. They managing the plant, sorted out supplies of paper and ink etc, organised liaison with clients… A Management committee was created from the workforce, also a procurement committee. They had local support – “A local militant OAP comes in to make the tea”. The work-in was reasonably successful: they had some problems paying bills, but no services were cut off.

The occupiers barred access to the plant to prospective buyers arranged by liquidators; any sale was therefore presented. Various legal stratagems to remove the occupiers were successfully resisted. A court later heard: ‘Possession orders were obtained against seven defendants in January 1973, but they were not enforced because the liquidator feared that the enforcement would result in an industrial fracas and the destruction of valuable machinery’ (Times 28 March 1977) .

Under occupation, Bryant printed lots of material for other disputes, including the Pentonville 5, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation… In July ’72, after the Pentonville 5 had just been jailed, they led first march to Pentonville Prison, diverting a march of their own to Clerkenwell Green. their staunch support of other workers was returned in kind with mass support for the work-in by other sectors.

The occupation was served with 1000s of writs and injunctions – all of which were burned outside the law courts on Bryant demos! A paper plant in Tower Bridge Road, owned by the Robert Horne group of companies was successfully picketed by the occupiers, for a month. Their logic was that Robert Horne – supplier of paper to Briant’s – was the chief creditor and was responsible for sending the firm into liquidation ‘The picket was very effective, reducing the flow of lorries into the factory, usually 40 to 50 a day, to one or two whose drivers were willing to cross the picket line’ (Times, 14 July 1972, 10 August 1972). These pickets led to the first deployment of the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group.

There were even discussions with a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, to agree a deal that would retain some kind of workers’ control: ‘The work-in has broken new ground by carrying into private enterprise the political basis on which the factory has been run by joint union branches. The plant will be run by a ‘management committee’ composed of representatives from three printing unions – the National Society of Operative Printers (Natsopa), the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (Sogat) and the National Graphical Association (NGA) – and managers put in by the new owner’ (Times, 14.12.1972)

This deal fell through and in May 1973 the company was bought by Peter Bentley, although it seems not everybody kept their job. Workers resumed normal capitalist operations on 3rd July 1973. But this was a false dawn – on 16 November 1973 the new owner closed the factory, sending the 50 remaining employees redundancy notices (some turned up for work to find themselves locked out), and installing security guards and alsatians to keep workers out.

We’re not sure if that was the end of the story – transpontine came across a reference to ‘vicious attacks [by police] on pickets at Bryant Colour Printing in 1974’ (this could be an error in dating by the author, or suggesting workers carried on the struggle after the lockout).

However, even if the occupation thus eventually failed to fulfil its original goal, to save jobs, it was seen by its participants as a success, partly because in the short term it did save jobs, and partly, and more importantly, because the participants felt that their taking action was an important element in the wider struggle against redundancies as well as an exciting learning process for themselves..

In 2002 there was a 30-year reunion in Clerkenwell for people who took part. Bill Freeman, a Communist Party activist, was a prominent figure during the occupation as ‘Father of the Chapel’ (the name for a printing shop steward).

Thanks as ever to Transpontine, the top South East London blogzine, in which a brief description of the occupation can be found…

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The following account and analysis of the Briant Colour Printing occupation mainly rests on a 62 pages long chapter in a Danish book on strikes and factory occupations in Great Britain during the early 1970s (Knudsen and Sandahl, 1974), a chapter which primarily builds on nine interviews conducted with BCP workers in January 1973 and information obtained from ‘BCP News’, the newsletter that was published by the occupiers.

An outline of the occupation

When it was announced that BCP was to be closed the notice given to the 130 employees was extremely short. On 21 June 1972 the shop stewards (or fathers or mothers of the chapel as they were termed in accordance with traditions in the printing trade)) were called to a meeting at the management office at 1.45 pm. Here, they were told by the managing director and a person who presented himself as the liquidator that BCP was going into voluntary liquidation and was closing immediately so that all workers were dismissed and should not return to work. The worker representatives were told that the workers at a later stage would get as much as possible of the pay and holiday entitlement that the company owed them. The reasons given for the closure were that BCP had recently incurred heavy losses and that the main creditor, the paper wholesaler Robert Horne Group, was not willing to grant further credits or postponement of payment of debts.

After the meeting the shop stewards briefly discussed the situation with each other. They decided to call a meeting for the whole workforce and to put forward the proposal of an occupation. The idea of an occupation was not alien to them. They knew about the prolonged one that had taken place at Upper Clyde Shipbuilders (UCS) and others such as the ones at Fisher Bendix in Kirkby and Plessey in Alexandria, and they had themselves taken the initiative to a one-day sit-in in April 1971 against a management proposal to reduce staff. In the atmosphere of chock and anger that characterised the feelings among shop stewards as well as the entire workforce, the idea of an occupation appeared as the only alternative to going home without a job and without pay for work already done. The meeting unanimously decided to occupy the premises. It all happened very quickly. Bill Freeman, a shop steward who was to become the formal as well as de facto leader of the occupation, formulated it like this:

“At 3 o’clock we had the factory completely under our control. There were guards by all doors, all windows were barricaded, and nobody or nothing could get out of or into the factory without our consent. At 1.45 they had told us to get out; at 3 we had thrown them out.”

The decision to occupy was a spontaneous decision; it was triggered by what was perceived as an utterly unjust and irrational management decision, a decision that provoked a strong sense of anger and of having been conned and let down. BCP was a relatively modern and technologically up-to-date print shop. In 1967 the firm had established itself in new buildings and with modern machinery at the Old Kent Road. Due to economic recession and increased competition the years 1970 and 1971 had been difficult ones for BCP, with a turn-over that was well below the capacity of the establishment. In July 1971, apparently after pressure from the Robert Horne Group, a change in ownership took place. A Mr. Syder, who already was established with several firms in the printing industry, bought the establishment for merely £27,750. In May 1972 a new managing director was appointed. The post was given to a person who had formerly been a director at Hornes. At a meeting with the shop stewards, less than two months before the liquidation announcement was given, the new managing director promised a bright future for the BCP including increasing turn-over and substantial investments in new equipment. Actually, things did look bright at that time. Turn-over in April-May 1972 amounted to £117,000 as against £70,000 in the same months the year before, and the order book stood at £139,000 compared to £47,000 one year earlier.

Against this background management’s contention that BCP was running at a considerable loss sounded odd to the workers. A subsequent attempt by the occupiers to analyse the financial situation of BCP led the workers to the conclusion that the deficit was due to the fact that assets had been transferred to the owner and his other firms. They believed the Robert Horne Group was behind these transactions and, ultimately, the decision to close BCP, perhaps because the group wanted to take over the piece of land at which BCP was placed. What was the real story behind the closure never became known. However, the impression that emerged and stabilised itself among the workers was that the alleged losses were not due to any lack of efficiency and productivity in the print shop or among its workers. Rather, they saw themselves as victims of cold, financial speculations. This interpretation also gained strength due to a particular event at the beginning of the occupation. Whilst the workers thought they had evicted all management representatives (except for foremen who were invited to stay), it turned out that one person had remained in the offices at the first floor of the building. He was found the next day where it also became evident that his task had been to destroy as much as possible of the documents that could shed light on the financial situation of BCP.

After the decision to occupy had been taken the next step was to form an organisation that could govern the occupation. A joint chapel consisting of all workers at BCP was founded and designed as the occupation’s highest authority. It was to function through weekly plenary meetings. The joint chapel elected an action committee that should serve as the joint chapel’s executive body. The action committee had to carry out decisions taken at the plenary, handle contacts with the press, the trade unions and employers as well as act here and now if anything should come up between the weekly meetings. The committee consisted of 12 persons, namely the six shop stewards and their substitutes. One of the shop stewards, Bill Freeman, was elected as chairman of the committee. Later in the process this organisation structure was supplemented with several sub-committees dealing with issues such as production, security, public relations etc.

The first days and weeks of the occupation were full of activities aimed at organising and consolidating the occupation. Although it was decided to call the occupation a ‘work-in’ and continue working, the main concern was to defend the premises against possible attacks from the police. Rotas were organised to ensure that the entrances were guarded at all times, and during the first weeks demonstrations and mass meetings were organised to show that the occupiers were not alone. Thousands of workers showed up at these events to show their solidarity. Other activities were aimed at organising facilities that made it possible to stay at BCP all day and night round: food, beds etc.

However, at the same time the BCP workers continued to work and use their skills as graphical workers. The work was of three types. Firstly, work went into making PR-material for their own action, mainly in the form of a newsletter that was printed in 80,000 copies at certain intervals. Secondly, work was freely supplied to other workers engaged in industrial action. As an example, they supported actions staged by the dock workers, not only by being active in the demonstrations and picketing organised by the dockers, but also by printing posters and leaflets in support of five dock workers who were jailed in Pentonville prison in July 1972 due to allegedly unlawful industrial action. Another example was the printing of a ‘victory bulletin’ for the UCS workers. Thirdly, production on a business basis to some extent continued. Orders that were being carried out at the time of the liquidation were completed, and customers were urged to place new orders. Some existing customers did so, and at the same time new customers, mainly trade unions and left wing organisations, appeared. However, the turn-over, amounting to less than £30,000 for the first six months of the occupation, was only a small fraction of full production.

For this reason, a further important task was to raise incomes that could sustain the occupiers. Two sources were particularly important. One was the trade unions to which the BCP workers belonged, the most important ones being the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), the National Society of Operative Printers and Assistants (NATSOPA) and the National Graphical Association (NGA). They all decided to declare the action staged by the BCP workers official and consequently paid out strike support. The other one was contributions from people who sympathised with the action, whether they came from  print workers in Fleet Street who had signed up for a weekly levy, or from people gathered at trade union meetings, tenants’ meetings, students’ meetings etc. Bill Freeman was enthusiastic about the support:

“Money has come from so to speak everywhere, from all parts of the country, from abroad, from people on the shop floor, shop steward committees, factories, from voluntary collections, tenants’ organisations, political parties, churches, pensioners, even school children have given money, anybody.”

Nevertheless, the occupation was costly to the workers. They had been relatively well paid until the liquidation and now typically experienced a reduction of their income to half of what it was before. In relative terms, some were hit harder than others for the joint chapel took the decision that under the new conditions everybody should earn the same. Among the people who left during the occupation, some 45 out of 130, most probably did so for financial reasons; others left because they were, or became, dissatisfied with the way the occupation was run, including the fact that it continued for such a long time.

The BCP workers at several times discussed their aim: what would be the preferred result of their action? Forming a co-operative was seriously considered, but rejected, among other things because it was expected that many costumers would be unwilling to use a firm that had become known because of the militant act of occupying. This would make it extra difficult to survive in an industry characterised by strong competition. The preferred result therefore became to find a new employer, a person or firm that would buy BCP with the intention of continuing production.

On the basis of their theory that the Robert Horne Group was ultimately responsible for the liquidation the BCP workers attempted to put pressure on this company. Their main weapon was to picket the Robert Horne factory and store in Tower Bridge Road. This took place in the summer of 1972. It came to violent scenes one day when the Special Patrol Group of the police beat up a dozen of workers who were picketing. The news of this attack spread rapidly, and when the London dockers held a mass meeting the next day at Tower Hill they decided to go and take part in the picketing. This resulted in a mass battle between about 1000 picketers and several hundred policemen. The picketing went on for over a month and proved rather effective as it prevented lorries from entering the factory. It had the effect that Robert Horne took up negotiations with the BCP action committee. In order to get the picketing lifted Horne promised a) to help find a new buyer for BCP, b) to grant a new buyer extensive credits, and c) to persuade the present owner, Mr. Syder, to transfer a substantial amount of orders to the new owner. The BCP workers also considered to attempt to force the Robert Horne Group itself to become the new owner, but the idea was rejected because they did not trust that this would be a stable employer.

In the autumn of 1972 negotiations took place between BCP and union representatives on one side and a prospective buyer, David Brockdorff, on the other. By December the unions announced that they had reached an agreement with Mr. Brockdorff, and they put pressure on the BCP workers to accept the deal, among other things by announcing that their financial support to the occupiers would now be withdrawn. The deal seemed to go some way to fulfil the demands of the BCP workers, among other things it envisaged a joint governance structure in which managers put in by the new owners should manage in cooperation with representatives from the three printing unions NATSOPA, SOGAT and NGA (Times, 14.12.1972). However, not all BCP workers were guaranteed employment, and mainly for this reason the deal was rejected by the workers. The negotiation process led to a strained relationship between the occupiers and the unions. As one of the workers put it:

“The unions want it ended as fast as possible, and I don’t think they worry much about what kind of pay and working conditions we get as long it is just gotten over with”.

By then the occupation had become more or less routine, and the days and weeks were increasingly experienced as waiting time, thus challenging the morale of the occupiers. One of the workers explained it in this way in January 1973:

“At times it gets depressing, it gets extremely depressing, especially when there are not many people here, late in the day, and for people who are guarding the buildings during the night…There are a couple of people here who appear to be rather depressed all the time, and they also talk about leaving. But most people only feel like that for shorter periods, and you try to keep the spirit up. In the daytime it is ok here, but after six or seven in the evening there are only a few people here…, and you don’t know what to talk about, if nothing new has happened, everything is very slow”.

In spite of a situation that could be felt like stalemate most workers decided to stay with the occupation. While the offensive to find a new employer had failed so far there was still a defence to put up. In February the liquidator achieved a court order against the members of the action committee for illegal occupation of the factory, with a demand that losses incurred by the factory due to the occupation should be compensated. The BCP workers decided that nobody should appear in court. Fearing that the committee would be arrested they elected a substitute committee, but first of all they reacted by printing and circulating a leaflet asking workers to take part in a demonstration outside the BCP premises on the day the committee was summoned to appear in court. On that day, 13 February, 3-4000 workers were gathered in defence of the BCP occupiers. Among those present were representatives from UCS, from the docks, car factories and from the newspaper print shops in Fleet Street as well many other places. UCS representatives pledged financial support from the UCS struggle fund, and electricians from Fleet Street promised that the newspapers would be totally paralysed if steps were taken to evict or arrest workers from BCP.
The legal system was applied again on 1 March when a new court order was issued, this time only addressed to Bill Freeman. Again the court order was ignored, and again the occupiers experienced that the police abstained from taking action against them.

In May the attempt to find a new owner finally made substantial progress. On 18 May the liquidator signed a contract stating that ownership of BCP was transferred to Peter Bentley. By the end of June an agreement was reached between Mr. Bentley and the chapels at BCP. The new owner offered employment to 58 of those 84 workers who had remained at BCP; the rest were offered jobs at other workplaces. Mr. Bentley promised that during a trial period of at least one year production would be maintained even if it would generate a loss. Under these conditions and under the slightly changed name Briant Colour Print, the print shop began to operate again on capitalist market conditions on 2 July 1973. The spirit was high among the workers. On their first working day they were heard singing and whistling at their jobs, thus celebrating that the long period of uncertainty and financial hardship was over.

However, once more the BCP workers were to experience that promises made by management cannot always be trusted. When at 10 pm on Friday the 16 November the evening shift had gone home from work the new owner sent in security guards who were instructed to make sure that the premises should not be occupied again. On the next day the BCP workers received a letter telling them that they had been dismissed.

After this long process of first uncertainty, then victory, and then defeat, the BCP workers were not prepared to begin a new collective struggle. For several months they continued to have a joint meeting every fortnight where they discussed their common experience and helped each other to find jobs elsewhere. In 2002 an invitation appeared on trade union sites on the internet in which Bill Freeman invited participants and friends of the occupation, including Tony Benn, to the 30th anniversary of the BCP occupation.

The motivation behind the occupation

In a recent article Gall (2010) attempts to explain why workers in some instances when faced with redundancies choose to occupy their workplace instead of behaving in the more mainstream way, i.e. to accept the redundancies while trying to get as much out of the situation as possible through negotiations over notice periods, redundancy payments etc. He identifies five characteristics that, if present in a given redundancy situation, push in the direction of occupation, namely:
–    collectivised nature of redundancy
–    immediate and unforeseen nature of redundancy
–    loss of deferred wages and compensation
–    pre-existing collectivisation
–    positive demonstration effect (from other occupations)

In the BCP case all these conditions were highly present. First, as the entire workforce was made redundant they were all hit in the same way and were facing the same problem, thus it was obvious to interpret it as a collective problem. Second, the redundancies were not foreseen and they were to be implemented without any notice whatsoever. Third, management’s announcement that deferred wages and holiday entitlement would be paid out at a later state, to the extent it would be possible, appeared vague and rather unconvincing. The second and third factors together were active in creating the sense of chock and anger that was predominant among the workers when they took the decision to stage an occupation. Fourth, workers at BCP were unionised and had a fairly strong tradition of acting collectively through their shop stewards, mainly though negotiations with management but also with a preparedness to down tools, one example being the brief sit-in the year before the occupation. Fifth, the workers knew about the series of factory occupations that took or recently had taken place in Britain, notable the one at UCS which received a lot of attention in the media. A few of the workers, one of them being Bill Freeman, had been active in supporting some of the other occupations and were very much aware of the occupation as a weapon that can be applied against redundancies.

Yet, as also pointed out by Gall (2010) even if these favourable conditions apply, as they certainly did in the BCP case, in most cases workers do not decide to occupy their workplace when faced with redundancies or closure. One reason for this is that many people do not perceive an occupation as a legitimate act as it involves breaking the law when workers take control over and to some extent use property belonging to the owners. Workers thus usually have moral concerns that work against the rational, tactical arguments that can be articulated in favour of an occupation. It must be presumed, however, that such concerns are weighed against considerations regarding the morality displayed by the employer. In the BCP case such a comparison of moral standards on the two sides were clearly visible. One worker had this to say about the behaviour of the owner, Mr. Syder:

“We found bills here for the big party he threw when his new swimming pool was inaugurated. I think the bill for the booze alone was £3-4000, he rented a tent, £4000! He had a bill on his Aston Martin from his mechanic, how much? £800! That man is nothing but a simple thief, and still he gets away with it, because he is all the time doing it in the legal way. There is nothing you can do, you know….And he says to us that this firm has to close, because it has been so much run down, you know. It is these people you have to work for, and have to respect, they even think. I mean, I have no respect for that kind of people, you know.”

The decision to frame the occupation as a work-in was also influenced by moral considerations. Bill Freeman explained:

“The occupation is more important than the work-in. The important thing is that you control their property and that they cannot touch it. But we decided to have a work-in because we found that it would be relatively easy for us to run a work-in, contrary to for instance for workers in the heavy industry, and because we thought it would be good for people to have something to do while being here. Plus the fact that it wins the sympathy of the broad population…When we say we demand the right to work and proves it by working it helps psychologically to win the support of the broad population.”

It was clear from the interviews that the BCP occupiers felt strongly offended, felt they were being treated with disrespect (Honneth 1996) and found their own action morally superior to the type of employer behaviour they had been exposed to. Prior to the occupation, the great majority of workers at BCP held rather conventional views about society, politics, law and order. With the decision to occupy the workers went beyond their own norms regarding law and order. In this process, moral outrage served as a driving force just as much more ‘rational’ and interest-based factors of the type identified by Gall (2010).

To a minority among the workers politics also played a motivating role. Within the workforce there was a small group of persons who saw themselves as socialist activists and found it important not just to struggle for own interests, but also to engage in other workers’ struggles. They interpreted the BCP occupation as not just a struggle to defend their own jobs, but as part of a wider class struggle. Bill Freeman, a member of the Communist Party, belonged to this group and described the political motivation like this:

“…we try to show other workers that you can fight an employer, and if we can do it we hope to be part of…UCS has shown it, other people have shown it, and if enough people take this form of action, we should, in due time, be able to build a movement which can completely overthrow this system. I hope so; that is what it is all about”.

If such a revolutionary perspective had not been present among a small, but influential part of the workforce, things might have turned out differently, as witnessed by these reflections by one of the lay workers:

“…most likely we would have left the place after a couple of hours of discussion, but luckily Mr. Freeman had a bit of experience from… other people’s situation outside this industry…Mr. Freeman has been in the executive of the chapel and has always been interested in industrial relations, also outside this trade. He knew about what had happened earlier, and he knew what could be done, or what you can attempt to do to defend jobs.”

With Bill Freeman as leader it was central for the BCP occupation not just to fight for own jobs but to link with other struggles at the time. It appears that the majority of the workers, even if not sharing the revolutionary perspective, supported this active class struggle approach. For instance, several of the interviewed workers expressed their enthusiasm about the close cooperation that developed between the dockers and the BCP workers. One said:

“It was fantastic. It is the first time I have seen two trades so closely connected… It has amazed me how much we actually got involved with each other, while normally, if a trade union has a problem, it fights by itself, alone, you know. We had meetings and demonstrations where the dockers took part, and we took part when they had their problems in the docks and had some blokes put in Pentonville prison”.

To sum up: the motivation behind the occupation consisted in a complex mix of instrumental and moral and political elements. However, one thing is the motivation to occupy, another is how workers manage to sustain an occupation over time, or, in the BCP case, how could the occupation be kept alive for more than a year? This is the theme of next section.

Sustaining the occupation

In particular three aspects merit attention when this question is addressed: the material and moral support received from unions, other workers and sympathisers in general; the significance of conducting the occupation as a work-in; and the specific forms of organisation chosen to govern the occupation.

Regarding the first aspect, the BCP occupiers were themselves very active in attempting to raise support from their unions, other workers and the trade union movement at large. They circulated their newsletter and leaflets widely and travelled up and down the country to speak at solidarity meetings. As described above they were rather successful in promoting their case, and in this way sympathy action as well as fund-raising were stimulated, both vital for the survival of the occupation. Collections of money that could supplement the funds granted by the unions were necessary to guarantee the subsistence of the workers, and, if we are to understand why the occupiers were never confronted with attempts to evict them, the recurring mass demonstrations outside the factory gates were probably a decisive factor. An important part of the total support came from the unions in the printing industry. Although the BCP workers felt that the support from their unions was only lukewarm and that “they could have done a hell of a lot more”, they would of course have been in a much more difficult situation if the unions had failed to make their industrial action official and support it materially.

As a second aspect, the fact that the occupation was organised as a work-in played a significant role in sustaining the occupation. The motives for making it a work-in have already been mentioned. Apart from the publicity argument which helped to raise sympathy and support, the work-in was significant in the sense that it helped making it attractive for workers to stay with the occupation. While the hopes of finding a new employer were frustrated several times there was still something to do within the premises. It was not just the defence of the buildings; there was also work to do, and in this way the occupiers could maintain their identity as print workers. So, in spite of depressing moods among those guarding the buildings during long and cold winter nights most workers felt that it was worthwhile to stay. After the first six months of the occupation the figure of 130 employees had only shrunk to about 100, and when it ended after 12 months there were still 84 workers taking part in the collective action.

In the beginning work mainly consisted in printing posters, leaflets and newsletters for the BCP occupation itself or in support of other workers in struggle. However, BCP also continued to receive commercial orders, partly from old customers, partly from new ones. Although most of the old customers stopped placing orders at BCP some continued to do so. Especially firms that needed reprints of material that existed in print ready form at BCP came back as it would be considerably more costly to have the work done elsewhere. Out of the total production about 60 per cent was commercial work where BCP printed tickets, posters, books, advertisements etc. as they had done before. On top of this, there was work that fulfilled mainly politically motivated orders: from trade union organisations, tenants’ organisations, community groups etc. Prices varied from full market price if the customer was a private firm or an established trade union, to nothing if the customer was a group without resources that the BCP occupiers sympathised with. Bill Freeman explained:

“If it is people in struggle like ourselves, without any money, then we just use the resources of the firm, and that is that. If it is somebody who can pay a little bit, then they just pay for the materials, our labour is free”.

The BCP workers took pride in being able to help other workers by doing what they were good at: printing. At the same time the work-in gave them confidence in their ability to produce without being managed by an employer. In the words of one of the workers:

“…with a sit-in you just occupy the buildings, but with a work-in, like the one we have here, we have shown that we can run the factory, you know. Maybe not so efficiently, you know, but with a little training, with a little time, there is no doubt that we can do it.”

Work was organised differently than prior to the occupation. Together with a representative from the action committee those of the foremen who had stayed on formed a management committee. This committee planned and coordinated production and established manning and time schedules. Functions that before was carried out by office and management staff, such as sales and accounting, were taken over by print workers. Workers’ influence over their work greatly increased while discipline was very much left to the individual workers. The latter was a source to some tensions between workers, as not everyone was equally conscientious in relation to the tasks that had to be done within the new work organisation.

The experience of the work-in was accompanied by lengthy discussions at the joint meetings of the concept of workers’ control. Was workers’ control a desirable goal? How should it be practised? Can it be practised in a capitalist society or only within a different political-economical system? Opinions varied, also when it was discussed more specifically whether the workers should try to buy the firm and form a cooperative. In the end, arguments that are sceptical towards such a solution won the day. Fearing that a cooperative would be blacklisted by other firms, one worker commented that “we would have the whole system against us – it would simply be downhill all the time”. Bill Freeman explained his position – a position that no doubt heavily influenced the decision eventually taken by the collective:

“It is not because we think that any other employer will be much better than the old ones, all employers are alike, you know. Basically, we don’t want an employer at all, we want to change the system – some of us, not all of us, want to change the system. But at the same time it is just unrealistic to try to run this place as a kind of socialist island in a capitalist sea”.

A third factor that was influential in sustaining the occupation was its internal organisation. The three layered structure described above consisting of the weekly plenary meeting, the executive committee (the action committee) and the chairman of the action committee appears to have functioned well in the sense that the organisation managed to solve the many problems and challenges that the occupation was confronted with. It happened in a way in which concerns for democracy as well as efficiency were taken into consideration.

One of the workers vividly explained how the joint chapel meeting, the weekly plenary, helped to integrate and to create a feeling of community:

“I have noticed that when you start a new week then Monday and Tuesday are ok, Wednesday is not so good, and on Thursday and Friday you start quarrelling a bit and everything begins to dissolve. Then on Monday there is a joint meeting and everything is picked up again. It is interesting, you know, everything is melted together again, and it is really very good…I would think that if two or three weeks passed without a meeting it would fall completely apart”.

He also stressed that the meetings appeared more important and exciting than prior chapel meetings. While chapel meetings were rather boring

“now everything is much more important, the joint meetings are interesting, we always get a report on the situation, about the financial situation, about how long we can continue and whether somebody has left the occupation. The meetings always succeed in becoming extremely interesting…Now everyone has something to say about how things should be run in these buildings…You are involved in much more, you are not just a number, you really have a real influence on everything”.

The next layer, the action committee met frequently, often on daily basis. The committee was in charge of implementing the decisions taken by the joint chapel. One of the shop stewards serving on the committee explained how the occupation had changed his daily work:

“I have not worked in the print shop at all during these six months. All my time has been devoted to contacting people, going out talking to people, and there is also a great deal of paperwork involved in it”.

Finally, the organisation consisted of a third layer, the chairman of the action committee who was the charismatic Bill Freeman. It is difficult to overestimate his role during the entire process. Although, as mentioned, his revolutionary views of society and the meaning of the BCP occupation were hardly shared by the majority of the workers, the interviews demonstrate that he was very much respected and looked up to by the workers. A worker, who presented himself as the oldest worker at BCP and as one who had been made redundant six times during his career in the printing industry, had this to say:

“…I have always tried to be an active trade unionist, but I mean Bill is somewhat different from the other shop stewards you meet, some of them don’t really care…When I came here five years ago and saw how the chapels were organised it warmed my heart, you know, really wonderful. Our chapter has always been a strong one. It made me feel really happy, right from when I started here”.

Another worker gave this description of Bill Freeman’s role in the occupation:

“…he is fantastic. He inspires people with so much self-confidence. Many times people have said: ‘We have lost, we are finished, nobody wants to buy us…and that’s it then’, and he says, ‘Well, if we can’t do that, then we will do this’. Never ever during the seven months have I heard him say we have lost. ‘If we stick together, one hundred per cent together, we cannot loose’, he says. It has been like that right from the start. He said, ‘We must win, and if we win, forget what we are doing for ourselves, it will be a victory for the entire people in this country, the entire working class…”.

Beyond success or failure: the occupation as a learning process

In instrumental terms the result of the occupation can hardly be described as a success, let alone victory. If we leave out of account the fact that some 80-100 workers had some kind of job and income during the one year of the occupation, and that some 50 jobs were maintained under the new employer for a period of four months after the occupation, the attempt to use the occupation as an instrument to save jobs failed in the long run.

However, this is not say that the struggle as such that BCP workers put up against redundancies can be categorised neatly as a failure. Saving jobs was the official, instrumental goal of the action, but it was not the only goal, and it was not the only thing that made the action meaningful for its participants. To many of the participants the occupation was first and foremost a protest, a piece of resistance demonstrating that the BCP workers simply would not accept being thrown out of work from one day to the next. Thus from this perspective the important thing was not the instrumental result of the action as such, but the fact that they were resisting. One of the workers, who, in the light of the conditions offered by Mr. Brockdorff, did not expect himself to maintain his job due his low seniority in the firm, put it like this:

“I think we won they day we started. That is my personal opinion. The day we rose up and did not walk out the door as sheep, I think we won then, you know”.

To people like Bill Freeman the sheer deed of putting up a fight against employers’ hegemony over work was also just as important as defending his own and his colleagues’ jobs. They saw the occupation as part of a wider movement that could eventually lead to fundamental changes in the country’s economic system. And even if such wider consequences should not materialise, the idea was that at least some employers might start reconsidering how they treated their workers. One of the not so militant workers felt that the occupation had already had a certain positive impact on industrial relations:

“…if we do not succeed the time has not been wasted, that is how I look at it. The time has not been wasted if we are going to be here for another six months and there is still no solution… Even if we have to walk out of here I am sure it must have done some good, somewhere, you know. Those in power cannot always win as easily as they would like.”

He continued to tell a story of how an officer in his union recently had been approached by an employer who said that he would have to sack some of his employees. He had then added that he did not want “to get another Briant Colour case” in his firm, and had asked the union officer how much he thought it would be necessary to pay on top of the normal redundancy payment to make sure that he could avoid trouble. Therefore:

“Well that’s fine, that’s what I like, that’s what I hope we achieve even if we loose here, do you see what I mean? As I said I am sure we have achieved something. Even if we loose here we have perhaps helped to save jobs in other companies because of this”.

BCP workers thus found themselves recognised and their action appreciated by other workers. In this sense they saw their action as a collective success. Another aspect concerned what taking part in the occupation had meant to them at a personal level. Many of the interviewed workers stressed that the occupation had been an important learning process for them. They had acquired new skills, new knowledge and a changed consciousness as to how industrial relations and society function. A shop steward told how the occupation had been “an education” for him in the sense that he was now much less naïve about how business people are prepared to treat workers. He also noted this about some of his fellow workers:

“People here at Briant, people I personally thought were untalented in the sense that they were only able to do their job, and only that job, they have surprised us by suddenly finding new talents. We have had people to do the accounts, you know, people who can go out and speak at meetings, you know. Things like that which we did not know existed at all in any of these people have sprung up. There are some people here now who feel that they would rather do something else than return to their old job”.

One worker, a middle aged bookbinder, also described how people had developed new skills, technically as well as regarding industrial relations:

“We have learned so much from it. These people up here in the offices have learned more during these six months than what they have learned since they left school…I mean I have learned a lot on the shop floor I must admit, but these people up here have literally learned more about so many things than they have ever learned in the trade. And of course this information can be passed on to any other workplace which finds itself in a similar situation”.

A young bookbinder gave this personal account of how his work life had changed during the occupation:

“Bill asked at one of the meetings if I would take minutes and then it developed from there. I began to usually take the minutes. In the beginning I still tended my old job on the shop floor, but gradually it became difficult to do both things, for there were many meetings at that time…Then I was more or less up here in the offices all the time, unless they really needed people downstairs. During the last two months I have helped with a number of different things up here. I have also gone out to a number of universities as a speaker, when they couldn’t find anybody else that could go. I have also helped with the mail and a couple of other small jobs…I could not really just sit down on the shop floor and wait for the things to happen…, I have to get involved”.

For some the occupation was a political education. Whether it was the oldest worker at BCP who said:

“This is the first work-in I have ever taken part in…, and I have learned a lot from it, a hell of a lot, about how people can stick together and things like that…I would do it again if I am made redundant again. I would not hesitate”

Or the young unskilled worker who stressed how more well known worker activists had inspired him:

“During the six months here I think I have learned more than during 13 years in the printing industry…I have met some fantastic people and I have heard some fantastic people speak at meetings…Like when they came down from UCS, they were fantastic. When they stood up and spoke you felt eight feet tall just by listening to them”.

Or the middle aged foreman who had rejected normal managerial attitudes:

“Let me put it like this: as a foremen you socialise with other foremen and managers, and if you do it long enough you get brainwashed into their politics, you tend to believe they are right regarding their conflicts with people on the shop floor…But in that respect I have definitely changed within the last three or four months. I have realised a lot about what is wrong with the system”.

The BCP workers all came out of the occupation with a changed biography. Not everyone may have learned so much and changed so much as described in the examples above. However, although uncertainty and hardships also formed part of the experience it was an exiting and inspiring event in the lives of all the participants.  A feature that was repeated again and again in the interviews was the pride with which they presented their action. It was their action, but at the same time they represented the mood of the time, a mood of liberation against forms of humiliation and oppression that were, and largely still are, part of working life in capitalist society. The occupation was influenced by that mood as well as it was reinforcing it. To use the expression of Malcolm Marks, an activist in the 1971 occupation at Fisher Bendix, it was “a mini-revolution” (Knudsen and Sandahl 1974, 12).

References

Honneth, A. (1996): The Struggle for Recognition: The Moral Grammar of Social Conflicts, London, Polity Press.
http://transpont.blogspot.com/2009/08/briant-colour-printing-occupation-… (accessed 22.03.2011)
Knudsen, H. and Sandahl, J. (1974): Arbejdskamp i Storbritannien. Strejker og fabriksbesættelser i begyndelsen af 1970’erne, Aarhus, Modtryk.
Times, 14.12.1972.

This account was heisted from workerscontrol.net

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Today in London healthcare history: Second in a series of occupations at University College Hospital, 1993

Occupational therapy – the incomplete story of the University College Hospital strikes and occupations of 1992-3.

The story of the (ultimately unsuccessful) struggle to keep a hospital open despite the efforts of the government, the Area Health Authority, management, University College London and the Wellcome Foundation and Trust.

Put together by a number of individals in the UCH occupation together with help and suggestions from others, London 1995.

[NB: on what actually happened to UCH after the occupations and campaigns related here, see Appendix 2]

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The First UCH Strike

(late November/early December 1992)

The first strike at UCH comprising of an occupation cum work-in against the phasing out of the hospital took place in late November/early December 1992. It was said at the time that it was the first occupation of a hospital in the UK.(1) Everyone who worked at UCH knew that some kind of crunch was coming. Staff had been accused of “over-performing” and it was mooted that 60 nurses were to be sacked. The purchasing authority had let it be known that they found UCH too pricey and also, in the background, the Tomlinson Report had pointed some kind of unspecific finger at the hospital.

The strike started simply enough. One day in late November some managers marched on Ward 2/1 — a general surgical ward — to close it. There was an immediate spontaneous response as nurses linked arms to form a human chain at the ward’s entrance. as one nurse said, “We decided as a Ward, without any union involvement, that as nurses we could not leave Ward 211.” From there, it escalated into an indefinite strike as more and differing people were sucked into the conflict Patients refused to leave the threatened Ward and porters refused to move them. Briefly, the traffic on Gower Street and Tottenham Court Road was blocked by strikers and within no time there was a lot of support from other workers, mainly in the form of generous donations to the strike fund. COHSE was to make the strike official but NUPE didn’t.

It was something of a breakthrough as effectively the threatened part of the hospital was soon run by time health workers themselves. As one said, “management where being completely circumvented.” Unlike the later occupation in September 1993, the first one took place in a functioning situation where all kinds of day to day nursing practicalities had to be considered. For a brief moment, many of the quite nasty divide and rule mechanisms in the hospital hierarchy were diverted and perhaps the most important obstacle of all was overcome. A hospital occupation/work-in cannot succeed without the support of junior doctors and this, it appears, was forthcoming. Generally junior doctors are loathe to support or take any action as they are utterly dependent on consultants good reports and are prepared to take shit waiting for that fat salary at the end of the 72 hour per week work rainbow (there was however, a junior doctors’ strike in the 1970s and this might be worth looking into). Equally (or not so equally), experienced nurses tend to give junior doctors hell as they know that they’ll be handing it out like hell when in a consultants position. All such understandable pettiness aside, finally and most importantly, the harassment of junior doctors is largely to do with worries about cock-ups on the ward. Although responsible for everything on the ward, the nurse-in-charge is under medical supervision from the doctor. The usual situation is inexperienced juniors having responsibility over and above their skill and age. The subsequent panic felt by the nurse-in-charge who usually knows the score in a potentially life or death situation translates into hassling and nagging juniors.

But in a subversive dynamic, everyday relationships quickly change, affecting even the most hidebound. In the UCH occupation, it seems that the consultants’ attitude bad changed too and was sympathetic to the action taking place. To the annoyance of managers, consultant Dr. M Adishia even transferred a patient to Ward 2/1 a day after the occupation began. This kind of thing was unheard of. Prior to the free market reforms consultants ‘ran’ the hospitals. They were seemingly all powerful, often terribly arrogant and, inevitably, hated by all. Thus it was easy for the new hard-nosed management to take power away from the consultants as no one was prepared to defend them. Having created such (unheard of) unity among the hospital staff it wasn’t surprising that one UCH striker had cause to say in early December 1992, “we need workers councils in hospitals.”

The only force pitted against them was the new, economically insecure, limited contract, cadre management employees. These managers didn’t ideologically believe any longer in what they’re doing but are scared stiff to do anything else knowing that the dole could be in waiting for them tomorrow. Blindly ruled by money terrorism, they’ve seen their proletarianisation on the horizon and they don’t like what they see. A nurse at UCH whose ward was closed by management in the space of two minutes without any medical consultation or warning commented, “the manager said she knew it was wrong but there are other managers waiting to take her place.” Shits though they may be, they’re hardly the stuff who could make a solid defence based on conviction come a more concerted, more general attack. Headless chickens come to mind.(2)

The strike was successful though and the management backed off giving oily-written undertakings that all wards due to close for Xmas would re-open on January 4th and dropping all disciplinaries against strikers. Probably they were nervous after all the tumult (hot air really) about miners a month previously. Possibly too, they were nervous about the rank’n’file Health workers Co-ordinating Committee, a body boycotted by the Health Unions themselves, thinking it was a more potent body than it was. In reality, the Health Workers Co-ordinating Committee was a made up/fake co-ordination (in comparison to the rather more genuine co-ordinations in the UK strikes in 1988/89) pick’n’mix of various Trotskyist factions each running their own party recruiting campaigns and little demonstrations – a unified, on the ground response being the last thing on their minds.

Of course, as a lot of people knew, UCH management were biding their time when they could hit a lot harder and nastier… And how!… read on…

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The 1993 Strike

On August 17th 1993 about 50 nurses and porters at University College Hospital in central London came out on indefinite strike against management plans to begin closing down the hospital.

From the beginning the 50 strikers were – and remained – a minority of the total work force of the hospital; this was one of the main weaknesses of the struggle. In the original strike ballot well over 50 voted to strike – but UCH management announced that those taking industrial action would be banned from the building, so making it impossible to provide a rota for emergency cover for patients as had been done in the December ‘92 action. This discouraged some nurses from striking – and numbers were further reduced by the divisions of the trade union structure — i.e. ambulance drivers were to be balloted separately, some nurses were RCN members (with a no-strike agreement) while others were casual/temp staff employed via agencies.

Once the strike began there was some support from other workers — ambulance workers refused to move patients out of closing wards; British Telecom and other workers would not crass the picket line to dismantle closed wards; postmen and women leafleted their rounds; and tube workers at nearby Goodge St used the station tannoy to report and publicise the strike. There were a couple of one day strikes by catering, ancillary and clerical staff at UCH – and also by staff at the nearby EGA and Middlesex hospitals. Same public sector workers – teachers, posties, DSS and council workers – came out unofficially for the Day of Action on September 16th (the teachers despite being threatened with disciplinary action by their union if they did so).

Local people and other supporters also turned up to the marches and rallies during the strike — in fact the best marches were the ones that formed themselves spontaneously from the rallies and went streaming off through the central London traffic. With the cops unprepared and confused but not wanting to be publicly seen getting heavy with a nurses-led march, Tottenham Court Road was brought to a standstill in the rush hour a couple of times by 150 people.

Other marches were more tame, controlled and less effective — due mainly to the union branch officials getting afraid that the rowdiness would upset the union bosses too much.(3) Nevertheless, the September 16th march still managed to completely block Whitehall for a while – or at least the riot cops did, so as to make sure we didn’t get to Downing Street or Parliament.

Although UNISON had apparently said they would back the strike even before balloting for it had begun, it was obvious all the way through that they did not want it to be effective or help the strikers in any way. They obviously wanted, at the most, to negotiate some kind of structured closure program for the hospital with maybe a few token concessions thrown in — and parade this as some kind of victory (see leaflet). UNISON only officially came into existence on July 1st 1993 through a merger of the NALGO, NUPE and COHSE unions – so forming the largest public sector union in Western Europe, with 1.4 million members. This was their first major dispute and they were keen to prove to management that they were worth negotiating with and could do the job – i.e. by proving they had control over their members and could deliver an obedient work force to the bosses. The union disassociated themselves from any “unofficial” actions (such as a brief occupation of hospital chief executive Charles Marshal’s office) and sent circulars to other hospitals ordering workers not to support it. UNISON withheld all strike pay for 6 weeks. It was finally paid the day after the union had forced the strikers to return to work.

The strikers tried to get support from other workers – they were constantly visiting different workplaces. But it was nearly always done through union structures — i.e. by approaching shop stewards rather than by talking to workers face to face. All this usually resulted in was a resolution of support being passed at the next branch meeting, a money donation and a promise to send a few people down to the next rally.

In 1982 in Yorkshire nurses were able to bring out thousands of miners and car workers by bypassing the union structure, by simply standing outside the workplace and appealing directly to the workers for solidarity. This should have been tried by UCH nurses and porters, but the prevailing faith in the unions (encouraged by SWP ideology) prevented it. In Leeds, in 1982, support came from engineers and public sector workers. The best example was some construction workers who were building miners’ baths at Wooley Colliery. The shop steward there had a brother in a hospital in Leeds (long stay)and got in touch with the nurses at the hospital to picket himself and other workers out. When striking nurses arrived they had no difficulty in stopping the construction site, although there was a visible chillness from local NUM officials. One of the construction workers drove straight through the nurses picket line. This led to an extension of the construction workers’ strike for three days. It all ended when the builders caught the scab, took the wheels off his car and emptied his wallet into the health workers’ collection bucket. In 1982, there was still too much reliance on union structures – mainly on a shop steward rather than full time official level. This was because of inexperience and workers being over-awed by the myth of the shop steward. Defeat was ensured by reliance on the union structures and ideology, with unions turning militancy on and off like a tap, leading to disillusion. But 11 years on at UCH, so many defeats later and in a Central London workplace — there was much less chance of repeating such a success.

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And then the occupation

Ward 2/3 in the Cruciform building of UCH was occupied on September 15th – it had recently been emptied of patients as part of an ongoing closure of this wing of the hospital. The idea was first suggested to some local people on the picket line by someone who we later found out to be a full time Socialist Workers Party official. The occupation was originally planned to end after one night, merely being a publicity stunt to coincide with the Day of Action occurring the next day — but it was eventually decided that the occupation should continue indefinitely.

The majority of the strike committee were initially against an occupation, although 3 nurses did take part on the first night. It’s very likely that some were against the idea simply because it was promoted by those strikers who were SWP members — there was already some resentment about SWP manipulation within the strike committee and this was probably thought to be another example or vehicle for it, same of them at first assumed that we occupiers were all SWP Members.(4)

Those in occupation decided during the night to argue for not leaving the next day; this was mainly in response to full-time UNISON official Eddie Coulson turning up at l a.m. with hospital managers (who he’d been in conference with for over an hour before hand) to try and make everyone leave. Coulson stated in front of hospital chief executive Marshal and two strikers that UNISON members would be disciplined; he said that he wouldn’t be surprised if there were further management disciplinaries; he was prepared to drop all the demands of the strike, some of which he was only paying lip service to anyway, if Marshal would drop the disciplinary threats. He said he could guarantee a return to work within 24-36 hours if Marshal did this. He also talked with Marshal about the “damage” the dispute had done to UNISON, and how be would be looking at ways of disciplining UNISON members through the machinery of the union (these are almost direct quotes from a letter of complaint sent by the UCH branch to their union leadership). At the end of the strike Coulson was quoted in a paper as saying that UNISON had “lost control” of the dispute, giving the “unauthorised” occupation as an example.

Still, at the time, the strike committee were divided about the occupation — some now not only wanted to continue in Ward 2/3, but also to open another ward (the rest of the 2nd floor was empty). During the rally on the 16th September all the strikers came up to the occupation — initially just to protect the 3 nurses already present from disciplinaries and to walk out with us down to the rally. But when we told them we didn’t want to leave this started an emergency meeting. It was an urgent situation —if we were going to take another ward it should have been then, with all those people outside. The whole rally of 1,000 or more people should have been encouraged to enter the hospital and become a mass occupation, taking over empty wards.

In the middle of all this, in walks Tony Benn, and as he waffles on, the rally marches off towards Whitehall… Somebody went out of the occupation to try to get the march to turn around — they did manage to stop the march for a bit but, amid the confusion and argument, the march eventually continued on to Whitehall.

Back at the hospital, the strikers took a vote about continuing the occupation – they were divided half and half for and against. It was decided that for the moment we wouldn’t open another ward and that the fate of ward 2/3 would be put off for now until it could be discussed further.

Most of the strikers then went off to join the march, while we waited in 2/3 for the marchers’ return and the strikers decision. While waiting we heard that UNISON bad cancelled the National Day of Action they’d planned for November 11th — this was in response to our occupation. We also learned that management were taking advantage of the fact that the march bad moved off, leaving nobody behind to carry on picketing: they had immediately begun to close another ward. This news was relayed to the marchers, who were by now blocking Whitehall, and the march set off back to the hospital.

When the marchers returned some quickly stormed into the hospital chief executive’s office, occupying it for a while. Some others came up and joined the occupation. Meanwhile the strikers went into their meeting – it was 6 hours before their decision to hold on to Ward 2/3 came back to us.

The best day of the strike and the strikers spent most of it in meetings!

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Early leaflet supporting strikers by soon-to-be occupiers:

SAVE OUR HOSPITALS

WHAT IS HAPPENING AT UCH?

Predicting the future of any hospital has become almost impossible since the government forced their ‘internal market’ — competition for less resources – on the health service. NO HOSPITAL IS SAFE, and the situation at UCH is increasingly unsafe.

Under the new rules, an increasing number of well-paid managers, many of whom have no knowledge of health matters, are trying to cut costs, while pretending that all is we11. The local health authority, through which government money comes, is having its funding cut by £21 million, with other cuts not yet decided. The health authority, whose members are appointed, not elected, recently complained that UCH was ‘over-performing’ – carrying cut too many operations! Apart from private patients, those with ‘fundholding’ GPs have been able to jump queues while there is ‘no money’ for others.

THE MARKET MAKES US SICK

Between them they plan to reduce UCH to a skeleton emergency service — those considered non-emergency or needing more than 2 days care will be sent elsewhere, and GPs will not be able to send patients. This skeleton service will not work because the Accident & Emergency section has always been dependent on the wide specialist knowledge of the other sections. Any cuts mean a reduction in the range of skills available to bring us back to health.

A reduced service also means more pressure to classify patients as non-emergency, and that any major tragedy, like the Kings X fire, will simply not be catered for. Their idea for sending people somewhere else doesn’t make sense anyway, when these other hospitals are also under threat.

HEALTH NOT WEALTH

As for the other parts of UCH and its associates, the Cruciform building is being emptied, to be bought up by UCL and Wellcome (the drug company that made billions out of expensive dodgy drugs tested on AIDS sufferers) for medical research, to add to Wellcome’s coffers (and with the local poor, and our pets, as guinea pigs?). The latest leaflet from management says that the Middlesex is not closing, but that everything is going to move to the UCH site, which means it is! The private patient section is of course safe.

Last year. over 20,000 patients from Camden and lslinqton, mainly from the poorer parts, were treated at UCH etc. and we are dependent on it. Me don’t need this chaos and these closures. He need a general, local health service, responding to our needs, not the needs of the market, and controlled by the people who use it and work in it, not by a bunch of managerial parasites.

DRIVE OUT THE HEALTH BUTCHERS

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Life is a hospital (for a while)

Although determined, aggressive tactics are going to be increasingly necessary if we are to keep some kind of free (albeit through national insurance contributions) Health Service intact, the occupation of Ward 2/3 wasn’t about “militancy” as such. Weren’t we there basically because it made you feel good (good enough to want to fight rather than just fulfilling a dull political duty) and gave you one hell of a lift? A new world begins (or is at least glimpsed) instantly in such actions — simply in meeting, laughing and messing about with barricades etc. with people you’ve largely never met before. Quick as a flash, that horrible imposed isolation knot – an isolation much worse today than its ever been – is loosened and that single factor could possibly be the most important in any future occupations.

For the first few days of the occupation we were more or less left to organise ourselves. Leaflets were written and distributed; a picketing rota was put in operation (which meant for the first time there were to be some 24 hour pickets); developing local contacts brought in more people and donations of food, cash, etc.. A great atmosphere and infectious buzz was in the air for those first few days and everybody involved felt the occupation had great potential as a focus for the struggle — people were openly discussing things and coming up with new ideas all the time. A hardcore of a dozen or so people were so involved in what was happening that we were basically living on the ward for a while.

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Early occupation leaflet:

EMERGENCY – WARD 2/3!

SUPPORT THE UCH OCCUPATION

Ward 2/3 at University College Hospital has been occupied by striking health workers and supporters, angry at the destruction of the health service. The strike has been on since 17th August and the occupation since 15th September.

Since the strike began management have closed down 4 wards as part of their plan to close the whole hospital. Because the government is trying to force our hospitals to compete against each other for smaller crumbs of a smaller cake, hospitals have been starved of cash — resulting in indefinite waiting lists, unnecessary deaths and increasing chaos for staff and the public.

This is part of management’s reign of terror in the health service, with staff being victimised and intimidated and patients being treated like prisoners as they try to close hospitals.

The success of this occupation and strike depend massively on outside support — which means YOU! So get your finger out, get stuck in and come on down and Join us! We can’t win this struggle any other way — people are needed on the picket lines and at the occupation. We also need food to keep us going, messages of support, donations etc.

If we can wipe the smug grins off the faces of these health butchers, just think how healthy it’s gonna make you feel!

(The occupied Ward 2/3 is on the corner of Grafton way and Huntley St — easily recognisable by the banners outside!)

JOIN THE LOBBY OF CAMDEN & ISLINGTON HEALTH AUTHORITY 4.30 – 5.3Opm Tuesday 21 September @ Friends Meeting House, Euston Rd (opposite Euston station)

POPULAR COMMITTEE FOR MAINTAINING THE UCH OCCUPATION

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COMING DOWN WITH A DOSE OF THE TROTS

But, alas, the spell was soon broken. We had been requesting a meeting with the strikers for a couple of days, and one was eventually arranged between the full strike committee (i.e. all available strikers) and the occupiers; but instead we were met by just a few union shop stewards who were all SWP members. One of these SWerPs was also the union branch secretary at UCH, and although she was not even on strike – she was one of the clerical workers and they had not come out – she very much used her union status to play a dominant and often manipulative role during the strike. They proceeded to tell us of their plans for completely restructuring how the occupation was to function – we were led to believe (wrongly as it turned out) that they were speaking for the strike committee as a whole and only relaying to us what had been decided by it. In fact it was an SWP engineered coup, done behind the strike committee’s back as much as ours’.

They wanted vetting to decide who should be allowed into the occupation — this was to be carded out by the branch secretary and chairperson – both SWP members. People would have to book themselves onto a formalised rota days in advance just to be able to spend a night in the occupation — reducing it to a duty and a chore, killing off the social dynamic going on. They also intended that there should be at least 6 strikers on the ward at any time and that there must always be at least one striker on the picket line with us. They justified all this by saying that if anything bad happened in the occupation or if things got “out of control” this would jeopardise the strikers — by giving management an excuse to legally evict the occupation and to victimise the strikers (6 of them already faced disciplinary actions due to activities in the strike).

By the time this meeting occurred, most of the occupiers were tired out from a lack of enough sleep due to late night picketing, leafleting and generally running around trying to organise stuff. We were stunned by these sudden proposed changes (although in retrospect we should have been expecting something like this) and did not resist them as we should have done; this was partly due to simple fatigue but also because we were being guilt tripped about the necessity of protecting the strikers’ interests as a priority. The implication was “but would you feel if a nurse lost her job because you lot fucked up?” The answer was obvious but the likelihood of it happening was exaggerated and used as a weapon against us.

Although none of us were happy about all this, we weren’t able to respond effectively — and as we mistakenly thought that these were decisions taken by the strike committee as a whole we didn’t feel in much of a position to argue. We should have said we would consider these proposals and then discuss them with the full strike committee as soon as possible, instead of just capitulating. If we had known that these issues had not even been properly discussed by the strike committee and that there had already been strong disagreements within the strike committee about SWP manipulation then we wouldn’t have felt so isolated with so few options. It was also partly unfamiliarity with what was a pretty unusual situation as well as a (not unrelated) lack of confidence and assertiveness in ourselves and other simple personal failings that led to our downfall. It can’t just be explained by the supposed absence of enough organisation or of a certain kind of organisation, as some have tried to do (see Appendix for more on this).

Their plan was to make the occupation a centre for union and SWP organising and to fill the place with SWerPs. Having seen that we were good at organising ourselves and developing our autonomy the union/SWP hacks felt threatened — partly because they judged us by their own miserable standards and thought we were really some secret anarchist group (possibly Class War!) come to try to take things over. Rumours were flying amongst the strike committee that this was the case.

They also wanted to reduce the occupation to a publicity exercise – i.e. getting media celebrities and MPs to visit and be photographed there. In fact it seemed they had decided that getting public opinion on the side of the strikers was going to be the main weapon to win the strike with. Some occupiers now felt they were being treated as a token pensioner, a token mother and child, etc. to be displayed for the cameras. One woman was even offered a spare nurses uniform to wear in case there were no real nurses around when an MP came to visit!

The effects of these changes being imposed were several: a lot of people, particularly locals who visited regularly, were put off coming to the occupation. And there seemed little point in giving out leaflets encouraging people to come to the occupation if they’d all have to be vetted first. The atmosphere was totally changed, with people now feeling they were only there with the permission or tolerance of certain officials and no longer as joint partners in the struggle. The openness of the occupation, with free debate flowing back and forth informally, was replaced by an atmosphere of intrigue and secret whisperings…

“In those early days one related to the occupiers as strikers, local or non-local or all mixed up together. You were curious about their lives, background, last night’s binge, learning about hospital jobs, what immediate tasks had to be earned out, etc. Ideology just didn’t really count and you couldn’t give much of a fuck what political persuasion anybody had. It was only after the attempted SWP mini-coup that you really started relating to strikers as SWerPs or not And that was REAL BAD. After that, paranoia, whispered conversations (from them) with doors closing behind you as if you were an unwelcome intruder. And so hypocritical! A poster then appeared: “NO DRUGS OR ALCOHOL IN THE WARD.” And yet it was only a few nights previously that an SWerP had been openly rolling up spliffs. Previous to this laying down of the law there was no trouble at all with anybody getting out of their heads. In fact even occupiers who were regular boozers had hardly touched a drop, being so occupied with what was going on. It was only after the SWP coup that people were drunk on the ward — and they were mainly SWerPs come back from the pub. After that occupying was more like work; a duty; a painful task to be undertaken. Wage labour felt freer than this! Better to occupy the Morgue which was just below Ward 2/3 — at least that would have been a bit of life in death.”

The SWP’s plan was to draft in large numbers of SWP foot soldiers, but this was never very successful — some did turn up (although a lot who were told to didn’t) but never in sufficient numbers to completely dominate or alienate the rest of us; as they usually only came for one night they still had to ask those of us staying there for information about the general functioning of the place. Some rank ‘n’ file SWerPs were fine to be with (5) and we could talk and relax with them but the real hacks were often vile — functionaries and mere appendages of the party machine, mouth pieces for faithfully parroting the banalities of the party line, with no social graces or warmth at all.

In fact it might be said that leftist militancy is a diagnosable disease in itself, with definite schizophrenic behavioural tendencies! The personality split between political duty and real desires, voluntary submission to party lines and hierarchies with repression of doubts and contradictions, obsession with manipulation of others and conversion of others to one’s own rigid beliefs, etc…

In the early days of the occupation it was the Trots who’d left bunches of Socialist Worker around (along with the Revolutionary Communist Party etc. leaving their rags lying about) ready for piling propaganda in the occupiers’ heads. At the same time these politicos spotted in a flash one Class War newspaper lying innocently about and what’s this? — a man called Vienet’s book on the French occupation movement in May ‘68 – things that somebody had bought or nicked for one’s own personal enjoyment on the day. So an ideological construct was fearfully assembled: “Its Class war anarchists in there”; “Is that a destructive lunatic fringe?”; “Should we Kronstadt the bastards?” The mind boggles at the lurid fantasies possibly conjured up.

The bunch that became the mainstay of the occupation were a mixed bag – partly determined by the fact that we were the ones who could devote most time to it. On the dole or on the sick, single mums, pensioners, casual/part-time workers or those whose jobs were flexible enough to take time off (builders, dispatch riders, etc.). Some had known each other before, some hadn’t, but most had some involvement with the strike from the beginning; some who already knew each other had been involved in producing their own leaflet and poster for the Day of Action prior to the occupation, having been inspired by some striking nurses. People came from a wide variety of social and ‘political’ backgrounds and experiences — most had been involved in other struggles in the past. Different people had served time with various political groupings, ranging from the Labour Party through Trot groups, ultra-left marxism and beyond. Others had never touched politics with a barge pole. None were hacks or Party animals (in the political sense!) and there was a consensus of distaste for such beasts. One or two of the more ‘eccentric’ characters could at times get to be a pain in the arse but generally they were responsive enough to get the message if you told them so; unlike some of the devious lefties who had the cheek to call these people “disruptive.”

Some of the strike committee at least had a stereotypical view of just who they wanted as permanent overnight occupiers. Lots of worker delegations carrying TU banners or representative of community/tenant organisations, etc.. What they got was just what they didn’t want: the ‘freak’ or mongrel proletariat — those not that much into work and who largely had never seen the inside of a trade union but who were prepared to put their heart and soul into the occupation. Instead of the ‘straight’ working class (at least as the leftists saw it) they got those without the correct image.

The SWP turned the occupation into a political arena where all other forces were seen either as rivals or subjects to be submitted to their will. In an atmosphere of intrigue, plots and manipulations we were forced into being less open and more secretive ourselves as protection against totally losing our ground. This is often the effect on struggles of self interested political factions with a separate agenda for themselves — to combat them you are often forced to adopt some of their tactics – resulting in the social dynamics of the struggle being stalled and energy being wasted on simply trying to stand your ground and contain the effects and spread of the Trotskyist virus.

But it’s too simplistic to blame the SWP for everything – another sect could have played the same role, as could any other union bureaucrats or a group of timid, conservative workers in different circumstances. It’s no good seeing the SWP cadres as the shit part and the rest of the strike committee as pure light – sometimes the SWerPs took the more radical initiatives, in opposition to more conservative strikers. But it’s important to remember that the non-SWerPs were never as inflexible and ideological and therefore could be more imaginative in many ways.

Avoiding the routinisation of struggles seems to be a real challenge. All sorts of forces combine to turn an occupation or strike into just a different kind of work. The Trots are usually the visible cause, but it’s often that they are filling a vacuum created by people’s own uncertainty — it’s inevitable in any genuine autonomous struggle – but the way in which vanguard groups use that uncertainty means they turn it into a weakness. Ideally they could be wrong-footed by a bit of playfulness and craziness, but when the situation becomes tense and ‘serious’ and people start worrying and falling back into the workday mechanisms, autonomy gives way to ‘common sense.’ At least in this experience at UCH people got out and about which lifted the weight a bit — a lot of occupations become sieges and in that context the vanguard and all the other military metaphors start giving the appearance of making sense. Isolation is another problem — especially if the occupiers are seen to be a ‘minority.’

It’s true to say that the SWP’s goal is not firstly to advance a struggle, but to advance their influence on a struggle, and it is this which determines their choice of tactics: this was illustrated by the way their attitude to the occupation was to change.

Although of course the SWP strikers at UCH sincerely wanted to win the strike, its nevertheless true that the Party’s tactics are generally determined not by how to advance or win struggles but by how to prove that if everyone had listened to and followed them then things would have worked out better – this often entails directing struggles and demands at the union bureaucrats, so that when (inevitably) they don’t do what they’re asked to, they can be shown to be wrong and the SWP “correct” (this cynical attitude to the working class was spelled out yonks ago by their arch-guru Trotsky with his theories of the “transitional demand” etc.).(6)

But even in their own terms, none of their own plans for the occupation ever worked well. They could never draft in sufficient numbers for a total coup: very few union officials turned up; and only 3 or 4 ‘left’ Labour MPs turned up, attracting very little press coverage. (It was laughable to later read Socialist Worker’s claim that, due to pressure of public opinion and the strike highlighting the health issue, the Labour Party had been “forced” to send some prominent MPs down to the Ward. They had been phoning up loads of celebrities and these were the only ones who ever bothered to come).

The political vetting they’d wanted became impractical as it turned out that the branch officials were too busy to impose it — and as the Party faithful failed to materialise in sufficient strength we were needed to make up numbers anyway.

The picket line was another main casualty of the imposed changes. It was impossible for the strikers alone to mount successful picketing — there were 10 or 11 different exits all connected by underground tunnels that the management could use to sneak patients and equipment out as they closed more wards. During the occupation we had begun to organise 24 hour pickets with walkie-talkie contact between the picket and our Ward; we still didn’t have enough people to cover every exit but it was certainly an improvement. But it seemed that part of the reason for the reorganisation of the occupation was that the union/SWP officials had given up on trying to develop effective picketing in favour of getting public sympathy on their side through publicity stunts. We had shown that we were serious about trying to make the picket effective and more than just a token show of strength — and possibly it was thought that this could lead to a clash on the picket line that would have further pissed off the union and would not have looked good in the media (‘Picket Line Fight at the UCH” etc.). The officials had demonstrated no real enthusiasm for the idea of mass pickets at the hospital — and the possibility of growing numbers of local people and others organising themselves independently (in co-operation with strikers) on the picket line would not have appealed to them (just as it didn’t in the occupation). They eventually discouraged us from all night picketing by saying that management would not bother moving stuff at night – shortly after we stopped night picketing they did start moving things at night.

We wrote a leaflet to the strike committee outlining our concern about how the occupation had been changed but is was never actually distributed to them; the strikers found out that UNISON had been going behind their backs to stitch up a deal with management to try to get them back to work. So the strike meetings were too busy trying ideal with all that to time to discuss the occupation with us .-. we were advised by a sympathetic striker that this was not a good time to distribute our leaflet.

But a lot of these conflicts might not have happened (or at least not so quickly) if more people, especially from the council estates nearby, had joined the occupation. If there had simply been a big toing and froing of 200 people or so (or even of less) then the event could have taken on a momentum of its own whereby other empty wards would have been taken over as a matter of course as more beds were needed to sleep on at night, etc.. This would have made it harder for the officials to dominate events.

UNISON eventually issued an effective ultimatum to the strikers – to go back to work or the union would withdraw support for the strike; which would have left the strikers wide open to dismissal and possible legal action against them. In their iso­lation without wider effective support, this didn’t seem like a risk worth taking.

The union bosses said that with only a minority of the UCH work force out the strike could never win. Not that UNISON wanted other workers to support it – their attitude towards the strike was hardly going to encourage more workers to gel involved. The union machinery did its job of keeping the strikers isolated from other sections of the working class who could have given the active solidarity needed for victory; and the strikers were not capable of overcoming this isolation. The strikers met and voted to accept the deal whereby they went back to work in return for all disciplinaries being dropped and full trade union rights to organise in the hospital being restored.

The strike committee held its last meeting where two delegates for the occupiers were finally able to attend. A large number of strikers were elected as shop stewards at this meeting, this being proposed by the branch chairperson and the secrets (both SWP). This was a way of trying to re-integrate disaffected workers back into the union structure and to re-kindle faith in it – some of those elected had earlier thrown their UNISON badges in the bin in disgust. Obviously workers must “radicalise the unions,” “push the leadership leftwards,” “force the TUC to call a general str… blab blab yawn” – in SWerP speak this translates (they hope) into more positions of influence in the unions for the SWP “workers vanguard.”

After all that was settled the occupation was discussed. We said why we thought the occupation should continue — the main arguments are set out in our leaflet [below] (which, again, was never actually distributed because during the first part of the meeting a union bureaucrat from UNISON head office was present and obviously we didn’t want him to see it. When he left, the occupation was discussed and it was eventually voted to end it. After that, there seemed little point in giving out our leaflet).

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Undistributed leaflet:

TO THE STRIKERS FROM SOME OF THE OCCUPIERS IN SOLIDARITY

We have written this statement because we want to sort out where we stand, to clarify our relationship to the strike committee and to the struggle to keep UCH open, which is also our struggle.

We have been involved in the occupation as NHS users, getting involved either from the start or from the Thursday demo, and have been trying to build the occupation as part of the struggle. We have helped build support in the local community, getting more people to join in and to widen the distribution of leaflets, getting local shops to donate food and display campaign material, along with community centres and others.

We produced our own leaflet, in consultation with a number of strikers, to put the case from the perspective of the community, of service users, calling for people to get involved. We have found that people, like us, do want to get involved, directly in the struggle for their health service, not just signing petitions or marching, and the occupation has given them a focus and an opportunity to start to get involved. We have also joined in the picket and enabled it to be extended a few times to 24 hours.

But it now appears that members of the community are at best to be tolerated, rather than allowed our own ideas and initiative. Even though a rota was being successfully developed, a formal rota has been imposed, controlled by the branch officials, making it more difficult for people to be involved on their own terms. Some people already felt they were being treated as ‘token’ pensioners, etc;, and these changes have discouraged some people from returning.

More general involvement by local people and workers is being substituted by party political contacts. Occupiers have been forced into a position of passive observers as decisions taken elsewhere are carried out. These changes were presented to us on Sunday by a few branch leaders who seemed to be speaking for the strike committee, though it appears they weren’t. On the grounds that we cannot be allowed to do anything to jeopardise the strikers or the strike (which we have no intention of doing) we have in face been prevented from doing anything for ourselves. If allowing us any initiative is a threat, then the occupation should be staffed by cardboard cut-outs, not real people. Replacing the active solidarity of local people and other supporters by a strategy of using the occupation merely for public sympathy and visiting celebrities will not win our struggle. The miners had plenty of this sympathy and have still been destroyed.

Another justification mentioned in passing for dealing behind our (and others’) backs was the problem with the union. We recognise there are problems – we just want to be able to discuss these things openly, we want to help.

We are not suggesting the occupation be separate from the strike – we want to work with the strikers to save the hospital, not just be assigned tasks as if we were workers and the union officials our managers. We are not here to disrupt, we are not a political group come to muscle in, we want to fight with you, for our health service.

We would like to meet and discuss all this with the full strike committee A.S.A.P.

– IN SOLIDARITY

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The debate eventually became a political argument – the SWP putting their line forward that community action like our occupation can only be useful and successful as secondary, supportive action for worker’s industrial action. They didn’t like it when we put forward the obvious example of the Poll Tax to contradict them. At the time the SWP’s line was that workers would defeat the Poll Tax by refusing to process the information, handle the paperwork, taking strike action, etc… Such actions happened only on a very small scale. It was what was happening outside the workplace that defeated the Poll Tax. It’s significant that the only mass struggle in over a decade that in any sense could be called a victory was community based; neither union sabotage nor anti-strike legislation nor isolation could be used to restrict the movement. At this meeting and another later on in Ward 2/3 with more occupiers we managed to add some discord to the familiar refrain of the SWP union chairman giving a summing up lecture on what lessons could be drawn from the strike (7). He claimed it as some kind of victory that management had been shaken by (a defeated Arthur Scargill put it this way: “The struggle is the victory”). This desperate line from brave strikers has gained momentum since the miners’ defeat in ‘85, as the defeats pile up as each group of workers is picked off in isolation one by one. With every defeat the bosses are inspired to tighten the screw a little more.

The occupiers later held their own meeting where we voted by a narrow margin to accept the wishes of the strikers and so end the occupation.

But the fight goes on and we can at least reflect on our failures in the hope of making our position stronger as we wait for the next cut of the Health Butcher’s scalpel.

The strikers and occupiers walked out together, with one occupier being pushed out in his bed, and went their separate ways. Now calling ourselves the “UCH Community Action Committee” the occupiers headed straight for the nearby head offices of UNISON. A crowd of us pushed our way in to the building, leafleted workers and vented our anger at some bureaucrats for the union’s role in sabotaging the struggle. They didn’t call the cops on us, thereby avoiding more bad publicity for them. The building’s entrance was later grafittied with “UNISCUM” and another wall saying “Unison sold out UCH nurses and porters”. A stranger later added underneath “so what’s new? NALGO sold out the Shaw workers” (i.e. workers in the nearby Shaw library).

The Action Committee kept holding regular meetings and did some actions. We decided to visit Wellcome, the multinational drug company involved in the sell-off of UCH. As luck would have it, when we arrived we discovered that a board meeting was then in progress. Fifteen of us snuck up the stairs and stormed straight into the Wellcome boardroom. Much to the shock of both them and us, there we were, in the heart of the dealers’ den, facing the biggest and slimiest drug pushing cartel in the world(8). We immediately started haranguing and shouting at the bow-tied and blue-rinsed board members, demanding that they pull out of any deal to buy the UCH Cruciform building. We stayed for half an hour, arguing with them and eventually forcing them to leave and hold their meeting in another room. Then three van loads of cops arrived outside, including riot cops. Once they saw we were a motley crew including toddlers and pensioners, and not a gang of terrorists, they sent in a few to tamely escort us off the premises.

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Leaflet for Wellcome action;

SAVE OUR HOSPITALS

NO WELCOME TO WELLCOME

We have come to Wellcome because we object to their involvement in the closure of our local hospital, UCH. The UCH Cruciform is being closed to make way for a muti-million pound bio-medical research centre, with funding from the ‘charitable’ wing of WELLCOME (the multinational drug company), in association with University College London (UCL). A ‘replacement’ hospital, if it happens at all, is planned for “within the next TEN YEARS”. In the meantime, WELLCOME and other businesses UCL have links with can rake in the profits while we suffer as the NHS is dismantled.

The Cruciform must stay a much needed hospital, and not become another site for business, even if it is medical research. What is the use of such research when our hospitals are closing,

We also question the nature of the research, including the testing of dangerous drugs on animals. WELLCOME have made £billions from the manufacture of the faulty drug AZT, at the expense of AIDS sufferers. Although they were reported to the Department of Health in 1992 for “false and misleading” claims about AZT, and also condemned by the Committee on the Safety of Medicines for the same, they are still managing to make profits from this drug, which some claim is not only useless but highly toxic. WELLCOME are in an extremely powerful position, having got AZT recognised as the main treatment for AIDS in the USA, which means other potential cures are being ignored.

WELLCOME are vampires on the NHS. At Leeds general infirmary, for every pint of bloods given by donors to the NHS, the NHS gets only 10% and WELLCOME get the rest for profiteering bloodsucking research…No welcome for Wellcome!

Although the strike and occupation at UCH were forced to end,; the struggle to keep our hospital open continues. Half the Cruciform is still being used as a hospital. It is not too late to re-open the empty wards and stop UCL/WELLCOME dancing on all our graves.

SUPPORT THE DEMONSTRATION/VIGIL OUTSIDE UCH ON THURSDAY 14th OCTOBER? ALL DAY? AGAINST THE HOSPITAL CLOSURE.

For more information contact:

UCH Community Action Committee, c/o BM CRL, London WC1.

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Later that day we gate-crashed the UCL Provost’s office, interrupting his lunch and puncturing his self-importance to the point where he was reduced to calling us names and shouting at us to “get stuffed”. We then moved on to the nearby offices of UCH boss Charles Marshall, which we invaded, disrupting a business meeting in the process. A few of us stayed for a while to argue the toss with him. All in all, not a bad day’s work.

We also kept demonstrating once or twice a week outside the hospital and tried to organise to resist more wards being moved out, but we were never strong enough or well informed enough of management’s plans. In the run up to November 5th a Virginia Bottomley guy was taken round the local area to raise money and a few laughs. We also attended and heckled meetings of the local Health Authority; who were discussing plans to deal with a £21 million cut in their budget by not sending any more patients to UCH; this would leave only a casualty department without adequate back-up facilities, with patients allowed a maximum 48 hour stay before being moved on. In order to compete with other hospitals for patients, UCH management announced a 10% price cut. This was to be achieved mainly by the axing of 700 jobs – but even this wasn’t enough to satisfy the “Internal Market”. Ex-strikers we talked to said there was no mood for a strike against these cuts amongst UCH workers.

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A Second Occupation

An NHS “Day of Action” had been organised by the TUC for November 20th, basically as a token safety valve to dissipate the growing anger and pressure from health workers and others. Originally planned for Thursday 18th, it was changed to Saturday 20th – this was decided during the UCH strike in September, apparently due to union fears of a growing militancy amongst health workers. For the unions, the unpleasant possibility of effective action being taken – such as solidarity strikes or at least the major disruption of central London weekday traffic – would be greatly lessened by holding the demonstration on a Saturday. The unions’ publicity for November 20th was very low key and half hearted – neither the demo nor any other real activity was emphasised, just the symbolic slogan “NHS Day of Action”, with the demo mentioned in small letters at the bottom of the posters. The unions obviously have the resources to organise a massive demonstration to defend free health care if they want to, but this was not on their agenda.

Members of the UCHCAC decided to use the Day of Action as a way of combating the inactivity planned by the unions. We also wanted to do something to try stop the imminent closure of the Cruciform building. So we arranged for a group of us to reoccupy Ward 2/3 on the night before the Day of Action. Seventeen of us and some friends waited while a few people cracked open the ward. We all eventually sneaked in to find a bare ward: no beds or furniture this time.

The next morning we hung out some banners from the windows, as people began arriving for the UCH feeder march which would link up later with the main demo. At about 10.30am the hospital security guards finally noticed us. They came and asked what we were doing and then disappeared.

Most of us went off to join the demo, leaving a handful to “guard the fort” and stay put. Our faction marched under an anti-TUC banner saying “Tories Unofficial Cops sabotaging struggles.” It was a boring march with 20-25,000 people on it; but the rally at Trafalgar Square was more interesting. We heckled a lot through a megaphone at the TU bureaucrats and celebrities, taking the piss and expressing our anger at the pathetic farce. It was ridiculous to see actors from the TV soap “Casualty” being invited to make guest appearances and talk crap on the platform while real nurses who wanted to speak were prevented from doing so by the union bosses.

We also handed out leaflets at the demo explaining the UCH situation and asking people to come and join the occupation. About 25 people responded by coming to the ward after the demo — some SWP and Class War members and the other half various non-aligned individuals – 25 out of 25,000 – pathetic. We had a meeting and all these people expressed support for the occupation but most left never to return. Four or five stayed the weekend with about eight of us, and a friendly hospital worker managed to smuggle us in plenty of spare bedding to make us more comfortable. Some of the visitors went off to attempt their own occupation in south London but were apparently quickly evicted without any legal formalities by the cops.

Within a few days we were reliant on the same old familiar faces to maintain and publicise the occupation — our aim of using the occupation as a base to get more people involved was not succeeding. It was becoming a strain on the dozen or so hard core of people involved to keep things going and the lack of response was depressing. Sometimes there were just 2 people in the occupation and the boredom weighed heavy. We had a few supporters dropping in and some donations of food but very few people willing to become actively involved – even staying overnight occasionally was too much of a commitment for most people.

Although we had been very clear from the start that the occupation should not just be another token publicity stunt, we were now getting desperate and the brick walls of apathy around us were beginning to close in. So it was decided to contact the media in order to spread the word that we were here — our own local leafleting and flyposting having bad so little effect. But we were agreed that no media people would be allowed inside the ward as this would create a totally different and unwanted atmosphere and would also be a great security risk (but not everybody stuck strictly to this agreement).

Management tried at first to ignore the occupation, fearing that any action against us might give it more publicity, but responded immediately once we contacted the media. Carlton TV said they’d come down and interview from outside while we talked to them from a window on the ward. Carlton phoned UCH management just beforehand to get their side of the story – which prompted management to cut off our electricity just before the cameras arrived. But the interview went ahead and was shown on London-wide TV news. We made sure our mobile phone number was prominently displayed to the cameras. This led to three people phoning us, two very supportive and one abusive. Considering that millions of people saw the interview and phone number on prime-time TV news this seemed to be one more example of how apathetic people felt. But in all our statements to the media we emphasised that our main goal was to help spread and inspire more occupations; we can only hope that we have planted some seeds that have yet to grow.

The SWP were even less supportive than the rest of the bourgeois press — it was only after we got some media coverage that they mentioned the occupation at all in Socialist Worker – and only after we had been evicted!

There were attempts to involve more people by holding a weekly under-5s afternoon, alternative health workshops, an acoustic music session, etc.. But general conditions plus the impossibility of long term planning made these hard to develop.

The few remaining wards in the building had been steadily closing during the occupation — and without the active support of staff or large numbers of other people there was nothing we could do to try and stop them closing down the building. Once the last patients had been moved out the management also cut off our heating. Now without heat or electricity we nonetheless stuck it out; we stubbornly dug our heels in and just wore more clothes and used candles, lanterns and camping gas stoves.

During this time we had a public meeting at Conway Hall – 22 people turned up, including a few militant health workers. We all had a good discussion with interesting ideas being suggested. It was generally felt that more effort should be put into making links with like minded groups and individuals. But again, only one or two people showed any willingness to get involved with the occupation. Still, we did make contact with some good people.

It was no surprise when we eventually received a High Court summons notifying us that proceedings were underway for management to regain possession of the ward. We went to the court hearing and, joined by a crowd of friends and supporters (including a few ex-strikers), we picketed outside the court with banners and leaflets. We lost the case, despite our solicitors arguing that the management were unable to produce any title deeds or clear evidence that they had any right to the building. The court case also attracted more TV, radio and press coverage.

We had a small but noisy spontaneous march back to the hospital – afterwards a few of us climbed on a flat roof opposite the UCH Chief Executive’s office windows and blared out a tape of the old working class anthem “The Internationale” at the management for a laugh, while waving banners saying “Spread the Occupations”. At around this time we received a couple of amusing phone calls; we had managed to get an article published in Pi, the UCL student magazine, about UCH and University College London’s involvement in the sell-off of the Cruciform building:

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Student magazine article; Pi 553

The Provost Makes Us Sick

Students at UCL might like to hear about the involvement of UCL, and of the Provost, Derek Roberts, in particular, in the closing down of our local hospital UCH. They might also like to hear about an action taken against Roberts in protest at this involvement.

Derek Roberts is one of a committee appointed to close the main (“Cruciform”) building. Others on this committee are Charles Marshall (former Private Secretary to minister John Biffen and Chief Executive at UCH), Sir Ronald Mason (Chief Scientific Adviser to the Ministry of Defence) , Professor Laurence Martin (Director of the right-wing think tank, The Institute for International Affairs) and John Mitchell (Fellow King’s Fund College).

Once the UCH Cruciform building is fully cleared of patients, UCL management have plans to turn the building into a multi-million pound “biomedical research centre” with money from the “charitable” wing of the multinational drugs company Wellcome. (Wellcome, it might be remembered, wee responsible for the dodgy drug AZT, which made them billions at the expense of people with AIDS). With the involvement of Wellcome, the Ministry of Defence, and the institute for International Affairs (though by some to be an MI5 front organisation), it is open to question what sort of “biomedical research” UCL intend to carry out at the vacated hospital. But even if it were “legitimate research” (you know, that stuff where they drop chemicals into rabbits’ eyes), this would still be no argument for closing down a hospital in it its favour, when hospital waiting lists all over the country are growing.

In reality, the closure and expansion into the UCH Cruciform building are part of UCL’s moves to strengthen connections with business and commerce. UCL is trying to get funding for research through two companies – UCL Initiatives Ltd. and UCL Ventures Ltd. Naturally, like any other business concerns, these two companies care nothing at all about the welfare of people with no hospital to go to and no private medical insurance.

It is not that “now the Cruciform building is closing UCL are making use of it by moving in”. The plans for UCL’s expansion into the Cruciform were floated long before the closure was made public. This is why the Provost was so against the 6-week strike by nurses trying to prevent the closure. Roberts has said “the strike was counter to the interests of patients, the future of UCL Hospitals, and indeed, the future of UCL….there should be great relief that it is over.” If UCH was kept open, Roberts wouldn’t have such an ideal location for empire-building – of course, he was relieved when the strike finished!

But the struggle against the closure isn’t over despite the ending of the strike. In protest at Roberts’ activities, members of UCH Community Action Committee – a group formed out of a previous 11 day occupation of an empty ward at UCH by angry local residents – occupied Roberts’ office for an hour, while Roberts and two of his associates were trying to eat their lunch. Roberts became increasingly flustered as we plied him with questions about UCH, and he became even more uncomfortable when it was evidents that we weren’t about to leave in a hurry. Soon Roberts, this shining representative of liberal academic tolerance, was resorting to one-liners like, “Get stuffed!”, “Shut your mouth!” and “You’re a child!” (this latter remark being particularly ironic considering that many of the occupiers were older, and obviously wiser, than himself). All in all this mini-occupation was a success, and as we were escorted off the premises by security guards we felt some satisfaction in the fact that we’d made Roberts squirm, and messed up his afternoon.

However, this occupation was nowhere near enough. We call upon all students, whether they are concerned about the hospital into political activism or just bored with the misery of meaningless studies, to take direct action against the Provost and management of UCL. Go for indefinite occupations, or imaginative acts of sabotage. And don’t wait for the next union meeting where everything will get bogged down in bureaucracy. Do it now! You will have our active support.

Guy Debord

Note 1: You can contact UCHCAC outside the hospital main entrance from 12-2 every Friday, or c/o BM CRL, London, WC1N 3XX.

Note 2: There is a national demo against hospital closures in London, Nov. 20, with one contingent leaving from UCH, 11 a.m.

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We had then reprinted it as a leaflet and distributed it outside UCH and UCL, which was just across the road from the Cruciform. We also stuck it up inside the college. A few days later we received an angry telephone call from a whingeing student journalist insisting that we stop distributing the article as it was “all lies” and we were infringing Pi magazine’s copyright. Realising she was failing to intimidate us, as we laughed and insulted her for being a pathetic crawling lackey for the college authorities, she slammed the phone down. Shortly afterwards we were phoned by a member of UCL management who demanded (unsuccessfully) to know who we were and threatened to sue us — we told him to sue if he wanted to, as we had no money to lose. And if they took us to court for making false statements about UCL’s involvement in the closure and sell-off of UCH then they would have to reveal what the truth of the matter was – something we’d all like to hear! The editor of the mag also phoned the author to complain that she’d been called into the Provost’s office and given a furious bollocking for publishing it. (The Provost also mentioned that he had checked the student register for the name of the author — and there was not even a “Guy Debord” listed there!). It was clear we were beginning to make them feel vulnerable.

Word had got out that Health Minister Bottomley was due to visit Arlington House, a hostel for homeless men in Camden Town. She was to be launching a new government video about ways to help the homeless be more healthy (of course, this didn’t actually include giving them a home). We publicised her visit the best we could, calling on people to demonstrate outside the hostel. Shortly before the visit we heard that Bottomley would not now be attending and would be substituted by Junior Health Minister Baroness Cumberlege. Unfortunately it was too late to change our publicity from “Give Bottomley a lobotomy” to “Give Cumberlege a haemorrhage”. The night before, a wall opposite the hostel was graffitied with “Bottomley bottled out” but it was painted over before the Baroness arrived. When she did come she was immediately surrounded by us as she got out of her car — surprisingly she kept her nerve quite well and stopped briefly to argue with us. As the abuse and accusations intensified she was hustled away by cops to shouts of “murderer!”.

Once again the great silent majority had stayed silent and absent, not responding to our flyposting and leafleting or mention of the visit in local papers. Only about twenty people turned up, most of them already known to us, plus three residents of the hostel. One told us they’d graffittied inside the building but that had been painted over too.

We went back to the ward and had a party that night. We were evicted by bailiffs, cops and security guards at 7.45 the next morning, twenty days after the start of the occupation.

So now the Cruciform lies empty, with the loss of around 350 beds, while in other hospitals people suffer and die in corridors for want of a bed. But a few days after the end of the occupation Bottomley announced that the UCH was “saved” – all that this meant was that there would still be a casualty department (which hadn’t been under threat anyway) and a renowned centre for medical research (meaning that the plan to sell it off to the likes of UCL and Wellcome was still to go ahead). This grand announcement was presented in the media as a great act of charity and a big concession; when in fact all that they were saying was that nothing had changed and their plans were still the same. That was newspeak at its most effective – people kept saying to us how great it was that UCH had been saved – when they had just closed down the main building with the loss of 350 beds and 700 jobs to follow! Bottomley also said that she might give some extra money as a temporary subsidy, on the condition that management make even more cuts. This was a way to avoid the embarrassment of UCH finally collapsing due to the pressures of competition in the Internal Market — the money could also be seen as a reward to UCH management for its cuts package of 700 jobs.

Then, to cap it all, three weeks later it was announced that the latest plan being considered was to sell off the whole UCH site (like other hospitals, the land would fetch millions on the property market) and to move parts of the UCH to various other hospitals. Who knows what they’ll come up with next?

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Post-occupation leaflet;

UCH – SAVAGED NOT SAVED

The SWP – doing Bottomley’s dirty work for her:

Q: What have Virginia Bottomley and the SWP got in common?

A: Amongst other things, they both claim that University College Hospital (UCH) has been saved.

About 700 jobs and hundreds of beds have been lost, and the main Cruciform building – which everyone associated with UCH – has been closed. Yet for different, equally-manipulative reasons, the “Health” Minister and the “Socialist” Workers’ Party are both agreed on the lie that “UCH has been saved”. Goebells – “The bigger the lie, the more it is believed” – would have been proud.

What’s left of UCH?

Well – now merged with the Middlesex, there’s the administration – really useful if you’ve had a heart attack. And there the Accident & Emergency – but that was never scheduled for closure in the first place. Instead, as with all A & E’s without a hospital attached, it’s been left without adequate back-up, giving patients just 48 hours to stay before being moved on. There are, however, 40 or so extra beds for those who need intensive care, who can now stay on a bit longer. Nevertheless, staff are now complaining that whereas before it used to take just a couple of minutes to move such patients to a specialist ward in the old Cruciform building, now it takes up to half an hour to get to the Middlesex because of heavy traffic. What’s more, the recent death of a six-month-old baby at UCH A&E shows how dangerous it is to have an A&E separate from the specialists (now based in Middlesex) who were previously on site; at the same time the cuts ensured that the equipment for monitoring the baby wasn’t working. It looks like the parents are going to sue the over-worked nurses involved, using the Patients’ Charter. The much-lauded Charter is used intentionally to blame individual health workers in order to fend off attacks on the real murders: the managers and accountants who push through the cuts demanded by Bottomley and her genocidal government.

Apart from this, there’s a private wing (great!). Also “saved” (we’re not sure they were planning it for closure originally anyway) are the Urology department (much reduced), the clap clinic and Obstetrics. And there’s a new children’s ward: however, at the Middlesex there used to be two children’s wards, and now there’s only one – which means that between them, one children’s ward has been lost, even though on paper UCH’s has been “saved”. Similarly, by classifying some beds which were previously the Middlesex’s, and by counting the beds existing towards the end of the run-down of the UCH, the health authorities can claim that UCH has lost “only” 70 beds instead of the 300+ that have really been lost. Lies, damned lies and statistics. Moreover, three weeks after Bottomley said the UCH had been saved, it was announced that the latest plan was to sell off the whole UCH site (the land fetching millions on the property market) and to move parts of the UCH to various other hospitals. If this comes about UCH will merely be an administrative label on some bureaucrat’s door.

To say all this means the hospital has been saved is like saying that a formerly healthy adults, aho has had both legs and arms amputated and is on a life support machine, has been saved. Well, technically yes – but it hardly constitutes the victory the SWP like to make it out to be.

With saviours like these, who needs grave-diggers?

During the Vietnam war, an American general declared, “In order to save the village, it had to be destroyed.” With UCH it’s more a case of “in order to destroy the hospital, it had to look like it was saved.”

Virginia Bottomley says the UCH has been saved, for similar reasons to the government saving coal mines in 1992 – to stop people fighting together, to reinforce the ignorance and confusion about what’s happening to the hospitals and to divide up the fight to save them into isolated campaigns for each hospital, separated from a more general movement.

But why does the SWP proclaim “We saved UCH” when those SWP members who have worked and struggled at UCH – some of whom are genuinely fighting to win – know perfectly well this is bullshit? As in all hierarchies, the individual has to repress their point of view and preach “the party line”. During the strike, SWP strategy was designed to gain the maximum publicity and to show how radical they were compared to the union leadership, by pushing for demands that they knew the leaders would not meet. The predictable sell-out of the strike by Unison was the “victory” the SWP wanted: confirmation of something they knew beforehand would happen; but did nothing to undermine. In fact, they had encouraged a faith in the union which they knew would inevitably be betrayed. It was only afterwards that they needed to find a happy ending, so that they could encourage others to repeat the tragedy at other hospitals. The SWP’s main concern was recruitment to a self-proclaimed image of themselves heroically and successfully leading the working class to victory, even if this victory is a myth. For them this is more vital than the development of any real struggle by the poor, honestly facing the horrific extent of their defeats and the reasons for them.

The struggles at UCH

During the struggles at UCH the SWP did everything to minimise the efforts of non-SWP members. During the work-in aimed at stopping the closure of Ward 2/1 in Nov – Dec ’92, SWP members played as much a part as anyone else involved in the struggle – though it was probably the support of the junior doctors which really won this battle, admittedly only a temporary reprieve. In the strike of Aug – Sept ’93 they played a more significant part – not all of it helpful by any means. For instance, they did much to ensure that the cheerful demos which had previously disrupted traffic got turned into boring routine affairs. And in the occupation of Ward 2/3 in September, admittedly suggested by an SWP member, though broken into by a non-party hospital campaigner, they did much to dampen the high-spirited atmosphere. When occupiers met with a few SWP union stewards to discuss the occupation, the occupiers were told the stewards represented the decisions of the strike committee, and these decisions were: vetting to decide who should be allowed into the occupation, to be carried out by the branch secretary and chair, both SWP members. People would have to book themselves onto a formalised rota days in advance just to be able to spend a night there, reducing the occupation to a chore and duty, killing off the social dynamic going on. The effect of these changes was miserable: a lot of people, particularly locals who visited regularly, were put off from coming. And there seemed little point in giving out leaflets encouraging people to come, if they had to be vetted first. People now felt they were only there with the tolerance of certain officials, and no longer joint partners in the struggle.

The openness of the occupation; with free debate flowing back and forth informally, was replaced with an atmosphere of intrigue and secret whispering. It was only later found out that these demands of the SWP union officials weren’t at all proposed by the strike committee: it had been an SWP manipulation from the very beginning.

The second occupation of Ward 2/3 was organised by us – UCH Community Action Committee – without, unfortunately, a strike at UCH, and completely independently of any political party. We had hoped to extend the occupation of one ward by getting loads of people back from a TUC Health Service demo on November 20th. We failed, even though the occupation took nearly three weeks to be evicted. During this time, the SWP were even less supportive than the rest of the media – the occupation only got a mention after the evictions. We could never, of course, pretend that “we saved UCH” – not just because it hasn’t been saved but, more vitally, because if UCH had been saved it could not have been down to us, but due to a more general and much more combative movement, involving a considerably greater section of the working class than the few people who initiated the occupation. Unlike the SWP, we have no pretension to being an indispensable vanguard, able to win victories on our own. And, of course, UCH has been, by and large, a defeat, and to ignore that is to confuse and demoralise any chance of a fightback, which is where the SWP and Bottomley have so much in common.

If a fight is to develop to save the hospitals or to stop the horrific attacks on the poor, it will not only have to bypass the parties and unions, but attack them as enemies and obstacles to our struggle. Our health and our lives cannot be “saved by the professional liars of the Left, Right or Centre, but only ourselves organising not just an organisation with a name on a banner or logo on a leaflet, which is just an image, but organising specific actions and critiques, correcting our weaknesses and failures.

UCH Community Action Committee, c/o BM CRL, London WC1N 3XX

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Victory prepared by a series of defeats?

As we go to press (1995) it seems that some kind of active campaign may be starting up at Guy’s Hospital to try and save it from the Health Butchers. From what we have seen so far it seems that the same old mistakes made at the UCH are doomed to be repeated at Guy’s; many of the hospital staff appear to have the same naive faith ‘their’ unions and ‘their’ MPs etc. – and once again they are encouraged in this by the SWP – who have set up their own community campaign front group, as have two other rival political factions. The SWP now even claim that they saved UCH (see leaflet below). The campaigning appears to be about one hospital only – all the easier to be defeated in isolation. And only a few hundred turned out for a demo, although this is the local hospital for many thousands of people. But these are early days and hopefully things will develop beyond these limits.

So what lessons can we draw from the UCH strike and two occupations that are worth passing on to those who may find themselves in a similar situation?

Well, basically, never trust those who want to represent you and speak for you – fight to preserve your own autonomy if you have it and fight to gain it if you don’t. Never trust the unions and lefty parties (despite the fact that there are OK individual rank’n’file members within them) – they’ll always try to use you for their own ends.

If you want to gain support then go and get it yourselves — going through official channels is generally useless. Workers need to speak face-to-face with other workers – the union reps will try to fob you off with excuses and tie you up with official procedures.

If strike action is to be effective it will have to be organised outside and against the unions — and ideally there will need to be prior commitment of solidarity from sufficient numbers of workers so as to make it impossible for the bosses to victim small groups of workers in isolation.

And do all you can to immediately spread all strikes and occupations; such may seem wildly optimistic at the moment, but if each hospital is to avoid being picked off one by one in isolation (just as so many sectors of workers have been) then we need a growing movement of occupations and strikes.

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Our hospital was saved by the kind of action that this bill will seek to criminalise. We occupied, we picketed, we slept outside and we won. All that is under attack. We must stop this bill.

– Candy Udwin, UNISON branch secretary, University College Hospital

Quote from an SWP anti-Criminal Justice Bill leaflet: Ms Udwin is an SWP member who, during the strike, loudly condemned the dangerous consequences if the Cruciform building was closed with hundred of jobs to be lost. Yet now all this has happened, she faithfully parrots the party lie that this outcome is a victory won by the SWP!

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LIFE IN THE VOID

[NB, typists’ note: This was published in 1995, so some of the ‘current’ issues and developments mentioned are history or present problems to us now…]

Alongside other attacks, the Health Service is being torn apart around our but where is the resistance on the scale necessary to turn things around? The last years of accelerating defeat, demoralisation and hardship seems to have created ai extreme cynicism about being able to change anything for the better, or even that worth trying to. People have retreated largely into an isolation centred on the struggle for survival day-to-day. The war of all-against-all for shrinking resources ha made everyone a casualty — resignation rules. The health service is an issue that effects everybody and yet the amount of active resistance to its destruction is so far pathetically small.

There is at present little strike action taking place in the UK; but when it happens there is more and more criticism by workers of the role of “their” unions in the struggle. UCH, Burnsall and Timex are the most recent examples of this (interestingly, in each case it was a predominantly female work force confronting a typically male union bureaucracy).

The early ’70s were often marked by a strong belief in the union as the real sister/brotherhood that would bring about radical social change. Most of that sad faith has now gone although there’s still a fair amount of “if only we could get rid of the bureaucrats things would be okay” type platitude – with little recognition that the union structure is designed to be a control mechanism, or that trying to “radicalise” the unions is as futile as trying to radicalise any other capitalist institution. Yet, despite mounting criticism, people feel more compelled to obey the union than in the 60’s/70’s period when there were rank’n’file movements jumping in and out of the trade union form (almost always to end up in it again) and often initiating wildcat actions that bypassed the union bureaucracy whilst making use of union resources for their own ends: but the bottom line was still that of quite strong TU beliefs.

But all these contradictions reflect the changing role of the unions. why people obey the union today is because of its role as an economic provider: as a cheaper kind of building or insurance society (literally — the unions now provide low cost insurance deals and mortgages to staff); as an issuer of strike pay when you can’t get anything off the State; as a provider of legal skills (solicitors, etc.) in an increasingly litigation oriented society where Law Centres are often no longer available for low paid workers; and the union as the place where bitter divorce proceedings or future funeral expenses cost you nothing more than the renewal of a years subscription. In short, working in harmony with the money terrorism of a free market cash-and-carry UK. Thus to get thrown out of the union for engaging in wildcat actions or whatever (a threat increasingly employed by union bureaucrat fat cats) might have serious financial consequences.

UNISON is only the latest but perhaps the most significant example of unions extending their influence from the workplace to other areas of life. Maybe this should be looked at more closely because it may reveal a new stage in the unions’ role in society (i.e. extending the disciplinary role, or at least their role of social recuperation in the community). There does seem to be a tendency of unions pursuing a more “consumerist” role, looking after its people on all fronts – no doubt, they would say, the better to integrate people back into the present system. Its different from the old German model of holiday camps and trekking, in that the whole set up is based upon private consumption, leisure and social services. The last thing the unions could (or want to) do is bring people together in a real physical closeness.

At UCH the strikers never received strike pay until after they had agreed to call off the strike. No doubt the accountants are instructed to keep money in the bank, making interest until the very last moment. Although nurses are paid monthly, the porters are paid weekly and they were particularly hard hit during the strike by the union’s mean approach. This union strike pay sabotage is widespread: in 1988 striking civil servants in London never received a penny until their thirteen week strike had come to an end.

All the measures listed above are a great form of blackmail – no wonder then that the unions are now such superb organisers of constant and almost total defeat. But again, we can’t simply blame the bureaucrats for our own failures – they thrive on our isolation and passivity – and their strength is based largely on what we let them get away with.

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Derailing a runaway train

If we look at the policies promoted by the Tory State in the last few years, it seems that increasingly they do not even serve the long term interests of the ruling class. The fast money, free market “privatise everything that moves” ideology is like a runaway train mowing down anything in its path but having no clear idea of where its going. The destruction of industrial manufacturing in favour of financial capital, the creation of a boom and then bust property market, the lack of investment in training for a skilled work force; these are all measures that have given them short term gains (at the expense of the working class) but have inevitably created deeper problems as they mature later on. The State is not capable of planning logical long term strategy in its own interests – only more cuts, more repression.

This short-sightedness is mirrored in the State’s plans for the health service. There is a strategy of wanting to destroy the popular principle and tradition of free health care for all, but the way they are pursuing it means that they could end up wrecking all kinds of health care provision.

At the present time all doctors and nurses are trained within the NHS. With continual closures of so many hospitals, including the best teaching institutions, the effects are likely to be catastrophic for health care in general.

Private health care takes place mainly in NHS hospitals – so the BUPA alternative will be no solution. Being dependent on the NHS for facilities and staff training, it may crash with it. The big increase in BUPA advertising is just a sign of desperation. BUPA is now in serious financial crisis – gone are its eighties hey-days when, for a cheap rate, a BUPA subscription was lodged into many a middle management contract. Now BUPA are desperately revising their services and moving to a position whereby those who are likely candidates for any major illness can get lost/drop dead.

But could we even expect a future total collapse of BUPA to cause the government to pause and rethink its policies on health services? What other country in Western world is making such attacks on the general health of its population? The government recently began running a series of adverts in British medical journals c behalf of the United Arab Emirates government – the ads were aimed at convincing thousands of NHS medical staff to start a new career abroad working for much better wages in the UAE. The government has announced that it plans to cut sick pay – another attempt to force those who can afford it into private health insurance. And since the introduction of water meters in trial schemes thousands of people who could not pay the much higher bills have been disconnected – outbreaks of dysentery and other health problems have been caused by the rising cost of water (it is planned that water meters will soon be compulsory for all). It’s worth remembering that one of the main reasons better public sanitation was originally introduced was because the diseases that developed from the filthy slums of the 19th Century showed no class prejudice and would eventually hit the richer parts of town.

It’s possible that there’s real disarray in the ruling class; crudely put, a conflict between ‘finance capitalists’ (who are blind to social consequences) and a more socially concerned professional capitalist class. The finance capitalist faction looking for a repeat of ‘80s privatisation sell-off bonanzas – as they are also aware (rightly) that capitalism can never satisfy all the needs it creates. So they pursue cut-back strategies, with little regard for the social consequences, almost taking a social Darwinist position. On the other side is a professional class which finds some sort of common ground with One Nation Tories. This faction is both trying to secure own sectional interests (more money for managers, administrators, professional etc.) and appealing to a wider social consensus around a program of managerial capitalism. They are, however, under-represented at the top and exist as a middle management of the chaos. What they don’t appear to realise is that the system cannot fill all the needs they have set themselves to manage – so they are in a permanent state of frustration, and are becoming somewhat deranged as a consequence.

The most likely outcome of imposing the internal market will be a vastly reduced NHS run as a skeleton service for those with no other options, maybe with a sliding scale of charges according to income. Already Leicester Health Authority is requiring people to pay for non-emergency operations since their annual budget ran out half-way through the financial year. So now everybody will have to wait six months for a free operation – and by then the queue will be so long they will probably use up the funds allocated for the whole year in a month or so. So each year the queue will become more and more endless. This is one way of gradually introducing payment for treatment by the back door.

To conclude: the question mark that hangs over the NHS, to be or not to be, raises a number of related matters which can only be hinted at here.

Can capital overall dispense with an NHS given that powerful chemical companies depend on State revenues to underwrite their profitability? It was commonplace in the 70s to argue against dismantling the NHS on the aforementioned ground as well as emphasising that taking a vast amount of purchasing power (jobs) out of the economy would be a deflationary move amounting to the suicidal. The Thatcherite legacy is fully prepared to explode this piece of economic logic not by refuting the conclusions but rather by accepting the consequences.

What part did war and war time play in the setting up of the NHS, particularly in the need to have a fighting fit workforce able to wage war on capital’s behalf? Except locally, conventional warfare on a large scale is a thing of the past hence a further argument against an NHS, but an argument that would have been conducted behind closed doors. Undoubtedly, however, the ideology of a “people’s war” (1939-45) helped shape the comprehensive nature of the NHS — so today, its continued existence is probably more of a political than an economic imperative with a political class using the issue to garner votes, especially from the ageing part of the population. It’s conceivable a government could buy out a person’s right to free health care by offering a once-and-for-all cash payment This could appeal to young, healthy people with no money nor perspective on the future.

The potential for political deception and manipulation is enormous. A cull of the old and sick cannot be dismissed Out of hand though doubtless it would have to be left to the “hidden hand” of market forces rather than be achieved through mass execution. The prescribing of inferior and cheaper medicine, and the withholding of health care for people over a certain age not only underlines the economic burden of health care and the cost of an ageing population, but the problem of valorisation of capital. A youthful workforce could be turned against the old and sick on the grounds that they act as a depressant on wages. All family social ties would have to be virtually sundered for this program of wrinkly-cleansing to have a chance of social success. The human consequences of the actual workings of the internal market are, however, a taste of things to come. On occasion, competing trusts award contracts to health authorities some hundreds of miles distant The Bradford Trust won the contract for Virginia Bottomley’s (Secretary of Ill-Health) constituency in the south of England, which means patients run the very real risk of being isolated from family and friends in a moment of real crisis. This example reflects the way in which isolation accumulates in society at large — just seeming to happen – without anyone shouldering responsibility or cold-bloodedly anticipating the end result. But it suits capital’s needs perfectly and a comparison with the practice of moving prisoners away from familiar localities springs to mind.

It would be instructive to draw up a list of property magnates on the boards NHS trusts. Hospitals tend to occupy prime sites, and the conversion of St Georges hospital at Hyde Park Corner during the late 70s and early 80s into a swish hotel ranks as a forerunner. Similarly, the Harrow Road hospital in west London was bulldozed and yuppie apartment blocks constructed on the site overlooking the canal. By good fortune, the building company and developer, Declan Kelly. became a victim of the property crash and to this day the wretched place has the air of a building site. There is talk of converting Charing Cross Hospital into a hotel for senior staff at Heathrow airport. It’s possible too that Withington hospital in south Manchester could be used for similar purposes serving Ringway airport. Recently, St James’ University hospital in Leeds concluded a £25 million deal with private developers over 13.5 acres of their site. Doubtless it will be treated as badly needed “proof” that the property wheeler dealings of the trusts do work, with apologists eager to point out how the deal will finance a new paediatric unit and a “ninety bed patient ‘hotel’ for low intensity care cases” – which does hint that only private patients will eventually be welcome. Nor was any mention made of a likely bonus payable to trust managers. Leeds is however a special case and the fact that land values have risen in Leeds has more to do with its runaway success as a financial centre able to challenge the City of London in some respects (going on for half of all mortgages in UK are lent by building societies based within a thirty mile radius of Leeds). In Leeds too, Tony Clegg, the ex-chair of Mountleigh property consortium, who pulled out just before its financial potential nose-dived, is still chair of Leeds General Infirmary trust after the preliminary arrangements were put together by the boss of Centaur Clothes store in Leeds.

The presence of property developers on trusts is witness to the determination to recreate all that was associated with yuppie culture. There is some recovery in commercial property but not enough to stop the majority of closed hospitals from being boarded up and left to await the return of the roaring 80s and the stratospheric property values. It could be the trusts are biding their time and drawing some hope from the wave of privatisations sweeping Europe. The majority of States – with France and Italy in the lead – seek to expand by some 20-30% the market capitalisation of Europe’s largest stock markets. However, it’s not accompanied by fanfares of “popular capitalism” to anything like the same degree as under Thatcher.

The increasingly precarious nature of NHS schemes needs to be situated the multi-nationalisation of the global economy and the reduced significance of nation State as a pro-active economic force. Globalisation is, however, fraught with competing interests and in this present phase the flow of capital vastly outweighs flow of trade. Private insurance ties in with the contemporary dominance of finance capital so different from that described by Hilferding (basically as banker to industry). Its short-termism, money making money, detracts from the goals of industrial capitalism whose relationship with the nation State is somewhat less ambivalent, needing the State as a consumer, an enactor of labour legislation and as an educator. The whole issue however remains highly complex: e.g. money markets eagerly snap up treasury auctions in credit worthy countries and therefore have a vested interest in maintaining a manageable level of government overspend which includes expenditure of health and social security.

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SOME FURTHER REFLECTIONS

When comparing the different Health Services in Europe and North America, economically the most important point to grasp is the weight accorded to insurance companies versus the degree of state subsidy. In France, each individual is charged for hospital treatment but up to 70% is then reimbursed by the state — the rest is usually paid for by the Health Insurance deducted at source by your employers. The Balladur government wants to increase the role of the insurance companies and is meeting resistance both on behalf of the employees and the employers because it will add to the wages bill. It could also be used as an argument by employers to cut wages. Superficially, when comparing Britain and France things look better here regarding treatment irrespective of ability to pay. In France, each individual is charged a nominal sum for each day they spend in hospital but this money is refunded. Ideas along French lines have been floated in Britain but, at the same time, doctors in France are given an additional increment to their salaries every time they see a patient. So it is in their interest to continually follow up patients and in that sense primary care is better in France. Some attempt will be made to limit the amount of money spent on the French Health Service because it would appear that health spending in France is, in comparison to other countries, “out of control” (but doesn’t every government say the same thing???).

In North America, feeble attempts have been made in the last thirty years or so to limit the control of insurance companies over health care. Most recently, President Clinton wanted to reduce the role of insurance companies to 80% of health care costs by 1997/8; which shows just how tepid Hilary Clinton’s reforms were before they completely collapsed. (It took less than two years in Attlee’s post WWII reforming government for a “free” NHS to come into existence in Britain)(9). In the US, it has been reckoned that the only institutional group interested in preserving the American Health Service status quo are the huge insurance companies. Many powerful industrial conglomerates in the US want a form of NHS so as to ease the burden of medical insurance for their employees. Capitalist arguments are wheeled out in support of an American NHS along the lines of firms will become more internationally competitive freed of a medical insurance burden. Firms also seek to minimise health insurance cover as part of cost cutting, and such ploys have led to strikes such as the Pittston miners’ strike of 1989. There is also a current of opinion that the control of the insurance companies in America is leading to a degree of inertia with doctors fearing writs will be taken out charging them with medical negligence in case mishap. Compensation can reach astronomical sums and lawyers love pursuing medical claims (c/f “The Verdict”, the Paul Newman film about a beat-up lawyer pursuing a claim). The whole thing becomes a never-ending spiral of increased premiums to cover law suits, with the insurance companies the main beneficiaries isn’t this, more or less, how it must be under finance capital; the final “antediluvian form of capital” as Marx put it: is it possible to return health care to an earlier more rational form of capital? All in all isn’t it the rough equation: health care funded through equity culture — with the insurance companies along with pension funds playing big on the stock exchange???).

There is another shady area – the amount spent on administration. In comparison to the NHS in Britain, the ratio of administrative cost was something percent here to twenty percent in America. The admin costs are increasing dramatically in Britain as more and more accountants are being employed, particularly fund-holding GPs. In one estimate quoted by the Economist magazine, a former personal director of the NHS, Eric Caines, has calculated that it often takes seven a half weeks(!) worth of administration to deliver an hour and half of care to patients.

The importance of insurance companies in relation to health care, and who also related to the tempo of class struggle, must be linked to notions of popular capitalism, equity culture and a recognition of the role of insurance companies in driving stock exchanges forward. Concomitant with casino capitalism, beyond the risk-taking and rapacious short-termism, is the notion that on an individual level, a person takes full responsibility for the failure of capitalism; that one introjects and moralises its desperate shortcomings; that its failure is your failure. Not to be covered by private insurance is to be guilty even though its limitations are becoming painfully obvious to more and more people (BUPA has recently removed several medical conditions from the insurance cover, such as Alzheimer’s disease). demand “free medicine” is tantamount to being a fraudster, to want “something for nothing” and hence an aspect of “welfarism” to be bracketed alongside dole scroungers, single parents, travellers and, as the net expands, the ‘sick’ and people on State pensions. Amid the hysteria over the public sector borrowing requirement, it’s forgotten that an individual’s State health insurance contribution is exactly that of BUPA assuming that the individual is employed. And what is forgotten as the welfare blitz shows no sign of abating is that one aspect of modem welfarism, as expressed within the NHS, grew out of the armies of Empire and, secondly, the need for the bourgeoisie to protect themselves from cholera epidemics etc. through general environmental improvements. Does Mrs. Bottomley seriously believe Flo Nightingale went amongst the wounded soldiery of the Crimea inspecting BUPA cards by the light of the lamp before administering treatment?

The position of the staff nurse with its faint militaristic ring has been replaced by that of the “ward manager” resonant of a business appointment. The “line manager” of an Accident and Emergency Department approximates to that of an “assembly line manager” with patients substituting for the throughput of cars. Terminally ill cancer patients receive chilling letters concerning their admission to hospital from “marketing managers.” It’s as if a fatal disease has become a marketable commodity, something henceforth to be touted on the market. A hospital closure is referred to as a “market exit”, not to carry out a life saving operation is called a “budget under-spend”. This impenetrable language is redolent with symbolist abstruseness – a stay in a hospital becomes an “episode in care” a sort of “après-midi d’un NHS” bizarrely evoked by the estranged wordsmiths of monetarism – whose aim is not to concoct some ideal reality through a language torn from its functional context – but to cover up the unspeakable. The circle closes: this inverted apocalypse of language is indebted to the euphemisms of modem warfare where to kill was to “terminate with extreme prejudice” and where villages were destroyed “in order to save them.”

The closing down of the NHS, i.e. its privatisation, inevitably forms part of the Tory government’s privatisation program. However, the economic context and the circumstances of class struggle in which the first privatisations took place and today’s projected privatisations are very different. Privatisation, beginning with British Telecom, was an ad-hoc strategy. The foot-dragging “consensus” propping up subsequent privatisations was largely manufactured through economic sweeteners. The State crudely rigged “market” price, and sections of the working class throughout the ‘80s were able to get in on asset inflation. However, other than insurance companies, no one will get rich out of the pnvatisation of the NHS. Such a thing literally tramples into dust any notion of a share owning democracy and a popular capitalism, because all the money goes straight to the fat cats as private insurance schemes are taken up. “Popular” intermediaries are dispensed with who, in previous privatisations, would sell their shares to institutions in order to make a quick buck. The privatisation of the NHS brutally emphasises the concentration of capital, not its pretended democratisation. Misguided individuals may beef about waste in the NHS – the enormous amounts of food surplus to requirements disposed of everyday is still a familiar complaint – but there isn’t even the shreds of a consensus supporting the dismantling of the NHS. The mass of people, including middle class professionals, have been bludgeoned into accepting it and behind every hospital closure, in the not too distant past, is the defeat of section after section of the working class fighting to the death in isolation. True, criticisms of the formerly “fully operational” NHS were broad and manifold, but the ease and speed with which it is being dismantled is different from the “willingness” of factory workers to accept redundancy and closure previously. Then there was an element of gladness to have done with alienated labour – now the attitude is one of resignation and the feeling all protest is hopeless. The public’s attitude is not one of “medical nemesis” — the actual shortening of life through too much medical interference – but the aghast realisation one could literally be left to die in the not too distant future. Whatever the future of the NHS – and a nurse in the UCH occupation did ask for alternative ideas on the NHS to make it more appealing — any renationalisation of health care must necessarily involve re-regulation and a hands on approach in other spheres as well, like, for instance, the stamping out of currency speculation favoured by more rational capitalists out of which insurance companies along with bank, pension and investment funds can do very well. Instead of a minimalist State, more of a maximalist State — all of which evades the vexed question of an autonomous medicine going beyond the rapidly fading institutions of the NHS. No matter how airy fairy such a notion now seems, the realisation of the good life through autonomous class struggle is inseparable from good health.

Both in psychiatry and general health care the recuperation of the everyday is very visible. (This recuperation is not merely carried out in terms of an idealised healthy person – it also carries a political meaning:— the restoration of the power of the status quo). Hospital wards at times come to resemble a homely sitting room with visitors sitting on beds, portable TVs flickering, music blaring, easy chairs at random. Nurses are far less starchy and doctors and consultants are not so sniffy. Belatedly the trauma of a stay in hospital has been recognised and a patient seen to have human and emotional needs. At the same time the gain in informality cannot cover up the dust collecting in corners, the stains, the peeling paint, the dilapidated state of the premises, the clapped out beds. In fact the informality has developed alongside reductions in staff levels. It is as if recuperation has been permitted to exist with the proviso that everything will shortly be gone – doctors, nurses, ancillary staff, equipment, even the bricks and mortar. Here, to kill is to cure. Waiting lists are abolished by closing all hospitals in an insanity which knows no bounds, and strikes are abolished by shutting down industry.

There are a myriad of other matters one could glance on. The misery of doctors enveloped in a world of serial sickness, endlessly seeing one patient after another, their loneliness, self-doubt and recrimination resulting in breakdown; disastrous love lives often leading them in middle age to pounce upon the first available member of the opposite sex. And then there are the drug company reps that prey on doctors, offering inducements like holidays in the sun, to demonstrate the virtues of some new supadrug – their stylish clothing, large salaries, persuasive selling techniques and at the end of the day nothing but the sting of conscience and alcohol.

And why haven’t doctors, consultants and hospital administrators laid bare their professional unhappiness and told it like it was? This failing they share in common with most other professional people who similarly maintain a vow of silence, leaving the rest of us to try and do it for them. It is noteworthy that Dr Chris Pallis of “Solidarity” — a member of one of the best revolutionary group/mags of the 60s – never voiced his unease at being a top consultant, as though clinical practice was immune from the vicissitudes of class struggle. When he came to write on the NHS, he used it as a vehicle to demonstrate the Cardanite thesis of ever increasing bureaucracy. And where NHS staff have written from the eye of the storm it has tended to come from within a Trotskyist perspective (e.g. “Memoirs of a Callous Picket” written by Jonathan Neale, an SWP ancillary worker (Pluto Press, 1983) and Dave Widgery’s account “Some Lives” of what it was like to be a GP in a poverty stricken East London borough), Only recently have more autonomous critiques started to appear, and let’s hope we’ll see a lot more of them when things really start to come to the boil…

Unfortunately, most people (and with all the so-called ‘reforms’ the numbers grow by the minute) still have some kind of faith that the Labour Party, once in power, is going to ride into the fray on a white charger and clear up the mess, bringing about free health care, building hospitals everywhere. Don’t believe it. Basically, they are going to take over the ‘reforms’ managing the ‘unaccountable’ trusts with a phalanx of the their own personnel. After all, it was ad hoc Labour Party initiatives (pretending to be grass roots and independent) on urban regeneration and single issues in the 60s and 70s that brought to prominence the para—state (as it was then known) which became the precursors of the now notorious and much more powerful (lucratively funded) quangos, staffed with failed government cadres. Obviously, the Labour Party will change to some degree the form and content of the trusts, making them more publicly acceptable (perhaps doing away with the two-tier system and GP fundholding practices?), but any real rebellion from below concerning wages, staffing levels, etc., will the direction of health care, some Leeds health workers asked John Battle – a Leeds Labour MP and Labour left winger — if the Party on coming to power would abolish the trusts. Battle looked as though he’d swallowed a bee accusing them of being wreckers destroying the Health Service – and this at a time when the same health workers were daily facing the new brutalism of trust management… Is this the shape of things to come?

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Appendix 1

Shortly after the first occupation ended, one of the occupiers, who is a member of Wildcat (a ‘revolutionary journal’) wrote an article about the events (“Managers and unions act in unison” — by “RB”). The article was originally intended to be published in the next issue (no.17) of Wildcat but in the end it was left out. The article is quite critical of the occupiers and our failures – and there’s nothing wrong with that, except that unfortunately most of the criticism is based on a misunderstanding of the real facts of the situation. But never mind about that – we respond to a more important point of view in the article, concerning the question of organisation.

In Wildcat no.17 several pages were devoted to the journal defending it against accusations from others that they are vanguardists; that is, that they believe the working class is in need of their political leadership. Wildcat, who are neither Leninists or anarchists but call themselves (anti-State) communists, say in their defence, “the most vehement anti-Leninists usually share many of the conceptions of Leninism. In particular they share an obsession with the division between politically conscious people (such as themselves) and the masses. They see the central question as being how the former relate to the latter. Do they lead them organisationally? (Leninism); do they lead them on the plane of ideas? (Anarchism); do they refuse to lead them? (councilism)… They assume that everyone else is obsessed with the question as well: ‘Wildcat have evidently found that their ideas and attitudes little impact on the mass of workers around them…’ Who do they think we are – the SWP?” Now contrast this with their statements in their article about the UCH occupation: “We should have set up an occupation committee, and tried to ensure its domination by the more politically advanced people involved, in other words, by ourselves.” This hard-talk after the event is a mask for an inability to transcend the limits of the situation any more than anyone else. In fact, RB waited until after the strikers were forced back to work by Unison before distributing to some of them Wildcat’s “Outside and Against the Unions” pamphlet – again copying the ‘I-told-you-so’ arrogant attitude of the leftists.

Its not surprising this article was left out of the magazine — it wouldn’t have sat very well next to their claims of not being vanguardist. These sentiments, plus Wildcat’s own usual obsession with “the division between politically conscious people… and the masses” were echoed by other statements in their UCH article.

“If the working class can be led into socialism, then they can just as easily be led out of it again.” – Eugene Debs

For us, we hate the left because their tactics always seek to destroy the subversive, autonomous content of struggles – and without that content the struggle is headed for defeat. But for Wildcat it seems that the left is a problem simply because their ideas and long term goals are wrong: they want to use similar tactics towards different ends. We know that the left’s influence on struggles often alienates, drains and demoralises people who have to deal with their manipulations — but RB obviously thinks it’s not important if the mass of the working class has a relationship to its own struggles similar to that of a passive TV viewer to their set — as long as they can be prodded and made to act in a prescribed way the “politically advanced” can win struggles by their domination. This is a logic shared by trade unionists, the SWP and political specialists in general.

We know that the leftist party machines always have a separate hidden agenda to pursue in struggles — recruitment, self-publicity, etc., and they believe they are the necessary vanguard that must lead the masses. It seems that RB would like to be the ultra leftist vanguard that outflanks the left – instead of a rigid party machine, a more fluid structure of ultra leftist militants dominating struggles, like “invisible pilots at the centre of the storm.” Wildcat often say they are against democracy, partly because it submits all activity to the will of a majority. But to counter this by seeking to submit all activity to the will of a “politically advanced” minority is no solution at all.

RB rightly says that the SWP managed to “destroy the atmosphere of the occupation, an intangible but important thing” – one wonders what kind of appealing atmosphere his plans for an occupation dominated by the politically advanced would create?

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UCH Songs (by Jean)

To the tune of “John Brown’s Body”

Verse 1

The crisis at the UCH is looking very grave,
They want to close the hospital for the pennies it will save,
But we won’t forget the union for the support they never gave,
When they would not back the strike.

Chorus

Un-i-son sold out the nurses
Un-i-son sold out the nurses
Un-i-son sold out the nurses
Cos that’s what scum they are.

Verse 2

Now Marshal down in management is looking very smug,
But when he dealt with nurses he was acting like a thug,
If he thinks he’ll get away with that, then he must be a mug,
‘Cos he cannot blackmail us.

Chorus 2

Marshal blackmailed all the nurses
Marshal blackmailed all the nurses
Marshal blackmailed all the nurses
‘Cos that’s the scum he is.

Verse 3

Now its up to the people, to do what we think right,
Nothing’s going to close again without a bloody fight,
If we have to occupy, we’ll be there day and night,
For we shall not give in.

Chorus 3

UCH is for the people
UCH is for the people
UCH is for the people
So we’re going to take it back.

—————————————————–

To the tune of “Daisy, Daisy”

Marshal, Marshal, give in your notice, do,
We’re quite crazy, ‘cos of the likes of you,
You’re too busy protecting your purses,
When you should be supporting your nurses,
Resign – resign – you waste of time,
And the rest of your management too.
Unison, Unison, give us your answer, do,
We’re quite crazy, ‘cos of the likes of you,
If you won’t back the hospital strike,
You’d better get on your bike,
Get real, get real, or else you’ll feel,
Some action directed at you.

—————————————————————————

To the tune of “My old man said follow the van”

Uni-son said, “We’ll back your strike,
And we won’t dilly dally with your pay,”
But six weeks later they withdrew support,
Then they dillied and dallied
Dallied and they dillied,
Done some deals with Marshal on the way,
Now they can’t trust the union,
Not to stitch them up,
Or blackmail them to stay.

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Dedicated (2006) to Jean Blache, RIP, Beattie, RIP, and to all others who also participated in the UCH struggle.

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FOOTNOTES

slightly edited by past tense

1) This wasn’t the first occupation of a hospital: there are other incidences worthy of a mention. The women’s hospital, the Elizabeth Garret Anderson, close by UCH, was the scene of a long and successful work-in in the mid to late 70s, and it would be worth getting together some of the real analysis of that struggle. Also, Thornton View nursing home in Bradford was occupied during 1984/5 when faced with closure. The strike lasted marginally longer than the miners’ strike taking place at the same time. Leaflets given out by the strikers constantly called for an open picket but despite this, health care wasn’t revolutionised by the occupation — a nursing officer continued to visit to keep an eye on the nursing, and strict divisions were maintained between staff, patients and general public – although this is a very difficult problem in such a life or death situation. The occupation was brutally broken at night just after the miners’ strike was finished off. Worse than that, it was also done in a snow storm and allegedly one or two patients died after the ordeal. Also, in 1979, there had been an occupation of a geriatric community hospital in Oxon.

past tense note: Some 20 hospitals were occupied in the late 1970s-mid 1980s, including the Elizabeth Garret Anderson Women’s Hospital (over the Euston Road from UCH), Hounslow, Hayes, Northwood & Pinner, the South London Women’s Hospital, St Leonards Hackney… See also: Occupational Hazards, a past tense dossier on UK hospital occupations, which is still available to buy in paper form here, or can be downloaded as a PDF here

2) A nurse from Yorkshire isn’t so sure about this and likens the managers he’s come across as having some sort of Christian Fundamentalist look about them and seem to act from a conviction that is quite crazy. Some of the courses they go on operate very much like “psychobabble cults” creating in the manager a personal dependence on the managerial culture to the extent that breaking with it summons up imaginings of self-annihilation.

3) On one occasion a rally was led indoors for a “meeting” (in fact a speech from a UCH union branch secretary – a SWerP who was not on strike) ensuring that the march started in an orderly way and ended up in a nice quiet rally with a variety of SWP speakers. For a later one, large enough to be interesting, the union had a car ready which drove through to the front to take control — just as some nurses were about to march off without waiting for their orders. At the end of this march nurses and others continued past the rally to block Victoria Embankment The cops were willing to stop the traffic but the branch stewards called everyone back to listen to boring Frank Dobson MP with the excuse that the union had threatened to drop support for any future actions.

4) Other people who we met much later on, after the occupation, and who had been to some of the very early UCH rallies and seen large numbers of SWerPs drafted in to attend them – they also assumed that the occupation was merely another SWP publicity stunt, and so not worth getting involved in.

5) There was one nice guy, an SWP member who had been in the occupation since the beginning, who felt the same way as the rest of us about the Party hacks coming in and spoiling things – he walked off in disgust saying he was finished with the Party.

6) For a good examination of the SWP’s crass opportunism see Carry On Recruiting! byTrotwatch; AK Press and Trotwatch 1993.

7) We were also able to get some strikers (including even one or two of the more open minded SWerPs) to question how relationships between them and us, health workers and health users, between different kinds of groups, etc., could work better.

8) For more information on Welcome, see Dirty Medicine by Martin Walker; available from Slingshot Publications, BM Box 8314, London WC1N 3XX — price £15 (729 pages). This book is sub-titled “Science, Big Business and the assault on Natural Health Care” and describes the harassment, persecution and dirty tricks used against those who seek to offer alternative health treatments that could challenge the domination of industrial-medical giants like Wellcome. The persecuted have included those who come from orthodox medical backgrounds and also those patients who have received effective treatment after conventional drug-based medicine had given up on them. It also details the scandals surrounding the introduction of the “anti-AIDS” drug AZT, its lack of proper testing and the dubious claims made for it. (One criticism of the book is that it misses out the complexities and strengths of the struggles by AIDS activists in the USA. See for example Larry Kramer’s Reports From the Holocaust.) It reveals the systematic attacks and slanders made on the producers of health foods, vitamin supplements and alternative treatments, very often orchestrated by those directly or indirectly in the pay of the processed food industry and drug companies. (Duncan Campbell, the investigative “journalist”, although not with any obvious financial interest, has been particularly active in these shady activities). Wellcome, with their extensive contacts amongst the British ruling elite, dominate medical education and research here – and therefore have a very strong influence on the functioning of the NHS and the nature of its treatment. The author has recently said that “Although, as a socialist, I am committed to the NHS, I’m also in favour of choice and I know that for many of our present-day illnesses, drugs cannot be the answer” (Evening Standard, l4/2/94). Reading his book has only reinforced our feelings that the slogan “Defend the NHS” is far too simplistic in the long run. We must fight for what we have plus a whole lot more, but eventually we have to ask — what kind of free health care do we need and how do we get it? The often toxic and dangerous, profit motivated production line treatment promoted by the scientific-medical establishment is mainly concerned with the maintenance of people to keep them functioning as efficient, productive members of capitalist society. This has nothing to do with healthy living. The book Dirty Medicine is highly recommended.

9) Although it was the Labour Party that brought in the NHS, it was originally the idea of Beveridge, a Liberal and an extension of the post-1906 Liberal government’s introduction of health insurance. Moreover, Bevan, Attlee’s Health Minister, did a deal with the pro-Tory British Medical Association to retain private patients and private beds within NHS hospitals. Bevan said “I stuffed their mouths with gold”: doctors were now being paid for work they’d done in the voluntary hospitals for free, plus they kept the fees for their private work. And this has been the basis for the more fully fledged two-tier system we have today.

======================

Appendix 2

UCH post 1995: The Cruciform building was purchased by UCL, for use as the home for the Wolfson Institute for Biomedical Research and the teaching facility for UCL bioscience and medical students UCL Medical School.

A new 75,822 m² hospital, UCLH, procured under the Private Finance Initiative in 2000, designed by Llewelyn Davies Yeang and built by a joint venture of AMEC and Balfour Beatty at a cost of £422 million, opened in 2005. 

In November 2008, the £70 million Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Wing was opened, allowing the hospital to offer all women’s health services in one place (except some breast and gynaecology services).

SO – yes, a hospital stands roughly where UCH stood. But the PFI deal under which it was built is making vast profits – money being removed from the NHS. Health Management (UCLH) Ltd., which runs the new UCH, made £139.7 million in pre-tax profits between 2010 and 2015 alone. Between 2005 – 2015 the NHS Trust responsible for UCH paid £724.8 million for it, out of which Health Management made £190.4 million. The capital value of the hospital according to the Treasury is £292 million. Typically PFI deals are taking some 25-50 years to pay back, the interest on the initial funding dwarfing the amount ‘lent’ at the start. A lovely New Labour idea.
The returns for PFI contracts are high even though the risks are low once construction is completed, as the government guarantees the payments, save in exceptional circumstances.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Save Reginald, Save Tidemill: resisting new enclosures and the destruction of social housing in Deptford

NB: Tidemill Community Garden was evicted by hundreds of police and bailiffs on 29th October 2018. This post was written shortly before that eviction.
The struggle around Reginald House continues…

**********************

Users of Tidemill Community Wildlife Garden in Deptford, South London, are currently occupying the garden round the clock, the latest stage of their long struggle to keep the garden from being destroyed by Lewisham Council as part of a regeneration plan which would also see the demolition of the neighbouring council block of flats. The battle to protect Tidemill Garden and Reginald House focuses several of the most crucial struggles being fought at the moment in London – resistance to the destruction of social housing, the privatisation, exploitation & destruction of open space, gentrification and the social re-ordering of many areas of the city. (NB: None of which is unique to London – being worldwide phenomena…)

Open space is vital in London, in the city. Literally a lifesaver, Parks, commons, woods, from the heaths to the slivers of green at the edge of the canals… Green places in the heart of London, places of refuge, pleasure, places for picnics, barbecues, learning, meeting, playgrounds for wildlife and people … When work and stress and all the other shite rises up and threatens to overwhelm you… you can lie on your back while the wind dances in the trees. When you’ve got no garden, when your family drives you nuts, sick of pointless work and all the abuse, exploitation and suffering in the world – or when you just love the grass. For the mad endless football matches, falling out of trees, hide and seek as the sun dapples the moss; for dancing round your phone in the summer evenings… wiping the tear away as your daughter’s bike wobbles round the lake for the first time, even for when you’re masochistic enough to go running on rainy mornings…

The benefits of having access to open green space are obvious, for exercise, physical and mental health and wellbeing, learning about and connecting to wildlife and nature (all too rare in the city), having somewhere green to just relax; quite apart from the playgrounds, sports facilities, water features, running tracks… even the bloody festivals sometimes when they don’t trash the grass and lock us out for half the summer…

Trees and plants also obviously contribute to air quality and help reduce pollution, as mature trees absorb carbon emissions from vehicles… not to mention just being beautiful, sometimes climbable, a relief from the brick and sandstone, concrete and glass…

The parks and greens maintained by councils and other official bodies are crucial enough, despite the bylaws that hem you in there, the financial pressures that lead to massive commercial festivals that lock the big parks off for weeks on end…

There’s the wilderness too, where it survives, or has fought back to wreath old factories or abandoned lots, half-demolished estates in green and growth… This wildness in London has been vanishing more and more, it made a comeback from post-world war two to the 80s, often on bombsites, or where industry was closed down… A strange hopeful beauty, we used to trespass, explore, and sometimes build in.

Even more precious than either of the above, maybe, is the space that people create themselves, communally, working together, learning and building and planning. Many such spaces were created from abandoned land, some were originally squatted or more or less occupied, often bit by bit, gradually taken over, where money and authority had forgotten or lost interest, or simply didn’t have the resources to exploit or use. Like the squatting of houses from the 70s onward, small scale community spaces were created, here and there, sometimes evicted or given institutional blessing and becoming ‘official’.

New enclosures

As with resistance to enclosures in previous centuries, the wholesale removal of access to vast areas of land for large numbers of people, in the interests of the wealthy, the nominal owners, the rich, urban free spaces can also become contested. If some were granted some kind of legal status, this has not protected them forever from the possibility of being cleared, built on, lost. Just as cash-strapped or money-hungry councils see big parks as piggy banks that can be milked, self-created spaces are often viewed as awkward, unproductive, not neat and tidy-looking, lowering the tone, run by amateurs who don’t understand. And taking up space that could be put to more profitable use. By people who know best and should just be allowed to get on with planning our lives for us.

The freely given and collective effort put into creating and maintaining small community-run spaces, and making sure they are kept free and open runs counter to this. It’s not always easy and can stall or lose momentum, but its spirit is often lovely and inspiring. Councils pay lip service to this spirit because they know it’s bad PR to say what is really often thought in the offices and boardrooms – that this spirit is annoyingly uncontrolled and gets in the way of properly ordered progress and fiscal good sense. In this sense, while in theory many larger or smaller open green spaces are ‘publicly owned’ – ie owned by public bodies like councils – there is a chasm, its not ours, in the legal sense, though people who use and enjoy space often feel that it is ours, collectively, emotionally. Enclosure was often resisted in two parallel strands – common land (always in fact owned by someone) had developed customary uses over time, which people took to be legal rights, and some went to court to oppose enclosure on that basis. Others felt that whatever the law said about who owned a piece of land and could do what they want with it, it was theirs, collectively, because they had always used it and so had generations before them, and would right to maintain that – often with direct action, sabotage, sometimes with violence. Both strands had their successes, in truth, in saving many places we still know and love today. But often people had to go beyond what the law said was ownership to assert the collective ownership they felt and had experienced, an often  contradictory jumble of realities which law, contract, statute and certificate don’t and can’t quantify. This remains a central question in many struggles, whether its about housing, space, work…

Tidemill and Reginald 

So – Lewisham council are planning to demolish Reginald House and Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden, and on the site of the old Tidemill Primary School, which closed in 2012, near to the centre of Deptford.

The Tidemill garden was created in 1997, designed with the involvement of parents, pupils and teachers at Tidemill school. For a long time it was considered worthy of support by official bodies, being funded by Groundwork, the London Development Agency, the Foundation for Sport & Arts, Mowlem plc, Lewisham College — and Lewisham Council, which invested £100,000 in it in 2000.

The garden has matured, and now contains 74 well-established trees. In August 2017, it was cited as a case study for the importance of “Children at Play” in the GLA Greener City Fund prospectus, and it also has the support of organisations including the Council for the Protection of Rural England and the London Wildlife Trust. Pupils from the new Tidemill School have used the garden for many educational projects.

Some great pix of the Garden and some recent events here

Go, Move, Shift!

If the development plans go ahead, the residents of Reginald House will lose their homes, and a unique community wildlife garden will be destroyed. The vast majority of the residents of Reginald House and the users of the garden want the plans to be re designed in partnership with the community – to build the same or more social homes, but keep Reginald House and Tidemill Garden. The new plans trumpet the inclusion of new green space – but much of this will be private gardens (guess which tenure they will be for?) or playspaces for residents only, and the open access space planned is much smaller, includes no mature trees, much of it will be paved, sterile and free of the pesky wildlife and unplanned growth Tidemill hosts. And privately owned…

As Caroline Jupp has written: “The proposed green space to replace this extra-ordinary garden is named a ‘pocket park’ in the developer’s plans…. The sterility of many contemporary architect designed parks and gardens is not conducive to outdoor play. I have seen how the planted public areas on my newly built estate become dead zones. But here, in Old Tidemill Gardens, there are ponds, gazebos, tree houses, composting bins, greenhouse, sheds, climbing trees, undergrowth and wilderness, all to nurture play and kinship with nature. Why demolish this green space, used so regularly by schools and the community, and replace it with a neat pocket park? Local residents and visitors all value this community space, want to be its gardeners, and have a real stake in how it evolves. In contrast, most designs of contemporary green spaces don’t encourage the involvement of users, with with their choice of low-maintenance planting. No doubt, the keepers and sweepers of the proposed new park will be an out-sourced company…”
(from Buddleia Bulletin, no 4, ‘Tree House’, 2018, Caroline Jupp. The 5 issues of Buddleia Bulletin are well worth a read, and all proeeds from sales go to the Tidemill campaign…)

They and many supporters have been campaigning to prevent the demolition since 2014, when Lewisham signed a deal with Family Mosaic Home Ownership (a private spin-off of Family Mosaic Housing Association), which would have seen the currently ‘publicly owned’ land sold off cheaply. Through murky secret Development Agreements, Family Mosaic lies, council refusal to listen to the community’s protests or allow the residents of Reginald House to be balloted on the plan, the campaign has gained strength, drawing up alternative plans which would transform the re-development, keeping the gardens and allowing for more social housing. Since 2015, the local community has had a lease on the garden for “meanwhile use”, but despite granting this as a stopgap, Lewisham council, has refused to seriously entertain any alternative plan.

The subsequent new homes built under the initial plan would have had only 11% social housing, and the community resistance has forced the developers and council to increase this several times, and alter other aspects to try to deflect the opposition. Family Mosaic has since merged with Peabody Housing (housing associations are joining up to create ever large mega-monsters, raising rents and becoming more and more openly property companies). But the plan has remained, and the processes of planning and law have ground on.

Peabody now intends to build 209 units of new housing on the site, of which 51 will be for private sale, with 41 for shared ownership, and 117 at what is described as “equivalent to social rent”. This last is not in fact true –  rents on the last category will fall under London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s London Affordable Rent, around 63% higher than existing council rents in Lewisham.

Here’s an account by a resident facing losing her home: https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/2018/08/14/the-planned-demolition-of-your-home-has-so-many-repercussions/

The Middle Class Are Eating Your Street Again

It’s true there’s a housing crisis in London (and in the UK generally) – but currently councils, including Lewisham, are responding by planning homes that those who need them will never afford. The Tidemill proposals fall in with the trend to demolish social housing, with secure tenancies, and replace it mainly with private flats, sprinkled with some housing association tenancies or ‘shared ownership’, ‘affordable’ housing’ that isn’t affordable. A handy outcome of this is the slow replacement of working class people and those on lower incomes with more middle class or wealthy types, who help make the place more economically attractive to money, business and ‘exciting’ and ‘vibrant’. Ie everywhere starts to look as empty and soulless as everywhere else.

Many of the displaced end up crammed in to smaller spaces but paying more, moving to forsaken spots far out on London’s edge, or forced out of town entirely.

Deptford, for centuries a working class area, has stubbornly remained a mixed and interesting place, despite several decades of creeping gentrification. It’s a frontline of contestation, between profit and residents, planners and people, development and the precarious places and existences people make for themselves. There’s land there that greedy eyes see can be made much more of; but also where public officials see unproductivity that could be turned into assets. Occupied and used by people who they see as taking up space a better class of person could be making more of.

London needs homes, yes, but for rents we can afford, in the communities we want to live in, without destroying everything that makes those places a joy to live in. And there is plenty of housing lying empty in the capital. It’s owned by the wealthy, by property developers and corporations. Second homes and flats for business jollies. Palaces with hundreds of rooms for a couple of parasites.

Housing is not generally built for need, its built for profit. Attempts by councils, ‘social landlords’ like housing associations to alter this cannot be built on alliances with huge private developers or turning themselves into private developers and make any noticeable dent in the gradual erosion (now more of a landslide) of genuine social housing provision. Labour bollocks about ballots is smokescreening their complicity almost everywhere with social cleansing and love affairs with greedy property speculators.

It’ll take more than voting in any Corbyns or Sadiq Khans to push that back. It can only be based in people at the grassroots like at Tidemill and any number of struggles around London. And it’s hard, and often loses. It needs people to stand by them who aren’t facing that process themselves (remembering that social housing and open space are a collective legacy, a commons, the fruit of centuries of battling and campaigning, and belong not just to those who live or work or play there but to all of us, in common). And it needs to open the question of who the city is FOR, and challenge fundamental assumptions about housing, space, who owns things, who runs things…

The fight to keep Tidemill does closely echo the battle against enclosures of previous centuries. people have built up space, created uses for it, helped to survive through using it, built up emotional and practical ties to it. But the forces of cold financial or bureaucratic progress sees all that as irrelevant, counting only the hard cash or the planning gains. These days our years of struggle have made them more wary of proclaiming their contempt openly, so there’s lots of gloss and schmooze. But still bailiffs, fences and men with sticks to knock you down hiding round the corner, if you don’t buy their bullshit.

Ballots Not Bollocks?

Lewisham’s Labour council has refused to allow residents of Reginald House a ballot on the plans, though 80% of them don’t want their homes destroyed. This makes a mockery of Jeremy Corbyn and London mayor Sadiq Khan’s promise of ballots to all tenants on estates facing demolition. Khan endorsed the idea of ballots only for estates whose regeneration involves GLA funding – the Tidemill plan does involve GLA funding. But the mayor stealthily approved the destruction of 34 estates — including Reginald House — before his new policy took effect.  Lewisham also now has a stated policy of ballots on demolition: but not for Tidemill and Reginald. Tenants and leaseholders in Reginald House have also been effectively denied repairs since 2015 despite paying rent and service charges…

Instead, Lewisham Council’s cabinet approved the current plans last September, and terminated the community’s lease on the garden on August 29 this year.

Not Removing

Instead of handing the keys back, however, members of the local community occupied the garden, and are fighting court battles to prevent the demolition. They have crowdfunded over £10,000 to launch a Judicial Review of the planning application, but need more to help pay for this… In the latest court appearance, the judge confirmed the council’s right to possession of the garden, he ruled that it cannot take place until seven days after a High Court judge holds an oral hearing at which campaigners will seek permission to proceed to a judicial review of the legality of the council’s plans. This oral hearing will take place on October 17… they may be allowed to proceed with the Review, they may not…

Pledge some cash for this legal battle – the campaign’s Crowd Justice fundraising page is here: https://www.crowdjustice.com/case/save-reginald-save-tidemill/.

The Garden is now constantly occupied, with events happening all the time, displays on the history and ecology of the garden, and treehouses being built, banners being painted, and much more… A lovely and inspiring fight. If the court case doesn’t proceed, it will not be the end – far from it…

Four years of campaigning are now coming to the sharp point – the community is determined to resist the destruction of the garden, and this may well come to blockading the garden and trying to prevent their eviction physically. They need not only cash for the legal challenge, but help, support, publicity…

Contact the campaign: savereginaldsavetidemill@gmail.com

Phone: 07739 469097

https://www.facebook.com/savetidemill/

There’s more on the campaign, and other interesting current events in Deptford, here too:

https://novaramedia.com/2018/09/13/the-battle-for-deptford-and-beyond/

http://crossfields.blogspot.com/

https://deptfordischanging.wordpress.com/

http://www.andyworthington.co.uk/2018/09/28/30-days-into-the-occupation-of-deptfords-old-tidemill-garden-campaigners-celebrate-court-ruling-delaying-eviction-until-oct-24/

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The community demands:

“Refurbish Reginald House, give residents a ballot Reginald House residents have good homes, but council has refused to listen to them or to consider a plan which keeps their homes. Instead the residents have been lied to and harassed by council officers, and their homes run down. Lewisham Council should respect its residents’ needs and wishes and not break up communities. As in other developments, residents must be given a ballot on regeneration plans.

Keep Old Tidemill Wildlife Garden a community garden for ALL Any redevelopment must include, not bulldoze, the thriving Garden which was built in the 1990’s by local people, teachers, parents and kids from Tidemill School. An alternative architectural plan shows how the garden and Reginald Road CAN be kept by building on the playground and developing the old school buildings. This area has some of the highest pollution levels in London, which will only get worse if the garden is lost. And the green space on the site should be kept public, not transformed into private gardens as under the current plans.

Public land, and public money, should be 100% used for the benefit of the public Lewisham Council want to sell this land, meaning a valuable public asset will be lost forever. Millions of pounds of public money is being spent to subsidise this development, behind a cloak of secrecy due to the ‘confidentiality clauses’ of the Council’s private partners. This land should be redeveloped in partnership with the community – to build as many social homes as possible but keep our invaluable current homes and community Garden.

We want the council and developers to truly partner with the community to redraw the plans for the site!”

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In case you’re interested…

… check out some other posts on historical resistance to enclosure of open space in London

Today in London educational history, 1968: students occupy Hornsey Art College.

On May 28th 1968, Hornsey Art College, in Crouch End, North London, was occupied by students and some staff. The occupation lasted until July 12 1968. The sit-in led to six weeks of intense debate, extended confrontation with the local authorities and even questions in Parliament.

Here are two brief accounts of the occupation – by participants:

Nick Wright’s account:

“In May 28 1968 students at Hornsey College of Art in North London – in a building now (1988) occupied by the TUC Education Centre – began a 24 hour work-in. The limited aims of the protest – for student control of student union funds – rapidly gave way to a deeper demand for thorough changes in the college regime and in art and design education. A dramatic shift of mood took place as students from the far flung outposts of the college came together across boundaries imposed by age, status, specialism and geography. A feeble attempt by the Vice Principal to re-establish his personal authority by threatening the assembled students resulted only in his eviction from the building. The startled students found themselves in occupation. The ancien regime fled. Twenty four hours seemed too little time to discuss everything.

Six weeks later the occupation was broken. Barbed wire and alsations enforced a six month’s lockout while the Conservative controlled council backed the college authorities in a thorough-going purge which closed departments, exiled teachers and expelled student activists.

Three strands of pedagogical thinking converged in the manifestos of the Hornsey College of Art students in May 1968. The first, partly derived from the reforming trends in progressive education, was nurtured by the movement for the common school. It argued for the elimination of GCE entrance qualifications and rejected examinations in art history and general studies. The egalitarian foundation of this idea was based upon a common experience of art and design students that their secondary education prepared them poorly for a higher education in the visual arts – that methods of assessment derived from the stratified structure of formal academic education were inappropriate and that entry should be open.

The second derived from a diffused idea that art and design constituted a discrete activity within higher education and could legitimately be considered separately from academic or technical and scientific studies by virtue of the special character of art.

The third constituted design, a specific activity and discipline distinct from fine art, admitted the historical continuities but took the machine and the built environment as a starting point for a celebration of a new rationality. This trend borrowed rather uncritically from emergent de-schooling trends, psycho-analytic theory, critiques of consumer culture, trans-atlantic notions of network learning and cybernetics.

These concepts were in daily contradiction with the art school regime and with the dominant trend among the rapidly expanding corps of art educationalists and art school administrators who were wedded to a rather narrow vocationalism.

Students were divided by the institutions, into two basic camps. The first followed courses leading to a Diploma in Art and Design (Dip AD), others followed courses leading to lower grade vocational regional certificates.

The distinction between the two kinds of student. was maintained physically – in Hornsey they studied in different buildings – and by quite different curricula. Generally speaking, vocational students were draw more from the locality, were less likely to be from well-off middle class families, were expected to eventual fill lower and intermediate positions in the expanding design world and followed a course whose narrow vocationalism was mitigated by a token nod in the direction of general studies.

By way of contrast Dip A D students were supposed to be degree equivalent. They received a mandatory grant – the most significant mark of academic respectability – but few were convinced that art and design education was comparable to university studies. Many students and almost all the administrators thought of degree equivalence as the key to comparability – in career advancement, in salary advancement, in salary levels and promotion prospects.

Two powerful currents fought out a subterranean battle in art schools. One held to the traditional centrality of fine art studies with vestiges of the atelier system enshrined in the peculiar status accorded painting and sculpture students and teachers. Hornsey prided itself on the large number of established or up-and-coming names who taught part-time. Drawn mostly from abstract expressionist and non-figurative trends they played an important part in the marketing of Hornsey as a prestige institution.

However, fine art studies played a declining and subordinate role in the life of the college. Painting and sculpture students were based at the Alexandra Palace building, they laboured in a shanty town of individually constructed work spaces in a huge hanger like hall. Some even constructed roofs to their work wombs, others preferred to work at home. As a metaphor for the dominant thinking among fine art student this peculiar perversion of the People’s Palace into an Arndale Centre of individualistic fine art boutiques is highly appropriate.

A second current placed design at the centre of curriculum. In part this was a mere reflection of the market lead pressures on the college to turn out a range of design specialists – in part it derived from the centrality accorded to basic design skills and visual research studies by the Modern Movement. Graphic design studies were based at a scruffy Civil Defence building on the North Circular Road. Graphics was run by administrators of staggering mediocrity but taught by part-time lecturers with one foot in the real world of commodity fetishism. To a greater or lesser extent the professional ideologies of fashion and industrial design dominated the design departments at Hornsey. There existed a striking discontinuity between the fashionable image of the college and the poverty of its buildings.

It has become conventional to attribute the Hornsey occupation, the Guilford strike which rapidly followed, the outbreak of similar manifestations throughout much of the art school world as somehow connected with the May and June events in France. Undoubtedly there was a resonance. But it would be misleading to suggest that these developments were in some essential sense spontaneous. They were characterized by a certain spontaneity – as is all mass action – as is all protest and revolt. But as with all social movements, the qualitative leap into dynamic action was preceded by, conditioned by, a slow accretion of signs – secret and public – that change was needed. In the case of Hornsey, the May 28 revolt was paradoxically and in part the product of an alliance between students, staff and the principal. He was a curious blend of petty minded ambition, obsessive bureaucrat and quite striking imagination. Self-promotion was fused with a sense of historical moment into a formidable drive for resources and publicity for Hornsey.

In 1967 his plans were threatened by a plan to incorporate Hornsey into a new polytechnic to be formed by amalgamation with Hendon and Enfield colleges of technology. Quite correctly, he and the corps of senior administrators, saw the Polytechnic Plan as a threat to their position. Enfield, in particular was run by a pair of high powered academic sharks, public advocates of polytechnic education, and well connected politically. The Hornsey incompetents would have been eaten alive.

Students and staff had other worries. Real concerns, about job security, status within the institution for art and design studies, and the future of art and design education as a discrete discipline were mixed up with daft Utopian ideas about the uniqueness of art education and the supposedly special character of art students as bearers of universal values in a machine age. An uneasy alliance came into being. The student union – which had gradually acquired a more politically experienced leadership and established contacts with the NUS and other London art colleges – organised a series of departmental meetings and demonstrations at the Wood Green civic centre to protest against the Polytechnic Plan. The principal and senior staff gave silent sanction to the protests. Theory and arguments were provided by a group of younger teachers; designers and general studies tutors in the main.

The campaign never stood a chance of success in the long term. However, it created a new atmosphere in the college. Cross departmental links were made, the experience of mass action generated new interest in the student union and strengthened membership of the teachers association. Delegations from Hornsey attended the annual NUS conferences and the newly instituted art colleges conference. The pressure for student participation in the college government began to be felt at departmental level and raised expectations among junior and part time staff that they too might gain access to power. A college chapter of the Radical Students Alliance was formed and its banner began to appear at anti-apartheid and Vietnam solidarity rallies. An art student candidate stood in the local elections to publicise the case for the college’s independence. A £100 (four times a policeman’s wage in 1967) was collected from students by the Young Communist League to buy a motorbike for the Viet Cong.

The case for student participation had been hammered out in a series of policy statements between the NUS and various associations of educationalists and local authorities. But these weighty documents had little effect on the college regime or the Conservative worthies on Haringey Council. The college continued to be run by diktat and informal committee. The Bursar and Vice Principal unilaterally ended the convention whereby the student union president was granted a year’s sabbatical and paid from the student union funds. By vetoing the president’s sabbatical the college authorities created a conflict over the issue of student union autonomy at precisely the moment when students wanted to play a more active part in running the college. Consequently, pressures which had been diffused at departmental level became focussed on this single question.

The rupture in conventional college life came about over the issue of student union autonomy but behind this lay more substantial issues. A constant thread in discussion throughout the Polytechnic Plan campaign -and a big part of the broader education debates led by teachers unions and the NUS was the issue of the binary system in higher education. Criticism was focused on the Polytechnic Plan precisely because it seemed to further institutionalise the disparity in resources and status which existed between universities and public sector colleges. Buried within this discussion were echoes of the controversies over comprehensive secondary education. It seemed as if a high proportion of Hornsey students came from outside London and from working classes and lower middle class backgrounds. A rather diffused sense of deprivation fused with more local and departmental concerns to produce a general demand for change.

Recovering the rather prosaic foundations of the Hornsey revolt from the spontaneist myths of ‘68 should not obscure the extraordinary boldness and imagination of the students and staff. The foundation of their discontent lay in the failure of the art and design education system to reconcile the contradictory pressures for vocational training and increased specialisation with the need for a broad education. Their demands were broadly democratic in character, their tactics strikingly original, their reserves of courage and organisational ability constantly surprising. As innocents they made the classic mistake of substituting dreams for reality, elevating the tactic of occupation to a principle and believing that an agreement with a more powerful adversary would hold. As a consequence they were defeated. But it is the victors who are forgotten.”

Nick Wright went to Hornsey College of Art in 1965 to study graphic design and typography. He became Secretary of the HCA Student Union in 1966 and President in 1967. In 1969 following the student occupation of the college the authorities obtained a High Court injunction preventing him from entering the premises. Fifteen years later he returned to Middlesex Polytechnic and completed his degree before taking an MA in Art History at Sussex University.

Hornsey College of Art uprising, by David Page

“On 28 May 1968, at Hornsey College of Art, what was to have been a one-day teach-in turned into a six-week occupation. There was a parallel occupation at Guildford School of Art, and the action spread rapidly round most of the art and design colleges in England in various forms. It produced two books, a film, an exhibition at the ICA, newspaper and magazine articles, demonstrations and street events, television interviews, a large number of educational documents containing analysis and proposals for reform, as well as posters, an articulate constituency and (indirectly) the only serious piece of government research into the sector (see The Employment of Art College Leavers: Ritchie, Frost and Dight, HMSO, 1972).

That’s one way of summarising it. In strict dictionary terms it was a revolution – the overthrow of the established government by those who were previously subject to it.

The authorities fled from the main college, which was then run for the duration by students and staff, 24 hours, seven days a week, demanding total commitment. There was a building to run and keep clean, a canteen to staff, food to be purchased, cooked and served, visitors to be monitored and controlled, alongside a system of seminars producing reports to be typed up, reproduced and fed back into the general meetings (and also to the outside audience), where hundreds of students and staff managed to debate and take decisions in an orderly fashion. Because the graphics department was in the hands of the authorities, printed matter had to be produced by available means – mainly linocut – but the rougher images produced seemed to meet the mood of the time, and were consonant with what was being produced via silk-screen in Paris. Some more sophisticated work found its way to printers, such as George Snow’s Snakes & Ladders, and a typographic poster of John Donne’s “No Man is an Iland, entire of it selfe” quotation, which was felt to embody the spirit of the sit-in, featured in a number of London bookshops.

There was much interest from notable people in other cultural areas – indeed, the establishment. William Coldstream, John Summerson and Shirley Williams (at that time Education Minister) treated it with respect, and even some admiration. None of that from the local councillors and aldermen, who had little idea what the institution in their control might be about, but were clear that authority, their authority, was being challenged, and they weren’t having it. Their stance culminated in “The Day of the Dogs”, when a team of security men with Alsatians were sent to surround and seal off the main college building. In the event, students tamed the dogs with biscuits, and the whole episode collapsed into farce. The people who did understand the educational arguments pulled back, saying that, regrettably, there was nothing they could do, thereby leaving the field to Haringey Council, which did not understand, and furthermore did not wish to understand, thank you very much. While this local political battle went on wasting a lot of time and energy, a social and spiritual development occurred alongside. What we aimed to do was simple: as William Blake put it, to build Jerusalem. William Morris, another artist-rebel who started with a concern about furniture and ended up grappling with the whole structure of society, followed a similar path. In 1964, surveying the new DipAD (Diploma in Art and Design), Quentin Bell wrote: “Henceforth it should be possible for a college to develop entirely on its own lines, to follow no matter what eccentric course it pleases, and it does not matter how eccentric that course may be if only the teachers are sufficiently enthusiastic.” (Crisis in the Humanities, edited by JH Plumb, Penguin, 1964.)

We would have said amen to that: what happened was nearly the opposite. The politics of Hornsey emerged from the conflict between Bell’s aspiration and the structures and practices we actually encountered. When eventually an unsatisfactory agreement was brokered between the authorities and the occupiers, the main college was briefly reopened. The authorities’ first act was to tear down everything which pertained to the sit-in: Hornsey posters, French student posters, etc. There’s no vandal like an official vandal. Within a week or two they had also broken all the terms of the agreement. Staff and student sackings and other repressions began. (“No way to run a whelk-stall, let alone an art school” – Lord Longford.) I managed to salvage at least some of the poster lino-blocks before they were destroyed. It was easier to gather documents (which had been sources for The Hornsey Affair): they remained in cardboard boxes through several house moves, and were sorted, years later, by two successive and devoted researchers (the first of whom had to sift out the mouse turds).

What Hornsey meant depended on where you stood, whether you were a teacher or a student, where you were in your life, and so on. This article expresses a partial view by a member of staff, so I asked two friends who were students then to sum up what it meant to them: “As a student on the industrial design course at Hornsey in 1968, I became very strongly aware of the powerful and pragmatic role design could have as an agent for social change and development. The sit-in burst into this environment, and its activities were a natural forum to explore these issues, both through debate and practical projects. Design for learning as a radical process has driven my work since that time” – Prue Bramwell-Davies.

“The Hornsey thing was a startling illustration of the potential for a disparate group of people with insignificant initial common cause to develop the ability to discuss and act together in such a way that cohesive and pragmatic philosophical and political expression emerges. That this phenomenon is extraordinary and deeply threatening to institutional establishments is a profound comment on our social organisation and the way in which it continues. It is significant that these were art and design students, doers and makers rather than talkers”– David Poston.

Various documents on the Hornsey occupation were presented by David Page in 2008 to the Tate Gallery.

 The Hornsey sit-in, and one at Guildford Art School, which followed on a week later in early June, inspired a ferment of agitation and debate throughout the art-school world: there were sit-ins, active discussions and demands for radical reform in a large number of colleges. The Hornsey and Guildford students founded a national movement, the Movement for Rethinking Art and Design Education (MORADE), which held a conference in the Camden Roundhouse in London in July.

1968 saw a number of student occupations in the UK, inspired to some extent by the events of Paris, though also by homegrown issues.

Some more UK student occupation from 1968:

Essex University

Brighton

Bristol

There are a couple of books on the Hornsey occupation:
The Hornsey Affair, Students and Staff of Hornsey College of Art, Penguin Education Special, 1969. Hornsey 1968: The Art School Revolution, Lisa Tickner, Frances Lincoln, 2008

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London educational history: London School of Economics occupied, 1969.

In January 1969 the London School of Economics was occupied by its students in protest at the appointment of Walter Adams as Director, due to his links to the rightwing regime in what was then Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The college authorities erected steel gates in an attempt to prevent students congregating and moving around…

An account and analysis was written shortly after by Martin Shaw, then a sociology student, member of the International Socialists and leading light of the occupation (now a professor of international relations and global politics at the University of Sussex):

“On 24th January the students at the London School of Economics tore down steel gates erected to control sit-ins and occupations, bringing on themselves a three and a half week closure of the School in which police and law courts were used by the LSE authorities against the students.

Although the authorities have now been forced to open the college, legal and disciplinary action is still (at the beginning of March) under way against some staff and students. Students are still faced with a long fight against these measures.

This struggle can be traced directly to the occupation of the School in support of the Vietnam demonstration in October 1968. It was after this action (which lasted for a weekend and was supported by 600 LSE students and thousands of outsiders) that the authorities began to prepare an offensive against the militant movement which had grown up over the previous two years. Since the successful sit-in of March 1967, supported by a majority of the students, students led by the Socialist Society had continually challenged the power of the authorities, without meeting any response. But if the actual events at LSE since March 1967 had not been of proportions to necessitate a showdown, the spreading of student action to other colleges, culminating in the summer of 1968 with the sit-in at Essex and the long bitter conflicts in the art colleges – which coincided with events in France – had made the university authorities determined to act against the students. Meetings of the University vice-chancellors in June, to coordinate their own response, and in October, to rally the National Union of Students to their support, prepared the way for the clamp-down at LSE. The LSE authorities themselves liaised with the Government and the police (as the report of Dr. Adams, Director of LSE, on the October occupation admits). When the lock-out came they received extremely strong backing from the State authorities. It is obvious that the Government, already attacking the educational system for its lack of subordination to economic priorities and determined at the same time to crush opposition in the factories, was ready to support an attempt to crush student militancy and expel the revolutionaries. By January events were coming to a head with the college. A strong movement had developed against the involvement of LSE in Southern Africa, and pressure for direct action built up as the authorities refused to act on student demands that LSE should give up its investments in companies with interests in Southern Africa, that governors should not hold directorships in such companies and that they should not be allowed to recruit on campus. When in mid-January the authorities’ new measures against student militancy, planned since October, finally became clear, a clash was inevitable. The Academic Board ignored an overwhelming student request not to approve the new code of discipline prepared by its General Purposes Committee of which the Director and other Academic Governors are key members. The authorities refused to negotiate over demands to remove the newly installed steel grilles, offering to discuss only the particular location of individual gates.

The gates were removed after a Students’ Union vote by a party of 300 students who walked round the School dismantling each in turn.”

Robin Blackburn: “I was a lecturer at the LSE from 1967. Partly because of the occupation of the college in ’67 the authorities decided that college shouldn’t be used to assist things like the VSC and should never again be open to things like being seized by the students. They put steel gates and grilles in strategic places throughout the corridors and staircases of the university. The Students Union decided to ask the authorities to take them down, which of course they refused to do. Eventually the radical group in the Students Union got a vote that the students themselves should directly tear down the gates, which they did, with the help of some building workers who were building the Barbican and with whom they had been involved. There had been a strike and people from the Socialist Society had been helping them picket and leaflet and so forth. So when the gates had to be taken down they were able to get a couple of building workers in who had the right equipment. I had actually had nothing to do with the decision to remove the gates but I did come out in public, and the papers quoted me afterwards, saying that they’d done the right thing. So the university authorities DECIDED TO give me the sack. That caused more reaction from the students and actually by this time the LSE had been closed down ‑ there was a lockout of the students and the staff.
During these occupations I did try to keep teaching. We did courses on the sociology of revolution, that type of thing.” (Robin Blackburn, in ‘Days in the Life’)

“After this was accomplished, the militants elected an action committee to coordinate action against the measures expected from the authorities. Although Dave Fernbach, an LSE militant, has written that ‘in the face of threats to close a college, we must show that we are prepared to run it – as a Commune …’, at this point the extreme ‘Left’ in the Socialist Society were just as much opposed as were moderates to a proposal to occupy the School to prevent its being closed. A fatalism about the inevitable showdown, which had already gripped many non-revolutionary students, producing a relatively low vote for the dismantling of the gates, extended at this point to the Left itself, which deserted the main buildings. (Most just went home – others stayed in the bar, where the police assault came, hours later.)

After the closure and the clashes with the police outside LSE and Bow Street police station, on the night of Friday 24th January, the Left began to organise. Morale recovered to the extent that ideas of storming LSE were seriously entertained. The main advocates of this were those who saw the LSE as a ‘red base’ from which to set society alight. Borrowing from Mao and Guevara (to the extent that one prominent supporter of NLR [I’m guessing this stands for New Left Review – ed] seriously suggested raiding a sea-cadets’ hall to get rifles in order to frighten the police!) they ignored the weakness within the base. Students who had been unwilling to occupy on Friday, or even to unscrew the steel grilles, were nowhere near prepared to storm LSE on Saturday or Monday. This became clear when the first large meeting, of 500, was held on Monday 27th. If any change had occurred, fatalism was giving way to a curious wishful thinking, with an inclination to believe a hint by the Director that the School would reopen the same week. In any case, few LSE students were prepared to come on a demonstration that afternoon, and if demands for a reopening without gates or police or staff informing were carried overwhelmingly, it was nevertheless without enthusiasm for action. The militants had clearly mistaken their own consciousness for that of the mass of students. Direct action could obviously be undertaken only if the militants substituted themselves for the mass. That ideas of such action were entertained, especially after Monday’s meeting had clarified the position, was due to two main factors.

One was the level of support from outside LSE. Whereas a weariness and fatalistic attitude persisted among LSE students, in many other colleges the authorities’ actions, in bringing the police on campus, cut through much of the liberal ideology of the university and aroused large numbers of new students to support LSE. The Left in many places made major advances. Of course, in many colleges motions of support were defeated, or were carried only in order to defeat proposals for action. And where solidarity occupations or demonstrations did occur, they were often minority actions and all of a token character (only at the most advanced, Essex, did action last for more than 24 hours). But a considerable enthusiasm gripped the Left in most colleges, who came to support the London demonstration. These were the people who found themselves in the University of London Union (ULU) building on Monday night, after the first demonstration, (representatives of most left-wing groups in London were also there, including some who found it much easier to cash in on the LSE than to organise solidarity in their own college.) Many of them – and some of the Left in LSE – believed that LSE would have a far greater impact on the rest of the world than the evidence actually suggested. Thus this outside support combined with some elements in LSE to produce a second factor which was decisive at the time – an ideology of the ‘red base’.

This was the idea that ‘the university or college with a red strategic majority can function as a revolutionary political presence or foco, expressing the ideas of socialist revolution to which the working class must be won.’ This conceives of the student struggle as necessarily a revolutionary struggle, the function of which is to ‘set fire’ to the working class (as in France in May). So despite the fact that most LSE students did not see their struggle as at all revolutionary, and were not even prepared to demonstrate, never mind to storm LSE, and that there was no sign of an insurrection in the universities, or even of token support from more than a handful of workers, it was necessary to take some action which would spark off such national developments. To many it seemed that to occupy anywhere would do. Unwilling to attack LSE or even the University of London Senate House just down the road from ULU, where the LSE students were meeting, they decided to occupy ULU itself – which was the most convenient if strategically irrelevant target.

Of course, LSE students needed a base in which to meet and from which to circulate propaganda among themselves, to other colleges and to workers. The ULU authorities had offered minor obstruction to the LSE militants, but there was no definite prospect that ULU would be closed to us. In any case, even if convenient it was not essential. And LSE students could not be mobilised to defend its use – indeed only a few of them could be mobilised for anything at that point. There was little justification in the LSE struggle itself for seizing ULU – unless it was argued that this would spark off nationwide actions. And, this was in fact the basis on which the occupation was voted, by a meeting in which LSE students were a small minority. Outsiders, identified with Maoist and Posadist tendencies, proposed an occupation in order to establish a ‘revolutionary centre’ for the ‘working masses’. They were not challenged by an NLR spokesman from LSE whose ‘heroic’ speech decided the issue – he too saw the act as indicating a ‘rebirth of a revolutionary movement’. LSE students who spoke against it, and for maintaining direction of the struggle by LSE students, were shouted down.

It became clear the next day that LSE students who had not been present the previous night were even further alienated by this ‘revolutionisation’ of their struggle. It was a big mistake for the militants, because it gave the impression that the struggle was not for non-revolutionaries in LSE, but for ‘revolutionaries’ from all over London (who were themselves isolating themselves from any local base they may have had). It could not have the effect outside LSE which only a strong united stand of the LSE students themselves could have had. The LSE militants began to understand that this was what they had to work towards, and that the ULU occupation was actually a threat to this task. On Tuesday the occupation was ended by a virtually unanimous vote of LSE militants. Many of those who had supported it on Monday were however to disappear from the scene after this, and left-wingers in other colleges who did not understand what was done were disillusioned.

Later that week it became clear that the authorities were not prepared for an immediate reopening, unless it was clear that most students would capitulate to disciplinary measures. These were now being prepared: three lecturers were to be tried for their jobs, thirteen students were placed under injunctions restricting their political activities, and a porter sympathetic to students was suspended. The Director wrote to all students demanding guarantees of orderly conduct and acceptance of disciplinary proceedings if LSE was to be reopened. A special meeting of the LSE Union, called for February 3rd by the Union Council with the support of the right wing in the hope of crushing the militants, roundly refused the Director’s terms and adopted the militants’ demands instead. A committee was elected including ten students under injunctions, which was to act as coordinator for two and a half weeks until LSE was reopened. The militants’ strategy now was to keep the students together while waiting for the pressures to build up on the authorities to open the School – the point being that action was much more possible at that point, with the mass of students constantly around and less intimidated. By Thursday the same week the Academic Board, a powerless if quite influential assembly of the staff, voted for a reopening within eight days. The Director had indicated that the authorities’ intention was to keep the School closed until March 10th while disciplinary proceedings were taken, but next week the Governors announced a reopening on February 19th – a few days after the academics’ deadline.

The reopening of the LSE was accompanied by a firm threat to continue disciplinary action against staff and to launch it against ten students when legal proceedings are concluded. The Governors also threatened renewed closure if students took direct action. The students’ response was a militant march into the LSE, but at a meeting of more than 1,100 a proposal to occupy on the demand to end victimisation was defeated by about 7-4. Another meeting has also rejected this, albeit more narrowly, while verbally reaffirming opposition to victimisation. Students may act when expulsions actually take effect, as they did in 1967 in the cases of Adelstein and Bloom after refusing any action before the verdict was known. But it is difficult to see how this will be possible if the authorities wait until the vacation. This has raised again the question of minority action by the militants.

Although this is often raised as a question of moral duty, it is also argued for on the basis that only a minority will ever act. This of course is very much opposed to the concept of a ‘red base’ with a ‘red majority’, although paradoxically supported by many of those who put forward at least the former slogan. It is contradicted too by the experience of the first LSE sit-in, and of many actions in Britain, that it is possible for a majority to act, or at least for a minority to take action with the definite acquiescence of the majority. There seems to be little reason to wholly exclude this at a later stage of the LSE struggle. The organised right wing is growing, but it is only a small minority who will definitely refuse to act on the issue of victimisation at any point. What is true, however, is that the majority will only act (in the present, non-revolutionary, situation) on limited issues. Although influenced by revolutionary ideas, because the socialist students are in the lead on every major issue in the college, it is not a ‘red’ majority which is likely to won decisively to revolutionary politics. Those who are, are still a small minority; but in order to win these socialists must advance demands around which a mass student movement can emerge. It is in demonstrating the relevance of socialist ideas to meaningful demands within the universities, as well as by general political propaganda and agitation, that revolutionaries will win adherents.

The concept of a ‘red base’ is dangerous because it constantly obscures the nature of the student movement in a non-revolutionary situation, and the relationship of revolutionaries to it. When revolutionaries believe that mass support on Vietnam, or Rhodesia, or repression within the university means they have a firm ‘red base’ ready for any challenge, they are likely to minimise their tasks and resort to the kind of substitutionism seen in LSE. There is a strong danger of isolation and defeat. But in another sense, too, the LSE struggle has demonstrated the danger of the ‘red base’ conception for the revolutionary left. Such ideas derive largely from the May experience in France. On the basis of this it is argued that the proclamation of the ‘red university’ is likely to fire the workers and create a revolutionary situation. This idea was expressed both after LSE closed, and when there was a prospect that an occupation of LSE would coincide with the Fords strike. This hope is a constant temptation to the ‘revolutionary’ gesture. But even in France it was not by general gestures but by a determined fight for their own demands that the students provoked the strikes and occupations. And it is a mechanistic approach which learns nothing from France which expects even this course to be followed here. Revolutionary situations are products of more than just a clash between students and police. Such clashes have occurred on a large scale in many countries without resulting in a significant response from the workers. Revolutionary students must make a real attempt to build links with the workers. Their ‘example’ will not suffice.

One task rather neglected in the LSE lock-out was the attempt to gain trade union support. The LSE branch of ASTMS supported students’ demands, but took no action. Some propaganda work among workers was done by LSE students leafleting, mainly in Fleet Street among printworkers. This was done partly through contacts already made by IS. Much of the leafleting of workers about LSE was done, however, by local socialist groups, and its impact must have been affected by previous activities of these groups. And the only regular information and propaganda about LSE for workers was carried by papers like Socialist Worker. Similarly, support given by LSE students to Ford workers has been organised through contacts at Fords made by IS in months of regular work beforehand. In the LSE struggle the slogan ‘Students Workers, Unite and Fight’ has begun to receive some meaning through the support given to each other’s struggles. But it has depended on a more permanent unity of students and workers inside socialist organisations. The building of such organisations inside the working class is a much more important means of raising the level of working-class activity than the attempt to ‘spark’ working-class militancy from the ‘red base’. What is more, it offers the only possibility that a revolutionary situation will be resolved in a socialist direction. These questions of strategy and tactics, arising from the LSE struggle, will increasingly confront the revolutionary student movement.” (Martin Shaw)

A couple of days after the lockout started at LSE, students also occupied the University of London Union buildings (on January 27th):
‘University of London Union is now liberated territory occupied by  revolutionaries The buildings are yours to use as you want. It can be turned into a permanent base for agitation in the London area.The facilities can be used by anyone joining us. We are using the duplication facilities in the Union office on the ground floor, and they can be used by anyone wishes to circulate any kind of document. There is no control over free expression. This goes for the rest of the building ‑ so far only partly explored. The only thing which needs to be organised in common is defence and basic survival ‑ food and sleep. Inside the building, we are all responsible for resisting any bureaucratic organisation of activities: discussion, decoration, planning for agitation, music. Remember there is a swimming pool. If anyone tells you what to do, report them to the security committee. IT IS FORBIDDEN TO FORBID. EVERYTHING IS PERMITTED.
The Security Committee’

Amongst those who answering the radical call to occupy ULU, were some of those involved in the ‘pro-situationist’ King Mob group:
“When we took over the ULU building, Chris Gray and the Situationist mob decided that the only interesting part of the student union was the kitchen, which they took over immediately and rifled the fridge. He just thought it was fantastic that he could fry all these steaks simultaneously. I remember them all cooking and thinking this was brilliant. They could have started their own restaurant right there down in the basement of the student union building.”

“When King Mob was going at full blast, after the LSE sit~in there was a sit‑in at the University of London Union and we got involved in that. It lasted several days Everyone was sleeping on the floor and all that. The New Left crowd tried to run it. We gave Robin Blackburn a really bad time, howled him down, told him he was a wanker. They were very worried this, we might damage things ‑ don’t scratch the paintwork ‑ so a bunch of people went and bust open the swimming pool and had this huge swimming party. The whole thing was very fraught because you’d got this mass of students, the New Left people telling them to be serious and responsible, and King Mob telling them to get their rocks off, let it all hang out, etc. It was very iffy, because the great mass in the middle were swaying both ways. Only a minority supported us; the majority wanted to be quiet and respectable, but these two guys came out of the crowd and joined in with us and said, ‘We’re with you.’ They were a couple of art students from Goldsmith’s and one was called Fred Vermorel and the other was called Malcolm Edwards. They both had long, dirty khaki macs, a couple of impoverished an students. And of course Malcolm went on to finer things and became Malcolm McLaren…” (Dick Pountain, in ‘Days in the Life’)

According to some accounts, it was King Mob who had demolished the LSE gates in the first place:

“Before they could do anything the director, Pall) Dahrendorf had these security gates built so you couldn’t get into the library. They’d just been installed and the Trotskyists were talking about sitting down in front of the gates and standing in pickets and walking around saying ‘No gates’ and the anarchs listened to this meeting which was going on and on. Robin Blackburn of the International Millionaires Group: ‘We think, comrades, that what we should do is blah,bIah, blah… Then Duffy Power got up, pissed out of his mind, and shouted, ‘We’re the International Mine s a Pint Committee and this over here is my friend from the Black Hand Gang and we think we should fuck the gates and take them away and burn them.
‘And they got screwdrivers and they went up and stole the gates.” According to Fred Vermorel, Dave and Stewart Wise’ supplied the muscle (and 2 sledge‑hammers) to despatch the infamous ‘gates’…’ King Mob and The Black Hand Gang (Chris Gray and the Wise brothers) subsequently put out ‘Comrades Stop Buggering About’ LSE poster mag (KING MOB 49) including:’THIS IS YOUR BUILDING. GO WHERE YOU WANT. TELL YOUR SECURITY GUARD To FUCK OFF!’; ‘furtively taken down by the security guards… The LSE, like all other occupations so far, was a mere introjection of the bourgeois order. What do we want: all the shit of bourgeois society?’ (Dave Robins)

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London rebel history: Savoy Hotel air-raid shelter occupied by Eastenders, 1940.

In the early days of World War 2, after the German Luftwaffe’s attack on Britain’s air defences failed, the planes turned their attention to bombing of civilians.

During the early days of the Blitz the Government controlled media tried to show that life in London was carrying on as normal, and there was much coverage in the press of people going to parties, dining out and clubbing in the West End.

The reality was very different, especially for the largely working class population of the East End, which received especially heavy bombing throughout the Blitz. This was partly due to its proximity to the vital London docks, a major Luftwaffe target, but civilian areas were also deliberately attacked in an attempt to break their support for the war.

Stepney, West Ham, Poplar, as well as Deptford and Bermondsey on the south side of the river, were particularly hit. During August 1940 there was relatively light bombing, but on September 7th very heavy bombing began, and soon the East End was burning.

The government was accused of a lack of readiness when it came to building shelters to protect civilians in East London – contrasting with the more extensive preparation in wealthier areas of the capital.

Initially, the civilian population had attempted to take refugee in the government’s proscribed trench shelters but these had soon filled with water, the street level shelters had been destroyed and the famous back garden Anderson shelters, made of corrugated steel, offered only limited protection from bomb blast and splinters.

Anderson shelters were named after Sir John Anderson who stated in the House of Commons in 1938 “I do not think we are prepared to adapt our whole civilisation, so as to compel a large proportion of our people to live and maintain the productive capacity in a troglodyte existence deep underground”and on 12th June 1940 “I am devoutly thankful that we did not adopt a general policy of providing deep and strongly protected shelters”.

How Londoner’s paid for such stupidity, as Londoners were according to Ted Bramley “uprooted, blasted from their homes, scattered over the face of Britain”
The few deeper shelters which were situated mainly underneath large warehouses and privately owned and open to the public, once deserted werenow full to overflowing, poorly lit, wet, and unsanitary. People lined up from 12 in Stepney to enter the Tilbury shelter, originally planned for 1,600 now holding 10,000. Meanwhile, Godfrey Phillips shelter in the City, a shelter for 3,000 was locked every night at 5.30pm. Ted Bramley estimated another 200,000 safe shelter places were available in the City, but locked at night.

East Enders joked in the early days of the Blitz on how when caught out during a raid they had learnt to “hug the walls”.

Many other Londoners were forced to travel “trek” from East London to North London, West London or South London and even the Kent countryside (Chislehurst Caves in the side of the North Downs), or coaches taking people out into the countryside to sleep by the roadside at 2s 6d.

Eastenders invaded Liverpool Street Station on the 8th to take shelter there.

To highlight the plight of the people of the East End, the Stepney Communist Party decided to stage a stunt to highlight the drastically unequal conditions of air-raid shelters for rich and poor. The Party had previously organised an occupation by 200 people from the East End of the Mayfair Hotel shelter on the night of Thursday 12th September, but this seems not have secured much press coverage. The next target was a jewel of the West End, the ultra-posh Savoy Hotel, occupied on September 14th 1940.

Phil Piratin, then a Stepney Communist Party member (later MP), takes up the story:

“The shelters, which until the blitz were deserted, were now packed to overflowing, and now the conditions were revealed. The little trench shelters in the little Stepney parks were a foot deep in water. The benches were half-a-dozen inches above the water. It was quite impossible to use them, and certainly impossible to stay in them night after night. Now the street surface shelters were being put to the test. Many of them were destroyed.

The Communist party immediately began to organise Shelter Committees in the shelters in order to secure proper conditions and to provide for the feeding and amenities in the shelters. This idea caught on, and within a short while was being carried on throughout Stepney and indeed the whole of London. Later the authorities took over certain responsibilities such as refreshments. The Communist Party was the first to organise entertainments in the shelters. The Unity Theatre did excellent work in this connection; mobile groups went to different shelters to sing songs and to perform their lighter sketches. Later, other organisations began to organise entertainment.

The conditions in the shelters were frightful. Most notorious was the Tilbury shelter, which accommodated several thousand people in conditions which I find it impossible to describe. Many people were without shelter, and every evening there was a trek from Stepney to Central and West London to take shelter in on of the basement shelters of the large buildings there. The next morning thousands of bleary-eyed East Londoners were to be seen on the buses and trains coming back to East London from the West End.

The contrast between the shelter conditions for the rich and the poor called for exposure. This was done. When the blitz had continued for some days, we in Stepney took the initiative. One Saturday evening we gathered some seventy people, among them a large sprinkling of children, and we took them to the Savoy Hotel. We had heard from building workers of the well-constructed and luxurious shelter which had been built for their guests. We decided that what was good enough for the Savoy Hotel parasites was reasonably good enough for Stepney workers and their families. We had an idea the hotel management would not see eye to eye with this proposition, so we organised the ‘invasion’ without their consent.”

Within minutes and with the help of sympathetic waiters the group had invaded and occupied the Savoy Hotel shelter:

“In fact, there was some effort to stop us, but it was only a matter of seconds before we were downstairs, and the women and children cam streaming in afterwards. While the management and their lackeys were filled with consternation, the visitors from the East End looked round in amazement. ‘Shelters,’ they said, ‘why we’d love to live in such places!’ Structurally, the lower ground floor had been strengthened with steel girders and by other means. But the appearance of the place! There were three sections. In each section there were cubicles. Each section was decorated in a different colour, pink, blue and green. All the bedding, all the linen, was of course the same uniform colour. Armchairs and deck chairs were strewn around. There were several ‘nurses’ – you could easily recognise them. One happened to be standing around and she was wearing the usual nurse’s white outfit, with a big red cross on he bosom. We were not quite sure what she was supposed to be nursing…

…We had earlier appointed our marshals to take care of all our people. They immediately made contact with the waiters, and asked for water and other such provisions. The waiters were most helpful. We were expecting trouble; we knew that the management was not going to allow us to sit there, just so easily. After a few minutes the police came. A plain-clothes officer said to me, ‘What is it all about?’ I explained. He said: ‘We will have to get you out.’ I said ‘OK – I’m curious to see what you do with the women and children.’ (The blitz was on). I said: ’Some of these men have seen mass murder, God help you if you touch the women and children.’ He wasn’t very happy. They tried intimidation, such as calling for identity cards, but we sat there.”

During the confusion an air raid alert, (all to helpfully), was sounded, and the Savoy Hotel manager realising that that could not be seen to send the “invaders”out into danger was forced to allow them to remain until the “all clear” siren was sounded.

“The management was in a dilemma. They urged the police to throw us out. We were able to impress the management that any such attempt would meet with some opposition, and that some of his guests in the dining room were likely to be disturbed. The manager left. He agreed to ignore us; that was what we wanted. Then we settled down. The first thing the marshals did was to call for refreshments. Many of our people had sandwiches with them, and therefore we asked one of the waiters to provide tea and bread butter. The waiter explained that they never served tea and bread and butter, and in any case the minimum price for anything was 2 shillings 6 pence. We said to the waiter: ‘We will pay you 2 pence a cup of tea and 2 pence a portion of bread and butter, the usual price in a Lyons restaurant. Three of four of the waiters went into a huddle, with one in particular doing the talking. He was evidently convincing the others. How they convinced the chef and management. I do not know, but within a few minutes, along came the trollies and the silver trays laden with pots of tea and bread and butter. The waiters were having the time of their lives. They were obviously neglecting their duties, standing around, chuckling and playing with the children.

The next day this news was flashed across the world. The contrast was made in bold headlines between the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney and the luxury conditions of the shelters of West London.”

The next day the press was full of stories about the audacious occupation of the Savoy Hotel shelter and the terrible conditions of the shelters in Stepney. The Communist Party had succeeded in its objective. At St Pancras The Party organised a picket of Carreras, the tobacco factory, demanding its shelter – capable of holding 3,000- be opened to the public at night.

In Walthamstow Councillor Bob Smith went with some homeless “bombed out” families and occupied empty houses, and similar actions took place in Chiswick (Heathfield Court) and Kensington.

“As a result, the Home Office took special steps to improve conditions in the Tilbury shelter and others. But this militant action led to further developments. A demand had been made for the Tubes to be made available as shelters. The Home Secretary, Mr Herbert Morrison, said that this was impossible. The only valid reason he could give was that children might fall on to the line and be killed. This was not a very impressive argument, when you consider the hundreds who were being killed because they had no shelter. The police were given instructions to allow no-one to use the Tubes for shelter. Loiterers were moved on by the police. The Communist Party decided that the Tubes should be open for shelters. This was done.

Two or three days after the Savoy incident preparations were made to break open the gates of the Tubes which the police were closing immediately the air-raid siren was sounded. At a number of stations these actions were taken. Various implements such as crowbars happened to be available, and while the police stood on duty guarding the gates, they were very quickly swept aside by the crowds, the crowbars brought into action, and the people went down. That night tens of thousands sprawled on the tube platforms. The next day, Mr Herbert Morrison, solemn as an owl, rose to make his world-shattering announcement: the Government had reconsidered its opinion in the matter of the Tubes being sued as shelters. From now onwards, they would be so employed. They were expected to accommodate 250,000. Arrangements would be made for refreshment and first-aid facilities. Later. Bunks were being installed. ‘The Government had reconsidered the matter.’ They had indeed! They had been forced to by the resolute action of the people of London which they had been powerless to prevent.”

(Phil Piratin, Our Flag Stays Red).

Another account of the Savoy occupation gives a slightly different take on the numbers involved…

“There were forty of them. There were eighty. There were a hundred. They marched. They sauntered. They were angry. They were bewildered. They came with two dogs and they came with none. Theirs was a daring act that saved thousands of lives. Or it was a pretty piece of propaganda, gift-wrapped for the Führer. What happened beneath the Savoy Hotel on 14th September 1940, the eighth night of the Blitz, depended on the position of the observer: whether she or he was Red or anti-Red; East Ender or West Ender; dreaming of revolution or restoration. That Saturday night, when those forty or eighty or a hundred arrived at the doors of the hotel – with their dogs, or dogless – a small army of journalists was on the premises for a briefing by the Ministry of Information. Few, however, wrote about their uninvited fellow guests until the war was safely over. The government also maintained a public silence on the story, despite the urgent Cabinet discussion held the following Monday morning – a discussion with sinister undertones. But old comrades, years later, made that West End outing into a famous victory, a second Battle of Cable Street. It worked its way into plays and novels, into the mythology of the British Left. And though no horses charged and no batons swung, the Savoy Hotel invasion was the most serious political demonstration of the war – and dramatic evidence that conflict with Germany did not bring the class war to an end.

Max Levitas has spent most of his long life on the front line of that conflict. He was part of the famous human barricade that halted the Blackshirts’ progress through the East End in October 1936. He stood his ground at Brady Mansions during a twenty-one-week rent strike – brought to an end only by the government’s decision to freeze rents for the duration of the war. He was one of the dozen Communist councillors elected to the Borough of Stepney in 1945, during that giddy moment when the electorate could still see the avuncular side of Joe Stalin. He was there in 1991 when the Communist Party of Great Britain voted for dissolution and secured victory in the long war of attrition against itself. He was there, too, on that Blitz- struck Saturday night in 1940, shouldering the red banner of the Stepney Young Communist League as his group of demon- strators marched from the Embankment towards the silvered canopy of the Savoy. They marched for better air-raid shelters in the East End. They marched against the myth that the Luftwaffe had brought equality of suffering to Britain. And they received their marching orders from a series of urgent editorials in the Communist newspaper, the Daily Worker: ‘If you live in the Savoy Hotel you are called by telephone when the sirens sound and then tucked into bed by servants in a luxury bomb-proof shelter,’ the newspaper asserted.‘But if you live in Paradise Court you may find yourself without a refuge of any kind.’ And above these words, in thick bold print:‘The people must act.’

Max Levitas nods in agreement when I read the article back to him. ‘The surface shelters protected you from shrapnel, from flak, but not much else,’ he reflects. ‘If a bomb fell on one of those it would collapse and kill everybody in it. The Communist Party argued for deep shelters. But the National Government wouldn’t listen. They wouldn’t even open the Underground. It was easy to ignore that message if you were sitting in the basement of a very nice hotel. So we decided to march on one.’ I ask him why they chose the Savoy. Max Levitas smiles a tolerant smile. ‘It was the nearest.’

I meet Max Levitas at the Idea Store, that gleaming cultural institution planted in the East End to compensate locals for the assimilation of their much-loved public library into the Whitechapel Art Gallery. He is a small, cloth-capped nonagenarian, wrapped tightly in a raincoat and muffler. Standing on the studded purple rubber floor of the foyer, he looks like a preserved fragment of the old Stepney. It is a chilling morning in February, and he can spare me an hour before he goes for his Turkish bath – a weekly ritual since the 1920s, when his father took him to the long-vanished Schewik steam rooms on Brick Lane. We catch the lift to the top-floor café, secure two cups of tea and a table with a view of the bristling City skyline, and he tells the story of his association with the area: how his parents fled the Lithuanian pogroms in 1912 and made landfall in Dublin, where Max was born three years later; how his father took the family first to Glasgow, and finally to Stepney, where work could be found among a supportive community of Jewish exiles. History radicalised those members of the Levitas clan it did not destroy: Max’s Aunt Sara and her family were burned to death in the synagogue of the Lithuanian shtetl of Akmian; Max’s father became a leading member of the distinctly Semitic, distinctly Red-tinged International Tailors and Pressers’ Union; Max’s elder brother, Maurice, fought against Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War; Max gave his youth to the Communist Party of Great Britain and was name-checked by Oswald Mosley in a speech denouncing the enemies of British Fascism.

The organisers of the Savoy invasion shared a similar ideological background: they were all revolutionaries. ‘And they’re all dead,’Max sighs. ‘Some were clothing workers. Some were bootmakers. Some were dockers.’ It is an inventory of lost trades. The first names he sifts from his memory are two stevedores, Ted Jones and Jack Murphy, veterans of pre-war campaigns for unemployment relief. The rest comprise a knot of men from the Stepney Tenants’ Defence League, which organised rent strikes against slum landlords in the East End: George Rosen, its bullish secretary, known as ‘Tubby’; Solly Klotnick, a furrier and a veteran of the Battle of Cable Street; Solomon Frankel, a clothing worker who took a bullet in Spain that robbed him of the use of his right hand. Michael Shapiro, a wiry young academic from the London School of Economics. At the head of the group stood Phil Piratin, Communist councillor for Spitalfields, chief spokesperson of the invaders, and the author of the most widely read account of their night at the Savoy. His memoir Our Flag Stays Red (1948) puts seventy in the hotel lobby, among them a number of children and pregnant women. Max’s memories are different. ‘There were forty of us,’ he affirms. ‘I’m sure of that.’ I ask if there were any dogs. He shakes his head. ‘No dogs,’ he says. ‘It was the Savoy.’ ”

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Yesterday… and 2004… in Holloway Prison history: from Pauline Campbell, to Sisters Uncut

Some actions are just a stroke of genius. In a brilliant action, at 2:30 yesterday, Saturday 27th May, activists from the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied the former Holloway Prison building in protest at cuts to women’s services and proposals for the site to be used for luxury flats.

Around 100 women entered the visitors’ centre of the North London prison. They have called for a women’s centre and affordable housing to be built on the 10-acre site, which is currently earmarked for a potential £2 billion housing development. The activists, who entered the red-brick building through an open window, set off flares of coloured smoke on the roof and unfurled a white banner saying: “This is public land, our land.” 

Police surrounded the prison Saturday night and blocked people from getting food into the occupiers… Sister Uncut are organising a week long program of events in the occupied part of the old jail. Get down and support them!

The occupiers have erected a large blue and green sign reading: “This is a huge piece of public land and there are lots of powerful local campaigns and discussions in place to demand the land is used to benefit the community.” 

The group is critical of prison overcrowding and the nine multi-million pound “super-prisons” the conservative government plans to build. Its members intend to occupy the visitor’s centre for a week, in advance of the general election.

Aisha Streetson, a Sisters Uncut activist said: “We are reclaiming the former prison, a site of violence, to demand that public land is used for public good. Prisons are an inhumane response to social problems faced by vulnerable women – the government should provide a better answer.” “46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors.” A local domestic violence support worker, Lauren Massing said: “If the government have money for mega prisons, they have money for domestic violence support services. 46 per cent of women in prison are domestic violence survivors – if they had the support they needed, it’s likely they wouldn’t end up in prison.” 

Holloway prison, which once housed 600 inmates, was one of the largest women’s prisons in Western Europe until it closed suddenly last year. The inmates were moved to Bronzefield and Downsview prisons in Surrey and the site has remained empty. There has been a strong local campaign opposing the planned luxury housing development, and calling for social housing instead.

More on the occupation here

Email them: nlsistersuncut@gmail.com

Or Phone: 07947 115541

Today, the second day of the occupation, also marks a campaigning anniversary connected to Holloway Prison.

On 28th May 2004, Pauline Campbell, a former civil servant and college lecturer, was arrested outside the jail while protesting the inhuman treatment of women inmates.

She had been a vociferous critic of the prison system since the death of her 18-year-old daughter, Sarah, at Styal prison in 2003. Sarah, an only child, was the third of six women to die at the Cheshire jail in a 12-month period.

Pauline had pledged to picket every women’s prison in the UK immediately after the death of a prisoner there. She was repeatedly arrested trying to block prison gates to call attention to the terrible record of suicide and sudden deaths among female inmates. She was arrested for this on 15 occasions though the authorities nearly always backed down from charging her.

The arrest outside Holloway was her third in this sequence; she was lifted after attempting to prevent a prison van from bringing inmates to the north London jail.

The protest was her sixth in as many weeks, and followed the death of 28-year-old Heather Wait, who was the second woman to die in Holloway in the course of a few weeks.

Pauline’s aim in trying to stop vans entering jails where a woman had died was to “demonstrate that they were unsafe places which constantly failed to uphold the duty of care that the Prison Service has to all prisoners.”

She was painfully aware of the effect of a premature death on the children and parents left behind.

“One of the worst imaginable things that can happen to a child is for its mother to die. Two-thirds of women prisoners are mothers. When a woman prisoner dies, not only does it remind me of the loss of my daughter, but, if she was a mother, there is the added pain of knowing that the motherless children will suffer. I speak from experience: my mother died when I was three.”

Pauline’s daughter Sarah was a troubled teenager who had problems with addiction and a history of self-harm.

Despite her mental health problems, a catalogue of errors meant Sarah was put in a segregation unit at the prison. She took an overdose of prescription drugs in a bid to get transferred to the hospital wing.

Her cry for help was ignored – 40 minutes elapsed before an ambulance was called. Paramedics were further delayed at the prison gates.

By the time they reached her it was too late. She died, aged 18, after less than 24 hours in Styal prison. The police notified Pauline of this tragedy by phone. Sarah was the youngest of six women to die in Styal that year.

This statistic, along with the many other hidden facts about the scandalous treatment of vulnerable incarcerated women, triggered a breathtaking campaign that Pauline would lead to the end.

Along with her regular pickets, Pauline was “a prolific letter writer, hardly a week would go by without her eloquent words launching a stinging attack on the prison service in the local and national papers.

As a public speaker she was both articulate and informative, having educated herself about every aspect of the criminal justice system and its failings.

In 2005 she won the Emma Humphries memorial prize for “highlighting the distressing realities of women’s lives and deaths in prison”.

She was also a trustee of the Howard League for Penal Reform and an active member of the campaigning organisation Inquest.”

Tragically, Pauline Campbell was found dead on 15 May 2008, not far from the grave of her daughter Sarah.

She would have been glad to see Holloway closed down last year, but even happier to see the Sisters Uncut occupation this weekend: a wonderful continuation, if in a different form, of Pauline’s inspiring spirit…

Check out a blog dedicated to campaigning in her memory.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London education history: Lewisham bridge school occupied to prevent destruction & privatisation, 2009.

On the morning of April 23rd 2009, parents of children at Lewisham Bridge Primary School, in Elmira Street, Lewisham, Southeast London, occupied the roof of the school buildings. They were protesting against Lewisham Council’s decision to demolish the school and replace it with a new school run by a City of London guild. The school had been closed down – pupils had to arrive an hour early to be bussed to a temporary school in New Cross, which meant a ridiculously long day for the children. Safety concerns have been raised concerning this busing of coach-loads of children every morning, including the fact that buses had been involved in two accidents.

The Council’s plan after demolishing Lewisham Bridge was to hand the school over to the Leathersellers Company, one of London’s medieval City guilds, to run a new school for ages 3 through to 16. The planned new school was to be a “foundation” school, which could set its own admissions policy. Staff would be employed by the governors, not by the local authority. It would probably have become part of a “Trust” federation, sponsored by the Leathersellers’ Company that backs the Prendergast federation of schools (although the section of Leathersellers that runs the educational charity is separate institutionally). The council had already handed two schools over to the Haberdashers’ Aske’s Academy federation and wanted three more to become a trust backed by Goldsmiths College. They really had a thing for unaccountable medieval guilds running schools in Lewisham! Lewisham Bridge was really being knocked down as part of a plan to break up the already limited comprehensive education in Lewisham; although, while Leathersellers is certainly interested in influencing local education and promoting ‘meritocracy’ it doesn’t profit financially from its sponsorship.

Leathersellers did have a long involvement in Lewisham eduction: having provided the site for the original site for Prendergast School in 1890, and funded its move to another location in 1995. The school became known as Lewisham Prendergast School in 1927, Prendergast School in 1951, and Prendergast Hilly Fields College in 2008.  They then were given Crofton Park (Prendergast Ladywell Fields) – considered then to be a, ‘failing school’, and still is – before being offered the Lewisham Bridge site.

The proposed new school was to be squeezed into a site previously occupied by the primary school, and cramming a projected 835 pupils in (twice the number Lewisham Bridge had), so play areas and room sizes would fall below government recommendations. The new school was planned to only have one primary class per year, instead of the current school’s two. (which was itself down from a four class intake a few years before).

Frustratingly for the Lewisham administration, (led by New Labour ‘elected mayor’ Steve Bullock), the school buildings had been ‘listed’ by English Heritage, preventing it simply being knocked down. However, campaigners pointed out that the situation was in many ways entirely of Bullock’s making, coming as it did at the end of years of one bad decision leading to another where Lewisham’s schools were concerned.

One of the rooftop occupiers writes: “Lewisham council’s approach to pretty much all its duties and responsibilities including education was and still is, is summed up in the phrase ‘being enablers not providers’. They certainly put a lot of energy into the promotion of soft and hard federations at this time. Think of it in terms of more of the arms length management style crap they had done in housing… I think it’s important to situate it the context of Lewisham Council plans for the overall area. The demolishing of an local estate which was well regarded if not particularly pretty. It was in fact meeting most of the council criteria for what makes a good area, including mix tenure. The removal of the travellers from nearby and continually redevelopment of the nearby area into a mini Croydon of flats in and around the two railway lines.

The plans to demolish the school and replace it with a private institution came against a shortage of primary school places across London and a local shortage of secondary places in the north part of the Borough of Lewisham. The shortage of secondary places dates back to Labour’s decision to demolish the Telegraph Hill Boys School in the 90s, due to poor results, and replace it with the Crossways Academy 6th form centre; Telegraph Hill had itself been an attempt to rebrand and remake the ‘failing’ Hatcham Wood’s boys school by appointing a superhead. “But what made Lewisham Bridge the target was it own ‘poor preforming’ status which was largely day to an intake of large numbers of kids from deprived families, English as second language and the children from the the then existing traveller site. It was never going to do well in the fucking league tables. But had fantastic pastoral care.” Most of the other schools in the north of the borough operated some sort of selection, meaning that many local children could not get into them. After losing a council seat to a local education campaign, Bullock recognised that a new secondary school was needed. He then prevaricated about a site before settling on Ladywell Swimming Pool, which at the time was the borough’s only open full size swimming pool. A vigorous local campaign by pool users, combined with crucial losses for Labour in wards local to it, meant that Bullock relented on using the pool site. Lewisham Bridge was identified as an alternative because it was next to another development site, and, having a high proportion of parents whose first language isn’t English, was seen as a soft target that could be bulldozed through without much opposition – or not by anyone who mattered.

This turned out to be a miscalculation…

Firstly, although the idea had first been mooted in 2006, the council hadn’t got a any planning permission and with the buildings listed, the council’s appeal was always likely to take many months. And ever since the proposal was first announced parents had expressed their concerns and objections in the form of petitions, letters and lobbies. This campaign had exhausted most other avenues when the roof was occupied (though it was the long campaign to save the school that would lead to its being listed – see below)

On April 23rd three parents climbed on the roof of the school to protest about the way parents children and staff have been treated in the entire process to attempt to privatise our school which culminated in the decant to the Mornington Centre against the wishes of the majority of parents and the local community. Support for the protest grew quickly and by 9am that morning 4 more parents had joined us on the roof and a number of supporters stayed on the ground gathering signatures for our petition.

The occupiers demanded that the school be re-opened, and that it should remain a local community primary school open to all, not be handed over to a private unaccountable body. 

As the protest went on, more parents and local supporters joined the occupation and solidarity links were built with workers then occupying the Visteon plants in Belfast, Basildon and Enfield, the Vestas wind turbine factory occupation in the Isle Of Wight and the Tower Hamlets college campaign. Links were also forged with parents occupying four primary schools in Glasgow in April that were being closed; and parents at another school in Southeast London, Charlotte Turner primary school in nearby Deptford, also occupied.

The Lewisham Bridge protest was not confined to the school roof. Hands Off Lewisham Bridge organised a 300 strong march through Lewisham, lobbied the council and disrupted then PM Gordon Brown’s visit to Prendergast School, run by the Leathersellers, brandishing placards and shouting and leaping out in front of Brown’s motorcade.

The roof top occupied by the parents was transformed into a lively campsite with running water and kitchen area and used for meetings and even for a re-hearsal by local socialist choir, The Strawberry Thieves. The South London local of Solidarity Federation and Autonomy & Solidarity, the Goldsmiths student group, were heavily involved in the campaign, doing regular shifts and building infrastructure. On Monday 8th June the garden area behind the occupied buildings was seized, opened up as it was a lot less daunting than climbing a ladder. A compost toilet was built, flowers planted, a mural painted, and coffee, tea and cake shared, amongst other activities.

The occupation of the garden seems to have prompted the council to start eviction proceedings

But in June, 100 people gathered at the School on June 24th to resist a scheduled eviction attempt: “A youthful and lively contingent joined local parents on the roof whilst local supporters gathered outside the front of the school. The mood remained positive, despite a strong police presence including a helicopter earlier in the day. Bailiffs entered the school but made no attempt to gain access to the roof where the tents stayed up and the occupation continued. Police left at around 12:30 with most of the bailiffs leaving shortly after. The occupation continued.

In August the Department of Culture Media and Sport) secretary announced that the English Heritage Grade II listing awarded to Lewisham Bridge Primary School remained in place, which as greeted by some campaigners as a sign of victory. After the plans to demolish were put on hold, the occupation was ended, after five months.

But in the end, while it put a spoke in the Council’s plans, the protection for the listed building didn’t prevent Leathersellers taking over and creating pretty much the school it had envisioned. The following year, a Lewisham Council planning board approved revised plans to replace Lewisham Bridge School. The Leathersellers-sponsored Prendergast Vale School opened on the site of Lewisham Bridge, in 2011, after pupils spent some time in temporary buildings on two other sites. The listing in the end didn’t prevent the building of the new premises (as with other listed buildings redeveloped, some large leeway can be taken to fit in with new buildings…)

More recently, in 2015, the three schools run by the Leathersellers Federation in Lewisham, including Prendergast Vale, undertook a ‘consultation’ on whether to apply for academy status, a further step into private control. Pupils and teachers at several of the schools demonstrated against the plan… Prendergast Vale saw students refusing to work in class and demanding to talk about the threat of academisation. Also playground demonstration and corridor sit ins…Teachers went on strike a couple of times in 2015 to protest against the idea. A staff governor at one of the other ‘Prendergast’ three schools did manage to veto the entire move, under a technical loophole, and the ‘Academy orders’ were rescinded in June 2015; inspiring the many similar struggles against academisation from parents, kids and teachers around the country.

Doubtless further attempts will be made by a government ideologically bent on splitting up education and turning it into a profit-making concern as much as they can get away with…

Check out the campaigns opposing academisation of the Lewisham schools:

https://www.facebook.com/SavePrendergast/

https://www.facebook.com/StopAcademiesinLewisham

Watch a video interview with some of the Lewisham Bridge roof top activists:

 

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter