Frank Rowley, a member of the YCL’s Kent Branch, discusses the radical history of Kent’s working people and the plans and priorities of the county’s young communists in the coming year.
Kent, the South Eastern-most region of Britain has, since the country’s founding, been one of massive strategical importance. This importance extends to every field, including military, religious, economical, and logistical fields. This all stems from one simple fact: Kent connects Britain to Europe.
The area we know as Kent, in acting as the ‘bridge’ between Britain and the European mainland, has been the first step for the various imperial conquests of Britain since the Roman Empire, and most importantly the Normans.
These recurrent invasions (although brutal as all actions of empire are) allowed Kent, through its direct link to London, to prosper in terms of first access to foreign, advanced forms of technology, culture, and capital from the mainland.
This, along with its once rich quality of soil, (comparatively) warm climate, and coastal ports and fisheries is the result of Kent’s “better off’ position when compared to the industrial north or ill-developed eastern counties.
The Kentish coal fields of the 20th century were the main hubs for general left activity in the region up until their winding down in the late 1980s during the Thatcher neoliberal shift. Coal mining in Britain has long been the spearhead of industrial militancy owing to both the shared conditions of exploitation and living among the workers and its direct fuelling of the industrial revolution since its very beginning.
The most prominent example of class struggle in the county was the key role it played in the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes, which brought the nation to a standstill and forced the still unprecedented introduction of the three-day working week. These actions were critical in how (over what started a pay dispute between the National Union of Mineworkers and the Tory’s National Coal Board) the miners, on the 9th January 1972, picketed outside not just their coal power stations but targeted all power stations, steelworks, ports, coal depots and other major coal reliant industries.
This escalated into the 21st January, when the NUM decided to try and stop the movement of all fuel supplies in the country, with national cooperation among miners and dockworkers. The miners won the massive (almost 50%) pay rise that they originally demanded from the Tories, even if it was reduced massively the following year.
The process repeated again two years later in 1974 in a reduced manner which, in combination with the Arab-Israeli war inflating oil prices massively, forced the Tory government to introduce the three day working week as to conserve national energy supplies. Even today, the blackouts and massive unrest of the period is ingrained in those who lived through it, from Kent to every other corner of the British Isles.
Jack and Janet Dunn, who were instrumental in the running of the NUM Kent branch during this period, were no doubt the shining red stars of Kentish leftism, showing international solidarity with their organisation of the anti-Vietnam war weekend in Deal in 1969, where 600 French miners and their families from the Pas de Calais coalfield came over on ferries to join meetings, dances, and events covering the injustice of the war to the international working class. Naturally, Jack was very involved in the 1972 national miners’ strike and helped to organise ‘floating’ pickets on the river Thames, to prevent coal moving between power stations.
In the ‘84-’85 miners’ strike, Janet helped to establish the first kitchen to supply meals to miners and their families, at the Welfare Club in Mill Hill, Deal. This idea was soon replicated around the country, much to the dislike of the Tory ruling class.
Kent has served the purpose in the modern age as a suburban sprawl for the London middle classes and currently as a place of refuge for the working class Londoners after they become priced out of their homes through gentrification and declining wages in combination.
Canterbury, the all-but-official capital of Kent, was recently awarded the title of “the best place” in Britain “to start a business in”. However, when it comes to living and working in Canterbury, no awards are in sight, especially not to the dozens of homeless on every corner of its high street. This is the general pattern you can see repeated across most of Kent and its big brother London to the north: fantastic ‘investment opportunities’ and worsening ‘opportunities’ for a decent life.
Opportunities for the capitalists, short straws for the workers.
The focus of the future of the region is on the climate collapse currently being fuelled by Capitalism. The most immediate concern, which is already massively affecting not just the region, but the UK and the whole world, is climate refugees.
Those from the Middle East and North Africa, who already make up a large amount of refugees, are currently fleeing from both the constant state of imperialist war being perpetrated by the UK and its ruling class masters in the USA and are now starting to flee from the effects of climate collapse.
The drying up of water sources, both open-air (lakes, rivers and ponds) and fossilised (wells), the desertification of previously green spaces and the transforming of once fertile soil into barren land by the mono-culture and poisonous, pesticide-based farming techniques of the agri-business monopoly that control most of the world’s arable land are the main features of this current collapse.
While these symptoms can be seen all across the globe, those who’ve had their natural wealth robbed from them for countless generations by the West-European and USA capitalist classes, particularly in the African and Middle Eastern parts of the world, are suffering more from our shared climate collapse.
How does this effect our little corner of the world? Through its geographical location as the gates of Britain to Europe. The xenophobic, Islamophobic and racist rhetoric trumpeted most effectively by Nigel Farage in 2016 during his UKIP campaign (with the help of his banking mates and conservative sweetheart, Rupert Murdoch) has hit a nerve with the massive Conservative base in Kent.
Whilst the EU referendum itself meant infinitely more than just this rhetoric, it has emboldened the nascent nationalist and fascistic tendencies in the region among the justifiably angry population who, instead of correctly placing the blame of their deteriorating quality of life at the feet of the capitalist ruling classes, have been fed their oppressors’ own ideology to instead blame the migrants and refugees who have the least influence to change even their own situation.
So little influence that they must travel halfway across the globe to have the chance of even a sub-par life.
There is also the slightly longer term impact of the shrinking coastline which will swallow our ports, docks, sea-level farmland and parishes if nothing is done to protect them and demolish the capitalist economic system which profits from climate collapse and replace it with socialism. This short description isn’t to diminish the colossal impact this will have on the county, but that the connection is much more obvious, even if just as pressing.
Kent’s position between London and Europe, along with housing a significant suburbanite population of said city, makes the whole county a key logistical area, particularly the arteries of the rail and motorways for workers in their commute. The port of Dover is the busiest in Europe and is one of the few historic ports to still operate after the switch to shipping containers in the 1960s (which decimated the historic London ports and the organised working class power they held). The long-term goal of agitating the Dover workers and helping them organise themselves will prove vital in the coming revolutionary situation.
Canterbury, the county’s largest city, is also a massive student centre of worldwide fame. Said student population is a key target for communists to propagandise and recruit from and to utilise the unique strength of this population, who are often most open to Marxism and generally progressive ideas.
Housing, and rent in particular, is a key concern for a vast number of working people in Britain today, with Kent being no exception. Kent, after the dispersal of the coal fields, has become the ‘backyard’ of London, and has inherited its insatiable hunger of the housing market, with it being one of the only accessible and reliable investible markets to get a good return on. The pattern has repeated itself across the UK. The result of this is thousands of houseless people sleeping on asphalt, with Ashford having the highest concentration in the county at the same time as many ‘luxury’ apartment complexes are being built by various private companies.
The tenant’s union ACORN and their efforts should be expanded with Kent branches in the larger urban hubs, especially Canterbury, Dover, and Ashford, among many others because of this. No ACORN branches exist in the whole region at the time of writing (the closest being Hastings in East Sussex). We, as young Communists, are eager to change this by playing our part, offering our time and energy to help establish them in communities across the region.
Anti-racist and anti-xenophobic campaigns should also be an immediate focus, which should not only aim to inform the working class of the lies and the false-consciousness planted in their mind by the ruling classes, but should also aim to provide direct support to the refugees and migrants of all stripes that risk everything for a chance at a decent life.
More general ecological campaigning will also become more and more pressing as time progresses and the situation worsens. Through this, we must always present a clear class-based and anti-capitalist line. We don’t have time to fall back on the liberal, individualised ‘solutions’ which have clearly failed to prevent our current collapse since their introduction in the early 1970s.
Kent may have fallen substantially from its former levels of working-class power and consciousness in the 1970s and prior, but this is no reason for despair or defeatism.
We, as young Communists, have a debt to our revolutionary ancestors and future generations to act in the present, to fight with all our energy now for the future we need if we are not only to have decent lives, but survive at all.
If you too want to join the fight for the future, in Kent and beyond, we urge you to join the Young Communist League.