|History CP early 50s early 60s|
|Miscellany - Communist history|
HISTORY OF THE COMMUNIST PARTY –
After its defeat in the early 1950s, a process of its leading politicians beginning to simply follow the same broad ideological thrust as the Tories had seemingly delivered the electoral party of the working class virtually wholesale to Tory politics.
A left opposition of sorts did exist in the Parliamentary Labour Party but it was very much focused on leading individuals. Nye Bevan had been clearly on the left in the House of Commons during the war. After the landslide Labour victory in the 1945 general election, he was appointed Minister of Health, responsible for establishing the National Health Service. In 1951, Bevan was moved to become Minister of Labour and National Service. Shortly afterwards he resigned from the government in protest at the introduction of prescription charges for dental care and spectacles. His resignation, along with others was in protest at Chancellor, Hugh Gaitskell's, introduction of charges imposed in order to meet the financial demands imposed by the Korean War. Bevan effectively led the left wing of the Labour Party for the next five years.
In the meantime, and contrary to much retrospective suggestion, Tory politics began to shift away from the war-time consensus. In 1953, the end to the BBC’s monopoly on broadcasting was signalled with the passing of legislation that would result in the appearance of ITV. The same year, sweet rationing but not sugar rationing ended, followed the next year by the complete abolition after fourteen years of food rationing in Britain when restrictions on the sale and purchase of meat and bacon were finally lifted. Communists argued that all that the Tories had done was to “abolish rationing by the book - only to replace it by rationing by the purse”. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
When the decision to develop the first British thermonuclear device – the so-called H-bomb - was announced in 1955 Nye Bevan had led a revolt of 57 Labour MPs when Labour’s front bench gave the Tories their backing. Communists applauded this, for they stood for “the universal banning of the atom and hydrogen bombs, with international inspection and control; and for substantial reduction, by international agreement, of all other weapons and armed forces”. All this was to be seen in the context of an independent foreign policy, also. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] The prospect for adopting a unilateral step in the renunciation of nuclear weapons was a step yet to come for the vast majority of progressives beyond pure pacifists.
As Communists saw it, British foreign policy relied on building up a myth regarding the supposedly enormous Soviet military capacity as an extension of its supposed in-built determination to expand its territorial influence. Yet, in proportion to its population, Britain actually spent “more on its armed forces than any other country in the world. The weight of expenditure on the armed forces of Britain is much greater per thousand of the population than that of the Soviet Union. This fact, which exposes the falsity of all capitalist propaganda about the huge arms expenditure and war preparations of the Soviet Union, has been brought to light by U.N. economic experts.” [Daily Worker 2nd June 1951]
Failing to find a measurable comparison, in an economic survey of Europe, the UN experts estimated how many human-years per thousand of the population each country was in fact spending. While Britain's war expenditure for 1951 was 82 human-years per 1,000 inhabitants, and that of the United States worked out at 74 human-years, in the Soviet Union the comparable figure was only 49 human-years. Even more striking were the differences in arms expenditure between NATO countries and countries of eastern Europe. By this measure, war expenditure jumped in the United States from 30 man-years per thousand in¬habitants in 1950 to 74 in 1951, and in Britain from 47 in 1950 to 82 in 1951; in the Soviet Union it only increased from 43 to 49 over the same period. The report of the U.N. economic experts warns that for some countries of Western Europe the total of war expenditure will be raised to around 10% of net national income, and in Britain the share will be even larger, even though such nations “are not well placed to carry the additional claims of rearmament.
Thus, issues of peace and war were increasingly becoming critical. The United States had been agitating ever since the Korean War for international agreement on the rearming of West German military forces. Its promotion of a separate state for the segments of Germany occupied by Britain, France, and the USA was then seen by progressives as a highly aggressive act. To be clear: the responsibility for the division of Germany and the erection of a physical barrier in the shape of the Berlin Wall, however awful that was, lay squarely with the imperialist comfortableness with playing with fire – or more precisely with war. Communists argued that the division of Germany should be ended. “The Four Powers should meet, and in consultation with East and West Germany arrange for the holding of free elections throughout Germany to establish a single all-German Government.” [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
A parliamentary motion demanding talks between the four main wartime allies, now the major powers, before the final decision to rearm West Germany was put by Sidney Silverman (Nelson and Colne), Tom Driberg (Maldon), Harold Davies (Leek) and Michael Stewart (Fulham East), all MPs who had already had the Labour whip withdrawn due to their earlier vote against German rearmament. In support of the dissident MPs, and the wider issue, thousands gathered to bobby MPs on Tuesday January 25th 1955 against German rearmament. The National Assembly of Women’s especially brought a large contingent of working-class women from across the country. The Communist Party and a few close allies had been the main mobilising force but many Constituency Labour Parties and trade union branches joined in.
Bilateral agreement between the major parliamentary parties saw British support for German rearmament but it was by no means the major issue in political life. The Conservative Party had begun to worry about a need to seriously redefine its image. There had been speculation that Churchill, then still Tory prime minister, was very ill when, in early 1955 this was publicly conceded. Anthony Eden became the new Tory leader and thus prime minister in April. The government brought in a special tax cutting budget on April 19th.
There was widespread talk of disunity at the top in Labour and the fact that the Tories could make much of PLP support for Tory economic policy was highly damaging to the party. Tory chancellor R A B Butler and Labour’s shadow chancellor, Gaitskell, found their names linked in the phrase ‘Butskellism’, denoting the consensus politics favoured by Labour’s right wing. Also, Labour’s leadership was very elderly; nine members of the Shadow Cabinet were over the pensionable age. These factors, along with the poor state of organisation inside the Labour Party and the emergence of television, ensured Labour’s defeat at the election when it came.
The general election was held on 26th May 1955, four years after the previous general election. Sir Anthony Eden succeeded Winston Churchill as Conservative leader and took the Tories to their second successive election victory. The campaign was thought largely uneventful. The Tory manifesto had a mildly left-sounding title, `United for Peace and Progress’ But it offered very little in the way of specific policies; instead, the Tories made much of Labour's divisions and hinted at a planned takeover by the left, in particular, Nye Bevan. Labour's manifesto, `Forward with Labour’, promised only the abolition of the 11-plus exam and the restoration of the NHS to a free service, repealing Conservative charges for dental care. The outcome resulted in a substantially increased majority of 60 for the Conservative government against the Labour Party, still led by Clement Attlee. Of the 630 seats, the Tories took 345, up 24, Labour 277, down 18, and the Liberals 6, the same number, Sinn Fein had two seats (the same).
The Communist Party ran a total of 17 candidates, winning a total vote of 33,144; this was 4.67% of the total vote in the seats contested. Whilst the manifesto was wide-ranging, featuring for example the policy that Scotland and Wales should be given domestic self-government with their own parliaments and for the vote at 18. But it mainly focused on bread and butter issues, the broad context of the coincidence of Labour, Tory and Liberal policies was clear enough. In 1954 the Chancellor spent £1,640 million on the forces, “12s. 8d. a week for every man, woman and child in the country. Yet he allowed only £780 million—5s. 8d. a week—for education, health and housing combined. We can find £1,000 million right away for homes, schools and hospitals, if we cut military expenditure to the 1950-51 level and restore the Excess Profits Levy.”
Labour’s policy treated the cold war and the arms burden as inevitable and argued that there was simply not enough in the Chancellor’s coffers to enable a socialist welfare policy to be followed. Communists pointed out that there would be “plenty of money for pensions and allowances if the Government puts back the £203 million it took from the Insurance Fund in the last three years alone, and raises its contribution for the next five years to half that provided by workers and employers.” [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] Labour made things even worse by accepting “the American-imposed trade bans and the policy of colonial wars. It offers no prospect of establishing public ownership and control of industry in the common interest, but proposes to strengthen still further the big businessmen and employers. There is no vision of steadily improving social services—only a future of further sacrifice by the many for the benefit of the few. This is the kind of policy that led to Labour’s defeat in 1951.” [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
Fife West Bill Lauchlan 5,389 12.57%
The Communist Party vote in the county council elections of April 1952 had seen 10,859 votes cast for Communists in wards in the 15 constituencies which were contested. This came to approximately 17% of the Labour vote and 12% of the total vote; modestly acceptable but unassuming. Now the Party began to wonder if it had to be like that. Perhaps captialism’s weaknesses were greater than the confidence they exuded over the Cold War suggested?
Giving a report to an extended EC on February 14th and 15th 1953, Harry Pollitt noted that the Party's level of activity “represents a volume of mass and personal financial sacrifices unequalled by any other political party in Britain”. Although the Daily Worker did not any longer face a wholesaler boycott, Party members engaged in massive door-to-door and street sales of the paper. Weekend sales of Daily Worker averaged 49,000 additional copies sold in such a way compared to the Party’s membership of 35,671. (Although, it should be noted that, of this membership some half was concentrated in London, Wales and Scotland alone.)
Pollitt’s report was nothing if not self-critical throughout. Only a ninth of membership was organised at the place of work and the Party had paid a “terrible price” for its tendency to liquidate factory branches in the immediate period after the war. He proposed that the Party now see factory branches as the key, “since 1949 we have recognised the error made after the war in regard to factory branches; but progress has been slow. We need to establish factory organisation in hundreds more factories. Where our Factory and Area Branches work in a correct Communist fashion they systematically grow in size and influence”. Greater efforts were needed to win more women members in the workplace, in particular.
There were, Pollitt argued many good reasons "why it is considered difficult to win new members to the Communist Party” and he enumerated them:
Yet the balance sheet of the Party’s strength was not so terrible. The Party had 140 “women’s sections”, with a membership of 1,551; thus, perhaps some one quarter of its women’s membership was active in a specific women’s group. YCL membership was now 3,335 in 261 branches. There were 1,239 Party members in teaching, 1,676 in mining, 2,000 in transport, 2,500 members in the building industry, and 5, 500 in engineering. The broad issue political and information magazine `World News and Views’ sold 13,000 copies weekly, the theoretical Communist Review some 4,000 monthly, whilst Palme Dutt’s semi-official organ, `Labour Monthly’ sold 14,000 monthly.
The Party’s response was co-ordinated through district offices and leaflets duplicated locally; some 4,000 members distributed across the country some 500,000 at some 1,500 factory gates – a Herculean task but one that was undoubtedly accomplished! Whilst in 1952 alone the Party had held 2,000 public indoor meetings attended by 250,000 people; in addition there had been 5,000 outdoor public meetings attended by some 500,000 people, many being factory gate meetings.
Communists had long been heavily involved in tenants’ struggles and community campaigns, as when, in May 1952, nearly 200 children were involved in a ‘school strike’, after parents were unhappy at a free school bus being withdrawn. The affair was played out on the Harold Hill Estate Hill estate, at the eastern end of Romford, Essex, an overspill for London. Billed as the first major strike of school students for decades, the campaign received a good deal of publicity and was able to make real progress. The Press Officer to the campaign was Ben Cohen, who was aged 42 at the time. Cohen was the long-term branch secretary of the local Communist Party. He, it is said, played a greater role in local campaigns in this part of Essex than any other individual. A constant presence for decades, he both instigated and supported various incarnations of the Tenants’ Association. A school headmaster by profession, he had a strong personal following amongst the tenants’ association, of which he was chair. There were many such people as Ben Cohen in the Communist Party and they were in most Party branches. When a new phase of housing struggle began during the 1950s, Communists would not be found wanting.
The Tories had cut council house building and subsidies and “given complete freedom to private enterprise to build houses for sale, increased interest rates on housing loans for the benefit of the bankers, and cut housing subsidies.” The Party demanded the repeal of the 1954 Rents and Repairs Act, which aimed to increase the rents of 7 million controlled houses. Moreover, where the landlord refused “to carry out repairs, councils should be compelled to carry them out and charge the cost to the landlord, or take over the house at site value”. Communists proposed a building programme of at least 400,000 houses a year for renting, with priority and a special subsidy for slum clearance. “This should come before all luxury building”. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
Larger policies effectively dictated the slow Tory response to the severe housing problems of the time. Following the American ban on trade with eastern Europe had severely affected the price of building trade raw materials, such as timber; whilst interest rate policies were effectively dictated by the drive for armaments production that followed imperialist policies in Korea and Malaya. The Tories raised interest rates in 1952 from 3% to 4.25%, a move that in one fell swoop generally added some 7/- a week to the rent of a typical home. A new subsidy level set at 5/3d, which had not increased since 1946, clearly did nothing to cover the increase. Indeed the government openly accepted that its policy was to force local authorities to build smaller homes, no doubt to fuel a hoped-for demand for buying properties amongst the working class. The motivation was, naturally, to assist companies such as Wimpey’s builders to boost profits, which that firm had been able to do by no less than almost 26 times over between 1950 and 1951. In that one year, Portland Cement had seen profits leap by 60% and Marley Tile by 40%.
A particular problem existed with the way that government policy funded the development of the many `New Towns’ that had been planned for the south-east of England. During the course of 1951, those who had accepted the excitingly-put offers to move to Crawley found themselves “defrauded of what they were promised”. New town rents were generally 10/- a week more than similar houses in many London boroughs, which often saw housing as a social policy necessity. Crawley was effectively run by a Development Corporation and this could not seek to balance the books by generally levelling the cost across ratepayers, even if it wanted to. The entreaties of both the Parish Council and the Rural District Council to modify rent policy had been simply ignored and the effect was to force families renting homes to pay more than a quarter of their income just to have a home. As the Crawley Communist Party put it in 1952, “(t)his year the government will spend as much on armaments every fortnight as on all housing subsidies during the whole twelve months.” [Crawley Communist Party leaflet, “Rents can come down”, August 1952]
In 1953, the local Party set out a comprehensive critique of the situation prevailing in the new town, now heading for a population of 20,000, and proposals for remedy. Instead of the wondrousness promised beforehand to those who moved to Crawley, rents had gone up three times in two years and much of the town’s infrastructure was still unfinished, with prefabricated huts dominating the landscape. [“A Socialist policy for Crawley – programme of the Crawley Communist Party”, April 1953]
During 1953, the Crawley Tenants Association produced its own two-penny eight-page magazine. By now the entire local labour movement, including the Communist Party, was represented on a Rent Committee set up by the CTA; as well as the Association’s neighbourhood groups, some seven local union bodies, the Co-op Women’s Guild and the Labour Party all sent delegates. Another five local unions supported the aims of the CTA. [Crawley Tenants’ Association Newsletter, September 1953, No 4]
Communists in Crawley pushed their ideas for the New Town in a particularly vigorous way; arguments for a new maternity hospital, libraries, new schools a community centre, playgrounds, a swimming pool, and even “an experimental nursery school” resonated with citizens in the longer term with the actuality of need in a way that the rather more esoteric claims for the wonders of New Towns did not. So strong was the appeal that, by 1954, the local newspaper was seriously describing Communism as “Crawley’s No. 1 Talking Point”. Local dignitaries were “never weary of asserting” that the Communists were behind every broad people’s campaign. In the first parish elections the first Communist candidate ever to stand in Crawley, Dick Vines, obtained 119 votes in the Central Ward. [Communist Party Special, “Crawley – the way forward”, April 1954]
The legislation that had removed rent restrictions from council tenants and took away their security of tenure now began to bite. In Crawley, the Communist Party branch had been campaigning on rents since the previous summer, with a leaflet to every home, `Rents can come down’, focused on interest rates, subsidies, and building costs, linking these with Tory military expenditure and colonial wars and urged the Crawley Tenants’ Association (CTA) to become more and more active. [See: David Grove, “Crawley Communist Party in the 1950s; A Personal Memoir”, Our History New Series No 3, Communist Party (2007)] A major campaign now ensued when, on 17th October 1955, five thousand Crawley tenants received notices to quit with offers of new tenancies at higher rents. Two thousand tenants attended five neighbourhood meetings during the week following the notices. On the Saturday there was a spontaneous demonstration of several hundred outside the housing office. Shop stewards called for industrial action. On 26th October, at about 11am, a brass band marched down the spine road of the new industrial area, and as it passed each factory most of the workers came out and joined the procession. As David Grove, a participant has recalled, “It was a rare example of an industrial stoppage on a non-industrial issue. Building workers and housewives joined in; 5,000 people with hastily made banners and placards marched to the town centre; a mass meeting unanimously agreed not to pay the increases. Next week a clear majority of tenants paid only the old rents.” This magnificent response of tenants won them a three-year spell of freedom from rent increases, a higher subsidy and a slightly lower interest rate. But by 1957 the policy of inertia had seen house building at a rate of about a quarter that actually needed and significant infrastructure problems and absences still existed in social and welfare provisions in the new town. [David Grove election addresses - “Communist Policy for Crawley”, May 7th 1959 and May 12th 1960]
Whilst most local Labour Parties were largely drawn to working with Communists on such peoples’ campaigns as that in Crawley, the heavy hand of Labour’s national organisational bureaucracy, which specialised in periodic anti-Communist witch-hunts, often inhibited many local office-holders from practical work, unless it could be disguised as totally broad anti-Tory action. The difficulty for Labour’s leadership was that the best electoral performance they had ever achieved, in the 1945 general election, Labour had stood for public ownership, peaceful co-existence with the Soviet Union and major social welfare advances for ordinary people and, with such policies, it had swept the board. Gradually, until the rightwards drift became heady, Labour had adopted policies so near to those of the Tories that they were virtually undistinguishable in practice. In every election since 1945 – in 1950, in 1951 and now in 1955 Labour had lost seats. Where Labour and Communists stood shoulder to shoulder in opposing the worst effects of Tory and employer hostility to working class, the movement thrived. The obvious conclusion from this was simply too much for the blinkered visions of most of Labour’s leaders but even the most anti-communist of Labourites now asked themselves the question `What was going wrong?’.
WORKPLACE MILITANCY VERSUS UNION BUREAUCRACY:
After the 1955 general election, Attlee retired as leader, paving the way for Gaitskell who was to win the election for leader, which was then held exclusively amongst MPs. Nye Bevan contested the leadership against right-wingers Herbert Morrison and Hugh Gaitskell but the winner’s lead over the left’s candidate in an exhaustive ballot of only Labour MPs was fairly comfortable, despite the fact that the loser was more popular amongst Labour and trade union activists. Gaitskell won 157 votes, with Bevan and Morrison obtaining 70 and 40 votes respectively. Three powerful men, Arthur Deakin of the TGWU, Will Lawther of the NUM and Tom Williamson of the NUGMW had all but determined the result of the leadership contest. This weakness initiated a debate about not only the method of selection, but the nature of the new leader.
One factor that right-wing leaders pointed to was the apparent and sudden prosperity which came with relatively full employment, supposedly causing workers to become more Tory-minded. But this was a double edged sword, since business and government were becoming focused attention on the ‘problem’ of wages drift. Defined as the tendency for the average level of wages paid to rise faster than official wage rates due to increases in overtime, or upgrading of job descriptions, or other localised special payment, establishment noises about the conception were really more worried that the balance of wealth was being affected in favour of labour. But the reason that a strong wages movement began to take force was simply that prices were rocketing, especially of those of basic foodstuffs and of housing costs. Wages lacked behind prices until the effects of a fierce fight back began to close the gap.
Fig: The Retail Price Index (unbroken line) and the Wage Rate Index (broken line) 1947-1955
A Tory Government had even taken steps to force wages restraint and this had of course had an immediate effect on employment. With less money around, it argued, demand was stifled and the need for labour trimmed. Although, Communists pointed out, in 1953 the total amount of company profits had been £3,153 million, more than enough capital, if it were properly used! The working week was also too high, the main demand then was for a standard 44-hour, five-day week. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] To make matters worse, the wartime birth bulge, which created what we now call `the baby-boomers’, caused a serious problem in employment, especially in manufacturing.
In sharp contrast to today’s labour market, employment in this sector was massively significant, having risen to an all-time peak of 39% of the workforce in 1951. [Mike Savage and Andrew Miles `The Remaking of the British Working Class 1840-1940, Routledge, 1994, pp.22-3] With any economic upswing, employers faced a chronic labour shortage and labour felt its muscles. The labour supply position became acute, especially so with skilled engineering workers and of unskilled workers in all trades.
One decisive feature of the mid-1950s was the plain fact that employment in manufacturing had risen to an all-time peak of around 40% of the workforce and it remained at a high level throughout the decade. But another aspect of significance was that by this period, it was abundantly clear that the demand for labour, especially strong in engineering, was fixated upon a lack of supply of young people.
There is a sense on which the very notion of young people as an independent force in society now emerged for the first time. Until 1950 the term `teenager’ had even been unknown and young people were known as youths once they displayed signs of puberty. The contradiction was that becoming fully adult was only accepted at the age of 21 but most began their working lives at the age of 15.
Under the influence of the Communist Party, the trade union movement in Scotland had established long established a Youth Conference as part of the Scottish TUC and the AEU had its own structures. In the post-war period, the British TUC discussed the experiences but went no further. Although in 1954 the General Council was forced to prove its interest by making a statement urging more participation of younger union members. Under pressure from the AEU in 1955, the General Council told the union that it considered that there was enough being done in respect of youth. The next year, the clerical workers union, CAWU, and the AEU presented a motion favouring the establishment of a youth conference and committee of the TUC. The advisory body would be comprised of young workers elected at an annual youth conference and some General Council members, but the notion was just too much for the TUC and it failed to win sufficient support.
More substantially, throughout the 1950s there were sporadic and significant apprentices’ strikes in engineering and shipbuilding, testament both to the organising influence of the Communist Party in these industries and to the growing awareness of strength and the contradictory lack of say on their lot amongst young workers, which the Young Communist League was easily able to tap into. The secretary of the Clyde Apprentices Committee, a really significant body in this period, was always a member of the YCL. Whilst a hint in the name of the CAC reveals that its inspiration was the unofficial and adult Clyde Workers’ Committee of the First World War that was central to the emergence of the modern shop stewards’ movement.
It was Challenge that, in 1950, pointed out the pre-war engineering apprenctices had made history and, in effect, challenged the new breed of the day as to whether they would emulate their elder brothers and cousins:
CHALLENGE 1950 – ARTICLE ON THE 1937 APPRENTICES STRIKE
"Thirteen years ago this month witnessed the climax of a struggle that was to write one of the most exciting pages in the history of Britain's young workers. It is a story of Britain's young engineers and how they won a wage increase. It is a story for those who think it isn't worthwhile trying to fight for what they want—for those who say: "what's the use, no one pays attention to us, we're too young."
It is one of the proudest stories told in the pages of Challenge.
The battle started early in the year. The Amalgamated Engineering Union had negotiated a 3s. a week rise for adult workers—and holidays with pay and better overtime rates.
Fed up with working long hours for about 6s. or 8s. a week in the first year of their apprenticeship and about 30s. in the last year, the patience of the lads was reaching breaking point.
But the smile went from the faces of employers and pressmen when the strike grew day by day until 15,000 were out and declarations of support were coming from other apprentices all over Britain. The press began to hint that per¬haps the lads had a case. The employers were urged to meet the union. So the lads went back to work on union advice and waited for negotia¬tions.
But the Edinburgh apprentices came out the next week and were followed shortly after by the lads in Middles¬brough. Tyneside's young engineers threatened action and the local employers granted an all-round increase of 2s. a week.
By June the apprentices had pro¬duced a national charter on the initiative of the Clydeside lads. It demanded 3s. a week increase; a reasonable ratio of wages with those of the journeymen; trade training, and no sacking at twenty-one; holiday pay and overtime agreement; and most important of all, recognition of the union as the negotiating body for the youth in the industry.
Throughout the summer of 1937 the lads oragnised meetings, demon-strations, passed resolutions, and organised themselves for the next round.
In September came the explosion. Fifteen thousand apprentices struck in Lancashire. From 50,000 others came the demand:. "Pay up—or we quit!"
"Amidst great scenes of enthus¬iasm," reports "Challenge" (October 14), "every hand went up in support of the resolution, which called for an immediate extension of the strike everywhere unless demands were met; and in a further resolution they called for nation-wide strike action on Monday, October 18, if the engineer¬ing employers turned down youth's demands when they meet the trade unions this week,"
The National Committee of the Y.C.L. declared after the conference:
On the Spot-Challenge
Turning over the pages of Challenge week after week from those first September days makes inspiring reading. "Leeds, Coventry, Derby, London, Tyneside, Barrow and other centres prepare for action. Manchester lads demand swift settlement," reports Challenge September 30, and: "Leeds. Employers offered Is. to 2s. 6d. according to age and length of service. 'Mass meeting lads Wednesday turned this down. Decided remain out to win full demand. Central Executive strike committee elected. Full backing Union,' reads a wire from that city.
October 21. Challenge reported : "London—three factories, Siemen Brothers, Johnson and Philhps and Harveys all out, then Leeds with 1,300, then Sheffield and possibilities in Rugby. . . . Coventry—Pay up within fourteen days—or else! That is the ultimatum to the employers by the lads who returned to work on Monday. . . ."
Even after the employers had agreed to recognise the union as negotiators for the lads, the battle had to be waged for the bosses to pay up. For instance October 28. Huddersfield employed at Rippon engineers and coach joined the movement on wages. The management pay increases to some who joined the rest and came out on strike."
November 18. "One hundred and fifty lads; Siemens Engineering W walked out for one day to protest against the broken promise … engineering youth gave an ultimatum which Wednesday. . . . Unless was given, strike promised. ... In Sheffield strike committees have been set up in important factories."
Week after week the lads were given increases; victory had been won and a stage had been reached for a better deal for the industry. The young engineers showed that united action for the demands of youth, the great demand being for the right to live, can win. Such as was achieved in 1937 can now be repeated.
One Jimmy Reid, later to become well-known as one of the leaders of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ occupation in the early 1970s had been the 19-year old strike leader in Glasgow during the 1952 strike. He was by no means the only member of the Young Communist League in the leadership of the apprentices’ movement. Eric Park, another YCLer and an apprentice engineering draughtsman, was secretary of the CAC when a national conference of apprentices in Glasgow adopted the Charter of 1952, which included demands for apprentice closed shops, apprentice committees in all factories, a reduction in military service to one year and full recognition inside the CSEU. [Clyde Apprentice and Youth Committee, ‘Youth in overalls unite!’(c1952)]
This led to an apprentice strike. Generally, disputes in engineering were short, sharp, localised and invariably at the level of the company plant or shop. In contrast, apprentice strikes more likely were long in duration and covered more than one employer and AEU districts. The strike of 1952 saw more days lost than any other that year.
The geography of apprentice strikes suggests that the political stance of district union organization – a central issue in the AEU in particular influenced strike activity by apprentices. At one end was Glasgow and at the other was Birmingham; the former was left-wing the latter, in labour movement terms, largely right-wing. The north of England hovered between one stance and the other. AEU officials in Glasgow were quietly sympathetic in 1952 but hostile in Barrow. Whilst employers could still behave with ruthless paternalism; in 1952, the management of Rollo and Grayson, a Birkenhead ship-repairer, turned its fire hoses onto apprentice strikers from other firms seeking to cajole their own out on strike.
Again generally, the highest participation rate in this period in apprentice strikes appears to have been attained in central Scotland, where something like two thirds of apprentices in engineering employers’ federation plants took part in strikes in 1952. Something like half of the apprentices and junior workers in the central belt of Scotland and even places like Aberdeen and Dundee came out but only a quarter of those in Manchester and perhaps less than a tenth came out in Sheffield. Birmingham apprentices asked the Manchester strike committee to send a delegate to explain the issues but did not seem to take further action. But even if Sheffield’s walk-outs were confined to a few traditionally super-militant plants, they more than made up for their numbers in enthusiasm. There, apprentices marched through the city centre chanting “it’s not a question of greed, £1 is what we need”. In Glasgow, the chant was “one, two, three, four, we want one pound more”.
Membership rates among apprentices appear to have been as low as 10% in Scotland in 1952, although a thousand young workers had joined a union during the strike, mainly in Glasgow. This was no gesture of self-interest but a genuine conversion to collectivity. The AEU gave strike benefit payments to apprentices who were members before they had gone on strike but not to those strikers who joined during or after it.
Decisively, on the Clyde, shop stewards undermined the efforts of union officials to secure a return to work. For the Ministry of Labour the source of the problem was clear – one regional official complained that Communist shop stewards sent by their committee or union to attend meetings of apprentice strike committees, supposedly to encouraging them to return to work, were actually using their influence in the opposite direction! But it did not always require much agitation; the employers’ crassness was often the best recruiting sergeant. The dispute was prolonged in Manchester by the sacking and replacement by R. Broadbent & Son of the seven of its eight apprentices who had gone on strike, making them something of a local cause celebre. Manchester’s strike committee refused to recommend a return to work until the firm had reinstated all of the strikers. One week later, following discussions with union officials, the company allowed the dismissed strikers to apply individually for reinstatement, stating that their cases would ‘be considered favourably’. The strikers voted the following day to return to work. [Manchester Evening News, 19, 20, 27 and 28 March 1952]
But matters were very fluid, no sooner than one lot of lads (there very definitely no lasses in these days!) were brought back in one factory than another lot went on strike somewhere else. Travelling emissaries were often used to spread the strike to other areas, and inter-district committees formed, particularly in Scotland. When the strike waned, the committee sought to rally support or, when that looked unpromising, to organise a coordinated return to work. Edinburgh strikers in 1952, following a speech from a Glasgow apprentice, agreed to reverse a decision to return to work.
The strike movement of 1952, and similar ones in 1960 and 1964 dealt with later, all started with a token strike. The paternalistic punishment of apprentices for taking part by their employers pushed the mood into that of wanting an indefinite strike. Their apparently spontaneous character is belied by a sense that `sponsorship’ by adult militants both acted on and was influenced by the bravado of young workers. The shop floor nature of these struggles is underlined by the fact that the strikes and the committees were unofficial and unconstitutional; indeed in the apprentices’ movements of the 1950s and early 1960s, there was never any official union approval or any reference to national disputes procedures.
The engineering and shipbuilding industries were covered by a national agreement involving the employers’ federation and the Confederation of Engineering and Shipbuilding Unions (CSEU). Disputes procedures forced differences that arose at a local level through a tightly regulated sequence of joint conferences at works, district and then national levels. Under the agreement, only in the event of failure to agree was recorded at all levels in succession was either party free to take action. The unconstitutional nature of apprentice strikes was promoted by the exclusion from procedure agreements of provisions for young workers for the standard adult option of recourse to shop stewards for handling their grievances. Apprentices were required instead to approach either management, or a full-time district official direct, in order to retain procedural legitimacy, which in turn encouraged them to ignore procedure. Whilst this denial of procedural rights began to be eroded in the 1950s, indentured apprentices, a minority but nonetheless large group, were completely excluded from procedure until 1965.
In 1952, industry-wide negotiations on apprentices’ issues had been in a state of tortoise like progress before the strike. With their point made, apprentices called off their strike since they judged that employers’ associations and unions, would now have to more seriously negotiate on their interests. This was indeed the case, since major increases in national apprentice and youth time rates would follow. It had simply not been a priority and the log-jam had been more than effectively blown out of the water by the strike.
As the 1950s-early 1960s engineering young workers movement gained experience it became clear that, in general, an apprentice and youth strike movement might take six or seven weeks to bite. In high production factories, disputes involving apprentices could stretch for weeks before the effect would be felt. This often arose because, as a test and as a means to keep them occupied, apprentices might be put to doing production work on small components that were sent to stores. Neither the semi-skilled machine operatives – who were often on piece work earnings - who also carried out such work, after a machine was `set’ by a skilled man for them, nor the skilled men who maintained and managed the tools would be prepared to fill in for them. But the apprentices would have to wait until their absence began to slow down production.
But young workers could see the effect of integrated production processes in higher definition amongst other groups of workers who were as aware of their surroundings – and the vagaries of the related market driven upswings and downswings - as any workers is. Even if it had taken grit and determination to show their potential, young workers had demonstrated the ease with which Fordist mass production is disarticulated by breaks in the supply lines of commodity production.
No sooner was the apprentices strike over than the CSEU had put in a claim for a 15% increase in wages nationally in 1953. It was no coincidence; the idea of a national 24 hour strike was even now endorsed. The CSEU had been reluctant to move to the presentation of annual pay demands, but had been forced to do so by worker pressure over high living costs. The AEU was strongly for the one-day strike action, but many TGWU officials were still dragging their heels.
Nonetheless, a ban on overtime and piecework was decided upon from January 1954 by the unions in the CSEU. In response, the Minister of Labour rather promptly appointed a court of inquiry, which nonetheless proposed an award based on the employers’ offer of 6s 6d for unskilled, 7s 6d for semi-skilled and 8s 6d for the skilled. Thus, a major conflict in the industry was averted, even if the ambitions of engineering workers were not – at least for the long term.
Elsewhere, in industry, on the railways the NUR’s leadership decided upon a national strike both in 1953 and 1954. But the issues went to two special courts of inquiry, which decided essentially in favour of the employees over wages. In 1953, an offer of 4/- increase was improved upon after a total rail strike was threatened. ASLEF and TSSA were offered a review of the wages structure. Only the intervention of the Minister of Labour, Sir Walter Monckton, in proposing such a settlement had prevented conflict. Yet, the NUR had to propose strike action again in 1954, as Christmas approached and the settlement of 1953 had still not been received. Railway workers faced the prospect of a strike from January 9th 1955. ASLEF had obtained more from arbitration causing the NUR to refuse a 15/- offered increase.
A side-effect of the strike-that-never-was actually led to a rule-change by the TSSA. Previously, TSSA could only participate in a strike if it had the sanction of the annual or a special conference. The significance of this arose from the very real problems at work that white-collar rail staffs were now experiencing. Between 1948 and 1956 the railway industry suffered a loss of 78,000 employees. It was not only the shift away from steam that drove the job losses, clerical and technical grades suffered, too. In 1959, for the first time, computers were used to produce timetables; “two people, operating the computer for 30 hours, produced a timetable that previously had taken 5 clerks 2,000 hours”. [`Single or Return - the official history of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association’ TSSA on-line] By the end of 1962, there were 60 data processing centres equipped with 40 electronic calculators and a number of small computers.
There seemed endless burgeoning problems on the railways that never came to fruition. A strike threatened by the NUR in January 1955 was averted by a Court of Enquiry. A national strike by ASLEF took place from 28th May to 13th June 1955, the first national stoppage on the railways since the 1926 General Strike. The backcloth to this was the increasing meddling by government in a nationalised industry that they had never really warmed to. Indeed, the Tories were gradually and mainly quietly seeking to demolish as many aspects of Labour’s early post-war social reforming agenda. In transport, the Government tried to sell off as much of the road transport that had been nationalised, which traded as British Road Services (BRS), made easier the raising of fares and decentralised British Rail.
As a result of rail nationalisation, railway-owned road transport undertakings, some 700 privately owned companies, with 21,500 vehicles had been taken over one way or another and BRS had been transformed into a single concern with 40,000 vehicles and 75,000 staff and this was now up for sale. A massive campaign against this first and early Tory attempt at privatisation took place, which certainly restrained many asset strippers. Although the government tried hard to break up and sell off BRS in 1954 and 1955, a good part of the corporation remained in public hands.
The left of Labour, in the shape of the Bevanites, not only seemed to be voicing similar concerns to Communists in the realm of policies for peace, they accepted that state ownership of the `commanding heights’ of the economy, as opposed to a wholesale policy of nationalisation, was necessary to maintain control over the economy. But, as well as campaigning against road transport and steel denationalisation, the Communist Party arguably had a much clearer view on the whole issue. “When nationalisation was brought in by the Labour Government it was widely welcomed. Why, then, is there such disappointment with the results? Because it did not bring a new deal for either the worker on the job or the consumer. Too much compensation was paid, and remained a charge on each industry, creating a burden which has kept wages down and prices up. The boards of the industries are full of ex-owners and other people of a capitalist outlook who do not believe in nationalisation. No wonder that the managements’ attitude to workers and staff is the same as in the days of private ownership.” [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)]
In January 1955, a White Paper `The British Transport Commission: Proposals For the Railways’ suggested a programme of `modernisation’. But much of this was badly conceived and in 1956 and 1959, the Plan was reviewed by the Government, and its persistent intervention led to a brake on investment. Several projects were postponed and to make matters worse, a decline in the national economy brought a lower demand for coal and steel which had its own adverse effect on the railway industry. In 1960, the modernisation programme came to a halt
In 1956, after almost seven years of discussions between unions and rail managements, a new Machinery of Negotiation was established, introducing improved consultation procedures at local, regional and national level. Its terms stipulated that only staffs who were members of a trade union party to the Machinery were eligible to make nominations for, or to be nominated as, staff members for local and sectional consultative councils.
A high-profile national newspaper strike in 1955 featured in the general election and resulted in new bargaining arrangements with the Newspaper Proprietors Association and an era of union power and competitiveness between newspaper titles emerged. National newspapers were unpublished for 26 days due to a maintenance workers' strike involving the electricians' and engineers' unions. 700 workers who maintained printing machinery struck for a wage increase of just over £2 a week. One of the few national papers to be unaffected by the strike was the Guardian which was printed in Manchester. But more than this, a divergence between Fleet Street and the provincial press was inevitable as the former now entered its heyday.
But it was the mining industry that earned a reputation for localised militancy, even before young workers had succeeded in spreading the taste for it to the engineering sector. Disagreement with management over piecework earnings became a key factor in a spate of local area strikes during the mid-1950s. Nowhere was this more evident than in Yorkshire. Yorkshire’s coalfield was rife with rank and file militancy that sprang from a system where pieceworkers' wages weren't fully related to the amount of coal they produced. Almost half of their earnings came from a complex range of allowances that were negotiated at the point of production.
All too often, the National Coal Board officials negotiating did not have the power or abused their power. Little wonder that, in 1954, the Yorkshire Coalfield had more stoppages than the rest of the country and the highest number in the post-war period. The Party’s one-time full-time organiser in the Yorkshire coalfield from 1953, Frank Watters, described them as “like `bushfires’, flaming up in every part of the coalfield”. NUM officials were incapable of dealing with the volume of disputes and, in some cases, so discredited they would not show their faces at the collieries.
Although the Communist Party was a powerful, even dominant, force in Kent, Wales and Scotland, by this period the volume of coal mined in Yorkshire was making it especially significant. Although there had been voluble and influential Communists in the coalfields of the biggest county in England in the past, the miners’ union had a history of leaders with a right-wing controlling behaviour but of members with determination and grit. This contradiction was to be challenged and a course for its change set with a spark that lit flames across Yorkshire for the next several decades created in the small village of Armthorpe, where several highly-talented and committed Communists lived and worked.
Yet this transformation had not begun propitiously. In a coalfield of 150,000 miners in 130 pits there were less than a hundred miners in Party membership in a dozen pits. The Party had a mere three members out of the 136 delegates to the NUM Area Council. A strong challenge had come by February 1954, when the election for the National President of the NUM saw the Scottish Communist Abe Moffat ranged against the Yorkshire miners’ leader, Ernest Jones. Moffat was only able to poll a poor 162,396 to Jones' 348,391. Even so, the Party had done well in Yorkshire, Jones’ home base, to promote itself, with 6,000 pamphlets by Moffat being sold and over two thousand copies of a Daily Worker special with an article by him on miners’ wages. Three hundred people attended a Communist public meeting with Moffat as speaker and 25 recruits were made to the Party during the campaign.
The great unofficial strike of 1955 would probably never have come without the anomalous size of piece workers' wages that were made up with allowances and the practice of local management rejecting these without knowing the real nature of working conditions. But, in May 1955, the Armthorpe branch acted on the relentless grumbling of its members’ hostility to the situation. The Communist-led Doncaster NUM Panel, a kind of local district federation of colliery branches, backed any action by the Armthorpe branch. The following day, another mass meeting was held in Armthorpe, with all of the pits in Doncaster represented. Jock Kane, then President of Armthorpe, gave a brief report of the dispute. Representing Yorkshire NUM was Fred Collinridge, who was “the most hated and vicious right wing leader; not only incompetent, but lazy and never available when needed … A massive cloud of hands for action went up. The coalfield was waiting for this.”
But there was a need to communicate directly with the men of the west Yorkshire pits, at some distance. This is the first recorded use of "Flying Pickets", with the NUM Branch Committee sanctioning funds for cooked breakfasts and petrol allowances. The picket was an absolutely resounding success and took both managements and union bureaucracy by complete surprise. Within days the coalfield was at a standstill and 45,000 miners were on strike. As officialdom attempted to restore order and failed, the strike lasted two weeks. It resulted in a resounding victory against the employer over the issue of supplementary payments, even if the miners had to resort to fighting their own union bureaucracies in the process!
Following the 1955 Armthorpe strike, it was decided that, in addition to the union having the elected five Area Officials covering the whole of Yorkshire, there should be five Area Agents embracing the eight Panels. The Party contested three seats and supported two lefts. Communist, Abe Collins was elected, representing Rotherham and Worksop Area. In the Doncaster Area, Jock Kane won on first preference votes alone but it was finally defeated by 155 votes. In the Barnsley Area, Sammy Taylor was also only narrowly knocked out by preference votes. Nonetheless, three Communists had come from nowhere and polled a total of eleven thousand Yorkshire miners’ votes. The Daily Express carried
In the larger industrial relations sphere, the wartime prohibition of strikes had been finally rescinded in 1951 after prosecution of unofficial leaders of gas and dock strikes lead to demonstrations. The Industrial Disputes Tribunal was established for settlement of disputes by compulsory arbitration and to legally enforce collective agreements. The TUC had refused to co-operate with earlier Government attempts to control wages, but now toyed with the idea. By successive measures over the next few years, culminating in the Terms and Conditions of Employment Act of 1959, compulsory arbitration as a left¬-over from the war was abolished and free collective bargaining substituted. Although some trade union leaders contemplated the possibility of a wages policy directly linked to productivity. This came just as there was a marked trend in industry towards work study. The very complexity of bargaining around these matters brought a greater involvement of local representatives of workers.
Many companies had retained some form of consultative machinery from the wartime experience and the new climate seemed to favour a revamp of works committees with a wider remit than merely negotiating wages. Such bodies were supposed to only discuss working conditions, accident prevention, efficiency of production, incentive schemes, transport to work and recreational matters. But, increasingly these items became negotiable; the thin line between consultation and negotiation was easily transgressed. That improvements in incentive schemes could be considered a matter of consultation would be considered unbelievable within a decade, as local piecework and bonus schemes became the very essence of union pay bargaining and shop stewards became central to this process. Trade union events of the middle 1950s were the crucible in which this change was forged.
The employers had offered a 6/- increase on the basic at the lower end of the pay scales. A court of inquiry reported in May, offering an alternative to the unions of either accepting the offer as it stood on the table, or to accept extra cash with strings to control ‘unconstitutional’ strikes, that is to say those strikes that did not wait on the lengthy and cumbersome disputes procedure. This issue of procedure would dominate debate about unions in this period and nowhere were national bargaining procedures more fraught than in engineering.
Merely progressing a constitutional dispute through procedure involved consuming much time; leastways often-times, it seemed that it was deliberately engineered to be so. Disputes did not seem to involve action but merely the bureaucracy of arranging a series of staged meetings, culminating in a national level conference always held in York. Until then, neither party was expected to take action of any kind. The agreement that provided for this tardy procedure, which of course hugely favoured the employers, dated back to the 1922 lock out. It had never really been acceptable to the unions, always seen as something forced upon them at a time when they were weak and lacked the ability to resist the imposition of a one-sided procedure. The employers desired to maintain and even strengthen their control over unofficial strikes, which all of those outside of this procedure would be. Only in 1972 would the unions eventually be able to jettison the more restrictive of the York procedures, with a hearty sigh of relief.
As far as the 1956 negotiations were concerned, these dragged on to the following year, when the CSEU decided by a majority vote to accept the court of inquiry’s proposition of a higher increase, but to seek talks to eliminate the more unpalatable of the strings attached to this. Skilled men got 11/- but unions had to agree at national level to impose a twelve month standstill on all wage applications in the industry. This kind of thing was bound to store up trouble for the future, as the national leadership of the AEU assumed a studied moderacy the effects of wages drift began to undermine differentials and fuelled resentment between time served workers and semi-skilled ones who could boost earnings by deft manoeuvring of piece work systems. However, localised bargaining suited areas like the Midlands, where considerable improvements over and above the national minimum rates were very common. The multiplicity of unions and the imbalance that arose from the AEU’s membership dominance was a brake of progress. Forward momentum on the wages front would never really be made through sector national bargaining in the engineering industry, although the basis for company-level bargaining through combine joint union shop stewards committees was made in the 1950s and lay the basis for much success in later years.
Communist Reg Birch contested the Presidency of the AEU against Bill Carron in 1956 but lost decisively (famously, in the 1960s he would become a Maoist and break with the Party). In time, the Communists and the left in the AEU, which was very strong in the Manchester area, would be able to promote Hugh Scanlon (1913–2004) to be a challenger for the Presidency when it came. As an apprentice instrument maker in Manchester, Scanlon had worked at the Metro-Vickers engineering plant at Trafford Park. There, he became a shop steward, before attaining the position of convener for the plant. He had joined the Communist Party in 1937 and rose through the union, becoming a district official in 1947. Although he left the Party in 1954 – well before what for some were seen as the `crisis’ years – he continued to work very closely with the Party. Indeed, his rise to be the "broad left" candidate within the union can be seen as very closely prefiguring a later development.
It is true that Manchester engineering Communists, notably Eddie Frow, was a long term delegate to the AEU National Committee and secretary to the Manchester District Committee of his union, made strong efforts to link up semi-organisationally with Labour lefts in the 1950s. Benny Rothman was also part of this trend. More famous for his leadership of a mass trespass on the Peak District in 1932, Rothman was convener at the Metro-Vickers’ plant where Scanlon had cut his teeth. Rothman was victimized but won mass support when a dispute arose when a welder was told to do a fitter’s job. Rothman called a meeting – with management permission. The men struck for an hour and the proposal was dropped. The management seized on Benny’s taking part in the hour’s stoppage as an excuse to sack him.
Nearly 3,000 men struck immediately to protest at this blatant victimisation. The AEU Manchester District Committee supported the men. They remained out for eight days. The Strike Committee printed leaflets and a small paper called ‘Unity’ in defence of the right to strike and lobbied the AEU EC to recognise the strike. This was refused, although they allowed dispute benefits. The Strike Committee then became the Re-instatement Committee and in March 1952 the 75 AEU Metro-Vicks shop stewards confirmed their view that Benny had been victimised. The management conceded that an application for re-employment for Benny could be considered ‘after a reasonable time’. Reasonable was never defined and Rothman had to find work at Staveley Machine Tools of Broadheath. He had won his point at Metro-Vicks but wouldn’t go back.
But it was not always so easy to build left unity, especially with Labour’s NEC being so trigger-happy at the time when it came to expulsions of their members for associating with Communists. But it is worth making the point that the very notion of Broad Lefts in unions hardly existed before the late 1950s and early 1960s. Essentially, the left was largely constituted as the Communist Party, with occasional individuals in the Labour Party being seen as `crypto-communists’, or `fellow travellers’.
Whilst it would take a later generation to explore the trend, the departure of some from the Communist Party in the period of the Cold War, for one reason or another, inevitably created a de facto Broad Left, especially if they maintained friendly relations with others, or (as with the case of Bert Wynn, the Derbyshire miners’ leader) even having partners or close relatives who maintained their Party membership. Incidentally, this was not an unusual occurrence; whilst none of the post-Deakin T&G leaders had themselves ever been in the Communist Party, it did not escape the notice of some that Frank Cousins’ wife, Nancy, had allowed her Party membership to lapse, possible to avoid embarrassment for her partner and a damaging of his early career, whilst Evelyn Jones, married to Jack Jones after her first husband, George Brown, the Manchester-based Irish Communist who died in Spain, was in a similar position.
Another Communist in the engineering industry, who pioneered left unity and won a remarkable adulation amongst the mass of AEU members in his locality, was George Caborn. He was leading light on the Sheffield AEU District Committee as a lay member for some years. During the mid-1950s, Caborn was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist Party, representing it at the 8th Congress of the Communist Party of China in 1956. The right-wing AEU Executive removed his shop steward's credential in 1960 due to his sponsorship of a rank-and-file conference. Even so, effectively, he remained as convener, simply reverting back to his branch role on the Sheffield DC. At the end of 1960, he was elected AEU District President, a post he held until July 1968 when he was elected District Secretary, a full time position which he held for very many years afterwards, dominating the local union scene.
ANTI-COMMUNIST BANS AND PROSCRIPTIONS
The nightmare that was McCarthyism has rightly become a by-word for a gross travesty of the very thing it purported to defend. British “McCarthyism” took its brief from the 1947-8 period, when the Communist Party opposed the Marshall Plan and the military rearmament and expansionism that followed. British support for the plan effectively resulted in US demands for cuts in British housing and social service expenditure to finance its share of the burden. Communist Party opposition fuelled internal dissension in the Labour Party and in the trade union movement. In a state of righteous fury, Labour leaders launched an anti-communist campaign. An example of the ruthlessness, with which internal dissent was dealt with, is the expulsion of John Platt Mills, the left Labour MP for Finsbury for the “crime” of sending a telegram signed by 21 Labour MPs, wishing success to the Italian Socialist Party, who were contesting a general election in alliance with the Communist Party of Italy.
It was but a short step from silencing dissent in Parliament, to silencing dissent by act of Government. In 1948, the Cabinet approved proposals worked up over the previous year for anti-communist propaganda operations and Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, introduced positive vetting of the civil service in March, thus effectively removing Communist Party members from employment by the State. Communists were by definition removed from duties “vital to the Secretary of State”. The case of one Communist, Dorothy Abbott, can illustrate the lunacy of British McCarthyism. Abbott was seconded by the Department of Overseas Trade to be employed as a shorthand typist to the office of the commercial counsellor at the British embassy in Moscow from October 1945. But she was a committed, 25-year old, Communist when she went and the USSR was an ally of Britain, but it was inevitable following the launch of the cold war by NATO that her post would lead to problems for her.
Attlee’s 15th March 1948 statement set ground rules for the employment of members of the Communist Party as civil servants. Seemingly, “experience, both in this country and elsewhere, has shown that membership of, and other forms of continuing association with, the Communist Party may involve the individual of a loyalty which in certain circumstances can be inimical (i.e. detrimental, or hostile) to the State”. But it was as late as March 1951 before Dorothy was handed a memo that charged that she was “associated with the Communist Party in such a way as to cause doubts about her reliability”. The Air Ministry wrote to her in April 1951, offering her a position in the National Parks Commission at Devonshire House, Mayfair Place, which was conveniently near Green Park tube. She would retain her existing rank and seniority as a clerical official. By the following year she was seconded to a Foreign Office department, the Administration of African Territories, also in Mayfair Place. Others
Bans in Parliament, bans in Government … why then not bans in the trade unions? Setting the pace was the Australian Workers Union, which decided to ban Communists from holding office - the first union to do so after the suggestion of the Australian Prime Minister. One early British example of anti-communist intolerance was when Arthur Horner, the General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers was formally rebuked by his union’s President, Will Lawther, for a speech in Paris in October 1948 which encouraged and supported French miners in the CGT national strike against redundancies in their coal industry. From hereon Horner was barred from making political pronouncements.
Underlying all this was the assumption that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, that the Communist Party was a direct instrument of Soviet policy and nothing more and that because of this it constituted a danger to national security, which excused anything. That there was British security service penetration of the Communist Party is without question. The only issue at stake is how far into the organisation the interference went and how effective or even necessary it was. It is now well established that one Betty Gordon was a MI5 plant for ten years in the Party, “Soviet Weekly” - a British based friendship journal - and the British Society for Friendship with the Soviet Union (BSFS) in the Fifties. Whilst the F4 Division of M15 practically did nothing else but spy on the Party and its allies; F4 had deep cover penetration agents ran from a flat in Exhibition Road, South Kensington. Given such an obsession by the State, with a Labour Government in office, it proved possible to steer the trade union movement in an anti-communist direction. The TUC proved to be a willing partner in this crusade, particularly as the major trade unions and the TGWU in particular, with its huge block vote at Labour Party and TUC conferences, were paranoid about Communist infiltration.
As early as 1947, the T&G executive council noted that the Labour Party had proscribed the BSFS. By August 1947, its general secretary, Arthur Deakin acted against London Bus branches being invited to affiliate to the BSFS, well before the contrived walk out in January 1949 of Western unions from the executive of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a body actually founded in London in 1945 and which united unions East and West, thus beginning forty years of division. Deakin had become President of WFTU, being nominated by the British TUC, in 1946. After he had led the departure of unions, preparations were made from June towards the formation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in December. Clearly, during the course of 1948, Deakin became hell-bent on ridding British trades unionism of any Communist connections.
The TUC issued a statement on “Trade Unions and Communism” at the end of 1948 and a pamphlet entitled “Defend Democracy”, which centred upon a supposed Communist conspiracy to disrupt the economy of the West. Affiliated unions were asked to investigate the extent of Communist activity internally and to consider specifically whether Party members ought to hold office. The position regarding Trades Councils was immediately looked into by the TUC and a circular (which many Trades Councils ignored) recommending the barring of Communists as delegates was issued. The results of these preliminary considerations of the TUC were announced in March 1949, when the TUC roundly condemned the Communists, stimulating a general warning from the Prime Minister the following month about the evils of Communism.
The TGWU journal, the Record, in October 1949 proudly, if sycophantically, recorded that Deakin “impressed everyone with scathing words about the interference of Communist agitators.” This was especially strong, claimed Deakin, in the docks, where the Communists’ “avowed intention” was to do all possible to retard the nation’s recovery.” To avow is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to admit or confess”; was this really the declared aim of the Communist Party? According to Deakin, the “strike weapon was obsolete”; now that really was an avowed intention to avoid strikes!
In January 1949, Deakin had claimed to have knowledge of a Communist Party plan to disrupt industry during the month of August. Was he shown some scanty report from MI5 based on surveillance? Or was it simply all made up by him? Despite this “foreknowledge”, the total number of days work lost through strikes in that year as a whole compared very favourably with previous years. There was only a small dispute by train drivers in ASLEF on east coast routes and a four day strike in the Yorkshire coalfield of 500 winding enginemen of any note at all; August was a very quiet month.
Deakin became obsessed by the “Communist spectre” beyond reason and almost above all else. He viewed the Communist Party as responsible for nearly all serious instability in industrial relations. Perhaps the fact that an increasing number of Communists and Lefts were elected to leading positions in the TGWU, in the aftermath of the radicalising effect of the war and the election of a Labour Government, unsettled Deakin. Ernest Bevin had been absent from the leadership of the union from 1940, but Deakin had never been really in control. Although nominally in charge whilst Bevin was at the Ministry of Labour, Deakin was very much under Bevin’s shadow. It was only in late 1945 that Deakin took over finally as General Secretary. Given his personality, views and style, friction between himself and the self-confident left was to be expected. However, Deakin did not have Bevin’s folksy charisma, so inevitably the conflict took an administrative and sneaky turn.
It was thus that the decision of the TGWU Biennial Delegate Conference (BDC) in July 1949 to bar Communists from holding office, by a vote of 426 to 208, was by no means an accident or a sudden reaction to some single event, it was the culmination of a clear political project initiated almost single-handedly perhaps by Deakin himself. The BDC had been swung to a majority on an ill-defined understanding that the bar would only apply in the future, so that no individual currently enjoying office or employment in the union would be penalised. But in the event, Deakin and his supporters were merciless. Nine full-time officials, including the Passenger Services National Secretary, Sam Henderson, lost their jobs and Communist executive members Bill Jones, a Finance & General Purposes Committee member and Bert Papworth, a TUC General Council member were removed from office when they all refused to sign a renunciary document, the Declaration of Non-Membership of the Communist Party.
Some members of the Communist Party resigned their membership and thus saved their jobs, but this was to the opprobrium not just of Communist Party members, but often of ordinary activists. One former left Labour MEP as a young boy learnt of such an action on the part of an Edinburgh TGWU officer, through the wry and bitter comments of his mother. Cab divers’ activist Sid Easton was characteristically more unforgiving. Harry Pollitt’s biographer, John Mahon, reveals how Sid was told, when he was obliged to deal with TGWU officials who had left the Party, by Harry, “It’s better to speak even if you call each other names, than not to speak at all.”[p433 “Harry Pollitt- a biography”, Lawrence and Wishart 1976]
November 30th 1949 had been fixed as the closing date for receipt of the declaration. Three officers failed to return the form, but this was due to absence from illness. The nine dissidents returned their forms, but did not sign the declaration:
S. Henderson National Secretary - Passenger Group Central Office
But of course it was not just the full-time officers who suffered debarment; very many lay office-holders were affected. Delegates to the 13th BDC which had taken the decision were debarred, as delegates hold office in between BDCs in case the need for an emergency or recall BDC occurs. Six delegates returned the form unsigned, although 128 refused to respond at all - possibly some were due to apathy, but it is equally likely that many were expressing a gesture of dissidence or disgust with the very concept of politically vetting delegates.
This removal of leading Communists was carried out with ruthlessness and even vindictiveness. When Deakin proposed to advertise the jobs of those dismissed, thus replacing them even before their appeals were heard, he declined a request to delay this pending the appeals and won the GEC to his position. Protests that the BDC had not meant that existing officers would lose their jobs were brushed aside. Since the resolve of the BDC was phrased ambiguously, Deakin could construct a sort of an argument that the union was opposed to victimisation, even opposed to Communists loosing their jobs because of Party membership. But, he now clarified, this was in industry!! Employers should not be allowed to get away with holding a person’s politics against them, but the union’s ban was about holding office. This sophistry was Deakin’s answer to the plea that the BDC was told that the ban would not apply to full-time officers. Deakin set his face against appeals that this was just not so. The protests of a Passenger Group National Committee remit to the GEC, challenging its interpretation of the BDC’s resolve was ruled out of order. It was not even allowed that a vote be taken to commit the union to Deakin’s implied interpretation - that if members (not officers) lost their jobs due to the ban they would be given union protection.
The protests of no less than one hundred and four branches, the Passenger and the Chemical and Allied Trades National Committees, Area 7 (Scotland) Area Committee and the Cab Trade Section in Area 1 were simply met by what Deakin presumably assumed was a clever “outmanoeuvring” of the “reds”, but what was patently dishonest trickery. Would the BDC have voted to accept debarment if it were clear that sackings would occur? We shall never know for sure of course, but the left of the day certainly thought not. The Chemical National Committee demanded the GEC recall the BDC to resolve the doubt. Perhaps the failure to answer this not unreasonable call testifies to the intellectual weakness of Deakin’s case. The BDC then and later earned a fine tradition of oft-experienced determination to trounce the leadership at least once or twice in each conference on matters of principle and a fondness for emotional appeals to fair-mindedness. Few who know of this could genuinely doubt that a capable speaker, armed with the fact of the dismissal of a popular figure like Henderson, arising from the passing of an ambiguous motion, could have at the very least dramatically reduced the majority of 218, perhaps it could have even been overturned.
Such a bar to office was completely against the spirit of the TGWU’s constitution, The 1922 Rule Book, the first, had provided the criteria for eligibility for holding official positions in the union … 1) two consecutive years “financial membership” … 2) a candidate must be employed (or have connection with) the trade group he or she would represent at the time of nomination … 3) the candidate would be “in full benefit” at all times on forfeit of the position. That was all.
Arising out of Bevin’s struggle with the London bus workers, control mechanisms were later added. The 1937 edition of the Rules introduced the requirement to produce a card as evidence of such a condition. While the holder of any official position was to conduct all union business within official union bodies only; a ban therefore on rank and file bodies, although these simply assumed organisational forms which evaded the ban. In these rules the GEC was given the power to proscribe any body which dealt with questions of wages and conditions (or any matter affecting the union). However, such organisations would have to be detrimental to the policy and purpose of the union and the GEC would be expected to impose penalties considered appropriate and just, where necessary.
Aside from the clumsy trickery which Deakin indulged in after the BDC, he allowed himself and the union an unduly imbalanced sense of discipline, whereby dissident views from the right were treated with a tender touch. It should be noted that the TGWU’s ban on Communists did nothing to restrain the activities of members of the Conservative or Liberal Parties, who continued to enjoy the privilege of holding office even though they supported parties that were strongly opposed to that to which the union was not only affiliated but a key player in, at this time. Any pretence that the ban applied equally to Fascists was a subterfuge, for the far right had never established a base in trades unionism of consequence and no fascist was ever brought to book under the TGWU Rules. For the moment at least, the ban was immovable and acted a brake in general on progressive and militant action by them union. More unpleasantly, the bans resulted in what was after all the biggest union of the time, in a petty and vindictive behaviour that targeted Communists for what one can only call a spot of licensed bullying.
Underlying all the official hostility to the Party was the assumption that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, that the Communist Party was a direct instrument of Soviet policy, and nothing more, and that because of this it constituted a danger to national security, which excused anything. That there was British security service penetration of the Communist Party is without question. The only issue at stake is how far into the organisation the interference went and how effective or even necessary it was. Given such an obsession by the State, with a Labour Government in office, it proved possible to steer the trade union movement in an anti-communist direction. The TUC proved to be a willing partner in this crusade, particularly as the major trade unions and the TGWU in particular, with its huge block vote at Labour Party and TUC conferences, were paranoid about Communist infiltration.
That the TGWU’s ban on Communists did nothing, as with most other cases in the trade union movement, to restrain the activities of members of the Conservative or Liberal Parties, who continued to enjoy the privilege of holding office. Any pretence that the ban applied equally to Fascists was a subterfuge, for the far right had never established a base in trades unionism of consequence and no fascist was ever brought to book under the TGWU Rules. [See: Graham Stevenson, "Anti-communist bans in the TGWU 1949-1968", in G. Stevenson (ed.), The Life and Times of Sid Easton, (1992)]
Compare this kid-glove treatment with another case from the same period. A London bus activist, E C Sheehan of the 1/325 Catford branch, had left the Communist Party and despite his Regional Committee’s support for his personal ban to be lifted after he signed the Declaration in November 1951, the leadership declined to accept the position. They would only reconsider their position if the individual could prove non-membership of the Party. He had to deny his membership and make contact with the Party as difficult as possible. Something more than a mere personal declaration was now being sought, perhaps an act that went far beyond mere renunciation.
It would be nearly two decades before some could contemplate a legitimate leadership role, unless they resigned their Party membership and recanted. Even then some found rehabilitation to be grudgingly given, dependent upon having a “good attitude”. Pure membership of the Party increasingly became only a technical matter in a war against rank and file militancy.
The witch hunt was relentless, if not widespread. Rather, it sought to intimidate by example. Action against shop stewards’ movements in the Docks and Passenger Groups increasingly became the real objective, with Party membership the formal excuse. In mid 1950, Bill Jones was given a final warning, with his union membership in doubt, over his association with a rank and file journal. On Sunday August 31st 1952, his branch, Dalston, held an open mass meeting at Shoreditch Town Hall, contrary to an instruction given that this would an “unconstitutional act”, contrary to a General Executive Council minute of May 1946, which made it “not permissible for a Branch Secretary to summon a meeting of members of any other Branch than his own”. All Dalston’s branch officers and the entire branch committee were suspended by the Regional Secretary from holding office, contrary to the rule book. After the lifting of the suspensions to accord with the constitution, the Regional Committee debarred all concerned from office until the end of 1953.
The Peckham 1/1401 branch also held an open mass meeting at Catford Town Hall, Lewisham, in September 1952, again contrary to instructions. In fact both meetings were concerned with the reference of the annual wages claim to an Industrial Court. The GEC held an enquiry in October to look into the whole affair. Dalston’s defence was that the branch had only invited others to attend, they had never “summonsed” them.
Since Deakin had also introduced a new Rules Conference, a smaller body than the BDC, to assume the powers previously held by the larger conference and also made proposed changes to the rules something only permissible once every six years, the first attempt was at the 1956 T&G Rules Conference. This new entity, due to the internal mechanism used to select it, would gain a reputation in the long term of being ultra-conservative and very loath to make changes of any kind. Changes in the union arising from recent Deakin’s death had yet to percolate through and the motion removing the ban was lost by a vote of 60 to 27.
A few other unions had bans and constraints, but these were mostly in unions with a fairly right wing history; perhaps the other most serious one other than the T&G’s ban was the provision in the rulebook of the National Union of Railwaymen, which stipulated that its President had to be a delegate to the Labour Party and be eligible to sit on its national executive. Leading NUR Communist, Dave Bowman, it was widely conceded, was prevented by this device from becoming NUR president.
More likely, Communists would find themselves in conflict with employers and deserted by their union for fighting for fellow workers. Many faced victimisation at work in this period. From 1954, Jack Askins worked a conductor on Manchester Corporation, producing a printed monthly paper, the Busmen’s Clarion, from July 1954 to February 1956. The paper became very influential and was not liked by either the council or the union hierarchy. A clear plot to sack him ensued. After a union branch meeting, when he was not on duty but was wearing uniform, he was apprehended by an inspector, when in the company of four other uniformed employees, for not paying his fare. Some 300 other workers had left the meeting in uniform but only Jack was `tailed’. In those days, no staff passes were issued and workers generally recognised each other when they boarded a bus and were not expected to pay. With the union diffident about his dismissal and the corporation completely hostile to reinstatement, Jack did not press the issue, in the interests of maintaining unity amongst the workers for the more pressing struggles ahead. The effects of Cold War propaganda could still be felt amongst the workforce. After a spell on the markets, Jack went lorry driving but illness forced him to give this up but not his union work. Jack was a major contributor to the fight against bans and proscriptions against Communists in the T&G and became a regular delegate to the TUC from his union.
SPYING ON AND IN THE COMMUNIST PARTY
MI5 had an extensive network of agents inside the labour movement, aiming to keep them safe by never overexposing them. The previously mentioned MI5 agent, Betty Gordon, spent her 10 years inside the Communist Party with the aim of becoming personally close to Harry Pollitt. Tom Driberg, later a Labour MP, was an MI5 informant (not a key agent) inside the CP. In 1954, the Communist Party expelled Driberg for being Agent M8. Driberg was most surprised, as he didn't even know MI5 had given him a code-name! Whilst the writer and ex-secret service officer John le Carré (real name David Cornwell) some four decades after these events would write an affectionate in memoriam to an old informer of his. It was 1999 and the recently deceased 'Harry' had been long-term stalwart of the Communist Party. This deep mole had attended weekly debriefing sessions with MI5 controllers from the late 1950s. He had volunteered for the most difficult jobs in the Party, becoming a trusted and valued comrade, even if the intelligence he provided did not amount to much. [The Guardian November 27th 1999] Cornwell does not indicate whether this `Harry’ was one Harry Newton, who was later exposed as an MI5 spy inside the Party and other progressive movements. John Saville, the Hull University academic who left the Party, has revealed how Newton passed himself off as a family friend for a period. MI5’s interested in Saville was clearly motivated by his opposition in the Communist Party after Khrushchev revelations on Stalin.
It has been alleged that one Peter Thiele was a police informer. He had left Norfolk Labour Party to join the Communist Party in 1956. A regular contributor to Country Standard, the Party’s rural journal, by 1961, he had moved to Kingston, where he was known as a prominent member of the local Communist Party branch, which had significant membership in the defence engineering industry that then existed there. It is impossible now to verify this but the information regarding this comes from a former member of the Kingston Branch of the Communist Party and may be summarised thus. Thiele had strong connections in Czechoslovakia. A member of the Kingston branch, who cleaned Thiele’s house after his wife had died, found compromising material that pointed in the direction of the alleged link - presumably with the Special Branch. It is believed that Thiele left the Communist Party after the disclosure was made. (Peter Thiele is now dead.)
In all that has been written about the British Party, especially on these years, so much has focused on famous people, the literati, the intellectuals, the pompously important trade union figures that took the opportunity of controversy to dump the Party that had projected them into the limelight. So many, many thousands just got on with it! And their enthusiasm brought them both joy and pain.
In the of Sheerness, long-term Communist Party member, Win Langton was so excited for her daughter, when she learned she was going to the Warsaw Youth Festival, that she collected hundreds of signatures for a letter of friendship for her to take. This ended up being reported in the local Sheerness paper, so taken were the many people with her openness. When the Kent District Committee of the Party learned of this they contacted Win and before long she was herself on the committee! Having taken time out to have a family, Win now found herself propelled back into Party work. As the DC meetings were on Sundays, Win prepared the family meals on Saturdays. In no time at all, she enjoyed a week’s Party women’s school. Easter 1959 saw her on the CND Aldermaston march with her nine-year old younger daughter. Later that year when Win at the end of a month’s anti-apartheid campaign saw a Territorial Army parade in Sheerness she couldn’t resist the temptation to precede it all on her own and so lead it the length of the High St. carrying her ‘Boycott S. African goods’ banner aloft. Besides selling the ‘Daily Worker’ she regularly brought in a trolley to the annual Bazaar a hundredweight of home made jam, made from fruit picked from local hedgerows.
Others faced victimisation and often hardship as a result of their refusal to ditch their principles. Many, as we have seen, gained mass support. Teachers who were members of the Party were particularly vulnerable. Reg Neal’s appointment in October 1950 to the Headship of Bounds Green School, had led to Conservative-controlled Middlesex County Council refusing to endorse his appointment, and then imposing a blanket ban on the appointment of Communists to Headships, which lasted for years. This also affected fellow teacher and Communist G.C.T. Giles, a President of the NUT. Prominent Communist, David Capper, who had played an important role in policy framing for the 1944 Education Act, taught at Battersea Grammar School from 1945 to 1956. He took a post as Assistant Master at this voluntary aided school and continued to be very active in the London Teachers Association. He was primarily teaching Geography rather than French, his degree subject. This rendered him open to an attack in 1953, when the Head asked him to transfer to another LCC school. Capper got the support of both his union and the school's Staff Society voted overwhelmingly against a plan to put the transfer proposal to the Governors. But he would end up searching for employment for some time to come across the LCC.
By the time that MI5 publicly declared that `communist subversion’ was no longer a key target for its activities, in the year 2000, it had accumulated a quarter of a million files on the Communist Party. [See: Peter Hennessy `The Secret State’ Penguin (2003)] This is an extraordinary degree of intelligence, given the level of Party membership at any one time, even if agglomerated over the entire period from 1920. There was permanent surveillance on the part of MI5, including a hidden microphone embedded in the wall of the Party national office in King Street, London. Routinely, day in and day out, phones were tapped and letters opened.
Releases into the public record of the national archives in May 2003 from the security forces included files on a large number of British communists and sympathisers from all periods, wartime and post-war periods until 1953, the present cut-off date for release of Security Service files. Amongst them were prominent national and regional figures in the Communist Party. The main reason they have been released is because they seem to show nothing much of interest. But, as in archaeology, often what is not there tells us something about what might be elsewhere!
The Intelligence forces that had worked against Nazi Germany found no difficulty in quickly reverting to their pre-war obsession with the Soviet Union. This had been formalised with the creation of the Information Research Department (IRD), in 1948, a psychological warfare organisation, set up within the Foreign Office. Labour junior Foreign Minister of the time, Christopher Mayhew, died years later assuming that IRD had been his creation. But he had merely adopted proposals which had already been agreed on by the secret state. IRD grew to have a staff of 300 and became the leading source for Communist conspiracy theorists in academia and the media. The following sentences are based on impeccable historical sources, yet published comments on these lines in the 1948-76 period, perhaps even later, would have been dismissed as crackpot conspiracy theories, or Communist propaganda.
In 1956, IRD began running operations intended to damage the image of the Communist Party, a style of work that would later culminate in a ludicrous attempt in the 1970s to portray the Provisional IRA as being run by Moscow. IRD briefed most mainstream British journalists and hundreds world-wide in the first really organised spin-doctoring of the British media. Most approved journalists, in defiance of the then supposed norms of journalistic practice, habitually and lazily used the texts supplied to them with minimal editing. Classified material, with suitable `interpretation’ was fed to trusted correspondents.
The BBC, far from carrying out its supposed mission to be fearlessly independent, was up to its eyes in collaboration with the SIS. It was established practice for the Chief Assistant to the Director General to liaise with MI5 on behalf of his boss, receiving quarterly security briefings to keep the BBC up to speed with the requirements of the security forces. Shortly before he became BBC Director General in the 1950s, Sir Huge Green unhesitatingly spoke of its propaganda role (a phrase he had no problem in employing) to the NATO College in Paris.
Little wonder that, in the cold war period, the view of the world crafted by the secret service was the standard for public opinion. The bulk of IRD distortions of the motives and actions of Communists and their allies would be laughable if it were not for the tragedy that often resulted. For example, the IRD and MI6 worked with the CIA from as early as 1962 to undermine President Sukharno of Indonesia, after the US and Britain secretly agreed a strategy to “liquidate” him, the consequence of which would be the mass killing of over a million Indonesian Communist Party members.
IRD also fed information and damaging propaganda on Communists and sympathisers within the British labour movement through confidential recipients of its briefings. Vic Feather, later General Secretary of the TUC, was certainly one if its main informants from the 1950s whilst he was a back-room boy in Congress House. Documents were supplied to the media and to the Labour Party National Agent's Department and the Organisation Subcommittee, the disciplinary machinery of the party. Information on a local basis from police Special Branches also came in from routine surveillance of local Communist Party branches, local unions and organisations such as CND. Data collection by business groups such as the Economic League and the Building Employers Federation was important and the Special Branch particularly collaborated with local employers and their national self-help agencies. MI5’s `C’ division handled security clearance for defence contracts and worked closely with private sector intelligence.
The US State Department, via the London embassy, also supplied a vast amount of intelligence. Despite the opening of archives in the USA, little of this role has yet been elucidated, no doubt because of the sensitivity of the notion of interference in sovereign states. But over a thousand pages of reports made by the New Zealand US embassy to the State Department on the tiny local labour movement have been declassified and show surveillance down to the level of trades councils and union branches. It is more than likely that a similar degree of interest was shown on the far more significant British labour movement.
Home Office papers released in 1995 reveal for certainty that agents were placed right at the heart of the Communist Party’s leadership. In September 1940, Sir John Anderson, in referring to these agents was only in favour of prosecuting the CP leadership because of its attacks on pre-war appeasers and hostility to the war at that stage of its phoney character “if that can be done without uncovering channels of information which it is essential to keep”. In other words maintaining the inside agents was more important. [Guardian February 8th 1995] Only a couple of low grade agents have so far been revealed, one Olga Gray was infiltrated into the Party in the pre-war years for example. In 1950 M15 burgled the office where the CPGB’s membership list was held and photographed some 55,000 records, some of which can be seen on-line at the Public Records Office website. Then there was the 1950s bug, or radio-microphone, found in King St, the Party’s central office, in 1975.
The eighth batch of secret files released in 2001 (well over a thousand files still remain closed and who knows how many were `lost’?) “fully vindicates those radicals who claim that the 20th century British state erected a substantial system of surveillance mainly aimed at the left”. [Robert Taylor, New Statesman 19.11.01] A vast number of individuals had secret files held on them detailing all manner of matters. Many prominent intellectuals, often harmless individuals who liked to be honest in their thinking, who were never anywhere near like being attached to the subversive activities of social dissidents, such as Communists, had bulky files of subjective comment devoted to their entire lives.
Just for a moment, apply the previous sentence not to Britain but to the Soviet Union, or the GDR. It is a salutary lesson to reflect that all states, however relatively stable their social relations, engage in prying, often jumping to ludicrous conclusions in the process. But “British Communist Party members came under the closest surveillance of all”. We now know that, for example in 1935, there were no less than 3,000 “security points” covering Communists. This is something like one-fifth of the membership of the Party at that time. For cost effectiveness, only the key comrades, the most stable of the membership, were selected for phone tapping, mail interception, or even shadowing of their movements.
Such tapping, bugging and mail interference was so widespread and routine that Communists bore the mild inconveniences that arose, usually due to ineptitude, with humour. Most of non-Communists acquaintances, who casually heard of these activities, thought Party members were perhaps a bit paranoid. A former postman in Whitechapel in 1946, where the Party had an MP (Phil Piratin, Mile End) and quite a few councillors, noticed that none of these people got their mail “without it went upstairs to be examined”. The “Indoor Investigation man was never off the sorting office floor … making sure that the usual addresses were taken off the frames for their journey to some secret hide out upstairs”. [Bill Connor of Heywood, Lancashire, Guardian 1.2.1997]
Such intervention routinely continued until, certainly, the most recent years. Annie Machon, a former and now disillusioned agent of the security forces has revealed that her duties enabled her to know that all post to the Communist Party’s headquarters was routinely copied. Even when a schoolboy wrote, asking for information on a topic for a school project, he was assigned a personal file and labelled a sympathiser. [Annie Machon `Spies, Lies and Whistleblowers’ The Book Guild (2005)]
Most full-time Party workers and important trade union activists who were Communists found their lives intertwined with security force personnel, even if many did not know it. One busy national official, Betty Reid, found a domestic home-help whom she befriended, only to discover many years later that her former employee was an MI5 plant. The story was widely publicized at the time of her discovery since Reid re-estab¬lished relations with her former friend, and they exchanged Christmas cards until her death!
We can take one case in more detail to illustrate the obsessive and quite pointless spying on Communists, that of Clement Palme Dutt. Brother to the rather more well-known Rajani Palme Dutt, Clem as comrades called him was often referred to as CPD (his brother, Clem called normally him Raji, more famously was RPD) in letters and minutes. Clem was known by his probably childhood nickname to all in his family, including his brother, as `Bocca’. The British security forces would at times seemingly boggle at this `secret’ name. The one good thing that emerges from the detailed files kept on Clem from when he was about 30 to when he was about 60 is that posterity, granted access to seventy of the Public Records Office MI5 files held on him at Kew, is able to now make a detailed biographical sketch of an otherwise previously largely invisible personality only known to posterity for the enormous quantity of his translations of classic Marxist texts, to which he was largely solely devoted in the 1950s. It did not stop the spying, though.
Even into old age, every single address he had ever lived at, in Britain or abroad, was carefully recorded in one file, with details of co-habitees and originating sources. The core suspicions had been initially created almost entirely due to Clem's role in the 1920s and 1930s in fostering a liberation movement for independence in India, when it had been firmly part of the British Empire. Every single letter and phone call to and from King Street, the Party’s headquarters, and Central Books, where Clem worked in the 1950s, was copied by typists or Photostatted, or typed up, and kept in files relevant to persons mentioned in them. It was a costly and time-consuming business. A Photostat machine was then as large and expensive as an industrial press. It consisted of a large camera that created images directly onto 350 foot rolls of sensitised paper. After a 10-second exposure, the paper was directed to developing and fixing baths and then dried. The result was a negative print, which could be used to make any number of positive prints. It is this source that forms the basis of the gigantic files MI5 kept on Clem Dutt.
Copies of his actual Party registration cards in the 1950s, completed in his own handwriting, are in his file. His continuing shareholding in Central Books was investigated. At times, the files convey an impression that Clem was viewed as being a master criminal but perhaps the state simply saw all Communists this way! He was even followed on holiday to Cornwall and surveillance kept up. His attempts to obtain paid and secure employment as a translator were stymied. When he was invited to Moscow by the Foreign Languages Publishing House to assist in the translation of Marxist texts, which MI5 did not know about, he was watched carefully to see what the job he was engaged in entailed. The obsessive detail to which the security forces were devoted is revealed by a phone tap record between Clem’s wife, Violet (V) and Harry Pollitt (H):
A review of his case in 1953 concluded that: “In the light of his record, I find it impossible to believe that he has not been engaged in espionage. Only by April 1954, it had been decided not to classify him as an espionage risk. But, even so, the spooks continued to watch him. Everywhere Clem went, especially in and out of Britain, he was stopped and searched and a report made by Special Branch of his belongings and statements. Clem and Violet came back to Britain in July 1954, “possibly on holiday”. An enquiry as to whether he had returned in October 1954, established that he was living in Moscow again, “where he is understood to be employed in translating STALIN’S works into English”. (Registry files for Britain secret service always rendered a subject’s name in upper case; somewhere, there will have been a set of cross-referenced files on the Soviet leader but these do not appear to have been yet released.)
A report in October 1954, clearly arising from a mix up between Bocca (CPD) and Raji (RPD), trying to clear the matter up, pondered “unless, grim thought, there is a third DUTT brother”! The response, “Heaven forbid!” suggests the fear that the talent of the brothers inspired in the British state. But it was alright: “It must be C.P.D. CUBIST now confirms.” Clearly, Cubist, a deep entrist spy for the British security forces had wrongly identified Clem, even though, in 1955 Clem and Violet had a flat directly opposite the Kremlin and it was in Moscow that Clem devoted his remaining years to translation work of a high calibre. Not surely worth the expenditure that the British state thought it deserved. All they had to do was to wait for the FLPH editions to come out and pop along to Central Books to buy a copy of `Economics of the Academy of Sciences of the USSR’, `Economic Problems of Socialism in the USSR’, `Political Economy, A Textbook’, `The poverty of philosophy’, `Fundamentals of Marxism-Leninism: Manual’ or various notebooks, letters and the like of Marx and Lenin!
All this observation of so many people who were never guilty of a single crime through up scant evidence of any real link between the British Communist Party and the secret services of the socialist countries, even if the secret services of Britain were all too close to the British Party! Even if, all this time, the real Soviet agents were mostly people bred in the establishment and mostly completely unsuspected. What is clear is that it was to the advantage of the British state to know what was going on inside the Communist Party because it gave it a greater insight into what was going on inside the trade union movement and, by implication, an ability to assess the potential damage that the then social democratically inclined Labour Party might do to the interests of capitalism. Or, recalling the so-called Zinoviev letter, may even have provided possible dirt with which to smear the Labour Party. To close this edifying, if slightly ridiculous, account of the paranoia of the secret state’s hostility to the Party, permit a slight detour into a few years earlier than the period covered by this volume to make a final point.
In case it is thought for one moment that the cold war gave some kind of excuse for security force attention on Communists of the intrusive and irrelevant kind revealed here, MI5 thought nothing of it even during the Second World War when the USSR was a sworn ally of Britain. Consider the case of Communist and former International Brigader John Larmour, a man who home with a wife, a small child and a baby was turned over on a whim in 1945 simply because MI5 wanted to know what was in the last will and testament of a wealthy woman. Larmour worked for Eva Reckitt, the main owner of Collett’s, a left-wing and peace movement bookshop; she was also an heir to the fortune of a part of the famous name of Reckitt and Colman. After being bombed out of housing in many places in London, Reckitt offered her employee, John Larmour, and his wife Ella, a fellow Party member, space to temporarily live with their baby son at her cottage on the South Downs, where a daughter was also born in 1945. Sometime towards the end of the war, this cottage, 'The Hollow' at Houghton between Storrington and Arundel, near Worthing was raided by police but for what possible reason was always unclear until MI5 records were deposited in the National Archive.
Eva Reckitt was never actually a member of the Communist Party but she had first come to MI5's attention in 1923 when mentioned in intercepted communications between leading Party members. One of her close friends, the journalist W N Ewer, had seemingly utilised Reckitt to assist in siphoning funds abroad but inside the British Empire (whether hers or the Comintern’s is unclear) to people who were probably activists campaigning for Indian independence, such a campaign being an illegal act at this time. This supposedly justified the Home Office keeping a permanent warrant legally justifying surveillance on her for the next 30 years. MI5 also kept on file all this time a hand-drawn map showing the location of Reckitt's cottage, which purported to show how its relative isolation made it unsuited for keeping up surveillance on, making it suspected for being a `safe house’.
Years after Reckitt had been listed for permanent observations she had a row over politics with a neighbour to her cottage. This person reported her to the police for subversive activities and, on this thin pretext, West Sussex police made an absolutely thorough search of 'The Hollow'. No doubt, the baby’s cot was searched! The police report includes a summary of the contents of Reckitt's will, which was found amongst her papers. The raid on the cottage appears to have simply been a trawling exercise using the neighbour’s complaint to justify entry to the cottage. Special Branch will have obtained details of the beneficiaries in her will simply because MI5 wanted to know. The secret state simply wanted to assess to what extent the Communist Party might gain financially from the death of Eva Reckitt! In fact, when she did die, many years later, the bulk of Reckitt’s estate went to set up a perfectly respectable charitable foundation. Oddly, Collett’s premises themselves were never seemingly subject to surveillance but it is believed that the consequence of secret state attention never quite faded for John Larmour and that he was watched at his next home all during the 1950s
“Naturally, where Communist candidates were standing, there arose difficulties in respect to official declarations from trade union organisations. In Dundee, where Dave Bowman stood, many leading workers signed a recommendation addressed in their individual capacity to fellow workers in the particular industry, urging them to vote for Bowman. In this way 64 transport workers, 91 railway workers (Bowman is a railwayman), 50 building workers, and 107 shipyard workers signed."
"Photostatic copies of the signatures appended to the appeal were reproduced first in separate leaflets according to the industry and distributed at the enterprises concerned, and then all together in a four-page folder issued on the eve of the poll The effect was very good."
"My own experience in the last ten days before polling day in Gorbals is interesting … Apart from factory gate meetings outside such important enterprises as Queen's Park Loco Works (at two different gates), Weir's, and Dixon's Iron Works, I was able to speak inside a number of enterprises either in the canteens or in the workshops. In the United Co-operative Baking Society canteen, where at least 200 men and women workers, including staff employees, heard our case. In Larkfield Bus Garage, in the Uniformed Staff Canteen, with eighty to ninety present. In two different workshops, where 200 and 150 engineering workers attended. In the Corporation Print Works canteen fifty were present (more than three times the number who listened to the Tory candidate in the same place); and in Coplawhill Car Works canteen I spoke to over 300 workers."
"In addition I spoke to a group of doctors, nurses and domestic workers on the staff in the lecture room of the Samaritan Hospital. All the other candidates were given similar facilities. The meetings varied in length from half an hour to fifty minutes maximum. My usual practice was fifteen minutes statement, then questions... There were, in my case, at a number of the meetings, small groups of Catholic workers with prepared sets of hostile questions."
"The attitude of the mass of the workers on the whole at these meetings was one of serious concern, and while it could not be described as generally supporting, was with one exception friendly. The exception was the Uniformed Staff Canteen meeting, where groups of Catholics deliberately tried to break up the meeting, not only by putting hostile questions and ones that were based on untruths, but interrupting the replies with comments that were just the repetition of falsehoods or slanders. Even here, however, the majority of the workers obviously resented the tactics employed."
So, it is clear that where Communists were able to engage with ordinary working class people on straightforward terms, they were able to break through the heavy barrier now beginning to emerge as a result of the Cold War. Feasibly, one factor that may have been put forward as a genuine fear about the Communist Party as a `security’ weakness was the high commitment to policies of peace and détente that featured large in the interests of many members. That is assuming that one accepts that a warlike policy towards the many nations of the world that rejected NATO and its aggressive impulses. It is likely, however, that having once created a state management system of overseeing the work of British Communists that in the later decades when trade unions faced themselves increasingly at odds with the state that this security force ability was more and more focused in that arena.
Oddly, at this point, MI5 was seemingly less aware of the increasing strength in the trade union movement of the British Party. This would change and dramatically so during the 1960s and beyond. But for now, it was the focus on friendship with the Soviet Union and her close allies that obsessed the British security forces. Nowhere was this more evident that in the fears the state’s apparatus had over the World Youth Festivals, although their paranoia began with the even more innocuously British Cultural Committee for Peace (later the British Peace Committee). Formed in 1948, this had backed the call of the Stockholm Conference in 1950 and launched a peace petition which became a particular focus for activity for Communists. A total of 1.3 million signatures in the extraordinary atmosphere of the time was a remarkable achievement. Even the fact that the votes at various trade union and Co-op conferences for a Five Power Peace Pact had seen four million members express themselves in favour of this demand was nothing short of miraculous given the widespread existence on bans on Communists holding office in the labour movement.
The BPC was an affiliate of the World Peace Council (WPC), set up in 1949 but immediately derided by NATO as a `Soviet front organisation’, to work for “peace, disarmament and global security; for national independence, economic and social justice and development, for protection of the environment, human rights and cultural heritage; solidarity with and support of those peoples and liberation movements fighting for the independence, sovereignty and integrity of their countries, and against imperialism”. [http://www.wpc-in.org/informationletter] It continues to exist as a NGO member of the United Nations, co-operating with UNESCO, UNCTAD, UNIDO, ILO and other UN specialised agencies.
The WPC’s Stockholm Appeal launched in March 1950 aimed for the banning of atomic weapons. 473 million signatures were collected internationally. Communists in Britain were virtually alone in organising the collection of 50,000 signatures for the Stockholm Peace Appeal and were central to the attempted convening of the Second World Peace Congress in Sheffield in November 1950. The Executive Bureau of the World Peace Council had planned a World Congress in Genoa but hostility from the right wing government there forced a reschedule for 13th-19th November in London. On 9th September it was announced that the Congress would switch from London to Sheffield. The booking of the city’s main hall was strongly opposed by Tories on the City Council but some 2,500 delegates were expected.
The build-up to the conference began with farcical attempts at repression, on the afternoon of Sunday 12th November, when a young marathon runner, Stan Horsham, was pursued by London police attempting to stop his role as part of a relay team that had started in Bulgaria and was to end in Sheffield, where the Second Congress was due to open the next day. The relay had begun on 10th October in Bulgaria, passing through Rumania, Hungary, Austria, Switzerland and France. Another relay went through Poland, Czechoslovakia, Germany, Holland and Belgium. Stan Horsham was carrying a baton bearing the peace dove symbol designed Pablo Picasso. He was arrested and later faced a charge of insulting behaviour and participating in an unauthorised political march! But he had passed the baton to a motor cyclist who was then hunted by police cars through the back streets of London. Having been released by police, Horsham reappeared at Hyde Park, to the delight of cheering crowds; he was to run out of London, now once again carrying the peace baton. [Challenge, vol. 11, No.42, 20th October 1950, p. 1]
But the conference proper was also marred when the Attlee Labour government barred delegates from entering Britain. Such eminent persons as Professor Frederic Joliot-Curie, French atom scientist, Russian writer Ilya Ehrenburg and composer Dimitri Shostakovich wee prevented from entering the country. One delegate to get through was Pablo Picasso. "C'est terrible" cried Picasso, describing the thorough security screening of congress delegates arriving on cross-channel steamers. One of the British conference's organising committee received a Nobel Prize awards. Professor Cecil Powell got his award for developing a simple method of probing the secrets of the atom nucleus with photographic plates, and his discoveries regarding particles believed to hold the nucleus together. [Time magazine, Monday, November 20th 1950]
Two days before the congress was due to open, it was clear that only a few hundred of the expected 2,500 delegates were going to arrive. All but a single session was cancelled – the conference had been planned to last for a week. Questions were raised in parliament about the Home Secretary’s exclusions; in particular, regarding a number of American citizens who had arrived on the night of 11th-12th November. The Home Secretary said that he was acting on certain general principles in a statement to the House on 14th November, 1950. Quoting from a speech made by the Prime Minister he said: “… we are not willing to throw wide our doors to those who seek to come here to subvert our institutions, to seduce our fellow citizens from their natural allegiance and their daily duties and to make propaganda for those who call us cannibals and warmongers.'" [Official report, 14th November, 1950; Vol. 480, c. 1562–3.]
The 33 Americans refused entry included the Rev. Willard Uphaus, of the National Religion and Labor Foundation. MPs who knew him vouched for his and dhis companions “complete democratic bona fides; absolutely certain that they are not agents, stooges, dupes or anything else of the Cominform or anything like it”. Detained for some five hours, they were not allowed to go to the phone to try to get in touch with anyone. As the reverend put it “we were severely grilled … the long finger of America was in the pie.” Although all Americans were equipped with passports accredited by the State Department of the United States, their delegation was ordered to leave for Paris immediately and not to return, with no reason given for this.
One MP told the house “I do not believe that Mr. Dudley H. Burr, Pastor at Hartford Congregational Church, Conn., came here to subvert our institutions. I do not believe that Mrs. Helen Johnson, Chairman of the Massachusetts Minute Women for Peace, Boston, came here to seduce our fellow citizens from their natural allegiance and duty. I do not believe that Mrs. Theresa Robinson, a member of the International Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, had come here to make propaganda …”
Another MP raised the case of the Rev. John Paul Jones, of Brooklyn, a well-known and respected figure in the religious life of America. Having other business in Britain, he could have got past immigration officers without saying that he was also an observer at this conference but conveyed this only to be told: "We shall have to see about this." Quite respectable French delegates were also hounded; one was an MP and a member of the French aristocracy, a count. Many who were refused permission to land are people were “no nearer the Communist Party in France than is the Home Secretary”. One refused entry was Madame Dupont Delestraint, the daughter of the general who was the first chief of the secret Army of Resistance under General de Gaulle and whose father was shot by the Germans. Another who was not admitted was M. D'Astier, the first Minister of Interior under General de Gaulle. Another was Minister of Supplies in 1946. Even M. Pierre Cot, ex-Minister for Air, a Republican MP was refused admission. Anyone who might be classed, roughly, as progressive intelligentsia in a very large number of countries of Europe was banned from entry.
An MP worried: “There is grave danger that in this country, as a result of the cold war, we are creating a new vested interest—a new secret police vested interest—perhaps unconsciously, but certainly the apparatus is there.” [Questions to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department ( Geoffrey de Freitas HC Deb 17 November 1950 vol 480 cc2074-90
In 1951 the following year, the WPC was expelled by the French Government and six years later the Austrian Government banned the World Peace Council from coming to their nation. The WPC and the BPC backed the world youth festival movements, which very much focused on peace issues. The Third World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS) was held in 1951, in East Berlin. The motto of the festival was: `For Peace and Friendship – Against Nuclear Weapons’. Not only was there the rising tension between the Soviet Union and the west, the festival also took place against the background of the Korean War. Delegates from the west of Europe faced huge obstacles from NATO forces, mostly American, in simply attempting to enter the GDR, via Austria and Czechoslovakia. The festival focused on the call in February of that year of the World Peace Council appeal for the conclusion of a Peace Pact between the 5 Great Powers (USA, UK, USSR, France, and China).
The British Peace Committee then campaigned for the collection of signatures supporting the Appeal. It offered a free trip to the 3rd World Youth Festival in Berlin to the youth who obtained the most signatures and this prize was won by Michael Brennan of Harrow and Sorelle Lewis of Leeds, who collected almost 5,000 signatures between them.
Now known as the World Festival of Youth and Students, this international event is organised by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY), to which the British YCL has always been affiliated. The first was held in 1947, the 17th Festival in 2009 but there were three festivals during the period covered by this text - in the 4th in Bucharest (1953), 5th in Warsaw (1955), 6th in Moscow 1957, 7th in Vienna (1959) and 8th in Helsinki (1962).
The First World Festival of Youth and Students (WFY&S) was held in 1947, in Prague, the capital of the then Czechoslovak Republic. The World Federation of Democratic Youth had decided to celebrate its first festival there in remembrance of the events of October and November of 1939, when thousands of young Czechs rose in demonstrations against the occupation of the country by Nazi Germany. This caused a wave of repression that included the closing of all the superior schools, the arrest of more than 1,850 students, and the internment of 1,200 of them in the Nazi concentration camps. This was the longest Festival in its history, lasting almost four weeks and the motto it followed was “Youth Unite, Forward for Lasting Peace!”. The WFY&S also paid tribute to the Czech villages of Lidice and Ležáky, which were completely eradicated, along with their populations, as a reprisal for the assassination of the vicious German governor Reinhard Heydrich, who had been widely nicknamed `The Butcher of Prague’ by Czechoslovaks. Heydrich’s death was greeting with jubilation, despite the intense repression and the post-war Czechoslovakian socialist-communist government immediately set about reconstructing the demolished villages.
The Second World Festival of Youth and Students (WFYS) was held in 1949, in Budapest, a city still recuperating from World War II. The 2nd WFYS was one of three major youth events held in Hungary in August 1949, along with the World University Summer Games and the World Youth Congress. The motto of the festival was: “Youth Unite! Forward for Lasting Peace, Democracy, National Independence and a better future for the people!”. 20,000 young people from 82 countries gathered in the Ujpest Stadium, inaugurating the festival. For two weeks, the participants took part in cultural, sport, and political activities. The festival expressed its solidarity for the "anti-colonialist struggle" of the peoples of Indonesia, Malaysia and French Indochina and also for the "anti-fascist struggle" of the Spanish and Greek peoples. It was the first time that a delegation from what would become the German Democratic Republic took part.
The British delegation to the 3rd Festival in 1951 was of over 1,600 young people from “every shade of political opinion, Tories, Labour, Liberal, Communist, trade union, Co-operative and colonial youth, workers and students of every trade and profession. It was the biggest and broadest delegation ever to go from these shores.” [See: Bernard Barry “See You in Berlin! The 1951 World Youth Festival” Our History New Series No 6: July 2007]
This despite the virulent hostility of the Labour Party; its National Executive said those going to the Festival committed an act incompatible with membership. Some 300 British young people sailed from Newhaven, where passports were checked against a list given to the French gendarmes on orders from London. 12 delegates were turned back, then spent all night guarded by armed security police like common criminals. On the return ferry the French captain confirmed the gendarmes' statement. 14 British were prevented from boarding the 'plane at Brussels for a flight to Prague. 2 Venezuelan girls were sent back to Kingston, Jamaica and had to pay £154 for their fare!
To get to Berlin, delegates had to travel to Austria and cross the common border with East Germany. To prevent this, “the West German police and the armed forces of the US, UK, and France in Austria were mobilised in thousands to try and prevent any young person reaching Berlin”. Sealed on a train, near the border between the French and US sectors in Austria, some 300 were taken off the main track by US troops to be shunted into a siding. After a long wait, it was falsely claimed that papers were out of order so they could not proceed any further towards Berlin. Contact with the nearest UK consul, in Vienna in the Russian sector, was refused. Finally it was agreed the party could go 4 hours back to Innsbruck in the French sector to see the UK consul there. The French delegates were taken to stay in school halls. The British were left stranded on the station platform and squatted there in protest for a week. Local people came daily to help with their supplies, trade union delegations from all over Austria brought collections.
US troops were apparently checking every train going that weekend to Vienna and throwing off anyone and everyone who looked young enough to be going to a youth festival. 12 Leicester schoolboys, wearing young Conservative badges, and their two teachers, were mistakenly manhandled off the train by troops. One British group left the train at Berg-Griesen. A local gasthaus accommodated them in a barn. At 3.30 am US troops surrounded it, bundled the group into lorries then put them under armed guard into a barbed wire compound in Saalfelden barracks with 120 French. To show their spirits despite the US action they danced the hokey-cokey before leaving the compound to be taken to Saalfelden station.
In another group, detrained at Leogang, Colin Sweet was hit with the butt of an automatic rifle, necessitating 8 stitches near the eye. He was treated by a US doctor, kept 6 hours without food or water. Eileen Field was seized and manhandled by 5 or 6 US troops and suffered arm and leg bruising. The main party, led by Charles Ringrose, was literally thrown off the train at Saalfelden. Baggage was ripped open. When Jane Watson of Bristol was hit by a passing train, Dr. Hughes, a London Peace Council delegate, was forcibly prevented from attending her. He was even punished for trying to! She needed 6 weeks more rest before she could resume work.
34 British, 55 French, Turkish and Algerians broke through the US cordon at Saalfelden and got to Prague. About 6.30 am all the young people on the track were forced, at bayonet point, on to a train. Over 40 British were injured in the US attacks. The 'Daily Worker' of 15 August 1951 gave a full page of detailed reports, World Press and news agency pictures and photos of hostile US guards with bayonets fixed. Due to the news coverage, greetings telegrams from all over the world were sent to those at Innsbruck. Massive protests, far too many to detail all, were sent to the United Nations HQ in Vienna. To the Peace Council protest Morrison replied "The delegates are themselves responsible for the difficulties met in Austria.” An official FO reply was "Use of rifle butts, and bayonets appears to have been necessary".
Eventually the main British party left Innsbruck in successive groups of 50/60 at different times, going into the British sector. When the rest of the British caught up, all 200 or so were assembled and taken on small vehicles for miles along mountain tracks. Any doubts they had were dispelled by assurances they would get through - "We fought with the Partisans. We know every blade of grass round here". Then on foot they went through a forest in silence as British soldiers were searching for them. When at last they saw a Soviet border post they had to restrain their impulse to shout with joy. Soon a Red Army vehicle transported them to a nearby village where they could wash, feed and rest. The delegates were then bussed to Vienna, to stay overnight in a youth hostel. Finally a great long train took them through Czechoslovakia across to the GDR and at last they were in Berlin.
They had braved American bayonets, been resolute in face of political and diplomatic chicanery and now two weeks late, they joined the Festival. All along the route were bands and crowds of people, especially the Free German Youth (FDJ), on the station platforms waving and holding up messages of greeting. At the station in Berlin the party was led on to a platform for all to see them, to be greeted with cheers. Loudspeakers broadcast music of the peace movement and the Festival.
It was a tremendous victory for peace, for that young generation from East and West to meet together, celebrate and live in friendship with youth of all nations. The British and French experience was by no means unique. A vast number of delegates from all over Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia and the Americas had similar harassment, but each of them pledged not to rest until they reached Berlin.
900 sailed in a specially chartered Channel steamer, the 'Maid of Orleans' to Boulogne, and then went by train to Dunkirk to board the Polish liner 'Batory'. 38 delegates had their passports taken. In a vain attempt to shake their morale they were taken to the dockside to see the 'Batory' leave. As it did, all the delegates crowded the rails to wave to the 38, cheered and sang the Festival Youth song and shouted to them "See you in Berlin!" They did. The 38 were put on a ferry back to England.
On Sunday, August 5th 1951 a trumpet reveille announced the opening of the 3rd World Youth Festival. The GDR government said it "greets with joy the peace loving youth of the whole world". Wilhelm Pieck said "All eyes of mankind are on Berlin where youth will demonstrate its will for Peace". In the Walter Ulbricht stadium delegates of 103 nations marched through in alphabetical order, Afghanistan,
Afterwards, the London Peace Council and the Youth Festival committee held a joint meeting and, after hearing of the experiences of delegates, demanded a public inquiry, a US apology, court-martial of offending soldiers and compensation for damages, none of which ensued. Plans were also made for a national drive for signatures for the 5 Power Peace Pact Appeal. In December a film premiere of the Festival was shown to a 1,400 strong meeting in St. Pancras. A campaign for a Youth Festival then followed. 4,000 British youth attended the Festival June 1/3 1952. They demonstrated in Sheffield calling for the 5 Power Peace Pact, for the strengthening of the UN.
The programme at the camp in Wortley Hall, near Sheffield, included concerts, indoor and outdoor games, singing and dancing, discussion forums etc. True to form, Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, refused all facilities to all foreign delegates. In 2001, the 'Morning Star' covered the release under the 50-year rule relating to classified government documents. "Foreign Office plots to provoke trouble at Youth Festivals in the 1950s …. disclosed government plans to send in 'shock squads' of British young people to infiltrate and disrupt the festivals. One civil servant wrote in a top-secret memo, `We should not try to compete with the communists in these monster youth jamborees. Youth per se is a concept which, to my mind, is repugnant to the Western way of life’. [Morning Star 26th July 2001]
British delegates who wished to attend the reconvened Congress in Warsaw in November 1952 also faced problems. Yorkshire Communist, Percy Riley, applied for permission to be released from his employers, unpaid, for the period needed. This was at first refused and a campaign to force them ensued by means of a petition. The Secretary of the Dearne Labour Party, a moderate and Catholic councillor, found himself censured for being a “Communist stooge” by the Labour hierarchy and local press when he expressed his support and belief in the rights of individuals to hold controversial opinions.
The experience of the Festival saw countless numbers of young people firmly fix their lifetime of allegiance to progressive causes. Whilst the Communist Party was suffering under the onslaught of cold war hysteria, many young people who had seen for their own eyes the brutality and ruthlessness of the state powers of NATO members committed themselves to the struggle for peace.
The YCL had faced a difficult time as the Cold War bit with national service still compulsory. It’s natural instinct was to look towards revitalising its education programme, so as to stiffen up understanding about Marxism. As the following article reveals, even someone who would later become a serious reviser of Marxism and a critic of `old-fashioned’ and dogmatic outlooks urged efforts to tighten up the YCL’s political output.
YCL EDUCATION PROGRAMME
World News & Views
Thus Lenin told the Komsomol Congress in 1920. After a long period in which it failed to tackle the job of political education in the League, the YCL ` National Committee is now fighting to implement an ` Education Programme into which it seeks to draw all YCL, members and many young people still outside the League.
If we are going to win thousands of new members to the YCL and to consolidate our gains (putting an end to the fluctuation we have experienced), it is vital that we should get across to a far larger number of young people the fundamental ideas of Communism, not in a formal and abstract way, but linked with their lives and struggles.
The weakness of our general education has been that our branches have had all the appearance of Junior Communist Party branches, with lectures and separate education classes. Although these are essential for our cadres' education, they do not appeal to the majority of ordinary young lads and girls in their `teens whom the League must cater for above all, but who, in many areas, have been receiving no regular education.
Comrade James Klugmann has put his finger on the problem when he writes:
New Attractive Methods
The August meeting' of the National Committee of he' YCL., which discussed a report on education, decided to take positive steps to bring about a change. The most important decisions taken were:
2. To launch a YCL. Reading Programme catering for all sections of the YCL., with special attention to those between fifteen and twenty.
In his report to the YCL National Congress, Comrade John Moss said:
The Branch Night of the old type, with its heavy and dull agenda and with its hundred and one organisational details and announcements, is something to be got rid of quickly. “We are in favour of well-prepared meetings which are held fortnightly or monthly, with every member in formed and popular methods used to get all our friends and contacts along." (Free Britain's Youth, p. 17.)
Monthly Branch Night material is already being regularly sent out to the branches. So far the themes have been: Cut the Call-Up; the Soviet Union; YCL. ' Congress. Material has already gone out for January's Branch Night on the International Conference in Vienna in Defence of the Rights of Youth. In the following months, material will go out for Branch Nights on Colonial Youth Day; Communism; the Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students in Warsaw; the General Strike. In addition, material is being prepared to help in running a Branch Night for new members and sym pathisers, based on the new YCL. Rules; as well as a Guide for better and brighter Branch Nights.
Use All the Talents
We are trying through this material to give practical assistance to Branches in preparing the kind of Branch Night which is bright and interesting to young people and at the same time fulfils an educational role
It is true that the preparation of such a Branch Night is a big job for the average small YCL Branch. But we believe it is much better to hold one, or perhaps two, really well-prepared Branch Nights a month than four which suffer from inadequate preparation and put off new members and non-YCLers from coming again. The other weeks the comrades can meet to go out on various forms of activity.
We ask Party Districts and Branches to give practical assistance to the YCL. Branches to enable them to run the most effective Branch Nights.
We have inadequately heeded Dimitrov's call to YCLers to "study, study while you fight". Conscious of this weakness, the 19th Congress of the League launched a special YCL. Reading Programme beginning in December. It comprises six books:
December: Serving My Time, by Harry Pollitt.
It is aimed to got 1,000 YCL. members to carry through the course. A special Harry Pollitt Certificate will be presented to all comrades successfully complet ing the Programme. The success of the programme will depend largely on the enrolment of consultants to give individual atten tion to the comrades entrusted to them, and to call monhly group meetings. Monthly notes for consultants will be produced by YCL Centre.
If 1,000 YCLers are to complete, as well as enrol in, the study course, we must see that our leading comrades appreciate the importance of their taking part in the Programme as consultants. Also, we-have to convince comrades of the value of selecting a special night of the week to devote to study and sticking to it.
The Central Education Department of-the Party has asked Party organisations to assist in the following ways:
Cadres' Schools and Classes:
• The National Committee of the League devoted one of the sessions of its last meeting to a report on the CPSU. Congress which Comrade John Gollan came to give, followed by questions and discussion.
Taking Socialism to Youth
We must link our education with every step in the struggle we are waging for a cut in the call-up, in defence of living standards and for international youth friendship.”
The YCL went all out for the Bucharest festival, intended to showcase the People's Republic of Romania, and held from August 2nd to 14th in 1953, at the then newly-built 23 August Stadium. More than 30,000 young people from 111 countries participated in the Festival under the slogan `No! Our generation will not serve death and destruction!’. The event was organised against a background of world-wide persecution of Communists. Cases highlighted were those of west German, Philipp Müller, a delegate to the 3rd WFYS who had been killed during a demonstration, and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted of espionage in the US and executed. Other stated goals of the festival were to protest against the Korean War and to support the liberation movements in the French colonies of Algeria and Indo-China (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia). With this background, the festival was a gigantic anti-war demonstration.
A highlight of the festival was the showing of a three minute film of Paul Robeson greeting the event. Since the US authorities had effectively domestically exiled the world-famous singer because of his refusal to bow down to anti-Communism, this was the only means he had of being involved in the 1957 Moscow Festival. His filmed was made entirely in Harlem by Pete Seeger and Robeson not only sang, he made a brief and unambiguously supportive speech. The festival also saw the appearance of the enormously popular song `Moscow Nights’, which went on to become perhaps the most widely recognised Russian song in the world.
The Communist Party had come through the most testing of periods during the worst years of the cold war. John Gollan had reported in 1955 that the Party had “several hundred factory branches with 15% of our membership organised on a factory basis. There are some hundreds of factories where we have three or more members. After the February Extended Executive 12 areas formed 54 new factory branches”. What Gollan called “our best factory branch in Scotland” had a regular daily sale of 300 Daily Workers, the best Sheffield factory branch (which would surely have been Shardlows) a regu¬lar daily sale of 120, our best Lancashire factory branch a regular daily sale of 135 (probably Trafford Park), our best Middle¬sex branch a regular daily sale of 210 and our best Midlands branch (almost certainly Longbridge) sold 350 daily. [Build the Communist Party report to March 12th 1955 EC, Communist Party]
But a concern existed that much of the Party’s work in factories might be feeding a "ginger group" conception. At the November 1954 EC Johnnie Camp¬bell made a call to “turn the Party outwards to the people”. Some districts were already much engaged in this, for example in 1954, Lancashire, Scot¬land and Yorkshire the 316 branches there organised about 700 meetings between them, not counting the municipal election activity. Special membership meetings addressed by Harry Pollitt saw a response across the Party with “more Party public activity in these last three' winter months, with poster parades, deputations, meetings and so on, than we had at the height of last summer … In Lancashire we were doing about four factory-gate meetings a week, in Scotland, 14 and in Yorkshire five gate-meetings a week … These meetings … are done in the main by our full-time Party workers … Our factory comrades appear publicly before the people and in many cases are recognised as leaders of the workers. But this is not the same as the appearance of the Party as an organised force. … they are seen mainly as Communists or militant shop stewards and not the Communist Party. The Party activity has got to be organised alongside this.”
APRIL 1956- DECEMBER 1959
THE ECONOMIC SITUATION AND THE WORKERS’ MOVEMENT
The sharp recession that began slowly in 1955 and featured large in 1956 presented many concerns for working people, for example the sharp rise in now unregulated prices even caused the Daily Worker to appoint a “Food Correspondent”, who ran a regular `Shopping Basket’ column. The paper tracked the prices of basic foodstuffs, such as eggs, cheese, potatoes, and meat. In June 1956, it was noted that “the shopping list has jumped up by 1s 9d in the past fortnight and this is the biggest jump since we started a year ago”. [Daily Worker June 22nd 1956]
But beyond this a much more deeply worrying problem was the reoccurrence of unemployment. The re-emergence of a phenomenon that many had hoped had disappeared with the post-war consensus saw unions with a left-leaning leadership began to make threatening noises and workers grew restive. In late June, the British Motor Corporation made six thousand workers at its Longbridge factory redundant without either pay or notice. The shop stewards' committee responded by calling a strike, which lasted for six weeks, strongly supported by Frank Cousins, despite the fact that it was the engineering union, the AEU, whose shop stewards had taken the lead.
The way the workers had been sacked, in an off-hand manner with only a week's wages in lieu of notice, was seen by many as shoddy but was justified by the employer and the media outlets that relied upon its advertisements as inevitable due to a sudden fall in car sales. This would be a struggle of long-term significance with implications that would reach across to the decades ahead, particularly in its effects on the politics of the two biggest manufacturing unions in the country.
As we have seen, the Transport and General Workers Union had been in the grip of authoritarian and intensely anti-Communist control. This not only affected the most politically conscious of unionised workers but reached into ever nuance of employment relations at the place of work. Deakin was the archetypal trade union "boss", who regarded internal union democracy as a hindrance, and shop stewards as troublemakers, needing to be continually policed and kept in check. Jack Jones, a later and rather different successor to Deakin, has written of the example of the Deakin-inspired agreement with the Ford Motor Company in early 1955, that this “put all power at the centre and virtually ruled out membership participation. A limited number of shop stewards were allowed, but their activities were tightly controlled and shop floor bargaining was virtually outlawed. The management could exercise a veto on the nomination of shop stewards and altogether trade union activity was effectively circumscribed. (Jones, p136)
Although there were perhaps as many as 14 unions at that time involved in the car industry, including many craft and skilled specialist bodies, the T&G and the AEU were the dominating unions. Although the AEU had right-wing leadership, at this time and for some time to come, its historic reliance on forms of internal union democracy gave considerable latitude at a district level to left-wing elements. Where this coincided with any measure of an official blind eye from T&G officials, that was now developing to see a rather different form of leadership emerging nowhere did this arise with more force than in the car industry.
A dispute at Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd, Dagenham, a recently acquired subsidiary of Ford’s next to its assembly plant that would be eventually subsumed as the body works plant, was the site for a dispute over union representation, which was referred to the Minister of Labour and National Service under the Industrial Courts Act, 1919. In the face of looming job cuts, automation was beginning to transform the car industry. Plans for a new factory lay¬out introducing American automation developments would transform Briggs Motor Bodies at Dagenham into the largest tool¬room in Western Europe. The post-war increase in productivity in bodies for Ford’s cars had seen a rise in 110,000 vehicles built in 1947, to 340.000 in 1955.
Now, new developments at Dagenham were to be implemented, which had already been tried out in the Ford Buffalo plant in the US. Some 20 workers would operate 12 presses where previously 70 would be in¬volved. When sequences were syn¬chronised, the presses would run at their maximum speed of 480 strokes per hour, as against the 220-250 strokes per hour with manual opera¬tion. The combined press shop capacity would produce panels for 800.000 vehicles per year—working a two-shift day and 40-hour week with a total labour force of 250 men per shift; this compared with a capacity of 60% of the 300, 000 vehicles being produced a year by working con¬sistent overtime and with the same labour force. On the production line for doors, where a con¬siderable amount of mechanisation had already been introduced, whereas 35 workers would have completed a certain cycle of assem¬bly at a rate of 100 doors per hour by the old methods, with the new set up only 10 workers would produce 300 doors per hour. [Daily Worker Friday June 22nd 1956]
Inter-union conflict merely represented a search by workers facing major changes in their employment for a responsive body to represent them. Fords having referred the problem to a legal mechanism, a court of Inquiry sat in public in London for four days in March to hear evidence and submissions, and also visited Dagenham. The body works had a history of conflict dating back to the dismissal of a shop steward in May 1941, twelve years before Fords took over Stoppages had been occurring “which led to the company attempts to secure discipline at Briggs in 1956, and the well publicised McLoughlin incident of January, 1957 when a (Communist) shop steward was suspended.”
The Court of Inquiry now considered the “failure of the 1955 Procedure Agreement to stop unofficial stoppages of work, and the immediate issue of the discharge of Mr McLoughlin”. The report considered “the possibilities of communist influences at Briggs, before turning to the general points about the endemic stoppages of work and the questions about the shop stewards”. Even this august body could not but note that it was the nature of the procedure agreement that led to problems, even if these establishment types turned their faces away from considering the bullying nature of management that traditionally applied in a stop-start enterprise of this kind. The Court made twenty points in their summary of their conclusions, and suggested seven recommendations for further action. [Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995, Cmnd. 131; Dispute at Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd., Dagenham]
But it would be the Midlands car industry that would feature most strongly in this new mood. Intriguingly, Jack Jones was, at this time, the Midlands Regional Secretary of the T&G. Despite his left-wing credentials and tendency to co-operate with exceptionally talented Communists, his own capability made him a difficult man to exclude. Whilst the T&G’s own motor industry activists were by no means to the left at this stage, with honourable exception such as Communists of the ilk of stalwart Jock Gibson and the then younger Eddie McCluskey, both in Coventry, Jones’ old stamping ground, the union in the Midlands region did not stand in the way of the strongly Communist-influenced AEU dominated automotive activists particularly in Birmingham. Communists in other unions in Coventry held significant union positions. Bill Warman was in fact the leading convenor in the Standard motor factory and a key figure in the battles of the late 1950s and became a highly respected figure in the Midlands labour movement. He was lay President of the Birmingham & Midlands Sheet-metal Workers Union and, as a full-time official, would eventually lead this into the National Union of Sheetmetal Workers, Coppersmiths and Domestic Heating Engineers.
In the T&G in Birmingham, Communist, Jim Falkner was the long-term convener of shop stewards for Bakelite, the plastics manufacturer, which he turned from a low-paid sweatshop in the 1930s into one of the best organised factories in Birmingham in the post-war years. A member of the T&G, he was a particular friend and mentor of Moss Evans, later that union’s General Secretary, during this period the Engineering Trade Group officer in the Midlands. Barred from formally holding office during the 1950s and early 1960s, Falkner nonetheless remained the de facto key figure in both Bakelite and the T&G’s presence in the engineering sector in Birmingham during that period. Under Frank Cousins’ leadership of the T&G, Faulkner was allowed – despite the continued existence of the ban to which a blind eye was turned by the regional leadership – to play a leading role in union affairs at a district regional level. Together with Sid Easton, during the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Faulkner also played a pivotal role in the Communist Party’s “Transport Advisory”, its development of a nascent Broad Left in the T&G and the campaign to lift the bans on Communists holding office in the T&G.
Increasingly, in the bus industry, in the docks and in the Midlands especially, the T&G’s ban on Communists holding office was effectively ignored at the shop floor level, especially after the election as General Secretary in 1956 of Frank Cousins, decidedly a man of the left. Such a circumstance would have powerful ramifications for the next quarter of a century and lay the basis for much of the events of the 1970s. Although, it has to be said that a keen rivalry between unions who strongly competed for members in manufacturing was at its most evident between the T&G and the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), even in the Midlands!
BMC was the dominant car company in the Midlands, formed by the 1952 merger of the Austin Motor Company and the Nuffield Corporation, the holding company for Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley. BMC's headquarters were at Longbridge, on the far south west outskirts of Birmingham, where the largest plant was located. The outstanding Communist figure in the Midlands car industry in the period was Dick Etheridge, convener of shop stewards at BMC’s Longbridge plant for the thirty years from 1945, when he was then aged only 36 years. Colloquially often still known as `the `Austin’, this would later be incarnated as British Leyland, then BMW Rover and finally Rover. Following the merger, the shop stewards of the amalgamating companies formed a combine committee: the British Motor Corporation (BMC) Joint Shop Stewards Committee. In February 1956 Etheridge became Chairman of this Committee. Later in that year the Committee played a major role in the anti-redundancies strike during the fourth week of 1956 that brought the Midlands motor industry to a standstill. [Morning Star, 20 Mar 1985]
Communists had been organising Oxford’s car plants for some twenty years by this time and one of their most capable leaders, an AEU activist, was Arthur Exall, originally a Welshman, but who now led the Radiators factory as convenor. His competence and dedication had won him the position and there were powerful Communist groups in all the local car industry factories. One hiccup concerning Exall occurred during the heated anti-Communist atmosphere following the events in Hungary in 1956 that may illustrate how the refined air of theoretical debate amongst Communists did not always transcribe easily to the shop floor.
A group of politically reactionary workers were mobilised to protest at Exall’s leading trade union role in the Radiators factory; a petition was organised and management pounced on it by claiming this had effectively de-selected him as a shop steward and they were derecognising him. Exall refused to surrender his credentials card and went to the union district office seeking support. Whilst the AEU District Committee backed Exall, the terms of its motion did not commit it to doing anything about it. This uncertainty confused his members and, whilst in this state of limbo, Exall realised that the annual pay review was due in his department. He went in to see management and negotiated his own pay rise of 1/- an hour. When the workers asked him about it he told them that, since they didn’t want him as shop steward, he could only look after his own claims. Naturally, the majority of the workers cared more for this than anti-communist purges and he was immediately re-instated there and then by his members.
In his capacity as branch secretary for the AEU’s Oxford No. 4 branch, Arthur wrote to all and sundry to see of they would agree to form a BMC Combine Committee uniting all the shop stewards in the company formation that then applied to the car firms that would eventually become British Leyland and later Rover. The first attempt at gathering together in Coventry fell apart after the figurehead chair was sacked; the unity between plants was still sketchy so this went largely unchallenged. The next attempt saw the offer of a foreman’s job taken up by the person selected to front the Combine Committee, so they decided it had to be a Communist who would be the figure-head since they could rely on a comrade to resist both pressure and bribes. Les Girl was assigned the task and the Combine got together and went from strength to strength
Petrol rationing had been reintroduced in 1956 as a result of the Suez Crisis and sales of large cars slumped. BMC had been spending a fortune in its capital on development work that did not take any account of this. Indeed, the sudden surge towards the briefly fashionable bubble car that followed petrol scarcity caused something of a crisis for the company that had been brewing in any case. Since the industry had been born, it had geared production to the vagaries of the market, resulting in a culture of mass lay-offs and insecure employment. But the war years and the boom of the 1950s had bred a determination to end this once and for all, particularly amongst the now militant and strong workforce of 20,000 at Longbridge. There, the Communist Party had a factory branch of some hundreds, with scores of the shop stewards, then mostly AEU members, and sales of the Daily Worker running into several hundred.
Etheridge was backed on the powerful Works Committee, the joint shop stewards' body by many fellow members of the Party. (An up-and-coming Communist activist in the plant was the then rather young and highly talented and later rather more famous Derek Robinson.) BMC was run by the unsympathetic Leonard Lord, a “hard-driving, foul-mouthed production man”, whose every action and word seemed designed to provoke the skilled and by now well-paid workforce. [Graham Searjeant, Financial Editor of "the Times"31 May 2007] Lord could not see that running as many as five car marques kept production and marketing costs high, dissipating cash flow and starving investment in capacity, design and quality engineering.
After an era of mass closures and the destruction of manufacturing capacity it is difficult to convey the full force of the political implications of these redundancies. Suffice to say, that a government reeling with the damage inflicted upon it by Suez did not face the prospects of a major confrontation with equanimity. This was a devastating blow, not the least since around 48,000 workers were already on short time in the region and 11,272 were wholly unemployed. Some 3,000 of the redundancies were to be at the Austin works in Birmingham and 800 at the Morris works in Cowley. Most of the remainder were at component factories in Birmingham, Oxford, and Llanelli. Other employees were to be put on a three-day or four-day working week. Short-time working had been introduced for some of the corporation's employees some months previously. [The Times, June 28th 1956]
The shop stewards' committee responded by calling a strike, which lasted for six weeks. Under Frank Cousins’ leadership, egged on by Jack Jones, the T&G strongly supported the strike, despite the fact that it was AEU shop stewards who had taken the lead. The company was reliant on highly integrated supply lines across many discreet but allied plants in the Midlands, which provided an integrated but complicated production process easily disrupted by strike action in one small part of the whole. Workers quickly discerned a new power accorded to them the very process of production.
In a completely separate dispute, a “complete breakdown” of negotiations was announced between the Standard Motor Company and the nine unions over proposals for a three-day week, by which it was hoped to absorb the 2,640 men declared redundant because of “retooling” at the firm's tractor factory. The talks collapsed 24 hours after union officials had persuaded management representatives to consider three-day working as an alternative to dismissing more than a thousand workers; 1,325 were already laid off.
The atmosphere of major crisis was hardly eased when in Coventry, in a completely separate dispute, a “complete breakdown” of negotiations was announced between the Standard Motor Company and the nine unions over proposals for a three-day week, by which it was hoped to absorb the 2,640 men declared redundant because of “retooling” at the firm's tractor factory. The talks collapsed 24 hours after union officials had persuaded management representatives to consider three-day working as an alternative to dismissing more than a thousand workers; 1,325 were already laid off. The T&G’s Harry Urwin, acting as Coventry district secretary of the CSEU, was handed a letter from the company that stated that: "The board is forced to the conclusion that it is put under duress by threats of strike action. Negotiation under duress is quite impossible." So the Standard withdrew the offer to re-examine further short-time working, albeit that notices to extend the mass dismissals stood. [The Times June 28, 1956]
The year after the BMC dispute, the company launched the Mini as its answer to the bubble car. Despite the momentary success of the Mini, complacently as ever, the British car industry bosses continued on a long-term course of failing to invest in the development of quality products for a worldwide market, focusing mainly on the domestic market. Unquestionably, there were two gains from this historic and critical dispute; firstly, workers would from hereon always expect notice and consultation over dismissal, secondly, BMC workers moved to create their own combine committee and the value of this kind of co-ordination would not be lost on other workers. Within two years, workers in the car industry would be successfully seeking parity of earnings across the sector, as when 1,500 Pressed Steel workers in Swindon struck for over a month, causing lay-offs of 30,000, in their campaign to win the same deal as the allied Cowley operation.
In March 1957, national strikes in shipbuilding and engineering added to the atmosphere of a major crisis in industrial relations, involving as it did over a million workers. In consequence, the Tory government actually pressed employers to concede substantial wage increases. The dispute was referred to the Minister of Labour and National Service under the Industrial Courts Act, 1919 and a Court of Inquiry sat in public in London in April 1957. Agreement had been reached 29th February 1956 for increases of 12s 6d a week for skilled workers, 11s 0d for semi-skilled and 9s 6d for unskilled, to take effect from 5th March 1956. On 25th April the AEU passed a resolution urging the submission of a claim for a further substantial wage increase, and the Employers' Federation refused this making it clear that they considered that further increases in wages would be inflationary, and against government policy.
In August, the AEU’s EC was instructed to press for rise of 10% across the board. The Court of Inquiry showed concern that the dispute had become “an integral part of an inflationary situation which confronts the whole economy”', and, following a previous 1954 Court of Inquiry warned that such a movement could undermine the economy. The Court suggested “an authoritative and impartial body should be appointed to consider the economic arguments”. [Cmnd. 159, `Dispute between employers who are members of the Engineering and Allied Employers' National Federation and workmen who are members of the trade unions affiliated to the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions’, Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995]
The shipbuilding part of the dispute was also simultaneously referred to a Court of Inquiry, which sat in public in London during April 1957. The Employers' Federation pressed for an increase that took account of the costs to the industry if the full union claim were conceded. The Court of Inquiry looked at the contentions of the parties and concluded that “the claim is based on the present prosperity of the industry, and the brightness of its future prospects, and the alleged inadequacy of the existing minimum time rates for skilled and unskilled labour in the industry, and on the rise in retail prices which has occurred since the last wage settlement was made in February, 1956”. It suggested a wage increase of 8s 6d as an interim arrangement and commented on “the introduction of new machinery, the elimination of certain practices such as stoppages of work and embargoes on overtime, the proper recognition of starting and finishing times, and complete observerance of all agreements both national and local.” [Cmnd. 160, `Dispute between employers who are members of the Engineering and Allied Employers' National Federation and workmen who are members of the trade unions affiliated to the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions’, Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995] Despite the circumlution, it was not a defeat for sure, even if the obsession with procedures clouded the underlying problem and the issue of piece rates was poorly addressed. For the AEU leadership, it was good enough and the union emerged with a renewed reputation, resulting in increased membership; the number of shop stewards rose by around a third between in just four years from 1957.
As for the T&G, it could begin to look upon its newish power bases in engineering and the car industry with some satisfaction but in one of its heartlands, the bus industry, things were not so good. Outside of London, the last half of the 1950s were marked by unsatisfactory yearly national battles in the bus industry on wages, as the pay of bus crews deteriorated compared to other forms of employment. Outside of London, the industry was organised under two national joint councils, one for the municipally owned companies and tramway sector and another for the private companies. The latter, the National Council for the Omnibus Industry (NCOI) saw a last minute settlement in 1955 avert a strike, when rises of between 5/-and 10/- were agreed. But, in 1957, an offer of 3/-, compared to a claim for £1 a week rise, triggered a national stoppage. A month’s notice of intention to strike was given and the stoppage was eagerly anticipated. Whilst this flexing of muscles was serious, there were problems in maintaining a major press for improved conditions and pay, aside and apart even from the Deakinite nature of many of the officials servicing the sector at the time. Bus workers were being employed on low pay and made up the difference by long hours of overtime and this state of affairs continued for some time to come.
But in the London bus industry, which still had a significant Communist involvement and had emerged as a major power base for the increasing set of new left-wing T&G leaders, a major conflict emerged during 1958. Interestingly, Sam Henderson, a former Communist dismissed because of his refusal to leave the Party, had left it over Hungary and was now reappointed as National Secretary of the Passenger Services Trade Group of the T&G from 28th April 1958, just days before an all-out London bus strike began on 5th May, ending on 20th June. If not directly connected, the symbolism of the connection was reinforced by the development within the union of a new determination to adopt a firm stance on wages. Cousins had made his views quite clear to the TGWU General Executive Council in December 1955: “To re-state our position as a union in a single sentence: we are not prepared that our members should stand still whilst die Government continually hand out largesse to those who are more favourably placed. [Ken Fuller, `Radical Aristocrats: London busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, Lawrence & Wishart (1985) p224]
In June 1958, Frank Cousins took charge of a major bus strike on London Transport. But this was a then publicly-owned business and the government determined to stand firm to restore its credibility as being able to live within its means. Having been careful to settle a pay claim with British Railways workers and London Underground before the bus strike, the government was in a strong position. Chancellor Thorneycroft had announced that public spending would be cut and that wage rises would be subject to a ceiling of 3%. But a claim for London busworkers of almost 12% was submitted. London Transport rejected the demand and by December 1957, a union delegate conference voted by 105 votes to 25 to continue discussions with the implication being that a request for action would come if no progress was made.
At the outset of 1957, after six hours of debate, a London busworkers’ delegate conference was persuaded by Harry Nicolas, T&G Assistant General Secretary, to accept an inquiry as a means of resolution. But Macleod announced a week later that there would be no inquiry, leading that “he had been overruled in Cabinet.” [[Ken Fuller, `Radical Aristocrats: London busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, Lawrence & Wishart (1985) p225] The Chairman of London Transport later admitted that without government interference it would have negotiated. Thus, the stage was set for conflict and, on 2nd April, the London Bus Section was given powers of action or the first time in 21 years; on 2nd May 6,000 busworkers heard Frank Cousins speak at a rally at Earl's Court. London Transport was given notice that there would be a withdrawal of labour commencing on 5th May and when it came it was absolutely solid. The government planned to break the strike by providing for central London parks to be turned into massive car parks, passengers using the Underground rose by 10% per cent and British Rail's takings in the London area rose by almost a quarter. [Ken Fuller, `Radical Aristocrats: London busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, Lawrence & Wishart (1985) p 226]
The TUC intervened in the dispute, not to win or widen the strike, but to mediate between the workers and employers. Cousins' stance on the General Council had already alarmed most union leaders and he was subjected to a “carefully worked-out strategy to cover the TUC's retreat” from a “headlong confrontation between the TUC and the government”. [Goodman p182] Macmillan formally met the TUC leaders on 30th May but, unbeknown to Cousins, members of the General Council had been communicating regularly with the Prime Minister. Only months later did Cousins realise the full extent of what had been going on behind his back. Army leave was cancelled, in case they were called upon to move oil, in the event of solidarity action by the T&G-organised tanker-drivers. Talks re-opened over two days by early June the TUC General Council pressed Cousins to back off completely.
Cousins had great difficulty in persuading busworkers to return to work without having received any meaningful concessions. NUR members had voted to take solidarity action but their union and their employer employed disciplinary measures to bring them into line. In the event, a return to work came on 21st June, perhaps a defeat for London busworkers but an inspiration for millions of other workers and a signal that the role of the TUC was up for close inspection from here on. The extraordinary seven week struggle had implications extending well beyond the transport industry. This and other smaller but important struggles represented a fight-back of trade unionists against the employers' and Tory Government's policy of a wage freeze.
For the T&G, the incessant use of courts of inquiry were becoming irritating; in the ports industry, a dispute was referred under the 1919 Industrial Courts Act. Wage rates in ports had been resolved under an agreement of the National Joint Council on 20th May 1957. But a dispute arose out of the unique means of managing the labour force under a dual control mechanism based on a statutory scheme administered by the National Dock Labour Board, which had no responsibility for the settlement of wages. A claim for an increase in wage rates was put to the employers in December, 1957 and dragged on; eventually a deadlock arose. But the employers pushed the matter to a Court, which them merely concludes that conciliation measures were not fully explored. It noted a “negative attitude adopted by the employers … in full knowledge of the consequences of an unofficial stoppage in the London Docks” but simply hoped that the parties would “find of means of reconciling their differences”. [Cmnd. 510, Dispute between employers who are members of the employers' side and workpeople who are represented on the workpeople's side of the National Joint Council for the Port Transport Industry, Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995] This push-me-pull-me approach would see workers look for other means of taking their needs forward, mainly in local bargaining; but in related aspects of the transport industry, the lesson had been learned not to rely on hierarchy.
Eric Rechnitz, later to become a key figure in the T&G, was in common with all Communist Party members, unable to hold official office Rechnitz was a key behind-the-scenes figure both in Smithfield Market and in the wider union. For example, he was closely involved in the 1958 nine-week strike of 1,700 lorry driver to Smithfield markets, which involved 58,000 workers. New schedules had been introduced for the meat haulage sector, which involved greater work for lorry drivers for poor reward and the dispute rapidly spread to London’s docks. [Paul Smith Unionization and Union Leadership]
In mining, two elections for Yorkshire NUM Vice-President in 1954 and 1961 highlighted the significance of the union's transferable vote system. Communist Sammy Taylor got 8,000 first preferences while Jock Kane got over 16,000 and led in the first round by nearly 1,500 votes. A division in the left contrasted with a unified right-wing. Following his defeat, Jock Kane said to Frank Watters in a very angry tone, "Now forget about me, I am finished". The latter’s reaction was, "No, comrade, your turn will come". One year later the Area Agent for Doncaster died and Kane was elected a full-time official. It was the start of a period of major influence for Communists in the Yorkshire coalfield. By 1966, Kane was elected as Yorkshire Area Financial Secretary and by this time he was also a member of the NUM NEC. The stage was set for big changes in the industry and in the NUM.
In 1959, the South Wales Communist, Bill Paynter was elected by an overwhelming majority as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, a position he held until 1968. His great challenge, in a union where the Presidency was dominant, was to face a right-wing dominated National Executive. His commanding achievement in the next few years was to bring about the unification of the British miners under one wages system - the National Power Loading Agreement. It was this that provided the spring-board for the great advances of the miners in the early 1970s long after he had retired.
The Co-operative movement faced challenges, too. With the end of rationing, a rapid growth in consumption in the late 1950s and 1960s saw self-service shops and supermarkets began to spread throughout the country. From around a mere 50 in 1950, there were 572 by 1961. [Jane Hamlett, Andrew Alexander, Adrian R. Bailey and Gareth Shaw, `Regulating UK supermarkets: an oral-history perspective’, History and Policy,
The Co-operative Movement then accounted for a fifth of all food spending, with 13 million members and 30,000 shops, 250 factories and 967 retail societies. At first, the movement did not take up the supermarket system and this much eroded its consumer base in the face of aggressive competition. While many chose to continue to shop at a Co-op because of the benefit offered by the dividend, many multiple grocers such as Lipton’s, Home Colonial also continued to offer counter service in their stores. Counter service was seen as a friendly expression of local identity. The Co-op was then seen as the store that offered everything. A key feature of share-owning membership of a Co-op was the dividend regularly issued, popularly known as the "divi", a system of profit-sharing devised by the Co-op's founders. Customer-members received over £40m a year in payments in total.
But as market share began to be eroded thoughts turned to `modernisation’. An independent Co-operative Commission was set up in 1956, following a resolution by the 1955 Co-operative Congress of the Co-operative Union. This sought recommendations initially only on co-operative production but the Commission broadened its work to consider co-operative as well. By 1957, Co-op market share in food retailing has plummeted to around an eighth. The following year, the Commission under the chairmanship of Hugh Gaitskell, the new leader of the Labour Party, and Secretaryship of Tony Crossland, a leading revisionist thinker of the Labour Party produced a report recommending that there should be a reduction in the number of retail societies from over a thousand to two or three hundred.
But, fortunately, such a shift away from localism was unpopular and most Co-operative societies ignored the report; only after decades of decline were amalgamations of societies forced as a consequence of financial necessity. The Commission also advised that the Co-ops begin to sell only at market prices and to cease a reliance on the dividend and this aspect saw Communists leap into action in countless Co-operative Societies right across the country.
Many Communists played an outstanding role in the Co-operative Movement, not the least in stiffening resolve to maintain the essential principles. For example, Norman le Brocq was first elected a director of the highly successful Channel Islands Co-operative Society in this period. He remained on the board for 35 years, and was its respected President for 27 of those years. Membership of the local retail co-op in that time actually grew from just over 17,000 to almost 76,000, bucking the trend of mainland co-operative development. Turnover grew by some fifty times to nearly £52 million a year. Le Brocq’s often recalled his insistence on the retention of the traditional `divi’ as the main factor in this success but undoubtedly his own leadership, especially as an almost unique example of being a wartime resister to the Nazi occupation of the islands, was also highly significant. [Co-operative News 21st January 1997]
Dickie Bond and David Ainley were heavily involved in the London Co-operative Society, the latter to the extent of becoming its president, a member of the executive of the Co-operative Union and a key officer of the International Co-operative Alliance; whilst Harry Clayden was a long-term President of the London Co-operative Society, which would soon see a major shift in progressive politics. Whilst London Communist co-operators were to the fore, there was not a part of Britain that did not see significant involvement by Party members. There are too many to mention but, to give an idea of the spread, Geoff Hodgson was elected Secretary of the Central United Local Committee of the Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society in the 1950s. Alec McCollough and Sid Atkins were prominent in the Birmingham Co-op, including serving on the board.
THE POLITICAL SITUATION 1957-9
In 1957, against a background of turmoil in the wider world, the Conservative government passed the Rent Act, a highly contentious piece of legislation ostensibly designed to resolve the problem of housing shortages by removing restrictions on the rents of privately-let accommodation, which had been operative since the Great War. Now the Rent Act decontrolled the top 10% of the market and also allowed new rents to be set when sitting tenants left. It also increased rents by about 70%, supposedly justified by being the first major increase since 1939. The government argued that landlords would thus be encouraged to maintain, improve, and invest in private rented property and thereby increase its availability. In fact, it was simply a charter for rent increases and Communist readily piled into action to oppose its effects. The London County Council stated in March 1958 that it was not in a position to cope with some three thousand expected “victims of the Rent Act, let alone 30,000, which is the estimated figure for London”. Accordingly, the authority began to requisition empty properties in order to house families evicted in October. [Woman Today, May 1958] Mass protests made the government retreat over concerns about evictions as a result of the Landlord and Tenant Act. Temporary provisions to inhibit evictions were introduced to a few tenants.
In January 1957 Eden resigned as PM, ostensibly due to ill health but actually due to the Suez crisis. The then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Harold Macmillan, had been appointed prime minister. Labour were actually 13 points ahead in the opinion polls, yet by the time the 8th October 1959 election was called the Conservatives enjoyed a seven point lead. Macmillan's record in office was mixed but the economy had entered an upswing, with consumer products accessible via hire purchase. The Conservative appeal to the electorate was straightforward, summed up by the famous line: "You've never had it so good". Tory electioneering also gave the electorate a clear message: "Life's better with the Conservatives - Don't let Labour ruin it". The Tory manifesto, The Next Five Years, offered few proposals save the introduction of a Ministry of Science.
A contradiction was that in asserting that the country was never more prosperous, it was said that it could not afford any increase in old age pensions. This was absurd in the light of the fact that the Tories had given £300 million tax reliefs, a full year’s worth, in a recent budget. But a flurry of consumer goods was now available and a consumer boom had been actively encouraged. Over the period 1948 to 1959, average rises of 74% had been won in all industries. Employment was now considered to be remarkably stable. Most groups of workers had been able to maximise the advantaged position they were in, although some sections did fall behind as the pace of wage rises generally quickened.
Single young people with ready cash now had their own fashions, music, cafes or `milk bars’ and by time the decade turned would have even their own transport in the form of motor bikes and scooters. Teenagers had begun to dominate style in clothes, haircuts and even travel abroad, creating a generation gap began what would become known as `baby boomers’ and their parents who had known the austerity and gloom of the period before and during the war.
The way that the Tory election manifesto stressed the sight of television aerials over every house - including, of course, slums and near slums—one might have been forgiven for not realising that enormous numbers of working people did not yet possess television. The increase in the number of television licences in the Tory era from almost three million in 1953 almost nine million in 1959 was largely due to a switch of working class purchasing power from other things, for example, the decrease in cinema going aided the process.
Labour's manifesto, `Britain Belongs to You’, offered voters an increase in pensions and the municipalisation of rented housing. An upbeat campaign, directed in part by a young Tony Benn, hailed Hugh Gaitskell as `the man with the plan’ and, perhaps spooked by the Tory preoccupation with television, for the first time Labour attempted to capitalise on this new medium. Labour advocated lower interest rates, more expenditure on the nationalised industries, the relaxation of hire purchase regulations, and measures for inducing industries to move to areas of high unemployment in its Plan for Progress published in mid-1958. As leading Communist, J R Campbell wrote about this: “The only snag was that in 1959 they had been already adopted in some form or other by the Tories … the Labour Party had no gimmicks that the Tories did not also have.” [J R Campbell, ` The Election For British Labour’, Marxism Today November 1959]
Labour had promised to raise pensions, build more hospitals and keep taxes; but when Gaitskell said he would also reduce purchase tax, the Tories came out with gibe: `A bribe a day keeps the Conservatives away’. In the last few days of the election the Tory counter-attack was based on the theme that history had proved that Labour could not manage the capitalist economy as well as could the Tories. They chose as their proof the inflation of 1950-51 which accompanied the arms boom following the outbreak of the Korean War. Campbell considered that: “Labour's enthusiastic pursuit of the cold war in 1950-51 destroyed the post-war advance of the Labour movement. It was a betrayal far grosser than that of 1931. Its effects are still with us. Let any Labour speaker declare that it is preposterous to claim that 400,000 unemployed is full employment, and Mr. Gaitskell's 1951 remarks about 3 per cent unemployment (approximately 800,000) being the top limit of full employment are gleefully quoted.”
In the run up to the 1958 TUC, the Daily Worker noted that since the previous year’s congress “the Government has got tough and the employers have got tougher. There have been rent rises and price rises and rises in the unemployment figures. Almost all the experts prophesy that this winter will see still more workers out of jobs. Even the smooth-talking President of the Board of Trade. Sir David Eccles, admits that the American recession will hit us this year. Will the full and united strength of the trade union movement be used to defend the working class? This is the biggest issue before the TUC.” [A rare front-page editorial in the Daily Worker, September 1st 1958] The paper had no doubt about the readiness of workers to fight, it argued that this had been proved by the magnificent stand of the London busworkers and “(i)f they did not win complete victory it was not their fault: it was the General Council of the TUC which let them down.”
For Communists, the lesson of this had to be learned by the trade union movement; that is to say that all would face attack from the Tories and employers and the movement would be “unprepared and disunited”. It was clear that the strategy of the Tories was to pick off sections of the working class one by one, at all costs avoiding taking on the whole trade union movement. The paper called for the holding of conferences by trades councils and local unions to discuss “the fight for work and wages and how the strengthen it”. More than this, a whole range of issues in foreign policy raised the real threat of war in one way or another. As ever in this period if not in modern times, ensuring solid policies at the TUC could translate, with care, into similar approaches at the subsequent Labour Party Conference. Getting the policies right would “seal the fate of the Tories. It would be the salvation of the Labour movement and therefore the salvation of Britain.”
But it would not be - Labour’s policy of managed capitalism was identical with that of the Tones and it was unable to show the mass of the electorate that it could manage the economy better than the capitalists themselves. In 1959, Macmillan, now hailed as Supermac, was returned as Prime Minister, the Tories gained what was seen as a historic third term with a majority of over 100 seats, winning 365 seats to Labour's 258. The Tories did actually see a slight decrease in their share of the vote to 49% but Labour's fell much more, from 46 to 43%.
The Labour right-wing rushed to say that workers were losing their identity as a class, acquiring middle class tastes and thus were rejecting the Labour Party as a class party. Interestingly, car industry workers were held up as a particular example of this development. To say the least, this was peculiar since this had been an industry experiencing the most intense of struggles. For Communists, the wonder was not that workers could be detached from Labour but that so many of them still adhered to it in spite of the party’s failure to win them by making political appeals that distinguished Labour from the Tories. Confidence in the labour movement had also been stunningly low, arguably reinforced by the self-fulfilling prophesies that socialism was no longer electorally popular. Even Nye Bevan, speaking at the 1957 Labour Party conference, had finally seemingly opposed unilateral nuclear disarmament, saying "It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber". In 1959, Bevan was elected deputy leader of the Labour Party, although he was already suffering from terminal cancer and died on 6th July 1960.
J R Campbell wrote of the 1959 general election, that the majority of delegates at the Trades Union Congress in September did not believe that Labour would win and neither did it. “The significant fact in this election is the continuing drop in the overall Labour vote. In 1950 the Labour Party got 13,265,610 votes; in 1951 it got 13,949,105 votes; in 1955 it got 12,405,246 votes and in 1959 it got 12,216,166 votes. So no less than 1 million Labour votes have disappeared in eight years. Where there was a straight contest there was a swing of former Labour votes to the Tories. Where there was a three-cornered contest in seats where the Liberal had not contested last time, the votes swung to them.”
The Party noted that any strike, official or unofficial, even though it was the official strikes that caused the most public inconvenience, the Tories had used this as a stick to beat Labour with. But, instead of replying “the Labour Party cowered before the indictment.” Labour’s leadership so concerned to embellish its watered-down versions of Tory policy that it flinched away from combating the reactionary moves of the Tories; so much so that there was actually a recovery in Tory prestige from mid-1958 onwards. Indeed, Labour went into the General Election with what J R Campbell called the “scruffiest social reform programme in its recent history”.
It has often been said that the massive loss of members in the couple of years after 1956 was the root cause for the later disastrous collapse. But this argument flies in the face of the reality that the pre-1956 levels of membership were very quickly restored, suggesting that later decline arose from other factors than the negativity generated by the Khrushchev revelations and Hungary. Campaigning work by Party organisations close to the working class was continuing, even as some members of the Party were beginning to obsess over issues of socialist democracy in other states, others were pressing the case for the Party in these islands. 4,000 leaflets explaining the Party’s stance on the Chancellor’s budget of 1956 were distributed in pits in Yorkshire, 4,000 at the docks in Hull and 4,000 at 20 factories in Leeds and 5,000 at Sheffield factories. Midlands distributed 20,000 at over fifty factories. [World News 12th May 1956]
But, following the controversial international events the Communist Party formally lost some 26% of its membership, or 8,711 actual members, in the two years to February 1958. A couple of thousand members had left the Party following Khrushchev’s speech, which had been given in February 1956 but not published for some months. Another five thousand left after the events in Hungary. Yet another two thousand left following the Special Congress in April 1957. As we shall see, the reality is that what was thought of as a crisis (in the opinion of some, a terminal crisis) was a massive challenge to the British Party but not an insurmountable one. Most of the members were not in fact lost as a result of a sudden mass outrage of angry resignation letters to Party offices but, in fact, by the application of a discreet policy by branch officials of letting members with hang-ups and problems simply slide out of membership. The several thousand members who allowed their membership to end had in all probability been doubters for years and the Krushchev revelations followed by the intervention in Hungary simply gave them a reason to accept what had been in their minds for quite some time. Yet all previous commentators have relied entirely on the Party’s own published figures for membership in 1956 and 1957 to discern a major overnight crisis. The reality is that the slide in membership and support of the Communist Party in Britain clearly began and ended with the `cold war’. Clearly, the dichotomy between the stance taken by the mainstream of the labour movement in support of NATO in the cold war divided Communists from the wider mood of the working class at the same time as Labour suffered electorally by resorting to cost cutting of state social provisions as a means to pay for its part in the aggressive policies of the west. Thus, disillusionment and division, cutting left-centre-right, bore a terrible legacy on the popularity of both Labour and Communists and both suffered.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the arguments over Hungary, what is incontestable is that right-wing forces worked overtime to use the events to undermine the Communist Party. Radio Free Europe was beside itself with a frenzy of reporting problems within Communist Parties and hostility to them.
RFE reported that the Manchester area committee of the Fire Brigades Union demanded the immediate resignation of John Horner, the union's Communist General Secretary. He resigned from the Communist Party on November 14th. Radio Free Europe also reported what it admitted was a “small incident, but just as significant” on November 14th, when about 200 Monmouthshire workers manhandled a Communist speaker who tried to justify Russia's action in Hungary when he addressed them outside the Girling factory at Cwmbran. The British press wee having a field day, too. The Sunday Express of November 18th published an article in which it is said that "senior boys at King's school, Canterbury, have drawn a petition to the Red Dean, Dr. Hewlett Johnson, criticising his defence of Russian brutality in Hungary"; he was chairman of school governors.
Radio Free Europe retailed a Daily Mail report of November 23rd that the day before the Penalta NUM lodge in Glamorgan had passed a resolution telling Communist members of the South Wales NUM executive to resign. Men at Broomfield Colliery Larkhall, Lanarkshire, and three or four other pits similarly pressed Abe Moffat to resign and began to seek no confidence in their executive for failing to condemn Soviet action in Hungary.
The Daily Telegraph on November 15 had said that “the number of demands grows for the dissolution of the Party”. They come, the paper said, from Communists who are reluctant to resign but might prefer to continue their activities through other organisations. In contrast, the Daily Worker on November 26 noted that “the most intense discussion and conflict of opinion in the history of the Communist Party is developing in Britain … All Communists and the many friends of Communists in the wider Labour Movement who are participating in the present controversy - and every member and sympathizer should participate - do so in order to strengthen the Party so that it may more speedily achieve its aims." Certainly, a glance at the formal Party membership figures for the latter part of the decade looks very sobering; most commentators leave the story there and rush to the events of 1968 and the 1980s to make their judgements.
Communist Party membership
1955 March 32,681
In contrast to the usual spin on these figures, the conclusion one can actually reach here, given a genuine understanding of the mood at the time in the Party, is seemingly amazing. But loyal participants of the Communist Party who were contemporary to these times were and have never been amazed. If we allowed ourselves to believe the interpretation of British Communism peddled by hitherto published mainstream right-wing, ultra-leftist and revisionist commentators, a significant and upward turn in membership was already evident by the beginning of 1959, a mere eighteen months after difficulties had set in. Indeed membership seemingly soared during February and March as cadres put their efforts into that year’s card issue, and there were not a few who had refused, or been tactfully denied, a 1957 membership card who now changed their minds and returned to the fold. Shortly before the 26th Congress in March 1959, a membership total of 26,560, plus 189 applicants who had not yet received their cards, was announced. For the new Party’s General Secretary, John Gollan, this was convincing proof that what he termed a revisionist internal assault had been beaten. [Communist Party 26th National Congress; report of the Executive Committee covering the period January 1956-December 1958 p12]
Many of those leaving had difficulty in distinguishing the negative actions of the Hungarian leaders and the actions of the USSR. The Party view focused on concerns that a counter-revolution in Hungary, by shifting the balance of power in Europe, would greatly increase the danger of imperialist action against the socialist countries. A real danger existed of war, since the peace movement in the west at this juncture did not seem anywhere near like strong enough to prevent war on its own. Even the comparison of Hungary with the western invasion of Egypt was suspect, for it was the Soviet proposal for joint action against the aggressors that finally ended the fighting in Egypt. For many Communists, such as David Grove, “peaceful coexistence still rested on the military strength of the Soviet Union”. [D & L Grove World News & Views and Views, January 1957]
Others dissented from such an analysis. In July 1956 two Yorkshire intellectuals who were members of the Party, E.P. Thompson and John Saville, launched an opposition journal, the Reasoner, in cyclo-styled form. Despite the intervention of the Yorkshire District Committee, then the national Political Committee, they refused to close this down. They had borrowed the title from an early 19th century publication that had sought to re-invigorate a flagging Jacobin Radicalism. The first copy of the rebel journal came out at the end of July 1956 and lasted five months. The core of the journal’s critique was what was seen as a mechanical adaptation of the Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Communist theory and a trend to regard disagreement as inevitably leading to counter-revolutionary action. For them, the Party had a wrong-headed notion of democratic centralism and relied on an `outmoded’ theory of consciousness. This led to the encouragement of anti-intellectual trends and a “belittling of the conscious process of intellectual and spiritual conflict”. Because of their refusal to end publication, Thompson and Saville were suspended from the Communist Party.
But for the Communist Party this was not merely a matter of debate and discussion; it was more about the character of the kind of revolutionary party that it aspired to. Despite their insistence that the Reasoner did not constitute a faction, these two substantial intellectuals could not seem to see that the considerable personal effort and financial commitment that they as individuals could personally give to the production. Saville talks in his writing on these events of Thompson spending days upon days cutting cyclostyle stencils, typing up to 8,000 words a day (much of his work was carried out far from campus and often at home).
Edward Thompson was an extra-mural lecturer at the University of Leeds-although he lived at Halifax and that was the area where most of his classes were; Saville was a lecturer in Hull. Such conditions of work as they were subject to in the then much more lenient atmosphere of universities than it today the case enabled the men to engage in the speculative thinking that in particular Thompson excelled in. But the criticism of the fact that this style of work was quite beyond the vast majority of Party members and, in effect, set them up as privileged caste of members unequal to all others, was sometimes conveyed as being crude sort of `workerism’. But most members of the Party could readily see the argument, especially since the two did not possess a formal role within the Party that enabled their thinking to be seen as part of the Party’s work. Moreover, his was not the days of extensive access to word processors and computers. A Gestetner-style duplicator that printed the kind of bulletin that many Party organisations heavily relied upon was by no means at all only available to the limited funds of ordinary working people.
Admittedly, not all those who sympathised with the arguments of the Reasoner were intellectuals but the beginnings of an argument that culture rather than politics was a driving force in society can be readily discerned in the pages of the Reasoner. But most members of the Party were concerned primarily with domestic matters, especially those that had a material bearing on the well-being of working people; for many, the arguments seemed esoteric.
The 24th National Congress took place at the end of March. The Political Resolution and the Discussion Statement for the Congress was published in World News & Views & Views on 28th January 1956 and from this time until the end of March the correspondence columns were entirely devoted to comments from Party members; throughout April, instead of the usual correspondence there were selected contributions relating to the congress itself. None of these reports related to the important questions raised by the 20th Congress. It took an article by Harry Pollitt (World News & Views & Views, 21st April 1956) to jolt the British Party into considering Khrushchev's speech. A second Pollitt article followed in World News & Views & Views, 5th May. John Saville wrote to World News & Views & Views on the 20th Congress, which appeared in May.
Rajani Palme Dutt's 'Notes of the Month' in the May issue of Labour Monthly was headed 'The Great Debate'. In this oft-misquoted article he asked: “What are the essential themes of the Great Debate? Not about Stalin. That there should be spots on any sun would only startle an inveterate Mithra-worshipper. Not about the now recognised abuses of the security organs in a period of heroic ordeal and achievement of the Soviet Union. To imagine that a great revolution can develop without a million cross-currents, hardships, injustices and excesses would be a delusion fit only for ivory-tower dwellers in fairyland who have still to learn that the thorny path of human advance moves forward, not only with unexampled heroism, but also with accompanying baseness, with tears and blood …”
World News & Views on 30th June printed the statement of the Political Bureau of the French Communist Party published on 19th June. But the British Party had just launched a campaign for working-class unity, essentially a campaign against anti-communist bans in the labour movement. This had been a major theme at the 24th Congress in March, and on 9th June Emile Burns opened with a specially commissioned article for World News & Views. A few days later John Gollan published a pamphlet, `End the Bans’, and the discussion on this now became central to the Party's aims.
Saville himself thought that it was very significant that, of all the intellectual groups in the Communist Party, the historians had dominated the discussions. Creative writers had been less able, he felt, to avoid `confusion’! The Communist Party’s Historians Group had been running for some years by this period. Whilst in retrospect it is highly regarded for the number and quality of influential professional historians who were associated with it, there were many others – non-academics - who also made important contributions. Many of the better known were ulitmately to leave the Party but most did broadly continue to work in the Marxist tradition. Such eminent historians Christopher Hill and E P Thompson left, whilst Eric Hobsbawn and A L Morton stayed in the Party. The Group aimed for revealing a popular radical approach that would provide inspiration. The originality with which historical insights were explored and the emphasis on enabling marginalised voices in history to be uncovered was a model that many more mainstream historians learned from.
In 1956 the Group launched a quarterly series "Our History". In the next few years the subjects covered by these indicated this approach in practice, as these titles suggest: The Class Struggle in Local Affairs; Luddism; Labour - Communist Relations 1920 – 1939; The Tradition of Civil Liberties in Britain; Enclosure and Population Change; Land Nationalisation in Britain; Cromwell; Tudor and Stuart England; The Working Week; The Historical Novel; Africa in World History; Party Politics in the 19th Century; Chartist Literature; Sheffield Shop Stewards 1916-1918; An SDF Branch 1903-1906; The Common People 1688-1800; Ernest Jones the Chartist; The General Strike In The North-East; The Lancashire Cotton Famine 1861 - 65; Thomas Bewick 1753-1828; Tom Mann; The Lesser Fabians; Transition From Feudalism to Capitalism; Songs of the Labour Movement; Chartism and unions; Homer.
This practical turn of study, with an eye to establishing an over-arching cultural analysis of history seemed to the two historians who had placed themselves at the centre of controversy to offer an approach as regards what they saw as intellectual dishonesty in the British Party. They now `reasoned’ that the most obvious way to force an open debate was publish independently of the Party press. For some reason they had believed that avoiding publishing in the non-Party press but producing their own independent journal would not be regarded as disruptive. Nonetheless, the Reasoner in its third issue openly dissociated itself from the British Party’s support for intervention in Hungary. It was this, as much as the publication itself, which prompted the Party to suspend the membership of Thompson and Saville. It was considered that the men had the same rights as other Party members to put views on Party policy in their branch and in the Party press. But that the Party could not – and would not - give them the right to go outside the Party and make public attacks upon it. But both resigned and, in 1960, the New Reasoner became New Left Review, after a merger with the Universities and Left Review.
As Arnold Kettle was to say at the 26th Congress in 1959, the recruitment and acceptance of professional people is often a difficult matter: It is difficult not only because there are always certain obvious problems in winning over middle-class people to the side of the working class, but also because, as everyone knows, in the difficult days our Party went through in 1956-57, it was a section of the intellectuals in the Party who were the most influenced by revisionist ideas … It would be very foolish for us to believe that most of the ex-Party revisionists, are wicked or insincere people. Their principal trouble is a persistent desire to have the best of both worlds, to have their cake and eat it - to retain the privileges of their position in bourgeois society while at the same time attacking bourgeois society and associating themselves with the socialist movement. Our job is to convince them - through experience and argument-that Socialism is indeed the answer to their problems, their frustrations and their hopes. . .” [John Saville `The twentieth congress and the British Communist Party, see
An arena that would prove notoriously troublesome for the Party – and one that was extensively fanned by hostile media – was allied to this problem of maintaining the loyalty of intellectuals but was further complicated by the changes to the political perceptions of many Jewish people now that the state of Israel had become a firm part of imperialist nations in the Middle East.
Leading theoretical mathematician, Hyman Levy had maintained a deep commitment and loyalty to the Communist Party for 25 years. (His work was mainly focused on the fields of probability, numerical methods, differential equations, finite difference equations and statistics.) But, after he visited the Soviet Union in 1956 as a member of a British Communist Party Delegation with the remit of investigating reports of repression from 1949, under Stalin’s direction, of Jewish writers, artists and intellectuals. Suspicion of Jews as a potent source for sympathetic spying had arisen following the foundation of Israel, as US and Soviet foreign policy each began a parallel shift on the on hand away and on the other towards Arab nationalism.
Despite the fact that the Party delegation had been seeking to understand the steps being taken by the Soviet Union to correct a remarkably regrettably error, the circumstances he found there so appalled Levy that he wrote an article on the issue for the Party weekly `World News & Views and Views’ in January 1957. Later that year he published a book, `Jews and the National Question’. Rajani Palme Dutt promptly condemned this as a departure from Marxism. The essence of the argument very much related to questions that remain contemporary, that is to say, should there be a two state solution to the problem of Israel and Palestine and how secular rather than religious states should feature in this. Dutt’s powerful critique of the romantic attachment to the state of Israel displayed by Levy and the misleading parallels for policy in the Soviet Union rather goaded Levy to then launch a strong attack on the leaders of the British Party at the 1957 Party Congress, where he demanded to know if it leadership had been aware at the time of the poor post-war treatment of the Jews. As a direct result of this controversy, given his subsequent recourse to public controversy, Levy was expelled from the Communist Party in 1958.
In 1956, a Commission was established to prepare a new draft of the Party’s programme, `The British Road to Socialism’, and a revised text was submitted to the Party Congress in 1957, together with 1,500 amendments from Party organisations. The broad principles were agreed by the Congress, the draft was remitted to the EC. A new text was prepared and circulated to Party organisations. After a long and widespread discussion throughout the Party, suggestions for textual changes were submitted by Party organisations; out of 257 suggestions, 159 were incorporated in the final published version adopted by the EC in January 1958.
The new BRS did seem to dilute parts of the 1951 that warned of the dangers presented by the resistance of the big capitalists to measures depriving them of their property and profits. New clauses were inserted which argued that “a transition to socialism without armed conflict is possible today in many countries”. The new programme dropped the references to People’s Democracy as being the Path to Socialism in Britain. People’s democracy was “based on an alliance between the industrial working class and the peasantry”. In such countries, the peasantry formed a large proportion of the population but a great difference existed compared with the position of Britain.
Winning `middle strata’ was important but not as important as recognising how vast the actual working class of Britain was – and is! Whilst the Party repudiated Herbert Morrison’s `new definition’ of Socialism that “Socialism is the assertion of a social responsibility for matters which are properly of social concern”, and which spawned a whole new cottage industry in revisionist thought in the labour movement. Indeed, a George Matthews put it in his report to the 25th Congress on the British Road to Socialism: “`new thinking’ is as old as the hills—it is capitalist thinking”. [George Matthews, `Report on The British Road to Socialism’ Communist Party 25th Congress Report (1957)] The debate also had to grapple with how to challenge slogans such as `A Property-Owning Democracy’ and `The Opportunity State’, the Tories had adopted in their new endeavour to get across the idea that capitalism will develop in a progressive direction.
The programme saw the increasing strength of working class and progressive movement throughout the world as enabling a transition to socialism without armed conflict in many countries. This was particularly true of Britain, with its powerful Labour Movement. Should a time of mounting class struggle see a general election fought on the issue of a socialist solution to Britain’s problems, the return to parliament of a socialist Labour and Communist majority might be envisaged. But this change could only be brought about through struggle. The BRS recognised that the British ruling class is experienced and ruthless in defence of its selfish interests. Counter to this, if the Labour Movement understood the real strength that the working class has, when united in a struggle for socialism, to overcome all resistance.
In response to suggestions that the British Party could learn lessons from the flaws in socialist democracy where Communists held state power, a widespread discussion on inner-Party democracy was held prior to a Special Congress of the Party, held in May 1957. Some viewed the issue as a matter of abstract principle. The EC saw inner-Party democracy in the context that the “main political requirement for the development of the united action of the working class and the advance of the struggle to Socialism in Britain is that the Communist Party shall steadily grow in numbers and influence”. John Mahon, `Report on Inner-Party Democracy’, Communist Party 25th Congress Report, 1957] First and foremost, all matters relating to Party democracy had to flow from this aspect.
The extensive internal discussion that ensued raised the question of what kind of Party was required by the working class. One trend in the debate questioned the conception of a revolutionary working class Party of a new type, based on Marxism-Leninism. Proposals in the form of a Minority Report, opposed by the EC, were seen by the majority as meaning “a retreat from this conception”. Yet much of the retrospective comment of participants who backed the minority position has actually focused almost exclusively on events in eatern Europe and not on the British Party itself, apart from its attitude to these matters. As a member of the Commission who backed the minority line has written, the debate in his mind “was confined to an abstract debate about democratic centralism in the British Party, the thoughts of the minority were dominated by the irrefutable facts of the degeneration of democratic centralism in the Parties of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe”. [Malcolm MacEwan, `The day the party had to stop’, Socialist Register, (1976) p34; see:
But the actual debate, and work of the Commission, was intended to be exclusively about the workings of the British Party for very good reasons – that was something the British Party could realistically manage. Admitted, the Minority Report formally kept to this agenda but it was heavily focused on democracy and not on centralism, as if events abroad had proved that the two were mutually exclusive. The EC and the majority of the Commission saw the very purpose of Party organisation being “to ensure that the collective effort of all our members is directed in the most effective way to the achievement of the Party’s aims” and democratic centralism was key to this.
This objective required a mobilisation of the working class in struggle and the nature of this necessarily imposed certain requirements upon the organisation of the Party. The Communist Party had to be a unified political force, able to give leadership in all circumstances of the class struggle. This required a single leading centre, with an Executive Committee able to lead the whole Party and to influence the wider progressive movement. In two words, what this implied was adherence to what Communists call Democratic Centralism. Contrary to many commentators from without the Communist Party, this was never about blind loyalty, or dictatorial decision-making but a complex and nuanced question, which ultimately was about whether members of a Communist Party were united in action, or divided in debate.
This concept was seen as applying the traditional approach of the British labour movement of democracy in discussion combined with centralism in action in the building of a revolutionary party. Trade unions, for example, put leadership proposals to the vote at mass meetings and then use picket lines to enforce a majority decision. Features recognisable to us today that arose out of the British union tradition needed to be part of a party’s life:
• Periodic election of all party committees
In a sense, this was an issue that had arisen as far back as the split between the Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks. The key difference at the 1903 RSDLP congress was seemingly minor; Lenin proposed that a party member was someone who recognizes the Party's programme and supports it by working within one of the Party's organisations. Actually agreeing with and not just recognising the Party’s programme and the obligation to work under the direction of one of a Party organisations was also a feature later elaborated. The widest and most democratic of discussion should take place prior to any decision. Democratic centralism implies that an organisation ought to be so structured as to provide the capacity of any part of organisation to participate in determining policies relevant to their own responsibilities.
The notion was projected by some that, since Britain is different, with things being done in a peaceful and democratic way, the working class does not require an ideologically united revolutionary party organised on the principle of democratic centralism. In arguing at the congress for the majority report, John Mahon proposed that: “To examine realities in Britain is to leave no doubt that the British capitalists have done more than any others to establish their centralised state power for use in defence of their profits and privileges and for aggressive action against their enemies, at home and abroad … Under the guise of security a secret and powerful machine is in action today against those who oppose capitalism. It spies, threatens and bribes. Opening people’s post and tapping their telephones are included in its everyday routine. It stores up many thousands of dossiers for the day when it can use them in a big way. Meanwhile, it perfects its technique of blacklisting and witch-hunting. In the field of propaganda the British capitalist class excels all others.”
The clinching argument was that unity guaranteed success, the British Party had avoided splits and factions and “during 34 years of struggle our Party has maintained its unity and grown in strength”. Detailed proposals had been put to give more time and space in the Party for pre-Congress discussion, to consult more, to improve the method of election of the EC. The EC had even declared as “correct the criticism that at the root of many shortcomings and errors in inner-Party life lies a serious error - the tendency to over-emphasise centralism and under-emphasise democracy”. Congress was even asked to endorse this criticism.
Proposals which claimed to be based on an acceptance of the principle of democratic centralism but would make it more democratic in practice were rejected by the congress. These would have given individual members the right to contract out from decisions they do not agree with and to campaign for a minority viewpoint, keeping to majority decisions “to the best of their ability”. [Malcolm MacEwan, `The day the party had to stop’, Socialist Register, (1976) p33; see:
Individuals would have the right to publish their own material outside Party control, branches to mandate a delegate to Congress to vote a certain way, irrespective of what was heard in debate. The right of a branch to veto the nomination of one of its member to higher committees would have brought in a federal structure, undermining the strength of a sovereign congress and a democratically elected central leadership. Such an approach, for Communists, elevate the individual above the collective and the minority above the majority.
The strength of a Communist Party, which will often be observed by outsiders to `punch well above its weight in numbers’, arises precisely from its ability to act as a united organisation. The individual member voluntarily associates with the collective, and should contributes everything possible to it, accepting its decisions. Individual members do not have discretion to decide for themselves whether or not they will accept the Party decisions. But those who hold a minority opinion have every right to reserve their views and to express them to higher bodies, asking for the matter to be reopened. Yet those who disagree have the obligation common to all members - to fight for the decision once it is made. Learning from experience, correcting mistakes, changing policy is a matter for the whole membership of the Party.
Accepting the minority report would have conceded the notion of a permanent minority, needing its own organisation. This is indeed what takes place in `normal’ parties, where a permanent right and left represent different interests. Mahon argued that the Minority Report was “dominated by the idea that the main thing is to elevate minority opinion, and that if this were done the Party would in some way gain public support.” How would creating an “endless debate” develop Communists and branches capable of leading the struggle of the working class?
The overwhelmingly accepted Congress Resolution on Inner-Party Democracy endorsed the principles of the Majority Report of the Commission on Inner-Party Democracy as amended and instructed the new EC to publish the finalised text. It also instructed the EC to draft of new Party Rules and a statement on Congress procedure for submission to the 26th Congress, and to prepare a statement on Party discussion procedure. [Communist Party 25th Congress Report, 1957]
THE RECOVERY IN COMMUNIST PARTY MEMBERSHIP
Loosing a third of the membership in a matter of months is clearly a very traumatic experience for a political party (though those who, in our own times, have retrospectively talked up the impact of this on the Communist Party in 1956-7 are not often those who note with concern the four-fold drop in Labour Party membership in the Noughties!!!) A comparable later experience for the British Communist Party was the assault by an alliance of bureaucracy and revisionism, which had captured the leadership, on those who defended Marxism in the early 1980s. In the foul atmosphere and loss of confidence that then ensued, the British Part lost more than half of its members within less than half the years that the modern new Labour Party had similarly shedded strength.
Nevertheless, if the impact of the Communist Party’s 1956-7 loss has clearly been wildly exaggerated, especially by those who have never been a member of the Communist Party and therefore have little personal comprehension of the internal dynamics that apply, it was a hard blow to loose many fine people amongst those who departed one way or another. Yet, whilst many Party offices did receive outraged resignation letters, there is little evidence of this having been in the sackful. Large numbers who did leave simply let their membership lapse, often more in sorrow than in anger. Many had left in spirit years before and had succumbed to nervousness about admitting their membership due to the intense anti-communism of the late 40s and early 50s. Many had long given up fighting for recruits or even attending Party events. Couples often spilt both ways, with one or the other staying, mostly with little animosity, if any, being involved between them at all. Very small numbers of the outraged drifted to Trotskyism 9it is claimed about two hundred), usually only very temporarily, though a handful of more celebrated cases have created an imbalanced impression of more.
A hitherto uncommented aspect of the drop in Party members between 1956 and 1958 is the plain fact that many of those lost were as a result of the Party enforcing its own rules as regards members’ duties. A key one of these is the requirement simply to pay the membership dues. In both 1957 and 1958, the Communist Party at local level addressed the actual state of its membership with some rigor. Arguably, during the worst days of the cold war, branch officers had turned a blind eye to those who simply carried a card and did little, if anything, even to the extent of failing to make the most basic of personal financial contributions.
In 1957, seven districts underwent a more thorough-going assessment of the state of members’ cards than they had done for some time. These regions “checked the cards of over 75% of their members”. [World News May 10th 1958] That is to say, that activists physically went to see members (mostly at their homes) and asked to see their membership card, to see if it contained the little sticky labels (with a “CP” logo in a different colour for each level of contributor) affixed to monthly squares. This proved that they had bought dues stamps from a national, district, area, or branch representative. That year, in addition to the seven districts attaining a 75% level of card checking, six districts checked the cards of somewhat less than 60% of their members. A small number of other districts fared worse than the 15 but the likelihood is that well over half the membership – and the most inactive ones at that – had been personally seen. The following year – 1958 – the overwhelming majority of the membership was visited in the interim between the annual issuing of new cards.
There is a strong probability that activists strongly committed to the majority Party line were accepting of the diffidence that some may have been expressing over renewal of membership. Some who were especially dismissive of the views of waverers were inclined to positively encourage them to leave. In time, these views would become elaborated, during the mid-1960s, as a debate about whether the British Communist Party ought be seeking to build a “mass party”, and whether that meant a large force or simply working in a very broad way, or a “cadre party”, that is to say composed only of highly committed and confident individuals.
With the revisionist challenge dealt with the Party set to the task of recovering its strength. Comment on the wake of 1956 had only focused on the actual membership size of the Party, even those with access to archives have, thus far, completely ignored what was actually happening on the ground, especially with regard to the interface the Party had with ordinary people. The 1958 registration campaign, to reissue members’ cards. saw as many as 430 new members in the early stages. The March EC decided upon a three-month recruitment campaign to last from April to June, which alone brought another 734 applicants. An aim of reaching 27,000 members, above the 1957 figure, was set for th Easter 1959 Party Congress. Immediately, local Party organisations moved into public work to put the case for the Party.
In 1958, the Welsh Party held 23 public meetings in a mere five months, mainly with national speakers such as Willie Gallacher, Bill Paynter, Johnnie Campbell, James Klugmann, John Williamson and George Matthews. In all, some 700 people attended, with numbers ranging from 120 at Neath Town Hall to 50 at Llanelly, 40 – 35 of them non-Party – at Port Talbot and 37 in the Rhonnda. There were thousands of admission tickets for entry sold, many many more than actual attendance, a contemporary device to both fund the event and to register its existence to less committed sympathisers. Well over half the meetings actually made a `profit’ and advertisements appeared on local cinema screens and, in local newspapers. [World News April 26th 1958]
In an early and far-sighted move, the Birmingham Communist Party held its first all-women’s event, when the Women’s Committee got 46 women together on a Sunday afternoon in a posh hotel April 1958. It is worth slightly deviating from the immediate chronology for a short section to elaborate upon the issue of the Party’s work amongst women. Labour movement practice in this period towards women was fairly universally both patronising and minimising. In contrast, the Communist Party always adopted a relatively bold and forward-thinking attitude to organising women. Retrospective critiques of the Party’s role in this arena, much informed by later feminist ideas, has been arguably anachronistically anti-historical in tone. Whatever may or may not be said of policy and practice in later decades as the 1950s receded, the Communist Party increasingly consciously strived to connect with both its own women members and the wider constituency of working class women.
There was good cause for the Party to do so, for women, especially young women, universally referred to in those days as `girls’, were moving into action en masse in many industries. 1959 `girls’ at Littlewood’s Pools, the gaming company, struck over wage reductions and at the Kraft food factory young women went on strike after on-union labour was employed. Alone amongst political forces at the time, the Communist Party immediately recognised this major shift in social behaviour and outlook and, in 1960, the Party would produce a whole series of mass leaflets, which focused on the practical concerns that worried many women. One pressed the point that eight million women worked and that this was not for the much-derided `pin money’ but was for an increasingly essential part of domestic budgets.
The Party’s women’s department may not have been challenging patriarchy but it may well have struck the tone women wanted to hear; perhaps even 21st century working women! “But going out to work and running a home is no picnic; it’s all rush, scurry and worry over the children since day nurseries and nursery schools are few and far between. The Party had been a pioneer in demanding equal pay for women and, then as now, thought “women’s wages are scandalously low”. But whilst many male trade unionists and almost all of their leaders held an ambiguous view of the trend for women to work, it was clear that “working wives are here to stay and it is high time something was done to raise women’s wages”. [“Talking points for women” No 5, November 1960]
It was no accident that Party districts in parts of the country where women were now working en masse in manufacturing industries for the first time for a very long time had first picked up a new mood amongst women. Following the successful Birmingham lead of four years before – which, note, had been in the midst of a supposed terminal crisis of British Communism, Yorkshire’s women had what they called “Our Day”. This was a conference of 74 Communist women and a single male – the District Secretary, the redoubtable Bert Ramelson – lined up by the women to give a political report to what would be – as those who knew them could testify – a mass of similarly powerfully voiced and single-minded individuals! [World News February 24th 1962]
Back in 1958, the Birmingham Party had bought a `new-fangled’ Pye transistor loudhailer, which ran off four torch batteries, a miracle given that it needed no car, no 12-volt battery and no wires! Street meetings were made all the more easier. [World News May 17th 1958] In the Midlands and in Yorkshire, Party and YCL campaigns began to highlight a campaign against what was then called “rocket bases”, a term harkening back to the despised wartime Nazi `doodlebugs’ but actually focusing on nuclear missiles now being widely located in Britain by the United States. [World News May 10th 1958] Yorkshire was particularly to the fore in this issue, not the least because it had bases in Elvington and Weatherfield in striking distance; there were also protests at Ruislip and Burtonwood.
Whilst completely at one over the issue of American bases, the Party and the YCL at this time briefly parted company over policy regarding conscription, or `National Service’ as it was termed after the 1947 Act that came into force two years later and dominated the lives of young men aged 20 years for much of the 1950s. The Act required a period of one year to be served in the Armed Forces, mostly the Army, followed by a liability for a possible five years in the Reserve. But the Cold War, the war in Malaya and then the Korean war extended this first to eighteen months and then two years. The extended time was particularly useful in enabling National Servicemen to be used overseas. Thus a campaign to reduce the period of service to its original requirement effectively cut against the aim of government to use British armed forces as a tool of imperialist policies. A significant level of opposition to conscription existed, particularly but not exclusively amongst young men, mostly simply due to its unpleasantness, the truncation of career development, and the low level of earnings it provided.
By the mid-1950s, the Tories had promised to end conscription but at an unspecified point in time in the future. The Communist Party now took the view that a mass campaign focused on now winning a major reduction in the length of service to a single year could not only have been won but could have also dealt a significant and damaging blow to the Tory Government in general. Right-wingers in the Labour Party and unions opposed such a campaign, purely out of their loyalty to the NATO alliance. Indeed, it was a lynch-pin in the argument over nuclear weapons. Labour’s policy focused on the imagined result of a policy of withdrawal from nuclear weaponry, to the extent that it claimed that such an approach would mean a commitment to conscription for all time as a replacement for the nuclear defence `shield’.
Whilst the YCL found itself propelled by the sheer hostility of young people into outright opposition to conscription, the Communist Party, which sought agreement in the labour movement to withdraw from the nuclear option, thus focused on a demand to first win a reduction mainly so as not to damage the larger issue. But the Suez Crisis forced the Tories to a general review of the nature of the Armed Forces in 1957 and the need for a large reserve of conscripts was replaced by a requirement for a rapid deployment force. The last intake of National Servicemen took place in 1960 and the last National Serviceman completed his tour of duty in 1963, finally removing the issue. In fact, despite the retrospective talking up of this difference by hostile commentators, the brief and rather slight point of difference in policy between the Party and its Youth League was not a matter of significance.
But even more significantly in the short term, during 1958, Party membership in working class communities swelled. It seemed almost as many poured in as intellectuals and students washed out in other areas. Two Yorkshire villages, Moorends and Fishcross, organised a Party get-together of 80 Party members and friends from the former and 56 from the latter; 11 new members were signed up that night. Other social evenings were planned for Darton, Stainforth, Edlington, and Moorefields, where similar nights of heavingly crowded rooms would see yet more sign up. Party women’s groups were established in Barnsley and Moorefields, with more meetings of women planned in Darton and Arksey. At a Sheffield May Day rally attended by over a thousand people, Harry Pollitt spoke, and 75 new miners and miner’s wives joined up in one night. At a rally in Doncaster, 102 joined.
In Wales miners were reported as joining long-established pit groups at Bedwas and Seven Sisters. The Party was building new members at isolated places such as Blaengwynfi. One activist reported “our small branch has had a new heart since Gollan spoke. At New Rochwood, we had no members; now we are thriving and selling Will Paynter’s new pamphlet at the pit head.” In Scotland, it was noted that the Party had made inroads into Newcraighall pit, seemingly one which had been awkwardly difficult before. Six recruits had been signed up there, whist another awkward place, Michael Pit branch, made 11 new members. It was not just mining communities - membership had doubled in the South St Pancras since 1957, and there were now 50 members. Eva Taylor, the branch secretary reported. [New & Views 24th January 1959]
On June 29th 1958, the Party held a major national rally in Hyde Park, which went under the title of a new British Party slogan “For Peace, Work and British Independence’ and was attended by thousands of members, supporters and allies. This was the first ever such event held by the Party in its history and as such was a defiant celebration of all that was good in British Communism. [World News May 24th 1958] Sales of the British Road to Socialism were now being prioritised, almost certainly as a defensive riposte to the severe attacks the Party had endured, both internally and externally. Nearly three thousand (!) copies were sold in factories and localities in West Middlesex, alone. The Party branch in the tiny village of Tonyrefail sold 56 copies and decided to order another 70 to sell. [World News June 29th 1958]
In the recruitment campaign that began in 1959, new members to the Party were coming in thick and fast. One in three new recruits from Yorkshire was a miner. Ten factory branches in West Middlesex had increased their membership. In Scotland, the Michael Pit branch alone made 11 new members to now stand at 28 and they were going to aim for 60 members! Lancashire had targeted women and got 27 new members and were looking for another 23 listed as possible members. A veteran Communist, William Joss, was going to be 80 years old, so the Scottish Party looked to win 80 new members in his birthday week to present to him at a social evening! In the run up to the 1959 congress, the Party even aimed to double the rate of recruitment it had been having. 1,590 new and additional cards had been issued even in January. [World News January 31st 1959]
One third of Scotland’s new recruits were women, a higher proportion than existing Party membership. Yorkshire held a series of seven successful recruiting meetings just for women. The week that the re-registration campaign was declared closed, a total of 2,265 recruits had been made by the Party. Nineteen joined at a public meeting in Willesden, and 13 at one in Nottingham. In a mass canvass of the Sheffield Brightside constituency some 500 copies of pictorial broadsheet, `The Future in Your Hands’, were sold. Every one of the 100,000 printed nationally had gone. 110 copies were sold to repairers on the Queen Mary in Southampton. One in five workers at two Surry factories bought one. 200 were sold in a Lanarkshire steelworks. [World News February 21st 1959]
In London, a Party factory group in Greenwich trebled its membership and over 160 new members were made in the capital during the local elections, when half a million leaflets were distributed in the 58 wards contested. Nottingham Communists focused on Byron ward and, after selling 350 of the 1d special, `It’s a family affair’, an election special, won nine recruits. [World News June 6th 1959]
Over a hundred young people attended Yorkshire’s Festival of Socialism, a quarter of them not members either of the Party or YCL, more than half of those joined during the event. [World News June 13th 1959]
The Daily Worker noted that a halt to circulation decline had been achieved – and it was the only national daily to be able to boast this. Efforts such the 23 West Middlesex branches that added 81 copies a day to their orders had been crucial to this. 326 Party branches had responded similarly. Over a thousand papers were sold during the dozens of meetings that were held when the Daily Worker van toured Wales. A special issue was printed on May 22nd, with extra pages; Scotland sold an extra one and a half thousand and Lancashire a thousand. A Glasgow engineering factory taking in 208 papers daily set an aim of adding 80 more to their order. 750 extra papers were sold in West Midlands car factories when an article by Les Gurl, the Secretary of the BMC JSSC appeared; workers were “full of praise for the article”. 149 copies of the Daily Worker were sold outside Labour Exchanges (`job centres’) in Merseyside. [World News June 6th 1959]
Mining villages in Yorkshire began to play a game of `socialist competition’. In Darton, 40 people turned up to a Communist rally and 8 joined the Party; Moorends had 80 to a rally and 11 joined up. Darton rejoined the fight and got 90 to a meeting with 14 Party and 3 YCL recruits but went back into the village to get another seven who had promised to come and join and didn’t! A few Communists had won NUM pit delegate positions and half a dozen had challenged right wingers for the first time and only very narrowly failed to break through, including one Bill Blessed in Hickleton, whose powerfully-voiced son was just about to move into the world of acting.
Communists active in the Yorkshire coalfield at this time anecdotally, if privately, later noted that miners genuinely did not seem fazed by talk of tanks rolling in; they joked that they hoped the Communists would employ them in Yorkshire pits against their enemies in the NCB and the union and liberal-minded criticism of these hard men, steeled in politics, who called themselves Communists seemed misplaced to ordinary workers. After all if you were in a tough fight, you wanted someone tough on your side! Proving your mettle by getting stuck in to the real world of rents and wages, prices and welfare made a difference to how you were perceived. As local Party organiser Frank Watters wrote at the time, “these advances are not something which came out of the blue. They are the result of hard and consistent work…” [World News July 11th 1959]
COMMUNIST PARTY ELECTORAL SUPPORT GROWS ALSO
In the electoral sphere, those Communists, the vast majority of active members remained loyal, who wanted to see the Party restored to its level of vitality before the revisionist onslaught now worked overtime to project it in their communities. Oddly, the Party’s electoral profile took a turn for the better, despite retrospective judgements often made by some commentators that Hungary and the 20th congress had weakened the Party, it did not seem so on the ground. This often arose out of the sheer tenacity and talent of leading activists.
It seems odd that so many commentators have assumed that loosing large numbers of members in the aftermath of 1956, necessarily damaged Communists electorally. For all the furore over Hungary and the Khrushchev speech, one measure of the Party’s strength is to consider that the average vote per Communist candidate fell only but a little from 1,950 in 1955 to 1,716 in 1959 in the national general elections of those years. But more stunningly, Communist electoral success took the form of a rapidly growing strength best seen at a local level that did not in effect show a recovery from 1956 but a recovery from the losses that had occurred at the beginning of the cold war. 1956 was mainly a convenient moment for those who had not already lost courage to permit themselves the luxury to do so. As far as its effect on working people is concerned, it did not seem to do any harm, some might say a principled stance actually brought some respect. Far from losses at the ballot box, the period from 1958 to 1964 saw the most impressive growth in the Communist Party by any sensible measure or standard than had been seen since the 1930s.
In fact, during the 1958 local elections, most Communist candidates saw much increased votes and fairly sizeable shares of the poll. Voters faced with just a Tory to vote for, with the alternative being a Communist, did not seem that exercised about the choice. Lee Chadwick in Leiston took 579 votes against the 702 for her opponent, being beaten by only 123 votes. Against only a Labour candidate, Stan Davies in Ystrad won 415 votes to the winner’s 1,652, a very respectable one quarter of the Labour vote. In North St Pancras, Jock Nicholson lost but had 1,631 votes, whereas in Stepney, Communist councillor – one of four - Solly Kaye was returned once again as a member of the borough council with 1,673 votes. In North Battersea, John Evans had 863 votes, whilst Joe Bent won 612 votes in Southwark, Lena Prior 207 in Stroud Green, Middlesex. Percy Denny had a crack in Dagenham and, whilst his 69 votes sound small beer, he was only some forty votes behind the Tory and had 7% of the Labour vote.
From small wards to larger ones, the Party’s intervention was not too depressing at all. The 78 votes for John Parry on the island of Anglesey represented over 25% of the winning Independent’s vote, and Chris Evans’ 962 votes in the Welsh Dulais Valley was 30% of the Labour winner’s. Communist votes in a wide range of contests had significantly increased over the 1955 figures:
Gateshead 38 142
If this was a Party in crisis, then the electorate did not seem to think so. It was by no means an optimistic gloss for the Party to conclude that “(t)he county (council) results show that after the difficult period of the last two years the Communist Party is making progress on the municipal front.” [World News April 26th 1958]
72,000 people had voted Communist in the 1958 municipal elections, more than twice the number that done so in the General Election of 1955. No doubt that 72,000 figure could have been more than doubled if more candidates had been able to stand than the 245 fielded. Now this kind of number had been the actual number of councillors not candidates that the Party had been able to claim in 1946 before the onset of the cold war. Considered in that vein, the Party had clearly taken one hell of a knock. But had Hungary and the Khrushev speech caused problems that could be considered a crisis? In the immediate aftermath, even the Party had at times thought that not an inappropriate word. If this was a Party in crisis in its relations with working class people in the communities and workplaces in which members were active, it does not feel like it; not if we compare the electoral position of the Communists as the 1950s were expiring with the position at the beginning of the decade, 1956 and all that notwithstanding, what we get is a feel of positive advance not decline!
In 1958, 21 Communists were elected as councillors – four unopposed! This was a net gain of eight seats. Nine Communists had come “within striking distance of victory”. In the last comparable elections, in 1955, there had been 15 Communist councillors won, itself a net gain of six on 1952. It has been often suggested that the Party was simply based on some old `little Moscows’, mining villages that had stood out from the rest in the trials and tribulations of the past. It is true that in 1958 Scotland had 11 of the remaining Communist councillors, and that their 56 candidates shared 21,333 votes; whilst Wales had 6 Communist councillors and their 37 candidates won 21,077 votes. It is also true that many Communist councillors were also leading NUM activists, such as Walter Jones in Risca and Andrew Mitchell in Fife. Whilst, in an unpropitious year of 1956, Stewart Gilmour had been elected to the Leslie Town Council in Fife, Scotland, with 698 votes – top of the poll. But Phil Canning had taken a seat in Greenock. But this 1958 surge, albeit perhaps more despite the events of 1956 than because of them, was not merely a “Celtic” show.
In England, where Communists could find a way to connect with the public on a personal level, generally in small towns and villages, certainly where there were multi-member seats, they could break through with hard work and consistent displays of integrity. New councillors were also won in England at Houghton-le-Spring (Durham), Chesterfield (Derbyshire), Thorne (Yorkshire), and Sevenoaks (Kent). Whilst many of the near misses were also in England; in Leiston (Suffolk) not only had Lee Chadwick missed election for the county council seat by only 123 votes, Paxton Chadwick lost the election for the Town Council seat by a mere 81 votes. At Trowbridge (Wilts), Idris Rose obtained 1,154 votes, the highest ever Communist vote in the town, losing by a mere 182 votes. (He would be elected a Communist councillor for the Urban District Council in 1961.)
Even in places where there had never been much chance of a Communist councillor some rather encouraging votes were recorded. In Cowes (Isle of Wight), the 199 Communist votes actually represented 25% of the poll. The same percentage was brought by the 240 votes in Hucknall (Notts), and not far off that in Horley (Surrey) with 289 votes (where in a few years a Communist councillor would be won). In Biggleswade (Beds), the first Communist contest for many years pulled in 323 votes. [World News 24th May 1958] In Bulwell Town, north Nottingham, a mere 12 members of the Party had won “supporters, in one way or another, in over 200 households”. [World News January 31st 1959] On the Channel island of Jersey, subject to its own laws and without a Labour Party contesting elections, Communists were working in a broad way, which would eventually provide them with a member of the “States”, or parliament. On May Day 1958, no less than 183 Daily Workers were sold in Jersey. Party membership on the island was now 31, “the highest for several years”. [World News December 13th 1958]
What was it that was at work on the electoral front in some places but not others? The Party knew full well that the “least progress was in the English boroughs”, that it to say in highly urbanised areas, where both the electorate and the territory covered was huge. The most significant factor of all was less the first-past-the-post system but the operation of what was then largely a two-party system operating in single member representational areas. The argument that a vote for a Communist was a wasted vote and split the working class camp led to many who would have quite comfortably voted Communist not to do but to put up with voting Labour. The debarment of the Communist Party from the historical federation that is Labour posed problems for the Party’s independent stance, even if at the time few saw this as posing questions about the validity of the notion of Labour Party as a broad electoral vehicle
Yet, despite the damage that the split vote argument brought, the reality is that contests in major urban areas were made more difficult as the British state consolidated local councils in fewer and large entities as the 20th century progressed. Rural district councils and urban district councils, which shared duties with county councils, began to be eroded. The effect of this was that, increasingly, multi-member wards or electoral divisions began to be eliminated. In the 1950s and early 1960s, some space in this monolithic centralisation still existed and the historic culture of multi-member seats still retained. But this increasing trend, which would be rolled out everywhere in 1970, tended to reinforce the two-party electoral system.
In some areas, the Party had had a historic base but this had been severely challenged by the cold war. The immediate years after the end of the Second World War had seen Welsh Communists hold as many as six councillors on the Rhondda Urban District Council in 1946, within a year this total was down to five and the year after there were only two. By 1949, there were no Communist councillors in the valley.
By 1955, even before the traumas to follow, the Communist vote in the Rhondda had collapsed. In Treherbert, this was of the order of well over a quarter of what it had been in 1946. There had been no contest in Treorchy since then, when 1,510 were won, or in - Llwynvpia and Clydach Vale which got 920. In Ystrad and Gelli, the vote was down to only two-thirds of what it had been. In Tonypandy and Treataw, the vote had halved by 1950 and halved again before rising, phenomenally in 1955 to 1,568. In Penygraig, the vote had slumped to almost a quarter of what it had been in 1946 to getting back to a reasonable level by 1955, when local school teacher Annie Powell stood for the first time. In Porth and Cymmer, the Party vote was down to only a quarter of what it had been by 1950 and no contest had taken place since then. In Tylerstown, the vote had more than halved and Ferndale and Mardy had seen a drop of over five-fold from the stunning winning vote of 3,209 in 1946. [C Williams, `Democratic Rhondda: Politics and Society (1885-1951), Cardiff University (1991) pp. 564n] The Party had fared no better in general elections. Pollitt had won 15,761 votes in 1945 (45.5%) in Rhondda East and only 4,463 (12.7%) in 1950. Idris Cox had dropped to only 2,948 votes in 1951 but Annie Powell had pushed the Party back to a similar vote (but a slightly higher percentage) as Pollitt’s last contest in both 1955 and 1959.
Since the Rural District Council had been abolished in 1955, and a borough formed, Rhondda Communists had faced a difficult time finding a way in the new entity to restore their previously strong position. But, in the post-1956 surge to reassert the Party’s position, Rhondda Communists pushed hard in the 1959 local elections. Afterwards, Annie Powell was able to report that the local Party had decided to contest seven wards, as many as they had in 1946, even though some comrades were initially unsure about whether this was too “ambitious”.
But the total vote in the area of 5,011 being an increase of 1,300 over the previous year and had reached the astonishing level of 38% of the Labour vote more than vindicated the decision. In Penygraig, with 1,455 votes, the Communist candidate came within a mere 154 votes of winning the seat. No less than 46,000 different kinds of leaflets had been distributed, a thousand `Outlook for Mining’ pamphlets by Will Paynter were sold, along with 700 `Which way for Socialists’, 500 British Roads, over a thousand `The Future in Your Hands’, and 300 Daily Workers were now being sold every Saturday. Street meetings were held everywhere across six of the wards.
Admittedly, this had been traditionally fertile territory for the Party but the cold war had had an effect here, too. Despite the relatively small numbers of Communist Party members in the area, the overwhelming impression is that what can only be seen as an unqualified success had result from sheer hard work, whilst the best results were made in the wards where new recruits had been made. There is little sense of a crisis in British Communism at this time in the Rhondda, only a resurgence; within only a few years, Annie Powell herself would be elected a councillor and even went on to become Mayor! [World News May 30th 1959]
But just in case we think that this rise from the dead in the Rhondda was just another Celtic mining phenomenon, take the example of Neath butcher, Gordon Jenkins. Neath, near Port Talbot, in Wales, is hardly mining territory. But Gordon Jenkins came from nowhere in 1955 to become an elected Communist councillor after only six years of trying. When he had first contested Neath’s South Ward he got only 127 votes, and with local Communist Party supporters, was only able to give out a few leaflets - there was no canvassing. Nevertheless, every time he contested the seat, the vote increased. In 1958, Party members can¬vassed the ward for the first time and continued to do so in each succeeding election. By May 1961, the Communist vote was greater than the Tory's. After seven contests, in June 1961, when Aldermanic elections caused a by-election for the ward, Jenkins was elected a councillor with 1,455 votes, beating both Labour candidates and coming top of the poll with a majority of over 300 over the first Labour candidate.
The Neath Communist Party branch had election files recording all 1,400 Communist votes in the ward as a result of many canvasses. Three thousand houses out of the total of 4,500 were canvassed. On polling day, from 8 am to 8 pm. Communist Party members and sup¬porters with cars went to these houses to bring their voters to the polling booths. Jenkins spoke at 300 street meetings; twenty Communist Party members and a few non-party people helped. The Neath Party Branch worked as a collective not merely at election times, but in the ward between elec¬tions as well. In 1955 there were twenty-two mem¬bers in the branch, in 1961 there were fifty. [World News February 24, 1962]
Much of the resurgence in the local electoral sphere arose after the Party held a conference of councillors and candidates in October 1958 to “review experiences, consider policy questions and prepare for the 1959 Municipal Elections”. In 1957 “only” 109 candidates contested the local elections and their total vote was 23,102. One seat was gained, three others retained and four lost. In 1958 there was a marked improvement in contests, with 145 Communists contesting county and local elections, gaining a total vote of over 72,000. Eleven seats were gained. 14 others retained and 3 lost. The Party now had 36 councillors:
London Boroughs 4
[Communist Party 26th National Congress; report of the Executive Committee covering the period January 1956-December 1958, p12]
Many of the obvious lessons were being taken up even in big cities such as Glasgow. There, Communist votes doubled from 2,207 in 1957 for seven candidates to 4,572 in 1958 and then rose by 28% to 5,863 in 1959, although the number of wards contested had increased only to 12 of the 37 wards in the city. The vote in Knightswood went from 424 in 1957 to 924 in 1959; that in Shettleston from 444 to 801; Craigton from 460 to 700. Govan was contested for the first time since the war but the Communists got 673 votes. 780 extra Daily Workers were sold on May Day. [WN June 13th 1959] Three years later, Glasgow Communists could report yet another increase in votes of over half their earlier total “to 9,071 votes in 1961 with fifteen candidates; in two of the wards, our candidates polled over 1,000 votes and in one 960 votes.” [WN April 28th 1962] Communists in Scotland’s biggest city would quadrupled their vote in a mere five years.
Many of the Party’s candidates in local elections were never to break through and win a seat, despite the most sterling of performances. More typical of many Communists contests was perhaps that in 1959 of David Grove. who was the party candidate in Northgate ward in Crawley for the first time. He recalls modestly increasing the vote from 59 to 78 but in 1960 it leapt to 110, in 1961 to 115. He writes: “Another measure of our recovery was the number of recruits: 18 in 1958-59 compared with only 8 in 1956-57”. Party public meetings raised the profile, such as the one celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Party in 1960 with John Gollan as speaker. 120 people attended the meeting, only a quarter of them party members. [David Grove `Crawley Communist Party in the 1950s: A Personal Memoir’ Our History New Series No 3 (2007)]
Votes for Percentage
1950 668 1.30%
Another fastidious campaigner was Jock Nicolson, the Communist Parliamentary Candidate in the North St. Pancras Constituency for many elections in this period. One of his election addresses was able to boast, without exaggeration, that: “Jock Nicolson is a familiar figure to the people of St. Pancras, both during and between elections.” His parliamentary vote was well over a thousand every time. In 1959, one of the founders of the future National Front stood in the same constituency as Jock. This was, as he was to write, “a rumbustious election campaign right from the beginning … “Electioneering was heavy going. It meant canvassing round the council flats and working class streets with the ‘Morning Star’ most Sundays, and on week-nights during the summer. We didn’t limit this to three weeks before an election, but kept it going as a regular activity. On a Saturday afternoon I would do street meetings at Queens Crescent or Kentish Town station.”
In the Yorkshire Coalfield, by the mid to late 1950s compared to the early 1950s, strong public sales of Daily Worker at pit heads and a 50% growth in Party membership across some 24 pits in the coalfield had seen it become a much stronger and more influential force, especially as it now began to make many significant allies. Soon with a command of at least one-third of the branches willing to nominate any left candidate, Sammy Taylor made the first major breakthrough by becoming the first Communist from Yorkshire to win a seat on the NUM National Executive in 1959. The number of Party members on the NUM Area Council also increased from three to nine, with many additional left delegates also being elected. But this strength in the union was matched in some localities also.
Following the 1955 Armthorpe strike, Bill Carr had been elected as the local Thorne Branch NUM delegate to Area Council, a key union position. He now found himself in a stronger position to contest a seat on the Thorne Rural District Council for the Communist Party. The election of Carr in 1958 as a councillor was no accident; “it was the result of years of hard work, particularly by Bill in the pit, the union branch and regular sales of the Daily Worker, both in the pit and in the village”. [Frank Watters `Being Frank (1992)]
Carr was elected second from top of the poll in a multi-member ward with 934 votes, a stunning result out of a total electorate of around three thousand. Then, the following March, a by-election took place. Sam Cairns, the Communist candidate, received 623 to Labour's 1,093 in a straight fight when the poll was even higher than in May, but had failed to win the seat. Clearly, there was a strong basis for looking for a second Communist councillor and Cairns would eventually join Carr on the local council. A larger area than Moorends was contested by Carr for the West Yorkshire District council in 1963 and he took 1,200 votes, despite an extraordinary massive mobilisation by the Labour Party on a regional basis. Most of Yorkshire’s Labour MPs were brought in to combat the Communist `threat’.
The full time Party organiser for the Yorkshire coalfield, Frank Watters had been nurturing the development. He was himself a product of a `little Moscow’ village in Lanarkshire – his brother was a Communist councillor in their home mining village of Shotts. He now spent an inordinate amount of time in the locality. As a result of intense activity, membership of the local Communist Party branch increased from 12 in 1958 to 60 in 1961, out of three thousand electors. Fully 2% of the community had joined the Party, a result that would have meant well over half a million members if transposed nationally! But even so, Cairns’ eventual win was only narrowly achieved, given the right wing dominance of the Yorkshire NUM. He was deliberately opposed by a NUM left-winger, the turnout was phenomenally high and three counts were needed to determine the result, it was that close; in the end his majority was declared as two votes! The story was told that the last clinching votes – albeit that this was unknown at the time - had been achieved at one minute to nine pm, just before voting was to close, by persuading a Communist voter to rush his wife out of the bath to be run down to the polling station in a Communist canvasser’s car, wearing only a dressing gown!
Amongst the modest achievement of the small Communist group on the Thorne council, was the successful winning, against extraordinarily virulent Labour opposition of the building of a local swimming baths. The council was demolished by the Maudling local government reorganisation of 1972, thus ending the localism that enabled a welding of trade union struggle with community activism, like so many other Communist council fractions. A more persistent and pervasive inheritance was the observable mass resistance, producing un-believable and unrestrained violence from the police, in the area around the Armthorpe pit to the Thatcherite destruction of mining communities in 1984-5, far beyond that sustained by any other pit or village. The remnants of Carr’s, Cairns’ and Watters’ creation was still present in the next generation, even if the locals had by then lost their organisational and electoral adherence to the Communist Party – its name was still a force to be reckoned with, as any visitor during the strike prepared to mention the word `communism’ can testify.
The Communist Party has also won a significant base in the heavy shipbuilding territory of Clydebank in Scotland. Whilst Clydebank provided several councillors in the local council, such as Arnold Henderson, Finlay Hart was a Communist county councillor for Dunbartonshire, a more difficult and large constituency to win. Chair of the Scottish Party, and parliamentary candidate for the Springburn constituency, he was also author of the Communist Party pamphlets `The Communist Party and the trade unions’ (1958) and `Shipbuilding - looking forward’ (1960). In later years, in recognition of his three decades as a Communist councillor in Clydebank, Hart was honoured with the `provost-ship’, equivalent to mayoralty, of the borough. Interestingly, as with most Communist councillors, the value of canvassing and knocking up was cited in Clydebank as the key to winning, not some spurious notion of a loyal block of voters that would just turn out.
Scotland provided a significant electoral base for the Party; Jimmy Sneddon was a Communist councillor for the Forgewood area of Motherwell for 20 years, and also convenor of shop stewards at the local Dalzell Steelworks. Whilst Dan and Effie O’Hare were the inspiring Communist Party leadership in the Vale of Leven and Dunbarton area, which was able to win a significant electoral voice for the Party in the post-war period, including many councillors. Indeed, the Vale was noted for its huge Communist presence and outstanding sales of the Daily Worker. There were also long-standing Communist councilors in Cowdenbeath, in particular Bob Selkirk.
Rab Smith was a Communist who had held the Lumphinnans seat on Lochelly District Council for ten years, and was one of nine Communist councillors elected to Fife County Council in 1944. In common with all but one of these, he lost his seat in 1949 during the height of the Cold War. But Smith won his seat back again in 1954 and then held it for 20 years until, as with so many other Communist councillors, local government re-organisation forced retirement. His 30 years of almost continuous representation of the red belt of Fife led to Lumphinnans being dubbed `Little Moscow’; to this day a street in the area remains called `Gagarin Way’ in honour of the first manned exploration of space by a Soviet sputnik.
AGRICULTURAL COMMUNIST BASES IN ENGLAND
But outside of more obvious traditional industry bases, the Party gained significant footholds, an infrequently noted fact in previous accounts of the Party in this period, in many rural localities where significant numbers of waged farm workers lived. Wilf Page, a staunch member of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, and later elected to its executive, was also elected as a Labour man in 1946, and subsequently shortly afterwards joining the Communist Party, Page held his seat on the Erpingham RDC, in north Norfolk, in three successive elections as a Communist. He was actually unopposed in 1957 and this was a position he served in until government re-organisation in 1974.
Another rural Communist of distinction was Miss Lois Newman. She was the only Communist in her village in mid-Suffolk, in the smallest borough and constituency in the country, that of Eye, an almost feudal place. Though she met hostility “in the days of Hungary”, she had “stood her ground”. Local people respected her as someone who would stand up to the “big wigs”; they went to her when “a stretch of common land was threatened, when pathways were closed” and both were still safely there when, some years after she had moved slightly out of the boundary area which she served as a Communist parish councilor, she was elected President of the local Women’s Institute! [World News March 17th 1962]
More solidly, perhaps, the Party had also secured an important base in the small rural Essex town of Leiston from the 1930s, which survived well into the 1960s. Its leading light, Paxton Chadwick, was able to win a council seat and even became chair of the Rural District Council. His second wife, Lee, also became a Communist councillor. Max Morton a Communist farmer was also elected as a Communist councillor for nearby Pentlow Parish council, nr Sudbury. The remarkable mass support won locally owed a great deal to the extraordinary talent and dedication of this remarkable couple. They were by no means on their own, yet the Leiston Communist Party’s electoral work was hampered by the small size of its membership, for example in the 1958 council election the Leiston Communist party could rely on just sixteen members of whom five were pensioners. Help had to be secured by the District Secretary, Neville Carey, from Ipswich and there was only one car (one more than the Labour Party) to help get electors to the polls. Incidentally, Paxton Chadwick was a first class artist and produced numerous nature drawings for Penguin books from 1949 until his death. (He died in Whitworth hospital, London on 6th September 1961and his funeral address was given by Communist Party General Secretary, John Gollan.)
This base in Leiston must have rubbed off in nearby Ipswich, which often gave support to the electoral work of Chadwick and his comrades. But Leiston was a hard act to follow in the conditions of a larger town, with a more vicious established anti-communist Labour Party. In the early 1950s Ipswich Communist Party branch activity “slowed down and attendance at meetings began to fall off. The general offensive of the capitalist class against the workers was in full swing. Even trade union branches were prevented from holding meetings in pubs by brewers. The Cold War was having an effect even within the Party, which was to reach its conclusion with the events in Hungary in 1956 when many lukewarm members left the ranks” Even so, public meetings outside the Corn Exchange and Town Hall in Ipswich were very well attended. National speakers included Harry Pollitt, Phil Piratin and Tommy Jackson. “The mass lectures of Tommy Jackson, with his effortless glow of lucid explanation were unforgettable”. Local comrades also often spoke, Bill Peck, Convener at Cranes Ltd, an engineering establishment.
The Ipswich Communist Party locally, as elsewhere, battled on with activities including pressing for concessionary bus fares for pensioners work with the Peace Committee. But, in 1958 the Trades Council split, a not unusual development. Many localities saw the establishment of a “Trades and Labour Council”, where only Labour Party members were allowed and an organic connection with the Labour Party was part of a new constitution. Even so, “the Ipswich & District Trades Council and the Borough Labour Party were of the ‘left’, with four Communists being elected delegates to the unified trades council. [Richard Pipe `History of the Ipswich Branch of the Communist Party’: ISBN: BX00054135]
Communist Arthur Jordan had secured the post of Dorset Organiser for the National Union of Agricultural Workers Union in 1945 and proved to be very popular and successful and it was said that he was loved by the membership in Dorset but hated by the right wing union leadership of the union! In 1952 it was reported that the union represented 90% of all agricultural labourers in the County of Dorset. Moreover, Jordan had secured improved pay for Dorset Roadmen and sought to improve their status.
His tireless efforts ensured the remarkable achievement of 100% union membership in the villages of Sutton Waldron, Fontmell Magna and Tarrant Hinton. A contemporary article in `Land & Labour’ stated that only in counties of Norfolk, Lincolnshire and Dorset could win comparably high membership of the union and even then it went no higher than 80-90%. He also was Secretary of Blandford Trades Council, where he lived and worked; even his NUAW office was in Blandford. Jordan was also the Tolpuddle Martyrs rally organiser and therefore also a regular speaker at the event, galvanising it into a memorable and permanent feature of the labour movement’s calendar. This was no mean feat. In 1952, there were only some 500 (some newspapers said 200) turning up for the annual Tolpuddle rally. The Labour Party also threatened to boycott it due to the heavy Communist involvement.
He organised visits to the South Wales mines and their NUM for NUAW members to Deep Duffryn mine, Mountain Ash, then a Communist stronghold. He reprised the trick for a visit to the Standard Motor Company, whose convenor was the Communist, Bill Warman, in order that town could understand countryside and visa versa. Jordan even arranged a day trip of 800 union members to the Forest of Dean. A delegation was mobilised for a national agricultural workers’ demonstration for better pay on October 28th 1954. Perhaps this prompted the ordering of a new county NUAW banner, unveiled in November 1955; this was based on a solar design set against two labouring workers. His Dorset County Chairman was Jess Waterman, the NUAW Branch Secretary at Spettisbury from World War 1, who was also a Communist Party member. This support enabled, for example, the April 1960 organised mass boycott of South African goods in the Dorset area by NUAW activists.
Jordan was a capable organiser also for the Communist Party as well, serving for a period of 12 years on the Party’s Executive Committee. In 1956 the CP had finally established monthly meetings in Dorset, A branch of 13 at Blandford (where he lived) had been established in 1950, Jordan reporting in the Communist Party’s `World News & Views’ in April 1958: “Over the years we have had successes and failures but whilst we cannot claim to have increased the size of the party in Dorset or to have established the Party as a political force we do feel prod that these comrades isolated as they are should have remained steadfast during the recent difficult period” (Dorset lost 4 members over the Hungary invasion.) The local Party women also organised a market stall at Christmas time in Blandford to sell food, toys, and clothes.
Another, more surprising NUAW activist was Wogan Phillips, a former Communist councillor in Cirencester, who very nearly came back again in electoral politics in October 1959 when, in a local rural council by-election, he only lost election by 15 votes on a 83% turnout. In the early 1960s, he was famously the only Communist in the House of Lords. Despite the ridicule sometimes bestowed on this role by the mainstream media, it had not been Phillips’ choice to take his seat. Harry Pollitt had urged him to go to the Lords, as was his right under inheritance laws, to speak against the very existence of the chamber and his presence there. In 1963 on the death of his father, he became Lord Milford. In possibly the most original of maiden speeches in that august chamber, published as a pamphlet by the Communist Party, he called for the abolition of the un-elected Lords the only such case ever made!
In a similar vein, Jean Feldmar was elected as a Communist councillor for Sevenoaks, possibly first in 1958, but she was certainly re-elected in 1961. Feldmar was also a Communist councillor for Darent Hulme Parish Council, Shoreham, Kent.
COMMUNISTS IN THE ARTS, SCIENCE AND CULTURE
It is worth concluding this chapter by noting that the feverish obsession with the supposed loss of large numbers of intellectuals at this time had a devastating effect on the Party. What is clear is that huge numbers of highly talented individuals, many of the unsung in the annals of ant-communist diatribes on the history of the Party, simply stayed loyal. The Party remained fascinatingly strong in the cultural and scientific sphere. Taking each aspect in turn, the Party’s involvement in the musical sphere was that perhaps least affected by the Cold War, in that it was a discipline that could be maintained with little resource and was less subject to authoritarian pressures from the state. But someone who was certainly damaged in his now greatly respected career by his Party membership was Alan Bush, a Communist composer of some distinction. Whilst always well thought of in Eastern Europe, under socialist governments, his ability as a composer was never given much scope for performance in his native country.
In 1949 the newly-formed Arts Council announced that it would commission a number of full-length operas in connection with the Festival of Britain. Composers were to compete under pseudonyms. At the time of the announcement it was carefully stated that no production could be guaranteed. Four works were commissioned under the scheme and one of these was Alan and Nancy Bush's “Wat Tyler”. In the event, none was performed in Britain at the time of the Festival.
“Wat Tyler” did, however, achieve great success in Germany: it received two studio broadcasts from Berlin in 1952 and these led to a stage production in Leipzig during the 1953-4 season. This first run comprised 14 performances and the opera was revived again in the following season. In addition Bush received three further operatic commissions from German theatres. Other well-known operas of Bush are the “Sugar Reapers”, “Men of Blackmoor”, “Joe Hill, the Man Who Never Died” and “Guyana Johnny”; whilst “Voices of the Prophets” was more of a choral piece (1953). “Africa is My Name” also appeared in the 1950s. A series of BBC programmes in the 1980s at last gave Bush the recognition he deserved as a British composer of distinction. Reflecting this, perhaps, Bush produced his last major composition, “Six Short Piano Pieces” in 1983 and died in 1995, still a Communist.
But the Party’s musical involvement was generally much more involving that the extraordinary talent of such persons may suggest. The internationally famous Glasgow YCL Choir, formed in 1945 won awards at World Youth Festival in Berlin, Bucharest, Warsaw, Moscow and Vienna. The Choir turned down offers of recording contracts in Britain because they would not drop the word `Communist’ from their title. A 1960 recording of the YCL Choir for BBC Scotland of two settings by Alan Bush, of the Red Flag and L’Internationale are still widely used on TV and radio.
In a similar vein, Birmingham’s Clarion Choir, founded by Communists some years before and still going to this day, found that the climate for all progressive organisations became difficult owing to the influence of “McCarthyism” and the development of the cold war. Nevertheless, the choir appeared on platforms against German re-armament and persecution in America. In 1952 they embarked on their first foreign tour – to Romania. This was most successful and the first step towards Clarion’s involvement with the progressive songs of the new Socialist world. [Ray Pegg, A Song for the People; the story of Clarion (2003)]
The choir’s next major production was another work by the American, Earl Robinson. 1959 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln and many exhibitions and events were staged, both here and in the United States. Robinson’s “The Lonesome Train” had been written as a tribute to the concept of popular democracy. Produced by BBC’s Charles Parker, the work was staged at Birmingham’s College of Food and was hailed as a memorable experience.
With the coming of the early 1960s, the choir was now firmly established on a broad basis in the Labour movement of the Midlands. Many union branches affiliated to it and the singers were in constant demand at hospitals, trade union socials, pensioners’ clubs and organisations for the disabled. In order to extend the scope of their entertainment they had developed a feature greatly in demand – The Old Time Music Hall! The men’s section of the choir was also invited to take part in a radio production of Charles Parker’s ‘Singing the Fishing’, which was seen as a kind of ‘folk cantata’, and was one of his most famous “Radio Ballads”. This was written and recorded by Ewan McCall and Peggy Seegar, and the later highly successful folk singer Ian Campbell, also a Communist, was one of the lead singers. This work won international acclaim and won the Italia Prize. Another of Charles Parker’s works was “The Leaveners”, in which Clarion also took part.
Hamish Henderson, like many Communists, was a Scottish poet and song writer who threw himself into the movement developing the folk revival. He, and other local Communists, were instrumental in bringing about `People's Ceilidhs’, celebrations of traditional Scottish culture that led to the establishment of the Edinburgh Peoples’ Festivals that ran from 1951 to 1954. and were widely supported by the local labour movement, though some have suggested the truncation of the events was due to Cold War paranoia. This intiative foreshadowed and directly led to the modern Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Another Communist cultural pioneer, Claudia Jones, can legitimately be accorded the credit for founding the Notting Hill Carnival. One frequent criticism levelled at the Communist Party by commentators on this period has been a supposed failing of support for Jones, who was a deported black American Communist. She had been born in 1915 in Belmont, Port-of-Spain, Trinidad, Following the loss of the family fortunes due to the post-war cocoa price crash, she was sent at the age of eight with her three sisters to join her parents in New York. Jones’ mother died five years later and, in the depression years, her father was fortunate to obtain work as the janitor of a run down apartment block in Harlem.
So wretched was their poverty that they could not afford the 'graduation outfit' to enable Claudia to receive the Roosevelt Award for Good Citizenship she had earned, and so damp was their apartment that her formal education was virtually ended in 1932 by the tuberculosis which irreparably damaged her lungs. That, with the added complication of severe heart disease, plagued her for the rest of her life. For over 30 years she lived in New York and was an active member of the Communist Party of the United States of America. Like many American blacks, Jones was persuaded by the spirited defence by the Communist Party of nine Negro boys falsely convicted of rape in 1935 in Scottsboro, Alabama. She joined the Young Communist League, where her talents as a writer and organiser were soon recognised.
By 1948, Jones had been elected to the National Committee of the CPUSA, was the Editor for Negro Affairs on the Daily Worker and had been arrested for the first time under threat of deportation to Trinidad. A much sought after speaker and advocate for peace and civil rights, she travelled widely in the United States but was arrested several times eventually being imprisoned for a year on trumped up charges of advocating the violent overthrow of the US government. While in prison her health deteriorated and in 1955 she was deported to Britain, much to the relief of the British colonial governor of Trinidad who had feared that she might "prove troublesome" had she been sent there.
She was given an affectionate send off by 350 friends and comrades led by her closest friends, the great, black singer/actor Paul Robeson and his wife Essie. The British government refused her a full passport until 1962 in spite of representations from Trinidad's first black Prime Minister, Dr Eric Williams, its white colonial governor having argued for restrictions on her freedom to travel to be maintained. The British Communist Party naturally responded to requests from their American comrades to help Claudia Jones find a role but it was no simple matter to parachute her into a leadership role. Her cultural and political affinity was less Trinidadian than American. Black nationalists and others, usually from the Maoist tradition, have both sought to paint a picture of alienation from the Communist Party in her last years, which is at the very least an arguable proposition.
There was however, definitely an underlying political problem in that the experience of the CPUSA, with a long-established black community engaged in an intensive liberation struggle, contrasted sharply with that of the CPGB, which was seeking in the late 1950s and early 1960s to establish an integrated relationship between newly established Commonwealth arrivals and a wider labour movement. Questions related to organisational forms of organisation of black and other `immigrant’ communities within the British Party could possibly have been at the root of some differences – and this is the source of some criticism of the Party from without - but Jones was not actually at the heart of this debate. The controversy over whether separate black, Jewish, Indian and Cypriot branches should exist, or whether these members should be allocated to residential or workplace branches had begun to surface. Perhaps astutely recognising her effective alienation from mainstream British life, Claudia Jones in fact opted to spend her remaining years working with London's African-Caribbean community and she did this with extraordinary distinction.
Interestingly, for all that much has been written about the supposed dissonance from the Communist Party of many members of its 1950s West Indian branch in London, of which there were about 50, other black activists were perfectly comfortable within the Party’s mainstream. Although this was more of an evident trend in the north and Midlands of England; for example, the famous Manchester black boxer, Len Johnson had acquired a mighty reputation in the fairground boxing booth circuit and was a supporter of the Party from the 1920s. His life-long fight against the colour bar that prevented black citizens from fighting for the Lonsdale belt bore fruit in 1948, at a time when he had retired from active boxing and was now a campaigner in his home town, where he joined the Communist Party. During the 1950s he wrote a regular boxing column for the Daily Worker. A Communist Party candidate in Manchester’s local elections on six occasions in this period, he acted for many years as an unofficial representative of the city’s black community – personally intervening in disputes involving racism.
Johnson’s experience made him a doughty fighter against racial injustice but, being locally born, he carried this out by being an organic part of the Manchester labour movement, and through the Party. Claudia Jones’ response was somewhat different and was perhaps more in tune with the needs of recently arrived black communities from the West Indies. In 1958, she founded and edited Britain's first black weekly newspaper `The West Indian Gazette’. Then, in response to the infamous Notting Hill white racist `riots’ of that year, Jones began to organise Carnivals under the auspices of the `West Indian Gazette’.
The initiative came after an increase in violence was specifically directed towards black people during the summer of 1958. Although tension did not seriously rise to actual violence in most parts of the country, a distinct rise in difficulties was evident in many urban areas and activists such as Len Johnson were to the fore in tackling the problems. A survey of the Manchester Evening Chronicle shows press attention rising as the summer proceeded. There were, as it was described, only around 500 Muslims and 600 Hindus in Manchester at this time but the number of West Indians was now significant. In a matter of weeks the paper had coverage on the colour bar in housing, the protection needs of Jamaican female immigrants, the efforts of a Nigerian resident to open a "club for coloured (sic) people". There were five special reports on the growing population of Manchester's immigrants, with titles such as 'Strangers in Our Midst', `A dream ends in squalor’. It was said that Moss Side was “now synonymous with vice to most people”. But the underlying problem was all too obvious – the colour bar in jobs. Of the nine thousand unemployed in the Greater Manchester area, over five thousand were registered at the office covering Moss Side. [Jackie Ould "Strangers in our midst: reporting on immigrants”, Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Archive, 2003; Manchester Evening Chronicle, 2nd June, 24th June, 19th August, 29th August 1958]
In London, fascist groups had become active and were exploiting the rising economic problems to create an anti-black backlash. Amongst them were the White Defence League and the National Labour Party (NLP), led respectively by Colin Jordan and by Andrew Fountaine, who would become even more significant figures in British fascism. The former group made no secret of the fact that it was a Nazi organization and the latter that it was a racial nationalist group. Their campaign went by the slogan `Keep Britain White’, which began to appear on walls around the country. On 17th May 1959, Kelso Cochrane, a 32-year-old carpenter from Antigua, was killed by a group of white youths in Notting Hill Gate; no-one was ever convicted. This failure of the police was set against the widespread knowledge that fascists openly boasted of the murder and this helped build their reputation for violence.
Racial tension in Nottingham began on Saturday 23rd August and continued on and off for a couple of weeks. Then, in London during the small hours of 24th August, a group of ten whites committed serious assaults on six quite innocent Afro-Caribbean in four separate incidents. A riot broke out on Saturday 30th August when a gang of white youths attacked a white Swedish woman, who had been seen the night before arguing with her black husband at Latimer Road tube station. Yet she had rounded on them when they hurled insults at him. Seeing her the next night, the same gang threw bottles, stones, and assorted debris and then actually hit her with an iron bar. Later that night, a mob of some four hundred white people were seen on Bramley Road attacking the houses of the black residents.
This "Keep Britain White" mob was armed with iron bars, butcher's knives and weighted leather belts. With these weapons they openly went what they called "nigger-hunting" in Notting Hill and its surrounding areas. The black community responded in kind; Thomas Williams was stopped by the police on his way home and was found to have a piece of iron down his trousers, a petrol bomb in his right pocket and a open razor blade in an inside pocket: "I have to protect myself," he told the arresting officer.
Yet, after 44 years, in 2002, files were released which revealed that senior police officers at the time had assured the Home Secretary, Rab Butler, that there was little or no racial motivation behind the disturbance. The riots were dismissed as the work of “ruffians, both coloured and white hell-bent on hooliganism”. But police reports had actually confirmed that they were mainly down to a white working class mob out to get black people. [MEPO 2/9719, 1959-72, Records of the Metropolitan Police Office: Racial incidents: relations between police and the black community in the Notting Hill area, MEPO 2/9838; 1958-59, Racial Riots at Notting Hill between 31 August and 3 September 1958 `Witness statements and police reports’ T 233/2388]
In the final analysis, perhaps because of her greatness in the black American struggle, Claudia Jones was very a different person to other, mostly white, American Communists who found sanctuary in Britain, some of whom were married to British Communists, or forged stable personal links; certainly, she had few connections here and encountered frustration especially as her health gave away. She died in 1964 but her lasting legacy is undoubtedly the Notting Hill Carnival, which she is described as being `the mother’ of. A degree of posthumous fame has arisen from this, which has resulted in a latter-day resurgence in recognition of her. [See: Marika Sherwood `Claudia Jones’, Lawrence & Wishart Ltd (2000)]
Elsewhere in the field of the arts, in the realm of the acting profession, there were many actors; some were even famous for their talents. Alex McCrindle had been a massively successful radio star, appearing in the hugely popular `Dick Barton’ series. In the 1950s, although branching out very successfully into scriptwriting, McCrindle was effectively blacklisted because of his Communist and Equity activities. He was married in this period to Honor Arundel, the Communist children’s author and Daily Worker film critic and their home in the Fifties was always a hub of Party activity and organisation.
McCrindle had often to appear uncredited to escape the blacklist, in a string of small budget movies as a character actor. But, in the main, blacklisting resulted in him devoting more time to building up Equity and securing improved pay and conditions for Actors, to meet this objective he was sent by his union to found Scottish Equity, which only had 15 members before he began his work. He worked at this full-time for the next seven years, leaving the union in a flouring position north of the border. In this period, he only worked in British television and then only twice during the early 1960s, although work would then pick up, even though he never compromised on his politics, and he ended his career as a Hollywood actor, appearing in the first `Star Wars’ movie in which he played a rebel general!
Communists had always displayed a keen regard for the value of film; increasingly, during the 1950s, Communist election campaigns and May Day demonstrations were filmed by Communist cameramen such as Lewis McLeod and Manny Yospa. After the 22nd Congress when Party organisations were urged to develop the cultural struggle as a part of the political struggle, film shows proliferated in the events of local Party organisations. Plato Films provided films and even a projection service for Party and progressive organizations. After it had fought a successful campaign to lift the ban imposed by the British Board of Film Censors on an east German documentary, Plato was hit in February 1959 by a libel suit issued by British lawyers on behalf on the NATO General Speidel. The court battle went all the way to the House of Lords and lasted more than three years. A new company was set up, Educational & Television Films Ltd (ETV).
The Party could rely on sculptors as well as performing arts specialists. In 1955, the Communist Party set up the Marx Memorial fund. Laurence Bradshaw (1899-1979) was the man who won the commission to sculpt the famous brooding monument at Karl Marx’s graveside. Bradshaw viewed the commission as a tremendous honour. He designed the entire monument from plinth to the choice of texts and their calligraphy. There were practical as well as aesthetic considerations. The original family headstone had to be incorporated, the hilly site allocated was uneven and the tomb had to be protected from possible attacks. To withstand these, Bradshaw used military engineering construction methods.
Bradshaw wrote that the first problem to be grappled with was to produce "not a monument to a man only but to a great mind and a great philosopher." Convinced that Marx "would prefer the simplest type of monument" and that "he would prefer to be on the Earth and not in the sky," Bradshaw set the powerful head and shoulders on a body which is not described but expressed. Designing a plinth of "a shape and width that would give the same effect as Marx himself would have done if he was silhouetted against the sky," Bradshaw set it level with the path to convey that Marx was among us and "not towering over the people."
Bradshaw aimed to go beyond description of Marx's physiognomy, explaining that he wanted to "express the dynamic force of his intellect and the breadth and vision and power of his personality, along with a feeling of energy and endurance and dedication to purpose." Yet these are expressed in an accessible, realist manner rather than with modernist figuration's expressionist or surrealist distortions. The geometric shape and plain surfaces of the polished granite plinth and the simple lettering used for the texts are modernist, so that the contrast between these and the expressive but realist bronze head was an inspired solution to an aesthetic and ideological dilemma. This monument was made with conviction by a Marxist and it shows. [Christine Lindey - Morning Star 3rd April 2007]
After the war, many of the architects and planners working on new towns, or on reconstruction of cities such as Coventry and Plymouth, were either members of the Party’s Architects & Allied Technicians group, or influenced by it. In few instances the bold, innovative and people-friendly projects influenced by the A & AT Group were actually taken up in such areas.
But literature, especially in the form of novels, plays and poetry, the latter arguably loosing ground as a mass interest in this period, was to be a sphere where tensions arose. The Party had begun to challenge the increasing domination of American cultural forms and to seek to promote more native and more obviously working class culture in the written word. Aside from the popularization activities of the Daily Worker, with its children’s and soccer annuals, encouraging the writing of novels by working people were a particular interest for the Party.
Some time around 1954, Len Doherty was a working miner at Thurcroft pit in Yorkshire when he first met and engaged with Frank Watters, the Yorkshire coalfield organiser of the Communist Party. Subsequently, the miner joined the Party joined the Party and became active in it. A talented person, with a great interest in literature and writing, Doherty gravitated towards the work carried out by the Party’s Yorkshire District Cultural Committee, most of the activists of which were in Leeds, with a heavy bias towards lecturers at the local university. Doherty found himself mentored by Professor Arnold Kettle, a Communist lecturer in Literature. This resulted in the 1955 publication of Doherty’s novel, “A Miners’ Son” by the Party’s publisher, Lawrence and Wishart. From a political point of view, it is notable for its depiction of the character of the Communist Party’s intense and impressive full-time political worker, Frank Wells, a very thinly disguised version of the real life Watters.
It was Frank Watters who would later opine that Doherty had found himself so lionised by the Party’s London-orientated literati, and some of their fashionable and famous friends, especially the notorious Doris Lessing, as the ultimate proletarian writer, that this had caused a sense of subsequent disillusionment in Doherty. This especially as, for all the declarations of amazement at the miner’s feat, most of his new-found literary mentors both dropped him and the Party as the cataclysmic political events of the 1950s unfolded. Sadly, there was little outlet for Doherty’s socialist realist writings by any mainstream publisher and Lawrence & Wishart’s 1950’s project of developing a line in socialist novels came to an end with the political and financial challenges of the post-1956 era. With this, Doherty’s short-lived and narrow fame faded and he was left adrift, unable to return to the pit after the experience and he became a local newspaper journalist in Sheffield, not unfriendly in his later years to Communists, never to produce a novel again.
Scientists worked in sensitive areas in those days and many Communists, or allies, found their careers stymied, leaving the Party or shifting careers to save themselves. But some remained broadly loyal in one way or another for the rest of their lives. Anne McClaren and Donald Michie, married Communists during the 1950s, were such persons. They could, without exaggeration, perhaps be assigned scientific responsibility for the development of cloning and computers respectively. McLaren was one of Britain's leading scientists in the fields of mammalian reproductive and developmental biology and genetics. Michie was a pioneer in the field of machine intelligence, creating "computers that can think". Both would hold honours and distinctions aplenty from wider society but for Communists they “exemplified the engagement of science with society, of knowledge as entwined with social progress at every stage”, having joined the Communist Party during the cold war. [Andrew Murray, Morning Star 10th July 2007] In their case, perhaps their fast-moving interests and sheer distinction saved them from the life-churning hostility of the state. Perhaps because his area of work was non-defence related, Arthur Simpson was able to become a senior government advisor for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. His expertise was in the study of the population dynamics of fish and he became a director of an experimental fisheries station without having to loose his politics.
Medicine was also less affected by the pressures of the time and there were many highly capable and active Communists involved in the medical profession. Health centres were actually proposed by the National Health Service Act but by the mid-1950s there were only “five or six health centres” in the whole country. [Communist Party, `A policy for Britain: general election manifesto’, (1955)] Most of these must have had some kind of Communist initiative behind them, given the number of Party doctors, nurses and health professionals who we can definitely say had a hand in such initiatives. Moreover, no new general hospital had been completed since 1939, though in 1952 there were half a million people on hospital waiting lists.
One of the most prominent Communist advocates for health centres was Dr Julian Tudor Hart, a physician and epidemiologist, was a long-term General Practitioner in the NHS in the South Wales mining village of Glyncorrwg. He was the son of the Chief Doctor at Motoro Hospital during the Spanish Civil War and an Austrian Marxist intellectual. Like many Communists involved in medicine in the post-war period, in his own practice, he early on introduced the concept of all-round localised medical care. Concentrating on studying how his patients' lifestyles, their diet, smoking, and exercise, affected illness and then worked with them to make their lives healthier.
Hugh Faulkner, like all Communist doctors, he saw his role as a GP very much in a social context. Despite the fact that Nye Bevan had not been able to insist that all NHS GPs operate medical health centres, Hugh Faulkner built up his own group practice, the Caversham Centre, in north London, long before such notions became commonplace. His centre began not only with a co-operative group of GPs but with a practice nurse, secretary (an innovation then) and, in time, expanded to a health visitor, midwife and even a social worker.
Dr Ruscoe Clarke was a pioneer of advanced military surgery and served in Spain in the struggle against Fascism. Afterwards, Ruscoe Clarke settled in Birmingham with his wife Avis, where she was secretary of the Birmingham Peace Committee up to 1959. Avis was also a Communist Party medical activist, nurse and health visitor and Ruscoe was a medical researcher and a trauma specialist at Birmingham Accident Hospital and later worked at the newly built Queen Elizabeth Hospital. Like many Communists, he was the only doctor to speak in favour of the NHS and abolition of private patients at meetings of the profession in Birmingham. (Clarke died in 1959 and Avis would later marry Alan Hutt.)
Dr Donald Cameron was an Edinburgh Communist, for many years, senior lecturer in community medicine at Edinburgh University; as a young doctor, he campaigned for the creation of the NHS and in the 1950s, Dr Cameron advised on the development of health services and urban redevelopment in Edinburgh. Dr Ruscoe Clarke was a medical researcher and a trauma specialist at Birmingham Accident Hospital. His partner was also a Communist Party medical activist, nurse and health visitor and peace campaigner, Avis, later married to Alan Hutt.
Finally, Ida Fisher worked as a doctor in Sydenham for many years, a part of London that long boasted a Communist Party branch with the highest concentration of veteran and well-known leaders of the Party. As such, she was personally closely associated with Robin Page Arnot and other veterans who were registered as her patients. In her medical work, she pioneered advanced ideas in community health care at a time when group practice and health centres were still innovations.
This meeting of the National University Staffs Committee believes it to be exceptionally important to the-success of its work at this strategy that the Executive Committee at its May meeting should issue a further statement on the lessons for our Party of the 20th Congress of the CPSU and call for the discussion of this statement by the whole membership. It notes that criticism, made at our 24th Congress of the inadequacy of the original EC resolution was answered by the claim that at the time when this resolution was formulated the E.C. had no knowledge of the private session of the 20th Congress. This situation no longer obtains and a second statement should therefore be made.
2. The N.U.S.C. urges that in the resolution the E.C. declares:-
(1) That the 20th Congress makes it necessary to undertake in the coming period a re-examination of many aspects of our socialist theory, to re-assess the past policies of our Party, especially over the last twenty years, to disclose past mistakes frankly, and to examine anew the tasks and problems, both short and long term, which confront our Party. To these discussions, every party member has the right to make his contribution.
(2) That leading committees at all levels should encourage the freest expression of opinion in these discussions. Attitudes which discourage .such expression are impermiss¬ible. Two such attitudes are, that which imputes anti-party motives to comrades who express fundamental criticisms, and the attitude of sectarian indifference to theory and anti-intellectualism which is to be found in some sections; of the active party cadres.
(3) That the E.C., on behalf of the Party, will itself initiate discussion by a frank self-critical examination of the reasons why the world Communist Movement and ourselves, as part of it, was unable to prevent the grave mistakes and even crimes which have been committed, will accept frankly its share of the responsibility for them, will express its sincere regret for these mistakes, and tender apologies to those who, on the basis of false information, have been slandered in our press.
(4) That with a view to taking all possible measures to ensure that such things shall not happen again, the E.C. indicates a number of key questions on which discussion is needed. These questions to include the question of sectarianism, its roots, its main manifestations, and concrete measures to eradicate It; the question of labour unity, including the question of our long term view of the relationship of the Communist Party and the Labour Party; the implications for our immediate policy of our perspective of building the broad alliance; a re-assessment of our past policies, especially our policy on the war from 1939-41 and 1941-45, and our attitudes to the labour governments of 1945-51; the position of democratic liberties and legal penalties under socialism; the strengthening of democracy in the Communist Party; the question of the relations between the fraternal Communist and workers parties (and especially our relations with the brother parties in the countries of socialism). In these discussions, Labour Party and non-party specialists should be encouraged to participate.
(5) That while insisting that our attitude to the Socialist countries is not a neutral, but a partisan one, it will strive to improve the treatment of the Socialist countries in our press. Our treatment should be more sober and realistic, and we should make fuller use of historical materialism in our study and explanation of developments in Socialist countries. Thus it is wrong to treat the question of Stalin's position and policies in largely personal terms, and we should not repeat Soviet statements (such as that Beria was an agent of imperialism) uncritically and without the necessary evidence. Rather than treating the advance to Communism as smooth progress not beset by major difficulties we should examine the problems which are being tackled at each stage in the advance and the solutions to them which are being found. This would enable us to show the way in which Socialist society develops by overcoming contradictions. This is the best way to win sympathy for the Socialist system, and the only way in which we can learn the lessons of the experience of the Socialist countries in order to apply them in our own conditions.
(6) That the E.C. will regard these discussions as an essential preliminary to the modifylng and strengthening of our programme, The British Road to Socialism, and undertakes to prepare a revised draft programme for submission to the 25th Congress, and to place this draft before the Party for full discussion by the whole membership not less than six months before the Congress assembles.
(7) That the E.C. will take similar measures with regard to the Party rules, - i.e. will call for discussion and suggestions for the strengthening of inner-Party democracy and appoint a special commission to go into this question which shall report its conclusions in time for adequate pre-Congress discussion, i.e. at least six months before the 25th Congress.
3. The N.U.S.C. welcomes the publication of the articles by Comrade Pollitt in Nos. 16 & 18 of Worlds News, but is strongly of the opinion that this must not be regarded as a substitute for a statement by the E.C. We believe the E.C. statement to be vitally important for the Party as a whole and for the enhancing of its prestige among the working class and among the whole British people, including those sections with whom our committee is especially concerned.
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Daily Worker Friday June 22 1956
COMMUNISTS & THE KHRUSHCHOV REPORT
'Now—end death penalty'
The Political Committee of the British Communist Party said yesterday that in the absence of a denial or an official text, the U.S. version of the Khrushchov report on Stalin must be taken as more or less authentic.
British Communists protested to the Soviet Communist Party nearly three months ago at the failure to publish the report. The evil practices disclosed in the report violated Socialist conceptions of democracy, said the Political Committee statement.
The time had come for all countries to abolish the death penalty in time of peace. The revised edition of the Party's programme “The British Road to Socialism " would pay special attention to personal and civil liberty.
All the conditions were present for a great united working class advance in Britain and throughout the world, said the statement, which is published in full below.
The Political Committee of the Communist Party has had under consideration the unofficial published version of Comrade Khrushchov to the Private Session of the 20th of the C.P.S.U., together with the discussion in our Party. At the private session of the 24th National Congress of our Party, on April 1, a resolution was passed, and conveyed to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, regretting that a the public statement on this question had not been made by the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, which could have enabled members of all Communist Parties and staunch friends of the Soviet Union to have understood fully the seriousness of the issues, and helped them to a better understanding of everything that is involved. Our Party has not received any official version of the report of Comrade Khrushchov.
The continued absence of an official report has led to the publication of unofficial versions through gradual leakages and by sources hostile to socialism. This has made many Communists inside the Soviet Union dependent on such sources for information on these vital questions and this added unnecessarily difficulties for information and discussion of the facts.
In the light of the unofficial text now published, which, in the absence of official denial may be regarded as more or less authentic, we reaffirm the general lines of the resolution of our executive committee of May 13.
All deeply shocked
We consider that the 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. was correct in condemning the cult of the individual and in endorsing the return to Leninist principles of collective leadership and inner Party democracy.
We consider that the 20th Congress was correct in frankly exposing all the evils which followed from the departure from Leninist principles, in order to put an end to these evils.
All Communists, in common with all demo¬cratic and progressive people, are deeply shocked by the injustices and crimes which, during the period under review, violated the essential principles of Socialist democracy and legality and dishonoured the noble cause of Communism. We repeat that such evil practices are totally alien to Socialism and Communism.
At the same time, we recognise that these evils arose not as a necessary accompaniment of working-class rule and Soviet democracy, as the enemies of Socialism pretend, but as a result of the violation of Socialist principles and during a specific period of abnormal strain between 1934 and 1953. This was the period of the rise of fascism abroad, the preparation of war, the Second World War and the cold war.
The Soviet leaders have exposed the evils and abuses of this period in order to correct them and make a decisive turn to the fulfil¬ment of the principles of Leninism, collective leadership, Socialist democracy and creative Marxist work in all the fields of science, literature and art.
We recognise that, in spite of the grave harm caused by these abuses, the Soviet people achieved very great and historic successes. In face of terrible difficulties they established Socialism, withstood and defeated the Nazi onslaught, and reconstructed their country after the unparalleled devastation of the war.
The 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U. itself recorded the historic fact that Socialism had now become a world system. It made major contributions to Marxist theory, and helped the working-class movement in all countries by its declarations on the possibility of preventing world war, the peaceful transition to Socialism, and the new opportunities for developing working-class unity.
The discussion arising from the 20th Con¬gress and from the revelations regarding the 1934-1953 period of the Soviet Union is stimulating fresh and fruitful thought and endeavour in every field of Communist work and practice.
It is clear that further review and discussion is needed of the questions opened up by the report to the private session of the 20th Con¬gress of the C.P.S.U.
We agree with the observations of Comrade Togliatti and the French Communist Party that it will be necessary to make a profound Marxist analysis of the causes of the degenera¬tion in the functioning of Soviet democracy and Party democracy; that it is not enough to attribute these developments solely to the character of one individual; and that a more adequate estimate of the role of Stalin, both in its positive and negative aspects, will be necessary.
End death penalty
It is clear that the steps taken for strengthening the operation of Socialist legality and safeguarding the rights of citizens will lead to further examination of all the problems of the functioning of Socialist democracy and legality.
Those responsible for past violations of Socialist democracy and crimes against the people are being punished, and this is just and necessary. At the same time it is understandable that concern has been expressed at the application of the death penalty in a recent trial in the Soviet Union.
We express the view that in the light of the present world situation and the strengthened position of the Socialist camp it should now be possible to bring about the abolition of the death penalty in peace¬time in all countries, and we recognise that we have a special responsibility to work for the fulfilment of this aim in Britain and the Colonial countries under British rule.
Within our own Party we shall need to carry forward and encourage the widest and most thorough discussion, as already begun, of our political and organisational methods, the func¬tioning of Party democracy and the tackling of the problems before us, our relations with other sections of the Labour movement and the aims of unity, as indicated in the executive com-mittee resolution.
We shall also carry forward the work on a new edition of "The British Road to Social¬ism," in which, among the many questions which will come up for review, we shall need to expand that section which shows how the democratic liberties won by the people can be maintained and extended, and how Socialist legality will be guaranteed.
On the contrary, our Party members and organisations will know how to conduct the dis¬cussion so as to strengthen every aspect of our Party's work and activity.
The democracy of our Party is the widest democracy of any Party in Britain. The free¬dom of discussion and democratic function¬ing which is possible in our Party, and which the leaders of other parties fear to permit in theirs, is possible because of the essential unity of our Party's Marxist outlook and our determination to reach, in the light of Marx¬ism, unity on the policy which is in the best interests of the British working class.
Let us never forget, throughout this discus¬sion, that the cause of Communism, of national independence, freedom and peace, is advancing with giant strides throughout the world.
All the conditions are present here in Britain for a great advance of the Labour movement. Given the correct policy and leadership, the British people will defeat Toryism and move forward to Socialism.
It is the mission of our Communist Party to help achieve these aims, and it is in this spirit that, while discussing the urgent and important issues raised by the 20th Congress of the C.P.S.U., we work to develop the greatest united movement of the people for the policy put forward by our 24th National Congress.
campaigns and political work
A more turbulent industrial-relations scene which had arrived now in Britain would severely test the legal framework of `immunity’ that unions were placed in so long ago by the 1906 Trades Disputes Act, which had effectively removed trade union liability for damage by strike action. The increasing number of short and sudden 'walk outs' in key manufacturing industries would see what the media conveyed as chaotic industrial-relations scene became a focus for much anti-union propaganda. Comment amongst the political elite chattered along the lines that unions had grown too powerful.
In 1958, the Inns of Court Conservative Party published an influential pamphlet entitled, `A Giant's Strength, some Thoughts on the Constitutional and Legal Position of Trade Unions in England’. This raised doubts about the very principle of legal immunities that had guided labour law for so long.
Despite the many protestations that countries such as Britain are based on absolute democratic rights, these rest on all too thin a layer of actuality. The right to strike is only lawful, especially in today’s climate in which even this is beginning to be put in doubt through European Court of Justice ruling but just as much so in the early 1960s, because the 1906 Trade Disputes Act provided that industrial action is likely to lawful be granted immunity from breach of common law. In recognising the legitimate role of industrial action in collective bargaining, Parliament introduced measures that provide a degree of protection from liability for damages for trade unions, subject to a series of complicated qualifications.
It has always and is still the case that common law enables a case to be made that individuals will almost invariably commit a `tort’ (a breach of legal duty, other than under a contract). For instance, the tort of inducement when encouraging individuals to breach their contract of employment is almost always present. Generally, employers have been reluctant to press the case but they will often stress to employees that striking is a personal breach of contract. This is so much hot air because of the collective nature of the act for which unions are provided with statutory immunities from legal proceedings that might normally arise from a civil tort. Unions are only exposed to claims for damages from employers and others suffering a loss when an unlawful action accompanies a bona fide trade dispute, the definition of which is now complicated by the anti-union laws introduced largely in the 1980s. Such a course was not politically achievable back then but, as we shall see, a back door approach was eventually resorted to, just as it was becoming clear that the Tories may not have been able to hold on to office. But from the latter stages of Macmillan’s premiership, it became increasingly clear that a strategy of incorporation of the formal machinery of trade unions and of industrial relations had begun embarkation.
The first outing for the Tory governments new line of seeking a more state regulated framework to labour relations issues came with the 1959 Terms and Conditions Act, which mainly refined and extended the position of Wages Councils, which would submit to the Ministry of Labour proposals for fixing minimum wages, holidays and conditions of work in certain trades or industries where suitable joint negotiating machinery did not exist (catering, road haulage, agriculture, tailoring, retail foods trade, hairdressing etc). Tripartite representation on Councils and the Minister could not reject or amend proposals.
Following this, and more for the general labour force, in 1960, the government passed the Payment of Wages Act, which provided for wages to be paid into a bank account, if the worker requested it and the employer agreed. It would take something like a quarter of a century to create a modified system whereby most workers had a bank account and did receive wages in cash. Apart from the elimination of factory wages snatches as a hazard of work (!), this would create a basis for a shift to a credit-ridden economy.
More positively, the 1961 Factories Acts consolidated the earlier 1901 Factory Workshops Act and the 1937 Factories Act and would be followed by the 1963 Office, Shop and Railway Premises Act. This gave a wide scope of control over working conditions, incorporating, in the field of health: cleanliness, overcrowding, temperature, ventilation, sanitation; in the field of safety: the guarding of machinery, safe access to work, fumes, fire escapes; and finally in the field of welfare: drinking water, seating, first-aid, industrial diseases.
The Trade Union Amalgamation Act of the same year made it easier for unions to amalgamate, by only requiring a simple majority of members of the unions concerned. But the big shift was the 1963 Contracts of Employment Act. This Act only became effective from 6th July 1966 and had two principal objectives: 1) to provide that employees receive notice based on length of service, ranging from one week for six months to two years continuous employment; two weeks for two to five years employment and four weeks for five years service and over: 2) to ensure that employees are given, in writing, particulars of the main terms and conditions of employment and any changes that may take place.
All this was designed to find means to by-pass workers’ direct representation and to lull unions into a policy of disciplining their own wayward members. This was always going to be difficult, especially in some industries, where workers now found their leverage on the workplace actually worth something and recall darker days. The ports’ industries more than any other revealed a towering ability to castrate economic power in those days, when Britain exports mattered more than their imports; as was later revealed by a major report into the docks industry, “out of 421 strikes since 1960, 410, accounting for about 94 per cent of days lost, have been unofficial. This percentage of days lost through unofficial strikes is substantially greater than the corresponding percentages in a number of other industries involving heavy manual work.” The levels of unofficial action in a range of industries were proffered: shipbuilding (46 percent), engineering and vehicles (49 percent) and construction (36 percent). [Final Report of the Committee of Inquiry under the Rt Hon Lord Devlin Into certain matters concerning the port transport industry, Cmnd 2734, August 1965, pp.4-5.]
Indeed, the trend ahead would be more of the same. Of the 498 strikes in the car industry in the first six months of 1965 only four were given official backing by the unions. Thirty years before, about one third of strikes were official but the proportion had dropped to about one twentieth and that was just of the officially recorded ones. The small amount of support given to strikes and strikers by the unions is made very clear by the fact that the total amount spent by all unions on strike benefit in 1963 was £462,000, or about 11d per union member per year. Death benefits were larger, at £1,011,000!
But the area of greatest struggle was in the car industry, where the level of strikes, as measured by the number of hours lost, rose significantly in the latter years of the Tory government leading up to the 1964 general election. Pressed Steel, Rover and BMC (later British Leyland) saw a doubling in hours lost over a two year period. Vauxhall, which had been established in a low wage, depressed are, that of Ellesmere Port near Liverpool, opened in 1960, positively denied the hopes of its hopeful American owners, General Motors, of being likely to be poorly unionised as it massively soared into the league table of militancy. [Financial Times, 2 February 1966]
1962 1963 1964 1964
In 1964, even postal workers engaged on their first ever major national battle, when the Government went back on a promise to accept, without reservation, the report of the Armitage Committee over pay issues. A one day strike was called in June, the first in the then 44 year history of the Union of Post Office Workers (UPW), today part of the Communication Workers Union. The UPW had found its position had strengthened by adopting a firm stance. After the union decided to embark upon action to force its wages claim, membership rose dramatically. The one day stoppage led to unofficial action, as members were increasingly frustrated by the apparent inability of their leaders to press their case to a successful conclusion. The main concern of postal workers was that the low wages meant staff shortages, which in turn led to late and delayed mail, which in turn raised doubts about the future security of employment, as businesses turned to alternative methods of information exchange. Even George Woodcock, TUC General Secretary, was moved to tell five thousand postal workers rallying on the eve of their work-to-rule protest that “the only thing that will make the Government reconsider the wages pause is force”. [The Metal Worker, January 1962, p4, EATSSNC]
It should not have been surprising, therefore (even though it was something of a shock to union leaders) when, in 1964, when the judiciary pushed hard against immunity in a Law Lords' ruling over a closed shop dismissal case at Heathrow Airport, in the case of Rookes v Barnard. It had been thought that the Trades Disputes Act had eliminated the tort of civil intimidation. But, for the first time for 60 years, it was now held that the union action constituted just that. The House of Lords’ judges in effect invented a new civil wrong of intimidation to by-pass the 1906 Act protections. Anyone threatening a strike was now liable to be sued. This was not only a massively significant development for unions the judgement became the leading case in English law on punitive damages in general.
In the coal mining industry, nationalisation had taken place within the context of a plan to maintain and development output at a high level. The National Coal Board’s 1950 Plan for Coal had been very optimistic about the future. But by 1957 the total of 950 collieries inherited a decade before had dropped to 822. The Tory Government and NCB now began to implement a systematic pit closure programme. Between 1957 and 1963, no less than 264 collieries were closed, while the number of miners fell by nearly 30%. During this six-year period, Scotland lost 39% of its pits, while 30% of those in South Wales, Northumberland and Durham were wiped out. Mechanisation in the mines rose dramatically. Less than a tenth of output was power-loaded in 1955. But by the end of the 1960s the position had reversed, less than a tenth was manually loaded. Opposition to the NUM’s official and rather compliant approach began to grow to the dramatic contraction in the industry.
The Party was still strong in its traditional heartlands of Scotland and Wales, reasonably strong in Kent and was present to some degree in every single coalfield. But whilst it was largely standing still in membership terms these areas, it had grown significantly from just around 300 members in the traditionally rather right-wing dominated Yorkshire coalfield in 1954 to 440 by 1960. It was not just the quantity of Communist involvement but also the quality of their leadership that impressed. All this in spite of the revelations of the 20th Congress of the CPSU and the events in Hungary – it might even have been almost said because of it, a slight exaggeration maybe, but it is clear that the events hardly disturbed the growing strength of the Yorkshire mining Communists, who were perceived by the culturally tough men they worked amongst as being just the sort of focused and determined persons to lead the coalfield forward in struggle. The question was how to translate this new-found strength along with the traditional base into transforming the NUM itself.
The Party had opened the 1950s by appointing four full-time organisers to serve specifically in the main coalfields of South Wales, Scotland, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. Pollitt’s original advice to the Scottish Party to help in this project by sending one of its most energetic full-time organisers to Yorkshire, in the shape of Frank Watters, to aid the Party there, was calculated entirely upon a mathematical calculation that the best way to upset the hard right triumvirate in the form of the leaders of the T&G, NUGMW (later GMWU and GMB) and the NUM that used their block votes at both the Labour Party and TUC conferences to hamstring any attempt at progressive politics; this dominance also fed into every nook and cranny of the entire labour movement. Put bluntly, no matter how militant and politically sophisticated the miners in the Party’s historic bases were, Yorkshire represented nearly one-third of the NUM membership!
Shifting things in the T&G had already begun; now the key was to turn the balance of power that so delicately rested in mining unionism on the inter-relationship between the semi-autonomous coalfield areas and the entity that was the national union. In that, the General Secretary was more of an administrative functionary, and the Communist who held that post was virtually a prisoner of the right. It was the all-powerful President that called the shots; the former left-winger, Will Lawther, had veered sharply to the right in his period of office from 1939 onwards, his successor Ernest Jones, elected in 1954, was equally on the right. Moreover, Jones had been the Yorkshire Area President. Towards the period of Jones’ presidency, all thoughts turned to the election of his successor in 1960. A sequence of odd events would first give the role to a centre-left candidate, who promptly suddenly very died, and then deny a Communist to succeed to win the Presidency by a wafer thin share of the vote.
At this stage, there was a poor degree of co-ordination with potential left allies and even between Communists from different coalfields. For Yorkshire Communists, Alwyn Machin the Area President who had succeeded Ernest Jones, had been exercising his authority and playing “a very helpful and progressive role”, despite the fact that he had no connection with the Party at all. [Frank Watters] For example, during the events in Hungary, on the issue of reciprocal delegations from the Soviet Union, the NUM Area EC recommended that these be postponed. But, after a lengthy discussion on the full Area Council, the EC decision was rescinded by a vote of nearly two-to-one. The Council then went on to invite the Soviet miners to attend their Annual Gala. It was known that Machin had not been unhelpful in all this. Moreover, Paul Robeson, the blacklisted American singer, previously refused an invitation by Ernest Jones when he was Area President, was brought to Yorkshire.
On a whole host of issues, such as Suez for example, Yorkshire under Machin was playing a much more progressive role. This even extended to his role of the NUM’s national executive, where he now sat with the Communist, Sammy Taylor, before he was elected as NUM Yorkshire Area Compensation Agent, a full-time position, in 1961. “Progressive resolutions were now appearing from Yorkshire on the Agenda of the NUM Annual Conference. For example, on the issues of periodic election of all officials, peace resolutions, support for Nye Bevan as Labour Party Treasurer, delegations to the Soviet Union, China and the GDR, and a delegation to France as guests of the miners in the French CGT.” [Frank Watters “Being Frank”]
But, when it came to the nominations for the Presidency, there were left-wing contenders aplenty and the main impulse seemed to be geographical alliances that had little to do with politics. As well as Bert Wynn (North Derbyshire), there was Jim Hammond (Lancashire), and Willie Allan (Northumberland) - all ex-members of the Communist Party. The three ex-Party officials had been secretly meeting with other, Communist, officials from South Wales but not with Yorkshire Communists. This disastrous split both in the Party and with the left in the NUM led Frank Watters to reflect that “it was anti-communism that held back the development of a genuine left committed to change in the NUM”. Wynn was the first to be eliminated, but his transferable votes were distributed more to the right-winger than to Machin, who we may call in modern terms a `soft-left’ candidate. Similarly when Hammond was eliminated, an anti-Machin factor in transfer votes emerged. Allan was still in the race for the final count, polling nearly 159,000 votes. Nonetheless, Machin was elected with 254,675 votes.
Machin was elected National President of the NUM with the highest vote in the history of the union but tragically, given subsequent events, he died on the very day the result was announced. Following this extraordinary turn of events, a group of lefts and Communists met after Machin's funeral in Barnsley for a formal review of the situation. There was no hostility to the candidates who had stood against Machin at all and it was thought that, once again, left-wingers Bert Wynn, Jim Hammond and Willie Allan were likely candidates. Alec Moffat from Scotland and Les Ellis from Notts, both members of the Communist Party, also expressed their interest.
In retrospect, particularly because of the interplay between the area sectionalism of the union and the complicated electoral system it maintained, it is easy to see that the criterion that the left had needed to adopt was to support whichever candidate from wherever could win the most votes, and this rather obvious comment meant winning the Yorkshire Area nomination. The candidate at the time who had been best placed for this was, oddly, not a Yorkshire based person, perhaps partly a consequence of the extraordinary success of Party organising work in the area that enabled a transcendence of area loyalties. The Scottish Communist, Alec Moffat, the brother of the more famous Area Secretary, Abe Moffat, who was too near retirement to be a candidate himself, was not only well-known in the Yorkshire coalfield, there were now also many left-leaning Scottish and Durham miners who had been transferred to work in Yorkshire. There were as many as eight candidates nominated in Yorkshire, including Alec Moffat and Sid Ford. Only these two had reached the final vote to select the Area’s nomination, resulting in Moffat winning 1,293 votes against Ford's 857 votes; Moffat had won nearly 50% of all Yorkshire branch votes. Had he had the backing of lefts in other areas, he could have gone on to win the Presidency but most candidates would not withdraw.
The election to replace Machin after his all-too brief sojourn as national President finally took place in mid-1960, with as many as seven candidates standing; the outcome was surprising at the time. As the NUM’s complex transferable votes system that assigned votes in an exhaustive ballot by eliminating sequential preferences indicated by voters during the count, it began to look like a landslide for Moffat as he led by 23,000 votes over Ford in the first round, and then crept up to 24,603. From within the count, Sammy Taylor called Watters with a coded version of the way the count was going: "The sun is shining and getting brighter"! The last votes to be transferred now came and they were those of Les Ellis from Nottinghamshire. But Ellis’ first preference votes turned out to be ordered to give Ford two-an-a-half votes to every one for Moffat. The result gave the right-wing Ford a slim 10,000 majority against Moffat, the Communist; it was a disaster that virtually wasted almost a decade of hard graft.
Between them, the various left candidates received 57% of the poll, Wynn coming sixth out of the seven candidates. But the divided result was a bitter lesson for the left, for in consequence the NUM was saddled with Sidney Ford as President, who was not only a right-winger but “who not only had never worked down a pit but had been employed for most of his working life as a clerk in the NUM offices”. [V L Allen “The Militancy of British Miners” The Moor Press, Shipley (1981) p119] In time, Ford would go on to virtually hand the Presidency to Joe Gormley, who stayed in office to the last day before retirement, giving the right 20 years at the top of the NUM. The Party and the left had almost sleep-walked into this; although a decisive lesson had penetrated through the traditional area insularity. Even so, a massive and utterly ruthless pit closure programme followed.
Nonetheless, the Party came out of the debacle even stronger then ever in Yorkshire and, of even greater long-term significance, now had a base for developing a strong broad left organisation; the rest of the story is for a future history. Although an immediate breakthrough was not feasible, the election for the Yorkshire Presidency, vacant strictly speaking due to Machin’s election as national President, ended up as a straight fight between Communist, Jock Kane, and Sam Bullough, who had the advantage of being the Vice President and Acting President. The Yorkshire left needed no pressure to accept the need to unite around one candidate.
The result saw Kane win 27,862 votes (40%) to Bullough’s 43,928 votes (60%). Since the last Communist contests in the Area in 1954, a mere six years before, had seen Sammy Taylor obtain a mere 11,000 votes and Jock had won 15,753 as candidate for Vice President, winning an increase of 17,000 votes was seen as a great success. It could not longer be said that Yorkshire was a right-wing coalfield and things were clearly going to change. Indeed, in 1963 Kane became the first Communist to be elected to a full time position of the Yorkshire NUM, when he was elected compensation agent of the Doncaster Panel. His `turn’ had indeed come!
Following the apprentice and young worker movements of the 1950s, attempts were made by official union-dom to channel their rebellious mood into ore long-term organised forms; but these only took off in a few areas. Engineering youth committees in Sheffield and the Clydeside, trades council advisories in Coventry and Birmingham and youth unemployed committees in the North East in the 1962-3 period, during a brief downturn in shipbuilding, were amongst some of the products of this period. The YCL was, as always, heavily involved in these bodies.
But the official trade union youth structure was largely limited to the AEU and to the draughtsmen's and technicians union (AESD, then DATA). Oddly, the AEU’s highly official provisions for Junior Workers Committees (JWCs), constrained by restrictions on their authority for fear of their moving away from `responsible’ approaches probably did more to stimulate demand for unofficial organisation and militancy than would have been the case without such youth committees. The relationship between official and unofficial youth organizations was often problematic. The 1961 AEU Youth Conference did not even record the existence of the previous year’s strike movement in its report.
JWCs were strictly limited in what they could do; they were supposed to focus on increasing the union’s youth membership and working with its adult District Committee in promoting social, educational and recreational activities for young members. Training-related issues featured regularly in the motions submitted to annual AEU Youth Conferences but they were usually blocked by many representatives unwilling to see piece-work restricted so as to aid the supply of training provisions.
Apprentice strikes in shipbuilding and engineering once again took place in 1960 and 1964. The strike of 1960 was one the year’s biggest in terms of days lost. In central Scotland around 90% of apprentices took part in the 1960 movement. In places such as Wigan and Halifax, local full-time officials quickly instructed their apprentice members to return to work immediately. But, in Scotland, the Clyde Apprentices’ Committee (CAC) was reborn early in February 1960, two months before they organised a token strike, to pursue demands for increased apprentice pay. The CAC set up Finance, Propaganda and Demonstration sub-committees.
Apprentice delegates were sent south by motor-bike to gather support. This was one of the biggest apprentice strikes in history, with more than 30,000 apprentices involved from districts as far apart as Aberdeen and London. Coventry apprentices had not been involved in earlier and smaller strike waves but the 1960 movement extended that far. Apprentice strikes at three Coventry factories in 1960 began after a visit from some Clydeside apprentices.
Apprentice activism in the early 1960s may have been fostered, albeit with a lag, by adult unofficial disputes over the implementation of recent national agreements. In 1960, Communist shop stewards even positively undermined the efforts of union officials to secure a return to work on the Clyde. Yet, in a number of districts that year, full-time union officials quietly encouraged their shop stewards to helping the apprentice strike leaders, seeing this as an opportunity to generate a new outlook amongst employers to union recognition for apprentices. Apprentice and young worker strikes of the 1950s and 1960s effectively unblocked log jams in national negotiations. It was the Scottish Engineering Employers’ Federation acceptance in 1960 of a reduction of the duration of apprenticeship from five to four years and of payment of the adult rate at age 20 that forced the national EEF to follow.
The lack of results from national negotiations for higher age-wage scales in the years before the 1960 strikes was widely attributed among apprentices to a low priority attached to that goal in official circles. Certainly, the dispute pushed the unions and the employers into agreeing a substantial pay rise for all young males in the engineering and shipbuilding industries. A demand on training quality was finally advanced nationally by engineering unions in 1963, when compulsory day release on average earnings for apprentices aged less than 18 was sought by the CSEU. But this occurred only after rank-and-file apprentice pressure was applied.
At eleven o’clock in the morning of 24th August 1963, some 10,000 Clydeside engineering apprentices downed tools for a one-day token stoppage against the injustice of their low wages. Makeshift placards carried their warning to the engineering bosses: “If we don't get more we're out the door. More for pockets, less for rockets.” Eric Park, the Communist secretary of the committee which had led the apprentices to victory in 1952, thought that the demonstration was “at least twice as big” as one he had led. In buoyant mood, apprentices from factory after factory poured into Blythswood Square, Glasgow. The apprentices from John Brown's shipyard alone brought around a thousand young marchers into the city, all the way from Clydebank - a two-hour march. From Babcock and Wilcox in Renfrewshire, some 600 apprentices came in twelve double-decker buses. As a result of the stop¬page, the Clyde district of the Con¬federation of Shipbuilding and Engin¬eering Unions decided to call a meeting of all Clydeside apprentices to discuss the wage claim. In Greenock, around two thousand apprentices left seven factories and shipyards and held a mass meeting in Thomson’s Halls. [Daily Worker 1st August 1963]
In the 1964 youth dispute, Manchester and Oldham AEU district officials actively encouraged apprentices to strike! Events were dominated by Glasgow and Manchester and in the latter one a particular factory re-appears; AEI (previously Metropolitan-Vickers) saw around 800, or 73% of apprentices, strike in 1952, 700 in 1960 and 570 in 1964. The Vickers shipyard in Barrow was especially affected in 1968, when apprentices went in and out of work over a six month period. The use of air travel was even innovatively used to spread the strike from Manchester to Glasgow in 1964. But the strike also saw leaderless and chaotic mass meetings – though the prior collapse of the strike in Manchester amidst political in-fighting promoted disorganisation on the Clyde.
Political factors were clearly behind the outburst of engineering youth and apprentice committees during 1964 but they were also the cause of some of their loss of momentum. The National Apprentices’ Wages and Conditions Campaign Committee (NAWACC) was clearly a YCL and Communist Party initiative; it used the home address of J F O’Shea of Islington, London, who had been a Communist Party candidate in recent local council elections. The NAWCCC launched the indefinite strike on 2nd November 1964. But ultra-leftist breakaway groups in both Manchester and Scotland reduced the effectiveness of the campaign by their classic in-fighting approach. In Manchester in 1964, the press was excluded from a ‘national’ apprentice conference called by one of two rival strike committees, the Trotskyite-oriented Manchester Engineering Apprentices’ Direct Action Committee (MEADEAC). At the ensuing press conference, Mike Hughes, MEADEAC’s 19-year old organising secretary, appearing nervous, was assisted by an older man, aged around 30, who refused to give his name and fielded difficult questions.
Attempts in Glasgow, Halifax and Sheffield by local officials to promote a return to return had been undermined by widespread sympathy for the strikers among adult workers. Whilst the AEU had previously granted strike benefit to members who had joined before they had gone on strike in the 1952 and 1960 unofficial youth engineering strike movements, it positively refused to do so, even retrospectively, in 1964.
These strikes were called off on the understanding, as conveyed from the employers’ associations by the trade unions, that industry-wide negotiations on the apprentices’ claims, which had been in progress before the strike, would be rapidly resumed after a return to work leading to concessions. This heralded a move by the official unions, especially the AEU, to harness the issues within procedural forms, effectively cutting out young people as direct advocates of young workers themselves.
No separate apprentice strike movements would occur after 1964, despite the general shift to the left in society and the continuing strength of the Communist Party in engineering. To some extent, this may have reflected the better conditions for apprentices following employer acceptance of the right of unions to represent them but there is certainly a sense that the YCL was less rooted in the engineering industries from the mid-1960s. By 1969, a youth scale increase only came about following formal national union negotiations but the pay increases of 1952, 1960 and 1964 had followed an apprentice strike movement. It took the large scale rises of 1969 and the abandonment of piecework by many employers around that time to move apprentice earnings strongly towards those of adults and for the efforts of the post-war apprentice strikers finally to bear fruit. The combined effects of the unofficial and the official young workers’ movements caused a shift in the training-wages in the metal working sector in the period between pre-war rearmament and the bursting of the post-war boom.
In the railway sector, the Guillebaud committee finally published its report on 2nd March 1960. This concluded that the pay of railway workers was 10% lower than that of workers in other industries. After allowing for the advantages in conditions other than pay, Guillebaud recommended an 8 per cent increase for most Conciliation Grades and 10 per cent for Salaried Grades, introduced retrospectively from 4th January 1960.
On Wednesday 29th August 1962, the two plants stopped entirely, staging a gigantic march through the town. It had been announced that, nationally, some 20,000 workshop jobs would go within five years. The fear that Derby would no longer be a railway town was widespread. The procession was nearly half a mile long and wound its way from the Carriage and Wagon, along London Road and Ascot Drive. The protest was both largely spontaneous and unofficial, but the full force of feeling ensured that not only the local NUR organiser, Jim Hall, backed the event, but George Brown MP also declared his support. The latter was careful to stress that he hoped the workers would not “spoil it” by indulging in a series of unconstitutional demonstrations. [Derbyshire Advertiser August 31st 1962]
Thousands of leaflets were distributed at factory gates and football matches. But hopes of an overspill meeting at this more restrained and formal affair proved optimistic, for about 700 turned up to practically fill the haIl. A national one-day stoppage was called for October 3rd, to oppose the Government’s plans. Stations and tracks were deserted. But, in May 1963, the NUR deserted the joint action with the Confed and called off another planned action, a three day stoppage, after further negotiations were offered. However, despite concessions and pay-offs, the bulk of the line closures were carried out.
Young men were compelled to do their time in National Service - with 6,000 being called up every fortnight. The Communist Party began the decade firmly wedded to the idea of a short-term demand for the period of service to be reduced to a single year. This was clearly allied to an overall policy demand for a major reduction in so-called `defence’ expenditure and the policy was designed to rebut criticisms that Communists would leave Britain completely defenceless. Moreover, there was as yet still no professional army and many felt that a long-term strategy for social change would be better supported by a conscript army that by a high-trained force, divided and separated from the working class. Many Communists served their time in National Service, although many were also cast to one side and segregated from `sensitive’ duties. Increasingly, however, the YCL reflected the mood amongst young people themselves and called for a complete abolition of the hated National Service.
In February 1958 the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament was founded, and at Easter 1958 5,000 marched to Aldermaston. The Campaign’s politics and sponsors were an eclectic mix of Christians, pacifists, liberal academics and Labour lefts but it voiced a very real popular concern about the possibility of nuclear war. At Easter 1960 and 1961 some 100,000 people marched in support of CND – many students and middle-class elements, but with a good representation of trade union delegations and ordinary workers.
In October 1960 the Labour Party Conference, in defiance of Gaitskell and the Parliamentary leadership, voted for a policy of unilateral disarmament. This reflected the growth of the biggest mass movement Britain had seen since the 1930s, which in many ways emerged outside the framework of traditional labour movement organisations. The Party mobilised seriously for the 1960 CND Easter March. The Party’s previous focus on international agreement now gave rise to concern existed that the collapse of the Summit Conference approach now made it even harder to rely on a consensus for peace. [MTD May 1959]
Then the 1960 conference of the Labour Party voted for a policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, being bolstered by a sudden leftwards shift in the leadership of the T&G, with the arrival of Frank Cousins as General Secretary. Gaitskell made this snub an issue of his leadership and was able to reverse the policy the following year. But the election of Cousins was to have major repercussions for the balance of forces between the left and the right in the labour movement. It was the Communists' campaigning in the factories and the labour movement which helped the sensational victory at the 1960 Labour Party conference for unilateralism and in defence of Clause Four.
In the early sixties the United States Navy set up a nuclear base in Holy Loch, near Dunoon, Scotland. This was to house the Polaris missile, a submarine-launched, two-stage ballistic missile, designed to be used as part of the US Navy's contribution to the United States' arsenal of nuclear weapons. The move led to many demonstrations in the area. In March 1961 the first US nuclear submarine, the Polaris, arrived at Holy Loch. Local Dumbartonshire council Communist councillor Duncan McGowan opposed the authority’s decision to appoint a representative to a liaison committee with the Polaris base. [World News March 11th 1961] By September, 15,000 people would take part in a banned protest.
The Dorset County Committee passed, unanimously, a resolution calling for Jordan's reinstatement, and sent a deputation to the EC to argue its case. Jordan’s own statement to the press [Country Standard winter 1963 edition] revealed that the actions complained of were:—
1) Writing an article in the Dorset N.U.A.W. Bulletin demanding higher pay for farm workers and contrasting their pay with that of the police and mentioning the latter's method of dealing with ban-the-bomb demonstrators.
This was not the first time that the EC had interviewed Jordan about similar matters, but he categorically denied the General Secretary's statement reported in the Press to the effect that he had not conformed to union policy. He remained understandably bitter about this episode for the rest of his life, but often reflected upon the compensation he had secured on behalf of his members. Jordan moved to London, where he initially secured a post with BALPA, the airline pilots union, before then working for Collett's publishers, in its import department concerned with the Eastern European trade.
If it is immediately obvious that such hostility and unpleasantness towards Communist trades unionists was quite out of court, many will have been confused by the oft-repeated claim that Communists were guilty of outrageous ballot-rigging. The truth may never be recovered, or at the very least awaits further clarification if archives ever surface, for matters may be even stranger than any information currently available suggests. The awful allegation is that Communists had, at the very least, conspired to maintain their dominance of the Electricians Trade Union by illicit interference in the democracy of their union.
Frank Haxell was both a Communist Party member and General Secretary of the 200,000 strong Electrical Trade Union in the 1950s. From 1945, all three leading officials were Communists, the lay President being Frank Foulkes and the AGS Bob McLennan. As himself being the Assistant General Secretary in the early 1950s, Haxell had been a rising force. With other Party members, Haxell played a leading role in turning the ETU to the left, smashing a 1950-1951 wages freeze and building successful guerrilla strikes across the contracting industry in 1953-4. This made him a special hate figure for the media which mounted a vicious campaign against him personally. By the latter part of the decade, he was General Secretary and the combination of Haxell and Foulkes was too much for some. The huge British Electricity Authority employed the vast majority of the electricians in Britain's power plants and it was this arena that the state saw as sensitive and became increasingly worried at the strength of the ETU and of the Communist power base inside it.
Foulkes also led a major dispute in the contracting industry in 1954 that brought him to international attention. For two weeks a guerrilla campaign ensued; then 35,000 employees of private contractors were brought out for a one-day strike, halting some construction work (among other things) at six of Britain's eight atomic establishments. Employers retaliated by giving every striker a "one-day unpaid unholiday" the following day, effectively locking them out. In return, Foulkes called out 7.000 electricians in the London area.
By the time Haxell was General Secretary, the ETU had grown to 240,000 members, largely one the strength of this militant leadership. The aftermath of the events in 1956 saw a leading member of the Communist Party, Les Cannon (1920-1970), leave the Party and rapidly turn into a rabid anti-communist. As a Communist activist, he had been elected a member of the ETU Executive Council, representing North Lancashire and Merseyside, from 1948-1954.
The debarring of Cannon, arsing from a breach of internal procedures, as a delegate to the TUC congress in 1958 led to an unseemly row. A Labour MP, Walter Padley, then President of USDAW and later a Foreign Office minister, jumped to the rostrum to demand a debate on this internal matter of the ETU, causing uproar. Cannon had been artfully placed in the visitors' gallery but Foulkes explained that this was not a matter for congress but for the ETU, which could accredit whoever it wished or did not wish as a delegate: "I don't like Walter Padley, but I don't try to stop his union sending him here," said Foulkes, reasonably.
The TUC President, Tom Yates, tacitly endorsed Foulkes's position and moved the business on but, Padley having placed the issue in a public place, the media fanned debate about the supposedly iron control of Communists in the ETU. The supposedly liberal newspaper the Guardian even suggested a tightening of the rules banning Communists from office so that no affiliate could send delegates who were members to Congress. It wondered why union should be “expected to put up with Communists as a matter of political course?" This before any real challenge over ballot-rigging had properly emerged; indeed, when it did, it seemed vary much a case of pop calling kettle black, as both sides threw allegations at each other.
The affair began to become truly serious when Jock Bryne, a Catholic Action supporting ETU official in Scotland and an outright anti-communist stood against Foulkes but, having been declared the loser in February 1960, he took the matter to court. Cannon, who had been dismissed from a role in the union’s education establishment at Esher Court, now claimed to have uncovered a ballot rigging scandal in the ETU and he and Frank Chapple, also an ex-Party member with a career-orientated grudge dating back before his discovery of anti-communism, now moved into a full-scale campaign to capture the union, using anti-communism as their unique selling proposition and gaining a great deal of mainstream media backing in the process. Both men teamed up with Catholic Action’s Jock Byrne and yet another former Communist, Mark Young. Each was able to travel up and down the country on this `work’ due to financial aid from a group of Catholic businessmen and from the Moral Rearmament Movement. Les Cannon was even given a year's leave of absence on full pay by his employer. Woodrow Wyatt MP, who had already been much to the fore in anti-communist crusades made allegations of corruption in an article in a magazine and the rest of the media pack followed. Wyatt took part in a series of BBC Panorama programmes on the ETU and this was followed by further allegation in the New Statesman.
The TUC was drawn into the controversy, and demanded an explanation from the ETU leaders. An internal ETU enquiry exonerated the union from allegations of malpractice, although it accepted that some branches in the General Secretary election had been disqualified for irregularities. Vic Feather, who we have already noted was in close touch with the security forces over Communist activity in unions and was the TUC AGS in 1960, “played a crucial role”. [Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, “In a Common Cause: the Anti-Communist Crusade in Britain 1945-60”, Lobster magazine May Issue 19 (1990) .co.uk (Issue 19)]
However, Byrne and Chapple issued writs against the union for alleged fraud and the case was heard by Lord Justice Winn. In June 1961, the High Court concluded that a group of ETU leaders, including Frank Foulkes and Frank Haxell, must have acted to prevent Byrne's election by "fraudulent and unlawful" means since the court could see no other explanation. The judge pronounced Byrne duly elected as General Secretary of the ETU with immediate effect and Haxell was removed from office; he was subsequently also expelled from the union. Even so, neither the union, nor the Party, nor the courts were ever able to actually satisfactorily explain precisely how the malpractices occurred and who was individually responsible, despite the accusation constantly being made.
Press-sponsored scares over union ballots would become a norm of life in the next decades, during a period of intense struggle by the state against the power of unions generally. Although, with much publicised concerns over postal balloting and computer-monitored voting, it is now the case that union balloting procedures have probably more integrity than those overseen by most western `democracies’ and, particularly, the current British state! It was the reality of life in working class organisations before the most recent times, especially without widespread literacy and numeracy amongst manual workers, and limited access to typewriters, duplicators, calculators, computers, word processors, and the like, that most bureaucratic tasks were left to the one who could write! Making copies was a function of the carbon copy (“cc”) piece of paper slipped underneath. Local level organisation of an administrative character, especially at the workplace, was scanty.
Most of the time, it was not even clear how many members a union had. All that was known was the amount of money coming in centrally. Until the late 1980s, most unions did not even operate internal budgets of any kind; if they had money, they spent it, if they didn’t, they didn’t! Notoriously, most union democracy was focused on the workplace. If a leading figure had the confidence of the workers, then as far as everyone in the union movement was concerned that made them the custodians of the individual as well as collective voice. This could mean that it was perfectly normal for a branch representing a thousand members, or votes, to decide at a formal branch meeting attended by maybe only five or ten per cent of the members to cast the block vote of the thousand, even in a supposedly individual member ballot, one way or another.
This had little to do with left or right politics; it was the way things were done. Indeed the kind of mess that beset the ETU from the result of internal dissention and outside interference happened in most unions, which is why most union leaders largely kept out the affair. Moreover, the establishment’s main strategy for bringing unions into a more government led approach to industrial relations meant that there was little appetite for causing them trouble over this aspect.
If the British state had largely cleaned up political life in the 20th century, it did not want to be reminded that the buying of votes and impersonation had been carried out wholesale in the previous century (and was still a problem in Northern Ireland!). The forcible bringing to trade unions of bourgeois norms in the arena of balloting would be a step taken only under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, and even then it would be necessary to accuse the biggest union in the country, the T&G, of a widespread culture under the leadership of Ron Todd, a man if impeccable integrity who was merely guilty of presiding over exactly the same election administration regime, with bewildering local variations in practices, that Cousins and Jones had also operated under. It did not suit powerful forces in the early 1960s to pick a fight with a powerful union such as the T&G, although twenty years later, different considerations would apply. The ETU was, arguably, a powerful union, led by the `wrong’ people at the `right’ time.
Apart from the Daily Worker, no media outlet reported in any significant way what it called “the miracle” of the ballot in the British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association (universally known as BISAKTA; a union that would morph into the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and today “Community”. Always a very right-wing union, BISAKTA managed to elect a section of its exe¬cutive by a national ballot vote in 1960 “in which the voting was on a national basis (and) showed an all-time record of votes cast”.
It accepted that it was a common practice in some unions for a block voting system to be used and create an impression of a total turnout. This was not rigging as such but, oddly, BISAKTA was not a union that enabled such a system to operate, indeed its rules specifically outlawed the practice whereas many unions (including the T&G) simply did not mention the matter; members had to turn up to their branch to vote. A range of voting patterns existed according to the official results, with the smallest number of members voting being 48,262 votes in one sectional election; but as many as 56,901, 66,247 and 61,360 seemingly turning up to their branch nights in others. Since the union only had 120,000 members, this was a phenomenal feat in the exercise of democracy, or BISAKTA branches were operating a block vote system against the rules of their own union, particularly in a union that accepted that branch attendances varied from minimal to up to a maximum of 20 persons. The probability is that perhaps 12,000 persons might have actually voted, if that. Why was no-one interested in this? The paper called on Harry Douglass, the general secretary, to “tell the world how such results are achieved”. [Daily Worker February 25th 1960]
To this day, the precise circumstances remain a mystery. Haxell’s guilt was presumed by all on the basis that supposedly no-one did anything in the union without his approval but he denied responsibility to his dying day. It had been claimed in court that the Party’s `Advisory’, the group of ETU Communists who liaised with each other had an iron grip on work within the union and that the Advisory operated on direct order from King Street – presumably with the implication that their instructions also came direct from Moscow! This rather unreal account had not even received the endorsement of the judge. Understandably, the Communist Party immediately distanced itself from the affair and Haxell resigned from the Party.
Arising from the legal judgement, the TUC obliged the ETU to debar its existing officer-holders for five years. A refusal to do so resulted in the ETU being expelled from the TUC and then the Labour Party. In the ensuing witch-hunt, most of the Communists and any supporters were soon removed from the leadership in the union executive elections. These were conducted under new procedures and with massive media support, which saw the hard right win nine out of eleven places on the executive.
Byrne became general secretary and Cannon became President from 1963). Chapple became a member of the EC and later the General Secretary and Young was given a full-time position. The rules of the ETU were then changed, banning Communists from holding office. From January 3rd 1964, the ban in the ETU began and 20 Party members resigned so as to keep their jobs and positions; many more simply refused and would find themselves elbowed not only out of their union but their jobs in industry.
From here on the ETU became a by-word for right-wing manipulation and control, edging ever closer to employers, engaging in activity that undermined other trade unions for the next three decades and effectively abolishing lay member control. As for Frank Haxell, he finished his working life as he had started it, as an electrician and continued to support progressive activities within his union, despite the increasingly authoritarian grip of the right wing. He died at the age of 77 in 1988, protesting his innocence to the last. [Time Magazine February 1st 1954; September 15th 1958; Morning Star 27th May 1988]
ENDING THE ANTI-COMMUNIST BANS IN THE TGWU
In complete contrast to the reactionary slide to the right in the ETU, a balancing slide was now all too evident in the Transport and General Workers Union. But the formal constitutional ban on Communists holding office in the union was still a thorn in the side of the Party. By 1961, there were only three unions with an outright ban on Communists, NUBSO, the Boot and Shoe Union, and the National Union of Seamen along with the TGWU and the ETU affair had yet to reach any kind of fruition. The T&G was clearly an important target for Communists and it was clear that the union would be a potent source for left politics for years to come and increasingly so. Thus, in 1961, the Party put Sid Easton, one of its activists from the T&G taxi cabs section to work on the campaign to lift the bans on Communists holding office in the union. Easton had been a taxi driver since he had retired as Harry Pollitt’s driver cum bodyguard - it has been necessary at the height of the cold war to appoint such a person!).
A campaign began to put the case right inside the union. The Party produced a “Meet the Communists in Transport” four-page folder, written by Erik Rechnitz. Then `Let nothing divide us’, a 1961 Communist Party pamphlet by the markets activist Bernie Holland celebrated honoured fighters of the T&G who were all subject to the iniquitous ban on holding union office. Bernie Holland himself, a highly respected branch secretary of the Covent Garden branch joined the Communist Party around 1959 and found himself banned from office. “Strangely enough the man who took over from him turned out to be a Liberal”! [WN March 18th 1961]
But first amongst equals in the cohort of Communist T&Gers was Bert Papworth, who had received three gold medals for service to the union and had served as the first busworker ever on the General Council of the TUC. Then there was Wally Spencer, one time Chair of the London and South-Eastern Regional Committee, also holder of the gold medal. Jack Dash, dockers’ leader had been awarded the TUC’s Tolpuddle Medal for services for services to trade unionism.
Jock Gibson, holder of the TUC Tolpuddle Medal, had been presented with a gold wrist-watch by his own branch as a mark of appreciation by his own branch. In later years, he would be convenor of the Rootes (later Chrysler) plant in Coventry and promptly elected to the T&G General Executive Council when the bans were lifted in 1968. A Scotsman, Jock had worked since the war years at the plant when it was engaged in war production and was one of those close to Jack Jones, when he was Coventry T&G District Secretary. Derek Bale of Newport docks, had been awarded the TUC Diploma and the TGWU's bronze medal, had joined the dockers' union in 1917 and had been a member of the TGWU from its inception. Jack Killen, a Bradford busman now retired, was holder of the union medal in 1950. His branch had presented him with a gold medal inscribed: "For long and faithful service to the 9/8 branch TGWU 1950.” There were too many Communists with faithful and distinguished service to mention in detail. Men with records like Trevor Stallard and Harold Smith of Southampton Docks, who had struggled to organise the port over decades.
It was clear that there was little appetite for actually maintaining the ban - at least in practice. The July 1962 Third Rules conference saw a motion seeking the amendment of the banning clause stood in the names of as many as 35 branches from the London and South East region, 16 from Scotland, 10 from Liverpool and 26 scattered around the rest of the country. A number of senior bodies in the union joined with nine local bodies in a safeguard composite motion deleting the whole clause. The minutes do not record the vote but once again it was lost. Loosing no momentum, at the 1963 BDC a motion calling for the “removal of all bans and proscriptions within the labour and progressive movement in view of the immediate need for working class unity to remove the Government” was moved but it could not be taken, however popular it was, since it was out of order in that the issue was the prerogative of the Rules Conference. But the main factor was that there was a Tory Government but a General Election was pending and media controversy was to be avoided at all costs, it seemed. No doubt the adverse publicity in the ETU case did not help the process. Privately, Communists inside the union were told that the formal removal was unnecessary since a blind eye would be turned to it, at least where it really counted in the appointment of shop stewards.
It is necessary to briefly step outside of the years covered by this volume to tidy up the story of the T&G bans for the sake of completeness. The next BDC in 1965 saw another motion, this time to remove “the bans and proscriptions within the labour movement in view of the immediate need for working class unity to help the present Government”. There was now a Labour Government of course. By this stage, there was no serious opposition to loosing the ban, indeed apart from the major committees in the union – and the BDC and Rules Conferences, the ban on Communists had hardly been observed for some years now.
In the end, arguably it would be mass action that laid the basis for the removal of the bans. As so often in history, it would be discontent at the actions of a Labour Government which formed the backdrop to much of the drama, But the easing of tension between east and west increasingly made it difficult to cast the staunch defence of working people in struggle, in which many Communists distinguished themselves, as instances of unpatriotic mischief making as it had been in the late 1940s and 1950s. A new generation of TGWU leaders at all levels of the organisation understood these basic principles. Another factor was the re-emergence in national leadership of people who felt that Frank Cousins’ prevarication on the issue of the bans was his main weakness.
There is considerable likelihood that Jack Jones pressed Cousins on the issue whilst the latter was facing retirement. Jones had been appointed Assistant Executive Secretary in 1963, then Acting Assistant General Secretary in 1964, in 1968 he was elected as Cousins’ successor and was to take over on the latter’s retirement in September 1969. Certainly, Jack Jones’ understanding of the difficult situation on the docks would lead him to want a constitutional settlement to be made before he assumed the mantle. It would be better for the outgoing General Secretary to face the membership on such a potentially explosive issue, and there was also the factor of several key, senior officers jostling for position, who might use the issue negatively.
Also, the Communist Party Industrial Department was by no means inactive. Something of a campaign was building up which could either embarrass Cousins’ departure or create awkwardness for Jones arrival. It was patently clear that the 1968 Rules Conference would be a field of battle on a number of issues. Jones was eager to restructure the Byzantine obscurity of the TGWU’s ramshackle structure. In this new situation, Communists and lefts in the union, none more so than Sid Easton, allocated to the campaign full-time, badgered and pressured activists and officers throughout the trade groups and the regions to come clean on the issue and provide the leadership with a backing for change.
In his autobiography, Jack Jones notes that this Rules Conference was the first since he had assumed executive office, in preparation he drafted a series of proposals for the GEC to consider. “One change I considered necessary related to the discriminatory practices which precluded members of the Communist and Fascist parties from holding office, It was a form of discrimination and I felt it to be contrary to good trade union principles. Such discrimination was brought to an end by my proposals, which ensured that members were to be treated on an equal footing but with continued safeguards against disruptive action from any quarter.” [p200]
On February 27th 1968, the GEC of the TGWU decided by 32 votes to 2 to recommend support for the removal of the bans at the Rules Conference [Jack Dash records the vote in his autobiography on pp1 70-171]. Whilst the March GEC received resolutions from Regions 2 and 8 regarding Schedule I Clause 2, asking for clarification on the operation of rule to the position of shop stewards who were Communist Party members. The GEC noted that there had been a wide variation in approach in applying the rule in this particular respect, depending on whether or not the matter had been raised formally. Some regions were not applying the need for the Declaration rigidly and this had been more than clear in the Docks Group. In an obvious reference to the problem of the NASD, it was noted that there were difficulties where shop stewards were elected by members of more than one union. Increasingly, in this situation the GEC thought it impractical to operate the rule as far as shop stewards were concerned. Membership of official union committees was another matter. The Rule Book had to be altered to deal with this.
On June 11th, the GEC convened in special session to instruct its representatives on its policy positions on amendments to rule. At long last the Rules Revision Conference met in Belfast in July 1968 and removed the ban. Some delegates opposed the recommendation, but the death of the ban was a certainty. The deletion of the entire offending Clause 2 in Schedule 1 and the insertion of a new clause 7, which gave authority to the GEC to use it’s discretion in declaring ineligible any particular organisation was agreed.
Despite all attempts to rewrite history, looking at matters from the perspective of the time and not hindsight, the short-term effect of the events of 1956 on the British Communists Party’s actual strength and morale was but a relative blip compared to the devastation that had fallen upon it with the extraordinary level of east-west tension that had come with the most fierce portion of the cold war. But, as we have seen, Communists actually came back from their mid-decade challenges with a lion’s roar of a response, in the process clawing out a significant level of support in the working class that would echo for almost a couple of decades. By this time, the nearing of the end of our account, not only was the Party going from strength to strength but it seemed that the cold war had weakened the west more than it had the east. Arguably, public perception was, at least at this point in time, less exercised over the fall out from 1956 than it was from the obvious nature of western aggression set against a perpetual pleading from the Soviet Union for peaceful co-existence.
Indeed, the `cold war proper’ may be said to have begun to end – just as the British Party was beginning something of a leap forward - with the Berlin crisis, which ran from June to November 1961 and was over the status of post-World War II Germany. In defiance of the 1945 Potsdam Treaty, NATO had made its occupied territories in western Germany a sovereign territory. The USSR had reciprocated with a lukewarm in-kind response by allowing the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German). But this left Berlin, marooned in the heart of the GDR still occupied and divided between four powers. Hungary had been more a fearful reaction to a believed aggressive act by Germany that would have destabilised the balance of this delicate situation. But, in November 1958, Khrushchev had sought agreement on making Berlin a free, demilitarised city. NATO refused and now, having previously ignored it, insisted on the maintenance of the status quo as per the Treaty. Their determination to remain in West Berlin saw the Soviet Union seek a meeting in 1959 with the Big Four. Khrushchev's visited the United States in September of that year and he and President Eisenhower agreed that all outstanding questions be settled by peaceful means through negotiations.
It seemed that resolution was not far away and the two leaders agreed to continue the dialogue at another summit scheduled for 1960. But when an at first unidentified CIA spy plane, a “U-2”, was shot down over the Soviet Union in May, the United States denied all knowledge. The Soviet government produced the remains of the aircraft and the pilot, Gary Powers, who had in fact been photographing nuclear reactor plants from extreme high altitude and deep within the USSR. Coming just a couple of weeks before the summit, this understandably caused a massive deterioration in relations. Khrushchev asked Eisenhower for an apology, which he refused, mainly since US technology companies had federal contracts already committing the US government to the further development of the Corona spy satellite project, the A-12 Oxcart supersonic spy plane, and the Lockheed D-21/M-21 unmanned drone. More seriously, as tensions rose, the need to find a practical if rough-and-ready solution to what was in fact an already divided Berlin saw the affair culminate in the erection in August 1961 of a physical barrier within Berlin – the infamous wall.
By 1960, the campaign to rebuild the Communist Party was really moving. 2,000 people had applied to join the Party over a four month period at the beginning of the year. The Party’s 40th anniversary was marked by major events organised in all districts and many localities. Despite having no YCL, Crawley organised a youth rally with Jimmy Reid speaking, “nine of the fifteen youngsters there had signed up”. Subsequently a YCL branch was set up. [World News February 20th 1960; August 27th 1960] Nottingham persisted with Sunday evening open-air meetings all the way through the 1950s in the main market square in the centre of the city. Leicester, Mansfield and Derby began to follow suit only as the decade was turning. [World News August 20th 1960] The biggest Party rally for over a decade was held in Yorkshire in 1961; over a thousand people attended it, with 70 of them joining the Party on the spot. [World News February 25th 1961] From when the new `Party building campaign’ was launched in September 1960 to March 1961 3,310 applications to join the Party had been received.
In close synchronisation with Party growth the Daily Worker’s circulation was still increasing, albeit slowly; an increase of 75 a day recorded in the two weeks to March 6th 1961 brought the total increase in daily circulation to 1,754 from April 1960. [World News March 18th 1961] It was of no consolation to the Party and to readers and supporters of the Daily Workers, which was after all a co-operative owned by its readers and not the organ of the Party that the next few years would begin to see the slow strangulation and eventual death of the paper’s companion as a paper of the labour movement, the Daily Herald.
Whilst the Herald continued to formally support polices of the Labour Party and TUC, its actual owners, Odhams Press, now felt that these political ties were hampering its growth. In 1960, supposedly faced with loss of sales and advertising revenue, Odhams had persuaded the TUC to relinquish its shares. In March 1961, the International Publishing Company was formed through the merger of three organisations, including Odhams. IPC decided to broaden its appeal of the paper and, in September 1964, the Herald was re-launched as the Sun newspaper. Five years later, this would be sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News International and, to say the least, the Sun’s content and message very soon altered very considerably!
More positively, the Co-operative Movement, the fourth component of what the Communist Party saw as a potentially intertwined working class alliance began to host a major shift towards left and progressive opinions; the four components being the trade unions, the Labour Party, the Co-operative Movement and the Communist Party. Harry Clayden, mentioned in the previous chapter, was a key figure in the creation of the London Co-op Society’s left unity coalition, the 1960 Campaign Committee, which eventually took control of LCS in 1962 despite a vicious and on-going smear campaign against Communists. The Daily Mail was particularly vicious in its interference during the London Co-op elections. In attacking all progressive candidates for the Society’s board, it wrote that “Communists are expected to seize control of the LCS”. [World News April 28th 1962] In actual fact, there were at that point only three Communists out of fifteen on the whole board. Moreover, only five seats on the board came up for election each year and only one out of the six “1960 Committee” candidates was a Communist, which would take the number of Communists to four out of fifteen – but the alliance with left Labour people would, according to the Daily Mail, give the Co-op to the control of Communists.
It was a harbinger of what would come in later years, as left unity became stronger and stronger, to denigrate all left-wingers as begin Communists. The more left-wingers outside of the Party feared association, the more the device worked. But not amongst London co-operators, not yet at least! For many years, the 1960 committee would become a national beacon for what would eventually become the National Federation of Progressive Co-operators.
In September 1964, an important step was taken not only in the strengthening of democracy in the Co-operative Movement but also in the newly burgeoning anti-apartheid struggle when the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, with 385,000 members the second largest society in the country, covering much of South London, Kent and Surrey voted at specially convened meetings on a reso¬lution calling on the management of the society to boycott South African goods. The motion asked the society's general committee to conduct a campaign to educate members on the reasons for the boycott. The management of the Co-op had ruled the motion out of order at a preceding annual general meeting and resisted all calls to carry out such an approach. Progressive co-operators were only able to win the right to a ballot on the boycott motion - a special AGM had to be convened - by appealing direct to the Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies, who ruled that the motion should stand since it did not conflict with the society’s aims and objectives.
Wider issues would once again test the resolve of progressives in the Co-operative Movement when, as a result of the introduction of the Restrictive Trades Practices Act, in 1964, the abolition of `resale price maintenance’ took place. This was the practice whereby a manufacturer and its distributors agreed that the latter would sell at certain prices. These rules prevented resellers from competing too fiercely on price and the abolition heralded intensive price competition in retailing that began to severely erode the base of retail co-operatives. The stage was set for an aggressive shift to competing with capitalist supermarkets on their terms. It would take the beginning of a movement, spurred by new technology, by large retailers to encourage `loyalty cards’, to re-stimulate the Co-op movement into restoring the divi, a move that has largely succeeded, along with a marketing approach based on corporate responsibility, in placing the Co-ops in a stronger position.
With its heavy involvement in so many struggles and movements of the working class came a sense that the Party’s recovery from difficult years was fast coming; the struggles that working people engaged in renewed a taste for militancy and the international situation dampened fears over communism as fast as it was raised over US and British military adventurism. But much of the Party’s recovery was due to its members’ heavy involvement not only in mass struggles at the workplace but also in communities.
But Communists continued to press the case for tenants’ rights and much of the work in these years was effective but not widely sung. Much of it led to electoral advances for the Party, as its candidates focused on door knocker issues in a way that would only later become associated with Liberal “Focus” tactics. Unlike any other national newspaper, the Daily Worker publicised tenants’ struggles. For example, rent rises of between 2 shilling and 6 pence (or old `d’) and 13s 9d a week were imposed on 60,000 Manchester council tenants in 1963. [An old penny was 2.4 `new’ pence, or `p’, and a shilling was 12 old pence.] In the intensive campaign that followed, no less than 23,000 signed a petition against the rises presented in a mass lobby of the council. In neighbouring Salford a lobby of two hundred tenants was also mobilised when a similar rise was proposed there. [Daily Worker August 1st 1963] Increases of between six shilling for those earning under up to £12 and 45 shillings for those with earnings of over £24 a week were announced in Poole, in Dorset. Some three thousand people were organised on a march by a federation of council tenants, in which local Communists were heavily involved. [Daily Worker August 3rd 1963]
Jock Nicolson was one Communist in the thick of it, he recalls in his memoirs: “Don’s flat was on the top floor on the corner high above the road. It was perfectly sited for our purpose … The initiative and inventiveness of the tenants was amazing. There was a place nearby where old pianos were dumped. These were hoisted on to the balconies so that every stairway could be blocked at a moments notice. Someone got a supply of lighthouse flares. In all the blocks there were a variety of warning systems so that tenants could be called out at any time, day or night. There was a twenty-four hour picket at both fortifications. This alert continued over a number of weeks.” [NUR Transport Review March 27th 1992; Jock Nicolson “A turbulent life” (unpublished, undated mss); Camden Journal September 2007;
The many demonstrations to the Town Hall and the media faithfully revealed rowdy scenes and clashes with the mounted police. Arthur Row’s flat fronted on the main road near Euston Station became something of an attraction for tourists and amateur photographers. “Arthur was a bit of a showman and knew how to respond. When crowds gathered he would lower a bucket by rope from his high-up window to receive the food and good things well-wishers brought him to show their solidarity.”
Eventually, a show down arrived; around five o’clock in the morning some five hundred police were mobilised. Nicolson records the response: “… according to plan … flares went up and the alarms rang out. Within minutes hundreds of people began to assemble at both sites. My own (rail) depot came out on strike that morning. All day long building sites downed tools as they heard the news and marched to Hampstead Road and Kenniston House to show their solidarity. The atmosphere was electric.”
Entry to Rowe’s flat was made by means of a ladder but, although slates were ripped off and the roof smashed in, “Don and his family were resolute, only numbers overpowered them”. Nicolson was arrested and appeared before a magistrate. A witness against him appeared to be one of the regular attendees at the weekly tenants meetings. “He was better dressed, always took notes but never spoke. I assumed he was from one of the posher blocks of flats and felt a bit uncomfortable in that very proletarian gathering, so I always made a point of giving him a friendly nod or handshake. Now the penny dropped. He was an undercover policeman and these notes were to incriminate me.”
The struggle came to a halt after this, with hopes being subsumed into expectations that electoral defeat for the Tories would ensue. The fact that, after some ten months of struggle, the council was left with rent arrears of around £20,000, perhaps equivalent to fifteen times that amount in today’s prices did not aid their case before the electorate. But, when defeat did come for the local Tories, in 1962, the promises of Labour councillors came to naught. St Pancras tenants were isolated and left with little choice after the campaign had faded and all eyes set to look to a change in government as a new hope.
COMMUNIST ELECTORAL ADVANCES 1961-1964
Clearly, there was a strong desire by the Communist Party to see the fruits of its principled support, and often organisation of, peoples’ struggles such as those of tenants into the electoral sphere. Without the resources of mainstream parties, the Communist Party could not seriously hope to make a major breakthrough but experience had shown that real advances could be made with consistent work. Its ability to maximise its vote, as well as its membership levels would give the lie to the arguments made by some that Hungary and the 20th congress of the CPSU had fatally damaged the Communist Party.
The Party fielded 450 candidates in the local elections of 1961, the most since 1949. Communist councillors in Fife seemed more secure than ever, with Robert Smith and Abe Moffat (Lumphinnans), Charlie Walters (Bowhill), Bob Selkirk and Willie Sharpe (Cowdenbeath) and Andrew Mitchell (Ballingry).
There were quite a few near misses in Scotland. James McArthur lost by a mere 16 votes in Polbeth, whilst Hughie Reynolds only lost winning a seat by just 42 votes in Pleen, in Sterlingshire, and Jimmy Richie lost Lochore by just 44 votes. In Wales, Tom Hopkins was defeated by just thirty eight votes in Caerphilly and Gordon Jenkins in Neath polled 1,097 and only narrowly lost to Labour.
Elsewhere in Scotland, there were good results: Eddie McDougall in Pollokshaws’ ward, Glasgow, secured 1,025 votes; Hugh Boyd in Knightswood, 1,208 votes. In the East Midlands, Joe Whelan, later to be a leader of the Nottinghamshire miners, stood in Hucknall and increased the Communist vote from 240 to 499.
John Gollan viewed the campaign as having been “on the biggest and best scale for many years. We had the biggest number of candidates since 1949 and the 100,000 votes we received is the highest in twelve years.” [World News May 20th 1961]
A sign of growing confidence was the excellence of the Party’s work amongst women, especially in Yorkshire, where a sense that the Party was breaking out of the habit of placing women into a kind of ghetto. Consider this article from the Party’s weekly journal in 1962.
“Women are on the move against the Tories" by Rosemary Small
This all conveys a sense that the Party was beginning not only to attract women but also to speak to ordinary working people on issues they favoured and in such a way as they preferred rather than a more hectoring attachment to geo-political themes. The result was increasingly positive and, for a time, it really looked as if the Party was poised for a major breakthrough such as had been seen in the 1930s.
Enthusiasm for the Party’s success led one of its most unusual members, the Reverend Alan Ecclestone, who had been the vicar of Holy Trinity church in Darnall, near Sheffield, since 1942 to stand for the Party in a municipal by-election in early 1962. Since this the first time any kind of priest had been a Communist candidate in Britain, there was much media attention, even nationwide over this fact as well as what was widely seen as a rising mood of support for the Party, all of which reflected very well on it image. [World News April 28th 1962]
It certainly had been some turn around! A quarter of the 1961 local election Communist candidates had smashed through the 5% barrier that today in a proportional representation system would guarantee representation. Solly Kaye, at 8.3% in Tower Hamlets, had got within reach of passing the threshold that then applied for parliamentary contests of one eighth of the vote, to avoid loosing the highly punitive system of financial deposits. A handful of the Communist candidates were not so far behind Kaye, whilst most candidates polled what the Party would consider a respectable two to four percent of the poll. Coming a mere seven or so years after what had been considered by the outside world the crisis that might end the Party, this was good news indeed. Even better was that the Party’s moderate success did not seem to have hampered Labour at all, even with the Communists running at some 10% of the Labour vote. Unfortunately for the Conservatives, the decided unpopularity of its government produced swings of 6% to 10% to create a decent Labour victory with the outcome being 64 Labour and 36 Conservative councillors.
Results for Communist candidates in the 1964 GLC elections:
Barking & Dagenham K Halpin 1,385 3.7
In Spitalfields, the Party’s next best successful ward, two of the three Communists running for a four member ward beat their Liberal opponents into third place. The highest loosing Communist, Morrie Levitas, had 22.3% of the vote. The Party took as high as 16.5% of the vote in St Katherine’s ward, as much of the votes much as the Liberals were able to win. In straight fights with Labour, Communists won almost 12% in Poplar West, 13.4% (for Danny Lyons) in St Dunstan’s, whilst F(rank?) Whipple, who would fight many a contest over the next decade or so, took nearly 14% of the vote in Shadwell. Jack Dash, the dockers’ rank and file leader, was able to poll a creditable almost 12% of the Labour vote in Bethnal Green South ward an R(?) Rousay took 10% in the west ward.
Moving out of the years of our focus a little for a moment, by 1968, Labour’s unpopularity saw its vote crumble, yet the Communist vote not only held but slightly increased. The combination saw the Communist vote at its height at 18.3% of the vote. Although others stayed on the council for many years after, Solly Kaye would in particular retain his seat for 15 years. Even though, in common with other Communist councillors, it was said that his success in re-housing constituents undermined his power base! Although, more fundamentally, local government reorganisation also removed much of the geographical and community focus that had enabled a Communist break through that lay at the heart of the East End, as well as other, highly localised strongholds.
TOWER HAMLETS OVERALL RESULTS IN 1964
Party Votes % Candidates Seats Unopp
BETHNAL GREEN WEST WARD [Three seats]
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
BOW SOUTH WARD [Three seats]
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
Electors Turnout Candidate Party Votes %
ST MARY’S WARD [Three seats]
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
The results of the by-election, when Borman was disqualified after failing to make the statutory declaration of acceptance of office within the prescribed two month period follow:
SHADWELL WARD [Three seats]
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
SPITALFIELDS WARD [Four seats]
Electors T'out Candidate Party Votes %
The feel of this mood is well illustrated by the story of the work of John Jackson, a Glasgow book folder and Branch Secretary for the 141 member strong Proven Communist Party in the early 1960s. He lived on the largest council housing estate in Proven, which contained 29,000 houses, with his wife Margaret, their two daughters, Margaret and Tanya, and son Stuart. Jackson became very well known locally for cycling everywhere around the estate, taking up grievances and sorting out problems in the great tradition of the Communist Party’s `shop stewards of the streets strategy’, which predated the later copying of the approach by the Liberal Party as `dustbin politics’. “I’m a greater believer in dealing with bread & butter issues,” he said in an interview in `Comment’, the internal Party journal. In one campaign, typical for him, he organised 300 rates appeal forms for the local tenants’ association.
Jackson had graduated from poster painting into one of the Glasgow Communist Party’s best Daily Worker sellers, factory gate speakers, canvassers and deputation leaders, He had been arrested at Holy Loch during a 1963 protest, for which he got a £10 fine, when he stood as the Communist candidate in local elections in Proven, securing 864 votes. The Communist campaign in Proven highlights included a decorated van visiting local shopping centres on Saturdays and the sale of 400 copies of “Demand a future for Scotland”, as well as the distribution of 7,000 Party leaflets on rent issues. A direct result of election campaign activity was the establishment of a YCL branch, with 28 members, led by 18 year old Frank Gaffney (previously a Labour Party Young Socialist) as Secretary. [`Comment’ 14th December 1963]
Best known, of course, for his much later leadership of the National Union of Mineworkers, Arthur Scargill joined the Young Communist League in 1956. He was Chair of the Yorkshire District of the YCL and a delegate to the World Youth Festival of 1957. In the 1960 local elections, as he got 138 votes as a Communist candidate, a respectable 14.5% of the vote. Scargill joined his NUM branch committee that same year and subsequently failed to renew his YCL membership card in 1963.
Dentist Danny Stalford established, from 1948, a flourishing NHS practice at Carlton, in Burnhurst Road, Horley, Surrey. He soon established himself as a true friend of working people, even paying out of his own pocket for holidays for his less fortunate patients. During the late 1950s, when Stalford first muted the notion of standing for the Horley council seat on the Rural District Council, the locality was in the throws of rapid change with massive building and economic developments associated with the building of Gatwick airport, which the Communist Party was able to tap into. By 1964, he was able to secure 20% of the vote. As he wrote in the Party press at the time: "In Horley and surrounding district we have been building on the democratic work for some years, and achieved a vote of 395 at the last election." However, the Communist Party’s success in Horley did not go down well with the local Conservatives, who not only tried to change the boundaries of wards to stop him being elected by gerrymandering them, but made life difficult for the Communist Party members in the town. (Stalford would keep increasing his vote, only breaking through by the 1970s when he became an elected Communist Councillor for the town, a position he held for six years, regularly topping the poll, such was his almost universal popularity in the town. He held his seat until he became too ill to meet the requirements of the job and retired.)
The notion that controversy over Israel necessarily impaired the Communist Party’s work is challenged by the experience of Henry Suss, a highly respected Jewish activist in the Tailor and Garment Workers in Pendlebury, near Salford. He was elected as a regional official of his union and also served on the national executive for 26 years. But he was also active in a lively way in his community. Testament to the vitality of his spirit is the fact that at this time he was arrested for painting "ban-the-bomb" slogans on walls. Henry also campaigned locally on the issue of rents and slum housing in a tenacious struggle to gain local acceptance. Suss had stood unsuccessfully as a Communist candidate for the Market Ward of the then borough of Swinton and Pendlebury, Greater Manchester, on no less than ten occasions before, on the 11th attempt, being elected as the first Communist to the local council in May 1964. His vote had only gradually crept up:
What had made the difference was that Suss had been “tireless in taking up issues with the Council and elsewhere”. By the time he had achieved 57% of the Labour vote, he had pushed the Tories to the bottom of the poll. For him, the Party candidate had to be the “shop steward of his or her ward and the branch the organiser of the political life of the ward”. [World News June 17th 1961] This tenacity in leading local Communists in the carrying out of mass work in their locality in which they lived was decisive in this achievement, which was maintained for the next decade until, once again, local government `reforms’, in the shape of boundary abolishing his ward, interfered.
In the run up to the expected general election of 1964, the Party put much effort into contesting parliamentary by-elections; the most celebrated of these actually involved the incoming prime minister, Alec Douglas Hume in a clash with a famous poet! Counter to the trend for intellectuals to find escape routes out of the Communist Party, the celebrated Scots poet, Hugh MacDiarmid (born Christopher Grieve; in all, as MacDiarmid, he published over thirty books and his collected works run to 1,500 pages.) actually joined the Party at this time. He had been expelled from the Party for his actions in support of the policy of Scottish independence in the 1930s, but he had also kept his views on Communism and sought re-admission in 1957, was accepted and remained a member until his death in 1978, even standing in a parliamentary election for the Party.
Nothing about MacDiarmid was ever muted and the background to his becoming a Communist parliamentary candidate was no exception! This position arose out of the election to the Tory Party leadership of Sir Alec Douglas-Home, at a time when the Conservative Party held a majority in Parliament and formed the government. He had been a peer and was required to resign from the Lords and stand in a by-election in November 1963 so as to obtain a Commons seat from which to become Prime Minister. The then exceedingly Tory constituency of Kinross and West Perthshire was vacated for him.
Christopher Grieve was outraged not only at the deference and adherence to archaic ways that all this implied. He was driven especially by the supine attitude of the BBC towards Douglas-Home’s `emergence’ as Tory leader and his effective `coronation’ as Prime Minister – in a Scottish seat at that - to seek legal redress.
In a celebrated case (Grieve v Douglas-Home), he challenged the election, seeking it declared void by virtue of a breach of Section 63 of the Representation of the People Act, in that due balance had not been given to all candidates in the by-election. The long-term result was the care that broadcasters make to at least mention the names of all candidates in all elections covered by them.
Home went on to lead the Tory Party in the subsequent general election but his image, not aided by Grieve’s challenge, was a factor in the defeat of the Tories and the forming of a Labour government by Harold Wilson, who milked the evident disenchantment with the old school tie image of the Tories for all it was worth. Home was replaced in the first ever formal election of Tory by Ted Heath. MacDiarmid, as Christopher Grieve, stood in the Kinross seat in that general election as a Communist Party candidate, a hopeless but endearingly brave endeavour.
Swansea East Bert Pearce 773 2.5 %
Labour now had a new leader, Harold Wilson, who had joined Aneurin Bevan in resigning from the government in protest against the NHS charges in Hugh Gaitskell's 1951 budget and for a short while it seemed that Wilson was going to join the Bevanites. He was even co-author of a pamphlet, `One Way Only’, an argument against revisionist ideas. But he had taken Bevan's place in the shadow cabinet in 1954.
Wilson supported Gaitskell against Bevan in the leadership contest but actually challenged the former in 1960, being heavily defeated, 166 votes to 81. With Gaitskell's sudden death, alternative candidates had little time to develop a base. In February 1963, just as the Tories had become deeply unpopular, George Brown, James Callaghan and Harold Wilson contested a first ballot of MPs, the voting system then eliminated Callaghan, who had polled 41 to Wilson's 115 and Brown's 88. In the run off, Wilson, beat Brown by 144 to 103 - largely with the help of the old Bevanite left.
The Communist Party’s EC at its January meeting in 1962 adop¬ted the annual report of its Econo¬mic Sub-Committee, `The ruling class sharpens its weapons for survival’. It saw the narrowly averted devaluation of sterling in 1961 as a “new and very important stage in the long-drawn-out crisis of British mono¬poly capitalism—`The crisis of Britain and the British Empire’ in R. Palme Dutt's succinct phrase”. [World News February 10, 1962] On the economic front, the British ruling class now knew that it could no longer con¬tinue in the old way, “jobbing along from one balance of payments crisis to the next”. It had already been forced to sacrifice its in¬dependence in relation to its main capi¬talist rival, the United States and had now decided to abandon attempt to maintain its independence vis-à-vis its West European rivals. West Germany and France, and had there¬fore applied for membership of their Common Market. The old system of imperialist ex-ploitation has ceased to be profitable to the British monopoly capitalists but there was no intention of abandoning this.
From the wage pause policy and the plans for restriction on govern¬ment social expenditures, it was clear that the protection of the profits and international competitive position of the great monopoly concerns was to be sought by an intensification of a policy of attacking wages and living standards at home. Britain would be subjected more openly than ever before to a reinforced state mono¬poly capitalist dictatorship. For monopolies grew “almost daily” and came out “more and more openly with statements of their precise requirements for national eco¬nomic policy”. There is no doubt that right-wing policies were now deeply unpopular.
Yet, perhaps not entirely coincidentally, at this time, a new element entered political life in Britain; not entirely new, perhaps, since racism had reared its despicable head before but only in a relatively limited way, due to the relatively small proportion of the population that were not white. Only perhaps some 20,000 black people lived in Britain before the onset of mass immigration, but this had risen to 74,000 in 1954 and by 1961 this had soared to well over 300,000, with over 50,000 arriving in the first six months of that year alone. Most of the immigration had been consciously encouraged by the British state to remedy the shortages of labour in the least well-paid occupations. Clearly, as a putative economic crisis had loomed, albeit then being avoided by policies to stimulate consumer credit, many established British workers began to view the incoming cheap labour with suspicion. Moreover, since migrant workers could only initially afford rented accommodation, their demand for such properties tended towards the lower end of the market and this not only removed the safety cushion of last resort for those engaged in mass struggles against rent increases but immigrant desperation for housing of any kind enabled landlordism to ruthlessly play the market price upwards. Both housing and employment became subject to open and unpleasant displays of mindless racism, even though both legally and morally British society tolerated outright colour bars in such areas of social life.
Whatever the dissembling retrospective suggestions of hostile interpreters of the Party’s history on the question of racism, there can be no doubt that it was unambiguously and fearlessly opposed from the start to what was in effect a more or less official colour bar in Britain. With the threat of the coming 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act, the Communist Party went on the offensive in July 1961 in the biggest possible way with a massive distribution of its “No Colour bar in Britain” leaflet, supporting pamphlets and the launch of broad campaigns in all areas of the country. Birmingham was especially noted inside the Party for the rapid response of the local City Committee to the need to establish such campaigns, as with the Co-ordinating Committee Against Racialism (CCARD), the prime spirits behind which had been Communists, which was supported by the entire trade union movement as well as “all four political parties”. [John Moss, “Together say no discrimination”, Communist Party pamphlet, October 1961, p13]
In its material, the Party reminded people that only one in every 170 persons in the country was of colour and, responding to the more flagrant opinion that the depth of colour could be better or `worse’, that only one in five of immigrants were from the West Indies. (It was often mooted by especially black-skinned workers that the scale of rents rose in proportion to the degree of blackness of skin – the so-called `colour tax’.) Whilst, given that, over the previous 14 years, twice as many people had left Britain as had arrived on its shores, fears about excess population were simply misguided. Not only did the Party campaign – almost alone at the time amongst any significant political force – against colour bars and racist immigration controls, well ahead of others, it called for racial discrimination laws and “full encouragement to coloured workers (it would be many years before the term ‘black’ replaced `coloured’ as an acceptable term) to join trade unions on equal terms with white workers”. [Communist Party leaflet 13th July 1961]
The Party reminded readers of its material how immigrant workers from other parts of the British Isles were viewed as clannish, or willing to work for low wages – Welsh and Irish for example. A contradiction was that the Tories had welcomed former Nazi military officers into NATO, or with the Common Market (later the European Union!) wanted to “keep open house for people from Italy, France, West Germany and other countries” but would “keep out people who are British citizens”. [John Moss, “Together say no discrimination”, Communist Party pamphlet, October 1961, p6] But, with the 1962 Commonwealth Immigration Act, the Tories took away the previously held right of British Commonwealth citizens to enter the UK freely. This law was not so much about the actual numbers of persons entering the country as to simply cut at a stroke the numbers of black and Asian people coming in. Labour had seemed opposed to the Bill that led to the legislation, until Gaitskell had began to dissemble on the issue being anxious that public opinion was concerned about an economic slowdown hitting the number of job opportunities available. Perversely, the expectation of a clamp-down actually stimulated a rapid growth in the number of migrants from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent.
An unconditional commitment that a Labour government would remove the legislation was shelved in favour of silence on the issue, which shifted into an acceptance of the racist nature of the controls. This would have repercussions as Labour’s mealy mouthed stance conveyed a mood to its working class supporters. Eventually, in the safe seat of Smethwick, West Midlands, an openly racist-minded Tory, Peter Griffiths, defeated the sitting Labour MP, Patrick Gordon Walker, in the 1964 general election. Griffiths’ main campaign slogan was: ‘If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour’. It was Mosley’s post-war neo-fascist `Union Movement’ that had begun the trend when it twisted the Labour Party’s 1961 LCC slogan “Labour loves London” into “Labour Loves London’s Blacks”. [John Moss, “Together say no discrimination”, Communist Party pamphlet, October 1961, p10] Labour’s abject retreat on the issue, for fear of loosing the seat, actually rebounded on them and its vote fell by nearly a third but the Tory stood still. The trend was set for race to become a vicious tool in the hands of unprincipled politicians. .
But, back in 1962, whatever else the racist Immigration Act did it did little to restore electoral credibility. In an act dubbed the `night of the long knives’, Prime Minister Macmillan sacked seven members of his cabinet; this was met with a mood of irrelevance in the public mind and more problems followed. Britain's application to join the Common Market was rejected by the French President, Charles de Gaulle and scandal erupted over Government minister’s private lives. In 1964, Macmillan resigned the premiership due to ill health and the Tories chose the aristocratic Sir Alec Douglas-Home as their new leader. But he appeared incompetent, once commenting that he used matchsticks to help him understand economic problems, and distant from the real world. The professional economist, Wilson, compared favourably; at the Scarborough Labour Party conference of 1963 Wilson gave his famous speech in which he used the phrase “the white heat of technology". In the run-up to the general election, Wilson made six major speeches utilising the term `socialist alternative’ to the long years of Tory rule. It was widely predicted that Labour would win a substantial majority but the result was only just about enough to form a government. When it came, the election was held on 15th October 1964. Nevertheless, Wilson won only a tiny majority; another election seemed imminent
A Tory revival during the election may have been aided by Chancellor Reginald Maudling's pre-election Budget. But Douglas-Home struggled with television and Harold Wilson was promoted as a man of the people. Wilson even suggested that the strikes now occurring were manufactured by Tory-minded industrialists to damage Labour, even hinting at the cost of a libel writ that an unofficial stoppage at Birmingham’s Hardy Spicer motor components firm was threatening the industry with closures.
In the popular vote, with both parties hovering around the 12 million mark, Labour had around a quarter of a million votes more. Although Labour enjoyed a 3.5% swing from the Conservatives, its share of the vote did not actually increase markedly but the Tory vote was two million down on 1959. (The Liberals had 3 million and other parties just over a third of a million.) Labour took 317 seats, giving them a majority of just four, the smallest since 1847.
Labour was back in power for the first time since 1951, but only just. With a majority of four, Wilson would be unable to submit any major pieces of legislation to the House. A second election to secure a real mandate seemed inevitable. But problems with the balance of payments, sterling and the economy also saw an outright and immediate challenge to Labour’s manifesto from the establishment, which demanded severe cuts in government spending. An autumn budget was produced that increased pensions and social welfare benefits. Corporation Tax and Capital Gains Tax were introduced, but in response the financiers of the international money market caused a run on the pound which strained reserves. Nonetheless, Britain’s trading position was improved by a series of fiscal measures, but Wilson’s Government failed to tackle many of the economic problems at their roots. There was a desperate need to cut capital investment abroad and to abolish the enormous military expenditure abroad, especially ‘east of Suez’. But the Government balked at the political task involved in adopting such a course. As a consequence, Britain was forced to borrow vastly from foreign bankers to maintain much of its social expenditure.
It was said that part of the price to pay for the situation was the introduction of a wages controls policy. Labour’s manifesto had talked of a planned growth of incomes, related to production. But it now became clear that a formal wages restraint policy had always been planned. Within days of the election this policy was set in motion. A tripartite declaration of intent was marginally agreed to by the TUC. A board to control prices and incomes was set up, whilst the Government rapidly moved away from its earlier commitment to public expenditure projects. The ill-fated National Plan was designed to cut the trading deficit by a massive and sustained economic growth. At first this was warmly applauded by the media and the Tories allowed the Plan to pass through Parliament without opposing it. The Tory Party was rather ineffectual, being rent with internal dissension, only resolved by the resignation of their leader, Douglas-Home, and the subsequent election of Edward Heath. He was the first leader not to ‘emerge’, but to be elected by the limited franchise of MPS.
THE EARLY 1960s COMMUNIST ELECTORAL INTERVENTION
It is difficult to convey how strong was the sense that the Communist Party was now to some extent beginning to be treated as part of the mainstream of political life, only a handful of years away from the extreme hostility that had befallen the Party during the 1950s. After their brief foray into public work in the latter part of the decade, fascist groups had largely retreated into futile hostility, none more so that Colin Jordan’s bunch. A Coventry school teacher, he relied on notoriety to bring him out of the woodwork and occasionally to notice. Just such an instance arose in June 1964 in Coventry. A special police watch was announced after Nazi vandals – almost certainly Jordan’s gang – had daubed swastikas with bitumen tar on the walls of Coventry Cathedral, the local Synagogue, and the Queen’s Road offices of both the Coventry City Communist Party and a local newspaper, the Coventry Standard, which were next door to each other.
Opinion in the city, which had been devastated by bombing only a little over two decades previously, was horrified and the attacks received major media coverage. A stonemason was called in to chip away the symbols on the Cathedral, which had been destroyed by Nazi bombers and was now the centre of a local movement for peace; undoubtedly, this was the most despised of hate attacks. Anonymous letters of vitriol, adorned with the swastika and S.S. emblems were even sent to the affected institutions afterwards. A statement issued by the Coventry Communist Party City Committee greatly resonated with local opinion and received front page headlines in the press and considered treatment: “Communists demand `outlaw city’s Nazis’”, the headline ran. The Party statement said: "These Fascist outrages on churches, synagogues, Press offices, and the buildings of democratic organisations in the city are the work of known Fascist elements. It is shameful that our city should be disgraced in this way. "We demand that the Watch Committee acts forthrightly, and that the Tory Govern¬ment ceases to protect this element, by refusing to pass legislation outlawing all racial and Fascist propaganda."
In a massive endeavour, the Communist Party stood 36 candidates in the 1964 General Election, and these received a total vote of 46,532. The YCL had been particular to the fore, forming `brigades’ to campaign in the constituencies; 20 YCLers gathered in Islington to leaflet the shopping centre. A city centre march of two hundred to the BBC studios and the Granada building in Manchester, led by Tom Cassin (Liverpool Scotland) and Lancashire miner Mick Weaver (Wigan) demanded television time for Communists. This was an issue that the Party began to give considerable attention; it had had only 59 seconds on ITV news in the 1959 general election but had been otherwise completely excluded from all election broadcasts since 1950. Factory gate meetings were held throughout Willesden in the two weeks prior to a massive Communist rally in Hyde Park on Sunday 13th September 1964, which was followed by a march to the BBC to demand air time. In compensation for being elbowed out of the mainstream, the Party had even bought advertisement space on London bus external `corner coves’ for the rally.
After three weeks of campaigning, Communists made intensive efforts in a last-minute drive for votes, carrying out eve-of-poll mass canvasses and holding numerous loudspeaker meetings. In a leaflet distributed at the Camden goods depot, Jock Nicol¬son recalled that Harold Wilson had said a Labour Government would be tougher with the tube workers, “who should have more considera¬tion for the travelling public … Mr. Wilson and the next Labour Government ought to be tough … but tough against Beeching and those responsible for driving the workers out of public transport.” Nicolson was out with a loudspeaker, aiming to speak in every street of his constituency.
In Southwark, Joe Bent addressed a score of street meetings, point¬ing to a recent Soviet three-man space flight as proof that “where the workers get the bosses off their backs they can achieve wonders”. In Dagenham, Kevin Halpin addressed a canteen meeting at the Victor Engineering factory, and asked workers there “to compare official Amalgamated Engineering Union policy with that of the political parties”. The AEU, he said, was “opposed to tying wage claims to productivity and was for nation¬alisation of the major engineering enterprises. It was the Communist Party, he said, whose programme measured up to these standards, and it was the Communists who could claim to be the trade union candidates.”
In West Willesden, some fifty fac¬tories were toured with a loudspeaker van and hundreds heard the Communist reply to Mr. Wilson's "get tough with the workers" line. “The workers expect Labour to champion the working people against the bosses,” said Les Burt, the Communist candidate, who also addressed engineers at a large indoor factory meeting. In Islington, John Moss sent a last-minute letter to voters; factory gate meetings had been a prominent part of his campaign and his `youth brigade’ made twelve new members of the YCL. There had been 15 applications to join the Communist Party.
“Big crowds” listened to Howard Hill, the Sheffield Brightside candi¬date and his agent Bob Wilkinson, even in the pouring rain at factory gate meetings. Bert Ramelson spoke at four eve-of-poll meetings where the Party’s campaign film was shown in South Leeds. His agent, Bill Moore, described the campaign as “really magni¬ficent”. In the Scotland division of Liverpool, Tom Cassin held three eve-of-poll meetings on Dock Road capturing an audience of thousands of Mersey dockers. Constituency agent Gerry Cohen said that “the Communist cam¬paign had forced an elusive Labour candidate to explain his policy”. [Daily Worker October 15th 1964]
Results for the Communist candidates in the 1964 general election:
Aberavon J. Tudor Hart 1,260 2.8
With scores such as almost 12%, many between 5% and 7% and most at around the 3% level, these did not seem unsatisfactory results. The Party’s Chair, Frank Stanley, who lived and worked locally, was the Communist Party candidate for Hayes & Harlington in his first attempt in this general election and his 2.6% share did not seem too bad. His campaign had featured a demand for a branch line linking Hayes with the Central or Piccadilly Underground line. Local Communists had canvassed over 16,000 houses in Hayes and John Gollan, Communist Party general secretary, spoke at the adoption meeting on 14th September.
He set put his stall early on in an article in `Party Life’ October/November 1963 issue of `Party Life’, a short-lived internal organisationally-focused bulletin. “Our perspective in the British Road to Socialism,” Nicolson wrote, “depends on the rallying round a united working class of the various middle strata, of whom a large and vocal section are what are called professional people, that is the graduates of our colleges and universities. Winning the students to struggle against monopoly capitalism and in some cases for Marxism and Communism is no small part of translating our programme into practice.”
Party membership amongst students has grown significantly; the 1962-3 academic year had seen this figure top 500 for the first time, almost doubling in the course of the year. A series of five public lectures had seen overflowing attendances, in one case 600 people had turned up to a 400 seat hall. Nicolson could record that his first year as the full time organiser had resulted in “branches in almost every university and a number of other colleges”, although tracing and organising members and supporters in the smaller colleges was a problem. Students were being brought into mass struggle, perhaps for the first time and this was quite some time before the much vaunted and rather ultra-leftist hey day of student sit-ins and the like. During the Cuban crisis, many of the demonstrations against war were student-based. Education training college and art college students had lobbied Parliament on their particular problems.
The Party produced a quarterly duplicated magazine, with a print run of 2,000 and had completely sold out of these. The next step was to produce a printed magazine, `Mainstream’, which would have an initial print of 5,000 plus. While this was aimed primarily at the colleges and universities, it was felt that YCL branches might put it in the hands of sixth-formers, an arena of struggle never previously thought of; this would be a harbinger of the mass organisation amongst school students that was less than a mere decade away. Special courses for students were underway, with a fortnight's school in Wales, a week’s school in Hastings, as well as weekend schools during the year in many universities. In various universities `Communist weeks’ were planned, most ambitiously in Manchester and in Imperial College.
YCL membership at the end of 1964 was 5,101, Challenge circulation was up to 12,200 and the League collected 37,000 signatures on a “Cut the arms bill by half” petition. The stage was now truly set for the `swinging sixites’ and a whole new generation of activists who would mould things in their own special way.