Unite general secretary LEN McCLUSKEY explains why the union is backing a groundbreaking grassroots poetry initiative with the publication of On Fighting On!
AS WORKING-CLASS people, we know all about economic struggle.
It’s a constant one for many nowadays to make ends meet on low incomes and inadequate benefits because these have been deliberately frozen and even cut by governments of the rich and powerful.
The chaos and cruelty around the introduction of universal credit is just the latest example of the deliberate attack on the poor by the Tory government.
It’s hard work just to keep your job these days — let alone get more pay, win better terms and conditions and get some satisfaction out of work.
The trade union movement, by far the largest voluntary movement in Britain, is vital to protecting working people’s economic interests but it has been limited and obstructed by successive governments.
That is why political struggle is so important for us in the labour movement. It’s why we need to campaign politically as well as economically. It’s why we need to vote for political parties which will genuinely try to change a system which is so obviously rigged against us.
There is another struggle, though — the cultural struggle. Culture is not just the arts, it is all the things we do to entertain, educate and enlighten ourselves, usually with others.
It includes the arts like music, films, theatre and poetry. But it also includes sport, television, eating and drinking, the internet, religion — all those activities which bring meaning, purpose, enjoyment and happiness into our lives.
In each and every one of those activities, working people face a struggle. It’s getting harder to become a musician or actor or writer without rich relatives to support you. The ticket prices for football games exclude families on tight budgets from attending together.
Cuts and curriculum changes mean our children are being deprived of good arts, sporting and other cultural educational activities at primary and secondary schools.
Libraries and other cheap or free cultural facilities are being cut back, part of the deliberate class war being waged by the rich and powerful on working people. State funding for the arts — money that comes from our taxes and our lottery tickets — is overwhelmingly focused on the London area, benefiting mainly the already well off and tourists.
Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union, believes that our members, and working people generally, have an equal right to join in and enjoy all the arts and cultural activities. We believe we should be able to afford them, be near to them and be able to enjoy them.
Most of all, we believe artists and leaders of cultural institutions — not only theatres, art galleries, concert halls and poetry publishers but sports clubs, churches, and broadcasting and media corporations — should seek to engage with all sections of the community, particularly the least well off.
That’s why we have sponsored the first Bread and Roses Poetry Award. Organised and managed by the Culture Matters co-operative, the award attracted a huge response. Over 1,000 poems were sent in, many from people who would not have otherwise dreamt of taking part in such an exercise.
Some of them appear in the recently published anthology On Fighting On!
As Jilly O’Brien, one of the entrants, said: “Please find attached my three poems for the Bread and Roses poetry competition. I’m glad you are running this competition because poetry sometimes disappears up its own bum of elitist, out- of-touch carrying-on.
“And yet we know that the working-class have always been the storytellers — just take a visit to any pub on the Clyde on an average afternoon and you’ll see what I mean.”
The judges — poet and publisher Andy Croft and Unite official Mary Sayer, who works in the field of cultural education — were very moved by the quantity and quality of the entries. They felt the exercise showed the collective strength of writing by working people.
“I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals,” Mary said.
“It was almost impossible to shortlist and we did so on the understanding that we could highly commend a long list of entries and do justice to the rest by publishing as many as possible in an anthology.
“So we asked Culture Matters to put one together and it has now been published. Unite are grateful to Culture Matters and to the judges but most of all to the entrants for all their hard work.
“We’re very pleased and very proud to have supported such a successful project and we will be repeating the exercise next year.”
This is the kind of democratising, energetic exercise that we see behind so much of the support for Jeremy Corbyn. His message of hope and the possibility of real change has inspired new generations to look afresh at politics and express their support creatively.
Let’s build on that — and work to keep our cultural activities open to the many, not the few.
• The Bread and Roses poetry Anthology On Fighting On! is available at £5 plus £1.50 p&p from Manifesto Press, manifestopress.org.uk and Culture Matters, culturematters.org.uk.