Issue 203 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published December 1996 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist

Jo Benefield

Until I was 18 most of my life had been spent in or around army camps, so I had little contact with either socialist ideas or trade unions. However, what army life does teach you about is class divisions, clearly defined, overt and rigidly enforced. They determine your pay, the size of your house and where it's situated, the places you can socialise, the schools you attend and the uniform you wear.

I remember even as a six year old feeling resentful while watching my father, a sergeant, standing to attention to salute an officer.

My father had joined the army in the 1930s to avoid unemployment. His family were mill workers in Keighley, Labour voters and trade unionists from an Irish Catholic background. When my mother died of TB my father was stationed abroad, so it was his family who took the responsibility for the early upbringing of me and my sister. I assume they taught me about caring, sharing and looking after each other.

When I went to teacher training college in 1963 I came across people with `left wing' ideas. I began to realise that the different things that I felt angry about poverty, racism and violence were related and shared a common source. In 1967 a couple of friends who were in the International Socialists (now the SWP) invited me to a meeting in Ilford to hear Tony Cliff speak. That inspired me to read the Communist Manifesto but I was newly married and pregnant with my first child, and it was to be another four years, and three children later, before I could actually get involved in doing anything. Soon after my daughter was born we moved up north to a small village outside Darlington.

In the world outside exciting things were happening anti Vietnam War protests, mass strikes in France, demonstrations against Barbara Castle's `In Place of Strife' and civil rights marches in Northern Ireland. I listened to these events on the radio, and it is obvious to me now that they must have shaped my ideas.

My life changed at the beginning of 1972 when my friends from Ilford, came to stay over for the night while travelling. They had brought some pamphlets, and my husband, who was interested in politics, was about to take them to work to read on nightshift. My friends said that the pamphlets were intended for me to read as well. I was very impressed. We sat and talked politics that evening and they answered my questions. Over the next few weeks I worked my way through the pamphlets about Russia and the Labour Party. I bought and struggled through Mike Kidron's Western Capitalism since the War, which was recommended as essential reading. It was hard work but the ideas filled me with enthusiasm and a determination to do something. I decided to join the International Socialists. What struck me immediately was that the IS took me seriously. There I was with three small children and no political background or experience but they were confident that we could build a branch in Darlington and they were dead right!

It was an exciting time to be involved in politics, with the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders occupation against closure, strikes in hospitals and the mines, stoppages in engineering against the Tories' Industrial Relations Act, and the release of the dockers from Pentonville prison.

We recruited nurses, students, engineers and teachers. IS became part of the political scene in Darlington. We made an impact early on by launching a campaign against the Fair Rents Act. Council tenants, especially women, Labour Party activists and trade unionists, became involved in fighting the Tory government's proposals to bring council house rents in line with private property.

The local Labour council, after initially opposing the act, met secretly and decided to implement the rent rises. Outraged by their betrayal, several longstanding Labour Party activists joined the IS.

I learned a lot of lessons in a short time. I saw socialist ideas proved in practice the potential power of the working class, how quickly people can change and develop in action, and how reformist ideas can restrict and hold back the struggle. And my experiences since then have only strengthened those beliefs.

In 1980 I got a job in British Telecom. Like the workforce in many other industries, we have suffered an erosion of jobs and conditions. In spite of resistance from below, our union leaders' cowardice has meant retreat after retreat.

In Bristol we have taken action and won small but significant victories over harassment and the use of contractors. Our union branch has a proud tradition of solidarity with other workers. Starting with the miners' strike in 1984, we now have an established practice of gate collections. There is always a generous response, and it benefits those giving and those collecting to personally experience that rank and file solidarity. We don't just confine ourselves to industrial matters: the Anti Nazi League is well supported by the branch and individual members.

If I was asked what was the highlight for me it would be when at a well attended branch meeting we debated and voted overwhelmingly to support gay people against Thatcher's attacks and Clause 28. I still get shivers down my spine with the memory of that night.

Of course the mood of today cannot be compared to the militancy of the early 1970s when I joined the IS, but I have never experienced a political atmosphere quite like it is now, all of which makes me extremely optimistic about the future.


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