History On The Dole

notes from the margins of the past

Women Integral: IWD2018

Labour Party representatives from the Cynon Valley, 1935. Although still a considerable minority, women were less absent from the party than is often assumed.

Today is international women’s day. An annual festival to mark the achievements of women, but also to consider the continued acts of discrimination, oppression, and violence that women face on a daily basis. This year’s celebration coincides with the centennial commemorations of the 1918 Representation of the People Act, the first British measure of parliamentary franchise reform of the twentieth century, and the first Act to enfranchise women. The equal franchise came ten years later with the passage of the fifth Representation of the People Act in 1928. The 1928 Act was the last major measure of franchise reform until 1969 when the Labour government under Harold Wilson extended rights to men and women between the ages of 18 and 21. The battle now is to extend those rights even further to young people aged between 16 and 18. It would be the last great measure of parliamentary franchise reform, bringing to an end a process of democratisation that began in 1832.

Forty three years ago, nearly, Elaine Morgan delivered BBC Wales’s annual radio lecture to mark the International Year of Women. Established in 1938, and delivered in English and Welsh in rotation, the annual lectures were a highlight of BBC Wales’s autumn calendar and were an opportunity for a leading intellectual or cultural presence to ruminate on a subject of significance. The first lecture was given by Thomas Jones CH, the most famous was that delivered by Saunders Lewis in 1962. But Elaine Morgan’s lecture broke the established tradition that only men delivered the lecture, that only men formed the upper echelons of Welsh cultural and intellectual life. She was the first. Few women followed. It might be easy to lambast twentieth century Welsh society for that – and this would invariably mean lambasting the establishment and lambasting the mechanisms of the Labour movement which largely formed the Welsh establishment (and its opposition). Elaine began with these words:

I imagine the reason I was offered this subject to talk about (Woman and Society) – and probably the main reason I am here at all – is that this is 1975 and International Women’s Year. I don’t know how much impact it’s made on you to date. I get the impression that in most parts of Wales we haven’t hung out a great many flags to celebrate the occasion, though I am still hoping before the year has ended to hear that somewhere or other in the Principality someone has wound up a meeting with the words, ‘Now I will ask you all to rise and join in the singing of our National Anthem “Hen Wlad fy Mamau”’.

More than forty years later, these words hardly sound out of place in our own times. There are a few more flags, a few more public exhibitions, but if next year was declared international year of women, would we really be able to say we had moved on? After nearly twenty years of devolution, the most senior roles – First Minister and Deputy First Minister – have only ever been held by men.

But let’s look at that assumption about women, politics, and the Labour patriarchy. Women have always been political. That probably seems like a rather trite sentence, but it needs reiterating nonetheless. Their politics have not always been radical, at least in the sense of a political spectrum that associates radicalism with the left. Many Welsh women were active in their support of the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party – perhaps, as Sam Blaxland has argued, a radical choice given the established nature of politics in Wales over the course of the twentieth century. But we should be cautious in over-stating this. Women were an extremely active part of the labour movement forming more than forty per cent of individual members of the Labour Party throughout the 1930s. Although this dipped slightly in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, by the early 1950s women’s membership of the Labour Party across Wales was around forty five per cent. In a number of constituencies, particularly in large urban centres, and in Monmouthshire, women were actually the majority. In 1950, there were (according to the party’s published figures) three hundred and seventy five women members in the Rhondda, compared with fewer than three hundred and fifty men. In fact, across industrial South Wales, together with its urban fringe, that is Glamorgan and Monmouthshire, women formed the majority of individual members in no fewer than nine of the twenty two constituency parties.

Elsewhere in Wales, particularly in rural north and west, and in the industrial parts of the north-east, women were outnumbered by men in the Labour Party by substantial margins – in Denbighshire the difference was around fifteen hundred men to three hundred and thirty women, for instance, and in Carmarthenshire there were around sixteen hundred men and six hundred women.  If it be the case, therefore, that the patriarchal nature of valleys life (which is difficult to deny) was more oppressive than that of other parts of Wales, these figures present a significant challenge to some of the more strident anti-labour (and anti-Labour) assumptions. Populations differed, of course, and we should be mindful, always, that membership did not mean power. Power in the Labour Party in the industrial south was held by the trade unions, rather than individual members. But this did not mean it was never challenged. As Steven Fielding has shown, women on Llanelli Labour Party’s general management committee exercised a form of block voting to maximise representation and in Swansea women activists were willing to stand outside the Labour fold when they felt they were not being given adequate opportunities to stand for election or the regard held by men for the women’s section was insufficiently high. And as more women entered the workplace, often in precarious positions, they too joined trade unions and began to agitate for reform – culminating, indicatively, in the wage disputes at the Hoover factory in Merthyr in 1969-70.

Those disputes in the factories undoubtedly echo the earlier wage and condition campaigns in the department stores of Cardiff before the First World War, but this should not blind us to the reality that just as men’s politics changes from generation to generation, even with a material foundation, so too does women’s politics. And if we genuinely wish to recognise the agency of women in the political sphere then we must recognise the fallacy of the male gaze on political action (as Sue Bruley, Anglea John, and Deirdre Beddoe, amongst others, have demonstrated). And recognise, too, that women’s sense of the moral economy may well have considerable crossover with men’s, but it is not always entirely comparable. A women’s history of the labour movement offers strikes and campaigns against poor material conditions, yes, but it also involves campaigns for nursery schools, maternity clinics, birth control, independent housing rights, consumer credit protections, women’s aid, peace, life-long education, protection from domestic violence, independent legal representation, and much more besides. It does not take you very long when exploring the records of the criminal justice system to realise, perhaps out of masculine naivety, that almost all sexual crimes have been (and are) perpetrated by men on women. And those are only the cases that make it as far as the police station.

Welsh labour history is often accused of being overly patriarchal, blinded by its own sense of the achievements of the labour movement, and its own allegiance, to the negative consequences of male-orientated class politics. But this is an unfair accusation based on a misreading of the literature, a deliberate misreading of the intentions of the practitioners themselves, and a failure on the part of the detractors to ‘fill in the gaps’ left by an earlier generation’s attempt to sketch out Labour Country. There are a series of major moments that provide a counter sketch – the suffrage campaigns, the attacks on the Public Assistance Offices and participation in the hunger marches, and the creation of women’s groups during the miners’ strikes of the 1920s, the 1970s, and the 1980s – but these are staging posts towards a history, not the full history itself. Or, rather, the full herstory. It is beholden on labour historians to fill in the gaps, yes, but they knew that, even if their detractors refuse to acknowledge it. In the words of Dai Smith:

We should be far more concerned at the continuing absence of any sustained history of women in Wales. A society whose dependence on female labour, at the workplace as well as in the home, has been lengthy and complex and needs an analysis of the social culture erected, often with calculation, around this more real biological divide. Women were never ‘outside’ the actual history of Wales; they have been almost forgotten in our written history. … Arguably [women] will require a separate history before they can figure in our male-dominated historiography with integrity, and therefore integrally.

That was written in 1980. The first full history of women was not published until 2000, and that is limited to women in the twentieth century. Where are we with continuing with that project nearly twenty years on? Have we really moved away from a narrative and counter-narrative composed of set pieces? Yes, as I’ve written previously, but not as far as we probably could have got.There are many reasons for the paucity of such work, not all of which we are honest with ourselves about.

In Wales we live with a kind of intellectual amnesia, I think, and this is nowhere more apparent than in our collective treatment of women’s history in all its forms. I do know that there is a considerable amount of work done on women’s labour history by research students, most of it remains unpublished, however, such is the challenge of our ‘national’ intellectual life. I know also that there is considerable evidence in the records waiting to be excavated and drawn together to produce a genuinely rich Labour History of Women. Somehow before we reach the fiftieth anniversary of the international year of women, in 2025, or the centenary of the equal franchise in 2028, we have to be able to remedy the paucity that exists. To balance out the presumptions with contextualised analysis. To complete the project identified more than my lifetime ago.  And finally to begin the process of writing – and acting – integrally.


The Pivot Point: Part I

In this blog, I want to begin talking about class and social democratic futures. Since we all begin our understanding of social class through our own sense of our relationship to the rest of the world, let me begin with an autobiographical statement. I was born in the mid-1980s to a teenage mum and a dad who was barely into his twenties. We were always poor – my parents would often skip meals to provide for their baby (for me). By the time we moved from the West Country to South Wales right at the end of the decade, dad had got a stable job at quite a famous restaurant outside Cardiff, and mum stayed home to look after us. They had both gone to catering college, so it could have been the other way around. The move to the valleys was fortuitous because in those days children from Rhondda Cynon Taff could start school at three (they can’t any more, the Labour council abolished the scheme). It eased the burden on mum and gave her, aged twenty-three, freedom for the first time since she was seventeen. She eventually got a job at the primary school my sister and I went to, it was the only job she ever did.

The village was a former mining community – the pit closed twelve months before we moved in – with a rich and appealing history. Life in the valley can be documented over a thousand years and with Roman roads and iron age hill forts (of sorts), the human story is even older still. But what I remember is poverty. The kind of poverty that would not be out of place in the End of Eddy, for instance. It was the sort of poverty that expressed itself in queues outside the public telephone boxes in the village (there were only a handful to choose from); in the distinct bounce of the stamp on the family allowance book at the Post Office, the tear of the perforation, and the speed with which every mother put it into her purse even though it was the same amount of money; and in the buy as you view boxes attached to most televisions in the village. Into them went a pound coin, on came the television, and a fraction of the interest rate charged on a television was ticked off. The local rugby team was sponsored by the main company – Just Rentals (later it became Buy As You View). There was nothing equitable about it, of course, but the measure of the way in which this kind of hire-purchase credit captured post-industrial South Wales lies in the 100,000 customers the company had as recently as 2010. It went bust last year. And there were the mail order catalogues, like Kays, through which clothes and toys were bought on credit. We evaded Just Rentals, but the Kays catalogue was far too useful.

It was that kind of poverty. That kind of working-class consumerism on credit which appealed past the male breadwinner to working-class women who wanted to provide the best they could on the slimmest of budgets. Kays allowed you to pay off sums that today seem paltry – £7.99 here or £5.99 there – over twenty weeks at seemingly affordable rates. A sweater priced at £7.99, say, would be paid off over that period at 40p a week. Christmas was arranged in similar ways with women grouping together to start a savings club, usually based around one of the famous hamper companies. Another catalogue, another line of credit, of course. Similar impulses drove lottery syndicates which flourished, for a while, after the launch of the National Lottery in 1994. It was a major event watched for posterity on television. It was the 1990s, I tell myself today.

For scholars, and readers, of a certain age, some of this will bring back memories. Perhaps nostalgic ones. Historians have long written about working-class consumer credit, about the role of women in managing household budgets, on the value of education for younger children and the commensurate freedoms provided to women, and so on. Eventually those themes will catch up with the 1990s too. But there’s a bigger question to be posed, which is about social class, and the ways in which historians formed in that period as children and young adults might come to think about the world now that we are in our thirties. Class matters but perhaps in ways not anticipated by historical materialism or its post-modern reaction, or the compromises reached between the warring factions after the linguistic and cultural turns in the 1980s and 1990s. None of which had any real impact on life as we knew it, but which has now hit the media like a storm of snowflakes.

My thoughts on this have been framed by literature emerging from France, from that remarkable set of books produced by Edouard Louis, Didier Eribon, Annie Ernaud, and Arthur Dreyfus, amongst others. Between them, in different ways, and for different reasons, they have exposed the relationships between class, gender, sexuality, generation, and locality, that relates intersectionality but also something more fruitful – social violence. In an intellectual sense, this can also be related to the work of Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. There is no immediate contemporary comparator either in the Welsh context or in the British one, unfortunately, although Raymond Williams is a clear starting point historically, but sometimes it is worth stepping outside what you know to look upon it with different eyes.  Just how can we restore social class to the discussion and in so doing engage in the act of, as Eribon has put it,

[elaborating] theoretical frameworks and … political modes of perceiving reality that enable not an erasure – that would be an impossible task -, but as great a neutralization as possible of the negative passions that are at work within the social body, especially within the popular classes. Other perspectives must be offered and a different future sketched out on behalf of what might then deservedly once again be called the left.

Class is central to such a project. Having been abandoned by mainstream social democratic politics (and history) in the 1980s and 1990s, as they struggled to find ways of beating back the post-conservative neo-liberal revolution, class re-entered the political stream during the Great Recession which began a decade ago. It provided two answers: that of the far right (UKIP and the Front National) and that of the old Left. The centre – identified with moderate social democrats, liberals, and centre-right “one nation” conservatives – crumbled away, although they were hardly innocent of their own downfall.  It’s not difficult to see the similarities in language, particularly around class. Both the old Left and the far right appeal to working-class voters seemingly on their own terms. A little over ten years after the British National Party was on the march and Billy Bragg was singing tunes like “All You Fascists Are Bound To Lose” (a twist on a Guthrie classic), BNP policy is now mainstream – cut immigration, re-introduce grammar schools, withdraw from the EU at any cost, English Votes for English Laws, and a more traditional school curriculum.

And think it’s just from the Right, think again. Here’s the BNP on the NHS in 2005: ‘we are wholly committed to a free, fully funding National Health Service for all British citizens … we do not put enough money into “front-end” staff’. They proposed to get rid of targets, to boost pay, to be given ‘interest free mortgages from the government to buy houses’, and to pay nurses a ‘decent wage during their training’. There was a commitment to ‘properly fund and upgrade Britain’s public-transport facilities to get people out of their cars’, and a denunciation of ‘the fiasco of rail privatisation’. They even offered full rail electrification. Starting to sound a bit familiar, isn’t it? And it is not just the left-populism, there’s also the shrill antagonism towards the media. The 2005 manifesto warned about a ‘media “elite” [who] have lied and conned us’. Think about that next time you see someone, a Corbynite MP for instance, decrying that sort of thing. The reason they do so is not because they necessarily believe in the validity of that accusation but because of its political appeal, it is a performative act as Judith Butler might put it, and it has made the media far worse. Whatever the claims of the current Labour Party’s leadership, and its online media spin houses such as Novara, Britain has not moved a single notch to the left in the last ten years.

As sensible as those policies seem when spoken from the left, there can be no doubting that some of the foundations of the groundswell of support for the kind of left-populism that Jeremy Corbyn now offers was made in the North, in South Wales, and elsewhere, not by Momentum but by the brief wave of BNP support in the mid-noughties. The racist elements ended up in UKIP, wedded to anti-immigration policies and Brexit, the left-populists had to wait a little longer to find their champion. He too speaks about Brexit. It’s an uncomfortable assessment, but one that is difficult to deny because of the reasons for its existence in the first place. That comes down to class. Through the BNP, UKIP, and more recently Corbynite Labour, those who were once invisible thanks to “the end of class” discourse of New Labour and post-Thatcher conservatism, seemed to be seen again. In Edouard Louis’ words, ‘these people support the FN because they’re excluded, dominated, poor and abandoned’. They vote for people who can talk like them, as he concludes.

But is such an appeal really the way forward, a means of developing a new mode of politics and intellectualism? I don’t think so. It’s all very flimsy and based on promises, on discourse, on never actually having to act. It’s the kind of rejectionism that startled Labour in the 1920s and 1930s but which never seriously challenged their authority in industrial areas. It is an electoral bubble waiting to burst. There are too many ironies. A movement rife with gerontophobia and a disgust at the baby boomers but which has built a leadership cult around a sixty-nine-year-old baby boomer and a theme tuned dating to 2003. A movement that claims to provide answers to the present, but which is supported by an intellectual wing determined to right the wrongs of the 1970s and 1980s and to admonish the myths that arose thanks to Thatcherism and New Labour. But any power shift will fall on the shoulders not of those born in the 1990s and 2000s, but those who grew up in those decades – the thirty somethings whose views are rarely canvassed and who have been hit by the worst exegeses of post-Thatcherism and the Great Recession. For those born in the mid-1980s, to make this point as clear as possible, Section 28 was a factor of our entire school career. (Don’t take my word for it, Andrew McMillan has set it out brilliantly here)

The project to articulate the meanings of class, to clear out the negativity of isolation and rejectionism, on the one hand, and of populism on the other, must inevitably fall to us. We are the pivot. My purpose in this revitalised History On The Dole is to begin to fashion some of my own ideas about this project, to discuss books that I’ve been reading, and to provide something more constructive to the debate about the future of both this country and its (at present wayward) social democratic idealism. It is my belief that Britain can once again be Labour Country, but we’re further from that reality that many imagine we are.

To be continued…

A New Beginning






It has been a while, has it not?


Somewhere along the line, I gave up blogging in 2017. After more than five years of writing posts regularly, I ran out of steam, and other things got in the way: teaching, writing for publication, studying, and finding the time to look at the world from a different perspective. And so recently I took the conscious decision to cloak earlier blogs – the better ones will return at some point this year – and to take the time to rethink what this website is all about. I started as a way of keeping my academic mind active. But that need is no longer there. What I think is necessary now is a more engaged form of scholarship, a way of setting down in writing all of the things that I have wanted to say but was too wary of saying for fear of never getting a job. Well, the academy and I have come to an amicable parting of the ways. Hopefully I will continue to teach in some capacity but my goal is now no longer to aspire to an academic position and to sacrifice everything – from mental health to self-esteem – to that aim.

In terms of content, veterans might notice a few distinct differences. This is – more than it ever was – my venue to experiment with ideas, with new topics, and new avenues. The geographic scope will, I hope, be broad, and the chronological range rather wider than the old blog was. That ended up mired in a range of political debates that, for the most part, I was having with myself. It was a symptom of acute self-actualisation and is now at an end.

So, to the future then. Or is it the past?


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