Boris Johnson: still no sign of the beard of political defeat

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2023 by kmflett

This picture appears in the Daily Mirror, 31st May 2023.

Note Boris Johnson’s trademark uncombed hair and his shirt hanging out. Unusually he is wearing matching socks.

There is however no sign of Johnson yet growing a beard of political defeat. It is a political fashion first set by Al Gore after he lost the 2000 US Presidential Election.

A Johnson beard would be unlikely to get him on the shortlist for the Parliamentary Beard of the Year however


John Prescott at 85: author of Not Wanted on Voyage (1966)

In Uncategorized on May 31, 2023 by kmflett

Striking seafarers 17th May 1966 (Socialist Worker)

Happy 85th Birthday to John Prescott

He may have been Blair’s deputy but he, unlike many from that era, he remained an ally of Jeremy Corbyn.

Perhaps he recalled his joint authorship of the pamphlet ‘not wanted on voyage’ about the 1966 seamen’s strike (Prescott was a ship’s steward).

Then Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson argued it was produced by a tightly knit group of politically motivated men (he meant the Communist Party) but actually he was criticising an activist who went on to be a leading Labour Party figure.

After the dispute Prescott went to Ruskin College where he was tutored by the late socialist historian Raphael Samuel and to his credit he has never forgotten that period or the influence of Raph on his ideas


Trade Union membership 2022: no home but the struggle?

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2023 by kmflett

Trade Union Membership in 2022: No Home But the Struggle?

The annual ONS report on trade union membership was published last week(it is quite lengthy & easily Googable) and should be of interest to trade union and socialist activists as well as historians.

The current series runs from 1995.

In 2022 union density dropped from 23.1% of the overall workforce 22.3% with overall numbers down by 200,000 to 6.25million.

While the drop is small and partly accounted for by an increase in the size of the total workforce, there has been a recent period of modest but sustained increases in total union membership so a fall is not good news.

It might be thought that with widespread strike action from summer 2022 around the cost of living and attacks on conditions, that membership would rise. While some leave when a union ballots for strike mostly a lot more join up. This has certainly been the case with the National Education Union based on its own reports.

However the ONS figures don’t break down into individual unions, and are confined to sectors which are broadly drawn and a source of frustration to both unions and employers who try to analyse the data!

One view might be that since many of the larger disputes are still in progress a conclusion, its too early to judge their impact on membership. Another might be that in many cases strikes which are unresolved cost people lost wages in a cost of living crisis.

Certainly if some of the outstanding disputes do end in victory for workers then that really should promote membership. That’s for the 2024 figures now.

The report also highlights some perhaps known trends. Union membership amongst older workers is far higher than younger ones and that trend is increasing. Not enough young people join unions, even though it might be thought their working conditions would promote the thought.

The reasons are often complex. Take one. If you don’t plan a career in a particular job why join a union to make sure you can stay? If there are issues you can leave and get a job elsewhere. The ONS doesn’t have figures on how long people stay in jobs now but it would be interesting.

The ONS survey also underlines another well known point. Employers with over 50 staff are more likely to recognise unions and have collective agreements with them. Why? Because the alternative is a large and costly HR department.

Unfortunately that relationship does not always mean that union membership in those employers is particularly high.

As ever more questions than answers. Historically however there is a case for stating that the higher union density is in society the better things are in terms of equality and respect for people not just at work but generally. The Tories don’t agree with that. As for Labour, its very much work in progress.

The progress will come if some of the current large scale disputes end with a decent result which is seen as so by union members as well as union officials…


Capping supermarket prices? Time for the return of the Assize of Bread

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2023 by kmflett

Capping supermarket prices? Time for the return of the Assize of Bread

In 2023 when it comes to basic food prices debate focuses on whether they can be controlled and if so how. After all in a market economy, the market rules. Labour by contrast has traditionally favoured a social market economy where intervention determined a fair price and prevented excess profit.

Before the early nineteenth century a different system often applied. The staple food of many was bread meaning that the price and quality of a loaf was an essential part of daily life. If quality dipped or the price went to high protest was the likely outcome.

This was often regulated by an Assize of Bread which sat to determine what a fair price for bread of a certain quality should be and how much the miller and the baker should get in return for producing it. This was what the socialist historian E P Thompson termed a moral economy.

It could not control the price paid for wheat in the first place but it could control profiteering by the miller and the baker. They were allowed a fair profit to cover their business and personal expenses.

Needless to say far from all millers and bakers were happy with the system and attempted to circumvent it by reducing the quality of bread produced or combining to control the market. The moral economy was not a complete solution but it was a focus for popular pressure.

Perhaps instead of asking supermarkets if they would mind keeping down the cost of staples like bread and milk Rishi Sunak could take a look at how his eighteenth predecessors did it.


The British 1968: Hornsey College of Art Occupation, May 1968

In Uncategorized on May 30, 2023 by kmflett

The British 1968: Hornsey College of Art Occupation 28th May

There is a school of right-wing history that sees Britain as exceptional. For example according to this view unlike other countries there was never a revolution that saw an industrial ruling class replace an old landed elite. There obviously has not been a 1917 style revolution here but that is far from the only model available. In fact we had the ‘Glorious’ Revolution of 1688.

So it was with 1968. All over Europe uprisings and revolts took place but apparently in Britain all was quiet.

This is far from the truth. The anti-Vietnam War demonstration at the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square in March set the template for such protests elsewhere. In the first weeks of May attention was focused on events in Paris and elsewhere in France.

The British 1968 started definitively later in May as students at the Hornsey College of Art in Crouch End North London occupied the main college building. There was a clear echo of French events because the students were focused on the conditions of their education.

The building itself has an interesting history, and some may know it better as the TUC’s National Education Centre. It is now a primary school.

The origins of the students grievances lay before 1968. The Labour Government was in the process of creating Polytechnics and the plan was to subsume the college into the new Middlesex Polytechnic. Already the college had elements of its activities scattered across north-east London.

The students felt that this would detract from their art education. They also complained that the facilities at the Hornsey building were poor, including recreation areas and toilets. In addition the college did not properly recognise a student’s union. Finally the students felt that the education they were getting was of a piecemeal fashion not adequately giving them the skills they required.

A student teach-in on May 28th 1968 led to a full occupation of the college by the students including control of the canteen which as health inspectors later agreed was run more safely than before. The occupation continued until 4th July 1968.

The college was run by Haringey Council which earlier in May 1968 had passed to Tory control for the first and probably last time. The Councillors were unsympathetic to Labour’s Polytechnic plans, and therefore had some joint ground with the students. But Tory Councillors could hardly be seen to backing student power.

As a result the Council did very little about the occupation for some weeks, while the Principal of the college was also absent.

There was extensive media coverage, although perhaps unsurprisingly given the context, there was more in the Daily Telegraph than the Guardian.

The students focused specifically on the issue of art education and mostly resisted attempts to more widely politicise the fight at Hornsey.

A Telegraph article on 2nd June 1968 was headed ‘Hornsey students issue reform manifesto. Clear off anarchists told’.

It was reported that the manifesto ‘demands the end of examinations based on academic studies. The imposition of a final examination in art history forced the subject into a rigid pattern’

Eventually the Principal conceded many of the students demand and an inquiry was set up under the auspices of the Institute of Education. The college re-opened in September 1968.

It might be argued, particularly at 55 years distance, that the limited nature of the students demands- refusing wider politicisation- hardly suggests that Britain was following the wider pattern of 1968 across Europe. Yet the reality was that the students were largely successful, in that perhaps they were exceptional.

The wider issue raised, one perhaps almost forgotten 50 years on, is what this meant for ‘student power’. There was a Penguin Special of the same name (in association with New Left Review) and the theory was that students protesting at the increasing impact of the military-industrial complex (as it was then called) on their studies (see EP Thompson’s Warwick University Ltd) found it easier to revolt than workers. However that revolt, as in France in May 1968, could spark workers into fighting too.

One wonders in the age of tuition fees, cuts and austerity if the same might still hold.


Beard Liberation Front pays tribute to Jeremy Paxman as he hosts final University Challenge

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2023 by kmflett

Beard Liberation Front


Contact Keith Flett      07803 167266

Beard Liberation Front pays tribute to Jeremy Paxman as he hosts final University Challenge

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has paid tribute to Jeremy Paxman as he hosts his final edition of University Challenge on 29th May.

He has hosted the quiz for 29 years  but the hirsute Amol Rajan takes over for the next series in the autumn.

On August 12th 2013, almost ten years ago, Paxman presented Newsnight with a beard he had grown during a break. The clean shaven and pogonophobic BBC hierarchy had previously banned news and current affairs presenters from wearing beards.

Paxman defied them but appeared clean shaven when presenting Newsnight on 6th January 2014

It is not thought that he ever presented University Challenge while wearing a beard but is frequently to be seen wearing one off-air.

The campaigners say that Paxman’s action broke the clean shaven mould at the BBC and since then hirsute presenter have become a relatively familiar feature

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, Jeremy Paxman said in 2013 that he had become a ‘poster boy’ for the Beard Liberation Front. As he steps down from University Challenge we pay tribute to him and his beard.


Why is the Whit Bank Holiday not always on Whit Monday? Peculiarities of the English

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2023 by kmflett

Why is the Whit Bank Holiday not always on Whit Monday?

Bank Holidays cause a lot of political debate in the UK.

Bank Holidays go back to the 1871 Act itself designed to address the annoying habit that Victorian workers had of not turning up to work at the beginning of the week which was called Saint Monday (an extension of Sunday).

The number of holidays and when they took place was fixed for England and Wales (Scotland was different obviously) and that indicated that there was a holiday on Whit Monday (the early May Day holiday didn’t come until the 1970s). Whit Monday is the day after the 7th Sunday after Easter. Easter varies each year and in 2023 the date of Whitsun is 29th May.

The date has been fixed as the last Monday in May since 1971 and it was in temporary place from 1965.

The logic behind this, like much British tradition, a bit obscure. Parliament discussed Bank Holidays in 1964 around the concept of staggered holidays. The idea was to extend the holiday season and boost the tourist industry. The TUC had been demanding it since the 1940s as it meant jobs.

The main change was to shift the August Bank Holiday from the first Monday of the month to the last Monday (except in Scotland). But the Whitsun Holiday was also fixed at the same time. The idea here was to extend the holiday season at the front end. When the holiday fell in early June (if Easter was late) this meant school exams started later and imposed on plans for holidays in July (apparently). Hence keeping the holiday in May allowed exams to start earlier and for more family holidays in July.

Previously there had been a peak in late July and early August…

It’s the kind of issue you’d expect to excite the Mail and Telegraph (it doesn’t). The Whitsun holiday in Ireland (26 Counties)remains next Monday..

A good deal of this very long running discussion might be addressed by having more public holidays. This doesn’t seem at the moment to be on the political agenda but it could be.


2023 Beard, Shorts & Sandals Season. The Big Issue: Socks

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2023 by kmflett

Beard Liberation Front

29th May

Media Release contact Keith Flett 07803 167266

2023 Beard, Shorts & Sandals Season. The Big Issue Vote: socks

The Beard Liberation Front, the informal network of beard wearers, has said that with another Bank Holiday weekend the 2023 Beard, Shorts and Sandals is fully open

The BLF says that it has relaxed guidelines again for the 2023 season and brought in a new framework governing types of footwear, length of shorts and the controversial issue of socks:

1] Shorts may be half length (to the knee) or three-quarter length-‘culottes’. The length of shorts is particularly important as climate change may mean that unprotected legs get sunburnt.

2] Footwear should be casual. There is a considerable range of sandal type footwear now available. Some leave parts of the feet and toes open to public view, while some does not. The BLF is not prescriptive about the matter.

3] Socks may be worn, depending on individual preference. If the beard, shorts and sandals are to be displayed in busy urban areas it is likely to be prudent to wear closed rather than open casual footwear and ankle socks, not visible to others may be worn.

4] There is no prescription or definition on what type of beard may be worn, or how this may match with the shorts and sandals. This again is left up to the individual.

BLF Organiser Keith Flett said, socks are always the most controversial issue during the Beard, Socks and Sandals season. It is an issue that seems to divide the beard, shorts and sandals community. As a result we are holding our annual advisory vote.

Vote result: 60% are ideologically opposed to wearing socks with sandals. This will therefore be the official Beard Liberation Front position for 2023.


29th May Oak Apple Day. Cancelled in 1859

In Uncategorized on May 29, 2023 by kmflett

29th May Oak Apple Day. Cancelled in 1859

Oak Apple Day was from 1660 to 1859 a public holiday to mark the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. It is supposed to relate to the escape of King Charles 11 at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 by hiding in an oak tree.

It wasn’t the only public holiday proclaimed at the Restoration. Guy Fawkes Day was also a holiday designed to mark the plot’s failure rather than its potential success.

30th January was also designated as a public holiday to mark the execution of King Charles 1st on that day in 1649.

The whole lot were marked by the Anniversary Days Observance Act in 1859 presumably in an early act of cancel culture.

Although obscure the actual reason for abolition seems to have been a move towards a degree of religious toleration in the 1850s. The abolished holidays were linked to prayers in the Book of Common Prayer (1662)which were no longer viewed as appropriate. Perhaps Victorian liberalism was more confident than that of 2023..

No doubt GB News and the Daily Mail will be celebrating Oak Apple Day nevertheless keen as they claim to be on British tradition…


What Marx did at Whitsun 150 years ago

In Uncategorized on May 28, 2023 by kmflett

Both Marx and Engels were frequent visitors to English seaside resorts mainly in the south of England. Marx liked Margate and in later life Ventnor while Engels rented a property opposite the pier in Eastbourne.

Records of their visits to locations in northern England are less easy to find. Engels enjoyed several visits to Bridlington, including the beer available.

However at Whitsun 1873 Marx wrote to Engels from Manchester (25 Dover St 31st May 1873). Engels had by this time retired and was based in London while Marx was spending some time in Manchester.

He wrote to Engels that he had been to Southport and on that day was off to Buxton until 2nd June with Samuel Moore. He was a friend of Marx and Engels nd translator of the first English edition of Capital.

Buxton in this period was famous for its spa waters and Marx was keen on taking the waters for health reasons.