Monday, 2 August 2010
(From the Morning Star Thursday 29 July 2010 by the fantastic John Millington)
Revolutionary imagery on the walls, 600 years of peasant and working-class struggle eulogised at every table. That's just the first floor of the building.
And no, this is not a Cuban museum - it is the Peoples History Museum in Manchester.
My guide for the day is George Waterhouse, the general secretary of the Young Communist League, and he is taking me through the main events in indigenous struggles of ordinary people in Britain from the Peasants' Revolt in 1391 to the present day.
Legendary figures of the labour and communist movements such as Keir Hardie and Harry Pollitt are given pride of place alongside Morning Star memorabilia.
But it is the future, not history, that Waterhouse has on his mind when we finally get chance to talk.
Much of the debate surrounding the working-class movement is on how youth can be mobilised to positively campaign and fight for jobs and better pay in the current economic crisis.
Before the official cuts agenda was unveiled in Chancellor George Osborne's emergency Budget, the recession had already had a disproportionate effect on Britain's youth, with nearly a million under-25's being unemployed.
Recent figures from the Office of National Statistics showing 8.1 million people economically inactive across Britain include many under-25's.
Young people are obviously not a monolithic group, but it is safe to say that frustration and anxiety are the highest they've been for years.
Waterhouse points to the increasing liberalisation of work, where the only choices for young people are low-skilled, low-paid temporary work.
"Much of this work is dished out by job agencies which, rather than being the exception, has become the rule for young people."
Officially classed as "temporary contractors," the agencies take a cut of the wage for providing the "service" of finding employment for the worker with the added proviso of being able to terminate employment at one hour's notice.
At 21, Waterhouse is no stranger to this world of temporary and insecure employment.
Currently waiting on his undergraduate degree score, we are interrupted by his agency calling to cancel his shift the next day.
How do you deal with that, I ask him.
Waterhouse gives a characteristic communist response.
"You have to deal with the reality but also analyse the situation. Then you will then be one step closer to changing the situation."
Waterhouse insists that the cuts have exacerbated things for young people and the government "should be investing in real apprenticeships and sustainable jobs," which would have the knock-on effect of creating more job security.
"Precarious and insecure work creates problems for organising in those workplaces.
"People working there get the perception that it is just a temporary job - a means to an end. In that environment it is difficult to organise young people in trade unions.
"This leads to feelings of inadequacy and the feeling of being isolated."
Structural changes concerning young people have not just been limited to waged labour.
The comprehensive education system is being eroded with the introduction of "free schools" and with the Con-Dem government extending the use of academies.
Liberal commentators have noted the undemocratic nature of the schools, with private businesses able to run them and set the curriculum, raising fears that business models could dominate the education system.
But, for Waterhouse, the consequences are much more serious.
"Free schools and academies will entrench class divisions in the same way as raising tuition fees at university," creating effectively a two-tier system.
Several single-issue campaigns have arisen around attacks on state education and cuts in public services, with parents, students and unions starting to become mobilised in localised protests.
And they have had some success. Recently Whittington Hospital in north London, which had been due to be closed, was saved following a well-organised local campaign involving in large part the local community.
Although acknowledging that these campaigns have successfully engaged working-class communities, Waterhouse believes that they are only a starting point.
"Communists have always been part of broad coalitions. But it is our role to link the issues together and ultimately assert ourselves more effectively," he says.
One of the issues that Waterhouse insists has been underplayed and largely ignored by the labour and trade union movement is the role of the European Union in the economic and social affairs of Britain.
At the recent Rail, Maritime and Transport trade union conference, delegates pointed out that rail nationalisation could not happen due to EU directives.
With the Viking and Laval judgements from the European Court of Justice - prioritising free movement of goods over the right to strike - still fresh in the memory of thousands of trade unionists, Waterhouse highlights how the Young Communist League (YCL) is setting out to expose the "neoliberal EU agenda."
"We are planning to hold simultaneous demonstrations against cuts and the EU to reveal the role of the EU.
"Who in the rest of Britain is really identifying the EU as the source of the cuts - the main driving force behind the austerity measures?"
In Greece, where EU-led austerity measures have hit the working class hard, trade unions and the influential Greek Communist Party (KKE) have launched a series of strikes and protests aimed at curtailing the cuts.
On top of this, representatives of many former socialist states in eastern Europe have lobbied in the EU for communist symbols to be equated with the nazi swastika and banned.
Waterhouse is adamant that there is an "umbilical link" between the anti-communist campaigns and the cuts agenda being waged by the EU.
"The anti-communist measures have accelerated in recent years with the banning of the hammer and sickle in Poland and the banning of the Czech Young Communist league (KCM)."
The examples across Europe of organised resistance on a national scale give Waterhouse hope for the movement in Britain.
But the YCL is keen to point out that it is not the communist party or YCL's priority to form a communist government in the future.
"Our programme, the British Road to Socialism, seeks a progressive Labour government with the assistance of communist and other extra-parliamentary forces pushing it in that direction."
It is the extra-parliamentary element to the programme which the YCL is keen to develop. Waterhouse sees huge potential in the Youth Fight For Jobs, which has the support of nearly all unions.
But he adds a note of caution for progressive and left members of the Labour Party and Labour Representation Committee who seek to "reclaim the Labour Party."
"The trouble with the word 'reclaim' is that just working internally is not enough.
"To be successful it is about going out into the labour movement and, if the arguments are won there, then the Labour Party will follow suit."
Despite the mammoth task facing the working-class movement, Waterhouse remains optimistic, even given the scale of the onslaught being unleashed by the Con-Dem government.
"I don't think Cameron's agenda will be seen in the same light as Thatcher's in the '80s.
"Rather than being perceived as being dynamic in some quarters as Thatcher was, it will be perceived as destructive by the majority of working-class people.
"Most young people have been brought up in the shadow of the collapse of the Soviet Union.
"The absurd statements that the collapse marked the end of history helped sow seeds of apathy in young people and feelings that Marxism was outdated.
"But Marxism is even more relevant today and young people are showing all over Britain that they are in favour of collective action."