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.