Len McCluskey

Len McCluskey

Len McCluskey is General Secretary of Unite.

We Will Be Free! Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2018
Monday, 29 October 2018 21:05

We Will Be Free! Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2018

Published in Poetry

Len McCluskey introduces the Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2018.

We are fast approaching the end of the 2010s. It’s been a decade tarred with the brush of austerity. A decade of unparalleled inequality, where the rich are getting super-rich and the majority of people in poverty are also in work. I will leave it to the historians to make a final judgement as to whether these times are worse than the 1980s, but undoubtedly there are many comparisons, few of which are positive.

One constant, however, is the continued strength and fighting spirit of the working classes. Whether that be against the poll tax and the closing of the pits in the 1980s, or the wholesale slash and burn of public services in this decade, working-class people have made clear their opposition to a class war declared by the Tories.

There is now a mass movement in favour of a change that puts the most vulnerable of society first, instead of the bankers, corporations, and tax cheats. Polls of 18-25 year olds consistently show an overwhelming majority in support of a Labour government —one that would return some 600 MPs.

This movement comes in many forms. Membership of unions and the strength of those such as Unite, are once again the go-to barometers of working-class rights. Unite’s influence is acknowledged by all, and feared by our enemies in government and the media. And let no-one say that our cultural work has nothing to do with our industrial or political mission.

It is crucially important that popular, working-class cultural activities are supported. And culture is more than just the arts, important thought they are—culture includes sport, religion, eating and drinking, fashion and clothing, education, the media and many other popular activities.

The arts, though, are often at the forefront of protest, especially in the poetry world. Groups of activist poets like Poetry on the Picket Line are out there, supporting pickets in London in their various fights for a fair wage and better working conditions. And I’m proud that Unite continues to support the work of publishers such as Culture Matters, in their promotion of all aspects of working-class, politically aware culture.

This is the second year of the Bread and Roses Poetry Award, which Unite is proud to sponsor, and this is the second anthology of selected poems. They reflect these febrile times with a mix of anger, nostalgia, and optimism. The five winners, who each received a £100 prize were Helen Burke, Martin Hayes, Fran Lock, Alan Morrison and Steve Pottinger. Congratulations are due to the winners and to those poets chosen for the anthology, and thanks to all those who entered.

The competition was judged by Andy Croft of Smokestack Books, and Unite’s very own Mary Sayer. Mary had this to say about the 800 poems received this year.

This is my second year judging this much-needed and extraordinary competition. Again, I was struck by the passion, the urgency and the sheer hard work driving people to write these poems. So many of the entries were beautifully put together, often with a story that demanded to be told and with artfully refreshing humour.

The poems all reflected the fact that we find ourselves in such bleak and alienating times—making this type of competition more crucial than ever. And this year we had a particularly healthy number of entries from women and from young people—again, a reflection of deep, unvoiced feelings from those hardest hit, by today’s increasingly rampant inequality. So, thanks to all of you passionate poets out there—keep them coming! If I had my way, it would be like Alice in Wonderland: “All are winners and all should have prizes.”

So we must take heart from the response in this competition, as well as more widely, that the working class are continuing their fight for justice, equality, and freedom—be it the economic struggle on the picket line, the political struggle through the ballot box, and the cultural struggle through poetry, the arts generally, and other cultural activities.

Society cannot be changed solely from the top, even with a progressive Labour government. It needs strong unions, not as an add-on to government but to assist in building the foundations of a more just and equal country. None of this can be done without socialist culture policies—for the many, not the few.

The anthology can be bought here.

Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017
Tuesday, 21 November 2017 22:03

Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017

Published in Poetry

Len McCluskey introduces the Bread and Roses Poetry Anthology 2017.

As working-class people, we know all about economic struggle. It’s a constant struggle for many people 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, which is 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 and change a system which is so obviously rigged against us.

There is another struggle, though – the cultural struggle. And 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 sponsored the first Bread and Roses Poetry Award. Organised and managed by the Culture Matters Co-Operative, the Award attracted a huge response. Over a thousand poems were sent it, many from people who would not have otherwise have dreamt of taking part in such an exercise.

Here’s what 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 – Andy Croft, the poet and publisher, and Mary Sayer, a Unite official working 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. Here’s what Mary said:

I began to appreciate what a privilege it was to share the outpourings of so many committed and caring individuals. 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 together an anthology, and it has now been published. Unite are grateful to Culture Matters, 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.

It's 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 2017 is available priced £5 (plus £1.50 p and p) from here.