Issue 202 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published November 1996 Copyright © Socialist Review


High hopes

The 'High hopes' (October SR) for modern high rise housing schemes that Alan Gibson describes have only been realised by middle class professionals and their wealthy sponsors and clients. Neither the building workers who barely participated in those bourgeois ideals, nor the workers' families who have subsequently enjoyed the dubious satisfaction of living out their nightmares in these 20th century housing estates shared the starry eyed idealism.

Their disappointment demonstrates that, without workers controlling the building and managing of their own homes, such schemes fall prey to the profit motive. It is not the quality of materials but the quality of democracy that is the crux of the problem which underlies the whole issue of working class housing.

To that end workers have ultimately defended their housing blocks against the forces of reaction, from Altona and Barmbek in Hamburg after the First World War during the German Revolution, through the bombardments of the workers' quarters in Vienna before the Second World War, to Divis Flats in the six counties in Ulster since 1969. Could this have a bearing on the current return to fashion of semi-detached rabbit hutches?

The failure to select quality materials for housing resulted in the suffering of families of workers exposed to asbestos in the 1950s and 1960s and the bankrolling of the McAlpine and Barrett families' fortunes.

Labour councils in Manchester planned and eventually built a huge overspill (their expression for workers' families) suburb at Wythenshawe and started to move in the tenement occupiers of Hulme and Moss Side long before shopping and social facilities were created. New Town planners learned nothing from these mistakes. Consequently New Towns outside Liverpool and Glasgow left workers' families beautifully rehoused but remote from shopping centres, forcing them to travel long distances daily into the old cities to their workplaces.

It is now trendy to refurbish inner city buildings, such as 19th century porticoed banking palaces. But, like these classics, the UnitĒ d'habitation of Corbusier in Marseilles are not occupied by the nurses, railway or postal workers with jobs locally, instead by top civil servants who can afford nannies to conduct their children to the rooftop play space or ground level garden. This current crude heritage nostalgia has even brought back-to-back rows into preservation so that the workers of Rawtenstall shall not forget what happened to the Luddite handloom weavers two centuries ago.

The question of rent should not be swept under the carpet. The history of rent strikes is a proud one. That classic slogan, 'The only fair rent is no rent', should be graffiti on the walls of English Heritage conserved monuments to housing misery and exploitation.

Ben Harrison


New paint jobs

Alan Gibson (October SR) is right to be positive about some aspects of postwar housing design and to suggest that the crucial issue was and is one of funding and resources.

The failure of the Labour left's 'municipal socialism' in the early 1980s gave way to Kinnock's pathetic 'dented shield' as Labour councils failed to confront Tory laws. The acceptance of ratecapping, the failure to support the fight against the poll tax and the laws preventing councils using money raised by council house sales have had a massive effect.

Many Labour councils are now indistinguishable from the Tories.

And if all this was an avoidable tragedy, farce was to follow as Labour councils now scramble for handouts from Tory quangos and lottery money. Millions of pounds are spent on 'beauty contests' as councils compete for what they see as limited resources. The talents and expertise of architects, designers and builders are wasted on inappropriate projects which amount to nothing. Attempts to make decrepit tower blocks look more attractive with a new paint job have been part of the idea that nothing will really change until after the election. But the real priorities of Labour in the councils, let alone in a New Labour government, are now clear.

The fact that Gateshead Labour council, for example, has not built one new house since 1987 but has spent millions on at least ten new police stations in the region tells only part of the story.

One effect of all this is that white collar 'professionals' are being pushed in the direction of confrontation with those who are increasingly seen as the bosses; engineers, architects and planners in the councils are still highly unionised.

More fundamentally, in a political climate where a reformist Labour Party cannot deliver reforms, and is increasingly saying as much, it is up to activists to argue for relying on our own strengths of collective organisation backed up by socialist politics as a way forward. Decent housing was at one time obtainable as a reform from the system; it now looks like a revolutionary demand. The housing crisis can only be solved as a result of an active fight by the service users and workers ­ whoever is in government.

Two council workers


New Statesman New Right

I agree with Paul Foot's piece on the New Statesman (October SR). With the rightward drift of the New Statesman, I don't envisage the prime minister, John Major, taking legal action against the magazine, as he did several years ago. Recent editions have included articles by Tory MPs such as John Redwood.

To cap it all, the New Statesman edition of 4 October contained a full page advert calling on trade unionists to vote Conservative at the next general election! As Paul Foot says, the future of the New Statesman is very bleak.

John Appleyard


New Statesman New Blairite

Paul Foot's analysis of the New Statesman is rather one dimensional. He is right of course that under its new ownership and editorship it has lurched to the right. It now provides space for all kinds of bigots and miscellaneous right wingers under the guise of 'debate' while rigorously excluding anybody much to the left of Peter Hain.

While the New Statesman is now clearly to the right of the Guardian ­ under previous editor Steve Platt it was positioned to the left ­ it is also part of a general rightward drift in the media which is underwritten by Blair. Left wing critics of Blair, where they get a look in at all, are newsworthy simply because they are critics, not because of what they say.

Unfortunately for messrs Hargreaves and Robinson it is not so easy to run a Blairite magazine when the leader keeps changing the line. The New Statesman has actually embarrassed New Labour more under Ian Hargreaves than it ever did under Platt. John Pilger is still allowed to write an excellent column as well ­ socialists and New Statesman readers will wish to take careful note of his recent comments that he looks for his political reading to Socialist Worker.

Keith Flett


The missing link

A discussion I had recently with a Labour Party student ­ who could best be described as a nominal Blair supporter ­ was a good indication of the depth of the Blairites' nonchalance regarding a clash with the trade union movement.

With absolute faith he dismissed Lindsey German's argument ('Collision Course?' October SR) that Blair and co are heading for a conflict with the unions the scale of which they seriously underestimate. The likes of Rodney Bickerstaffe, he insisted, still support Blair, and when they voice dissent it is only because they have been forced by the union rank and file.

This totally misunderstands the nature of the trade union movement. It supposes that, whilst Bickerstaffe may be forced by Unison conference to back a £4.26 minimum wage now, he will be able to support a Labour government breaking the link with the unions next year.

In reality the battle of words which occurred over the TUC conference seems to be a foretaste of the outright warfare which will be forced on reluctant union leaders should Blair press ahead with his dream of untying Labour's connections with the organised working class. Even if Blair underestimates the importance of the link for the Labour Party, the union bureaucracy is painfully aware of the benefits it gains from Labour dealing with the 'political questions' in parliament, leaving it to negotiate over 'economic questions' in the workplace.

What the Labour student and the Blairite clique he supports fail to understand is that while National Union of Students leaders can happily sign up to the Blairite agenda ­ safe in the knowledge that they are on their way to a job as a Labour MP or party researcher ­ trade union leaders, even the most right wing, have to maintain accountability to their memberships. How else can you explain the fact that the GMB leader, John Edmonds, turned out to be one of the Blairites' harshest critics following Stephen Byers' comments at the TUC?

Mark Brown


Marriage lines

In the September Socialist Review there were two letters picking up points on two of my columns. Steve Emery criticises my column on abortion and disability for not dealing with the wider context of euthanasia. Steve says that the euthanasia argument is 'always centred around the right of disabled people to die'.

Actually, the euthanasia argument almost always centres on the terminally ill, or those involved in accidents that have left them to all intents and purposes non-functional. More importantly, we have always argued that the foetus is not a living human being and for this reason I think it dangerous and wrong to tie the two issues together.

Keeanga Taylor wrote about the question of gay marriage and gays in the military. Keeanga accuses me of being flip and then proceeds to argue that we must support the demands of gays on both issues. I have no problem with this and stated quite clearly on both issues that I supported their rights to do either thing, but Keeanga then attacks me for questioning why they should want either.

Her defence on both fronts seems to me suspect. Firstly she says the reasons for gays wanting to marry are economic rather than ideological. While for some gay couples it will undoubtedly be the case, for many more it is clear that they wish to imitate the institution of straight marriage, for most of the same ideological reasons that straight couples do. Indeed most gay couples I have seen interviewed on the subject talk about public affirmations of their love in the eyes of the state and/or church.

This is clearly an acceptance of an ideology which socialists reject. Our argument must be that the state/church should have no role in our personal and sexual relations.

On the bread and butter issues ­ questions of national insurance, social security, tax, child custody ­ socialists must demand that couples have equal rights on all these fronts whether they are gay or straight and whether they have asked church or state to bless their union or not.

Similarly, Keeanga wants to reduce the argument about military service to a purely economic one, that people wish to join the army because of financial imperatives. This is undoubtedly true in many, though by no means all, cases.

But the military is not just another job. It functions as an arm of the state.

It has the power to order its personnel to kill, to turn arms on the populations of other nations, or indeed on their own working class, therefore socialists do not stand neutral in the face of the military but oppose everything it stands for.

Of course we understand why people are forced to join it, just as we understand why women turn to prostitution, but in neither case do we see it as just another job.

Finally, Keeanga wants to liken such reforms to blacks gaining the vote in the Southern states of the US. As she rightly said, this was a massive step forward for blacks, as it was in earlier times for white workers. But to liken this important reform to the right to kill or be killed in the name of nationhood, or to have a church or state institution license your sexual union, seems to miss the point by a mile.

Pat Stack

North West London

Poetry against Death Row

In April last year you published an article about Brian Roberson, an African American who has been on death row in Texas for about eight years. As a result I became one of his pen friends. He is still there, keeping up his courage to try and get himself cleared of a murder he did not commit.

In Bristol several of us in the performance poetry scene were keen to put on a benefit for Brian. We drew an audience of 30 to 40 people to a local function room (which is quite good for poetry which had no star names taking part). It did a lot to raise awareness of Brian's case. One of the poets said how you could look round the audience and see them thinking as they heard the poems about the reality of life on death row.

A key feature of the event was readings from 'Out of the Night ­ Writings from Death Row' published by Clarendon Press. The editor and compiler Marie Mulvey Roberts read some extracts and talked about the work and friendship with death row inmates.

We raised over £100 ­ not big money ­ every little helps.

Joe Soloman


Brian Roberson has received another stay of execution until 24 January 1997. Messages of support can be sent to him at: TDCJ No 886, Ellis No 1 Unit, Huntsville 77343, Texas, US

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