Phil Piratin was born on 15th May 1907 and is best remembered for being one of the Communist Party’s Members of Parliament. The youngest son (in a family of ten siblings) of an East End of London Russian Jewish immigrant small tradesman, he was educated at a LondonCountyCouncilElementary School. Piratin left home at the age of 17 and did a variety of jobs including a short spell at sea.
As one of the protestors at the British Union of Fascists 1934 Oswald Mosley Olympia rally, he was convinced of the need to join the Communist Party. Very soon, he was leading his local Party branch, displaying an action-based leadership style. Piratin rapidly evolved into a noted anti-fascist and defender of tenants’ rights, Piratin and others, such as Tubby Rosen and Michael Shapiro, set up the Stepney Tenants Defence League. At one point some 10,000 tenants in the area were on rent strike; the campaign led to rent reductions and to a speeding up of repairs.
Pic: Piratin being carried shoulder high in Mile End after becoming a Communist MP in 1945
Piratin famously was at the centre of the Battle of Cable Street and became a Communist councillor that November in the borough elections, for the Spitalfields East ward for the Stepney borough council, an area in the north-west corner of the borough, included Brick Lane, Hanbury Street, and Flower and Dean Street, and which had large Jewish populations.
At the time he was elected for the Spitalfields ward he was chair of the borough’s Communist Party. A Jew himself, he was a leader of the opposition to Oswald Moseley’s anti-semitism and his British Union of Fascists’ marches through East London. In 1936 a quarter of a million people stopped Mosley’s party marching through the East End. His book, `Our Flag Stays Red’, first published in 1951 with a new edition in 1978, covers much of this territory.
The formation of the tenants’ defence league was critical to the Communist Party’s subsequent electoral success in Stepney. His election manifesto, `The Communist Plan for Life in Stepney, proposed large-scale slum clearance, the use of every available site for housing, and stronger action against slum landlords.
Piratin also launched a campaign at Paragon Mansions, a small block of flats where tenants were threatened with eviction. Barricades were erected to keep the bailiffs away and this gave enough time for negotiations to resolve the problems.
He was an air-raid warden in the Second World War and led a campaign to supply deep bomb-proof shelters. The refusal to open the Underground for this purpose during the night was challenged by forcing locks on gates. Piratin gained further notoriety by leading 100 people to shelter in a London Underground station, a practice which then became widespread. Piratin became the West Middlesex district organiser of the Communist Party, helping to organise production committees in factories of the area.
Pre-war experiences and experience of the war itself in Stepney were reflected in mass support given to Communists in the first post-war elections in the area. Phil Piratin was elected as MP for the Mile End constituency, of which Stepney was the major part, in the 1945 General Election to sit as the Communist Party’s second MP, sitting alongside Willie Gallagher. In November 1945 twelve communists were elected to the borough council and in March 1946 two, Ted Bramley and Jack Gaster, to the London County Council.
Piratin was defeated when he stood for re-election in 1950 in the atmosphere of an increasingly belligerent cold war; additionally, the area was changing as a result of bombing, evacuation and relocation. Oddly, when Piratin lost his seat, he actually increased his vote.
In the post war years, he remained a member of the Party and died on December 10th 1995, aged 88.
Sources: Guardian 11th December 1995; Phil Piratin `Our Flag Stays Red’ (1948), and other sources