- Category: Analysis
- Published on Thursday, 16 October 2014
- Written by Emma Rock
This week David Cameron has found controversy and also divided opinion by appearing in a photograph posing with a Border Morris side (wearing traditional black face paint) in Banbury near his Oxfordshire constituency. Many in the folk world will have greeted this latest gaffe with a frustrated sigh as once again commentators are polarised to the left and right. On the one hand we have left wing writers pointing out the obvious racial connotations of blacking the face, and, on the other, the right declaring that this is an example of political correctness gone mad and an assault on English tradition. For members of the folk community what seems to be consistently absent is a more balanced argument that neither consigns all English folk dance to the dustbin, nor provides convenient cover for nationalists and racists.
Most Morris dancers will be able to tell you that the origin of blacking the face goes back to farm labourers who wanted a disguise from their bosses while begging and busking during the winter. However, it is also very possible that it was an attempt to mimic the North African dances that were probably Morris's inspiration. Either way the vast majority of present-day Morris performers who do black their face do not do so as a racial comment, but because it is seen as part of the tradition. On the whole the Morris community is not welcoming to extreme displays of nationalism. On the contrary, a facial disguise is more often linked to acts of rebellion against the rural rich and is mostly heralded as part of the appeal and menace of performing these dances.
My own family have been heavily involved in Morris and English folk music for the last three generations. I grew up in a Morris village in Cameron's Witney constituency and went to school with children who Morris danced. Contrary to popular perception, however, Cameron has not always been supportive of Morris. While it would be an exaggeration to say all Morris is working class, it certainly is not a pastime patronised by the rich such as the case of fox hunting or field sports.
While local youth clubs were closed down, Morris has also suffered. The gentrification of traditional pub venues into wine bars and restaurants has made them often actively aggressive towards Morris, while at at the same time some Tories have actively sought to exclude Morris performers from council events, a position well illustrated by Lord Coe's declaration that he wanted no Morris dancers at the 2012 Olympics. It's not hard to see why when Morris dancers feature heavily in local left wing events such as the annual Levellers Day.
The origins of Morris dancing
The earliest evidence of Morris dancing in England dates to somewhere around the 1500s. It was certainly known of during Shakespeare's time, as is documented by the exploits of Globe Theatre actor Will Kemp who Morris danced from London to Norwich. Most modern speculations on the origins of Morris suggest that it may have come from a form of Moorish dancing, and this certainly seems to fit with similar forms of dance from around Europe that date back to the heght of the Muslim presence in Spain. One thing that is fairly certain, however, is that Morris is not pagan nor anything like that old.
Modern Morris dancing, while retaining some of the early trademarks such as bells, hankies and sticks, has changed hugely in the few hundred years it has existed. By the late 19th century most Morris in the South of England had died out completely with only a handful of dancers continuing it. Since the 20th century Morris has undergone several revivals and now represents a broad church of both style and opinion. Amongst this are Cotswold (perhaps the most famous who wear white and often coloured sashes), Lancashire Clog, Long Sword, Rapper (from the mining communities of the North East), East Anglian Molly and Border, from the Welsh border region. Of these only Molly and Border have groups that regularly blacken their faces.
How Morris can continue to be a welcoming community
From my experience Morris is not a re-enactment of an ancient ritual but both looks to the past, and embraces new ideas and provides an outlet for artistic expression. The divide is often between generations, something that is demonstrated by the stark contrast between the more formal men only 'ring sides' and younger mixed groups often based around universities.
Given the innocent intentions of many of those who do black their face, it would be easy to perceive any attack on the practice as political correctness and an attack on tradition. But I think it is important that we stop and think about the repercussions of wearing black face paint. We do not at present live within a world that is free from racist oppression. Be it racially motivated violence or the institutionalised discrimination that still exists against black people in virtually all aspects of British society, race is like it or not still on the agenda.
When looking at a picture such as this the first connection most people outside the folk community will make is that of race. Only a few years ago Nick Griffin and the BNP tried to hijack folk music and use it as means of pushing their racist agenda, and it is to the credit of the folk community that his ambitions were thwarted. This was thanks to the creation and widespread support for the group 'Folk Against Fascism' which in only a few months had inspired the support of overwhelming majority of the folk scene. So the question really is whether it is more important to continue a tradition unchanged or avoid continuing a practice that could be mistakenly perceived as racial statement? For me it’s certainly the latter.
Morris dancing is a living tradition, and like any tradition it survives by adapting and making itself relevant. Dancers are no longer begging farm labourers or miners, so they now perform for fun instead of money. The music has changed as well with lots of influence from other genres. Even the accordion that can often seem like one of the most characteristic instruments associated with Morris has only been part of the tradition since its invention roughly 100 years ago. So given that Morris changes all the time, what is stopping us from making this particular modification?
Many Border and Molly sides either do not paint their face or opt for alternative colours to black. For example, the border Morris side Boggarts Breakfast paint their faces blue, and the Molly group Gog Magog all use different bright colours, which in my opinion contributes their wacky style. Others opt for patterns, such as Pig Dyke Morris, though their take could be seen as a comment on the band KISS.
There are wide variety of different options for Morris sides who don't want to be subject of this debate, or wish to make a gesture towards the sensitivities of racism. Our tradition is only in danger of dying out if we treat it like a fossil that is too brittle to evolve. It’s a strong, vibrant form of dance, and it will not be hurt or destroyed by wearing blue, green or purple on the face in place of black. However, that small change may be part of ensuring that Morris continues to be a welcoming place to people of all ethnicities, and goes on growing for generations to come. In illustration of this one of the dancers pictured has since commented on her use of a black stripe instead of full black face paint. She says of her daughter-in-law, 'She’s very sensitive because she’s a black American and is a bit confused by it because it’s not an American tradition.'
Some of the Morris dancers pictured responding in the Independent >>
- Category: Downloads
- Published on Tuesday, 14 October 2014
- Written by Leeds/Bradford ISN
Leeds/Bradford IS Network political priorities document
PDF, 4pp, 2014
- Category: Unions
- Published on Tuesday, 14 October 2014
- Written by Mark Boothroyd
Note: This article was written before the decision to call off local government strikes by UNISON, Unite and GMB.
The media is widely reporting the decision by NHS unions to stage the first strike over pay in 32 years. Contrary to the media reports, this action is not the result of widespread frustration over poor pay deals, but the fact that health unions finally decided to ballot their members for action after 32 years of accepting pay deals. NHS staff have had 4 years of a pay freeze, and the 1% pay offer withdrawn by the government was only the latest in a long line of injustices heaped on NHS workers, including privatisations, cuts and scapegoating for the failures of government policy.
What is different now is the context; the NHS unions are facing both anger from their memberships and a crisis of legitimacy. UNISON, UNITE and the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) have presided over the wholesale destruction of the NHS at the hands of the Tory government. While UNITE has been willing to act oppositionally, backing community campaigns and local demonstrations, the leaderships of UNISON and the RCN have been completely acquiescent to the governments agenda, the RCN even collaborating with the government over the Health and Social Care Bill.
With this legacy behind them the withdrawal of the government's pay offer forced the unions to ballot over pay in order to shore up their credibility, and maintain the appearance of opposition to the government after allowing their members to take a kicking for the last 4 years with no serious attempts at confronting the government's agenda.
In UNISON, every year the pay freeze motions at UNISON health conference calling for action against the freeze have been ruled out of order, kept off the agenda, or voted down following opposition from the union leadership. Its not that members decided themselves not to fight, its the fact that control of the democratic mechanisms for deciding when to take action - ballots - are controlled by the union hierarchy and only utilised when they want it to be.
The RCN has talked about balloting its members but has yet to do so, despite pressure from the membership. Its legacy is gaining nothing for its members from collaborating with the government over the Health and Social Care Bill, missing the opportunity to campaign for mandatory minimum staffing levels in the wake of the Francis Report, overseeing the rise of nurses' registration fees from £76 to £120 in the space of three years, while the registration body for nurses serves as little more than massively expensive and inefficient truncheon in the hands of government. This has resulted in its members being exhausted and burnt out on criminally understaffed wards, with 60% of them looking to leave the job.
The decision finally to ballot has revealed the weaknesses of union organisation in the NHS, and of the do-nothing strategy of the union leaderships.
A potemkin UNISON
UNISON's ballot, while widely reported as showing a two-thirds majority for action, revealed the structural weaknesses of the union organisation following decades of privatisation, and the lack of engagement of much of the membership. UNISON has roughly 427,000 members in the NHS, going on the number of ballots issued in last years HealthSector elections.
The number of NHS workers balloted for the strike was 300,000. Why the discrepancy? 120,000 of those UNISON members work in privatised parts of the NHS, and are not covered by the Pay Review Body decision, and thus not entitled to strike against it. This includes most NHS cleaning staff and a whole host of other ancillary services; patient transport, laundry services, kitchens, hospital security. They constitute the bulk of low paid workers in the NHS. Rather than issue pay claims for those workers and ballot them when those are rejected by their respective companies, a time consuming but completely possible action, UNISON decided to just ballot those covered by the pay review body.
This sends the message to the mass of low paid NHS workers that the union isn't willing to fight for them, it undermines the strength of any action taken and breaks down solidarity between low and high paid workers. If you're the union branches trying to argue that hospitals should stop all non-emergency work to allow more members to participate in strike action, being able to legitimately claim that transport, cleaning and catering are all affected helps that argument. The knowledge that these workers won't be taking action will embolden NHS management.
The turn out for the ballot was also dismal, 13.3% of those balloted, 40,104 of 300,000, voted. Of those who voted, 26,126 voted yes to strike action, and 33,481 yes to action short of a strike. This unfortunately is fairly standard for UNISON. In the pensions ballot in 2011, Unison balloted 750,000 local government workers and 350,000 health employees. The turnout then was 29%.
When UNISON Health rejected the pensions deal offered to UNISON after the strike, turnout was just 14.8% and 50.4% voted no.
UNISON also appears to play fast and loose with membership figures. This statement from UNISON claims 350,000 NHS members were balloted. This is directly contradicted by information elsewhere on the UNISON website and has not been explained. If its an attempt to bolster members confidence or bluff management, its an unprincipled approach, especially when information to counter the claim is available elsewhere on the union's website.
UNISON has declared that their members will only participate in a work-to-rule till the 18th of October, in contrast to UNITE who have declared theirs will run till the 9th November, when there are rumours of another “day of action”. So UNISON's members will only be able to work-to-rule for three days, then its back to work as normal.
This curtails the ability to maintain pressure on the employers, and harms reps' ability to organise an effective work-to-rule. Perhaps its also because UNISON see a deal being reached very quickly following the strike, and the leadership don't want the hassle of ending a work-to-rule, an act which could be unpopular with members if the deal isn't any good.
There is also the question over how much active participation can be expected from members when participation in the ballot is so low, and participation in the union structures is also tiny.
In last years National Executive Committee election, out of roughly 300 branches, just 69 submitted nominations for the elections. Turnout in the vote was 20,883, just 4.7% of the total membership.
This raises questions as to how active are the majority of Unison's branches, and how engaged are the membership. If there is to be the type of strike action we need to win even the 1% the government withdrew, we will need to take recurrent and sustained action. Without an engaged membership organising and taking a lead, this won't be possible.
The anti-trade union laws stipulating ballots-via-post and other onerous conditions are part of the problem, detaching decision making and control of disputes from branches and the workplace, leading to disengagement by the membership. Also UNISON's terrible internal bullying culture encourages disengagement lest activist members incur the wrath of officials who witchhunt and victimise them.
Facing all these problems, its questionable whether UNISON could pull off sustained, effective strike action. Massively disengaged membership, low levels of activism, division of membership between NHS and privatised services, are all not easily solved, and there are few signs that UNISON is taking any steps to rectify them.
Both GMB and UNITE have members in the health service, but they are “minority” unions. Unite has roughly 100,000 members in the NHS, the GMB 22,000. Unite's ballot result was 62% in favour of strike action, 77% in favour of work to rule in England, with slightly higher results in Northern Ireland. They have not released the turnout. The GMB had a 78% vote in favour of strike action, and 91% in favour of action short of a strike. Turnout has not been released either. These are promising results, but given the possibility of settling and calling off strikes already being raised in Local Government, if UNISON decides to settle in health, its doubtful either union would stay out on their own.
The Royal College of Midwives also voted for the first time to take industrial action. It is positive that all the unions will be acting together, and hopefully some links between union activists on the ground can be built. We have been in this situation before though.
In 2011 all unions in the public sector went on strike for a day against pension reforms. Within three weeks UNISON's leadership had decided to accept the government's slightly improved offer, and called off the strikes. All other unions eventually pulled out as a consequence. When UNISON Health members were balloted to accept the deal months later, they rejected it by 50.4% on a 14.8% turnout. With a weak mandate, and a demoralised, disorganised membership unable to enforce the decision due to the months spent “consulting” along with the drawn out ballot process, UNISON's leadership declined to act on the rejection, and the pensions dispute was declared over.
Sold out, sold short
There is already the danger of our strike being sold short. A paltry pay offer has already been made by the government to Local Government workers. UNITE and GMB wanted to consult members on this non-offer but it was withdrawn by the employers as UNISON rejected the opportunity to consult members. I imagine there will be a similar offer made to NHS workers after the strikes. If turnout on the day is not strong, and members and branches are not pushing for more action, the unions could quite easily do what they did in the 2011 pensions dispute, accept a slightly better (or simply not as bad) offer, and call off action while members are consulted over whether they accept it. These consultative ballots take months to arrange and organise and the energy and organisation built up in the run up to the strike will be frittered away campaigning for a rejection.
Even where members do reject an offer, this is no guarantee the strike will be put back on. None of the democratic lay bodies of any of the unions have enough pro-strike members to push through a vote for more action against the will of the leadership. The only thing that will potentially keep action on the agenda is consistent campaigning activity at the base of the unions; members holding workplace meetings, organising an effective work-to-rule and maintaining pressure on the leadership to act by passing resolutions, writing to officials and keeping support for the strike going.
A short strike, a long campaign
The strike is limited to 4 hours, from 7am to 11am. The short time of the strike may encourage attendance as members don't need to lose a whole days pay, but anecdotal evidence from reps has some members saying they may not bother striking as 4 hours is not serious action. It doesn't represent the scale of their grievance with the government, and they don't expect it to win anything.
While all members should respect the democratic vote of the members and join the strike, the reality is with a demoralised and disengaged membership, appeals to principle are not enough. If we are to get members to respect the vote and not cross the picket, there needs to be action worth taking, a pay deal worth fighting for, and a strategy to win. Without these things members will not be convinced of the necessity of action and appeals to working class and trade union principles, when class consciousness is at a low, will not be enough to secure a good turn out.
We need proper strikes, Twenty four hours not four hours. Escalating action, one day, then two, then three over the next three months would put pressure on the government, and now is the time to do it in the run up to an election.
A decent pay claim, 11%, equivalent to what MPs gave themselves would give members something to fight for, and be easy to justify and popularise to the public. Any counter arguments that this is a time of austerity can be met with the mountains of evidence that there is plenty of money to cover pay in the NHS, if the market mechanisms, costly privatisations and extortionate PFI are dismantled, renationalised and cancelled respectively.
Our union leaders need to stop worrying about embarrassing the Labour Party and Ed Miliband, and start fighting for their members. The unions need to offer a positive vision of what the NHS could be if the government's policies were reversed and a democratically run, publicly owned, and well funded NHS was rebuilt, and make the fight for pay part of a fight for that vision of the NHS.
We don't control the machine
One serious problem we face is the inability of branches to call action, and corresponding disengagement of the membership from branch activity. The ability to ballot is held by the unions' regional and national structures, not by branches. This means branches are reduced to lobbying and pressurising these leadership bodies to allow them to vote for action, which is nigh on impossible given the lack of involvement from the majority of union members.
Union activists need a wide ranging discussion to develop a strategy to re-engage our members, revitalise branch organisation and give branches the ability to credibly pressure the union machine for action. This should be tied with a serious examination of how we democratise our unions, and campaign for the repeal of the anti-trade union laws. These laws force unions to adopt these onerous balloting methods and curtail the memberships' ability to exert control over the union and their own industrial action. Until they are repealed, or rank and file members find innovative ways to overcome them, they will be a serious obstacle to the sort of industrial action we need to win.
What can we do now?
While on the pickets tomorrow, arguing for further action, and getting support for resolutions through reps and branch meetings is a must. Make sure workplace meetings happen this week to plan and coordinate the work-to-rule for the next several weeks. If possible a weekly meeting should be called to see how members are implementing it in each department. This will allow people to raise difficulties, and identify any managers or departments which are resisting it or hassling members so they can be spoken to and the members supported.
Management have already been caught planning to undermine the strike even though it is only four hours long. They will be working to minimise the effectiveness of any work-to-rule, so we should be prepared.
In a previous article I detailed some imaginative ways the work-to-rule could be implemented to reduce pressure on staff, and develop organisation among members. Hopefully this will spark further discussion and responses. I believe we need to fully face the situation we are in, look at all the inadequacies of our union organisation and politics, in order better understand how to create a viable plan for getting ourselves out of it.
A number of single issue campaigns are developing which may be useful for engaging members and drawing them into activity in the longer term, and could form the basis of joint campaigning work between union branches around the country:
The 4:1 campaign works to highlight nurse understaffing in NHS services, and pressure the unions to campaign for mandatory minimum staffing levels, as is the agreed policy of UNISON and RCN.
Docs Not Cops is a coalition of health workers, migrants groups and other activists which is fighting the effects of the Immigration Act on the NHS, and oppose the racist charges it seeks to impose.
A cross union rank and file meeting has been called by a number of trade union activists in the public sector. It will take place on November 8th at the Indian YMCA, 41 Fitzroy St, London, UK W1T 6AQ and run from 12 noon to 5pm. This will be an opportunity for health trade unionists to meet and discuss the strike, the effectiveness of the work-to-rule, what our various leaderships are planning, and where we go from there.