Saturday, 21 November 2009

Reflections Living Hell and Back

Well just to sum up on the rather long posts on Princes Lodge, ‘Living Hell’, as described by John Pilger in his book Heroes. I think I would like to say firstly, I’m glad that I’ve posted extracts from his book on to my blog, after all it was a campaign where fortunately I was able to try and succeed in doing something positive, just playing a part in exposing at that time, this blatant ‘out and out’ profiteering, and at the expense of homeless people, and lets not forget families with children.

Now as I said in my introduction; it was 25 years ago, which no mater how hard I try to pretend, that was a long time ago!

The world has moved on considerably in time, great changes’ have taken place, but some thing’s simply stay the same or maybe they are somewhat worse?

Looking back it would not be fair to say, that this campaign could be described as a one issues campaign – that’s if your care to look at it that way, as far as I was concerned, it was my job, that’s what was expected of me, from my employment and in my role at the Tower Hamlets Unemployed Workers Centre. However I never held the view that somehow this was working in isolation from everything else around which was going on at the same time.

The Tories and Thatcher had been in government for there first five years, they had driven up unemployment to such an extent that it led to new exploits of deprivation in every corner of the British land mass. That era, 1979-90, was a time of great social and economic change. The Tories were elected just after the so-called winter of Discontent”, and Maggie’ embarked on tough reform programmes with the top priorities as she said time and again: was tackling inflection and the unions, these policies divided the country as the service sector and home ownership boomed, but manufacturing declined and scoured working people with unemployment as a consequence. This led people in a great many cases to look and travel for employment elsewhere, even relocate, migrate whatever you may call it.

This has always been the case for working people throughout the history of capitalism.

I can hardly head for the hills and forget the fact that this was on the very eve of the miners strike, when I think back to that packed meeting of the hundreds that came out to support the campaign, I had a feeling inside of me even then, ice-cold and certain that something big was about to happen, the battle lines of that dispute were being drawn as we fought the campaign of Princes Lodge.

Just one or two things I would like to say about some of the main players and those involved in the campaign, starting with Pilger who without a shadow of drought is the world’s best investigative journalist. I was also pleased to learn this week, that he had been honored in his native Australia as the 2009 recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize, and
with indulgence, I would just like to reproduce here a part of his acceptance speech delivered at the Sidney Opera house:

“Last July Kevin Rudd said: ''It's important for us all to remember here in Australia that Afghanistan has been a training ground for terrorists worldwide, a training ground also for terrorists in South-East Asia, reminding us of the reasons that we are in the field of combat and reaffirming our resolve to remain committed to that cause.''
There is no truth in this statement. It is the equivalent of John Howard's lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Rudd was standing outside a church on a Sunday when he said this. No reporter challenged him. No one said: "Prime Minister, 'There is no war on terror. It's a hoax. But there is a war of terror waged by governments, including the Australian Government, in our name.'"

The Princes Lodge campaign public meeting; was held in the Old Poplar Town Hall where as Pilger Says’; in the 1920s George Lansbury and the Poplar Council, defied the law in the defence and in the interests of the working people they represented.

George Lansbury for me at that time, when I was still a member of the Labour Party, was a remarkable individual who was not only the leader of Poplar Council but went on to lead the Labour Party after the infamies of Ramsay Macdonald and his cohorts in the Parliamentary Labour Party who crossed the floor and joined with Tory and Liberals in forming a so-called "National Government" in which a majority of MPs were from the Conservatives.

As a result, he was expelled from the Labour Party, which accused him of 'betrayal'. Oh yes; he would have been at home with our Tony Blair even Gordon Brown I dare say.

The thing about George Lansbury is that over the years, It’s as if he’d been airbrushed out of the picture of Labour history, I only really discovered Lansbury when I moved into the east end in 1982 and I started working at the Unemployment Center which had it’s office on Bow Road a few doors away from the site of the Lansbury family home which is today marked by a monument erected to the memory of this much loved MP still a towering figure in the political history of Tower Hamlets. I should also add that our office was in a parade of shops underneath the tenement flats of Electric House which has a magnificent memorial clock in honour of Minnie Lansbury who married Edgar Lansbury, son of George Lansbury, she was jailed, along with many of her council colleagues, for refusing to levy rates on the poor of Poplar. After 6 weeks in prison they were released, but Minnie’s health was shattered and she contracted pneumonia and died in January 1922 at the age of just 32. Thousands of local people attended her funeral and the memorial clock was erected by public subscription in her memory.

Well I’m straying a wee bit from the beating path here, better get back on it.

We decided to hold the meeting in the Old Town Hall, because Lansbury if nothing else genuinely strove to alleviate the poverty of the poor in his day. A link was important and relevant; we were trying to persuade a Labour Council to take action in the same sprit as Poplar but obviously not with the risk of jail. This was also a time of great development with developers eying up Docklands. The government appointed a Development Corporation that the leader of the council was a member off, which gave rise to much dismay. Paul Beasley who had been the council leader for ten years started his political life on the left of the Labour Party, like so many, once in power changed allegiances in favor of big business, there use to be a radical book shop in Tower Hamlets that sold local artists designed post cards, one of the best sellers was a card with a giant George Lansbury towering over the houses of Poplar and a tracksuited Paul Beasley running down the road, with the caption of Lansbury calling out to Beasley: ‘Where are you running to Paul’.

The council was as Pilger said they were, but not so much an old guard, more like old sticks in the mud and very reactionary, they saw being on the council more as a privileged position as opposed to using the position in favor of there working class constituents’. Only a handful of counsellors, younger ones at that, supported the campaign from the beginning, but they were always called names by the sticks in the mud, such as commie and so on, was it really a surprise, when the first BNP councillor in the country was elected in Tower Hamlets, I’ve often wondered.

Anyhow it was a sheer joy, to have been part of forcing this council to do something they very much didn’t want too. At a special meeting of the council requisitioned by our supporters on it', in front of a packed, rammed full to overflowing public gallery and with many more standing outside on the steps of Tower Hamlets Old Town Hall, the council voted unanimously to serve on the owners of Princes Lodge a control order and start the process of compulsory purchase.

After all this time looking back down through the years, I know today, what I knew then – that this victory was a small win, yes it did lead to many other things such as the reluctance of councils to support or even use such large hostels to house the homeless. It also led to the law being changed in regard to people living in Houses of Multiple Occupation, particularly in regard to the real risks posed in such places from fire and catastrophe to life on a large and possibly massive scale.

But we never stopped people falling into homelessness, and we never will by thinking all we have to do is elect a group of individuals every four or five years who will tinker with things or make some improvements’ here and there. Today I read that in the UK we have over 300.000 empty homes, what with people sleeping rough on our streets in almost every major Town and City compelled with the thousands on social housing waiting lists, says to me that capitalism the system we all live under is the real problem to housing.
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