Issue 209 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published June 1997 Copyright Socialist Review

Why I became a socialist: Marion Tennison

My family was stolid Labour; we took the Herald and Reynold's News, and dealt almost exclusively with the Co-op. My mother was a member of the Co-op Women's Guild; she found the Cooperative Party more internationally inclined than the Labour Party. Our family was large, poor and extended. My paternal grandmother, desperate to feed her 13 children, started to sell hot cakes to mill workers in the early morning. Later she took a small corner shop, but she never forgot her roots and at election time when the Tory candidate sent a car round for her, she accepted the ride and then voted Labour.

My mother lived in the country, luckily not in a tied cottage, but she knew of the plight of those who did. Farm labourers could do little by way of protest, but my grandfather always left all the doors and gates open when he heard the sound of the huntsman's horn! They emigrated to Canada for a few years and there my mother became impressed by the lack of what she called 'class distinction'.

Both parents left school early; my father was 'allowed' to do this because he had fulfilled the required academic standards (I have the certificate to prove this, somewhere). He was very clever, and was never once late or absent. He became an office boy for a waste paper merchant, and was told on his first day that as he was 'staff', not a 'worker', he would not be permitted to join a trade union (something which rankled with him all his life).

My mother was convinced that the only way to counteract the terrible conditions prevailing amongst the working class was by education. She believed that capitalism and obscenities like racism could only be beaten when people realised that they themselves had the potential to manage their own affairs.

Most of the family were big people and I have always been small. Mother used to cheer me up by saying, 'Never mind, Ellen Wilkinson wasn't very big,' and then she'd talk about the Jarrow march. She filled my mind with stories of how working class folks had to humiliate themselves in order to survive. For instance, one of her uncles used to earn the odd shilling by his skill at 'smelling out bugs' in houses people were hoping to rent! And not far from us was a grim looking building, now a hospital, but once a workhouse about which hair raising stories abounded.

I passed the 11-plus (then called the Scholarship) at ten. I wanted to be a teacher, but my father wouldn't sign papers for me to go to college, as he said I would probably waste my training by getting married. So I had to borrow money for my studies. This I paid back with interest over three years; my first monthly pay being a mere 12, because accrued interest had been deducted! You can imagine how disgusted I am that today students are subjected to this very same racket and that the Labour Party think it such a sound idea they have no plans to change it!

The schools at which I taught were nearly all substandard buildings; there was an intake each term and by the end of the year class sizes had grown to more than 50. I worked in Tottenham, Moss Side and other places where I saw real squalor. I have always raged about the utter waste of talent from my parents' time to the present day. Many intelligent children are not stretched to capacity because of lack of facilities and I know from personal experience that the less able children are always the ones that suffer from any cuts in funding.

When the National Health Service was introduced, many doctors were so opposed to it they had to be given sweeteners. Just as they tried to sabotage the health service, so did some teachers when the idea of comprehensive schools was mooted. After the war when there was no shortage of jobs, it was noticeable that we had fewer flag days or people sleeping in shop doorways, and pawn shops almost disappeared.

It has become fashionable after the appalling Thatcher era to think more kindly of the old fashioned Tories, saying that they 'weren't so bad'. I beg to differ, for I have a long memory. I actually heard Tory women grumbling about not being able to 'get staff' to do their housework, saying, 'What's needed, to bring them to heel, is a couple of million unemployed!' But, although always a Labour supporter, I began to waver when the party lost its teeth.

This started with the erosion of trade union rights, when the party should have been united in fighting every step of the way. Next came the betrayal of the miners, and the cruel way people were told about redundancies. Public opinion was outraged and I am still convinced that with only a bit more support many of those jobs could have been saved. Tories are afraid of public fury, as proved by the poll tax rebellion. I felt ashamed I'd been conned, for until then I really believed that Labour was still the party of the workers.

It was during the scandal of the Birmingham Six that I decided I wanted to do something tangible. I wrote to Chris Mullin MP who sent a very supportive reply. But I wanted to display a protest poster. The Labour Party hadn't any, so finally I got one from the Socialist Workers Party. As I live on a bus route I put it in an upstairs window adding little bits of information as they filtered through. At last I was able to write 'THEY'RE OUT!' and had the pleasure of seeing people in the bus give signs that they too were pleased.

It was then I felt like a real socialist.


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