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Preparing for a leisure society

Jack Jones, 90 and still fighting, speaks out about pensions, New Labour and pressure from below.

Jack Jones led the Transport and General Workers Union in the 1970s, when it was Britain’s biggest trade union. He was one of the architects of the ‘Social Contract’, a radical plan to improve the lot of Britain’s working people through a Labour Government commitment to the social wage and price control in exchange for wage restraint on the part of union members. It nearly worked. But the Callaghan government reneged on its side of the bargain, albeit shaken by some sectionalist interests in the trade unions fighting to maintain wage differentials.

Jack Jones went on to lead Britain’s pensioners and become President of the National Pensioners Convention campaigning and speaking in Britain and internationally for decent pensions for growing numbers of retired working people. He maintained a fierce work regime almost up to his 90th birthday and even now still goes to his office at the TGWU headquarters in Smith Square every day.

We spoke shortly after his return from Cardiff where, as president of the British International Brigade he presided over a gathering of veterans and supporters remembering the achievements and lessons of the struggle of Rubublican Spain in the civil war against the fascists. He is now one of only a dozen surviving British combatants in that struggle.

Speaking about the failure of the Blair government to shift wealth and power towards working people he bemoans the failure of activists to keep up the fight in the Labour Party and constantly points the finger at the labour movement asking ‘Where’s the pressure?’. A reminder that it is not just leaders who let us down but the rank and file who let it happen. I reminded him that it’s not so easy these days, however, to make an impact in the Labour Party with the leadership exercising an iron grip on the party; with a centralised command and control structure; a conference stage managed to meet the requirements of media and business sponsors, and a hollowed out membership whose voice is not listened to. When delegates voted overwhelmingly for renationalisation of the railways the leadership made no effort to disguise its contempt of the rank and file saying the vote would be ignored.

But it was pensions we had met to talk about. What did he think of the Adair Turner Independent Pension Commission Report which said 12 million British people were not saving enough for their retirement and that cuts of up to 30% or more in retirement income were likely over the next 30 years.

“Unequivocally this makes the case for a stronger basic pension. It means a greater contribution from the national Exchequer, from employers and employed people. It’s a national obligation. The state has to recognise that an effective national pension for all is the only way forward. Germany with pensions at over 50 % and Sweden with pensions at 76% of national income show the way. Britain has the least generous state pension system in the western world. Many have pointed out this is partly due to a large private pension sector. But this is now in crisis. Only a stronger state earnings related pension adequate enough to live on without means testing can solve the problem.

“Yes, we have an ageing population and declining birth rate but raising the retirement age, as some have suggested is not the answer. Particularly for working class people who have given forty years of work in heavy industry. Older people should be able to enjoy retirement. We should be retiring earlier rather than later…why should people have to work beyond 60. It’s a very dangerous idea. Some people seem to accept the idea of working longer for a few extra bob. But we all need the opportunity to enjoy leisure. It’s available to the rich, why not the rest of us? Society should be constructed so that people can enjoy their life. The nature of employment and production has changed so much that all essential tasks can be performed. The real task is organising and preparing for leisure opportunities, a leisure society.

New Labour have not thought through their pension policy. We also need a lot more pressure from older employed people .

The Tories know all too well they’re not going to get elected so they can make all sorts of promises to give a £7 bonus, to link pensions to earnings. But remember it was Michael Howard and Mrs Thatcher’s government that increased pensioner poverty in this country for many years until Labour was returned.”

He acknowledge means tested pension credit had helped but returned to the idea of a price or earnings related, whichever is higher, state pension.

“Pension credit worries me. We need universal pension paid through taxation, not means testing.”

With that a fellow trade unionist, the third of the evening, came over and offered to buy us a drink. Jack Jones is still a name to be reckoned with. But will Gordon listen?

Jack Jones was in

conversation with Mike Davis