Paul Foot

May Days and heydays

(May 1985)

From Socialist Worker, May 1985.
Reprinted in Paul Foot, Words as Weapons: Selected Writings 1980–1990 (London: Verso, 1990), pp. 221–222.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

I went with a light heart to Newcastle on May Day on what I assumed would be a great workers’ rally.

Twelve years ago I was in Newcastle on or around May Day for a hundredth anniversary meeting of the Trades Council. Jimmy Reid was the main speaker, but he didn’t turn up. The meeting was chaired by an AUEW official, who told me blithely as he looked round the hall that there were, he thought, ‘about 350 shop stewards here’. It was 1973, the year between the two great miners’ strikes. Everyone was confident and proud of their movement in one of its strongest areas. The meeting was terrific.

I was in Newcastle last year too, for perhaps the best meeting of my life. It was a glorious June day and the Northumberland miners were holding a strike rally. Some 5,000 miners and their families marched into the park with their banners. They were full of confidence and pride. It was marvellous.

Last week’s meeting had been carefully organized over many weeks. Derek Hatton, deputy leader of beleaguered Liverpool City Council, was the main speaker – but he didn’t turn up.

When I got to the station there was no one to meet me, and I had forgotten the name of the hall. I wandered round the streets by the station searching for posters. There weren’t any. I took a taxi to the university, to the poly, to every place in Newcastle I could remember ever speaking at. I rang the local paper. No one anywhere had heard of any Trades Council May Day meeting.

I went back to the station where, at last, someone had come to meet me. When I got to the hall I was shocked to find (at most) 120–130 people there.

The composition of the meeting was completely different to that of 1973. There were a handful of miners’ wives there – friends I think of Ann Lilburn, one of the speakers – but pretty well nobody from the great rally the previous June.

The mood of the meeting was sad, low, rudderless. If it hadn’t been for the Socialist Workers Party which supplied half the audience (at least) and five out of seven questions, it would have been the most gigantic flop.

Sitting there on the platform, I felt myself nibbled at by all kinds of heresies. Was it not true that the working-class movement was in decline?

Was it not true that the shop stewards of 1973 represented yards and factories which had since closed, with nothing to replace them? How could anything be built in a place like this, where getting on for 20 per cent of the workforce is unemployed, without the slightest hope of the kind of jobs which workers could expect in the 1960s and 1970s?

Then I got another shock. It came from a contribution from the floor. May Day, we were reminded, was a celebration of international working-class solidarity, and perhaps we ought to be talking not so much about the defeat of the miners in Britain, but about the great strike and lock-out of miners in South Africa. I realized I had spoken on May Day for three quarters of an hour without a single reference to any workers anywhere else in the world!

No wonder I had been so depressed. The insularity which infects us all when we feel low concentrates our minds on what we see around us – on the British working-class movement, whose traditional organizations and methods have been turned over and depleted in the last twenty years.

At the same time, however, in other countries huge working classes are being created almost every year. Countries and even continents where there was no working class fifty years ago are now teeming with a huge proletariat, much of it unorganized, but all of it exploited beyond belief, and showing strong signs of organizing and fighting back.

On the way back from Newcastle I picked up the International Herald Tribune, and read of two vast strikes in South Korea; of the lock-out in the South African goldfields; of the stirring of workers’ unrest in the shanty towns around construction sites in Saudi Arabia.

Across the world, the working class is vastly bigger and more recognizable than it was in what seems to us to have been the ‘heyday’ of 1973.

If we lose sight of that, if we think for one moment of the working class as white, male shop stewards representing shipyard workers in Newcastle, then we are certain victims of gloom, introspection and, worse of all, inertia.

Last updated on 2 September 2014