By Jim Rutherdale
Ken Loach’s new documentary ”The Spirit of ’45” isn’t just a film about a historical period. It’s an excellent addition to the discussion on how working people can achieve a decent life in 2013.
The film shows how workers had been banded together to fight and defeat fascism. They saw how the economy could be quickly changed to achieve the needs of a country, even if it was changed to war production. Having defeated fascism, workers were determined to defeat the old enemies at home – poverty and unemployment. There was no way they would meekly return to the economic depression of the 1930s. There was footage of Churchill addressing a mass meeting – the boos grew louder and louder, and then chanting began ”We want Labour”. The history books in school never told us about that! Workers knew Churchill’s role in attacking the miners and trade unionists, especially during the general strike and he was widely hated by organised workers.
The Labour Party swept into power with a 200 seat majority and under mass pressure set about passing acts that would significantly improve workers lives. Of course, the Labour Party of 2013 under Ed Miliband is a totally different party. In 1945 the Labour Party had a strong left influence and talked of introducing socialism. In 2013 you would be expelled for fighting for socialism in the Labour Party.
A former nurse explained how prior to the NHS (founded by Labour in 1948), workers often would not call for a doctor as they couldn’t pay. Children frequently died of simple conditions. She told how old wives tales took the place of real medicine eg. treating tonsillitis by rubbing sweaty socks on the patients throat! At the launch of the NHS all healthcare was free, including dental care and glasses. Private hospitals were nationalised.
A former railway worker explained the insanity of the rail industry prior to the formation of British Rail. Trains could be sidelined into sidings or onto slow country lines as the engineers manning the points boxes were employed by individual companies and would slow the trains of their competitors. The nationalisation of the private rail companies by Labour in 1947/1948 and the founding of British Rail led to a huge increase in efficiency.
In the mines, the transformation was huge. Former miners explained how the private mine owners would sack miners for petty reasons and throw them out of their houses too. Safety came low on the list of priorities in the drive to produce more coal.
One miner recalled how his local mine was known as the Umbrella Mine. Due to the state of the economy and price of coal, it was constantly opening and closing – throwing all its workers on to the brew. The founding of the National Coal Board in 1947 changed things significantly, leading to huge improvements in safety, steady work, better wages etc.
Though right from the beginning, trade unionists were concerned about the lack of democratic control. Although the private mines were nationalised, workers saw the private mine owners being appointed to positions as managers in the new Coal Board so they knew they still had to be on their guard. Electricity was nationalised in 1948. Central planning was a huge improvement on the previous 600 (yes 600!) private companies. Gas followed in 1949. However, the Labour Party leadership were very conscious to avoid taking measures against the interests of British capitalism and had no intention of carrying out fundamental socialist change that the membership stood for.
Of course much of these reforms were only achievable in the long post war upswing.
Thatchers election in 1979 was the turning point. The common good was replaced with the ”freedom” of the individual – the ”freedom” to exploit. The coal industry especially has been decimated. Where there were 184 working mines, there are now just 15.
Privatisation of transport has brought about multiple bus and train companies leading to huge fare rises, worse health and safety standards, and became so inefficient that the government was actually forced to re-nationalise the ownership of the rail tracks.
The NHS has seen fees introduced in many parts, and, if the Tories and the Northern Ireland Assembly Executive have their way, we will be back to the conditions of the 1930’s where you have to pay every time you want to see a doctor or receive medicine.
The following industries that were owned by the state were privatised, often at extremely low prices: water, gas, British Telecom, buses, British Aerospace and airports, British Airways, British Steel, coal mines and much more.
The achievements of the labour movement in the period after 1945 can be repeated, and this time carried through so that control of the economy is permanently fixed under the democratic control of the organised working class. We need to rebuild that consciousness that by banding together and organising ourselves we can change society so that everyone has a job, a home, a decent wage and a free healthcare and education.
The Labour Party of 2013 has sold its soul to the bankers and capitalists. A new movement must be built that will fight for the needs of ordinary workers. Go and see this film, be inspired, and join the Socialist Party to fight for socialism.