Oldham, which a study by the Office for National Statistics recently found to be the most deprived town in England. Fifteen years after riots pitted communities against each other, poverty is uniting residents of Oldham.
"I walk three miles from Shaw to Oldham every week no matter how the weather is, to come and collect the food here. I have to, I don't have anything else," says a middle-aged man in worn-out clothes as he devours his second portion of curry with egg. He clutches a parcel of donated food - cereal, pasta and tinned goods.
Many others make the weekly pilgrimage to the Oldham Unitarian Church every Monday morning. The One World Cafe at the church serves a free meal to around 70 people every Monday. White, Asian and black users sit together. There are locals and refugees, old people and young, homeless people and substance abusers, Muslims and Christians all eating together. The church, in partnership with the Islamic charitable organisation UK Education and Faith Foundation (UKEFF), runs a weekly "food and support" service. The service provides free food, clothes and toys as well as legal, welfare and housing assistance, enabling a network of volunteers and support groups to reach out to local people in need of help.
Hasan is from Bangladesh. He arrived in the UK three years ago and, as an asylum seeker, isn't allowed to work. He has been using the service for nearly two months and says the food parcel "is a massive help for getting through the week". Still, his family cannot afford to use electricity or heat their home and he says he struggles to feed them. The cafe offers more than just food for him. It's an opportunity to socialise. "Loneliness is one of my main problems in this town," Hasan says.
Johnny is an Oldham local and, as a heavy drug user, is one of the service's more vulnerable attendees. "UKEFF is one of the only places I can feel secure and relaxed and forget about the stress of my life," he says. "They are such giving people and I appreciate their help every week." After collecting his own parcel, Johnny volunteers in the cafe, serving food and tidying plates. "It's great because you can meet people from all walks of life here and, volunteer or not, everybody is treated and talked to at the same level," he says. "There is no judgement here."
During the 1950s and 1960s, migrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh arrived in Oldham destined for the mills and factories, where they were often employed for lower wages than the locals. But the country's industrial decline during the 1960s and 1970s was sorely felt here and when most of the mills shut down, few job opportunities were left for the town's indigenous or migrant population. It still hasn't been able to rejuvenate its economy and many of its residents live in poverty.
During a weekend at the end of May 2001, racial conflict rocked the town. After increasingly frequent demonstrations by far-right groups and tit-for-tat incidents between different communities, street battles broke out. Hundreds were arrested and 82 police officers and 22 passers-by were injured as bricks and Molotov cocktails were hurled in what became known as the Oldham Riots.
The Rev Bob Pounder Oldham’s Unitarian Church's minister, a staunch trade unionist and workers' rights activist,who used to be the secretary of the Greater Manchester Fire Brigades Union and once went to Iraq while the country was enduring international sanctions to show solidarity with Iraqi workers, explains, "Our mission is to show that another world is possible and that underneath it all, everybody just wants change in the town, but that this is only possible when everyone cares about those with least in society."
Nasim Ashraf started UKEFF in 2009 to address "the concerns and issues in society but from an Islamic ethos… to help and feed the needy and destitute", believes high rates of unemployment fuelled the trouble. "I think when people have a lot of time on their hands due to unemployment they are going to look for someone to blame, which causes divisions and fighting. I think that's what caused the riots. People were bored and frustrated and the frustration has to be geared towards something," he says. "Being British-Asian/Muslim, I feel there is still a classification of 'them and us'. We are third or fourth-generation immigrants and we need to start telling people, 'Come on now, we are good guys, we are British, just as British as you are'," he says. "We love a bag of chips on a Friday night and when we go to hot places like Pakistan we get sunburnt just like you guys. We are not 'you and us' we are just 'us'. We are one humanity. It does not matter what religion you follow."
The Socialist Party seldom win popularity contests as we decline to support charities on the grounds that such organisations are merely trying to deal with the symptoms of capitalism rather than capitalism itself. Are we unfeeling and uncaring, when confronted with the evidence of great misery and poverty in the world? Hardly, but we understand that misplaced caring within a capitalist system is as useful to the poor and dispossessed as no caring at all. The Socialist Party believe that poverty is unacceptable and unnecessary, whereas religions tend to see poverty as acceptable and, perhaps, even a necessary tool in their moral teachings. Charities are at best, ineffective, at worst, downright harmful in addressing society's needs.
First, they are ineffective, because they put the responsibility for dealing with some of our biggest problems in the hands of well-meaning but ill-equipped do-gooders. Thus, the government is very happy to relinquish this chore of providing essential services to charities eager to pick up the slack, charities who are accountable only to their trustees. The current government has made an art of such surrendering, and Cameron even speaks of the widening role of charities with pride. Crucial tasks are left to well-meaning amateurs rather than well-rewarded professionals, a practice that undermines workers. Don't get us wrong— we know that volunteerism is the basis of a truly socialist society, but that's volunteerism across the board. In the past charities used to top up services mostly provided by the government. Now charities are involved in every aspect of our lives and there is seemingly nothing we will not trust them to do.
Charities are a poor way of dealing with society's problems. Even the most efficiently run charity is grossly inefficient because of the nature of the beast. Charities respond to constant needs with inconsistent sources of income subject to the tides of a boom/bust economy and the public's response to this year's advertising campaign. Corners are cut as charities try desperately to balance their books. Charities look for quick-fix schemes that will impress contributors; long-term planning is an approach they can ill-afford. This is why, in the long run, charities are likely to damage more than help a worthy cause. Charity is a means of economic oppression because it maintains an ideology that is directly in opposition to socialism. Charity reinforces so many misconceptions about society: that social change relies on us being nice and feeling generous with what little disposable income we have; and that the disadvantaged should wag their tails with gratitude every time the wealthy toss them a bone labelled "charity".
Every charitable donation strengthens the notion that our basic needs –food, shelter, adequate medical care, basic education –are actually privileges. We have no right to expect our needs to be met, and we are meant to grovel like the degraded beggars we are when by accident we get what we need. We are conditioned to rightfully expect little of our 'democratically elected' governments. Capitalism and Charity have hand-in-hand worked to turn us into a world of few benefactors and millions of beggars.
Some might ask, considering socialists are out for a society where each gives of their labour and its produce freely, why we might be so down on charity. Our answer is, is that for us, socialism is not about moralistic giving and self-sacrifice, but a condition of society wherein helping others is the best way of helping ourselves though working to help others. The fruits of the common effort of socialism will not be gifts but, rather, the common wealth of all.
"I had become convinced as Ernest was when he sneered at charity as a poulticing of an ulcer. Remove the ulcer was his remedy; give to the worker his product; pension as soldiers those who grow honourably old in their toil, and there will be no need for charity. Convinced of this, I toiled with him at the revolution, and did not exhaust my energy in alleviating the social ills that continuously arose from the injustice of the system." – Jack London, Iron Heel