On 1st May I received a greetings e-mail from one of the older members of the North Norfolk Labour Party: David Russell, a retired health service worker and former trade union official. I was touched, particularly since it featured a picture (reproduced above) of Robert Tressell the author ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ – a seminal work first published, after the author’s death in 1911. Robert Tressell was the nom-de-plume of Robert Noonan, a house painter; he chose the name Tressell in reference to the trestle table, an important part of his kit as a painter and decorator. The book is a scathing analysis of the relationship between the working-class people of the time and their employers. The ‘philanthropists’ of the title are the workers who, in Noonan’s view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses.
My guess is that most current Labour Party members under the age of 40 will not have heard of Tressell, yet ‘The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists’ had a huge influence on previous generations on the political left. It is one of the very few books that I can remember my own father admitting to have read. His father, my grandfather, worked as a bricklayer and could easily have been a character in the book.
On receiving the greetings e-mail, I paused to reflect what Tressell would have made of the 2015 campaign. Initially he would have struggled to understand the forces that led to significant changes in the economic system – technology, globalisation and the rise of the consumer. He would have been gratified that the debate on the health service is about protecting a system offering universal care rather than establishing one. He would also have been pleased about the progress made in educational opportunities.
However my guess is that would have been angry to see that the exploitation of the workforce continues, even though it has taken new guises. He would have been writing about the one-sided nature of zero hours contracts and free labour described as internships. I’d also like to think he would have swiftly seen the international dimension of the problem and the need for global solutions to end exploitation. Nostalgic sentiments, admittedly, but we need voices like his today.