Saturday, 30 August 2008

Towards a carers' trade union.

I believe that carers need a trade union to represent their interests. Not all carers agree with this approach, I am aware of that. It does depend on how you see caring and carers.

Whatever the nature of the emotional bond between carer and caree, however much carers feel a duty of obligation towards their caree, the fact is that part-time or full-time, they are doing a job of work. If they didn't do this, often demanding and arduous, work, the state would have to provide it in some other way, probably at great expense.

Family carers are actually unwaged care workers. The hours they work, frequently much longer than normal employment, may consume a life-time of 24/7 care for some, and can be destructive of the carers own health. Carers ought to have social rights. In my view, we need a trade union to campaign for those rights, to negotiate on behalf of carers and to fight for a wage for currently unwaged care workers.

The discussion about the need for a trade union for carers, which has already taken place on the Carer Watch Forum and elsewhere, suggests that some carers are unable to get away from traditional views of family caring as a vocation, supported financially only by the miserable Carers' Allowance. They prefer to work for marginal improvements, largely in concert with the carers' charities. This doctrine of gradualism has not worked, does not work and will not work in the future. It is a doctrine of despair.

The formation of carers' trade union would mark the beginning of a new consciousness for carers of the reality of their situation, as unpaid care workers. It could be the beginning of a long process of emancipation for carers. It would not be about pleading for the recognition of carers' rights, but the beginning of a long process of struggle in which the awareness of the plight of carers' would be raised among the general population. Much more importantly the consciousness of carers themselves as unwaged workers would be raised. The moral blackmail which keeps carers in a situation of exploitation, would be undermined and exposed as the hypocrisy it really is. I believe that carees would greatly benefit from having carers whose worth was recognised and who are paid a proper living wage for the work they do. Let us work together in dignity and mutual respect.

Towards a carers trade union.

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

A journey through education 4

The principal of Ruskin College had developed a rather elitist practice over the years, lovely man though Bill Hughes was. He had made an arrangement with some of the Oxford colleges to take on one of his mature students, either regularly, or occasionally. At the end of my two years study at Ruskin, I found myself among those informally selected to be interviewed by one or more of the colleges for consideration. I was accepted by Worcester College as a senior student and it was there that I matriculated the following Autumn. It was a strange experience for the education reject from south London.

In retrospect, I have come to believe that my time at Worcester and the following three years as a research assistant at Nuffield College was a mistake. My life had taken a turn from which I found myself unable to retreat. Regrets in old age are commonplace and I feel that I have more than my fair share of them.

I had seriously considered continuing my delayed education at a less elitist university.I thought that I would feel more comfortable among people from a broader background. There was a scholarship to  an American mature students' college available and I thought of applying for that. Many ex-Ruskin students have gone on to the University of Hull, over the years, because of an informal connection, so that was a possibility too. However, I really liked the look of a course at the University of Nottingham, so I applied for that, as an option to staying on at Oxford.

Rather unusually, my interview at Nottingham was on a Saturday. I was told, when I arrived, that there had been a mistake. I had applied for politics with economics, but the interviews scheduled for that day were for economics with politics. Different people were involved in interviewing, the man told me. He then said that he would phone the head of politics at his home, on my behalf. If I was somewhat bemused by this time I was to become even more so. The head of politics invited me to his house for a chat. He explained that he was an avid Welsh rugby union fan and intended to watch the match against England being shown on TV shortly. He would be delighted to have the company of a discomfited English man. I just love the eccentricity of academics. They are, mostly, marvellous people. I explained to him that where I came from rugby union was associated with grammar schools and the middle-class. No working class activist could support it, we were strictly soccer supporters. My love affair with Peterborough United had not yet begun at that time. Despite having had the opportunity of watching both Manchester teams, it is Peterborough which remains engraved on my heart. However, I suspended disbelief and we watched the rugby together. Afterwards he said that he would be pleased to welcome me to Nottingham, if that was my choice. We parted with a handshake, never to coincide again. I left reflecting on the rigour of university selection procedure. I decided to continue at Oxford. I have made so many bad choices in my life that I have lost count of them. This was one of my very worst. But I have my excuses readily available.

I only had two years of grant money still available to me. As a senior student this was sufficient for Oxford, but not for Nottingham. At Nuffield, later, I received a stipend, if that is the right word, of £18 pw rising to £23 by the time I left for my adventures in Peterborough. There were three of us by then, so it wasn't easy.

My uneasy relationship with Oxford in the sixties led me back into political activism. The psychology is not difficult to understand. Wherever I am and what ever I am doing, I am still the kid in the elementary school playground. Fighting, in one form or another, is how I relate to the world. I became involved in the Oxford Centre for Socialist Education and was its convenor for a while. The majority of its members were International Socialists, at that time members of the Labour Party. I left the Labour Party myself, after a while and joined the Independent Labour Party, to return to mainstream Labour in Peterborough. It is the ILP, with all its ambiguities, which really defines my politics.

After Nuffield I needed a job and my small family needed me to get one. I joined the adult education service in Peterborough and went on to become the Principal of Peterborough College of Adult Education. This is an unlikely story I know, however, I can't avoid the fact that it is true. In Peterborough I became engaged in battles about what the priorities in adult education should be. I had time-out to take another degree at Essex University and then joined the Institute of Continuing Education at the University of Ulster. My time in Peterborough, punctuated by shouts of 'Come on Posh', takes only a short time to tell, but it was eleven years of my life, which ended thirty years ago. So, there is yet more to tell.

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Job satisfaction and the 24/7 elderly carer

I'm not talking about a minority of carers here, we actually are the majority.

I have a long interest in the relationship between objectivity and subjectivity. It is the basis of my dialectical thinking, so much out of fashion these days. Objectively, all caring situations are different. Of course, elderly 24/7 lone carers all have some things in common, as their collective description indicates. Moreover, they are likely, because of their age, to have certain age-related disabilities. Beyond that, there are a wide variety of circumstances. These will certainly have some influence on how carers relate to their situation. 

Subjectively, much will depend on their personality and their relationship with that all important person, their caree. I was a voluntary counsellor for some years, but I am not claiming that this has been useful in my caring role. I wasn't just a casual counsellor, but trained intensively. I just never got paid for the work I did. That seems to be a bad habit of mine ! I trained at the Swarthmore Centre, Leeds, Craven College, Skipton, the University of Leeds at Bretton Hall and with Relate. I have heard a lot of people's stories, but caring has taught me things I never could have imagined.

Some of us will have more nurturing personalities than others and derive great personal satisfaction from the caring role. There may be some difference between female and male carers, but I am not able to say anything definitive about that. Some of us may not be natural carers, but more  inclined to relate to our fellow human beings in rationalistic ways, without necessarily entirely lacking in empathy.

We are not  entirely alike, however much we may have in common. It is the interaction between objective and subjective factors which interests me. If we are at all political, we may note the power-play involved in caring, between carer and caree and between both and all aspects of the outside world, from immediate family to extended family, from the NHS to social services and politicians, etc. The extent to which we are able bring our emotions into awareness is important, as is the relationship between feeling and thinking, another dialectic which frequently lacks any kind of synthesis.

It may seem odd to think of caring providing job satisfaction. It isn't a job in the normal sense of the term, just a form of labour, largely unpaid labour ! Yet I have heard carers express some satisfaction in the work they do, even a great deal of satisfaction. But it ain't necessarily so. This needs to be remembered. What for some may be a labour of love, for others is hell on earth. Where have I heard that before ?

What do you think ?

Saturday, 9 August 2008

Another kind of democracy

Just how democratic is this society ? In my constituency it doesn't matter who I vote for, the Tory still wins. Every time ! The first past the post system is iniquitous. It is easily possible for a government to be elected with a relatively small minority of the electorate voting for it. What kind of legitimacy does this give it ?
Therefore, I support the introduction of what I believe to be a much more democratic system, the single transferable vote in multi-member constituencies.

Moreover, There is very little policy choice available to the electorate. This is partly due to the tendency of fptp to produce a situation in which predominantly only two parties have a serious prospect of power. The major parties therefore incline towards what they perceive to be the centre ground, to try to pick up undecided voters . The so called centre ground may, and currently is, moving to the Right. In some societies an ostensibly plural party system has functioned to support the status quo.In this situation, having a limited range of choice means very little substantial choice. It's heads they win, tails we lose.

It may also be that certain things are taken as given. In an alleged communist society, for example, the social system itself may not be an issue in an election. This seems also to be the case in a capitalist society. The idea that an election can actually change the fundamental nature of a society, is largely notional, in many instances. 

The key issues for me are, to what extent may a socialist society be said to be an open society ? Is capitalism a closed society, because its market basis is fundamentally regarded as given ? Is the ideological domination of the 'market society' produced by a largely dominated media, including commercial advertising, which covertly proposes not just a particular product, but also a particular lifestyle, an indication of a largely closed society, albeit it one in which overt oppression is somewhat muted ? I leave these as an open questions, for others to consider, although my own views are clearly inclined to the affirmative.

The crucial issue is, is there a genuine socialist alternative to a market dominated society ? Many societies which have claimed to be socialist,, have been accused of being totalitarian dictatorships. This may an unfair accusation, to some extent, but I certainly don't want to support any form of dicatatorship. It is time to reject any idea of a dictatorship of the proletariat. The views of Marx have all too often been distorted to fit the ambitions of a self-appointed 'revolutionary elite'. Likewise, we should reject any notion of 'democratic centralism' or 'vanguardism'. Socialists need to be constantly in the eyes and ears of the electorate. Not huddled together in some dark plotting corner.

An audacious definition of socialism would be that it is full democracy, in which the principle of equality is applied throughout society. The owners of the means of producing, and reproducing, wealth, based on their ability to exploit the labour of the majority, can't support democracy in any meaningful way. It is not in their interests to do so.

In the society in which we live, this is currently an aspiration for some of us. However, the politics of here and now need to be informed by this aspiration. A social democracy which rejects the idea of compromise and gradualism, should be dynamic in its determination to go beyond what appears to be achievable in the short run. The dream is a motivational force, utopian only in the best sense of the term. Its application to politics is immediate. The practice of democracy, could be the practice of socialism. Social democracy and socialism are not alternatives. One is an expression of the desire to achieve the other, in hostile circumstances.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

A journey through education 3

The heat and dust of the Suez Canal Zone had to be endured. It could hardly be enjoyed. We were serving a sentence for a crime we had not committed. I have two diaries, one for each of the two years I was incarcerated there. They are empty except for the counting down of the days until my release. We all had an interview with some officer or other. Mine asked me if I would like to sign on as a regular soldier. I looked at him with a combination of pity and incredulity. Sometimes I encounter young people who are planning to become career soldiers. I wish them good luck and then give them the very short talk I have prepared for such situations.

Soldiers not infrequently have adjustment problems when they return home after overseas service and so it was with me. I went back to my old job in the East End, employers were obliged to take us back, but I could not settle. I got a job nearer home, and had what was then known as a 'nervous breakdown'. I was referred to a hospital doctor who, under intensive interrogation from me, admitted, shamefacedly, that he was a psychiatrist.

Contact with the local Labour Party led me to contact with the local Labour Party Young Socialists, as they were known by then, and they pointed our that, despite my veteran status, I was still well within their age range. I shouldn't worry too much about politics they told me, they were mainly about having fun. And they were and plenty of fun was had in their company over the next few years. However, politics was in my blood and even the Labour Party could not contain it. My part-time political education resumed, whilst I earned a living as an insurance agent, first with the Pru and then with the Co-op. The stories I could tell.

I remember an NCLC tutor name Karl Westwood. He taught public speaking at Mitcham Labour Hall.. Those were the days when public election meetings were not rigidly controlled. It was possible to go into a Tory meeting wearing a Labour rosette and heckle from the back of the hall. Karl was a marvellous public performer and motivator. I also took a course simply called 'Socialism' with the NCLC. I had imagined that I already knew all about it, but was quickly disabused of that idea. I told the Chair of the local Labour Party that I was doing this course and he told me that I was wasting my time. I ought to concentrate on advancing my career. New Labour already in the 1950s ! What a loss to the Labour Movement the demise of the NCLC has been.

I had met people in the Labour Party and elsewhere, over the years, who had studied at the long-term full-time adult education residential college, which had strong historic associations with the trade unions. Ruskin College was based in Oxford and its qualifications were, for the most part, validated by Oxford University. Admission was on the basis of a record of social and political activity, a long essay and an interview. Many of the students who went there, some significantly older than me, had been active in politics for years. Some had no academic qualifications at all, unlike me. I was able to flourish my Army Certificate of Education-Third Class when I decided, five years after the completion of National Service, to apply for a place.

At the beginning of the first term a wide range of working class people arrived at Ruskin to commence their academic studies. There were miners and engineers, postmen and milkmen and even the odd insurance agent. At the beginning of the second term they had transmogrified into students complete with scarves and attachments, like beards.

John Prescott had not been heard of at that time. He was to arrive at Ruskin some years later. However, I do believe that my influence on the place had a delayed effect on him. I initiated a particular style of talking, which became endemic in the college. I still consider it to be my greatest achievement.