The Hidden Workers?

BM Blob on work, the Building Workers' strike of 1972, winter of discontent etc in Notting Hill, West London.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 16, 2022

Although Notting Hill was predominately working class, off the weirdo streets there was hardly a factory to be found. There were large employers like St Charles and St Mary's Harrow Rd, hospitals, but the area sorely lacked a mass working class visibility. Though workers went on a strike in the area they never stood out as a bunch with the possible exception of the garbage collectors. There was a vast separation between work place and living quarters. They did not seem to tie up at all. What effect this absence has had on the growth of para-state initiatives is anybody's guess. It is doubtful the majority would have ever gotten off the ground if the area had possessed a powerful trade union presence. In fact Notting Hill has never had a strong network of trade union branches and in spite of the endemic libertarianism of the place, people were generally amazingly laggard when it came to a thorough going critique of such bodies. Attitudes to them would range from an abstract justification, lacking any experience to vague right wing libertarianism, opposed to corporate restrictions on the individual. There were never any unofficial committees in the area, which could have begun to act as a corrective to either extreme, (even though the majority of these committees got caught up again in the union hierarchy) - not to mention the complete absence of any development that might have moved towards genuine base committees.

When links were made over particular struggles they generally seemed somewhat forced and wooden. There was an overlap between squatters and some trade union branches, but inevitably one felt it had been done according to a formula (e.g." to widen the struggle" or to "get the workers involved.") For example, a nearby AEU engineering branch, approached by squatters in the early 1970s put out a statement supporting North Ken squatters, "in their efforts to find and make homes in property that has long been empty". However, it ended with the usual trades' union rhetoric that AEU sponsored Labour MPs had to make certain that rates be paid on empty properties. In fact this kind of resolution-passing and unconvincing show of unity merely covered up often deep antagonisms which were widespread in Notting Hill and elsewhere in London.

It didn't take much - or so it seemed - to whip up building workers employed by housing trusts or even Direct Labour Depts to chuck out dishevelled, work-refusenik squatters, then gut the properties and brick them up. It was easy to demagogically work on anti middle class attitudes amongst the workers because in a good number of cases it happened to be true. But the nasty vengeful acts only served to restore, under the guise of the legitimacy of the council waiting lists; the council as the biggest absentee landlord in the country.1

Fortunately however, it was by no means as clear-cut as this all the time. The same group of workers would vacillate between pro and anti-squatters all depending. A community mediated support for striking garbage collectors' in the early 1970s was reciprocated later when North Kensington garbage collectors were prepared to man (woman?) the barricades to stop an Irish working class woman being evicted from a squat.

Tensions between squatters and fully employed working class people is complex in other respects too. The Ruff Tuff squatters got much information about empty properties from sympathetic telephone engineers, postal workers, council office workers as well as a British Gas official! At the same time though LEB and gas workers at the behest of their management – themselves pushed by council top officers - regularly tried to turn off energy supplies to the Elgin Avenue squat. Similarly there was tension between squatters in council property and council tenants, who wanted to see squatting in private property (this was before the Labour Governments Trespass Act of 1975) but were averse to anything they saw as queue jumping the points list and possibly affecting the chances of their sons and daughters being given cheap rented accommodation. It was a division much exploited by the media that neglected to say that a lot of council squatting was in property council tenants would not inhabit anyway. This often bitter internal wrangle was overcome to some degree in Elgin Avenue by the sheer determination of the squatters themselves to fight off the bailiffs with their police back up. Barricades marked a change of relationship as rent-paying tenants became impressed with the squatters resistance. It was a rarity though and tenants hostility to squatters is still very strong. It's a dialectical problem which - as it were - remains suspended in mid-air. Anti-squatting laws meant the slow peaking over the years of mass mid 1970s squatting and increasing unemployment meant the decline in rent strikes. And with rent paid through housing benefit, this saw off the possibility of a very visible, inescapably concrete overlap between striking council tenants and squatters. It was nipped in the bud. Unity is however very much there as a low key invisible backdrop in many a bout of London's inner-city rioting. And in late 1986 the rent-striking council tenants and squatters on Pullens Estate in Southwark joined forces to defeat the anti-squatting policies of the Militant dominated Southwark Council some of them covering the cops and bailiffs with green paint. More recently both squatters and council tenants attacked Hackney's leftist Council, forcing them to flee the council chamber. More generally however, in a concrete way in Notting Hill it was the more mundane, common or garden gesture that proved to be more successful in building links with workers, simply because they were less tendentious. Like simply looking after the kids of striking postal workers, or collecting money for striking hospital workers in 1973 or, giving advice to strikers on how to collect social security.2

In terms of aiding direct action, perhaps the one real practical contact that took place was in the Building Workers' strike of 1972, when the Housing Group of the Peoples Association supplied a list of speculative re-hab schemes in the area to striking building workers who then proceeded by flying pickets to stop all work on them. Some shop stewards who had played a part in that strike were attracted to Notting Hill even though the area had very little trade union presence to it. It was something of a strange contradiction. Drawn by its libertarian impulses, they fell for the trendy radicalism of fledgling community politics. During the strike, building work on play huts, parks, adventure playgrounds - all the infrastructure of the new 'caring' sensitised face of capitalism - were exempt from blacking. What mattered was to nationalize Mowlems/McAlpine's etc and let the state, (a "Workers' State" of course) direct these conglomerates to implementing good works the length and breadth of a red UK! Even today individuals belonging to the builders rank 'n' file group live in Notting Hill. They still persist in promoting the separation between the Lump and on the cards building workers, despite the fact that some of them who support UCATT's founding perspectives (changing somewhat but not necessarily for the better) are on the fiddle or scrounging. Apparently they are quite prepared to gloss over the contradictions between their lives and the moral exhortations of UCATT.

As the tempo of struggle changed on the working class front after the Labour victory of 1974, the image of community politics in Notting Hill lost its shine. So much of its inspiration at its peak had been anti-Tory. It couldn't cope with the reality of a Labour government. There couldn't be a comparable process of subterranean struggle in the sphere of community politics as amongst the working class, which was later to express itself so brilliantly in The Winter of Discontent. Instead what was germinating in the inner cities were the seeds of sporadic but increasing riot. There was a brief minority rallying cry which went unheard, calling for localized general strikes to change the housing situation in North Kensington. It was one of the last calls, but about the best. Despite the activist rhetoric of community politics, there was something untypical about it, almost one might say, beyond their N. Ken.

After 1974 community politics became a much more official and officious affair, dominated more by single issues rather than seeking to establish links with even the official representatives of the Labour movement. Its propensity for hysteria meant it became the butt of ridicule. But at the same time as people took the piss out of it, they did it behind closed doors in the company of trusted friends because it was not something to be taken on lightly. If you did it openly your name was blazoned in neon lights in order to be harried on many a street corner. Being the victim of more than one such campaign of vilification makes one of the writers of this blurb only too aware how nasty such things can be.

So The Winter of Discontent in 1979 passed over a community politics more worried by the fact that it was a strike against a Labour government rather than treating it as an opportunity to forge links. As for the subsequent period of urban riot, on this their terrain, they could only guess at what was happening. Not knowing what to say, they fell silent, using sexism as a shield to criticise "macho-politics", (the macho-politics of rioting!) and later, anything outside the accepted rules of the game including the threat to oppose rate capping! However during the 1984-85 miners' strike the community politicos profile was more visible, feeling on safer ground because the strike, to some degree, was contained by trade unionism. Typically, they were able for instance, to hi-jack tenants collections in the various Housing Co-op's presenting the money to the miners' wives in a personal capacity, as though they were the donors.3 Without a hint of embarrassment, they still receive Xmas cards addressed to them personally. This imposture is merely an outcrop of what happens in Housing Co-op's where there is a self-perpetuating, self-elected elite who are periodically re-elected by a show of hands - providing anyone can be bothered to raise them. It is a trick form of democracy for subordinates because the major decisions have already been taken by the Housing Corporation. The job of local management is then to get from local Housing Co-op's a democratic ratification of the undemocratic.

Though the weight of these ossified community politicos was considerable, they were far outweighed by the no-goods who were not part of some securely funded, para-state body. At worst the community politics were an irritant but not much more. However, in the late 1970s, the structure of Notting Hill began to change. The former bed-sit land of multi- occupation swiftly became a thing of the past. Squats were closed down becoming single homes and tenants somewhat ghettoised on the huge council estates. The private rented sector virtually disappeared and the number of Housing Co-ops grew. As the former reference point of "the Gate's" popular element declined, the self- importance of institutionalised community politics appeared to increase. In fact these cadres were more and more to acquire the characteristics of a distinct managerial stratum, no longer trying to keep their supposed local constituency sweet but quite openly bent on rubbishing them. For them, the term working class became synonymous with sexism and racism, and with it, contempt, which was only to be outdone by thescant regard they had for the local unemployed and declining number of the casually employed. Any mention of autonomy was thought either right wing or romantic.

The radical veneer to community politico claptrap didn't last long - at most ten years. The change was apparent across the whole spectrum, not least in the rehabilitation of professional roles once thought very dicey. People trained to become architects, planners, proper social workers, lawyers and took up jobs as trade union bureaucrats. Making lots of 'legitimate' money ceased to be frowned on, but the elicit proceeds from scrounging or from failing to declare all income to the Inland Revenue if one happened to be a mere tradesperson were looked on with increasing suspicion by these leftist professionals. In these essentials, standards were reverting back to the conservative nineteen fifties and worse, proclaimed by people whose detestation for Thatcherite Toryism was 'genuine' enough! Generally though, the community politico's critique of this society - going off at half-cock in the first instance - meant that when the harsher reign of Thatcher came along, they could quite easily climb back into the saddle of career roles as laid down by capitalism in a particularly reactionary phase. In many ways Notting Hill has been a kind of training ground for the more up to date, inter-disciplinary professional; one with a more rounded awareness of how to deal with Billy Muggins and missus down below. In the post-Thatcher era there are many mansions and they will patiently sit it out until they get one. But even now we can get some idea from the streets of Notting Hill of the changing face of the modern trade union bureaucrat. There's the example of the jodhpur wearing NUPE representative; a faded aristocrat in workers' clothing whose nose is stuck up so high in the air, it is in danger of obstructing the Heathrow flight path. Having flirted with dropping out and avant-garde art, he breathes contempt, retrieving his privileges a little as the local representative of hospital workers, although never really working on the hospital floor. He still chips away at his rubbishy sculpture all night - thoughtlessly keeping his neighbours awake. He is in the same mould as his boss, Rodney Bickerstaffe, head of NUPE who rose to power on a qualification from Newcastle Poly. This is only one sordid detail as it affects a particular locality from the never-ending tale of modern separation in a workers bureaucracy that is now being re-vamped. We have not by any means seen the end of all this. For cultivating all this pioneering shit and never defining particular issues/problems in anything like an anti-statist perspective, places like Notting Hill may yet feel the sting of retribution on the eve of the revolution.

However there is a glimmer of hope even for the guinea pigs of Notting Hill, tired of being strapped to a community-dissecting table, without an umbrella or typewriter in sight. Most of the half well-intentioned but essentially bogus community endeavours lacked a real power base anyway because they were situated within the Tory Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. They were pilot schemes that pointed the way - more often than not - to the Labour Boroughs of Hackney, Brent and Islington etc and eventually the Labour controlled GLC becoming the bete noire of the tabloids. There was talk at one point in the early 1970s of forming a breakaway Soviet ("The Golborne Soviet") which, in spite of the colourful rhetoric was nothing other than an attempt to return North Kensington to the safe Labour constituency it once was prior to having its boundaries redrawn by the Boundaries Commission. What has happened in Notting Hill over the years undoubtedly played a pioneering role. But the distortions, half-truths and downright lies are not that important. It is the capacity to see through this that matters and this actually does happen in an individual, almost solipsistic, manner in Notting Hill. More commonly the reaction is one of 'untheorised' cynicism, or a feeling of being let down and fucked over to the point of breakdown. But that might be beginning to change. It has to, because the onslaught now being launched in London is just too ghastly to take lying down.

A tenants committee on the Brunel Estate has been mooted. Labour party councillors are to be banned (which in the UK implies all Trotskyist etc hangers on). Local Labour councillors are annoyed but impotent to do anything about it. The danger is that it is just another of these bodies which from a fine gesture ends up getting sucked up in the orbit of Labourism --- but we shall see what we shall see. One maybe making too much out of it. Tenants committees in Notting Hill, like tenants committees elsewhere have been ineffectual, dominated by people with close links to local council management and officialdom in general and often run by paid full-time workers who aren't even tenants on the estates for which these associations are meant for. There is a great lack of trust in them. The Brunel proposals could be interesting considering that existing tenants associations in Notting Hill were set up in the first place by housing association management.

  • 1It's perhaps worth pointing out that there is a difference between the immediate post-war squatting movement (e.g. when Yorkshire miners came out on strike in the mid 1940s in support of mass working class squatting in Sheffield) and the contemporary squatting movement, beginning in the late 1960s. Put very generally, the latter in contrast to post war squatting, was inter-class based more on a recognition of the futility and stupidity of work in an epoch when machines could so easily be directed to carry out most essential tasks. But before the immanent liberation from age-old drudgery, priority was giving to cutting one's personal living costs down to a minimum which included paying rent. For some, not so minded, it was of course, simply a means of saving money to put down for their future mortgage. At the same time, however, squatting was a basic need -not just an ideological refusal to pay rent -and it is this basic need in response to the desperate housing situation, that has come to dominate the squatters' scene in the 1980s.
  • 2The area had one of the first Claimants Unions but what marked it off from the majority of other Claimants Unions then, promoting a split within their ranks, was its anti-work bias. Staffed frequently by "crazies" who knew how to play the mental card against the state's work enforcement officers, they were yet able to make sense of the mounds of bureaucratic jargon, setting out claimants rights and turn it to good advantage. Subscribing to a vulgar Situationist ideology with one breath they would, with the next, deliver a peroration on " the starving masses" never suspecting for a moment there was a contradiction here. In fact, they were quite impossible ideologues, humourless and difficult to get along with and easily open to ridicule behind their backs .The area of course still has a Claimants Union but of the routine variety, unable to care to terms with anti-work, even though the abolition of work - with computerized robotniks everywhere - is a more objective possibility than 20 years ago.
  • 3They weren't the only ones to play this trick: endless political sects up and down the country got away with this con.