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Local democracy suffers when a council is dominated by a single party, as in Hastings, the author maintains.

Local democracy suffers when a council is dominated by a single party, as in Hastings, the author maintains.

How would Tressell vote on 3 May?

How would Robert Tressell, author of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, vote in the forthcoming local elections? More than a century after his death, Tressell’s legacy is disputed among those who call themselves socialists. Former Labour Party member Michael Madden wonders how he would find today’s Hastings.

It is well-known that one of the most famous socialist novels ever written was set in Hastings. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists was subtitled Being the story of twelve months in Hell, as told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell. Its author actually spent more than 12 months working in Hastings and St Leonards, and most of the events he described were based on his experiences here between 1903 and 1906.

Tressell was born Robert Croker, the illegitimate son of a Dublin ex-magistrate, who used his mother’s maiden surname of Noonan in everyday life because he was illegitimate. He became poor in Hastings due to the very low wages and, partly for that reason, died of TB at the age of 40. He wrote the book mostly in 1909, probably while ill. It was finally published in 1914.

Tressell was neither a wealthy socialist like William Morris, whose books he no doubt read, nor free of financial worries like Karl Marx, who lived on hand-outs from his wealthy friend and ally Friedrich Engels. But neither was he an ordinary painter – he was a well-educated and highly skilled sign-writer and specialist decorator.


The title of his book was ironic because he thought that the house painters he depicted were unwitting philanthropists: “mugs” who gave away an unfair proportion of their earnings to their bosses. That was partly why he gave Hastings the alias of Mugsborough. He hated the establishment figures who damned them to a “Hell” of poverty, among them the Tory councillors, but he also blamed the painters for putting up with it and tried to show them what could be done. However, he despaired of it being done, because he saw how the town was sown up.

In the chapter The Forty Thieves, Tressell wrote, “Mugsborough was governed by a set of individuals called the Municipal Council…

“These brigands did just as they pleased. No one ever interfered with them. They never consulted the ratepayers in any way. Even at election times they did not trouble to hold meetings: each one of them just issued a kind of manifesto setting forth his many noble qualities and calling upon the people for their votes: and the latter never failed to respond. They elected the same old crew time after time.”

…and now?

So how do things fare in the town today by comparison, at a time when inequality in Britain is back at Edwardian levels? One difference is that the Council consists of 32 councillors, rather than Tressell’s “forty thieves”, 23 of whom represent Labour. Authoritative studies by bodies such as the Electoral Reform Society and Transparency International, and investigation by the House of Commons Select Committee on Housing, Communities and Local Government, have shown that any council with a majority of councillors from one single party offers worse value for money and is less democratic than a more diversely constituted council.

That seems true of Hastings: with such an overwhelming majority our Labour councillors simply steamroller through their proposals. If the minority group of Tories try to propose an alternative, they simply get voted down.

What would Tressell have thought to find Edwardian levels of inequality in Hastings more than 100 years after he lived?

What would Tressell have thought to find Edwardian levels of inequality in Hastings more than 100 years after he lived?

At the same time the Labour group blame the Tory government’s cuts for everything but are only partly right to do so. It is true that central government funding to local councils has dropped by 38% since 2010 while council taxes have risen by over 15%, and that more cuts will follow if the Tories stay in government. It is also true that these “austerity” cuts are reversing gains won during the first 80 years of the Labour Party (formed in 1901), which helped to lower inequality to unprecedented levels post the Second World War.

But are Labour councillors more democratic than Tories? Tressell’s dream was that a left-wing party like Labour would bring real democracy to Hastings; he would be outraged to see Labour councillors, for example, failing to make more of an effort to hold developers to the affordable housing quota, as councils such as Croydon (small Labour majority) and Worthing (large Tory majority) do, instead of passively waiting for the government to act.

“Entrepreneurial socialism”

It is also true that Tory cuts have obliged Labour councils to be more “entrepreneurial” and raise revenue from property investment and rentals as a way of substituting for central funding. But councillors seem to have adapted to this as a positive aspect of their jobs. They use terms like “entrepreneurial socialism” to excuse themselves, which would make Tressell even angrier.

They claim to be “open and transparent”, and invite local people “to hold us to account”. But when local people try to, they hide behind “commercial confidentiality” clauses and attack the locals with false accusations of being Tories or “vexatious complainants” or worse. Council planners side with private businesses or developers against locals and thereby excuse them when they ruin areas of outstanding beauty, against the interests of the people who actually pay their wages.

In the chapter Hands and Brains, Tressell showed how bosses allowed no time for painters to do a quality job – even on a highly skilled project, Owen’s wages were cut and his profits stolen. Today the council works with developers who propose demolishing fine historic buildings like the White Rock Theatre, and will inevitably stand by as they erect an inferior replacement because the skills of builders today can’t even compare with those available in Tressell’s day.

In another chapter, An imperial Banquet, Tressell described how the workmen blamed foreigners for their condition rather than their bosses and councillors.

Britain has gone back in time and Tressell would despair to see extreme poverty rising under a Labour dominated council.

For the many, not the few?

So it seems clear that similar elites and mindsets, whether political, business or, as many believe, masonic, conspire against democracy in Hastings today, much as they did then. They still work against the interests of the many. Surely those who claim to sign up to Jeremy Corbyn’s slogan “For the many, not the few,” should be making every effort to ward off the encroachment of private interest groups. If Tressell came back to life today, he might well say that Labour councillors now betray the core values of his book, and that they are the “brigands” who do as they please.

What can be done? Not that much. But if “the many” want to do what they can to rein in the interests of “the few”, they could try to get more balance in the council at the May 3rd election by voting for candidates who pledge to preserve and protect the quality of life in Hastings for future generations, rather than the same old Tory and Labour elites.

That means tactical voting – in some wards the Greens stand a fighting chance and in others it might be better to put a cross next to a LibDem or independent candidate. The best way to find out is to Google the results of the last Council elections. Voting for a more democratic council is a separate issue from voting for a Labour government at the next General Election.


All quotes from the Hastings edition of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, 2014 – ISBN 978 1 84022 575 4.

Article amended by Nick Terdre on 2 May 2018.

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Posted 09:58 Monday, Apr 30, 2018 In: Local Elections 2018


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  1. Keith Piggott (Icarus)

    Mr Madden’s topic is well chosen and targeted, but Comments are turning the topic into ” I’m even more left than your left” polemic. As an independent radical, I’m opting out.

    However, in parting, would someone please explain how this very political council or agents spent over £16million public money on West St.Leonards’ retail warehouses and old Focus retail outlets, but must close and demolish public conveniences, yet also put Hastings’ failed plank-like Pier out to tender for a reported fraction of its reported restoration costs? OPM again.

    Comment by Keith Piggott (Icarus) — Thursday, May 10, 2018 @ 18:32

  2. David Alan Stevenson

    I am pleased to report that today I did not vote for either the Labour or Conservative Parties who were dragged down into the sewer by Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher respectively. Politicians are such boring, predictable, immature people. They take the credit when something good happens but blame “the other lot” when something bad happens. And they are incapable of giving a straight answer to a simple question. Is there anyone left in the world who is still gullible enough to trust these crooks?

    Comment by David Alan Stevenson — Thursday, May 3, 2018 @ 19:41

  3. Michael Madden

    Just to say thanks to Jamie Tarrant for your last posting and for the information contained in it. I am very pleased to hear what you say. I long for positive change as do many others, including yourself.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Thursday, May 3, 2018 @ 13:47

  4. Ms.Doubtfire

    Tim Barton has got of his proverbial pram – describing candidates in opposing parties as ‘anti-poor policy holding neo-liberal acolytes and two token loons’. And further makes assumptions that they are ‘not decent people’…wowee – someone has ruffled his feathers…and the same reaction happens with this council – upset them just a little bit too much and out comes the venom.
    Shame to stoop so low.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Thursday, May 3, 2018 @ 08:49

  5. Keith Piggott (Icarus)

    Classical public conveniences, lately built at great public expense, on Harold Place are now demolished, under a sign “We apologise for the inconvenience….” Nearby new HBC planning notice attached to any old post has slipped to ground level – only readable by dogs. Sums up HBC bureaucracy attitudes to the public, “P*** off!”

    Comment by Keith Piggott (Icarus) — Thursday, May 3, 2018 @ 08:37

  6. Eye on the ball

    I agree with much of the sentiments of this article. My experience of HBC has been a refusal to consult on an important local issue (the marina) while supporting the developers by going to the government for funding for a feasibility study. Without any consultation of interested parties. When asked for information they then say it is a private proposal and up to the developers to consult! Catch 22 or what? Indeed it is time for change. Today is our only chance to show HBC that we are not happy with the way they treat the electorate. This is not about national politics but about local issues. Show them what you think at the ballot box.

    Comment by Eye on the ball — Thursday, May 3, 2018 @ 08:16

  7. Gothicka

    Aren’t Tory cuts the result of Labour over-spending?

    Comment by Gothicka — Thursday, May 3, 2018 @ 07:10

  8. Jamie Tarrant

    Thank you Michael Madden for your thoughtful response. I understand the concerns you raise about the way that the Ecclesbourne Glen development was dealt with. Whilst this occurred before I became involved with the party locally and my knowledge of the issue and how it was dealt with is limited, I think it is important to stress that the Labour Party both nationally and locally is in a period of transformation. In these council elections, the local Labour Party members have selected many new candidates, members who have joined the party since Corbyn became leader and who are passionate about fighting for social justice and for broadening the democratic structures within the party and within society more generally. And a number of whom have spoken out against the proposed marina development.

    If Labour do well at the polls in Hastings tomorrow, we will see quite a radical shift in the constitution of HBC.

    Comment by Jamie Tarrant — Wednesday, May 2, 2018 @ 22:02

  9. Michael Madden

    I forgot to include one last point in answer to Mr Tarrant and Mr Barton’s points. I think many people don’t realise that the election tomorrow is neither for an MP, nor about the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. It is a Council election to choose councillors to work hard and speak up for us in Hastings Council, no matter what government holds power in the House of Commons. Many people in Hastings do not feel that this Council has done so . I come from a very, very left wing background and spent many years as the secretary of the PCS trade union in a major London Museum. But many years of experience have made me realise that any group which gets used to power can become complacent, even corrupted. Although I know that forty years of attrition from rightist governments have enabled this to happen to people who profess to be of a Labour persuasion more easily, I cannot excuse any person who puts him or herself up for election IF they then fail to resist such an erosion of the party’s core values whenever and wherever they are threatened. This certainly hasn’t happened under years of a Labour dominated Council in Hastings. First-hand dealings with them indicate that they are not “open and transparent”, as they still profess to be. But the trouble is you will only find this out if you ask uncomfortable questions of them, after which you will be maligned or called a “vexatious complainant”, as several Labour voters in SEG have been – it is quite disgusting to be treated like that. A Tory is the very last thing I will ever be, but I have become sick and tired of that undemocratic attitude. So I have arrived at the conclusion that the only thing to do is to enable the council to become more democratic by ensuring that it is more balanced. Politics is rarely as black and white as many would like to believe, because any politician can lie. The fact that that is that tendency exists in all parties is very sad for Labour voters, but pretending it isn’t a fact will not improve Labour’s chances in any election.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Wednesday, May 2, 2018 @ 19:39

  10. Michael Madden

    I have been away visiting my very old Dad, but I would now like to respond to Jamie Tarrant’s post as follows:

    I accept that much of what he says is true and that the Tory government are mostly to blame. However, what I don’t accept is that this Labour domibnated council has risen to that terrible challenge as effectively as they should have done. The bacic problem that one finds in dealing with them is their total lack of transparency. Before I had any dealings with HBC on a face to face basis, I would have believed exactly as Mr Tarrant does – that all the negative actions have been forced on them by government cuts. But now I know that is not the case – what proved it to me? – the Seg campaign. On the surface it will now seem as if HBC went through all the processes necessary to prove that they had done all they could to save the Country Park from the damage that seemed so obviously to have been caused by the insensitive expansionism by the Rocklands Caravan Site – a private company – in a site of special scientific interest. In fact they went head over heels to protect the company owners interests, instead of doing their job. They spent four years on that and thousands of pounds of our money. On the proposed Marina development too, they initially put their thumbs up and have had to do a complete u turn on that in order not to loose face. Their Master Plan for the White Rock is another disaster waiting to happen at great public expense. So it isn’t a “lack of imagination” on my part but experience that has led me to the point of view that although we so desperately need a Labour Government, we do not need local councils that act like this. HBC mirrors the ongoing closure of Ten libraries in Herne Hill under Labour dominated Lambeth council and many other councils across the country and it simply isn’t good enough to excuse Labour councillors for acting like Tories.
    Anyway, the local elections are a seperate issue from the General Election and have little impact on the outcome there. I, for one, will certainly vote Labour then. But my article here was written to explain to people that local democracy is not being served as well as it should be and that more balance is essential here in Hastings. That is why I will be voting Green – the only party to come out straight away against the Marine proposal.

    Comment by Michael Madden — Wednesday, May 2, 2018 @ 13:48

  11. Andy Ammo

    Mugsborough is still with us, as this illuminating article shows. Central Government cuts have affected HBC badly, but that doesn’t explain why the Labour-run Council are so meek regarding developers who announce without penalty – once planning permission is in the bag – that they won’t build the agreed affordable housing after all. Or why the viability assessments are considered ‘commercially confidential’ when other councils (such as Manchester) publish them. Or why members at the Planning Committee so often sit around like mute or gormless puddings rather than represent the people who voted them there.
    As the Brigands-versus-Bandits chapter of ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ puts it:
    They thought of the Town Council as a kind of Paradise reserved exclusively for jerry-builders and successful tradesmen . . .
    If it is the law that Council members are in effect under-the-cosh from officers, why not say so? If the Council is Labour in Name Only (LINO), what is the point of it? I doubt that Robert Tressell would have voted for this Council with its atrocious record in planning matters.

    Comment by Andy Ammo — Wednesday, May 2, 2018 @ 10:36

  12. Tim Barton

    I would add, the Labour slate this time includes a number of new, and mostly younger, candidates. I they get in to the council they’ll be a new broom. Why elect anti-poor policy holding neo-liberal acolytes (and two token loons) as a ‘new broom’, when decent people are an option instead?

    Comment by Tim Barton — Wednesday, May 2, 2018 @ 10:06

  13. Jamie Tarrant

    Blinkered or otherwise, Ms. Doubtfire, I suspect many others will share my inability to see how an article implying the council has faced a 38% cut in funding, when the actual amount is a 68% decrease, could constitute a ‘very accurate description’.

    Comment by Jamie Tarrant — Tuesday, May 1, 2018 @ 22:25

  14. Ms.Doubtfire

    No need to correct minor typos Mr. Tarrant – what you really need to correct is your blinkered views and refusal to accept Mr. Madden’s very accurate description of the situation in this town.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Tuesday, May 1, 2018 @ 16:38

  15. Tim Barton

    well, at least the unemployed and those very low income will thank you if we ‘dilute’ the council majority: as, thanks to the late Jeremy Birch and the Labour councillors, we are, I’m told, the only Borough left in the country NOT charging any council tax to those unfortunate enough to have no income. This is hard to continue in the face of deliberate economic warfare aimed at undermining Labour councils, and the last thing we need is that dyke crumbling. Changes to universal credit next year are guaranteed to put a lot more people on the street, charging the poor yet more taxes they cannot afford is an insult it will be hard to avert without the Labour majority we currently have. We are seeing loans taken out, because at present the council is barely able to fulfil it’s commitments under the Municipal Reform Act – due to the political opposition strangling funds. Tressell may have been pleased to see a Labour presence here, but he’d recognise the forces of darkness pushing for free market liberalisation agendas as similar to the Tariff Reform Acts the greedheads of his own time were foisting on the poorer boroughs. ‘No amount of entrepreneurial socialism will save this town now’? Possibly not, we didn’t want it in the first place, it is forced upon us by Cameron’s disingenuous ‘Big Society’ fantasy – a fantasy designed to ease the pain of funding cuts for rich Tory boroughs and ensure the demise of poorer Labour boroughs. It is an ideological class war of rich versus poor, and is exactly why we must firmly support Labour here. If we, one day, get a central government and county council that will play fair, then we can allow the luxury of watering down our councils Labour presence if we wish.

    Comment by Tim Barton — Tuesday, May 1, 2018 @ 16:13

  16. Jamie Tarrant

    Why Tressell would vote Labour on 3rd May…

    The author bemoans that on Hastings Borough Council ‘if a minority group of Tories try to propose an alternative they simply get voted down. Be thankful that this is the case. One recent ‘alternative’ they proposed was for a further £729,400 council cuts, cuts which would have involved laying off at least 17 staff, with an inevitable impact on the council’s ability to provide front line services.

    But such hard facts would seem to have little purchase on the imagination of the author of this piece, who bemoans that the ‘Labour group blame the Tory government’s cuts for everything but are only partly right to do so’. The author goes on to remark that ‘central government funding has dropped by 38% since 2010.’ What he doesn’t note is that this figure is a national one which has little direct relevance to Hastings. Hastings has in fact seen its central government funding cut from £12.7million in 2010/11 to just £3.9m for 2018/19.As our friends stateside are fond of saying: ‘You do the math!’ (If you don’t have the time or the inclination, it’s a cut of 68%).

    How the author attempts to square such a devastating cut in funding with the claim that the Labour Council are ‘only partly right’ to blame such cuts for the impact on front line services truly beggars belief. One can only imagine that, were the author’s boss to slash his wages by 68%, he would be justified in claiming that such a wage reduction was ‘only partly to blame’ for the author’s inability to pay his rent and feed himself, with the rest of the blame being laid at the door of his own personal fecklessness.

    It is only the council’s ‘entrepreneurial socialism’, which the author so laments, which has enabled the council to continue with running front line services at all, given the extent of such swingeing cuts. That is why, were Tressell alive today, he would direct his ire not at our Labour Council, but at the Tory government inflicting such cuts.

    Comment by Jamie Tarrant — Tuesday, May 1, 2018 @ 12:32

  17. Ms.Doubtfire

    Excellent article which puts into context the problems faced by the electorate in this town.
    Mr. Madden asks ‘what can be done?’ – and suggests the answer is ‘not much’. How right he is. This council has decided that democracy and transparency has no place here – any endeavour to hold this council to account is slapped down pretty swiftly and you will find your name added to the list of vexatious complainants and worse.
    So long as this town is ruled by the majority Labour council nothing can change. The Tories are too few and too weak to mount any opposition. There is no easy answer to this question – but the writing is on the wall.
    With the crazy borrowing from the Public Works Loan Board bankruptcy looms on the horizon. No amount of entrepreneurial socialism will save this town now.
    As Mr. Madden suggests, tactical voting may be our saviour. I for one will vote for the Green party this time around. Time to dilute the majority in Hastings and give the smaller parties a chance.

    Comment by Ms.Doubtfire — Tuesday, May 1, 2018 @ 10:53

  18. Chandra Masoliver

    Thanks Michael Madden, an interesting clear article.

    Comment by Chandra Masoliver — Tuesday, May 1, 2018 @ 09:19

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