Many people have started talking about such institutions as schools, hospitals, local councils and local magistrates courts as 'the state'. Yet just a few years ago it would have seemed quite out of place to most people to use such a hard, 'political' term about such familiar, everyday things. In seeing such institutions as part of 'the state', we are also asking questions about the state in Britain today. Is it helpful, or neutral, or oppressive to us? How can we influence its actions? And so on.
These questions arise because more and more of us, in more and more ways, are closely tied up with the state's institutions. Take an average working woman with children. In the mid-19th century her sole contact with the state would have been the Poor Law Guardians and the police. Today such a woman has dealings with the education authority over her children's schooling; with the doctor and the hospital over her own and her family's health; with the town hall Directorate of Finance over rates; the Housing Department over rent. Besides, she will be visited by the social worker, the probation officer and possibly the juvenile department of the police, over her kids' street life; Inland Revenue over her earnings; the Unemployment Benefit Office or Social Security if unemployed. She may well approach an Industrial Tribunal over her unequal pay, or a Rent Tribunal over her unfair rent. In addition it is likely that at some stage in her life she will have a job in some public organisation, because about a third of all people in jobs today are employees of the state-whether as cleaners of buildings or roads, caretakers, clerks, cooks, social workers, architects, teachers, doctors or administrators.
A distinction is often made between our public and our private life. But even the parts of our life designated private do not any longer, if they ever did, seem to be fully under our control or unaffected by the state and its policies. The state seems at times to penetrate even our closest relationships with each other. Apart from the fact that the state marries and divorces us, officialdom has a well-defined view about 'the family', and what it should be.
Relations between men and women and their children are relevant to state institutions, they appear to matter to the authorities. Men are designated 'head of household' and have certain rights and duties. Women, as housewives and mothers, are expected to carry out, to a certain standard of proficiency, many jobs that the state also has a hand in, such as training children and nursing the old and sick. Women whose husbands have died are treated differently, receive different benefits, from women who are divorced or separated. The imbalance of power and initiative which women have suffered is rooted in the home, in the relations of sex, child-bearing and domestic work. But this imbalance doesn't stay within the confines of the home - it has spread out to influence the world outside, the world of work and business and of the law, administration and welfare. Women are sometimes noticing and pointing out that their experience with the state (as employees or 'clients') is in some ways an extension of the disadvantages they experience in private life.
The state also influences how we relate to our workmates, our bosses, those above and below us in the hierarchy. It determines in part how much our employers can pay us, whether or not we will be made redundant. It puts limits on ways in which we can organise and take action as workers. It affects the way we relate to those we come into contact with through our work - our 'clients'. This is especially true if we are state workers.
Our experience of the state is contradictory
The ways in which we interact with the state are contradictory – they leave many people confused. We seem to need things from the state, such as child care, houses, medical treatment. But what we are given is often shoddy or penny-pinching, and besides, it comes to us in a way that seems to limit our freedom, reduce the control we have over our lives. The tenant of a council house, pleased enough to obtain a tenancy, could still say plenty about inadequate maintenance and restrictive rules and regulations, for instance. As state workers, perhaps voting Labour, we may have hopes that a Labour administration is in the working person's interest. Yet we find that, as manual workers employed by a Labour-controlled council or government, we are as overworked and underpaid as we would be in a private firm.
As workers in those occupations that are termed 'professional', such as social work, or teaching, we are often given impossible problems to solve arising from poverty or from the powerlessness of our 'clients'. The resources available to back up our intervention the welfare provision of the state - are a drop in the ocean of need. And besides, it is clear that many other actions of the state and of the economy itself are pulling in the opposite direction, making things worse for the poor. We often feel that we are being asked to manipulate people, to use women's pride in their home or love of their children, for instance, as well as their need of the practical resources we partially control and can give them access to, to induce co-operation.
As socialists we're always taught that somehow services provided by the state are better than those from the private sector. Better be in the hands of a council than a private landlord; better our NHS than extortionate private medical insurance schemes and so on. And this seems to be true, but only up to a point. Somehow what we get is never quite what we asked for. The waiting lists for hospital beds were always too long; gradually charges began to be introduced for this and that. Another example is the promise of the new towns after the war - which made Britain famous for town planning, but were somehow, when it came to it, bleak social deserts to live in. It is not just that state provision is inadequate, under-resourced and on the cheap. The way it is resourced and administered to us doesn't seem to reflect our real needs. Pensions, for instance, seem to be maintained at a level, and given on terms, that have little to do with the way we experience our old age. They seem geared more to the needs of employers or the state.
State provision leaves a bad taste in our mouths. State institutions are often authoritarian, they put us down, tie us up with regulations. And many of the working class seem to be defined by the state as 'irresponsible', as 'troublemakers', 'scroungers'. If we are born out of wedlock it defines us as 'illegitimate'.
All these things leave us wondering: if the state is not providing these services in the way we want them,
A few years back, in late 1975 or early 1976, the long-threatened contraction of state expenditure began in earnest. The pruning of services and the abandonment of capital building programmes only took effect gradually. But it has become increasingly clear to us that assumptions many of us made in the sixties about 'the welfare state' were mistaken. Our hopes and demands for general improvements had always been perverted into 'special case', selective welfare – inadequate and with strings attached.
The Labour Party has always promised to be a party of 'reform'. Even those who felt reform was either not enough, or a misguided route to socialism, were at least confident that economic growth combined with working-class pressure would ensure a gradual improvement in standards of housing, of health, of education. People now gradually became aware that the 'cuts' signified not a short-term set-back in a general curve of improvement in standards, but a reminder that the term 'welfare' has always been ambiguous.
The cuts and the fight-back against them, however, have raised useful questions in people's minds. Perhaps it never was our welfare state? We are still, somehow, certain that it is right to fight against the sale of council houses into owner-occupation; to fight against turning medicine over to private practice; or the denationalising of the steel industry. But perhaps we should not be looking to defend the state, even the 'welfare' state, as it is, but fighting for something better? If so – how do you get what you can, defend yourself against losses, and resist oppressiveness, when losses and gains seem to be two faces of the same coin?
When we first started to write this we already felt that, drawing on our own experience as state workers and as 'clients' of the state, we had a clear and painful idea of the predicament in which the state catches us. We wanted to fill out our understanding of it, however, by long conversations with people in different kinds of situations. We decided to include here quite substantial reports of what they told us – because we were amazed by the sharpness of the contradictions people were experiencing, the clarity of their observations and the imagination they were applying to finding a political solution.
The conversations are not put forward as evidence - but as illustration. The people chosen and the kind of relationship they are in with regard to the state, are not an ideal selection and do not cover, or even represent, every facet of our interaction with the state. We recognise that they under-represent manual jobs, for instance, the bulk of state employment. They do not include clerical work. And they don't express the special predicament of black people, and other groups (Ulster Catholics for instance) up against the state. Nor do they reveal the oppressiveness of the state's definitions and practices on homosexuals.
*The first conversation was with Maureen, a woman who has raised a large family, needing the state for her income. For her, the state seems to give independence with one hand, while stealing it away with the other.
*The second conversation was designed to raise some of the contradictions in which state manual workers find themselves. We talked to John, about the situation of a conductor on London Transport buses.
*Sarah, Neil, Patrick and Mary are teachers, aware that state education is oppressive in many ways, but each trying to find a way of teaching what they feel is right.
*Joan and Kate work for a Community Health Council. They know that their job for the state is to channel protest into manageable forms, but they talked about the ways in which they found they could use their position to support the struggle for better health.
*The fifth conversation we had was with a number of workers in two community advice centres, overwhelmed with requests for help with housing and other problems, but trying to develop collective and class-conscious forms of organisation in their area.
When we talked to people we made it clear that we ourselves were socialists, and in the case of the state workers we chose them because they were socialists too, asking them about the limitations and possibilities of their position.
Finally, we had a meeting with three Labour Party activists.
Two of them were backbench Labour councillors in a Labour controlled local authority, hoping to use their position to push the Labour leadership to radical policies in support of their working class constituents. They are a different case from the others we talked to, in that they chose their position precisely for what they felt it could offer a socialist. In this they contrast with a state employee, who may justly say that she or he needs the job and the pay.
The accounts that follow deal mainly with the problems people experience, and in this way they may seem rather depressing. But we felt it important not to skimp on spelling out the contradictions carefully, so that the difficulties should not be underestimated when we later go on to examine the possibilities of finding a way around them. The discussions did lead to constructive and positive ideas about ways of acting as socialists and as feminists in relation to the state and these hopes will surface again later in the book.
Maureen Murphy lives in south London and has had ten children, all but one now grown up. Her husband died nine years ago when the youngest was six. She has lived her life and brought up her children by means of careful, painstaking dealings with a set of official institutions. Among them, the most important are social security, the housing authority, the health services, the education system and the police and law courts. But it would be possible to list a dozen more types of official with whom she has dealings.
The state is far more important to Maureen than any boss from whom her husband ever earned a wage. So she has never gone out of her way to have a fight with the authorities. 'It doesn't get you anywhere. You don't win. They have the majority every time. You can go down to the council and rant and rave, you still won't get anything. If you go down and ask in a polite way, then you might get what you want.' She takes care to keep on the right side of them. After all, 'They are important to me these people. I do have to depend on them. I can't afford to take risks.' This good reputation is particularly important because Maureen believes that there is a connection between the various official bodies. 'If you get into trouble with one, the other one is likely to know. That is what I think, anyway.'
The family has been dependent for many years on social security. She reckons that she normally gets what is due to her, but occasionally appeals against decisions. 'About money for Eileen's shoes, for example. I filled in the little blue slip and explained why they were necessary for her.' She got the extra allowance without going to a tribunal. Social security don't visit now, don't bother her. 'They know me.'
As far as housing goes, the family has been with the council for 36 years, mainly as GLC tenants. She now has a good rehabilitated house. 'They give me no bother.' But neither do they do repairs. She accepts this as a matter of course.
She and her children have grown familiar, through one crisis after another, with many nearby hospitals: Kings, St. Thomas's, Guys, Great Ormond Street, the Belgrave, the Evelina. Maureen herself has asthma and bronchitis now, and is subject to heart attacks. Her youngest daughter is mildly epileptic. The children have had many alarming illnesses and accidents. One had pneumonia, another polio. One dropped a match in a petrol tank and had serious burns on the face. Another gashed her leg on a steel bar while playing on a bomb site, and had 32 stitches. Maureen became practised in dealing with the health service and with her own worry. 'You get used to it. It just grows on you. It's like going and doing the shopping every day.'
She learned what things were serious enough to warrant going to the big teaching hospitals. But she preferred the small local children's hospital, the Belgrave, now threatened on account of the cuts in government spending. 'They were very kind to the children there. Eileen had an operation on her head there. It's a very, very good hospital. A lot of women here really use it. You can go in and give the children their lunch and tea. The Evelina was like that too, but it's been closed a long time now.' GPs however have not really been much use to the family. 'I don't know of any good ones. The doctor across the road, he'll write me a prescription, but he never asks how you feel. He's overworked. He needs seeing to himself.'
So crucial is the state health system to Maureen's family that the strikes of ambulance men, doctors and nurses are moments of real worry for her, for fear of having nowhere to turn. 'I just say afterwards, thank goodness it passed this time without anything happening. '
The school system has been a problem to all Maureen's children. Most of the kids spent a lot of their childhood staying away. School could never hold their attention. Eileen, being epileptic, had a specially hard time in the year she spent at the local comprehensive. 'She just stood outside the classroom door. She wouldn't go in. She just wasn't able to mix with people at all. She learned nothing there.'
Then Great Ormond Street hospital, to Maureen's relief, said she ought to send Eileen to a special school. She was able to use the health system as a lever on the education system. They got her a place. But only after a year of waiting. And during that year Eileen was continually at home in Maureen's care. 'You see, I didn't really want her to go out alone, you never knew when she might have a fit.' This real additional responsibility for Maureen was caused by a school that had no time or money to spend on an unhappy girl. The work of caring and coping can be passed backwards and forwards in this way between the state and a: woman at home.
The comprehensive school was too big. 'There's too many children. They can't cope there. They are just not able to run after every child.' Maureen had had a formal meeting at the outset with too many different teachers. After that her only contact with the school was through letters. She does not remember ever having had an invitation to any kind of social event, or to a chat with an individual teacher.
The 'special school' to which Eileen was eventually sent was not so meanly resourced. It was an ideal school in Maureen's eyes. 'The headmaster was ever so nice. And then, parents could go there for all the outings. They'd tell you all about the school and show you round. There would be Christmas parties and open days. Eileen is taken and brought back each day on the bus. She has the same teacher all the time. They give her her tablets at lunch time. And if she isn't well, they will ring me and tell me. They are very interested in her. She likes it so much she is going to stay on, though she could leave this summer.'
Because the comprehensive schools failed to hold the children's attention, they were continually being picked up by the authorities. The local policeman, whom Maureen knew and respected as the copper on her beat, would come round and warn 'If Eileen doesn't go to school she'll end up in trouble.' In spite of several appearances in court, though, she has never had any of the children taken away. But the threat of the law is always a worry.
One aspect of the welfare state that many of her friends are involved with is social services. Maureen has steered clear of social workers. 'I had social workers or probation officers at one time, when the kids were in trouble. I never hit it off with them. Everything you tell them, you know, it is supposed to be confidential. But they write it down. I knew a girl working down the office and she said "I've seen your records". Well, that put me off completely. Anyway, I don't think they have anything to offer. One of my boys was always taking and driving cars. This social worker says to me "What do you think the answer is?" I told her "I don't know." She says, "I don't know either." Well, I mean, they are people who are supposed to know about education. If they don't know the answer, how can I? So, when I was offered a social worker' after that I turned it down. I felt I couldn't have that aggravation again, always being put down and everyone reading your notes. '
Maureen contrasts her life and relationship with the state sharply with her mother's experience, a generation before. Her mother, who died recently aged 92, brought up her family in an Irish village. Her husband was more of a responsibility than a help, having been ill from the age of forty. So she used to take in washing. 'You had to pay for the doctor so we didn't go. We just tried to get better. That's how it was. There were no benefits then, only the pension when you were 70. The only trouble we ever got into was to pinch fruit from someone's orchard. All they would say to us was "you'd better get off or I'll let the dog out after you." The magistrates court was meant to open once a month but it seldom did. If there was a case, it was someone caught without a bicycle light, or someone letting their cows wander in the road. So my mother never worried about us getting into trouble. Nobody would ever take you away, or anything like that. That never happened.'
It seemed to us, talking to Maureen, that the present day provision of a free health service and supplementary benefit would make today's state seem preferable to her, compared with the state as her mother had experienced it. After all, social welfare has enabled her to bring up her family without depending on a man or his earnings. Even when Maureen's husband was alive it was she who had mainly kept the family going. 'He was never indoors much. He never wanted the responsibility for the children.' She wouldn't, in any case, have wanted things different. 'I wouldn't have wanted to be domineered.' And it is the welfare state that has made this small degree of independence possible for the first time. But to Maureen even these advantages do not seem to quite outweigh the power that the state has over you-especially the power to remove your children from your care. 'It's worse for me than it was for my mother,' she said, emphatically.
Maureen was also in no doubt that the state, as she and her family recognise it, is something that has a special concern for and a special relationship with women. It is something that singles out women in the family for its dealings, and which women know most about. 'I learned how to handle it better. It applies to quite a lot of women.' Maureen hasn't done a regular paid job, she has had no other work than the relentless 24-hour occupation of looking after children, now in its second cycle with growing grandchildren. But handling the institutions of the state has been for her a kind of work. On the quality of the relationship she can sustain with the state's institutions depend her income, her home, her own and her children's health and prospects, and her self-respect.
Working on the buses
Until recently, John was a bus conductor. He did the job for three years, after six or seven years in clerical and accounts work in another nationalised industry. He is a socialist and involved in an anti-racist organisation. He did not suppose, however, that working for the state had some kind of merit for a socialist. He expected that this 'public service' job with London Transport would be no more worthwhile or rewarding than a job for a capitalist firm. And he was proved right.
In London Transport, basic pay is low. It is supplemented by extra payments for unsocial hours and for split shifts. A split shift may be, for instance, four hours on the job and four hours off, followed by a further four hours on. Payment is made for the time off. This work pattern does, however, make a mess of the day. Even after this the wage is still inadequate and many drivers and conductors work overtime. This means working one of their two weekly 'rest days'. They are not allowed to work both, as it is against the union agreement. The way the work is organised is unsatisfactory too, because it divides the workers up. 'There may be five hundred people working out of one garage, but you tend only to see your own team and those on the same shift. Shift changes are frequent. Many people in the garage you won't see at all.'
There is a lot of stress in the job. 'You are the person who has to take the brunt of the irate public for the bad service and high fares. That aggravation does wear you down. It becomes a two-way hostility. There is an hour's gap between buses, say. The people get angry. They have a go at you, and you hit back, though you know your interest and theirs is really the same. It is that bad feeling that gets people down.' But possibly the strain on drivers is worse. 'The stress of driving in London has really increased in the last fifteen years. There are juggernauts, more traffic generally.'
Conductors are at the bottom of a hierarchy of management.
Their work is supervised by inspectors of several grades. 'You are meant to show respect to inspectors and carry out their instructions. They are like foremen. They think they are your boss. They try and pull rank on you. They go through a distinctive sort of training and wear a special uniform. There are the ones with a silver badge, and they have no turnups on their trousers. The ones above them, with a gold badge, do have turnups. These are the inspectors responsible for either route controlling or checking fares on the bus.' There are others in the garage (who don't wear uniform at all), responsible for schedules and supervision within the garage. 'One of the things they do is check up on whether you are wearing your uniform. If you are wearing jeans they'll say "Where are your grey trousers?" If you say, "I didn't fancy wearing them today" the inspector will report you and send you to the garage manager. If you do it several times you may have to go up to Division. And if you have a few times late they start looking at your record.'
As well as uniformed inspectors, London Transport employ plain clothes spies, called 'spots' by the drivers and conductors. 'These "spots" are meant to be checking up on the passengers to see if they dodge payment of the fare, but they also check up on the conductors to see they are not pocketing the money. For instance, if there is a certain stop where people are likely to be getting off after a short ride when the bus is busy, they may hand the fare to the conductor on the platform and not wait for a ticket. A "spot" will place himself strategically on the pavement just opposite such a stop to see if the conductor pockets the cash.'
Above the inspectors is the Garage Manager, and above him the Divisional structure. There hierarchy is both sexist and racist. 'Although there is no legal impediment to women drivers or inspectors, you still find a few of them. The number of women drivers is token, and when they are taken on it is probably because they can't get the men. And there are fewer black drivers and conductors.' With this management system weighing on you, and a long working week for little pay, there is no feeling of commitment to a public service. For the majority it is just a job. 'It is not surprising really. Apart from the job itself, there is the whole ideology being put over to people that state firms are inefficient, unprofitable, and paid for at the tax payer's expense. State industries or services like London Transport are run on the same basis as private industry, with the workers having no say or control, so how can people in them have a view of their job as worthwhile and useful? Why should they?' So people don't stay in the job long. The turnover is high. Only a third stay for five years or more. And there is a shortage of about a thousand drivers and a thousand conductors in London Transport. 'People are aware, the public, that they wouldn't do that job. People know what the state of the buses is. You have to be pretty desperate to do it.'
Those who do take on the job of driver or conductor are so alienated by the conditions, the stress and the niggling supervision, that they engage in a sort of guerrilla warfare against the terms of work. 'It is an everyday struggle. If you want to be, you can be awkward. If the bus is not clean when you start, or an indicator light is not working, you can officially use this as a reason not to take it out.'
John described the kind of low-level sabotage that bus teams engage in. 'They might let the tyres down. Or run slow, by getting into a slow lane. Sometimes there is deliberate "bunching", when several buses on one route follow immediately behind one another. Although in most cases "bunching" is a result of traffic or other factors; when this happens crews might then take advantage because they feel like having an empty bus or an easy ride. Or people may leave five minutes before schedule to get longer for a cup of tea the other end. And you can make things bad for an inspector, if he makes things bad for you. If he sees you coming by 15 minutes late and doesn't turn you round you can delay 20 minutes the other end and come back even more behind hand, which causes him a lot of trouble. All these things make the service worse for the passengers. But they are really secondary. Basically, it is that there are not enough buses on the road, they are in disrepair, and there are not enough spare parts. It is a bad service.'
The service has deteriorated considerably over the last twenty years. 'There were 42,000 drivers and conductors in London Transport. Now there are about 20,000.' The cuts in public expenditure, more recently, have had a serious effect both on the service to the passengers and on the working conditions of the employees. 'They have cut the fleet by 10 per cent. They have rationalised the schedules. Some routes have been cut out all together, and more are to go soon. Some they have made shorter. The thing is that shorter bus routes are useless, they won't pay their way. And in six months' time they will turn round and say "These routes are unprofitable". They will show the figures and the workers will have to agree they should be scrapped.'
The introduction of the one-man bus (in which the conductor's job is scrapped and the driver controls the doors and collects fares) is part of the GLC and London Transport attempt to rationalise the service. The results of this have been loss of jobs and a worse service. 'The introduction of one-man buses was a defeat for bus workers. Ever since their introduction in the late 1960s, the service has steadily been destroyed. Where there does appear to be more service to the public, it has been fiddled off the workers,' John said.
'They are cutting out the split shift. On the surface this might seem to be an improvement, but people used to be paid for the interval between shifts. Now they are adding the time onto six or seven-hour jobs to bring them up to eight. The aim is to give us a standard 40-hour week. The management is getting tighter. Gradually over the years it has been getting more like the management of a private business.'
'The tactic over the cuts has been divide-and-rule. One garage suffers cuts in routes and jobs, and another may gain a bit. Each garage becomes concerned in fighting to save its own jobs.' At an individual level, too, the workers are divided against each other. 'The introduction of one-man buses means a loss of conductors' jobs, and more stress for the driver. But the drivers who get those jobs (and there is no shortage now of people ready to take them) get 25 per cent higher pay than the rest. So resistance gradually dwindles away.'
The union that represents the London Transport conductors and drivers is the Transport and General Workers Union. Its current stance is entirely defensive. In fact, its principal demand is for more, not less exploitation. 'The struggle is to increase the amount of overtime available to the workers - instead of fighting for a better service for both employees and passengers.' When London Transport introduced Bus Plan 'cuts' in 1978 they presented it to the union as a fait accompli. 'The union opposed it, but not on principle. They just took a stand on LT's "failure to consult". We engaged in short strikes during the rush hour. That did cause London Transport to negotiate with the union, but there were no major concessions, no reversal of the position. Just a bigger compensatory settlement, and the cuts phased over a longer period - 18 months instead of a year. Incidentally, 87 per cent came in during those strikes, and 13 per cent stayed out on the road. Those who did were nearly all one-man drivers.'
History has a bearing on present struggles. The last big strike on the London buses was in 1958. It was over pay, and it lasted six or seven weeks. The London Underground workers did not strike in support, however, and the bus workers finally failed. They went back to work for less than they had demanded. This means that they entered the present 'cuts' offensive already weak. And the offensive, far from uniting the workers and passengers against the state, has driven more wedges between them. As the service deteriorates, the conductors pick up the abuse. Fare increases, fewer buses, delays, are all taken out on the conductor who is caught between the transport management system and other sections of the working class.
'Should the conductor take it into his own hands to break the limit of five people standing in the bus and let more people in? In a way it is in our interest, as conductors, to do that, because we get a £1 commission for every £46-worth of fares we collect. And the five person limit is a trade union limit. By law we can carry up to nine. But if you cram people on it is dangerous, it is difficult to do your work, and, besides, it takes away the pressure for more buses, which is what we all really need.'
The more the pressure brought to bear on the passengers and the workers from a deteriorating service, the more they resent each other. 'Many conductors are irritated by old age pensioners, who are allowed to travel free between certain hours in London. It was the best bit of legislation brought in by a Labour GLC, in my view. But it is more work and more worry for the conductors. They call OAPs "The Wombles". You see, they move slowly. You need a bit of patience. But you are in a hurry, there is pressure to get on. It is one more aspect of tension in the job. I think OAPs should travel free all the time, but there are resolutions in our union branch saying they should be stopped, because it is impeding people's journey to work. Instead of demanding extra buses.'
There is considerable danger to conductors from assault by angry or drunken passengers. One in ten each year get attacked at some time or another. 'The irony of the situation lies in the fact that the better you do your job from the management's point of view, the more you are officious, the more likely you are to get beaten up. You should be able to do what they want of you, at least, without running the risk of getting hurt. Many assaults also result from the bad service. Disgruntled passengers go further than just verbal abuse, they sometimes use physical violence.'
The problem is that when bus workers do take action to defend themselves against the state, they hurt the public even more. 'It hits the people you want to be in solidarity with. And next day you get the abuse. You are really prone to angry passengers. There is need to get more involvement, to politicise people on the buses. But the high turnover of workers makes it difficult.' Limited strike action also hurts colleagues. 'If there is a strike on one garage area, other routes carry the burden of extra passengers. When ideas are put forward in the union suggesting action that would hurt the working class less and the state more, such as refusing to collect fares instead of refusing to take the buses out, the bus workers think it is utopian and unpractical. They see the struggle in economic terms. "If we don't collect the fares they won't pay us the increase we are demanding".
John feels the union to be bureaucratic and set in its ways. 'Branch stewards and shop committees have been there for years, some of them. Union work is just a routine. It is very difficult to inject politics into the thing. It is a closed shop, so they don't need to go out of their way to involve people actively, to attract people to join, to see some point in it. When you take on the job, all they are interested in is how you are going to pay your sub.'
Yet people have not lost their ability to organise, to relate to each other off the job, and have a good time. London Transport social club is very big and successful, with many facilities all over London. There is a snooker room in most garages, people playing cards together. But no connection exists between this friendly, active scene and union struggles. 'If the union organises a dance about two people turn up.'
Advice centre workers
The first 'law centre' was set up in Notting Hill in the early 1970s.
Several others followed within the next few years, first in London, then in the poor inner areas of other big cities. Now there are over thirty in the country. They were often the initiative of socialists, including professional lawyers, who wanted to use their skills to help people in poor areas. They mainly looked to the Home Office Urban Aid Programme for financial support - and so the pattern is now that they are mainly funded by government, part-central, part-local.
In a similar way over the same period there developed less specialised advice centres, concerned mainly with helping people to get information about their rights. Both law and advice centres are situated right on the dividing line between state and non-state – some would say they crossed the dividing line and became official bodies when salaries began to be paid by the government. Certainly the state sees them as part of a policy. They are a manifestation of the 'restructuring' of the state apparatus, described in chapters 3 and 4. The workers however often have a degree of autonomy and their own ideas about how the centres should be run. Their operation is often a daily struggle.
On the whole they have been welcomed by socialists, conscious of the financial barriers which limit working-class access to the legal system and the relatively few lawyers with expertise in employment and social security law, which very directly concern working-class people. Law centres seemed to offer a mechanism for more effective legal redress. But we found that the workers we talked to had no illusions about the law. Far from being a means of improving things for the working class, it seemed to them to obscure the class reality of their 'clients' situation and to lead away from a solution.
The Law Centre workers gave us an example of the kind of situation with which they have to deal. They described a property company, owning flats for rental in their area. 'This company operates on the fringes of the law, with very clever legal advisers. Lots and lots of individual tenants have come in to see us about them. The way the company operates is to make big profits by rehabilitating property and reletting it for higher rent. To do this it has to get sitting tenants out. The tenants are offered alternative accommodation, as an inducement to move. Later they find that the flat they have moved into doesn't really belong to the original company. They are up to all sorts of tricks like that.'
'Our real problem is that the council ought to have bought up the estate in which this company operates. Although the council isn't an ideal landlord and there would still have been problems, they would be problems of a different kind. Far from buying up property, though, our council (which is now Tory) is actually selling off the housing that it does own, which the Labour council before it had bought. So these nasty landlords have a free hand. And the mechanisms for bringing them to book are not very strong. You have to have a lot of evidence to go to court for repairs. And even the strongest tenant is often too scared of the landlord to go through with it. Landlords get away with it nine times out often, because the tenants can't withstand the pressures. It is slow, almost impossible, to obtain repairs through the Public Health Acts or Section 32 of the Housing Act 1961. Mind you, through Section 157 of the Housing Act 1957 you can quite quickly get a closing order put on a flat. This means the landlord must put out the tenant. The council must rehouse him. But that means first that someone else is pushed down the queue. And second, that the landlord, although he is now obliged to repair before reletting, does get vacant possession which is just what he wanted in the first place.'
The Law Centre workers emphasised that this case is quite typical. Their job seems to be to deal with a potentially endless stream of problems caused to the working class by capitalism and the state, such as low earnings, unemployment and stress; inadequate and costly housing and rapacious landlords. The resources the state makes available to them to do this job - a handful of salaries, inadequate or unfair legislation and a tortuous legal process - they feel are derisory.
In response to their understanding of the needs of the poor working class around them, workers in this particular Law Centre moved rapidly away from 'advocacy' work, to helping individuals press their own cases. From there they moved towards organising, where they could, groups of clients to support each other. Today they aim to use advice work as a way of drawing together active groups into campaigns around issues.
There was much in common between the approach of these Law Centre workers and that of the workers from the 'non-legal' Advice Centre who also took part in this conversation. Both sets of workers faced quite difficult choices.
For instance, there is the problem of the 'open door'. There is a flood of cases arriving at the Centre, an expression of profound need in the working-class population of the area. 'It is a real struggle just sharing up the reception duties. We had two full time receptionists, one of whom left after six months due to the strain. We run reception on a rota now, including a 24-hour emergency service. We are very loath to turn away case work. Although we do shut the door increasingly over the years, it doesn't solve the problem because more people come in when we open.'
In some instances, certain tangible gains may be achieved, some wrong righted, by working on anyone of these individual cases. Besides, people can learn confidence and progress from defeativeness to anger through pursuing their case as far as it will go. And it is in humanitarian terms hard to turn people away when they ask for help. At a higher level, it is possible, by all accumulation of successful cases, to improve the working of the law, to educate local lawyers in new kinds of work, and so on. Often, however, it is the sheer pressure of numbers that keeps you working at this level. 'I'm so bogged down in casework that I don't even see my way to doing work with groups.'
The workers, however, know that what can be achieved this way is limited. In any case there is no time to respond to all the cases. And it is essentially selective - since some must be chosen at the expense of others and a gain achieved for one person 'may be at the cost of someone else. It is an 'individualising' procedure in a situation where they see their main role as raising a class consciousness. Above all, they sense that individual casework, is precisely what the state wants them to do.
They feel sure that advice centres have been set up in order to direct threatening working-class militancy into acceptable established channels. 'Instead of going en masse to the town hall they come to us one at a time and we go through the procedures. If they say "We haven't enough to live on "we pull out a leaflet and say "Ah, but have you applied for a supplementary grant for heating?" The contradiction lies in the fact that the channels do work, for some people some of the time, and we cannot afford to ignore the possibility. '
Conversely, the workers feel there does exist a possibility of combining cases that arise from similar issues and to work on a dossier, an organisation, a campaign. But people in these working class areas have no strong tradition of collective action. 'They are not used to being organised in groups. They are very much isolated in their own lives. They are not used to joining in, knowing and extending their rights. They haven't had the experience. They have been sat on all their bloody lives.'
While people act as individuals there is always a danger that they will be forced by circumstances into competing with each other. Even within and between collective groups competition is rife. Organisations, once formed, often fall into rivalry with each other, they become a power play. 'How can it be otherwise, when the whole society is so competitive?' And once practical limited goals are achieved, groups often break up. The competitive ethic even affects community workers, who fight on behalf of their own area against a neighbouring one. 'There was I working slowly in my patch, helping the working class to help themselves, while the community workers in the neighbouring area were charging in, leading campaigns, demanding this and that. As one of the workers pointed out, the Urban Aid system itself is set up as a competition between groups. 'All applications go into a bundle, they all go to the co-ordinating voluntary group, you are invited to a meeting and given ten minutes to make your case - to say why you should get the money and not the others. Then there is a discussion, and then you vote. You take on responsibility for the selection.' And it is a method that works in favour of the articulate. 'There is a nursery project in our area, for instance. The person running it doesn't happen to be a very good speaker and can't argue their case very persuasively. It makes me sick, it really does. I mean, we get put through as top priority and get our money, and they don't. You come away feeling so bitter. It's divide-and-rule all the way.'
Internal organisation is a particular predicament for advice centre workers. While they want to organise collectively, sharing money, jobs and responsibility, pressure from the authorities tends to demand a management committee and a director - who is both spokesperson for the group and answerable to the authorities. 'Collective running is clearly threatening to them. They want one person in control so that they can contact that person, make them responsible, sack them if necessary . . . ' Both centres have a person who is a good negotiator, a good manipulator, but feel ambivalent about this. 'We see its uses. But we are also very critical of this. It concentrates a lot of knowledge and power in this person's hands and short circuits our collective organisation.'
Events over the past year, however, have intensified the predicament in which workers of both centres find themselves. They operate in poor working-class districts of London, within Conservative-dominated boroughs. Both were set up, in the more permissive political climate of the early seventies, as liberal voluntary sector initiatives. With the arrival of the Tories both centres came under attack. The councils claim they are reviewing the centres' operations to save public expenditure. But the nature of the attack suggests political motivation.
Curbs are being imposed on the way the centres interpret their role. They are forbidden by the council to do political work with squatters, anti-racists, strikers. One has even been proscribed from working with any group criticising the policy of public authorities or political parties - and that includes the National Front. They are required to return to more 'technical' advice work, under the more direct control of the council. Workers are aware that they must either reduce the amount of politically productive work they do, or lose their funding. They also see themselves as having the choice between lying low, in an attempt to save their own centre - or exposing their hand by joining in a strong collective campaign around the closure of similar centres.
The workers feel that there is a contradictory need both to use the law, for what it can offer, and to expose it for its fraudulence. Stepping outside the law, for instance displaying addresses of empty properties in the window, is politically productive; but you risk getting closed down. But then again, if you stay within the law, you may remain secure, but you perpetuate the myth of ' we are all equal before the law'. As living standards fall and the state tightens its managerial control, this contradiction intensifies. Workers are sure that any resources which assist the working class to fight back as law and advice centres can do, must be defended. But the same trends limit their own scope and the fight back must be more and more muted if they themselves are to survive.
'Once you go in and close the classroom door you are on your own' said Neil. Behind the closed door the teacher has both a degree of freedom and a degree of answerability for the classroom situation. In this lies the main contradiction that she or he experiences.
For outsiders who are not teachers, the relative freedom of the classroom situation would seem to offer many possibilities for introducing children to new ideas and values and helping them develop a critical awareness of their society. In our meeting with four London teachers, however, we discovered some of the constraints which make teaching in a socialist way not at all easy.
'The teacher is controlled simply by the way the job is set up. They give you the absolute minimum to work with and ask you to do the absolute maximum. There is one of you and thirty children. Classes are too big, books and paper in short supply. You are always juggling with a set of priorities in trying to equip those kids even with a basic set of tools for thinking about the world and assessing what's happening to them.' It is not just the lack of resources, however, nor the high student/teacher ratios which make teaching difficult. The classroom situation itself presents teachers with many contradictions.
On the one hand the socialist teacher wants good relationships with the children, a happy and democratic classroom, one in which 'the power moves away from the front to the back of the room, so that the way you organise your class is different from what the kids think they are at school for and what the school thinks it is doing for the kids,' said Patrick. 'What I would like to do is to encourage kids' confidence in their own voice.' However, 'the model laid down for you is an authoritarian one, in which you are supposed to set out the tasks for the kids. If you don't believe in that, you totally screw up discipline for some time. You have to take a lot of shit while the kids are being re-educated to the new kind of situation. Standards fall to pieces. According to any headmaster or inspector you are just not doing your job.'
That apart, however, 'creating an honest personal relationship that challenges discipline isn't enough', because the resulting chaos makes it all but impossible to teach the things that the socialist teacher herself or himself wants to teach. There was some difference between the teachers we talked to as to what they felt it important to get across. Patrick for instance felt that if you could get the kids to work out what it is they would think if left alone, this would be good in itself. Though he recognised the need to teach basic literacy and numeracy, Neil felt that there was more to socialist teaching than stripping away a veneer of false consciousness to reveal a 'natural' democratic, non-racist, non-sexist child. Something positive has to be offered in his view. Both were agreed however that through chaos in the classroom you may sacrifice the political effect that might be possible through orderly teaching.
The dominant feature in the life of most teachers is the problem of discipline, of control over the kids. It absorbs so much energy and attention that little remains for analysing the system that threw teacher and children into this conflict. In the first instance, the teacher feels as constrained by his or her responsibility to the students as directly by the rules and regulations of 'the school hierarchy. Mary felt, for example, that there was a conflict between her desire to give the children freedom of expression and the dictates of their own well-being. 'I have to have my kids organised enough that I can get them in two lines safely across the pedestrian crossing outside the school. And that itself is a clear disciplinary constraint on me. If they are overexcited and I can't control them, one could be hurt or killed. The classroom teacher is in an extraordinary position because she is at the bottom of the ladder, but is actually more responsible for the kids than anyone else.'
The problem, however, is much more complicated than just ensuring the physical safety of the children. A major dilemma for teachers is the extent to which they should teach to meet students' and parents' own expectations of school (preparation for exams, for instance) as opposed to teaching kids in a way which teachers feel will equip them for the reality they will face on leaving school. 'A lot of those kids are going to fail exams. You don't want to teach them to fail, but whatever you do they are going to. It would be best to concentrate on teaching them to know their own strength.'
In a situation where O-levels are marked by the proportion of pupils officially required to pass them in anyone year, and not by the actual standard anyone child has reached in the exam, the imperative for socialists must be 'to start to try and teach them why they are failing,' as Neil said. But since the children themselves have naturally adopted some of the same values as the school-and employment system, this can be very painful. 'I showed a video film' said Mary 'which tried to put across the idea that regional accents and idiom were not inferior to "standard English". The film made the children who spoke "standard English" sound rather ridiculous. The O-level students hated it. They found it extremely painful to hear what they were striving to achieve analysed in that way and perhaps run down.'
The rules and regulations and the expectations of the staff higher up the hierarchy, however, are never far away from the classroom teacher, serving both to reinforce her isolation in coping 'with the contradictory pressures of the classroom and intervening when things are not going as they should. The delicate trust the teacher builds up with the children can be shattered by a directive from above. 'Last week some child was writing all sorts of rude graffiti on the walls. All tutors had a directive to physically search every child in their tutor group to see if they were carrying a blue felt tip pen. It puts you in a terrible position.' The possibility of incursions from above like this hang over everything the teacher does.
'Your low position in the hierarchy determines more than anything else what you can do. Your role is very prescribed really. Although we play with these ideas of changing our role, there is a very limited range within which you can vary the traditional teaching role. It is because of the whole way the school is organised and your position in it. Take me, I'm a grassroots classroom teacher. I have got a head of year above me, and a deputy; and I am in a department that has a deputy head and a head. These two systems, the year system and the departmental system are cross-cutting. Above them there are things like deputy and head of lower school; and finally the Head.'
Mary and Sarah were also very strongly aware of the way in which the subordination of women was part of the hierarchical relationships within the school: Mary felt that quite personal questions were unnecessarily brought into her job interview with the (male) head teacher. 'He asked me if I lived with the father of my child! As if that had anything to do with the way I teach.'
Because ordinary classroom teaching puts teachers under these pressures, many socialist teachers have sought jobs in special units which have small numbers of students and relatively high ratios of teachers. Sarah found teaching in a special unit for 'disruptives' allowed her to relate less formally to students and offered the advantages of team teaching too. Mary and Patrick had had similar good experiences working in an Intermediate Treatment Unit. But they also felt that working on the periphery of the system in this way meant that you did not have so many opportunities to directly challenge mainstream education practice. 'You can do incredible things in that situation, outside this bloody great state machine. But you suspect all the time that you are being used as a dustbin for problems the schools can't cope with. Or that you may be an experiment that the authorities might misuse.'
Although the basic contradictions in classroom teaching change little over time, there are currently many developments taking place outside the classroom which all the teachers were conscious would affect both the possible ties and limitations of their work. They are the outcome of what has been called 'The Great Debate' on education. It was sparked off in 1976 by a speech by Callaghan, raising doubts about the effectiveness of the education system in producing young people suited for employment in industry and commerce. It developed into a conflict between 'progressives' who wanted to defend their professional autonomy and ideas about educating people for life, and 'reactionaries' who were concerned to change the education system so as to be more directly geared to education for jobs. 'There has been a fundamental shift since then. What is called "the new settlement" in education involves a much greater centralisation of power, more control over the curriculum and, on the other hand, notions of participation by parents and "community". What seems to be happening is the end of the old consensus. The reformism of the Labour Party and the professionalism of the teachers and the rise of an academic sociology of education - the influence of all that is on the wane. It is giving way to the combination of corporate management and "participation".' That is a familiar combination - as will become apparent in Chapter 4.
As Patrick put it, 'The move is towards pulling the reins tighter, more supervision and control from the centre. And that is something that as teachers we must resist. The thing is - in doing so we must disentangle what resistance is really in the interests of the working class, and what is merely professional self-defence. Because there is an engrained kind of professionalism among teachers that sees the community and parents, as well as the educational policy makers, as a threat.'
Not that, for socialists, the introduction of more parent participation (the other aspect of the new deal) would be without its contradictions. 'Active parents are often quite reactionary. The minute you start opening up any kind of debate with parents what you get is their anxiety about what the school is doing for their children. That is the way the school has been presented to them.' Parents often too easily seemed to accept competitive educational values that socialist teachers may already have rejected. 'The first thing black parents say on contact with teachers is "What can you do to help our children stop 'under-achieving' like it says in the newspapers?" They don't question the way achievement is measured.' 'So we can't call simplistically for throwing the school open to the parents,' Patrick said. 'There is going to be a long and painful period of negotiating. One thing that makes it slower is the way we as classroom teachers are kept away from the parents. In my school the parents have to go first to the Head, who knows nothing at all about the problem.'
Although the teachers saw these dangers in 'parent and community participation', they also saw new possibilities. The Great Debate had at least put the question on the agenda: to whom should teachers be accountable? And it had opened up the opportunity for teachers to challenge the way their work is currently geared to preparing students for a labour market which means dead-end jobs for the vast majority.
The teachers felt strongly that they had to engage with the struggle about the wider issues in education which, although going on outside of the classroom, will directly affect what it is possible to do in it. At the same time they felt strongly that there was a need for collective organisation and mutual support around what happens inside the classroom. In this respect they were disappointed with the union, the National Union of Teachers. 'The NUT won't talk about what happens in class. There is no forum in the NUT to talk about what teachers are actually doing.'
Community health council workers
A Community Health Council is a peculiar 'participatory' body, half in and half out of the National Health Service. Its brief is to 'represent the interests of the public in the health service'. We talked to Joan and Kate, two paid workers in an inner city Community Health Council, one of whom is its secretary. They were emphatic that, although the CHC is supposed to be an expression of public opinion, it can only be understood by looking closely at the National Health Service management system, in which it appears to play a necessary part.
The creation of CHCs was part of the new wave of 'participatory' bodies and processes which proliferated in the early 1970s. During the period of restructuring of the National Health Service, around 1973, there were pressures among the various bodies making policy for the service, on the one hand for tighter and more centralised control, and on the other for a formal measure of public participation.
Under the new management system, the local governing bodies of the health service, responsible for the hospitals and for general practice, are Area Health Authorities. They are not elected bodies. They have members appointed to them by various interested official bodies. Above them are Regional Health Authorities and the Department of Health and Social Security. Within the reformed management system itself, there is a process of 'consensus management' whereby the top of each profession share in corporate decision-making. This is accompanied by a complex procedure of consultation within the system.
The 'participatory' part of the mechanism, the point at which 'the public' are brought in, is the Community Health Council, of which there is one to each Health District, with up to thirty members. Half are appointed by the local authorities whose territory the Health District covers. These may, but need not, be councillors. Of the rest, a third are appointed by the Regional Health Authority and two-thirds are named by the voluntary service and community organisations of the area.
The contradictory nature of the CHC lies in the fact that it does offer a politically useful opportunity to organise and voice working-class opinion on health matters. But it also continually tends to involve the working class in legitimating NHS policy as decided above. Joan and Kate had both taken their posts fully conscious of this ambiguity.
The immediate problem they say they face is a stream of requests for help from distressed individuals. 'We don't call ourselves an advice centre, but such a lot of people come in. People with illnesses the NHS can't cure, people with complaints about doctors, people desperate for a second opinion. They think you have the key to unlock the door. They sometimes get angry when you say it can't be done. It's the worst part of the whole job. Our policy is to deal thoroughly with everything that comes through the door - but not to advertise. We believe that would be fraudulent, because there is so little that can be done. It is not productive to deal with individual cases. We have decided it is better to work with campaigning groups.'
One anomaly arising from the inadequacy of the NHS means that these CHC workers, though socialists, sometimes find themselves suggesting to people that they seek help from the private sector of medicine, from osteopaths, acupuncturists or dentists (for crowning work, for instance).
A second demand on the CHC staff and members' time is the process of official consultation. 'The Authority can put things on your agenda. You have to wade through documents coming from them. More than likely they involve proposals for expenditure cuts, hospital closures and so on. If we oppose any of their proposals we are required to put forward alternatives within three months. But we are just not qualified to answer documents in their terms, it would be a very big job for us. They have spent years on them, and we have to do it in a short time. Besides, we are lay people without specialist knowledge.'
Another complaint of the CHC workers is that, in spite of their semi-official position and the flood of planning documents they receive, they lack access to information. They are not allowed direct contact with lower-ranking personnel in the NHS. 'Mr. J, our District Administrator, says we must get it from him. He gets two letters a day from me and must get fed up answering them. He claims not to know what documents to send us. "You'll be flooded with paper" he says. Our trouble is that we can't easily get what we want unless we know precisely how it is drawn up, what document to ask for.' Nor can the CHC workers easily obtain information by observation. They are never supposed to visit hospitals independently. They (and CHC members) are taken on official visits to hospitals, 'formal inspection trips where you have the managers trailing you round'.
One factor above all others, however, seemed to the CHC workers to hem them in. This was the fact that by being expected to be concerned only with the health service, the CHC was effectively prevented from ever focusing on the causes of ill health itself. 'Many people come to us with environmental health problems, housing problems, the responsibility of the local authority. But we have no remit to deal with the local council. It is monstrous. We cannot comment on housing - let alone on work, or industry. Yet one thing we feel sure of is that it is capitalism that is damaging people's health.' The statistics show that working-class people are less well than people in higher class groups. 'But no connection is ever made between illness, class and stress.'
The problems that come in through the door of the CHC seem to indicate that ill-health occurs more through the way society is organised than through the patient's own fault, or due to some law of nature. 'Yet the state is telling people to cure themselves. It started this jogging craze. They brought out the "Eating for Health" thing, telling us to eat less fat and sugar. They say nothing about the fact that they promote the consumption of butter by state subsidies. And that most processed food, like baby food, has enormous quantities of sugar in it. They put the blame continually on the victim.'
Joan and Kate felt that it was crucial for the CHC to reject the notion that it should only be concerned with the NHS. As Kate said, 'To avoid perpetuating the illusion that there's nothing that can be done about the causes of ill-health, it's really important that the CHC should be seen to be concerned with what is making us ill. Health as well as health care.'
This particular CHC have decided, as have many others, that their most politically productive role is not casework or collaboration with the management, but campaigning. They emphasise however that these struggles are of three kinds. They are about the social causes of ill-health, from 'health and safety' in a local factory, to lead levels on the by-pass. They are against cuts and hospital closures, and for a better-resourced NHS. But they are also about improving people's experience of health care. 'We need to fight hospital closures because we need hospital beds and equipment and facilities in this area. And because when hospitals close the burden of care is put back on women in the family. And families in this area just can't cope any more. But, as the women's movement has pointed out so clearly, we should not blind ourselves to the fact that the hospitals, as they are, are authoritarian. They afford us no control over our own health. They are inadequate. And people know it. It is because they don't really feel it is "their" National Health Service that there has been so little organised resistance to the cuts.'
The difficulty for the CHC however is finding a satisfactory model of responsibility and relationship to the local working class. First, it can't be assumed that all members of the CHC itself are going to agree about the campaigning role. Energy and effort goes into negotiating that agreement. Second, it is a question of forming links with unions and community groups. But these are often impermanent, and many of their ideal components are missing: the unions and community groups have not traditionally become involved in questions of health and health care (except those relating to health and safety at work). These have been seen as private matters for the individual or the family. So, it seems to be an unequal struggle between a well-organised hierarchy and a disorganised and fragmented working class.
'It is so hard to confront doctors' power, because it's exercised in situations when you are really on your own and feeling at your most vulnerable. We haven't found any way to do this yet. Even fighting the cuts is difficult because again the people most affected, women caring for relatives at home, are the ones least likely to be in a position to fight back. Anyway, they would feel emotionally very peculiar about saying "Well, actually what I want is for my old mum to be put in a geriatric hospital". With these kinds of situation, developing a coherent socialist strategy seems too much. It isn't on. We do try to keep on raising these kinds of issue, though, even if we don't see any clear ways of organising round them, in the hope that things will become clearer in time.'
Even on more commonplace issues, however, like fighting closures, there is no real working-class movement. 'We got every single working-class "organ" in our district to support a campaign against a hospital closure: tenants associations, the trades council, the Labour Party, pensioners, women's groups. But when it came to a demo, these groups, who on paper represent thousands of people, could only mobilise about point-naught-one per cent of them. The only organisation round here with any really active mass base is the methodist church. The minister puts the leaflets in the hymn books and there is always an excellent turn out from there.'
Like the Advice Centre workers, Kate and Joan feel that in the absence of mass working-class support, they have to rely for any feeling of legitimacy they may have on rigorous analysis of their situation and on the fact that at least they are involved in daily practice and contact with many people.
Despite the many constraints which Joan and Kate describe, some CHCs have in fact posed a threat to the orderly working of the NHS management. Some have mobilised thousands of people in resistance to hospital closures. As a result the trend in the DHSS now is to define the position of CHC more precisely, and in particular to involve them more in forward planning for the service. 'Ennals has said, in effect, "Sorry I had to close hospitals against your wishes. These plans were formulated before CHCs were invented. You don't appreciate our reasons. What I am going to do is argue for you to be more closely involved in the planning procedure in future."
This may seem to offer the CHC earlier warning and more information. But it is also asking the Council to organise the working class to participate in its own deprivation. 'They want us to help them decide what to cut. He is really saying "You will have a chance to endorse hospital closures earlier in future".' And not everybody may recognise the trap. 'The danger for us is that some of our members, people who really like being on important committees, will lap this up. They may forget to be a body in opposition to AHA policies.'
In the Labour Party
Many socialists who are convinced that electoral democratic processes are inadequate for bringing about a transition to socialism, nonetheless join the Labour Party and seek election, particularly to local councils. This 'Labour left' is important to other socialists who, however critical they may be of the Labour Party, know they benefit from the fact that occasionally Labour leftists are able to secure corners of government for relatively progressive policies and, at the worst, keep out the right - in the shape of Tories or the nationalist parties.
An example of the constructive effect of the existence of a progressive Labour council on other struggles in an area occurs in the interview with the Advice Centre workers. Labour councils helped them '"into existence, and when, subsequently, Conservative majorities took over the councils the Advice Centres' scope for political action was seriously curtailed. Yet the Labour left are often criticised by those socialists who prefer to remain outside the party and outside electoral systems, for having chosen to wear the familiar shabby garment of authority, to engage in broken promises and the management of poverty. In failing, like all contemporary administrations are bound to fail, to find solutions to the ravages caused by capitalism, the Labour left are felt to bring socialism itself into popular disrepute by meddling with policy.
We talked to three Labour Party activists, two of whom had recently been elected as councillors in an area with a strong leftwing council leadership. We asked them about the possibilities and limitations of their position.
The local authority to which the councillors were elected is in an inner-city area where there is a particularly high level of dependence on the state for jobs and services. Housing conditions there are poor. For most people a council flat in a tower block is about the best you can hope for. The big firms have disappeared in search of higher profits elsewhere. So wages are low, whether you work for the council (now the biggest employer round there) or for one of the cleaning firms that service the big office blocks that dominate the landscape. Often you can't get a job at all. The pressure of living and working in such conditions are reflected in the high crime, vandalism and truancy rates and the high level of police activity. For the thirty per cent of the area's population who are black, racism compounds these everyday problems.
All three Labour activists felt strongly that by being in, or close to, power, they had achieved a situation that could be milked for practical advantage to the working class. It had been possible, for instance, to give funding to certain radical community groups and projects; to work with squatting groups over the use of empty housing; to appoint race relations advisers to purge the council bureaucracy of racist practices - in their housing allocation among other things. It had even proved possible for a while to hold down council housing rents.
But they were also uneasily aware of the limitations of their position. 'Whatever we are doing at the moment is within this capitalist framework, anything you do will contain reformist and perhaps reactionary elements. No matter what. Therefore you get into the debate about what is "most progressive", or something like that. It is a debate worth having, but it is not desperately fundamental somehow.' Worse, the councillors were aware of having opted to manage the unmanageable. 'The reality is the budget.' Needs in this poor area were incalculable, resources strictly deficient. 'In Social Services we have been given one-sixth of the funding needed for our three-year plan. And that plan itself would only have begun to touch the problems in our area.' They are in the invidious position, for example, of making policy for a particular day nursery, scheduled to close on account of high lead pollution in the air surrounding its playground. There is no money to relocate it. Should they support its fight to stay open? Is a poisonous nursery better than no nursery?
The limitations on resources posed by central government, and resistance to local rate rises, meant that what they seemed to have taken on was the job of prioritising, choosing what not to fund. 'Social Services committee would have to turn round to the "under fives campaign", and say "Okay, here is our plan. Given our financial constraints, we cannot build you a nursery without cutting back on some other part of the plan. What do you suggest?"
In this kind of situation, leftist councillors were finding it difficult to avoid the trap of thinking as a manager, thinking about 'limiting demand'. 'In housing, one councillor was taken on and he's got a revolutionary background and rhetoric. But now even he's talking the language of "you can't put a quart into a pint pot", and "we've got to think about priorities".' Whatever your intentions, resisting the language of management may prove impossible. The problem for the councillors we talked to was to find a new way of thinking and struggling, one that resists taking the management standpoint.
Normally, our class instincts are strongest when it comes to worker/boss relationships. What happens to a Labour group, however left, when it wins an election is that it steps right into the shoes of a boss. 'You see, the biggest employer in the area is us. And the way we as a council relate to our workforce is through very traditional management/worker channels. Before the election we promised to set up a Working Party on Industrial Democracy, to look at council labour relations. After the election nothing was done on our side about it, until we were prompted by the union reps, on the Joint Works Committee. It was embarrassing, really, that it was left to them to raise it, after all we had said beforehand.' And although they kept their promise on that, it has proved difficult in practice for the councillors to link up with their employees on a basis of 'we're on your side'.
The councillors were uneasily recognising that they had not found a way of transforming the boss/worker relationship. 'I think we are, after all, out to get as much as we can for our money, to get the best services possible. We are not for allowing every worker in the town hall to take four days a week holiday just because we've got a left-wing council.'
The other major contradiction lay in the Council's relation with local people. There appeared to be a genuine debate within the Labour Group on the Council as to what the nature of the relationship should be. Some felt that devolution and participation shouldn't go too far. 'Councillors should still be in control.' This was a minority view however. Another minority wanted more involvement with community groups. For instance, they proposed tenant liaison officers to link the tenants' associations closer to the Council. But a majority of the Labour Group turned this down, because they felt that 'that was the opposite of what we should be doing'. It would be an attempt to manage conflict and contain it. It was rejected for that very reason. Yet this same perceptive group was planning 'devolution of services and ward consultation as one of the means by which we can get through to people locally'. Just what could the relationship be between socialist urban managers and a local working class? Was there any option between one of outright enmity, on the one hand, or, on the other, working-class people getting tied up in 'participation' and the managerial logic?
Breaking out of the managerialism of the councillors' role is made particularly difficult because the entire structure of the local authority reinforces a technical rather than a political way of looking at the issues. Key decisions are taken by a Board of Directors, and a sophisticated hierarchy of people with special skills or qualifications ensures their implementation. Senior officers ensure that councillors do not normally have direct access to lower level officers. 'When I went round Management Services I was followed round by the Director', a councillor said, 'and his assistants, and you can imagine going up to some poor worker, trying to talk to him about what he was actually doing, or what he thought about Management Services, when he could be overheard by Mr X, and Mr Y and Mr Z ... '
The same structure which workers find oppressive to work in, and clients find impossible to penetrate, constrains the councillors: 'We can't get into the Housing Directorate because it is locked to stop angry clients from getting in. It not only keeps them out, it keeps us out too.'
Of course, as with the Advice Centre workers, the councillors were aware that around everything the Council does is the encirclement of the law. 'Everything is governed by statute. You are always caught in any direction you want to go in, really hidebound.' A clear example of this is the relationship of the Council to a group of low-paid women workers in the locality. 'One of the things we have tried to do is put money into workers' co-operatives, and a particularly important one was the women cleaners. They are massively exploited by the companies they work for. So the women cleaners' co-op was set up in the north of the district, with our help and a large low-interest loan. We invited them to tender for council contracts. They put in a tender for cleaning the town hall, worked out the basis of the lowest rate of pay that any woman in the Council gets today. And their tender was the highest we received. So the other firms must have been paying even lower wages. And yet we are bound by law to accept the lowest tender. So we ended up supporting the super-exploitative practices of the office-cleaning firms, rather than the workers' co-op.'
'It is central government that makes these rules that govern the activities of local authorities, as it is the government that controls resource allocation. It is central government that stops councils putting up their workers' wages, spending more on improving ices, or keeping the rents of council houses down.' The councillors saw this as a stumbling block at every turn. 'If you had a council which was a hundred per cent supportive to class struggle activity going on in the community, and from that perspective was a perfect Council, I think it would still be caught in the same dilemma as we are caught in now.'
They were aware of, and often talked about, the possibility of openly defying central government. But they believed that to engage in such a confrontation might lose them the very thing they’d sought election in order to gain, it would involve a breakdown the services provided by the Council. The knowledge that their action might hurt local people, whether as 'clients' or workers, more than or in addition to hurting the state, they believed was the major barrier to action. 'The Leader says that if we defy central government and go broke locally, the first thing that will happen is that we will not be able to pay the weekly-paid staff, and we will have all the unions against us.'
The thing that above all else heightens the councillors' sense of urgency in finding a course of action is their awareness that if they are trapped, it is a trap that they have entered voluntarily. It is a political role they have chosen to play, not a work situation they are caught up in. There exist few models of appropriate practice for them to draw on. We asked them whether they felt socialists outside Labour Party had any suggestions about how they might find a way through their managerial predicament. But they felt none of parties that stay outside the Council wanted to know about the contradictions of going in. 'They don't show their faces. They aren't interested.'