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’s dole history, 1985: Islington Unwaged Centre occupied to prevent its closure

On October 18th 1985, users of the Islington Unwaged Centre, on Holloway Road, North London, went into 24-hour occupation of their building, in response to threats by the centre’s funders to evict them after their funding was cut off. The centre had been founded in August 1982, after a year’s campaigning by the Islington Action group of the Unwaged.

What follows is a history of the unwaged workers’ group and the Unwaged Centre, documenting their efforts to establish and run a centre for the unemployed and their relationship to the Miners’ Strike and other struggles of the times.

This is a reprint of a pamphlet produced in 1987, by the Campaign for Real Life. We’ve re-typeset the text, otherwise it’s unchanged, except for some explanatory notes at the end, added by past tense.

The original author’s views have changed some since writing it; past tense don’t entirely agree with everything here either, but feel there’s some really good history here and its really worth putting it out there again.

Setting Up

In October 1980, workers from Islington’s welfare rights organisations, and one local unemployed man got together to try to set up an unemployed group. Unemployment was rising rapidly and the welfare workers felt that just telling the unemployed their rights was not enough – that something had to be done to extend these pathetic rights, and they recognised that this could best be done by the unemployed themselves.

Unemployed groups were forming in various parts of London, and someone from the Greenwich group, which was already active, was invited to speak at the inaugural meeting. The meeting was organised at the Co-op Hall and the dole office nearby was leafleted for two weeks before, with new people gradually joining in the leafleting.

About five new people turned up to the meeting, plus a guy from the NF [Note 1] who was quickly thrown out. It was decided to start meeting weekly, to try to get more people involved, and to try to get up a centre for, and run by the unemployed.

But despite the belief that unemployed people had to organise for themselves, it wasn’t until some months later that the group was angered into taking themselves seriously, and taking control of their dealings with the authorities. Up till then they’d sat back and watched the welfare workers deal with the council, trades council etc. -they seemed to know what they were doing, while the group had no experience and were intimidated, less by authority than by all the forms, codes, behind-the-scenes deals etc. Instead the group was just trying to keep going, believing that when they got the centre they could take control. They were leafleting, flyposting and meeting, new people were joining, and a few dropping out.

Then in April there was a meeting in the area organised by the South East Region TUC (SERTUC) to talk about unemployment and setting up a centre. Most of the group were there, sitting at the back, listening to how the bureaucrats were going to set up a centre, how they’d been doing lots of things for the unemployed, but the unemployed weren’t interested, and so on, until finally the group started shouting that they were organising for themselves. The union hacks weren’t interested and didn’t like their meeting being disrupted by plebs. The welfare workers said nothing.

The next meeting with SERTUC was on better terms – one of them among a conference of the London & South East Federation of Unemployed Groups. He was there to sell the TUC/government line on unemployed centres  – he failed [2]. Nearly every group there totally rejected the guidelines, the imposition of paid, workers, and political control. The SERTUC guy felt so rejected he was desperate for friends, and after a few kind words on the way out, he agreed to write some nice letters for IAGOU. This was June ’81. The conference had been set up by the Greenwich and Southwark groups and was attended by 16 militant groups. There was a feeling that things were just starting, that the movement was going to grow, and be a vehicle for real change. Brixton and St Pauls had exploded [3] – in many areas the cops were careful not to provoke more trouble, and people on the streets were becoming confident. Mass unemployment was something new, at least for white males, and included many who were looking for a lot more than a job. Unemployment and the riots seemed to be the crack in the system that people had been waiting for.

A week later there was a national conference in Leicester, with over 80 people from 25 unemployed groups, plus individuals and some union reps. Everyone was excited at going national, but the question of how to organise caused major arguments. Leicester and most of the other Midland groups were controlled by Socialist Organiser (a trot group in the Labour Party) [4] who had met a couple of weeks before to organise their position. The constitution they came up with was centralised – the conference would elect individuals onto a committee which would run the ‘union’. Their proposals were sent out a week before the conference, and IAGOU immediately prepared an alternative. They argued that electing individuals was absurd because they might get jobs or drop out, or their group might disband or conflict with them, leaving them outside the real movement. They wanted local groups to be the basis for organisation, and the structure to be kept as informal as possible to allow each group and individual as much input as they wanted. Instead of creating a committee to decide what should be done, IAGOU wanted a structure where each group could come up with ideas for struggle, and develop them with the others. And there was deep suspicion of giving an individual a position from which to speak ‘on behalf of’ the unemployed or to impose a political line, as S.O. seemed to want.

IAGOU took their proposed constitution to the conference and handed round. Most of the groups not controlled by S.O. called for the decision on the constitution to be postponed as they had not had time to discus the new proposals and had no mandate on them. IAGOU agreed, but when a compromise was put to them at lunch, they copped-out and withdrew their proposals. So a committee was elected, and before long the organisation was in the hands of a few people – or at least the name was, the organisation ceased to exist when everyone went home. Still, IAGOU came back inspired by the fact that the movement was national, whatever a particular organisation might do, or fail to do.

Meanwhile, conditions in the dole offices were getting intolerable. The rising number of unemployed was not matched by an increase in staff or facilities, meaning long queues, crowded dirty offices and stress on both sides of the counter. Added to this, the staff were taking action over a pay dispute, which closed down various dole and DHSS [5] offices. IAGOU supported the staff, practically organising the strike at one dole office, giving out union leaflets to explain the dispute to other claimants, but they also put forward their own demands for improving conditions, particularly at the Medina Road dole office.

On July 7th, IAGOU held a public meeting near the dole office, and the next day held a demo. They wrote their demands on a chalkboard outside the office, and painted slogans on the pavement where the queues ended – some of them quite a long way down the road. Then they went in, about 50 of them, but the office was already packed and it looked like everyone was demonstrating. A couple of them got up on the counter (this was before shatter-proof screens) and started shouting out their demands and calling for the manager. Both claimants and staff showed support, so eventually the manager agreed to meet a delegation. She was totally patronising and obstructive (not knowing that one of the delegation was an unemployed councillor) but gave in to some of the demands;

Some notices were put up in Urdu, Gujerati, Greek and Turkish. but this only lasted a few weeks.

– A toilet was made available to claimants, but only in emergencies (as defined by management)

– A slip was sent out with giros saying when to sign on next.

– An extra bench was put in, for two weeks.

– some replacement giros were handed out over the counter instead of being posted.

– a few more staff were taken on, but nothing like the 22 lacking according to their own calculations.

Another public meeting was held shortly after, followed by another demo about the continued delay in receiving giros. About 70 claimants took part. When somebody shouted out ‘What are we supposed to ‘do pawn our gold jewellery?’ the manager replied ‘well, you can pawn your furniture’ which did nothing to calm the situation. IAGOU demanded another meeting. At first this was refused, but then a date was set for July 24th. To avoid any ‘trouble’ Regional Management made the manager close the office for the whole day creating even more chaos and aggravation.

At the same time, IAGOU had been contacting unions and the council to try to ensure that claimants were not cut-off or evicted due to delays in payment caused by the strike, and were successful. They also went over Hackney [6], to demand emergency payments from the council, and the council agreed immediately, rather than have hundreds of angry claimants while the riots were in full swing. If you were willing to queue up twice you could get two payments, or more. While there, IAGOU helped a Hackney unemployed group get going.

With the end of the strike much of the chaos continued, and some improvements were taken away again by management, so IAGOU held another demo on August 24th, again at Medina Road. But eventually the chaos was reduced by the opening of another office nearby. and the introduction of monthly signing instead of two-weekly.

In this period of chaos, IAGOU brought out their first newsletter called U B Press [7]. It included articles explaining the situation and struggle at the dole offices (with ½ page by one of the workers), proposals for setting up a centre, a section from a book by Wal Hannington (unemployed leader of the ’20s) [8] on the occupation of an Islington library as an unemployed centre in 1920 [9], reports from the two conferences, and more. And all for only 2p!

There was also a benefit at which everyone had a good time and IAGOU made 70 quid. It was called Bop Against YOP, but unfortunately those affected by the Youth Opportunity Programme, 16-18 year olds, couldn’t get in as it was held in a pub that the cops kept their eye on.

On October 22nd Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Employment (as they say in Newspeak) visited Barnsbury dole office in South Islington. Informed of the visit by a mole, IAGOU organised a demo to welcome him, and sent out a press-release. When it arrived, Tebbit was jostled by a crowd of about 30, hit by an egg and chased into the building. “ … the egg was thrown from two feet away, hitting him on the crown of the head. It burst and the yoke (sic) dribbled down his neck onto his clothing.”(the Times) “A spokesman for the Department of Employment said, ‘he was not hurt.” (Morning Star) Because of the press release, it was attributed to IAGOU, which upset the SWP [10] because the egg was actually one of their members.

Relations with the SWP were not particularly good anyway. During the civil servants’ strike, IAGOU and the local SWP branch organised a joint meeting, except that the SWP had organised it as their branch meeting, at which they told IAGOU to disband and join the Right to Work Campaign – one of their front organisations, which they disbanded about a year later. Then IAGOU tried to discourage a bunch of local SWP students and lecturers from trying to occupy a Job Centre ‘as a stunt’. They went ahead, gave out a few leaflets, were ignored, and went to the café.

2) THE FIGHT FOR A CENTRE

One of the main aims of IAGOU from the start was the setting up of a centre for the unemployed. The most obvious way to do this seemed to be through Islington Council and the Greater London Council [11]. They were both willing to fund ‘community groups’, especially when they expected political support and good publicity in return. Also they had property to spare. But of course it wasn’t as easy as going along to the council and saying ‘we’re unemployed and we want a centre’. There were forms to fill in, bureaucracies to deal with, support to be lobbied for, internal politics to deal with and constant pressure to apply, to force action instead of just words.

Getting them to accept that the centre would be run and controlled by the users was at that time comparatively easy. To start with it was a lot cheaper for them not to have to pay for workers. Also at that time the only existing model for unemployed centres was the MSC [12]/TUC guidelines which were not particularly acceptable to any of the parties involved; the council were not keen on the lack of campaigning imposed, because they expected that any campaigning would be effectively pro-Labour, the unions were against the MSC rates of pay, and IAGOU were against these, and the control being in the hands of the various authorities. Both Islington Council and the GLC liked to appear radical, and anyway they would have control in the long term, through controlling the purse strings.

In May ‘81 the council agreed in principle to funding a centre, and IAGOU had to go away again and produce detailed plans and a budget, which was a bit hard without having a building to base their plans on. The council were not particularly helpful over this, but eventually IAGOU found an empty council-leased shop and decided it would be the centre. It was at 355 Holloway Road on one of Islington’s busiest roads for shopping and traffic, almost in the centre of the borough and close to Medina Road. It had been empty for some time since being used as a housing advice centre. The lay-out and conditions weren’t particularly good, but they were told money would be available for alterations and improvements.

In June the council’s Employment Committee agreed to give the group £4,000 to equip the centre, and by September Finance and Planning had approved the handing over of funding and the building ‘as soon as possible’. The Valuers, Architects and IAGOU drew up plans for the alterations and in November the Solicitors approved the group’s constitution, after long arguments and delays. In December the money for equipment was handed over, and it looked like the keys to the building would follow shortly. They didn’t.

In the new year, the majority of councillors either suddenly ‘saw the light’ at the same time, or else found a way to do what they had always really wanted, but without joining the Tories – they went over to the newly-formed SDP [13]. Overnight the Labour stronghold became the SDP’s first taste of power, without an election. Those who had been spouting the Labour line could now do openly what they had only done secretly or negatively before. Grants were axed, staff vacancies frozen, plans made to increase rents and sell off 750 homes. A worker in the housing department was victimised, and nearly all the council workers came out on strike. On February 9th the Employment Committee met for the first time under SDP rule. They agreed to fund the local Chamber of Commerce to the tune of £16,500, and refused the £7,000 previously promised for the centre, and so the centre itself. According to the council leader, ‘A centre for the unemployed in Islington would only encourage people to stay on the dole’. Most of IAGOU were at the meeting, and some had to be physically removed. That night the town was painted red, with demands and threats. The next full council meeting had striking workers, threatened tenants, IAGOU and others demonstrating outside at the start while inside the meeting had to be stopped at least once, due to screaming, chants of ‘Unwaged Fightback’ and rolls of bog paper flying from the public gallery.

As a (not very successful) publicity stunt a few of them went down to the first SDP national conference at Kensington Town Hall. Two of them got in with borrowed press cards and borrowed clothes, and were meant to let the others in through a side door. They couldn’t find a side door, but anyway they hung out a massive banner, which had been cleverly disguised as journalistic fat and shouted a few slogans and insults before being led out very politely. All the press were there, but only one of the local radio stations bothered to mention it.

Before the SDP had come along, IAGOU were already getting sick of waiting, and were making plans to occupy the centre instead. They told the Employment and Valuers Departments that they needed to look over the centre again to prepare the next year’s budget and other things. Both departments said it would be alright, but due to illness and holidays neither could send anyone along, so IAGOU would have to pick up the keys and go on their own.

So on a Friday there was a special planning meeting to sort out all details, the weekend was spent at the local resource centre printing leaflets and posters to publicise the occupation and Monday the shopping was done, bog paper, tea etc, and everything was set for Tuesday. But late on Monday the head of the Employment Department rang, saying ‘what happened at your meeting on Friday? We know you planned something for tomorrow, what is it? I need to inform the councillors’. Of course he was told it was none of his business and as they didn’t know how much he knew, the plans went ahead.

The key was picked up with no problem, and everyone was in place across the road in Sainsburys, a few cycling up and down the road and the rest in a cafe up the road, plus 12 from the Student Union were waiting at their college round the corner. But the building had been boarded up and a cop was standing outside. The worst thing was not knowing who had grassed – everyone was under suspicion so it was impossible to try again. One of the people at the planning meeting was involved in setting up another unemployed project mainly for basic training which was also after funding. He never came to another meeting.

Council elections were due at the start of May, and the Labour Party promised the keys to the centre ‘within 24 hours of getting re-elected’. This didn’t make IAGOU rush round campaigning for a Labour victory, but the campaigning they were already doing, along with all the other struggles going on, must at least have given the impression that things had been, and would be slightly better under Labour.

Anyway. Labour got back into power with only a few of the defectors keeping their seats. The next day the Labour leader said that IAGOU could the keys the day after they officially took office, a week later. Nothing happened. One problem was that shortly before the election the council sold off the lease on the property, but the new lessees were just speculators and gave the council a sublease. It was the freeholders, who the council had supposedly dealt with months before who kept being a pain. Meanwhile the council kept raising questions that had been dealt with before the SDP took over but after a lot of pressure the centre was finally handed over in August ‘82, over 3 months after the election, and over 11 months from the first promised date.

3) A CENTRE FINALLY

The idea that once the group had a centre as a base, they would be able to consolidate and really start moving was soon shown to be an illusion.

The centre was there, but it didn’t run itself. Whereas before they were running around without a base, now they found they couldn’t run around so much because they were stuck holding the base. The centre had to be open every weekday (the fact that for a while it wasn’t was later used as an excuse to close it) so people had to be there even when nothing was going on. Idiots who wandered in had to be treated sympathetically. Receipts had to be kept for every pen bought. And possibly most destructive, the building alterations had to be arranged.

The building was made up of two rooms, plus the toilet. The front room was long and thin, with a lot of space taken up by the entrance, which was a sort of glass passageway leading up to the door. This was intimidating and stopped a lot of light. The back room was square and housed the crèche, TV and cooking facilities. The back wall was damp and collapsing, and each time it rained the damp spread another inch across the floor.

The plan was to make the front straight, re-divide the rooms more evenly, close off the cooking area with a serving hatch, add a disabled toilet and a couple of room dividers, and generally do the place up. The effect would have been to make the place attractive, safe, and spacious enough for various things to go on at the same time.

First they had to work out what they wanted, then the architects and builders were brought in to draw up proper plans and estimates. The GLC then had to agree to fund the work and the council had to give planning permission. And once all that had been arranged, and it took a long time, the head landlords decided they didn’t like it, and wouldn’t allow it. It was discovered that they could be taken to court for being unreasonable, but this had to be done by the council as sub-lessees. The council thought about it for a couple of months, and then said they would do it if the GLC would cover any legal costs. The GLC thought about for a few months, and then said no. So after many months of hard work, the group were left with a damp, dingy intimidating building.

Still, it was there, and people dropped in, for advice, to watch films, to join the campaigns, the occasional workshop, the meetings or just for a chat or for-curiosity.

IAGOU had its meetings on Thursdays, and Wednesdays were Wageless Women day. Islington Wageless Women had been meeting for over a year, organising women’s events, campaigning against the cohabitation laws, for nurseries etc. a London & South East Wageless Women conference, exhibitions etc. and intervening in IAGOU and the rest of the movement, to struggle against sexism and illusions. In terms of theory Wageless Women were far more together than IAGOU, but when it came to practice they had greater problems. They didn’t want to be an ‘unemployed’ women’s group, but based their analysis and struggles on the role of women in the reproduction of capital – on the unwaged work that women are trained for from birth, and perform every day whether they also do waged work or not. Their basic demand was for a guaranteed minimum income for all, to allow women (and men) more choice over what work they do, and giving women independence without them having to take on waged work as well. They criticised IAGOU for basing their campaigns around the dole office, which excluded many unwaged people not signing on as unemployed. This was correct, but the problem then was where else to organise. IAGOU’s best struggles were waged at the dole office, because there were already large numbers of people there – something would have happened there anyway, without IAGOU. To have used the centre for organising all unwaged sectors of the proletariat would have required far greater organisation, publicity, imagination and resources than they had. Of course they could have tried harder, but while accepting the criticism, and making the Centre open to all the unwaged, IAGOU remained essentially an unemployed group.

The change of name from Islington Action Group on Unemployment to Islington Action Group of the Unwaged, which happened around the time the Centre opened, caused disagreements with various authorities. The change meant not only a change in who could be involved, extending outside the terms and analysis of the ‘Labour Movement’, but signified also a change in self-definition; instead of defining themselves in terms of jobs (ie not having one) they defined themselves in terms of resources (ie not having any). Of course the two are directly related, but the point was to try to change this – to end the poverty – while pointing out the historical (and so changeable) reasons for it. The poverty of the dole is a tool to enforce work – we work because ‘we have nothing to sell but our labour’, but to some extent we choose what conditions we will work under. Mass unemployment and benefit cuts restrict our choices – they restrict our ability to struggle over conditions through the need to keep, or get a job. So instead of joining the campaigns for jobs, where the unwaged were treated as the ‘reserve army’ of the labour movement, IAGOU struggled to improve their conditions as unwaged people, and so improve their (and others’) choices, alongside the struggles of the waged. But the struggle was meant to go beyond merely improving conditions, a constant struggle with more or less success according to conditions;- it was meant to strike at the basic poverty of our class, on which our exploitation is based. The resources of this world that we have created have been stolen from us, and we can only get the means to a decent survival by selling our labour power, to be used by the bosses and state to produce more riches and means to exploit us. This exploitation can not be dealt with by demanding more of it, but by attacking its roots and its myths. We now live in a world where the bosses can only continue to impose their role, to impose labour and poverty on us, through creating artificial shortages, through destroying part of the abundance we produce and leaving the means of production to rot. The abolition of labour is the task before us, the appropriation, by all, of our products and means of production, which no longer require our sacrifice.

4) CAMPAIGNING

The first major campaign run from the Centre was against the Specialist Claims Control Unit (SCCUM), one of the specialist fraud squads sent round different DHSS offices to intimidate claimants into signing off. They tend to pick on single parents (who they accuse of cohabiting), people with skills that ‘could be used off the cards’ or whoever’s name comes out of the hat. Like the SPG [14], their name gets changed regularly to put off resistance.

In October ‘82 the SCCUM were sent into Archway Tower, home of Highgate and Finsbury Park DHSS offices, and a large demonstration was there to meet them. As they arrived they were photographed, and their pictures and car numbers flyposted around the area, with advice on how to deal with them. This was also put on the front page of the local alternative paper. They have met similar resistance in most other places, and the ordinary DHSS staff will often walk out for the day when they come, and refuse to co-operate with them. Bethnal Green Claimants Union were so successful at disrupting their visit to the area, that one of the claimants was taken to court for ‘intimidation’, but was quickly found not guilty. Outside the court the SCCUM were further ‘intimidated’ by having a camera pointed at them, so they ran off down the road with the lens-cap! It’s interesting how such anti-social elements project their own obnoxious habits onto those at the receiving end – a primary symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. A claimant was once being harassed for ‘suspected cohabitation’ and asked IAGOU for support when the fraud officer came to visit. When he came in and saw a group of people with a tape recorder, he asked her ‘don’t you regard it as a private matter?’ as though IAGOU were the ones interested in her personal relations.

Then came the struggle against race-checks at the dole office. Staff were to be ordered to fill in a computer form for each claimant, marking them down as;
1) African/West Indian
2) Asian
3) Other
4) Refusal (claimants had the right to refuse to be assessed, but the staff were not allowed to tell them that they were being assessed, making this ‘right’ pretty useless. The reason for this was that in test runs, they found that more people refused to be assessed when they’d been told about it than when they hadn’t!)

Only 1, 2 & 4 would have been marked on the computer, in other words only if you were black or bolshie enough to refuse would you have a mark on your file – a mark identifying you for the fraud squads when looking for someone to harass or for anyone else with access to the computer.

The Department of Employment claimed they only wanted statistics, and for this they were supported by parts of the race relations industry who wanted to show that black people are discriminated against in employment. But anyone who didn’t already recognise this fact would be among those, journalists, government ministers etc, who would no doubt use these same statistics to ‘prove’ the opposite – portraying black people as ‘scroungers’, as the problem. Employers are the problem so they’re the ones who should be hassled and assessed. Race statistics have always been used to promote racism, never to fight it.

In March ’83 IAGOU produced leaflets on the checks, including a tear-off slip to hand in when signing on. saying ‘please note that I refuse to be monitored for my ethnic origin’. At this stage the government postponed their plans, but by the end of the year it seemed they were ready to try again. So after a lot of leafleting, flyposting and visiting other groups, the inaugural meeting of the Islington Campaign Against Racist Checks was held at the Centre in December, with guest speakers from the Black Healthworkers and Patients Group and others. The turn-out was appalling – most of the black groups contacted had said-good luck, but had their own agendas of struggle and many people leafleted outside the dole offices expressed anger but felt nothing could be done until the checks started – and the campaign remained the work of IAGOU. The publicity continued, including a live interview on Radio London, and soon the campaign spread, so that in February ‘84 the London Campaign Against Racist Checks was set up, made up of unwaged groups, dole staff and others. Much of that summer was spent leafleting at various festivals, and the meetings, when held in Islington, would often go on till the early hours of the morning (but business was always finished in time to pop over to the pub) and generally campaigning was combined with having a bloody good time.

In August the government decided to have a test run of the checks at various dole offices – they had already done test-runs so it was obvious that what was, being tested was the amount of resistance. Demos were held at Holloway, Peckham and Brixton dole offices when the tests were supposed to be carried out there. About a year later they tried again – again there were demos-and a one-day strike by the staff. Another year on they tried it in the Job Centres, where for many reasons people felt less threatened by it so there was little resistance, but now that the Job Centres and dole offices are to be re-merged, the struggle is being taken up again. [15]

At various times there were attempts to campaign against the Youth Training Scheme etc, against benefit cuts, and for concessions at council sports facilities – (successful) and at cinemas, Arsenal, public transport etc (unsuccessful). Some fun was had at a show put on by the government as part of their ‘review’ of benefits. They held a public (though practically un-publicised) series of discussions between representatives of the government, business and a few liberal organisations. The result of this farce was a foregone conclusion, so IAGOU and some of the Claimants Unions booed the show off stage, drowning it out with whistles and loud conversation. Unfortunately the performers were allowed to leave the stage unharmed despite being outnumbered.

The question of how to effectively campaign over the level of benefits, our standard of living, was always a major problem. Obviously the unemployed (as opposed to other sectors of the unwaged – ie ‘housewives’) are not in a position to strike, but can still be very disruptive to the system. Our current level of income is due in part to past disruptions, and the state’s attempts to avoid them in future. What would most encourage the state to increase benefits would be a situation where large numbers of the unwaged (and waged) were already directly taking more, through mass looting, mass fare dodging, rent strikes etc. in which case demanding increased benefits would be irrelevant – the important thing would be to extend this real power instead of legitimising the state by making demands of it. On the other hand there is the possibility of waged workers taking up the demand, especially when fighting redundancies, but IAGOU do not seem to have directly suggested this to any workers. Instead the idea of an increase, or of a Guaranteed Minimum Income were used in effect as a way of explaining other campaigns and struggles (we should get more/a GMI because… so we’re demanding/doing X) or as an alternative/opposition to the demand for jobs. Meanwhile they encouraged shoplifting, benefit fraud, squatting, careful tampering with meters, eating the rich etc.

5) CHANGE OF MEMBERS

By the first anniversary of the Centre’s opening there was only one person left running it, it was opening very irregularly and there was no money as the GLC grant was late as usual. Some people had actually found jobs while others had just got sick of putting in a lot of work for little return, and waiting for funding to come through, or had their time taken up with other struggles. Fortunately two new active members turned up within a couple of months and helped get things going again, while some of the less active members returned once the Centre was opening regularly again. But when the last of the original activists left, in early ‘84, all continuity had been broken. The new members had to gradually discover the group’s history, contacts in other groups etc, and deal with the bad relations inherited from past disputes. Having not taken part in the long struggle to get the Centre and funding, the new members tended to take them for granted, and took the threats from the council and GLC less seriously than they should, while they also lacked the experience of fighting these authorities. And as they had not been part of the original collective process of deciding what the Centre was for, and because of the need to get more people involved, they often felt unable to impose their views on those who wandered in, meaning that at various times the place was a centre for local kids to wreck, or for the propagation of ultra-leftist ideology, or whatever. The film-shows, which were originally chosen for their political and social content, to encourage discussion and activities, degenerated into showing whatever it was felt would attract the most people, although the best attended showings were actually on Nicaragua and the Amsterdam squatters riots. Also there were the ever-present problems – that the activists became a group of friends who tended to mould the centre and its activities around themselves, making it more accessible and attractive to their friends than to the majority of the unwaged; that the smallness of the group always limited its actions, so putting off more people from joining in; and of course the many people who came along expecting someone to fight for them or organise them. But through the Centre being constantly kept open, and through constant campaigning and events, new people were attracted and the problems gradually confronted (to return in other forms).

By the summer of ’84 the Centre had again become a real centre of activity, with the campaign against racist checks leading to meetings and actions all around London, the miners strike, with miners using the Centre as a base, and the group doing collections and visiting some mining areas, and the start of threats from the GLC leading to trips to County Hall to graffiti counter-threats and leaflet their festivals, and many other things.

But as the racist checks were postponed and the GLC threats went slowly through the bureaucracy, so losing their immediate importance, what was left was the political line and posture the group had taken on the miners’ strike. This, along with the political affiliations of the two main activists had attracted a few ultra-left politicos from outside Islington, and for a while all that came out of the Centre was propaganda that had little direct relevance to the unwaged of Islington.

Meanwhile, another centre had been open for some time in Islington. Molly’s Cafe was a squatted centre in Upper Street, about a mile away from the Unwaged Centre, with a vegetarian cafe and various activities. It had been started mainly by punks who had been involved in previous squatted centres, the ‘Peace Centre’ in Rosebery Avenue [16], the anarchist bookshop in Albany Street [17] etc. and in ‘Stop the City’ [18]. For some time the two centres ignored each other, IAGOU sinking into isolation in its centre and opposed to the anarchism of Molly’s, while the Molly’s crew were put off by their expectation of another council-run community centre. But eventually they got to know each other and started working together – the Tavistock Square Claimants Union was set up at Molly’s with publicity printed by IAGOU, together they set up the Islington Housing Action Group, and a day of videos, speeches and discussion on Ireland was jointly organised at the Unwaged Centre.

It was the day on Ireland that finally brought to a head the dispute between the ultra-leftists and the other users, including the activists from Molly’s. In political terms the dispute was over self-organisation: in principle both sides were for it, but for the ultra-leftists this meant producing propaganda attacking manipulators, forms of organisation that restrain struggle, recuperation of struggle etc, so that the Centre and its resources were there for them to use as they saw fit, as representatives of this ‘correct’ ideology. But for the others the resources were for the direct self-organisation of the unwaged (and others) irrespective of political position, for developing our struggles according to our experience. Two of the ultra-leftists in particular were making the atmosphere unbearable – one was constantly critical of everything without any positive suggestions and easily wound up to a tantrum, while the other took pleasure in winding him up, hid the best paper for his own pamphlets, ignored most of the people coming in, and finally wrote stupid graffiti across a poster in the window for the day on Ireland, having made no attempt to take part and so express his views constructively.

At that time the weekly meetings had again stopped, as IAGOU as such was not doing a lot, except with the people from Molly’s who, although they were using the Centre more and more, had not got directly involved in running it. To break out of this rut, a package was put together and put to everyone involved – expulsion of the two disrupters, and new activities for the Centre with meetings again. A special meeting was held for the expulsion and the result was a forgone conclusion, the expellers having organised the invitations to the meeting. One of the expellees recognised this and didn’t turn up, having paint-bombed the front of the Centre the night before in protest, but the other tried unsuccessfully to justify himself. A new issue of Unwaged Fightback magazine was started and various activities organised to defend the Centre and restart campaigning, which gave new life to IAGOU, but with a new, informal power structure based around a few of the activists who were moving into a squat together.

6) MINERS & OTHERS

1984 was the year of the miners’ strike, and IAGOU, like many other groups, joined in by collecting money etc, joining pickets and demonstrations, and encouraging solidarity among the unwaged (and waged) of the area. Two groups of miners used the Centre at different times, as a base for organising collections, meetings and trips to speak to other workers – first from a pit in Staffordshire, and when they found a less chaotic (and more officially approved of) base a branch from Sunderland moved in. The money collected by IAGOU went, at various times, to these two groups, to strikers at a Nottingham pit, a Women’s Action Group (mainly miners’ wives) in Derbyshire and to the families of miners imprisoned for their part in the struggle. This was always organised directly, rather than through official union channels – when the Staffordshire lads were met on a demo in the early days of the strike, their regional union treasurer was supporting the scabs and refusing to pass on money to strikers, while towards the end there was the fear of the money being sequestered, but the main reason was that the group wanted direct links, so that ideas and experiences could be shared, and so that the miners would know who the solidarity was coming from and why, rather than it appearing to be the work of the union bureaucrats. Collections were held at least once a week outside Sainsburys, two jumble-sales were held, and a large window display (made famous by the Islington Gazette) encouraged passers-by to come in and donate. One guy who came in said that he had just been interviewing Margaret Hodge, the council leader, and the only way he felt he could make himself clean again was by donating a fiver to the miners. An attempt to collect toys for miners’ children for Xmas failed, but food and money were donated instead, and a couple of Islington shops donated toys without knowing it.

From early on in the strike it became obvious that the miners were not going to win on their own, and that the government was trying very hard to avoid any other important section of the working class entering into major activity at the same time. So IAGOU, like others, stepped up their encouragement of workers’ activity, they joined a picket for a one-day dock strike, distributed a leaflet by Central London post workers at the Islington sorting office, supported the local nursery workers’ strike against understaffing, made a poster calling for real action on the TUC-called ‘Day of Action’ … There was a lot of talk around of the need to open up-a ‘2nd Front’ against the state, yet IAGOU managed to avoid the obvious conclusion of what they themselves were saying – that they should have been stepping up their struggle as part of the unwaged movement. IAGOU were fairly weak at this time, which to some extent explains why they looked elsewhere for the ‘2nd Front’, but they were weak because they were constantly looking elsewhere. Once the racist checks were postponed they had little contact with the dole and DHSS offices, but instead waited for the masses to be attracted to the Centre by their extremist political proclamations. The reason for IAGOU’s existence, that the unwaged must organise and fight their own battles as part of the wider working-class movement was effectively forgotten, and they relegated themselves to the position that the left had tried hard to impose on them and that they had always resisted, the position of individual supporters of the struggles of the waged and of a particular political line. Of course the unwaged movement must support the struggles of other sectors of the working class, and the miners’ strike was a very important struggle, but the development of unity depends on each struggle becoming a catalyst for the others. The threat by the DHSS to reduce strikers’ miserable benefits by the amount of any donations should have been fought at the Islington DHSS offices, along with more general threats against benefits. The state’s attempts to make energy production more profitable should have been fought from the other end, through struggle for concessionary rates for (or free) fuel. Discussion should have been started among the unwaged on what the strike could mean for them. Despite having miners using the Centre, they were never asked to speak at a meeting there. The one aspect of the strike that IAGOU did take up and try to encourage to other sectors, was the necessity of using all possible means and force to fight our struggles.

Generally IAGOU made great efforts to support, and encourage support for other struggles, such as the Newham 8 (8 Asian youths arrested and charged for defending their community against racist attacks) the nursery workers’ strike, the struggles at Kingston and Southwark unemployed centres against their managements. But IAGOU seemed to have great difficulty in keeping permanent contact with other groups, partly through the turnover in active members, partly through the constant rise and fall of other groups and partly through quarrelling.

In the beginning relations with Islington Trades Council were fairly good especially with the labour left. The Trades Council was dominated by the Communist Party, not because they were in a majority, but because they were the ones willing to take responsible positions and do the work, and because they had contacts (and party links) with the regional TUC and other Trades Councils. On the question of the Unwaged Centre (as on all other questions) they followed the TUC line – that centres should be run by paid workers and controlled by a management committee dominated by the council and unions. But the labour left were more supportive of IAGOU and used this, and other issues to depose the CP and take the leading positions. This was the time of the council’s defection to the SDP, and when Labour won the new elections, these new Trades Council leaders had become councillors, leaving the CP back in control. Despite the differences, the chair of the Trades Council did a lot of work to get the centre and became a trustee of the building, but in April ’83 he resigned this position and tried to stop the council funding because of his (and other ‘responsible authorities’) lack of control over day-to-day running. He claimed that as the money was controlled only by the users themselves, they would ‘take the money and run’. This left relations rather bad. The Trades Council still had two delegates on the Centre’s admin committee (with 4 from IAGOU) but for a long time meetings were very irregular, and a formality when they did happen. And IAGOU had two fraternal delegates (meaning they could only speak when spoken to) on the Trades Council, but they only attended to make sure they weren’t being attacked, and to enjoy the outbursts of the secretary, who would explode at the mere mention of IAGOU. This situation suited the newcomers to IAGOU, not only because it left them free from any interference, but also because of their view of unions as bureaucratic organisations, controlling workers’ struggles and dividing them. Of course at local level most union delegates and officials are still workers, often radical workers critical of the leadership and bureaucracy, but as long as they see the union as the organ for struggle, and seek merely to reform it, they strengthen it, and so those manipulators and parasites most fit to run it, and sabotage the power of the working class, to spread its struggles across all imposed boundaries and fragmentation, and to directly seize power and the wealth we produce. Unions exist to mediate between us and our enemy (assuming and imposing their right to exist) and between us and other groups of workers. Those who run unions can never share the direct interests of their members, and do not even have to pretend to have common interests with those not in the union, who must therefore be kept separate.

IAGOU always saw themselves as an active minority, not as representatives of anyone, but to some extent this is also the true position of local union delegates. They are often elected to positions of ‘representation’ because they are active and willing to do the work – because they are an active minority. But as they take up positions in the hierarchy (on the grounds that it is better for them to be there than someone worse – the excuse of all reformists) they get caught up in the machinery of representing ‘their’ members (so requiring majority support before doing anything, no matter how important they consider it) representing the union’s decisions and-actions to the members, mediating with the boss, more and more meetings…… To break with the union structure means not only to lose the restrictions imposed by it, but also the support for (some) struggles that comes from official recognition. The fact that support is dependant on going through the ‘correct channels’ shows how different this is from solidarity – in fact through ‘replacing’ solidarity, it represses it – although rank and file activists are constantly battling to create something meaningful out of the empty form of words and gestures behind which each union continues to carve out its own kingdom of separate interests.

Anyway, when IAGOU were forced to turn to the Trades Council for support against the threats of the council and the GLC, they found they actually had quite a lot in common with some of the delegates. Relations with activists from the DHSS staff were particularly good – IAGOU often joined their pickets and took up their campaigns, while they kept IAGOU informed of goings-on at their offices and were the most active in the struggle to keep the Centre open. There were also good relations with delegates from the ‘voluntary sector’ (council funded groups, advice workers etc) who were often involved in similar struggles with the council. While the Centre was finally being evicted, a housing advice agency was being victimised and then closed down because of its campaigning, and publicising of racism in the council’s housing allocation. IAGOU also started getting involved in some of the Trades Council run campaigns, such as the campaign against the privatisation of the health service, which was effectively sabotaged by the health workers’ union rep (a member of management!) who complained about the campaign being run by non-health workers, while ensuring that ‘his’ members could not get involved. Again IAGOU became one of the main issues dividing the CP leadership from the left majority, and eventually the chair and treasurer resigned and the secretary was voted out.

7) THE END OF THE CENTRE

It was in May ’84 that the first suggestion was made by the GLC that the funding would be cut off. At this point the only reason given was that IAGOU was not considered a priority, but when other groups started writing letters of support, a list of reasons came back – ‘the irregular hours that the Unwaged Centre opened’ which had been sorted out 8 months earlier, ‘the smallness and relative unrepresentativeness of the group running the Centre, whereas they now wanted centres run by a couple of paid workers, and control over spending (in particular money given to Wageless Women so that they could control their own struggles). IAGOU answered these points and started trying to improve the Centre, by redecorating (now that the building works weren’t going to happen) more publicity and trying to get input from other local groups. Groups were invited to meetings to discuss the direction and running of the Centre, but none turned up (not even the Latin American groups which used the Centre for film shows and meetings) – when they were invited to regularly use the Centre (so freeing IAGOU from having to be there all the time) only the Claimants Union showed any interest, and eventually set up a new branch there, which only created confusion in the Centre. The local GLC councillor was invited round so that IAGOU could put their case to him, but instead he was only interested in putting the GLC case to them, showing who he really represented.

Then in September the Centre became front-page news in the local rightwing rag (and even got a mention in the London Evening Standard) when they noticed one word in the window display, and blew it up out of all proportion. Apart from the many inaccuracies (the most obvious being that about £40,000 was received, not £60,000, the group’s accounts were already in the hands of the council, although a bit behind, and the “poster saying Suspend the Bosses”‘ were actually stickers saying ‘Support the Bosses’) most of the group were pleased at the publicity, and thought unwaged people would be attracted by this image. But apart from a few people popping in to say ‘if the Gazette is against you, you must be OK’, this didn’t seem to work. The identity of the man ‘who visited the centre regularly’ but claimed that ‘people like me can not go in there’ was never proved, but he was believed to be a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain who was upset at being refused access to the duplicators for his party propaganda, and who was later seen at the Gazette office. There were some fears for the safety of the Centre, as a Gazette front-page attack on the Community Press a couple of years earlier had been closely followed by a fascist fire-bomb attack, but for some reason the Centre was left alone.

After this the council and GLC made it clear that they were really objecting to the group’s campaigning;

‘You have a radical libertarian approach to the problems of society… the activities you wish to carry on are sometimes incompatible with receiving public money’ (GLC)

‘I am concerned that the philosophy of IAGOU is that of a political campaigning organisation rather than a provider of services’ (Islington)

Of course IAGOU were not against services for the unwaged. They gave advice and support, cheap tea and coffee and-sometimes meals, somewhere to meet, films etc, but all this was seen as part of organising, not as servicing. The council wanted to be able to say ‘look what we’re doing for the unwaged’, IAGOU said ‘come and see what we can do for ourselves’. Between April and August ’84 a record was kept of visitors to the Centre – it varied from 3 to 20 a day (more for some films) which compared reasonably with other centres, and it would have been hard to fit many more people in, but the council were not impressed, or even interested. They decided to organise trips to other centres to see how they worked, first to the Reading Unemployed Centre. Any comparison with Islington was impossible; it had 24 paid workers, a lot of room and money and no facilities for campaigning – the delegate from the Chamber of Commerce was most impressed. Then to Southwark, where the centre was at that time being occupied by the users. There had been a long-running battle by most of the users and workers against the bureaucracy, manipulation, racism and sexism of the management committee, and when, in October ‘84, a black woman worker was harassed and assaulted by members of the management committee, they took over the building. But as far as Islington Council were concerned Southwark was a good example of how an unwaged centre should be run, and their report did not mention the occupation. The final visit was to Greenwich, which had a good centre but at that time no active unwaged group, partly because some of the leading activists had become workers there.

IAGOU had to admit that the other centres supplied a better service, but because they were given the money to do so. For example they were probably the only centre around without their own minibus, making them dependant either on Southwark for lifts (to mining areas, to support the Camel Laird occupation, to lobby the TUC, to demos etc) or on the council social services, who would not allow their minibuses for ‘political’ use(their office was only two doors away, so when a minibus was requested ‘for a trip to Kew Gardens’, they could see an advert in the window for a trip to a demo in Newham) and they were only allowed to specially qualified drivers, which IAGOU didn’t have after March ’84.

The council then started talking about setting up a new centre, which IAGOU certainly didn’t mind – apart from the original problems with the building, the heating system had exploded with a torrent of boiling water, the damp was eating away the floor and wall at the back and the head landlords, having refused permission for alterations, were now demanding restoration work that had been included in the plans – but the important point was how the new centre was to be run.

In May ’85 IAGOU drew up a new proposed constitution, including paid workers, greater concentration on services and wider representation on the admin committee. The council ignored it and told IAGOU to disband, and in July gave them 3 months notice to move out. Then in October they invited IAGOU, the chair of the Trades Council and Starting Point (an unwaged youth project in south Islington) to a meeting to discuss the new centre. At this meeting they brought out their proposed constitution (which most people had not seen before), shrugged off all criticism with ‘it can be changed later’, and effectively told those present that they were the management committee for the new centre. All the non-council members resigned these positions as soon as they returned to their groups to discuss it. The meeting also organised a trip to see possible sites for the centre, except that the council didn’t organise their part, so that out of three proposed sites, only one was found, and even with this one nobody knew which part of the building was available, but it was totally inappropriate anyway. The council put their proposals, not agreed by anyone else, to the GLC and got £30,000 from them for the 5 months to the end of the financial year. £30,000 for a non-existent centre, and IAGOU were accused of wanting to ‘take the money and run’. The Trades Council tried to get the constitution reopened for discussion, and the Centre kept open until the new one actually existed, but they only managed to get a statement that IAGOU might be allowed to stay until 31st December. The new centre of course never came about.

But IAGOU weren’t going to disappear without a fight. On October 15th they held a demo outside the council meeting at the Town Hall. Only about 30 people turned up, plus 20 council workers who were demonstrating about something else but had forgotten their leaflets. Only one person from the other London unwaged groups turned up, and none from the Trades Council.

The best bit was that some housing association had supplied free food for the council as a bribe, and demonstrators wandered in to partake, as did some local kids attracted by the chant of ‘Islington cares, food upstairs’. There was some heckling during the meeting, but a group of the activists managed to get locked out while trying to get permission to speak.

On the evening of October 18th IAGOU started their illegal occupation of the Centre with an all-night party, and from then on the place was occupied 24 hours a day, with a rota for nights. Posters from the original attempt to occupy the place were rediscovered and stuck up everywhere. A benefit gig was held at a squatted centre in Wood Green, which made some money, mainly on the drinks. The occupation raised people’s enthusiasm for a while as publicity was organised and new campaigns planned. An ‘unwaged Xmas Presence’ was planned to attack the misery of the festivities, but as the time got nearer people lost interest. It became obvious that it would not be practical to try anything more than a symbolic defence of the centre and by the end of the year the important issues became where the equipment and meetings could be moved to, and selling off the equipment that couldn’t be taken with. The idea of occupying the Town Hall or some other Council building when the eviction took place was discussed, but people were getting bored with occupying. The phones were cut off (with about £2,000 owed), the equipment packed up, and the occupation fizzled out. The Centre was finally evicted in February ‘86. After 20 months the building is still empty [19].

Meetings continued at an office in Essex Road, but most of the members had lost interest, including some of those who still came. Great efforts were made to attract new people and remain public – the GLC farewell festival was leafleted, a public meeting organised on the chaos at the DHSS (which nobody came to) and a demonstration was called on the night of the council election against whoever won, but the turnout was pathetic and everyone went straight to the pub.

They moved again, to a new squatted centre in Upper Street, but despite a lot of publicity nobody new came, and by the summer of ’86 IAGOU had gone to sleep.

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Notes

These notes were not part of the original text – we at past tense have added  them to help people who may not remember the 80s, (shurely shome mishtake? ed.), or who may not have followed the intricacies of the politics of that fabled era… However, they are brief points, not detailed analyses of the group/policy/benefit to which they refer; apologies to anyone who knows all this and finds our explanations simplistic.

[1] – NF: The National Front, a rightwing nationalist group, pretty similar to the BNP or EDL of more recent times (the BNP in fact began as a splinter-group from the NF); basically blaming immigrants for all the problems in society and campaigning to “send them all home”, as well as encouraging and carrying out racist attacks. In the 1970s the NF for a while grew very strong as the economic recession deepened, but they collapsed effectively after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in ’79, and adopted many of their policies, and much of their support deserted them for the tories. The rump NF fell back to the hardline neo-Nazi core at its heart; but in the 80s they also had a policy of attempting to weasel their way into social struggles and community groups and spread their shite. For instance they sent money to striking miners (who sent it back) and as late as 1989 tried unsuccessfully to set up anti-poll tax groups.

[2] – At the time the TUC and trade unions generally were attempting to set up Unemployed Centres, under the control of union bureaucracies, and often funded by them and local (usually Labour) councils. Many survived into the 1990s, even till today, though most closed gradually in the ‘90s as funding grew tighter and Labour’s rightward lurch made them embarrassing and expensive anachronisms.

[3] – This refers to the 1980 Bristol riot in St Pauls and the April 1981 Brixton riot. Just after this conference, in July ‘81, massive riots broke out all over the country, terrifying the middle classes and the bosses alike. There seems to be a debate about whether the 2011 riots were bigger in scale; the reaction was very similar – massive repression, arrests and increases in police powers. The 81 riots did lead to funding for lots of measures in inner cities to try and to ‘address the problems’ (ie pacify) of rebellious youth.

[4] – Socialist Organiser were a left group who broadly speaking followed the ideas of Russian ‘revolutionary’ Leon Trotsky. SO had a policy of organising inside the Labour Party at that time (as did many other ‘trotskyist’ groups); they succeeded in taking control in some local Labour party branches and thus came to run local councils like Lambeth in South London. The group were gradually expelled from Labour as it became New Labour and ditching the ‘extreme’ left seemed necessary so as to become electable/respectable to middle England. Socialist Organiser have now mutated into the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

[5] – DHSS: the Department for Health and Social Security, the central government branch running the Health Service and all areas of benefits and welfare at the time. In 1988 Health and Social Security were separated into two Departments; so the Department of Work and Pensions is the DHSS’s modern successor. Many claimants in the 80s just called them the SS after everyone’s favourite nazi unit.

[6] – Hackney: the London Borough next door to Islington.

[7] – UB Press: refers to Unemployment Benefit, now replaced by Jobseekers Allowance (via numberless changes in identity).

[8] – Wal Hannington was a leader of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, a national organisation of the unemployed (which existed 1921-46). After the first world war, Britain saw mass unemployment; the NUWM was formed from the upsurge in unemployed groups that sprang up to campaign for improved benefits and facilities, better treatment from the authorities, etc… Grounded very much in the socialist and working class movement of that had grown up before the war, it came to be dominated by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Hannington and other CP members, while clearly dedicated working class activists, undeniably steered the NUWM away from its early powerful locally based strengths towards a concentration on stunts like the hunger marches, and centralised the Movement to the point of sterility. Nevertheless, particularly in the early years, the NUWM achieved many gains for the unemployed. Wal Hannington’s book, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, is well worth a read; though for an objective account, read We Refuse to Starve in Silence by Richard Croucher; and for some unpleasant truths about NUWM and Hannington’s tendency to manipulate and control working class people in the Communist Party’s interest, check out Sylvia Pankhurst, by Barbara Winslow.

[9] – Occupation of a disused Islington Library: this was Essex Road Library, used as a meeting point by the local unemployed group, post World War 1 (see previous note). After being granted the use of this empty building, they were told to leave, but barricaded themselves in. The Council cut off power and water but food, candles and water were brought in. After holding it by force for a few weeks, in December 1920, E. H. King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, ordered the police to eject them; cops stormed the library early one morning. King described the group as ‘unemployables’. The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to withdraw an increase in outdoor relief (the main benefit of the time) to which they had earlier agreed.

[10] – SWP: the Socialist Workers Party, a left group who are still around, (and unlike Socialist Organiser, see prior note, have not changed their name). Not orthodox trotskyists like S.O., much larger in numbers and more opportunist: they have had more front organisations than Michael Jackson had prescription pharmaceuticals. These days the SWP pretty much consists of students, though in the early ‘80s they had more working class members. What has not changed is the SWP hierarchy’s basic policy of exploiting all struggles to recruit members above all other considerations, obstructing anyone else trying to get anything achieved who doesn’t want to join the party, having the attention span of a distracted toddler, and attempting to centrally control everything. As well as trying to cover up rape and sexual assault of women members by leading cadres…

[11] – Greater London Council: the old administrative body for the whole London area (replacing the old London County Council). In its day it had responsibilities broadly similar to the modern Mayor of London and GLA, but it also ran much of London’s social housing and alot more besides. In 1981 the GLC changed hands from Conservative to Labour, and came to be controlled by the Labour Left, headed up by Ken Livingstone; they adopted a left program and increased funding for community groups and voluntary sector, especially organisations that fitted their broad socialist agenda. The press stereotyped the GLC as funding ‘loony left’ minority projects – “taxpayers money is supporting one legged black lesbian mothers against the bomb!” etc. These policies brought the GLC into conflict with the tory national government, not only because the GLC opposed the tories politically, but also because a central plank of tory policy was cutting back state expenditure, especially by cutting the amount local or regional authorities could both raise (in rates etc) and spend. Despite a high profile campaign and alot of public support, the GLC was abolished with other (all Labour-controlled) Metropolitan Authorities in 1986. This really isn’t the place for a debate about the merits of the GLC; its funding definitely allowed many projects to exist or continue that enriched life in London and improved conditions for millions of people, and its abolition was part of a process of restricting alternatives and closing down opportunities that have life harder in London for many. Much of this was down to social and economic changes, as well as political policies. On the flipside, some of its actual policies involved more posturing than effective change, and the 1980s GLC leadership had a record of backing down on them when it came to the crunch. The Council was not only bound by the restrictions of modern capitalism, but at the time those rules were being changed dramatically: Livingstone and co were on the losing side of the argument as to how modern capitalism should be managed.

[12] – MSC: Manpower Services Commission. An agency set up by the British government to co-ordinate training and employment in the UK, working with employers, trade unions, local authorities and educational institutions… The MSC promoted the idea that all these bodies had a role in improving training and education for people looking for work or while in work. In the ‘80s it was heavily involved in government employment programs like the Youth Training Scheme. It was replaced by 72 regional Training and Enterprise Councils.

[13] – SDP: The Social Democratic Party. In 1981 sections of the right wing of the Labour Party split off, deciding that the party had become dominated by the ‘extreme left’ and by too close association with the trade unions. This, they thought, was why they had lost the 1979 General Election and would be unelectable. In Islington council, Labour councillors defected en masse, so ‘seizing power’ for the SDP. The Social Democratic Party briefly became achieved popularity as a ‘centre party’ (as well as being promoted by the media as a stick to beat Labour with). Later they formed an electoral pact with the Liberal Party (then at a low ebb of support), with whom they eventually merged to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Ironically the Labour Party did in the late 80s and 90s move very much in the glossy rightward direction the SDP had previously taken.

[14] – SPG: The Special Patrol Group, the Metropolitan Police’s riot squads, basically, dealing with serious disorder and crowd control. Now called the Territorial Support Group; the name change became necessary Public Relations as the SPG became synonymous with violent police assaults killings of demonstrators, institutionalised racism, and invasions of ‘trouble spots’, eg Brixton, and systematic harassment of residents, especially black youth.

[15] – We’re not sure, but we think DHSS race checks were never revived. If anyone remembers different please let us know!

[16] – The Peace Centre in Rosebery Avenue (in Finsbury, South Islington): one of, if not the, earliest anarcho-punk squat centres in London. Occupied 6 September 1983 as the Peace Centre/Alternative Centre, an organising space for the September ‘83 Stop the City (see below), it lasted a few months.

[17] – The anarchist bookshop at no 36 Albany Street, in Euston, was a successor to the Peace Centre in 1983, based in an area of mass squatting for both housing and alternative projects, around Tolmers Square and Drummond Street. The anarchist paper Class War was briefly based at the bookshop.

[18] – ‘Stop the City’ was a series of actions in the City of London and spreading elsewhere, roughly 1983-84, coming mainly (though not entirely) from anarchist punks involved in the peace movement, aimed at City institutions and corporations funding nuclear and other weaponry and war, but widening out to an attack on capitalism generally. Thousands would gather on one day for demos, occupations, graffiti, aiming to try and disrupt daily corporate life, at least for a day. While early on large numbers and new tactics caused chaos in the City, by the later actions the police just swamped STC and arrested or dispersed everyone they could. Stop the City as an idea continued to inspire others towards similar tactics for a couple of decades though, and many of those involved formed the backbone of many activist groups and projects over the 80s and 90s and till the present.

[19] – The building remained empty for some years, but is now (2011) a Dentist’s Surgery; ironically, it’s one of the few in the area that accepts NHS patients, among whom is one of our own past tense crew!

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At the time of writing a massive ‘re-organisation’ of the benefits system is underway, with the creation of Universal  Credit. This follows on 8 years of vicious ‘austerity’, a relentless onslaught on the living standards for working class in this country as possible, and force people to work for less, live on less and work harder. Gains fought for long and hard over decades are being clawed back…

The only real alternative is to make the rich pay, permanently. Our motive for reprinting the above text, as with all past tense projects, as struggles around the dole may again become vitally important, is to take lessons, inspiration, ideas from struggles and movements of the past. By this we don’t mean slavishly following old models, but taking what’s useful and adding to it with our own experiences.

Islington Action Group of the Unwaged’s attempts to organise themselves for themselves, were unacceptable to trade union structures and politicos of right and left alike. When workers refuse to be pawns, but think and act for themselves, they turn their potential threat into real threat, and all the forces of manipulation and control unite to bring them back to heel. Union bureaucracies, Labour hacks, and ‘left’ parties are, have, as always, spent the last 8 years jostling to head the movement against cuts and keep it under control, on their terms; diverting anger and potential for change into pointless ‘days of action’, ‘one day strikes’ and other nonsense. In Islington itself, Labour councillors implemented savage cuts to services one day and led the ‘anti-cuts’ marches the next.

During the 1980s rate-capping struggles many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. It would be great to have an independent workers movement, that answered both austerity and attempts to co-opt rebellion by Labour councillors, union full-timers, and professional lefties with the proper politeness: occupy the lot, strike, not for a day but for good, and lets run the world ourselves. Time will tell as to if that develops, and how.

Now times have changed mightily since the days of the Greater London Council, and ‘leftwing’ Labour boroughs funding alternative groups and centres, as was commonplace in the 1970s and ’80s. Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from local, regional or national government. This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly. There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

However it was a double-edged sword: it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. hen the money was withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects could also be bought off and neutralised in this way. Of course, if like Islington Unwaged Centre, you attempted to combine union or council funding with a revolutionary critique of how those groups basically are part of the problem you’re fighting, then eventually they’ll stop giving you the dosh – that was only a matter of time.

Local councils funding such projects as Islington Unwaged Centre are largely a thing of the past. The experiences of the Islington Unwaged do provide a warning against trusting union bureaucracies, Labour politicians and other left managers of misery. But it’s also true that the ultra-radical activist model adopted by Islington Action Group of the Unwaged present its own problems. The balance between day to day activities to keep people afloat, grab a slightly bigger piece of the economic pie, and calling for an all-out overthrow of existing social relations, is a hard one to maintain. But even if we believe the current economic system has to go, and be replaced by something more co-operative, egalitarian and based on need and love, not profit, we still have to face and fight the daily battle to survive, collectively as well as individually. Experience of numerous activist collectives (including ones based around the dole/benefits) suggests that sometimes you have to tread a fine line to avoid a kind of theoretically correct isolation on the one hand, and unpaid advice or social work, on others behalf, on the other. We don’t really have a trite solution, and some of us at past tense have tended to swing from one end of that spectrum to another: too much ultra-left posturing and you feel like a bit more practical work, sometimes, and vice versa.

As we said we’re not offering answers, just contributions to debate.

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The Past Is Before Us . . .

We can accept cuts, cut our own throats, or fight back… Some contacts for unwaged action today.

We aren’t endorsing all of the politics of these groups, and there are certainly useful organisations not listed here because we don’t know about them… These groups can also put you in touch with others in your area.

London Coalition Against Poverty

A coalition of groups based on the idea that through solidarity and direct action, ordinary people have the power to change our own lives. Email: lcap@lcap.org.uk

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

Formerly Edinburgh Claimants – organising around hassles with the Benefits authorities, bad conditions and insecurity at work, harrassment by sheriff officers and debt collectors, soaring electricity and gas bills, and rip-off landlords and housing problems. email: ecap@lists.riseup.net

Disabled People Against Cuts

DPAC is about disabled people and their allies. We welcome all to join us in fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people. Info, support, solidarity, campaigns…

Boycott Workfare

Workfare – compulsory work for benefits… BW call on public sector bodies, voluntary organisations and businesses being offered these placements as well as union branches to boycott the scheme. Email: info@boycottworkfare.org

After ATOS

Atos Healthcare administer the medical test for claimants on disability benefits that examine their ability to work, ie are aimed at forcing people off incapacity benefits.

And in Islington… the struggle continues:

Islington Poverty Action Group

Advice & campaigning on problems with the benefits system and poverty.
Email: islingtonpovertyactiongroup@gmail.com

Today in London dole history: Greenwich/Deptford guardians offices occupied by unemployed, 1922.

The National Unemployed Workers Movement emerged as a powerful organisation of the unwaged working class in Britain during the post-World War 1. Although the NUWM later became associated with the huge national hunger marches, in its early phase it was based on local action by small self-organised unemployed groups, working on issues affecting the unemployed. Often this meant pressing for more generous ‘relief’ payments or other handouts. These were grudgingly dispensed by the local Boards of Guardians, local officials appointed by the parish, whose remit was to keep down the costs to rate-payers by restricting relief or by forcing people with no work into workhouses.

In 1921-22 local unemployed groups put pressure on Boards of Guardians for help for the poor. As just one example of this struggle, we reprint a snippet from Southeast London:

“The Greenwich and Deptford unemployed organised a deputation on 18th January, 1922, to the guardians’ offices with the intention of compelling the board to grant one hundredweight of coal to those who were on relief. This coal allowance had been promised three weeks previously, but had not been actually provided. The deputation, numbering twenty, were received by the board. Trouble started as soon as the deputation began to state their case – members of the board continually interrupting them and trying to tie them down to the discussion of only one item.

As the board would not listen quietly to their case the deputation decided on direct action. The doors were fastened and windows were guarded, and for an hour and a half the business of he board was held up whilst threats were hurled at the unemployed by the chairman for their unconstitutional action. Ultimately the police, who had been repeatedly rattling the door, forced it open, but strange to say, when the police entered the chairman asked them to withdraw. He then opened the meeting of the board, while the unemployed stood around the room. Within the space of two minutes he took a vote on the question of the coal allowance, deciding that it should be granted from that afternoon onwards and promising to call a special meeting to deal with the other points that the deputation had raised.” (Wal Hannington, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36)

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in parliamentary history: hunger marchers occupy House of Commons, 1934.

In the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.

One of the tactics the NUWM became well-known for was organising national hunger marches. Groups of the unemployed would assemble in different towns and converge in contingents on London, to protest unemployment and the restrictions, rules and hardships those on the dole had to face. Hunger marches took place in 1922, 1927, 1930,1932, 1934 and alongside the Jarrow Crusade in 1936. Often the marches would last over a month with thousands marching in bitter winter conditions.

The hunger marches drew the public’s attention to the plight of areas that the politicians and capitalists wished to ignore. Successive Tory, Labour and National Government prime ministers refused to meet deputations of the hunger marchers.

In 1922, over one million people were unemployed and those out of work were confronted with a 19th century poor relief system. It was in these conditions that the first hunger march took place.

The second hunger march from the South Wales coalfield to London concluded a nine month strike following the 1926 General Strike. The march was supported by miners’ leader A.J Cook and by the South Wales Miners Federation but denounced by right wing trade union leaders.

In the midst of the early 1930s Great Depression, unemployment rose to three million with hundreds of thousands even in the ‘prosperous, non-distressed’ south east and midlands joining the dole queues. Successive governments were determined that as much as possible working people should bear the brunt of the recession, and that as little as possible be spent on benefits to those out of work and their families. Savage regulations imposed on claimants made receiving any benefits a humiliating and vicious process. The ‘Not genuinely Seeking Work’ clause was used to cut off dole from anyone deemed not to be looking hard enough for work; the Means Test forced people to sell everything they had before receiving benefits and forced the unwaged to undergo humiliating examinations to prove they were virtually destitute before they could get the benefits.

The 1930 hunger march was organised as unemployment was rapidly increasing in the aftermath of the 1929 economic crisis. The bosses made ‘rationalisation’ agreements with the union leaders that were leading to speed ups in production and many skilled workers being thrown onto the dole queues. The minority Labour government increased attacks on the unemployed.

Again the march struggled to receive support from the official trade union movement. This was partly due to the right wing in the unions but also was a result of the Communist Party and NUWM leaders’ ultra-left policy of denouncing the Labour Party as ‘social fascist’. The Labour government ordered that the 1,000 marchers were to be treated as vagrants.

Of all the hunger marches, the 1932 march, which carried a one million strong petition against the means test (to qualify for the dole), was the most brutally treated, facing constant police harassment. Mass uprisings against the means test in Birkenhead and Belfast in 1932 resulted in confrontations with the police and won concessions from local authorities on poor relief.

The betrayal of Labour leader Ramsay McDonald in joining a national government with the Tories added fuel to the fire. The hunger marchers were met with a police riot in London and the NUWM leadership was jailed. But the march won concessions as benefits were raised.

In 1934 another hunger march against the means test took place, protesting cuts in unemployment benefit, the means test, and demanding decent levels of ‘relief’. A women’s contingent was also organised and demands for maternity benefit were raised.

When the marchers arrived in London, they and the NUWM leadership pressed for the government to meet them to discuss their demands, or allow them to speak in the House of Commons; the government initially refused. However, Ramsay MacDonald, then prime minster, heading a National (coalition government) suggested they lobby their MPs. The marchers decided to take them at their word, and infiltrated themselves into parliament in small groups on 28th February, singing and chanting.

The next day they returned to Parliament:

“The marchers again went to the House on Thursday 1st March. Three hundred succeeded in getting into the outer lobby and twenty-four into the public gallery. The suddenly a cry rang out from the gallery: “Meet the hunger marchers!” “We refuse to starve in silence!” “Down with the National Government!” The House was startled; police rushed to the spot from which the disturbance had come, and when they attempted to evict the marchers struggles ensued. Members of Parliament, looking up, saw what probably few of them had seen before – uniformed police being used in the public gallery in addition to plain-clothes-men. Suddenly, at the other end of the chamber in the ladies gallery, above the Speaker’s chair, a woman was heard shouting, “Don’t knock those men about!” She was removed by the police.

When the news reached the central lobby that fighting had broken out in the gallery, the 300 marchers who had succeeded in gaining admission started vigorously singing the “internationale”. Police reinforcements were rushed from all parts of the House and fighting took place in the lobby. The marchers were eventually ejected and the police thought that they had put an end to the disturn=bances, but there were still marchers in various parts of the House, and three times during the evening scenes broke out in the gallery and in the lobby.”

London was filled with marchers and their supporters; large demonstrations took place virtually daily, and massive pressure was put on the government. In the end, this had some effect: in the 1934 budget, ten per cent cuts to benefit rates were reversed, which had been one of the main demands of the march.

Some aid was also announced for some of the most distressed areas of the country, and to suspend the brutal assessment of benefit claimants by the Unemployed Assistance Board.

The hunger marches did form part of the pressure that was able to win concessions from successive governments. To some extent, however, analysing the history of the NUWM and the unemployed movement of the 1920s/30s, the hunger marches stand out the most, mobilizing thousands and receiving national attention. It is true however that the unemployed movement was more effective when its activities were concentrated locally around practical targets, as in the early 1920s. The increased centralisation of the NUWM, its domination by activists from the Communist Party (reflected in its policies) and its narrowing of focus to high profile stunts like the hunger marches, reduced its innovative early impact somewhat.

It has been speculated that the NUWM’s most important effects were not necessarily in the benefit rates or regulations altered. Bringing a collective approach to unemployment, getting people together and resisting their individual situation as a movement, counters the atomisation that signing on tends to impose. The solidarity, feeling like you are not alone, is a powerful weapon in the face of despair and hardship. NUWM leaders also said later that they believed that the movements’ domination of unemployed politics was a factor in the failure of British fascist groups to seriously recruit the unemployed on a large scale, as happened in Germany and Italy.

For more on the the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.

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

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Today in London welfare history: Camberwell unemployed protest end of milk ration for babies, 1922.

South London’s former Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell had a long tradition of unemployed organising: during the high unemployment of 1905, a Camberwell Joint Unemployed Committee campaigned locally for more relief from the Guardians, having a membership of 1,500. Interestingly too, Myatt’s Fields Park in the Lambeth end of Camberwell was built in 1887-8 by the unemployed! After unemployed rioting in the West End in 1886 the authorities set up work-for-your-charity schemes for doleys. Locals had been campaigning since 1874 for pastureland and market gardens here to be turned into a park. It opened in 1889.

In the early 1920s Camberwell Green was also the starting point for rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, and against government measures which hit the unemployed hard.

After the First World War, unemployment rocketed. Partly this resulted from the change in the economy from the ending of the War/munitions industries, partly employment and economic figures had been distorted with hundreds of thousands of men in uniform. With large numbers of unemployed ex-servicemen looking for work, and firms laying people off, many working class people were thrown into poverty. This was not taken lying down however. From 1920 on, local unemployed committees organised against government measures to restrict money for relief of poverty and unemployment; against local authorities who were administering these restrictions (and in many cases adding some of their own) and against firms who were laying workers off, or working lots of overtime. Many of these committees were organised by trade unionists and socialists and communists who had been active in the strike movements before, during and after the War, and many members were unemployed ex-servicemen, who had spent years in the trenches only to come back to hardship.

In 1921, most of the Committees combined to form the National Unemployed Workers (Committee) Movement or NUWM.

Camberwell unemployed in 1920 occupied Camberwell School of Art, as part of a campaign for free places for the unemployed to meet.

“Their local strength was reflected in the fact that they could ‘pack’ a Labour Party meeting in the Camberwell Baths and get the following motion carried: ‘We the workers at this meeting, under the guidance of the Mayor, realise the impossibility of any proffered solution to unemployment during the life of the Capitalist system. We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly for the overthrow of Capitalism and the establishment of a workers Republic.”

On Sept 21st 1921 there was a mass march of local unemployed, from Camberwell Green to Peckham.

In 1922, the Camberwell Board of Guardians (the Council body that administered not only relief but the Workhouses etc.)announced plans to stop distribution of free milk for babies of the unemployed. On February 1st, Camberwell women marched to the House of Commons, as the order was rumoured to have come down from the Ministry of Health. A Ministry inquiry reversed the decision.

Unemployment being high, it became a hot political issue. In 1922, elections were held for the Camberwell Board of Guardians. A flurry of electoral leaflets from various candidates addressed the issue.

Labour candidates Arthur Andrews and Louis Edwards campaigned on the platform of giving out full rations to those on relief (not as was current policy, on the Mond scale, half-rations). They also opposed giving out food instead of money as out-relief. Their leaflet invoked the class nature of unemployment: “Its is only our class that go to the Workhouse or Infirmary. Send the Labour candidates to make the institutions as comfortable as possible. They stand the same risks as you do of having to go there.” They also amusingly advised: “Don’t wait for our car [presumably to pick up voters and ferry them to the polls]. We haven’t got one. Workers don’t own cars, they only make them.”

Not a line that would pick up votes today.

There were also two candidates from the ‘Camberwell Central unemployed’, Burnett and Smith, who stood on the basis of their long activism in local unemployment politics, having been members of delegations to the Board of Guardians several times. What their affiliations? They disparaged political parties in their leaflet, who would make loud noises to get elected and then make no changes.

Another interesting snippet on Camberwell unemployed organising…

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

Today in London’s employment history: unemployed workers occupy Edmonton factory, 1921.

After World War 1, with the end of the war economy, and the de-mobbing of millions of soldiers and sailors from the armed forces, Britain (and much of Europe) sank into recession, with mass unemployment, poverty hardship the main reward working class people received for supporting and fighting in the war.

However, the end of the war had also thrown up revolution, mutiny, mass movements aiming not just at fighting for a bigger slice of the social pie, but a whole new arrangement of society.

While attempts at revolution shook Russia, Germany, Hungary, in the UK, one of the biggest movements that arose in the post-war years was that of the unemployed. Originating in local committees of the unemployed, struggling for livable levels of relief (the dole), and support for those out of work and their families, and against the harsh social control the workless were then subject to, by 1921 the National Unemployed Workers Movement (NUWM) was born.

Many of the committees were based on groups of ex-servicemen, out work and angry after years of the trenches…
… but the movement was also very much a continuation of the pre-war industrial unrest of 1910-14, the wartime shop stewards’ struggles, and, to some extent, reunited the strands of the socialist movements divided by the war.

One of the early campaigns the unemployed committees focused on was against the working of overtime in factories, arguing that those out of work could be employed instead of existing workers doing longer hours. In 1921, in London, the main tactic was to invade workplaces where overtime was being worked and convene meetings of the workforce to argue for an overtime ban and the hiring of those on the dole to instead.

Wal Hannington, national organizer of the NUWM, who organised the raid with Lilian Thring, takes up the story:

“The success of these raids on the smaller firms encouraged us to tackle the big factories. The first big firm to be tackled was one at Edmonton, where approximately 1500 men and women were employed. The raid took place on 15th December, 1921. It was carefully prepared, all the necessary details concerning the plan of the building being ascertained beforehand. A much larger body of raiders was needed to carry out this job. We used about 150, and great care had to be taken in mobilising them near the works in order not to arouse suspicion. I was in charge of the raiding party, and at 4.15 pm I gave the signal for all raiders to rush the main entrance of the firm, enter, and close the gates behind them. The commissionaires on the gates were taken unawares and with the first inrush they attempted to slam the gates to, but the raiders tackled them while the rest of their colleagues entered.”

Once inside, the gates were firmly shut and the telephone exchange near the entrance was captured by a group detailed for this task; but subsequent events proved that we still had left a loophole for communications with the police. The bulk of the raiders proceeded to the main workshops. We selected a shop where there were millions of finished fragile articles [lightbulbs] and where considerable damage would have been done if the police had been brought in and caused trouble.”

Sympathetic engineers inside the factory switched off the production line. Lilian Thring went to address a meeting to the many women working in the factory.

“The news of the raid spread rapidly through the works and the workers gathered in large numbers to hear what we had to say. Many expressed warm sympathy for our stand against overtime. After the meeting had been in progress half an hour we received a message asking us to send a deputation to the main office to interview the responsible officials of the firm. The deputation was courteously received by the management who stated that they were very desirous of getting on with the interview as quickly as possible in order to facilitate the withdrawal of the unemployed from the factory. Whilst the interview was proceeding a knock came at the door and we were informed that 200 police had been brought into the factory. They were, however, not interfering with the men but were just standing about awaiting orders from the management. After a further quarter of an hour’s discussion with the management, the principal of the firm and another manager decided to sign the following agreement which we put to them:

  1. That all overtime should cease at Christmas.
  2. That in the event of the management contemplating the working of overtime at some future date, before putting it into operation they should first explore all channels to find suitable workers by applying to the local labour exchange, local trade-union branches and the local unemployed organization.

The main argument of the management had been that they had to work overtime because they were unable to obtain suitable workers. We, of course, had strongly disputed this, but the agreement which they gave us met with our approval and when the results of our interview were reported to the men in the shop it was accepted without dissent. We then asked the manager if the workers would be paid for the time which they had been stopped working by the raid. We received a promise that they would be paid and then the raiders formed up four abreast and marched out of the works, singing the ‘Red Flag’ and the ‘Internationale’. As they came out they were cheered by a huge crowd who had heard of the raid and had gathered outside.”

This phase of the unemployed movement was by far the most successful, creative and autonomous. Organised locally, at the grassroots, addressing issues shared by millions but at an immediate level. Increasingly, however, through the 1920s, the NUWM became more centralised, controlled by members of the Communist Party who had always formed the central plank of the movement… The creative, local focus was also more and more submerged into a culture of mass national stunts like the hunger marches, which drew mass attention but absorbed vast amounts of energy. However the unemployed movement of the 1920s and ’30s represents a movement of huge importance, especially in their constant attempt to link waged and unwaged workers, their challenge to daily austerity as it was implemented directly in people’s lives, and an attempt to work out how to share out the meagre resources allotted to us under capitalism while also fighting for more…

Two books worth reading on the NUWM: Unemployed Struggles, 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve In Silence, Richard Croucher. 

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London radical history: Unemployed occupation of Wandsworth Workhouse defeats dole cuts, 1921.

In 1886 a new workhouse was built to imprison the poor of the Wandsworth & Clapham Poor Law Union, in Swaffield Road, off Garratt Lane, Wandsworth, now part of Southwest London, but then in open countryside.

Under the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act, the Boards of Guardians were obliged by law to ‘help’ local poor folk unable to support themselves either with ‘outdoor relief’ (a minimum dole) or with ‘indoor relief’ – accommodation and work in the workhouse. In practice the workhouses were made oppressive, cruel and humiliating, to dissuade as many people as possible from applying. Families were split up, food was pitiable and inedible, long hours of grinding work were imposed under often sadistic overseers.

The Poor Law had been brought in because of a widespread concern among authorities and the upper and middle classes that the cost of welfare was spiralling out of control, and a convinced belief that people would rather seek an easy life, ie claiming relief, than work. The Act was therefore designed to make claiming relief so painful, degrading and inadequate that people would rather take any work instead.

If this sounds in any way familiar… There are many parallels between the way the power-that-be in the 1930s were viewing the poor, and discussing the ‘problem’ of the cost of welfare, and how this debate in recent years has also been framed. For an interesting exhibition, put together by the Anarchist Time Travellers, which illustrates the links between the two, see This Way to 1834.

Although there were riots in northern England when the Act was introduced, and a sprinkling of resistance by the working people forced into workhouses throughout the 19th century, all in all, the system worked quite well from the perspective of the rich. Fear and hatred of the workhouses (which became known as ‘bastilles’ for the notorious french prison) grew so that people would rather starve outside than in, and the shame of having to apply to enter became internalised deeply into working class consciousness.

However, in the sharp recession following World War 1, hundreds of thousands of working people were thrown into unemployment, including many who had taken part in strikes and industrial unrest before and during the war. As thousands of soldiers were demobilised from the army, and the war economy was suddenly wound down, struggles over rights to relief, and facilities for the unemployed, broke out all over the UK. Initially organised through local committees of the unemployed, most federated by 1921 into the National Unemployed Workers Committee Movement (usually known as the NUWM), which was to be the main vehicle for unemployed organising for 20 years.

As an example of the local struggles which gave birth to/characterized the early years of the NUWM: in July 1921, the unemployed in Wandsworth and Battersea were told by the local Board of Guardians they would not receive any outdoor relief, but would all have to apply to workhouse. The Battersea & Wandsworth Unemployed Committee decided that the best was to deal with this was to swamp the Workhouse. 1000 people all applied for tickets to enter, at the same time! Then, in late July, 700 unemployed people, including whole families, took over the building, having marched from Clapham Junction with a bagpiper at their head! (Interestingly, this became a sort of local tradition: I remember in the early 1990s, anti-poll tax and anti-cuts demos in Wandsworth used to march on the town hall with Alasdair from metal-bashing band Test Dept playing his pipes at the head of the procession).

Having occupied the workhouse, the unemployed refused to recognise the authority of the Poor Law officers, and refused to accept the measly food and harsh conditions. As there had been 900 people already in residence in the workhouse, the institution descended into chaos. A massive solidarity demonstration took place outside in support of the occupation. “From the hall of the workhouse speeches were delivered to the demonstrators outside. Then, to the amazement and jubilation of the demonstrators, about 9 o’clock just as it was getting dusk, we saw the red flag run up on a flag mast over the workhouse.” Eventually the embattled Poor Law Guardians withdrew their order and restored outdoor relief on 27th July.

For more on this occupation, the unemployed struggles of the 1920s-40s, it’s worth reading Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, by Wal Hannington, and We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, by Richard Croucher.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London rebel history: Peter Lilley, Minister for benefit cuts, egged by disability protesters, Balham, 1995.

“The political fortunes of the phrase ‘something for nothing’ over the last twenty years are instructive. ‘The something for nothing society’ was introduced into the political discourse of welfare by Peter Lilley at the Conservative party conference in 1993; it was adapted by Tony Blair as ‘the something for nothing culture’ to frame New Labour’s welfare reform agenda in the late 1990’s. Variations on the phrase continue to frame policy statements on social security on both Labour and Conservative sides, reinforcing the message that the main problem faced by social security is one of non-reciprocity, of people taking out who have failed to put in.”

 

“Messed up the suit that he’d bought from Marks… 
Never trust a man with egg on his face”
(Adam and the Ants. Couldn’t resist it really).

Peter Lilley. Former Secretary of State for Social Security (Minister for Workhouses). Rightwing ideologue. One of the ‘bastards’ who managed to make John Major look like a moderate. Climate change denier. Surely a man for whom the phrase ‘swivel-eyed loon’ is a compliment to be embraced.

Appointed to front the 1990s tory onslaught on the poorest, Lilley set out his stall early on at the 1992 Tory conference, promising to put an end to the “something for nothing society”. I wonder if he came up with that phrase himself. Obviously it’s utterly futile to point out which sort of people really get something for nothing under capitalism – it’s really not them as is on the dole. ‘Something for Nothing”. This neat little soundbite has achieved a remarkable half-life ever since, and still pops up like a fascist little Gollum on a regular basis. Actually fascist little Gollum isn’t a bad description of Peter Lilley.

With the number of benefit claimants growing in the post-92 recession, Lilley’s mission was clearly to cut the numbers of those on the dole. There were a number of reforms launched to attack claimants. A particular target was those claiming Invalidity Benefit on the grounds of being unable to work due to disability. It’s worth saying that the tories might have thought going for the disabled was attacking a soft target. Big mistake.

During his 1992 Conservative Party conference speech, Lilley cursed his whole future by doing what politicians should really never do – he sang a funny song to illustrate his political intent. I say funny. Spoofing the Lord High Executioner’s “little list” song from The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes. Really.

“I’ve got a little list / Of benefit offenders who I’ll soon be rooting out / And who never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s those who make up bogus claims / In half a dozen names / And councillors who draw the dole / To run left-wing campaigns / They never would be missed / They never would be missed. / There’s young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing queue / And dads who won’t support the kids / of ladies they have … kissed / And I haven’t even mentioned all those sponging socialists / I’ve got them on my list / And there’s none of them be missed / There’s none of them be missed.”

Peter Lilley once had ambitions to lead the tories. The above shows how it was never gonna happen.

In 1995, Invalidity Benefit was replaced with Incapacity Benefit. Rebranding is a part of sabotaging welfare rights… thus both benefits and government departments have had a succession of visits to the deed poll office since then. But the introduction of Incapacity Benefit did alter the landscape significantly, bringing in the All Work Test – basically a series of hoops to try to weed out scroungers by trying to break their arms while proving they can in fact do a spot of weight-lifting. Instead of being signed off by the GPs, the decision as to whether they were genuinely unable for work or malingering would be judged by government-employed doctors (sacked from the prison medical service for being incompetent and brutal?). Also Incapacity Benefit was taxable (unlike its predecessor), and that claimants were to be assessed to be able to do any work at all, not just their regular job.

The introduction of Incapacity Benefit caused a rebellion among claimants, stimulating an already active movement of disabled people campaigning around issues like lack of access to transport, their patronizing treatment by charity, among many others. Peter Lilley’s obnoxious fronting of the vicious campaign and bringing of musical satire into disrepute made him a hate figure; as a result he had egg thrown at him by disabled protestors on July 11th 1995. His house in Canonbury was also besieged and graffitied at some point too, though this was by protestors against the Child Support Act.

The All Work Test is now called the Work Capability Assessment, (soon it’ll be the Life Enablement Opportunity) but the principle has been internalised to our society now and into many heads that should know better. Both Tory and Labour have demonised claimants and a barrage of propaganda is been fired off on a regular basis to remind us that those of us on shit pay are paying all out taxes to support ‘scroungers’. Not bankers and bureaucrats. It’s a good job that there’s so much part-time crap work around though or this country would be in real financial trouble though eh?

Interestingly in 1994, Peter Lilley hired John LoCascio to advise his department on ‘claims management’. LoCascio was at that time second vice president of Unum, the leading US disability insurance company. He joined the ‘medical evaluation group’ that was set up to design more stringent medical tests. Unum and Atos, more recently contracted to carry out the Work Capability Assessments, have a long inter-twined history, and have both been integral to the implementation of this twisted repressive agenda. For vast profit. Who says the system isn’t working?

Interesting stuff on Lilley and Unum 

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s radical past: the unemployed try to take over Islington Town Hall, 1920

The unemployed try to seize Islington Town Hall, 1921.

On 3rd January 1921, a group of local unemployed organised a march on Islington Town Hall, planning to seize it, and use it as a social centre and meeting/organizing space.

This followed the eviction of the unemployed from the Essex Road Library, (which had been built during World War 1, but was immediately requisitioned as a Food Control office). At the end of the war the economy became depressed, and unemployment rocketed, fuelled by the demobbing of hundreds of thousands of ex-servicemen. Local agitations around welfare, reducing overtime for those in work to enable the unemployed to get jobs, and so on, led to the creation of unemployed actions groups. The Islington unemployed were at first granted use of the Library by EH King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, but in December 1920 King called on the police to eject them. The Council cut off the light and water, but to no avail, food and candles and water were brought in. Although held by force for a few weeks, it was then stormed by a few cops early one morning and evicted. King followed this up with a violent attack on the unemployed ‑ the vast majority of whom were ex‑servicemen ‑ describing them as ‘unemployables’ and accusing the organisation of financial dishonesty.’

In response the unemployed group plotted to occupy the Town Hall on January 3rd 1921.

Unfortunately their plans leaked out, and their raiding party, about 500 strong, was beaten off. Having marched on the Town Hall, demanding to see Islington’s mayor EH King; and been told he was not at home, they tried to charge into the building, but large no of cops beat them off… A battle developed in Upper Street, and quite a few marchers were nicked, some were had up for obstruction, or possession of offensive weapons, (lead pipes, daggers, bottles of petrol, and one fire-arm!) Many arrested were from Tottenham and Edmonton, as the local group had called in support from other North London groups. All three of these areas had very large and active unemployed groups, emerging from the strong working class movements that had grown up pre-WW1 (many of who were also active in opposing the war, through groups like the North London Herald League [NLHL].)

The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the local Labour Guardians voted to rescind an increase in outdoor relief (dole paid to unemployed not forced into the workhouse) to which they had earlier agreed.

Among the leaders of the Islington unemployed agitation were Harry Lynch and H. E. Martin, both of whom seem to have been associated with the NLHL; Martin had also been a member of Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers Socialist Federation.

This was the most interesting and radical phase of the post-war unemployed movement. Later in 1921, hundreds of local unemployed groups federated to form the National Unemployed Workers Movement. However, the increasing control of the Communist Party over the NUWM led to a much more hierarchical structure, less grassroots and local control and initiative, and a concentration on national stunts like the hunger marches.

More on this can be found in:

Don’t be a Soldier: The Radical Anti-War Movement in North London 1914-1918, Ken Weller.

• Unemployed Struggles, 1919-1936: My Life and Struggles Amongst the Unemployed. London: Lawrence and Wishart, n.d. [1936], Wal Hannington

We Refuse to Starve in Silence: A History of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, 1920-46, Richard Croucher, 1987.