Wednesday, 23 May 2012

UNITY: a 125 Years of Bolton’s Socialist Club

June 2nd sees Bolton Socialists on the moors taking their annual Walt Whitman walk, with fellowship, a swig of wine from the loving cup and poetry from Whitman. An event made famous from Stuart Maconies Radio 4 documentary and the book, With Walt Whitman in Bolton by Paul Salveson. Their association with Whitman is just one in a long list of historic ties going back to their formation in 1887. “The story begins with Tom France, who sold hot peas around the streets.” Argues Denis Pye in his history of the Club, In January 1886, Tom announced in the Social Democratic Federation newspaper, Justice that he would like to hear from any friends interested in forming a branch. The branch grew and was very active in a bitter engineering workers dispute from May until October 1887. In which they where supported by full-time SDF organiser Tom Mann, Bolton Socialists where so impressed they invited him to stay setting him up with a tobacconists and newsagents in Deansgate. Not long after his arrival the Independent Order of Good Templers Hall where they had been meeting became the Social-Democratic Hall, or the Socialist Club. Bolton had an incredibly vibrant socialist scene, as well as a Labour Church, they even tried to establish the Bolton Co-operative Commonwealth a self supporting village or colony. Sadly it only lasted six years. Meanwhile many important figures passed through including Peter Kropotkin and William Morris. In 1892 the ILP was established in the town with a strong overlap with the SDF. Noticeable when in 1896 Eleanor Marx came to speak. But the most important vehicle for creating socialist unity was the Clarion. Not just a political paper but a way of life. Its readers formed choirs, theatre groups, cycling and rambling clubs and most of all preached socialist unity. It is thanks to the Clarion that we still have a Socialist Club in Bolton today. It was in June 1898 that Sarah Reddish, active in the Co-operative Women’s Guild well known as a speaker with the Clarion women’s van, wrote in to the paper as Secretary of Bolton West Ward ILP branch saying they where prepared to fuse with the SDF. That fusion took place in September 1898 to form the Bolton Socialist Party. Their Principles and Objects ring down the years: a) The national ownership and control of land and the means of distributing national wealth. b) The reduction of the hours of labour to the lowest point compatible with the highest material moral and intellectual development and well being of the individual and society. c) The equal right of all to the highest and best education. Equal social rights, duties and responsibilities. Observance of the highest principles of fellowship. d) The abolition of all class privileges and monopolies. The abolition of war and the establishment of peace between nations. e) The furtherance of Socialism to the uttermost:- by means of local conferences, elections, public meetings, papers, pleasures and pastimes, not incompatible with the highest interests if the Party and Club and the uttermost furtherance of its objects. f) The promotion of the highest material wellbeing of the people of this and every other country of the world, without distinction of race, sex or creed. g) The emancipation of labour from the domination of capitalism and landlordism. The establishment of social equality between the sexes, the cultivation in all the clearest of conception and love of truth, justice, liberty, good manners and good motives. In 1901 a prospectus for the Bolton Socialist Hall Limited (the Co-operative Industrial and Provident Society which still exists) was launched offering £1 shares. Meanwhile social, cultural and propaganda activities continued, a Socialist Sunday School was established with the Socialist Ten Commandments which were reproduced for the centenary by Leeds Postcards. The same year James Connolly visited the town and by 1904 they had raised enough money to buy 16, Wood Street. Still committed to unity the Bolton Socialists sent delegates when the SDF called a Unity conference in 1911. This lead to the formation of the British Socialist Party and they became a branch. Then in 1913 they hosted Big Jim Larkin campaigning against the Dublin lockout. In 1916 a pro-war faction of the Socialist Party formed a National Socialist Party; the Bolton branch had the good sense to reject this and became independent once again. Following the war club secretary, Jim Paulden, write a hundred-page epic poem in praise of Lenin, yet at the end of 1921 they affiliated to the Labour Party. Sadly from the late 1920’s for fifty years the Club became something of drinking den as they exploited the licensing laws to serve alcohol when the pubs where shut. Left wingers still met in the Club but it was thanks to the licensing authorities who took the clubs license away in 1979 that it rediscovered its true purpose. In hock to the brewery the club was put up for sale in 1982 but its co-operative status saved it – the signatures of 75% of its members where required to wind up the society and they simply could not be found. The Society was re-floated in November 1983. The reborn co-operative club introduced many of the old activities to a new generation. Sadly in a burst of sectarianism by the Labour Party the clubs affiliations were terminated having hosted a meeting of Arthur Scargill’s Socialist Labour Party – like they have for many other socialist parties and organisations. Independent again every Friday they have a regular cycle of events designed to encourage the education, organisation and agitation of socialists. They support those in struggle but also have a full cultural program of cinema, talks, play readings they even have a Clarion choir. As William Morris pointed out they are engaged in that most important of work “making socialists”. The Bolton Socialist Party and Club have been doing just that for 125 years, every town needs one!

Monday, 14 May 2012

Civil Service Pensioners Mugged by Maude and Hutton

I read in a Cabinet Office press release "the first 'John Lewis style' business created from a central government service", and ‘the first joint-venture mutual’ said the BBC. What is this new venture? It is MyCSP Ltd -short for My Civil Service Pension. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, hailed it as an alternative to the "binary choice" between state monopoly and privatisation, and as a "pathfinder" at the "cutting edge of public-service reform". The man who created panic over a potential fuel strike is now spreading panic through the Civil Service and its pensioners as he again mangles the language in privatising the Public Service Pension Scheme whilst telling the world he is creating a mutual. There are such things as financial mutuals, they have their own Association, it is a significant group of 57 member owned businesses managing assets of over £85billion. For the record it defines a financial mutual as “an organisation that supplies financial services products, and which is owned by its customers, or members.” Examples include NFU Mutual and Liverpool Victoria Friendly Society. The 1.5 million members of the Civil Service Pension Scheme have no role in the new organisation. So it is a simple test is MyCSP owned by its customer/members? NO! So it is NOT a financial mutual. Is it owned by its employees? The definition published by the Employee Ownership Association says that, “for an organisation to be classified as ‘employee owned’, employees must have ownership of more than 50 per cent of the organisation”. So a stake of half this means MyCSP is not employee owned either. What’s more a key co-operative principle is “voluntary and open membership”. In a survey conducted by the PCS Union of staff in MyCSP over half responded. 96% wanted to retain their civil service status in full and 94% were opposed to the government's view that the mutualisation would ‘empower employees and improve performance’, as Maude had claimed. What is more as the workers have been coerced into this new business it is in no sense a co-operative. So who are the real owners? Well it is to be 40% owned by the Equiniti Group and the Government are to retain a 35% stake which makes it look like another smelly PFI scheme. As a sop the people who work in the company are to get a 25% stake held in trust. But who are the Equiniti Group? The Chairman is, Kevin Beeston, ex Serco and the Chief Executive is, Wayne Story, ex Capita, not exactly famous for a commitment to workers co-operatives or mutuality. The new business is set to get the contract for the Civil Service Pensions for seven years then they will be out to tender for the business against other Pensions administration businesses. The Parliamentary All Party Group on Employee Ownership, produced a report called Sharing Ownership, The role of Employee Ownership in Public Service Delivery. They asked David Burbage, from the London Borough of Windsor and Maidenhead, if the mutualisation programme was viewed as “disguised privatisation” which could “swallow up” employee led mutuals. He responded that this was something that would have to be guarded against: “We don’t want to find we’re dealing with Serco in a different kind of deal”. Well that looks to me just what we have here. It is not as if we have not been here before when the Railways where privatised in 1993 the Corporate Pensions Department for the British Railways Board was also privatised as Pensions Management Ltd. Today it is called RPMI Ltd as they changed their name to attract non-railway clients. The scheme has been under continuous criticism from all of the rail unions. Despite a Commission on Railway Pensions the disagreements between workers and the scheme has continued. The current pensions dispute between ASLEF and East Midlands Trains which has led to this month’s strike action shows the importance to workers of their pensions. There is a case for both worker ownership and control and mutual financial services, they could have started for example with the bust Banks they had taken into public ownership, but the case of MyCSP is just Government spin. Just look who is to be the £1000 a day chairman of this new business according to James Lyons in the Daily Mirror who else but the architect of the work longer, pay more, get less, pension for public sector workers, the man who started the pensions assault in the first place, Lord John Hutton. What do the new quarter “owners” of MyCSP get? Well many will get the sack! Interviewed on the Civil Service Live Network the new CEO Phil Bartlett said when asked does the new business model mean staff numbers will fall said: “Yes. Overall when we start out, we’ll probably employ about 700 people in the public and private sectors running this. When we’ve re-tooled and opened up the new channels, then we’ll be smaller than that; probably half the size, maybe a bit less.” How long will it be in its present structure? “We want a mutual shareholding structure that provides good stability over time. But you never say never in these things. It will be the shareholders themselves that will take those decisions to change those arrangements in the future,” he says. Clearly the government could have prevented such a possibility by either making it a real mutual or giving the workers complete control. But they have done neither and this dreadful beast will do terrible damage to the image of employee ownership and the mutual sector by behaving like the private business it is.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Financial Fair Play and Fan Owned Clubs

Despite the some drama at the end of the football season it has yet again been a really good one for the case of football co-op’s. OK so fan owned Barcelona lost to Abramovich’s Chelsea. But Chelsea still have to beat the 130,000 fans who own 84% of Bayern Munich to win the title. So another good season for fan owned clubs with three of the four Champion’s League Semi-finalists being owned by their fans. The Bundesliga has a 50% plus one rule which means no individual however wealthy can take control of one of its member clubs. So I will be cheering on Bayern in the final. And when it comes to bankrupt blues why does no one seem to be advocating fan ownership for Glasgow Rangers? With their global support surely if any club is capable of rebuilding itself it has to be Rangers on the back of such a hugely passionate fan base. It is in an ideal position to go for fan ownership surely their experience of being owned by some particularly dubious people is enough to put them off being a rich man’s toy forever! Meanwhile in the lower divisions we have had some stunning performances from fan owned clubs. I will be cheering on Wrexham to make it into the football league after a dramatic year in which the club has been bought back to life thanks to the support of their fantastic fans. Last summer players went unpaid and pre-season games where called off for lack of cash. Now they are on the verge of promotion. The fans raised over £100,000 in a matter of hours to raise the conference bond and nearly 6,000 turned up for the battle of fan owned clubs when they played AFC Telford on New Year’s Day. AFC Telford another club undergoing rebuilding following a fan buyout has managed to hang on to their place in the Blue Square League. Sadly Exeter City one of personal favourites of fan owned clubs who do a tremendous amount in the community in Devon will drop into the Championship League 2 to join AFC Wimbledon who have had, well, a mixed season back in the football league. One of the most amazing performances of the season has been in the Premiership where Swansea the only Welsh club ever to play in the Premiership has set people talking with their brand of free flowing football. Not many people realise however that without the 20% of the club in the ownership of the Supporters Trust, giving them a seat on the board, this success would not have been possible. I am confident that over time as other shareholders come and go the Supporters Trust will come to play an even bigger role in the club. Elsewhere in Wales Merthyr Town won promotion from the Western Football League Premier Division to the Southern League just two years after being reformed under supporter’s ownership after the liquidation of Merthyr Tydfil FC. There is no doubt that Supporters Direct who promote supporters club ownership and the formation of supporters trusts are doing a great job with some 26 clubs now in ownership or control by supporters trusts. I will be looking forward to the contests for the Supporters Direct Shield between Fisher and Lewes and the Supporters Direct Cup, sponsored by the Co-operative Group, between Wrexham and Enfield Town when both games are played, on Sunday July 8th, at Enfield Towns Queen Elizabeth Stadium. Meanwhile talking of stadiums as well as reaching the play-off final in the Evo-Stick League, FC United of Manchester are also celebrating having raised £1.6 million in a community share issue. This cash will unlock the grant funding they need to meet the costs of their new £4.6 million stadium project and building work is set to commence at the Moston site in the spring. Many people have commented that in the tussle between the two halves of Manchester that United have been held back this season by the huge burden of debt imposed on them by the Glaziers. It was this argument that in many ways lead to the formation of FC United. They are not however the only critics of the Glaziers and their financial engineering. One critic brings me back to where I began it is the President of Bayern Munich, Uli Hoeness, he argues it is unfair for the owners of the club to lumber them with almost £450 million of debt, something I suspect many United fans would agree with when they woke up on the morning after City had overtaken over at the top of the Premiership table. This may soon become a much bigger issue as Bayern are vociferous supporters of UEFA’s Financial Fair Play Regulations, which could see clubs barred from the Champions League if they fail to reduce losses and adhere to the new financial strictures by 2015. The German club's chief executive, Karl-Heinz Rummenigge insists that Europe’s governing body must get tough with those who ignore the rules. At the moment only Arsenal of the highest profile Premier League clubs would comfortably meet the requirements of the new rules based on recently published financial results. Under their current ownership model Manchester United, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City would all fail. If it was needed another good reason to rethink how our most popular sport is owned and run.