This weekend marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Friedrich Engels, great thinker, dedicated revolutionary and the life-long friend and comrade of Karl Marx, with whom he co-authored of a number of seminal works.
During Engels’ childhood, Europe experienced a series of revolutionary events including, the 1830 July Revolution in France, the uprisings of weavers in Lyons in 1831 and 1834 and the development of Chartism in Britain. The young Engels, wrote many articles exposing the terrible suffering of workers during that period and on the socio-economic system in Britain and the condition of the working class.
In collaboration with Marx, he demonstrated that the source of development, the motive force of all societies, is the class struggle. They developed their ideas on class struggle and revolution in their great and transformative publication The Communist Manifesto which explained the world-wide historic mission of the working class.
Together, they laid the theoretical foundations for the creation of a revolutionary party as the class conscious vanguard of the working class.
In the last years of his life Engels continued to work and produced a number of important publications, leading Lenin to say” It is impossible to understand Marxism and to propound it fully without taking into account all the works of Engels”.
On this 200th anniversary of his birth we celebrate the revolutionary life and rich theoretical legacy of Friedrich Engels from which we continue to learn and develop.
Across this island more than 300,000 children live in poverty. Add to that the additional factors of fuel and housing poverty and the crippling social and health consequences begin to become apparent. That gives us an idea, but no more than that, of the extent of the problem and the effects that it has on peoples’ lives.
Some of the worst areas are West Belfast in Northern Ireland and Limerick City in the Republic.
Poverty exists, not because we live in the UK or because we don’t live in a united Ireland. It exists, and will continue to exist, because we live under an economic system that produces, perpetuates and profits from poverty.
Capitalism is about production and profit. It is relentless in its pursuit of both. If 20% to 30% of children live in poverty as a consequence, then so be it.
Statistics alone don’t begin to tell the full story. Lives are shortened, opportunities are lost, ambitions never realised and physical and mental health impacted by the relentless grind that is the life of every man, woman and child condemned to live in poverty.
Perverse focus on poverty
The Coronavirus pandemic has prompted a perverse focus on poverty – as if it wasn’t already a blight on society, as if its effects were only recently known or as if too can be eliminated with a double dose of vaccine.
Successive government targets, plans and strategies to tackle poverty in the Republic and in Northern Ireland consistently fallen short or are not implemented at all.
A compliant media stigmatises low income families and unemployed people through a narrative of ‘scroungers’ and ‘welfare cheats’ . We see this repeatedly in newspaper articles, editorials, news reports and in ‘reality’ series such as ‘Benefits Britain’ .
There is no such demonisation of the multi-national tax dodgers, the off-shore account holders, the employers who don’t even pay the minimum wage or for announcements like the recent £16.5 billion top up for the defence budget. These issues very seldom come under serious scrutiny and seldom if ever are they linked to levels of poverty.
Created and sustained
Poverty is not a natural phenomenon. It is created and sustained by an economic system that recognises the benefits of keeping wages and expectations low. It is managed by governments in Westminster, Belfast and Dublin that feign concern and simulate activity but do nothing to eradicate the underlying causes.
The direct link between poverty and the prevailing economic system is demonstrated by a look at just five policies which would greatly reduce levels of poverty, both in the Republic and in Northern Ireland, but which run contrary to capitalist economics:
Create well paid secure employment: capitalist economies, North and South, depend on a level of unemployment, low wages, zero hours contracts and other types of precarious employment to maximise their profits.
Introduce a minimum living wage: the National Minimum Wage is not enough to make a real dent in poverty levels. That needs a realistic National Living Wage. Thousands of people are stuck in low-paid, insecure jobs, with little chance of progression and too few hours of work to reach a decent living standard. Many thousands of working people have to claim benefits to make ends meet. Modern capitalism has created the ‘working poor’.
Provide training and support for women re-entering the workforce and for working mothers: working women are the most likely to be employed in part time, non-unionised, and temporary jobs. Training, re-training and support, particularly for working mothers and women re-entering the workforce, is a vital step in escaping the poverty trap. Flexibility in the workplace and equal pay help ensure a healthier work life balance and less reliance on top up benefits.
Re-structure and radically improve the benefits system:a benefits system must provide a safety net for all citizens. It must be accessible, adequate, equitable, responsive and comprehensive. Universal Credit and other many benefits systems are designed to demean, demoralise and punish applicants
Guarantee quality, affordable public housing: high rents and the lack of available public housing are two of the major causes of poverty. In turn they contribute to fuel and food poverty and poor physical and mental health.
Of course, only a socialist society can deliver even these minimum requirements. Capitalism pursues unregulated profit at all costs. People become commodities to be bought and sold for the minimum price and the maximum return.
West Belfast and Limerick City
Finally, for now, it is worth reflecting again on West Belfast and Limerick City – the areas with some of the highest levels of child poverty on this island.
West Belfast’s MP is Paul Maskey of Sinn Fein, re-elected with 20,866 votes and a majority of almost 15,000
Limerick City’s poll topping TD is Sinn Fein’s Maurice Quinliven elected with 11.006 first preference votes: more than 1700 over the quota.
Their former party leader Gerry Adams recently defined Sinn Fein’s objective as delivering the republic envisaged by the 1916 Proclamation. I wonder if that includes cherishing all the children of the nation equally?
It is with the deepest regret that the Workers Party has learned of the death of Margaret O’Leary.
Margaret was a dedicated and class conscious activist, steeped in the struggle of ordinary working people. Her sterling work with the Irish People newspaper helped to make that publication the success it became.
Her commitment to women’s rights, her significant contribution to the production of Women’s View magazine and her unswerving belief in equality for women, coupled with her understanding that women do not stand apart from the class struggle, made Margaret the great socialist that she was.
Margaret O’Leary was a woman of great compassion and principle.She stood with the Workers Party through many of its most important struggles and made unstinting efforts to advance the cause of young people, women and the working class.
Margaret’s comrades, who knew her over the past five decades, deeply regret her passing. The Northern Ireland Executive of the Workers Party sends its condolences to her family, friends and colleagues.
This week has demonstrated that, just when we thought our political system couldn’t get any more dysfunctional the Executive goes that extra mile to prove us wrong.
The Covid death rates are increasing and the R number is rising. The medical and scientific evidence supports an extension of the current circuit breaker, and some in the hospitality and service sectors would support that if financial aid were made available.
They are clearly frustrated by this ‘stop then start’ scenario which is detrimental to the long-term survival of their business. Yet we are witnessing a farce being played out around the Executive table. When we need decision and action, we get confusion, political squabbles, and brinkmanship.
Scandalous use of Petition of Concern
The use on two occasions of the Petition of Concern, was nothing short of scandalous. It sectarianised the public health message and introduced a political veto over life in favour of livelihoods, as if there is only this binary choice. This is an unnecessary and dangerous approach.
The two big parties would seem either unable or unwilling to stick to any agreement they reach. Even when the lives of our citizens are at risk , they put their own narrow interests first: though to most rational people, it’s impossible to fathom, just what those interests are.
A strategic way forward
It would seem that a compromise was reached at the eleventh hour., but we should not have to face these continuous stand offs. We are entitled to political leadership that is capable of formulating a strategic way forward and developing plans to deal with this pandemic. Not in a haphazard or piece meal way that covers a few weeks or months, but a long-term plan that covers the duration of the pandemic.
Neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein have shown leadership in relation to Covid restrictions. Both parties have, when it suited them, breeched the guidelines laid down by statue for the rest of us to follow. It’s outrageous that even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic and public health crisis our they can’t put the health and safety of citizens first.
It’s always been difficult
We all know how hard it is to mange in the current pandemic, but it has always been difficult for those people on the breadline. It’s always been difficult for those with mental health issues.
Perhaps we should be glad that the Executive has now acknowledged the horrors of poverty and unemployment, and will rethink its strategy of pay freezes and cutting public sector jobs to facilitate tax cuts. I won’t hold my breath waiting though.
It’s clear that this system of government is never going to work, because if the Executive is incapable of pulling together during a worldwide pandemic , then what hope have we for the future?
A donation of more than 50 sleeping bags and a range of winter clothing has been welcomed by the local homeless charity the Welcome Organisation.
The sleeping bags and heavy winter coats were handed over by members of the Workers Party in response to an appeal for practical help for homeless people ahead of the winter months.
“Homelessness remains an almost forgotten problem”, local Workers Party member Conor Duffy said, “yet the Welcome Organisation alone helps around 1400 people in the Belfast area every year”.
“We are delighted to be able to make this contribution to the work of the Welcome Organisation and to be able to offer even a small amount of practical aid to the people they support”, said Conor.
“Providing practical support to people who are homeless is vital, particularly during the winter months, but so too is addressing the causes and consequences of homelessness. Much needs to be done to provide increased accommodation, support services and counselling for people who are homeless as well as funding and assistance for bodies like the Welcome Organisation which provide them with help, support and advice”, Conor added.
Speaking on behalf of the Welcome Organisation, Kieran Hughes said
“We would like to express our sincere thanks to the Workers Party for this very generous donation to The Welcome Organisation. We couldn’t deliver the level of service we do without the support of the public and organisations like the Workers Party. This donation will have a real and positive impact on our work and in turn on the lives of the people affected by homelessness in Belfast.”
The work of the Welcome Organisation
The Welcome Organisation provides a Drop-in Centre which is open every day of the year, 365 days per year.
It gives people affected by homelessness free access to: Hot meals, tea and coffee, showers, toilets, internet access, laundry facilities advice and health support.
It also runs a Street Outreach team around Belfast from 7am to 2am every day of year.
Changes to the way in which the Northern Ireland Housing Executive is funded and the role it can play in the provision and development of public housing here, has been welcomed by the Workers Party as ” long overdue”.
Party spokesperson Joanne Lowry said, “If we are to have an effective and dynamic strategy which addresses the chronic shortage of public housing, then the Northern Ireland Housing Executive must be at its centre and assume its rightful role as lead agency,”
“This announcement is a welcome start but much remains to be done, and significant funding needs to be secured to deliver high quality public housing across Northern Ireland”, she said.
However, the Party’s welcome comes with a warning. “We must of course wait to see the detail of these announcements”, Joanne said, ” and one of the aspects which we will be scrutinising will be the Housing Executive’s regional role. The establishment of the NIHE was one of the many gains of the civil rights movement in the early 1970s. It must remain as the lead housing agency in Northern Ireland and not be diluted into another housing association”.
The proposed changes include allowing the NI Housing Executive to build again, retain and maintain existing stock – a demand the Workers Party has been making for more than twenty years. There are also proposed changes to the private rented sector affording tenants more security of tenure and an undertaking to review to ‘right to buy’ policy introduced during the Thatcher era which severely depleted the available public housing stock.