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Water Boy

11/11/2012

Richard Hawley’s recent UK tour concluded with a wonderful gig at Brixton Academy. He finally seems to be emerging from the shadows to receive the acclaim his music deserves. It’s good to see.

Towards the end of his set Hawley played a song that his grandfather had taught him, an old Paul Robeson number called Water Boy. Robeson was an African-American actor, singer and campaigner for social justice who visited Sheffield in 1926 to play a free concert at the Albert Hall for all the city’s steelworkers taking part in the general strike.

Hawley’s grandfather was a teenager at the time and worked as a “bucket boy” in a Sheffield steelworks supplying thirsty steelworkers with their forty pint weekly beer allowance. It’s a scene that’s perhaps difficult to picture these days; a steelworker stripped to the waist in a sweltering factory bashing a lump of molten pig iron whilst supping ten pints.

The “water boy” referred to in Robeson’s song performed a similar role fetching water for slaves on the cotton plantations. The song resonated with Hawley’s grandfather and celebrates the power of people, often from different backgrounds, working together in union. Robeson’s father had run away from a plantation in North Carolina, where he had been a slave, during the American civil war.

Robeson was a huge supporter of the British working class and made several visits to this country. On one of these visits he made a famous speech in London where he said “the artist must take sides. He must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice, I had no alternative”.

Eighty six years after Paul Robeson’s visit to Sheffield and calls for a general strike were being made in London. On Saturday 20th October more than 100,000 people marched from the Embankment and assembled in Hyde Park as part of the TUC’s A Future That Works national demonstration. Similar rallies took place in Glasgow and Belfast.

The part of the march that I was in arrived in the park too late to hear Ed Miliband get a “mixed reception” but I was able to listen to union leaders Bob Crow and Mark Serwotka call for a 24 hour general strike. The rally aimed to show that there is an alternative to austerity. The government has pledged to cut 750,000 public sector jobs by 2017 and to cut spending by £80 billion. The NHS alone is trying to find savings of £15-£20 billion. For millions, their pay, pensions, jobs and the local services that they use are under threat. The human cost of these cuts is potentially brutal. In many towns and cities across the country the public sector is the main employer following the decline of manufacturing industry.

The calls for a general strike are born of a frustration with mainstream politics. There is a sense that our political leaders have failed to address the long term economic problems that face the country and that if we carry on cutting public expenditure the result will be a “lost decade”. The focus of the economy should be on promoting industry and creating jobs, particularly for young people.

The recent party conferences made for depressing viewing. George Osborne’s speech to the Tory conference tried to pitch the working poor against the unemployed by asking shift workers leaving their homes at 5am on a freezing cold morning to treat with disdain neighbours who may be on benefits. Classic divide and rule. And what did the Labour conference offer us? Well, precious little beyond resurrecting Benjamin Disraeli’s notion of “one nation” Toryism. The two main political parties are as close as ever on the issue of how we should pay for bailing out the banks. The only difference is the speed at which cuts to expenditure are made.

The purpose of the march on 20th October was to show that there is an alternative to austerity and it’s based on prioritising ordinary people’s needs above a few people’s greed. It asks us to think of the consequences of cutting public sector jobs and pay; more people unemployed and less disposable income to spend in local shops for a start. Ultimately the private sector suffers as well. A common phrase we hear from our political leaders is that the banks were “too big to fail” and that’s why we had no choice but to bail them out. Surely that applies equally to social institutions like the NHS and the welfare state? Aren’t they worth preserving as well?

So what do marches and protests like this actually achieve? Well, I doubt that George Osborne woke up the following morning and immediately reconsidered the government’s economic policy. But it rubbishes the notion that “there is no alternative” and makes it very clear that the government does not speak for all of us in pursuing their policies of austerity. Just as the million-strong anti-war demonstration in London in March 2003 signalled to Tony Blair’s government that the invasion of Iraq was not supported by all of us.

While we may think that individually our voices are ignored on issues like this, ultimately we can influence government policy by working together. If you’re not already a member then join a trade union. Even if you don’t feel able to take part in any industrial action then at least show support for those that do. Don’t leave it to others to campaign on your behalf. Get active. Write to your MP. Sign online petitions. Support campaigns like A Future That Works (http://afuturethatworks.org/) and Keep Our NHS Public (http://www.keepournhspublic.com/index.php). Think about the legacy that we are leaving for our children and the generations that follow. Let’s make sure that we don’t stand idly by while the likes of the NHS and the welfare state, that were fought so hard for by generations before us, are dismantled.

Paul Robeson travelled half way across the world to show solidarity with fellow campaigners. The least we can do is to not turn a blind eye to what’s going on around us.

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From → Culture, Politics

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