The Memoirs of Frank Watters
The following chapters are in this section:
Chapter 11 He hasn’t changed a bit! Mass struggle in the 1970s
Chapter 12 Twisted and unprincipled…
Chapter 13 Recovery or Reversal? The sacking of Derek Robinson
Chapter 14 A bark worse than his bite. Farewell Birmingham
Chapter 15 A healthy political atmosphere – back in Yorkshire
Chapter 16 The Lyons Bakery strike of 1982
Chapter 17 Nurses’ Strike of 1982
Chapter 18 The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5
Chapter 19 The Euros’ Role from 1984
Chapter 20 “Frank, Finish” – the CPGB disciplines me
Chapter 21 Seafarers’ Strike 1988-9
Chapter 22 The Ambulance Workers’ Strike 1989-90
Chapter 23 NUM Presidential and Vice-Presidential Elections
Chapter 24 Jim Parker “pieces of silver… blood money from a crook and a thief”
Chapter 25 Clean Bill of Health – miners need to reverse privatisation
Chapter 26 Life moves on – I marry again; a highly romantic story
“He hasn’t changed a bit, never leaves empty handed.” Mobilising for mass struggle and the Party with scarce resources in the Seventies
I was now well settled down, enjoying my family life, with a garden helping me to relax, a regular Friday off to help with shopping and a meal prepared for Freda and Lesley. My Catholic upbringing meant this meal was fish. I had not only developed a good relationship with most progressive full-time trade union leaders in Birmingham, but more importantly, a good relationship with their staff with whom I enjoyed a cup of coffee. But they knew that Frank didn’t call only for his coffee, it was to get some typing done, correcting my English and spelling for which I confess I never achieved ‘A’ or even ‘O’ levels. Once they could grapple with my atrocious handwriting, which I do in
shorthand because of my amputated finger, I had no problem getting bulletins or letters typed. I can hear some of my friends in the Barnsley NUM office saying: “He hasn’t changed a bit, never leaves empty handed.”
The club was going well and in spite of Comrades Lenin, Marx and Engels beaming on anyone coming to the bar, I was proud that Catholic families who had a sister or daughter in Holy Orders, would come to the club with other Nuns visiting their families for a good night of folk music and songs.
We organised a Christmas Dinner for all our retired members, which was never heard of in any District Communist Party. About 70 or 80 people would sit down to full Christmas dinner. It didn’t cost the Party one penny. I covered all expenses by tapping full-time trade unionists and getting them to bring some of the liquid perks. I also tapped the brewers’ representatives, and the Campbell Folk Group, including Betty and Dave
Campbell, Dave Phillips and Nigel Denver, all outstanding artistes, would entertain. George Jelf organised the camp at Talybont in North Wales set up in l948 by a group of Communists in Birmingham and still a very popular holiday centre. George would provide catering and was ideal with his decades of experience. One year I slipped up. The turkey was always 18 to 20 lbs in weight. We hadn’t an oven big enough, so I got a Bangladeshi friend, who had a restaurant across from the club, to agree to cook the bird. The evening before the Christmas party I called in to check up and I was assured everything was alright. When I called in the morning the restaurant was locked
up. I went and got the manager out of bed to open up to collect the turkey. When we got there the bird was the same as I had delivered it, with a note saying: “Sorry we couldn’t cook the turkey as we hadn’t any foil.” I went berserk. He claimed he was in London and came home very late. Now what were we to do? I said: “What have you in your fridge? We found steak, sausages, chops, mushrooms, ham, – ideal for a good mixed grill. “But I need this for the restaurant tonight,” he protested. I was in no mood to make any compromise. I said: “Cook everything you have and you can have the turkey menu tonight.”
I got George Jelf and Joan Bennett cracking with our stove so between them a smashing dish was prepared. There was no problem about any delay as the bar was open and comrades who hadn’t seen each other for some time were enjoying a good crack. Before we dished out the mixed grill, in my welcoming remarks I said: “We have decided on a different menu this year because we know by next week you will be sick
of looking at turkeys and chickens.”
“A good idea”, someone remarked. Little did they know they might have had to do a Charlie Chaplin, ‘all in the mind’! Then I had another imaginative venture – a Christmas dinner catering for 120 in the evening. I had no problem; a baker who provided home-made scones and rolls for the Saltley contingent, and regularly for the club, did the necessary. This was paid for by those attending, but we had to have wine on the table. About an hour before the guests arrived, I discovered the wine was Portuguese. At that
time, like South African wine it was embargoed by progressives. We scraped off the labels and I can remember Gerry Cohen, who was the fraternal guest from the Communist Party, saying: “What wine was that? It was wonderful.” I lied: “I don’t know, there were no labels on the bottles.” The next year it was different. A political change had taken place in Portugal, so there was no need to scrape off the labels!
This is what I meant when I said the social club was a tremendous asset to the Party, but also to the much wider movement, especially those sections in struggle for their democratic rights and a decent standard of living. No section of the movement was ever denied the full facilities of the club as a centre.
Frank at the rostrum, representing the Communist Party EC, as the British fraternal guest at the XIIth congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party
Here I want to deal with some of the wider struggles I was involved in; my life-long involvement has not been confined to any one union, but to many unions and community bodies. I think I can truly say that this breadth of experience has arguably made my name well known throughout the length and breadth of the British labour movement.
The first dispute I can remember being involved in Birmingham was connected with a NUPE shop steward called Martin Cumella. He was employed by the Birmingham Corporation as a Social Worker with children who were under the care of the Council. One boy in his care frequently went missing, but could always be found in a certain home where he was made welcome and happy, but where, because of the circumstances, his stay was limited. The job of social workers was to make sure that, during holidays like Easter, children under their care were provided for. Naturally, Martin saw no objection to this boy spending the weekend with the woman who always provided love and the home comforts he was denied in council hostels.
On Good Friday night the Birmingham Post carried a headline, “Boy sent by Social Worker to a prostitute for Easter”. Martin was sacked. He was advised to contact me and seek advice. Luckily enough, Freda was now a social services worker and was acquainted with such problems. Martin visited our house and, once Freda was clear that he had submitted a full report to his Senior Officer and it was a regular occurrence that this boy would spend the weekend at this house; she was convinced it was victimisation. Martin’s Senior Officer was always reluctant to recognise NUPE, he preferred NALGO. What he didn’t realise was the reaction of all the other social workers. They insisted that once they made a report and it had been approved by a senior officer, they could not be held responsible for making a wrong decision.
The problem was how to could get NALGO involved – because NUPE had only a handful of members in his field of work. There were two ways to win solidarity. Freda would raise it when the holidays were over, ‘phone all the area offices and get protests pouring into the council. If Martin was not reinstated they would call a demonstration to take
place at dinnertime and that would mean a half-day’s action. The next problem was to get NALGO officially to support his reinstatement. I know some will say: “That shouldn’t have been any problem.”
But it was a problem because Martin was not a member of NALGO and they didn’t like NUPE recruiting in this field. Roger Poole, who later made his name during the ambulance strike, posing for TV and Press cameras in so many different suits, was a NUPE official. (When I asked him for some of his cast-offs he thought they might not fit me!) Roger was magnificent. We all worked so well together. Then I knew a member
of the NALGO EC, David Owen, and a meeting between him and Roger was arranged. We had the issue raised on the EC of NALGO and while they couldn’t make it an official strike they were able to bring pressure to bear on the council to reinstate Martin as a Social Worker. Martin joined the Communist Party and Roger was already a member, so for the first time we had broken the ice, at least with the rank and file members of NALGO and NUPE. It was the first time these two public sector unions had come together to seal a tremendous victory, not only for Martin’s reinstatement but a victory against the prejudice that someone who earns a living in a hard way can’t give love and affection like other women. Hopefully, unity will be all the easier, now that NALGO and NUPE along with COHSE have agreed to amalgamate to form a new public service union, UNISON.
Roger pursued the policy of contracting into and developing good relations with other unions, playing an important role in the newly formed Midlands TUC. NUPE could be relied upon from then on to support others in struggle. Roger should have become the Midlands Regional Secretary of NUPE, but for some mysterious reason they appointed Barry Shuttleworth from South Wales. Not a bad lad; in fact he and Jack Dicken, a former shop steward from Longbridge, were the first Union representatives to hand over £1,000 for the Derek Robinson battle.
Roger was not happy at being passed over so he asked for a transfer and, instead of spending all his life as Midlands Regional Secretary; he ended up as Assistant General Secretary of NUPE. It’s an ill wind that doesn’t do some good. We are good friends and in fact, when he visited Yorkshire during the health workers’ strike, he was walking so tall I was surprised he did not need to lower his head to get into the train! Then, when he visited Sheffield during the ambulance strike, the first question he asked the lads from Barnsley was: “Do you know Frank Watters?” The answer was “No”. So Roger told them! “Well, get in touch and he will do a job for you”. I will deal with that later, but I think that’s what my friend Rodney Bickerstaffe meant when he said: “Frank can always be relied upon when any section of the movement needs his help.”
My next big involvement was the first national strike in the Fire Brigades’ Union, which began on 14th November 1977 and ended, after nine weeks in January 1978 when there was a compromise settlement. The issue was low pay. The national average wage for all male workers in 1977 was £78.60 for a basic 42-hour week. The weekly wage of a worker ranged from £52.53 to £65.70 for a qualified fire fighter with four years’ training.
There were big divisions within the leadership as to the justification of using the strike weapon. Neil Kinnock said in the Commons that they were “provoked to do so arising from a long-standing cause.” That’s when Neil was just an ordinary Member of Parliament. Weren’t the health workers, the steel workers, the ambulance workers, the miners, all provoked? It would have been nice to hear such words during the 1984/85 miners strike, instead of Kinnock’s complete condemnation of the timing, the issue, but above all the NUM leadership.
I have just been reading the history of that first national fire fighters’ strike. I had to look back repeatedly to see if the author was referring to the FBU or the NUM. A classical example of betrayal by the TUC, Labour leaders and some trade union officials elected on a left ticket. Loyalty to an Incomes Policy imposed by the International Monetary Fund, when they were bailing out the Labour Government from a balance of payments crisis, was more important than loyalty to the fire fighters.
I was sick reading the hypocritical appeals from the then General Secretary of the FBU, Labour’s Home Secretary and the Archbishop of Westminster all saying that this was an intolerable threat to the whole community: “Think of the suffering of the old, young and infirm caught in a fire.” The same words with which we are so familiar in any strike.
After nine weeks of really cold weather, with 9,000 troops and 850 “green goddess” appliances, built in the 1950s as part of the civil defence organisation, with Brigade Officers supervising them, the TUC rejected a simple resolution, which called for “an orderly return to free collective bargaining”, and a public campaign in support of the fire fighters’ claim. In such circumstances and with a hostile Press, public support was waning. A compromise formula was finally agreed that linked fire fighters’ pay to that of skilled manual workers. The maintenance of this index-linked pay agreement, which the Tories would like to end, has been a major task of the FBU ever since.
How did I come to get so much involved? I was accidentally visiting the UCATT offices when Ken Barlow, Regional Secretary, said: “We have got the firemen in the meeting room and by the looks of it they could do with some good advice.” I didn’t know any of them, but Ray Bryant, who was in charge, phoned Ken Cameron in London, who remembered me from the days of Saltley when he had agreed to put up one or two of the miners. Before the week was out he had a floor full of miners. Ken’s reply was: “Take his advice on all matters even though I have advised you previously.”
Within hours we reduced the numbers on the picket lines and redeployed them to meet shop stewards at lunchtime at the factory gates. This is where I had an advantage. Not only did I build contacts with full-time officials, but also with key rank and file convenors in large factories. Soon the cash was rolling in. The firemen were pig-sick of being let down by Labour and trade union leaders; now they had financial and moral support from other workers once they were able to address meetings explaining their working conditions, their pay and the mental and physical hazards of their job. This gave them a new lease of life.
Not only did the Party help out in the factories and building sites, but Party branches organised, in conjunction with firemen living in their areas, to collect at the weekends at the main shopping centres.
Ken Cameron and I met regularly for a pint near where we lived to talk over what was obviously a split leadership since some regions were looking for a way out. The Government, now with the backing of the TUC, tried to force them to settle via the National Joint Council , which could only recommend, with Government having the final say and a right of veto. Neil Kinnock informed the Commons that over the previous eighteen years, “firemen have achieved a number of pay settlements and recommendations only to have them taken away at the eleventh hour because of incomes policies practised by successive governments.” The Midlands, alongside Scotland, Merseyside and London, were crucial. Therefore any advice on solidarity action was vital.
That is maybe what Ken Cameron meant when he said, when supporting this publication: “You are in good hands with Frank.” Like the miners, they had gone through Christmas and New Year with no shortages. There were some tremendous parties and, instead of Cameron’s floor being occupied by miners, that New Year’s Eve it was firemen who couldn’t climb into bed let alone ascend a fire-ladder.
The strike finished on January 16th. Before that, divisions were becoming more obvious. The militant mood and backing that Ken and others had won previously with “no compromise” couldn’t be sustained. A settlement was inevitable. I had arranged to meet Ken at 9.30 following a vital EC that Friday. Ray Bryant met Ken at the railway station and told him he had a meeting to do at Digbeth. I understand he was not pleased, but, when told that I had arranged it, he agreed.
The meeting was a long shot. The ETU were holding their AGM and when the word got around that Cameron might be addressing them it became not a normal AGM, but a packed out meeting. Cameron had to wait at the back of the hall. One of the lads asked that Ken Cameron, a member of the EC of the FBU be allowed ten minutes to speak and that a collection be taken. Remember, by now no member of the Communist Party, or for that matter effectively any left, was allowed to hold office in the ETU, so the Chairman ruled it out, saying that they hadn’t time.
Cameron and Ray looked to see what they could afford for a drink at the nearby pub. Cameron was enjoying a drop of the “stuff” when he was called upon to speak. What the lads had done was to accept the report without argument. The AGM was over in no time, so the Chairman had lost his excuse that there was no time available. By the time he came back Ken was well over the blood alcohol limit. A police car followed him all the way to Kings Heath, at least four miles, provoking him to overtake by slowing down and then accelerating. Ken finally overtook him, but it was at traffic signals! Ken was in real trouble, the panda car overtook him and waved him down. The police officer said: “Do you realise the speed you were travelling at and that you were overtaking at traffic lights?” Ken then went on to the sort of offensive that Highlanders are very good at, “Yes I know what speed I was doing and where I overtook you. You realise who I am. Ken Cameron, EC member of the FBU. I have been in London fighting for you. I am not only trying to get the best possible deal for my members, but the outcome of this dispute is crucial for people like you who agree to support us, but settle for 10% and an enquiry.” The officer said: “I agree with you and support you, but watch your speed and no more drink”. The panda turned back into the town. Ken proceeded to the pub in which we had arranged to meet. Ray Bryant had parked his car so that the police
didn’t connect him with Cameron. He phoned the pub and said. “Right, I am walking the rest of the way.”
There was a difficult decision to be made. A few weeks before Cameron had been a hero. How would the members accept a compromise? Anyone who has any relationship with Cameron will agree there are not many more honest and sincere and I told him what I have always believed; you get what is possible and if you are honest with your members they will back you.
I enjoyed my relationship with the FBU and Frank Watters enjoys as much respect within the Union as his cousin, Pat Watters, the only Chief Fire Officer to be a member of the FBU. During the 1984/85 miners’ strike there were three Shottsonians as guests in the Gallery at the FBU conference, Mick McGahey, Pat Watters and me, all enjoying the hospitality of the Union, as I have done every year since 1978. The Union emerged united, Ken was elected General Secretary and I don’t know of many unions where the membership is so proud of their union and leadership.
Then there was the Steel Strike of 1981. This was a very difficult strike. By this time part of the steel industry was privatised. The union, under Bill Sirs as General Secretary, called out only the members in the publicly owned steel sector. I got a phone call from you know who in Barnsley. “Frank, I have got some steel workers who are on strike, Birmingham is vital to their success, can you do for the steel workers what you did for the miners in 1972?” I replied: “You must be joking; I don’t know any steel workers in Birmingham”. He then said: “We have a name and phone number of a young steel union official who has been put out to grass to work in Birmingham. Can you contact him and do your best?” My answer, as always, was: “Yes”.
The name of the union official was Mick Leahey (later to become ISTC/ Community General Secretary), one of a team in Rotherham who had proved too much for Bill Sirs. Monday morning, I set out to find his office; miles outside the city. I introduced myself, Secretary of the Communist Party etc. I informed him of my phone call of which he was already aware. Luckily, his secretary knew me as she had been Bill Warman’s secretary when he was an organiser for the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union. So I was welcomed with open arms. A cup of coffee was welcome, because I had spent a considerable time finding them. Mick said: “What do we do?” I told him: “After I have this cup of coffee pack up all your correspondence and say farewell to your secretary, because you don’t win strikes at the end of a telephone. Follow me and then when we get to the Star Club we will have a serious discussion.”
Once there, he put me in the picture. Alongside Walsall, Cannock and North Staffordshire, where steel was produced, Birmingham had massive steel warehouses supplying all parts of the Midlands and the South of England with special steels. This was why Birmingham was crucial and why pickets from Yorkshire had been requested.
Our first visit was to UCATT to seek accommodation for what we called our ‘Special Squad’. They had to be available at all hours around the clock so private accommodation was not suitable. We got the usual reception: “Anything we can do to help, just ask.” That meant the lads from Sheffield and Rotherham were fixed up.
Then it was over to TASS, which had a large staff who were able to assist with all the clerical work we would need. Then we had to consider the inner man. Warm soup, tea and coffee would be needed to sustain pickets. ASTMS had a mobile canteen van that was pressed into service. Soon the Regional Secretary and other officials of the union, and their partners, were helping out and we were in business.
One of the major problems we faced was that workers in the privatised sector of the industry in Cannock and some of the large Sheffield plants were, in line with union policy, working normally. This was thanks to the disastrous policy of the right-wing leadership of the union, which restricted action to the nationalised plants.
I remember the Yorkshire Area of the NUM decided to help organise a mass picket of Hadfield’s steelworks in Sheffield. We traveled overnight from Birmingham for a 6 am picket and it was a heartening sight as we arrived at the plant to see thousands of miners marching to swell the picket line.
I was convinced this would be another Saltley Gate. But the ruling class had learned their lessons from Saltley and had been nursing a thirst for revenge ever since. The police were much better organised and managed to split us up. Those who managed to get to the main entrance were quickly hemmed in between a high wall and a strong police cordon. Unable to reach the entrance, pickets had to ask police permission to get out to use the toilet.
As daylight came all hell broke loose. Heavy lorries full of steel were thundering in and out, apparently without regard for the life or limb of the pickets. We returned to Birmingham in a despondent mood. The city was dependent on steel and the future employment of thousands of engineers and other workers was at stake, but they had failed to respond in the way the Birmingham engineers had done almost a decade before at Saltley.
The major problem was the tension that the strike exposed between the TGWU and the striking steelworkers, especially the pickets sent from Yorkshire where many big privatised steelworks were working normally. Birmingham and Wolverhampton constituted a vast warehouse full of special steels. Lorries were coming and going, full of steel produced and loaded by workers in the Northern private steelworks under Bill
Sirs’ instructions and the pickets were frustrated, because there was nothing they could do to stop them delivering to the big car plants like Longbridge.
It appeared to the T&G workers who wanted to help that they were being called on to do the work that the ISTC leadership should have been doing. Even so, many T&G workers responded heroically. At the Round House Steel Works, a big private plant at Brierley Hill near Dudley, the T&G 5/35 Branch provided six pickets a day for six weeks to help the striking steelworkers to try and persuade drivers not to cross the line. But they faced an obvious difficulty in trying to persuade their colleagues effectively to embargo steel that had been produced on the instructions of the ISTC itself.
A few years later we were to face a similar problem in the 1984/85 miners’ strike when the train drivers halted the flow of coal from the Nottinghamshire pits. But when the Nottingham miners – who were then still members of the NUM – decided to go their own way and to defy the national strike call, there was little the NUR could do to sustain this support.
These were classic examples of the way the ruling class seize on and exploit divisions and schisms in the working class movement, assisted by their propaganda machine so willingly provided by the national press. Potential divisions form an ever-present undercurrent in the movement, and where they do not exist the ruling class will create them; between one workmate and another, one factory and another, between different unions, different races, between men and women, nationalist and internationalist.
It is the oldest trick in the book, but unfortunately however many of us have the advantage of political theory and the benefit of hindsight and bitter personal experience, it seems every new generation is doomed to re-learn the lesson for itself in damaging and costly struggle.
If any of those who worked on through 1984/1985, or any of the other disputes which preceded it, still have any doubts about the way they were cynically manipulated by the employers they have only to look at the way they were treated once the bosses had achieved their aims.
The Brierley Hill plant is now closed, like Ravenscraig in Scotland and many of the massive plants in Sheffield and Rotherham. Even Scunthorpe in Humberside, which kept going with the use of scab fuel, has shed jobs and those displaced workers are at last united, sharing the same dole queues as the thousands of redundant mineworkers who have been sacked since 1985.
Accommodation of pickets was more difficult during the steel dispute than it was in the miners’ strike. The ‘Special Squad’ was fixed up with UCATT, but we had about another 20 men from a steel works that had already been closed down.
I found them bed and breakfast in the Stratford Road in Sparkhill, Birmingham. The accommodation was close to the Labour Club and the men seemed happy enough with the catering arrangements, getting breakfast in the morning and a few pints at night. But these lads were from a small village and were unaccustomed to the social customs and exotic lifestyle of a big cosmopolitan conurbation.
In this area of the city there was a heavy demand on Saturday nights for bed and breakfast accommodation for the oldest of professions, who of course always attracted a vigilant police presence! These women workers operate in a very competitive labour market, often having to argue for the ‘going rate’ sometimes being expected to do more than they thought was the normal task. From these terms and conditions of employment, I suspect the reader may be able to deduce the profession to which I allude.
On the Sunday morning I visited the Labour Club and encountered a group of lads with faces as long as fiddles.
“What’s the matter with you lot?” I enquired.
“Those bloody digs you put us in.”
“What’s the matter? Are the beds clean?”
“And do you get a reasonable breakfast?”
“Well, that’s what you are paying for, bed and breakfast. So
“We couldn’t get to sleep until the early hours of the morning.”
“There were women arguing with men who brought them in late at
“What were they arguing about?”
“Money. You know what we mean.”
“Yes. I know what goes on in this area on a Saturday night. And if the women were arguing about their full entitlement with a bit extra for Saturday night and an unsocial hours allowance for having to get out early in the morning, before the landlord appears, they were bloody right to get what they could. Anyway, what do you lot want me to do, arbitrate so that you can get your full night’s sleep? Get a few pints extra down you, pull the blankets over your heads and let the girls get on with their business. By the way, I hope none of you lot were involved, because strike benefit does not run to away from home allowances!”
Such jollities aside, whilst the women may have won their dispute, the steel strike was lost and, like many others before and since, union leader Bill Sirs received the recognition of the Establishment with the preferment of a knighthood. But this was to be only the beginning of a major assault on organised labour.
Chapter 12 “Twisted and unprincipled forces”: the Euro-Communists begin to take over
My relationship with the Midland District Communist Party, towards the end of the Seventies, to say the least, was now very strained. I had gone through a very difficult patch ever since Harry Bourne was seconded for a year to the Party’s East Midland District, to resolve a difference between two full-time workers in that area. There were virtually no other full-time political workers – apart from some temporary incumbents – for at least five years before Jon Bloomfield was sent by the Centre to take the Birmingham City Secretaryship. His joining forces with Tony McNally, Coventry Secretary, along with Pete Carter and others all with a background in the YCL, which had been preoccupied since 1968 with internal feuding and attacking the leadership of the Party, made my political position untenable.
Frank, as District Secretary, out with the Party in Chamberlain Square, Birmingham.
This group was soon to show its hand, at the Midland District Congress in 1979 when they removed two allies from the leadership by underhand and untruthful means. Namely, Graham Stevenson, who did a magnificent job as Chairman of Congress Arrangements (Resolutions) Committee, and George Jelf, Chairman of Birmingham City Committee of the Party and one of our most loyal members. George had almost been successful in a long campaign to become a councillor and was also our parliamentary candidate for Small Heath, Dennis Howell’s constituency. Now I was a real political prisoner. The Political Committee was warned that Bloomfield was a wrong choice for Birmingham, along with McNally, but took little notice. How did he and his allies achieve such mayhem? Little things led to major problems.
The untimely death of Harry Bourne, Midland District Secretary of the Communist Party for 20 years from 1953 to 1973, when I took over from him, was a great tragedy for the Party. Harry was only 61 years old when he died. His contribution to the Movement was wide and varied, while his apprenticeship to political struggle was gained in that traumatic experience of his generation – the Spanish Civil War. A member of the British Battalion of the International Brigade, he received a serious
leg injury during the famous battle of the Ebro in 1938.
During the London blitz in the Second World War, he and many other leading Communists were associated with the takeover of underground stations as bombproof shelters. Twice parliamentary candidate in Coventry, Harry will always be remembered for his terrific drive, enthusiasm, optimism and his boundless confidence in the basic soundness of working class reaction to problems and his utterly selfless dedication to the Communist Party. I will always cherish the way he
helped me to grapple with what I sometimes thought was an impossible task. During the 1984/85 miners’ strike his widow Mary, a Yorkshire lass, visited the picket lines and shared a meal with the miners’ families at their welfare centre. She was nearly in tears, at the sight of miners on a cold wet winter day, digging and riddling to get a bag of coal to warm their house so that the kids could have hot
water for a bath. Both Freda and I shared many a pleasant hour in the Bourne’s garden. In many ways, Harry and Mary were the prototype of the kind of men and women who will develop in a genuine socialist society, possessing immense talent, kindness and ability and using this for the benefit of all.
In Yorkshire, Mary made friends with another Communist couple of substance – Enid and Harry Hyde. All I can say about them is the same as Harry and Mary, wonderful people giving everything to working class values without thought to personal gain. The comradeship of these and other wonderful friends was sharply contrasted with the venom that was poured on me by the manoeuvring faction that sought control.
1979 was a dreadful year – memorable, but dreadful. Alongside the loss of Harry, my wife Freda died in October 1977. Both losses naturally affected me greatly; particularly given the state of the Party. This was the period before a crucial congress of the Communist Party, where there were two main resolutions that had dominated debate in the Party for months before. One was the re-draft of the “British Road to Socialism”. The last version had been in 1968 and the Party leadership was conscious that much had changed since then. The other issue was the relationship between the Communist Party and the Morning Star.
By this time the publication in English of the writings of Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Communist theoretician, stimulated what was known then as “Euro-Communism”. Now the Communist and even Socialist name has been dropped from their vocabulary. “New Realism” is a more popular slogan, just like the uncontroversial name “Democratic Left”. Ardent supporters of a twisted version of Gramsci’s thoughts tried to apply them to the British Trade Union and Labour Movement. These revisionists projected a rather slavish translation of the experience of the Italian and Spanish Communist Parties and others. The question that dominated our differences with the “Euros” was the notion of the centrality of the working class in the anti-capitalist struggle.
Gramsci, who spent most of his political life in prison under Fascism, provided mixed messages in his writings, which were necessarily coded by virtue of their having been written whilst incarcerated; in any case, he was silent on the special character of Britain – its unique Labour Movement.
In the run-up to Congress, the Euro-Communists saw the re-drafting as an opportunity for a fundamental revision of the British Road. Not only were they dismissive of the value of the discipline of democratic centralism, but more important, they queried the past practice of the Party’s concentration on the big battalions of labour and on wage militancy. They saw the supposedly newer forces, like the peace movement, women’s movements, ecological and environmental groups, as superior to that of the traditional Labour Movement.
This “new” political philosophy challenged the concept of all previous drafts of the “British Road to Socialism,” which identified that the main “Force for change in Britain” in any alliance with broader social forces must be the organised working class of which the Communist Party was a vital part. They wanted to remove references to the Party in our programme from its rightful position alongside the Labour and Trade Union Movement to another section that dealt with social
I was still District Secretary and on the Executive Committee of the Party, when Martin Jacques and George Matthews presented the first draft to the EC. The Party had been relegated from the section entitled “Forces for Change” in line with the revisionist analysis. Only by the narrowest of votes was this rejected. But with Martin Jacques and George Matthews principally responsible for the work on this 1977 draft of the British Road, it resulted in the Party facing both ways on this key difference. The revisionist group went on to the offensive using Marxism Today to weaken opposition to them. But they also wanted control of the Morning Star. That would have meant the end of the unique role that the Paper and the Party had played – a role much appreciated by so many in the Labour Movement. Not only a loss of organising capacity, but the analysis and strategic vision given daily to the Labour Movement would be at an end. Once the Party and the Paper ceased this role its days would be numbered and the Labour and Trade Union Movement would be much weakened. The CIA and all the anti-communist propaganda activity in the world couldn’t have done the job better. A sequence of events shows the devious way the resolution from the Midlands, which began this process, appeared on the agenda and was moved by Jon Bloomfield, Birmingham City Secretary.
I was aware of the massive amendments to the British Road – especially those on the Party’s role, which were coming from Marxism Today stables in the polytechnics, student branches, university staffs’ branches and a few District Committees of the Communist Party. Jon Bloomfield was very much tied up with this group, but he didn’t show his hand on this issue. The Morning Star resolution that came from the Midlands appeared by devious means. I will let readers draw their own conclusions on my meaning.
My wife Freda was now in her last few days. On her insistence, I kept working up until the day she died. I had already discussed with Tony McNally and Jon Bloomfield all necessary national Congress arrangements, including who should be on the commission at Congress as District Delegate for the re-draft of the “British Road to Socialism.” Jim Hunt was by this time back in Birmingham, having previously been appointed a T&G officer in Derby, and was now Communist Party District Chairman. I thought that the experience of the commission would help Jim to understand the unique role of the British Communist Party in the Labour and Trade Union Movement, that it would counteract the twisted concepts of the “Euros”. I made it clear that the constitution of the Party enabled all full-time workers to attend and participate in Congress proceedings, but without voting
rights. Traditionally, a district delegate’s position enabled leading comrades in the Trade Union movement, and others whose commitments often made it difficult to attend branch meetings and so might not be considered as a suitable branch delegate, to get to Congress.
I phoned on the night the Secretariat was due to meet and informed them that Freda had died that evening. The fact that Congress was still seven weeks away meant that the election of the delegate to represent the District could have been deferred to a later date. When I came back after a few days, I was presented with the minutes of the Secretariat recording that Jon Bloomfield had been elected as the District Delegate and Jim Hunt was not on the British Road to Socialism Commission. My first reaction was one of fury. I raised it with Jon and made it perfectly clear that I was District Secretary and if anyone from the full-time staff was to represent the Midlands it would be me, not him, a City Secretary.
Later I discovered the reason he took advantage of my absence by ensuring the rejection of the established practice of appointing the District Delegate, which always operated when I was in Yorkshire and in the Midlands. On the morning of the District Committee that October, only just in time for District resolutions to be put to National Congress, Jim Hunt was in the Chair, and Jon Bloomfield handed him a letter containing a resolution on the Morning Star. I asked Jim if I could see this letter, as all correspondence should go to the Secretary and not the Chairperson, whose only responsibility is the conduct of the meeting. When I read it, I asked Jon to follow me into my office. I was in no mood physically or mentally to take on anyone that day, but I made my position clear to Bloomfield that in normal circumstances I would have had a showdown with him over the District Delegate. Moreover it was out of order for a full-time colleague not even to inform the Secretariat of his intention regarding a District resolution. Jon could have got his branch to submit this resolution, that would have been acceptable. But no, his nomination as District Delegate was fixed so that the Midlands, a very large District, was seen to be fully behind a resolution which I have always believed was the beginning of the end of a relationship between the Morning Star and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Bloomfield was able to nudge the resolution through the District Committee by the narrowest of margins – a single vote.
When we discussed this resolution on the EC, I warned comrades that this was in truth not really a Midlands resolution, and that it had been manoeuvred through by a group of people who weren’t interested in promoting the paper, but wanted to sever the relationship between the Party and the Paper. I was heavily criticised by the Marxism Today group on the EC. It was however agreed that the EC would put forward its own resolution and take on these critics. I don’t know if the leadership was so much out of touch or so naive as to think they could carry the day against a very carefully worded resolution.
The EC resolution was to be moved by Gerry Cohen, London District Secretary. Bloomfield was too clever to make it a vote between the Midlands and others, seeming to challenge an emergency resolution from the EC. So they amended the EC’s emergency resolution on the Morning Star, by retaining the main points of their own motion, claiming the problem facing the paper regarding finance and circulation was its content, style, presentation and management. In other words change the content and have less industrial reporting. A style and presentation more geared to the women’s movement, ecological and environmental groups was what was needed, they argued. The policy of the “Democratic Left” today in fact – a paper closer to Liberal and Green Parties, with a management like Marxism Today. Even Reuben Falber, former Assistant General Secretary of the Communist Party, in a letter to the Party’s weekly, was motivated to express concern over the inability of the Editor of Marxism Today to operate the decisions of the last three congresses in respect of that journal. From 1982 until 1991 the Party’s bank balance had to pay off thousands of pounds of Marxism Today’s commercial debts until it had to close the journal down.
In an atmosphere of confusion the EC’s emergency resolution on the ‘Star’ was heavily defeated. The amendment was carried with 193 in favour to 137 against. The “Euros”, not content with this victory, went on to the next stage that “the Party was responsible for winning readers, the paper was responsible for holding readers”; an un-Marxist and hypocritical analysis. Bloomfield in his amended resolution makes reference to “stalwart efforts of Party members selling the paper”.
This was the person who as Birmingham Secretary saw his City Committee decide not to sell the paper during the 1979 General Election, but instead concentrate on their own local amateur sheet called “Bright Spark”. Bloomfield’s ally Dave Cook was soon National Organiser, but I never saw any evidence of effort in winning more readers by the Party organisation. In fact if that did happen it certainly was not evident in the Midlands. Things were so bad that I committed the cardinal sin of striking the new District Secretary, when I had great difficulty finding a verbal reply to what he called me. The truth is the “Euros” did as little as possible to help the paper and as much as they could to kill it.
During TUC week, the Party was traditionally supposed to make a special effort on the paper. Yet in 1980, the Midlands District did not order one single additional daily copy for that week. When I, as Midlands Circulation Organiser, phoned Dave Cook to ask him to raise it with McNally, he was not available and Margaret Woddis, who answered the phone at Party Centre, was surprised. So much for the Party winning readers. My apologies to many readers who may find this internal feuding not very important, but I think this brief background will help an understanding of later events. In short, the group around Marxism Today never accepted the British Road and used their heavily subsidised magazine to undermine and finally to destroy the Communist Party. They effectively killed a Party with a wonderful past record of service, to none; the Party which created stalwarts of the Labour Movement who were incorruptible and gave a lifetime’s commitment to working class values without personal gain.
Chapter 13 “Recovery or reversal”: the sacking of Derek Robinson
I was working as a Morning Star Circulation Representative and was no longer Midlands District Secretary of the Communist Party when Derek Robinson was sacked. Three other shop stewards, including Jack Adams, now (Adams had only recently been elected DGS at the time Frank was writing – he is now retired.) Deputy General Secretary of the TGWU, were also given a formal warning. Their misdemeanour was to be associated with a pamphlet issued by the Leyland Combine Trade Union Committee regarding the so-called recovery plan of British Leyland to close factories and cut car capacity.
Michael Edwardes took over as Chairman of British Leyland in October 1977. Within a matter of 15 months over 18,000 jobs had
disappeared and plants closed. Fifty thousand vehicles less than the previous year were produced and the so-called recovery envisaged
another 25,000 job losses and 13 factories totally or partially closed.
The crime of which Derek Robinson and his colleagues were judged guilty, like Arthur Scargill and the NUM, was to resist. The language
of the Combine Committee was too strong for Michael Edwardes. Drawing on the experience of Upper Clyde Shipbuilders, they announced that
they would encourage sit-ins and occupations if necessary to prevent closure. Michael Edwardes gave Trade and Industry Secretary, Sir Keith
Joseph, political ammunition by threatening to wind up the company, leaving Britain with no car industry of its own if the government
didn’t cough up an extra áœá500million to cover redundancy payments for at least 25,000 and possibly 50,000 jobs out of a workforce of
So, on November 19 Derek Robinson was invited to meet the Longbridge Plant director, in the presence of the AEU District
Secretary. He was asked to withdraw his name from the combine pamphlet, which he refused to do. Previously there had been a ballot
of the workforce on the so-called recovery plan, the company practically blackmailing the workforce into acquiescence. The
government had coughed up the áœá500million and now everything would be fine – small and beautiful, with security once thousands of jobs were
shed, plants were closed and volume car production in Britain would be replaced by Fords of America and Honda of Japan.
I got a phone call from my daughter about 4.00 pm that afternoon enquiring what had happened at Longbridge. I asked why and Lesley told
me: “Derek has been sacked and Jack Adams has had a formal warning.” She knew because at the time she was working as a research worker for
the TGWU in the West Bromwich Regional Office. I was shocked. I phoned the Party office in Birmingham and casually they confirmed this
information. “What are you doing about it”, I demanded and was told that “Gordon McLennan (General Secretary of the Communist Party) is speaking tonight with Derek at Northfield and we will have a discussion.” I was not happy with this, so I said, “What about phoning around, visiting
other comrades to get a speedy reaction to this victimisation.” It was obvious the old style of work that some of us were used to (and still
utilise) had evaporated; that is to say you start to mobilise solidarity support before anything else.
I tried to get to this meeting, but fog prevented Mary Bourne and myself making it. I had already phoned Phyllis, Derek’s wife and she
put me in the picture. Once the news that Derek had been sacked got out, the whole factory stopped. They didn’t ask any questions, the
sacking of their convenor was sufficient to call a halt to any further production.
The Leyland Combine Committee was holding its regular meeting the
following morning in the T&G office in Broad Street, Birmingham. I
normally covered such meetings, selling the Morning Star outside. I
got there very early and instead of standing in the entrance, I went
to the room in which they were gathering before their meeting. What a
contrast their reaction was compared with the casual attitude of the
new Midlands Communist Party leadership. It was obvious the stewards wanted to do
something and fast.
When I came out, Tony McNally, then Midlands District Secretary of
the CPGB, was outside the T&G building. I asked him what had happened
the previous night; what action had been decided? His reply was: “We
are calling on the Combine to arrange a deputation to Leyland House in
Coventry”. By this time I had a contemptuous attitude towards McNally,
so in my pit language I spelled out my reaction. Here we had a
situation where a convenor had been sacked without any previous
written warning, which was against normal disciplinary practice – quite
outside the agreed procedures – and we were talking about a
deputation! I left McNally to sell the Morning Star and went to meet
Derek, Jack and Colin Willetts who hadn’t arrived. I told them I had
sounded the feeling, and everyone was ready for some kind of action,
including strike action. “We need a mass national demonstration and
rally no later than Monday next week”, I said. I got the usual
response, “Have we got time to organise such a demonstration and
rally? My reply was also the usual one: “Time is never on your side
when mass action is needed”. All three had implicit confidence in me.
Once you decide upon something, you move heaven and earth, or you are
not a very good organiser. Jack Adams said: “We have a lot on our
plate, but if you think it can be done go ahead and book the Digbeth
Hall”. I said, “What we need from this Combine meeting is a special
joint meeting of the district committees of the two main unions to get
them to request that this becomes an official strike”. They agreed:
“Leave everything to us”. I met the lads following their meeting and
discovered that I had indeed read the mood correctly. “Have you booked
Digbeth?” they asked. “No”, I said. They were puzzled: “Why not? You
hold shop stewards meetings in such a hall at a time like this.”
Calmly I explained: “I have booked the Town Hall; that holds 4,000!”
Despite the audacity of this they immediately answered: “Right, carry
on; what are your plans?” I told them: “Leave that to me, your job is
back on the picket line supporting the lads and lasses. The AUEW East
District Committee meets tonight, get them to endorse official strike
action”. Derek said: “That will be no trouble, but what about the T&G,
their role is vital?” I was clear what had to be done, “Leave that to
me”, I said, “I will see Brian Mathers this afternoon and put him in
the picture”. Brian, then the T&G Regional Secretary, had just come
out of hospital that week, so he was not aware of what was happening.
By this time I could visit Brian at home. It was a really cold day
and alongside a warm welcome that I was bringing all the news, Brian’s
wife, Mary, asked if I would like a bowl of homemade Irish stew. So I
put Brian in the picture. I had a copy of the Combine pamphlet and
showed him Clause 13, the offending section on which Leyland had taken
action. Brian was disturbed and pointedly said: “Why was only Derek
sacked, and the other two given a formal warning?” Brian knew the
score, in no way would the TGWU stand for such a breach of
disciplinary practice. When I told him my plans for a national
demonstration, really with only two working days to get any
mobilisation, he said: “You’re mad; we haven’t time to make a success
of such a massive demo.” I reminded him of the Pentonville Five, who
were arrested in the summer of 1972 on the Friday of the main
industrial holiday. Despite this, a mass action on the Monday secured
their release. I could see he then realised that I was not as mad as
he first thought, then he said: “What do you want me to do?” I was
conscious of his medical condition and I could see a look from Mary,
who might not have been so kind with her stew if she thought I had
come to pressure her husband to abandon his sick-bed and march through
Birmingham. Believe it or not, I am as soft as a brush when I deal
with good friends. “All I want from you is to phone the office and
tell them any printing needing to be done for Frank must get
priority”. He agreed immediately and then asked me: “How are you going
to communicate with other factories in other parts of the country?”
That was easy, I told him. “The Morning Star will do that.” And so it
On Thursday morning a massive advert with full details appeared
in the Morning Star; and there was front-page coverage giving an
up-dated report, especially the decisions of the Combine meeting.
Brian asked me to keep him informed throughout. I promised him that I
would let him know in the morning how that night’s AUEW Birmingham
East District Committee went. This meeting would be crucial because,
with all the will in the world, the T&G could not be seen to be taking
the initiative in defending someone who wasn’t a member of their
I was subsequently able not only to tell him that it was a
unanimous decision of the Birmingham East District Committee to call upon the Executive Committee of the AUEW to
declare an official strike, but that my daughter had heard a whisper
that coincidentally Moss Evans, the TGWU General Secretary, was on a
private visit to Birmingham that Thursday. When I told Brian, he said:
“I know nothing about this.” I replied: “Comrade, you are supposed to
be off sick, so that’s the reason.” Brian said: “Try to find out
exactly what Moss is doing and I will try to speak to him and maybe we
can get a meeting of all our stewards in the other plants to work for
the demo.” Not only did Brian get in touch with Moss, but by four
o’clock that afternoon all British Leyland T&G shop stewards were
summoned to attend a meeting with the General Secretary. From then on
the T&G flung everything into the campaign. Its national Finance &
General Purposes Committee met on the Friday morning and declared a
strike official should the AUEW do likewise. Official strike posters
were printed for the picket line on the Monday and strike headquarters
were set up near the factory. Everything was ready for action. But
wait for it – the inevitable and deliberate sell-out by the AUEW came,
just as we might have expected.
I was in Derek’s house on the Thursday morning of Moss’ visit
telling him what Brian was trying to do. Derek phoned Terry Duffy in
my presence. The telephone conversation was along these lines:
TD: “What happened at the East District Committee last night?”
DR: “A unanimous decision to request the EC to make it official.”
TD: “We are meeting on Tuesday and I don’t see any problem.”
DR: “We are organising a mass rally and demonstration. We are
inviting you and Moss Evans to address it.”
TD: “I will look at my diary and if I am free I will be there.”
Pic: The demonstration against the sacking of Derek Robinson.
Monday morning, five days after Derek was sacked, you couldn’t move at Snow Hill, Birmingham, where marches then usually assembled. Even Pete Carter paid me a compliment: “Well, Comrade, you can still motivate”. I can’t remember a phone call from the District Communist Party and certainly they never communicated with Derek. The demonstration was a tremendous success. T&G pickets were in force outside the factory gate that morning, but a big hurdle had still to be overcome…would Duffy honour his pledge? He didn’t show up and that made the stewards suspicious.
Two buses were booked to lobby the EC on the Tuesday at Peckham Road, the AUEW headquarters in London. When they got there all the Press were waiting for the result of the EC meeting. But as it turned out only the staff were at the headquarters. Edwardes had booked a room at the Stafford Hotel to carry out the execution with the seven men from the EC of the AUEW there to pull the rope.
I have never come across anything that matches up to what took place at this hotel. This was to be a totally private affair and management of the hotel guaranteed that. But lo and behold! The nerves of the seven EC team and the four from BL required regular cups of coffee. A city editor was making a phone call nearby when the waiter opened the door to deliver the coffee. To his surprise he saw some strange bedfellows – the entire EC of the AUEW secretly ensconced with the Leyland management. He immediately phoned his office, which informed their industrial correspondent, who in turn informed the other journalists and within minutes the Stafford Hotel was surrounded by reporters. In no way could they remain in this “secret” room, so arrangements had to be made to accommodate them in another part of the hotel. They were evacuated, through the kitchen, stepping over bags of rubbish and squeezing through gangways. The problem they had was that they needed two rooms for both teams to consider each other’s alternative proposals.
It was clear from the outset that Edwardes had no intentions of conducting positive negotiations – all he wanted was to corner the leadership of the AUEW, get them to delay any decision and he would use the extra time to put the fear of hell into a workforce already threatened with closure of the whole car industry.
Now, with a disillusioned workforce and Duffy telling the T&G to lay off, saying: “I can handle this,” in a phone call to Moss, the conditions were right for the sell out. John Boyd, the AUEW General Secretary, put forward a formula that Edwardes grasped with two hands. The AUEW would set up a Committee of Enquiry, during which the Company would make weekly ex-gratia payments equivalent to Derek Robinson’s normal wage. Robinson wouldn’t be allowed in the factory. The snag was that this meant that Derek remained on the Leyland payroll until the findings of the Enquiry were reached. Edwardes and his team couldn’t agree to this in case the Enquiry vindicated Derek. What they agreed upon was an ex-gratia payment that made up the difference between Derek’s unemployment benefit and his normal salary, but made it conditional this would end on the day the report was submitted. The AUEW then tried a face-saver: “If the Enquiry found that the dismissal was not, in their view, justified, they would again consider the question of an official strike.”
According to his own biography Edwardes said, “Okay, Terry, that’s a fair deal. But can you guarantee you will get Longbridge back to work?” Duffy knew what to do: “One call to Moss and I will tell him of our decision. The T&G can not carry on a strike over one of our members, without us.”
The oldest card in the pack was used – once you get strikers back to work on such conditions in an atmosphere of sell-out, they will never come out again. The company spokesman made it clear to the Press at the hotel: “The convenor will not be reinstated, he is not on the company’s payroll and his dismissal will stand.”
The Enquiry was set up under the Chairmanship of Gerry Russell and took months to make their submission. Before the findings were released to the members, and especially Derek, Duffy asked for a private meeting with management to explain the outcome of the report, which was an internal union enquiry. The “seven brave men”, as Edwardes described them, by all the evidence should have demanded
Derek’s reinstatement since the company was guilty of not carrying out correct disciplinary procedures. I would have liked to have been a fly on the wall. When the report was finally published, the AUEW decided to consult the workforce and if support was there they would call for an all out strike. Such hypocrites, knowing they had no chance of proper backing. Why would the membership bother? After all, who could trust such a bunch? A meeting was called in Cofton Park on a cold February morning. For weeks the media had been full of hate stories about “Red Robbo” – no one had ever called him that before. A hysterical atmosphere built up. Management used all the foremen to distribute leaflets, putting the fear of hell into the workforce. “Your choice is your job or Red Robbo”, they said. The night shift were paid overtime to stay over for the meeting. Staff were paid to come in early. The atmosphere was the worst I have ever experienced. It was like a racist lynching. It is the only time I can remember that I was so frightened I was unable to try and sell the paper.
The then District Secretary, Bill Jordan, was sent to do the dirty work
of the Chairman of the Enquiry, Gerry Russell, whom one would have
expected to give the report. Jordan put on as brave a face as
possible, but he knew the die was cast when his union leaders did a
deal with British Leyland and committed the unforgivable sin in any
trade union – refusing to defend rank and file shop stewards, the
backbone of the union.
The vote was overwhelming, with thousands rejecting strike action
and only a handful of loyal trade unionists in favour. I will never
forget the principled advice Derek gave to his colleagues, who were in
tears: “You must go back into the factory, elect a new convenor, give
him the support you gave me. Thanks, Comrades.”
Derek and I walked up to his house. Phyllis, by this time, was
showing the strain. All through these long weeks I was never far away
from Derek. In struggle you build bonds of friendship. As I recall
these events it is Derek’s 65th birthday and I can safely say we have
stuck by each other. But that can’t be said about the so-called
leaders of the Midlands CPGB, who at the time were preparing the
dissolution of the Party. The next few paragraphs will shock many
industrial comrades who always expected full-time officials of the
Party to protect the confidentiality of our industrial advisories.
Edwardes received by post minutes of a meeting of 14 Communists, some
not employed in the industry. He kept this just as insurance and
didn’t even show his own executives the document. Afterwards, he
claimed that this would be his trump card if the “seven brave men” of
the EC of the AUEW didn’t go along with him.
I got a phone call from Maurice Ludmer, who was the editor of an
anti-fascist magazine, “Searchlight”, one Friday evening. The call was
about a special team from the Sunday Times, which was investigating a
meeting of top Communists held the day after the Edwardes Plan to
“rescue” British Leyland was announced. He had been told that not all
present were employed at British Leyland and that they had got a set
of minutes that spelled out the strategy for resistance to the
Edwardes plan. They claimed it was the blueprint that the Leyland
Combine Trade Union Committee later endorsed. In the minutes, the full
names of the 14 present were listed along with the Party’s full plans
to issue Press statements, produce leaflets for distribution at the
factory and to get material into the Morning Star. In other words, a
detailed record of all decisions and names of those present was in the
hands of the Press.
The Sunday Times claimed that the document was sent anonymously to
them. Michael Edwardes in his book, “Back from the Brink”, also gives
full details, the only difference between them being that the Sunday
Times claims 16 present, while Edwardes says it was 17. Edwardes also
received the minutes anonymously and, as I have said, kept their
existence a tight secret. He claimed: “It was this pamphlet of the
Combine based on the minutes I had which led to Derek Robinson’s
dismissal.” He quotes a passage from the Combine pamphlet, “The
Edwardes plan and your job”. Then he goes on to write: “These words
lined up with the minutes of the 11th September but we shall never
know the truth”.
I can reveal the truth. I wasn’t present at that meeting as I was
no longer District Secretary. Derek was not present either. The
minutes make reference to D. Robinson, but both the Sunday Times and
Edwardes acknowledge it was Derek’s twin brother Dennis, now sadly dead. The minutes, published in the Sunday Times, say: “Jack A. made the main report and
after that we drew up our plans.” The pamphlet issued by the Combine
had four names as authors and was published by the Leyland Combine
Committee. Jack Adams’ address, as Secretary of the Combine, was
prominent and he wrote the pamphlet for which Derek was sacked. But
Edwardes knew he dare not take on the T&G, hence the selection of Derek
as the prime target.
What happened before this team of Sunday Times investigators came
to Birmingham, and the eventual outcome, can now be revealed, because
Derek is now retired and hence is not employed, Jack Adams has been
elected by postal ballot of T&G members and is safe from victimisation
and John Rowan, unfortunately, is dead and needs no protection. John
had a watertight alibi, that neither Edwardes nor the Sunday Times
could find out about and that was the time of this meeting. John
confirmed from his diary that he had an evening meeting on September
11. Edwardes and the Sunday Times both assumed the Communist Party meeting had been
in the evening. But, if they had checked, they would have found that
the AUEW had called a 24-hour strike on a national wage claim on that
day. This enabled these comrades to meet in the morning.
I was present when the two investigators from the paper visited
the Midlands District Office. I had phoned Tony McNally and told him
that I was going to be present, whether he liked it or not. The first
question was: “Do you keep minutes?” “Yes”, I answered. “Are these
minutes authentic?” they demanded. “What minutes?” I immediately took
control. Then they told us of a meeting on the evening of September 11
1979, where a group of Communist Party members employed in BL and other leading Communists such as Mick Costello, the Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party,
met to draw up plans to resist the Edwardes plan. My reply was, “You
must be joking.” The next question came: “Do you have industrial
advisories?” I answered: “Yes”, and they asked: “What kind?” I told
them: “Members of the Party in any given industry come together to
discuss common problems.” They wanted to know: “Does that include
combines?” I said, “Yes, but only members involved in such industries
are allowed to attend.” They picked me up on that, “How do you account
for people like Jon Bloomfield, the Party’s Secretary in Birmingham
being there? Or your friend standing here, not saying much, Tony
McNally.” I acted puzzled. “Who in the name of God told you that?” The
journalist responded, “These minutes.” I asked: “What minutes?”, and
he then proceeded to show me. I said, “Listen, have you ever heard of
a letter in 1924 that was supposed to have been sent and signed by
Zinoviev? Do you know that resulted in bringing down a Labour
Government and it was later proved to be nothing more nor less than
forgery? If you are not careful you will also be involved in an act of
forgery.” I could see they were not sure.
But we took no chances, everyone was told to keep quiet, except John Rowan who had the alibi to put them off the track. I saw John and told him that they were under the impression that it was a meeting on the evening of September
11th. John looked up his diary and saw “6.30 pm meet Victor Silcock.”
He was to meet a senior BL executive to discuss problems facing
white-collar workers and later to have a meal with him. How could he
possibly be at an evening meeting, unless Silcock was there also! When
the BL executive confirmed this, the Sunday Times came out with a
banner headline: “Communist group in Leyland campaign”, sub-headed:
“Minutes of cell meeting a forgery, they say”. The next time the
Sunday Times sends a team to investigate, they should check not only
the date on the minutes, but also the time! In this case their error
saved the Communist Party serious embarrassment. The treachery of the
AUEW leaders saved Edwardes from using his trump card only to reveal
it later in his book, and now Michael Edwardes, if you buy my book,
your query will be answered.
I have to be careful picking out a name of the 14 present who,
along with the Sunday Times and Michael Edwardes, received a copy by
post. Copies of the minutes were available on Jon’s desk. This I know,
because when Gordon McLennan phoned on Thursday September 13,
instructing Tony McNally to destroy all copies, Bloomfield objected as
he didn’t see anything wrong. When I saw them I went berserk. I had already
complained that there was too much in other minutes. This was at a
time when this group around “Marxism Today” was arguing for more
openness, and Bloomfield more than McNally was their man in the
Midlands. I wonder what they will think about Edwardes’ comment,
“Those minutes plus the combine book was what I needed to sack Derek
I often wonder who was the culprit. The nearest in finding the
guilty person was The Sunday Times. Roger Murray, who, like Jimmy
Reid, when he failed to be elected as a Communist MP, left the Party,
said: “It could have been lifted from a broadsheet we have been
distributing”. What right had he or anyone else to publish extracts
from such a sensitive meeting which played a major role in Derek’s
Whoever actually posted copies to Edwardes the real culprit is
undoubtedly Jon Bloomfield, for naming in the minutes all those
comrades present and for printing the extracts from Jack Adams’ report
that finally formed the basis of the Combine pamphlet. It confirms
the strong reservations so many of us had that Bloomfield, a clever
academic, but with no industrial or trade union experience, was the
wrong person to be sent to Birmingham to replace me when I took over
as Midlands District Secretary.
It was also Jon Bloomfield, the “Marxism Today” man in the
Midlands, who played a major role at the 1977 Congress in winning a
policy, which created the basis for the divorce of the Communist Party and the
Morning Star, the beginning of the end of the Party in fact.
Derek Robinson was now sacked. When the Enquiry dragged into a
fourth month, it had exceeded the time limit for a claim to an
Industrial Tribunal for unfair dismissal. An appeal was lodged
requesting a hearing, given the special circumstances whereby the
employers and the trade union had agreed to a procedure without the
applicant being consulted. The Chairman ruled that Derek had preferred
to use the industrial muscle of the trade union, rather than the
Government’s machinery for settling industrial disputes, so he had
caused his claim to be out of time.
It was obvious that Gerry Russell, the Chairman of the Enquiry was
aware of this time limit, and that they were hoping that Derek would
lodge a claim at the tribunal for unfair dismissal. This would have
got the AUEW off the hook. The Enquiry could have evaded the need to
call for strike action. The Chairman of the tribunal made it clear
that if Derek had appealed for unfair dismissal it would have been
upheld. The company was wrong sacking an employee without any previous
formal warnings. The QC representing BL was told very clearly that
this was no way to conduct good labour relations.
It was a very sad day in the history of British trade unionism,
when a union with a proud past history refused to uphold the most
elementary duty of any trade union, to defend local officials
victimised by management. Now the task that faced the shop stewards at
Longbridge was to build their organisation with a disillusioned and
sometimes hostile workforce. To his credit, Jack Adams took over the
job of the convenor and built a good collective works committee. By
the nature of employee-employer relations, this workforce soon
realised that this struggle was not about one person; it had been a
device to weaken the trade union organisation. Soon the most loyal
shop stewards were back on the shop floor, unable to represent members
effectively. Many others, especially AUEW stewards, flung in their
tools. The AUEW, which previously dominated the works committee, now
struggled to retain one representative on it, as the TGWU took over.
Arguably, Longbridge was the single most important centre of
manufacturing industry trades unionism, the Party’s most significant
base in industry. Derek’s sacking was clearly a concerted attack, with
the Tory Government’s fingerprints all over the murder weapon. It was
the first major defeat for the movement after Thatcher’s victory in
the 1979 General Election and set a tone for things to come. A missed opportunity to secure a victory that would have set the Tories
thinking. After this came a careful strategy of taking on one by one
the battalions of labour in isolation.
Chapter 14 “A bark worse than his bite, he was no idle shirker. To get in his good books, just sell the Daily Worker” Farewell to Birmingham, hello again to Barnsley.
In September 1980, when I was the Morning Star circulation
representative I was involved in an unfortunate incident in which I
hit Tony McNally, the Midland District Secretary, and broke his
glasses. This resulted from a report I submitted on the Party’s
responsibility for putting on extra copies of the paper during TUC
week. McNally was one of those who supported the idea that it was the
Party’s responsibility to win readers and it was the paper’s
responsibility to retain them. The report showed that the Midlands
Party had not put on one single extra daily reader for that week.
McNally challenged this, claiming Coventry had taken 25 extra copies.
I was aware that Kay Hosey had ordered 25 copies for her trade union
branch on the Wednesday, but this was a ‘one off’.
There were some heated words between us and McNally, in a burst of temper, shouted out, “Are you calling me a liar?” I said: “No, but the Coventry order is an isolated effort. But the Party, and that means you as District
Secretary, is not doing the job and it is obvious you are not
interested in promoting the paper.” He guiltily replied in the most
vicious tone and said, “You bastard, you bastard – you are finished.”
I found great difficulty in finding a verbal reply. I apologised and
promised to pay for any damage done to his spectacles. He agreed to
forget about it as the only witness was Peter Shepherd who had taken
over from Jon Bloomfield, who had completed his short stint as an
apparatchik and done his hatchet job.
I understand that after consultation with Pete Carter, who was by
this time a full time organiser for UCATT, McNally was advised that
the matter should be reported to the Party Centre and to the Morning
Star, as any physical assault is a serious offence. This resulted in
the Morning Star having to give me a formal warning, but in an
understandable way, knowing that I must have been severely provoked to
commit such an offence. I can’t say the same when, along with McNally,
I was summoned to meet Gordon McLennan, the General Secretary of the
Communist Party. Gordon was known as Cocky Wee Gordon and spent most of his
political career as first Scottish Organiser and, later, National
Organiser. From my experience with Gordon, he treated most things from
an organisation angle and lacked the political ability to handle
comrades who may have had some differences with him. By this time the
relationship between the Party and the Paper was, to say the least,
very strained, and anyone identified with the Morning Star was not his
I had submitted a long, detailed report admitting my mistake, but
I said to Gordon: “My apprenticeship in the Party was in the most
difficult area in the UK for a Communist to operate. You have known
me for nearly 40 years. During that period I have been subjected to
physical assault, especially during the Korean War. I have had to
endure all kinds of insults, including being called a Communist
bastard. At no time did I stoop even to consider replying with
violence.” This had no effect on him.
McNally, backed up by Pete Shepherd, claimed that the word bastard
was used after I struck him. In front of McNally I replied: “Gordon,
if you are prepared to accept their version against mine, that is up
to you. But, as you know, it is not my character to be violent unless
I am provoked beyond my dignity and that man repeatedly called me a
bastard and said, ‘You are finished’.” McNally never replied. In such
circumstances, I lost what little respect I still had for Gordon, whose
period as General Secretary proved beyond all shadow of doubt that he
was weak when faced either with political problems or with handling
people. All I asked was that McNally should have been rebuked, because
his being District Secretary didn’t give him a licence to provoke with
such insulting words, which in most circumstances would end up in
violence. When the industrial comrades got to know, they understood
because McNally also had a reputation of being “economical with the
Following this incident, I found it impossible to work with the
Midlands leadership and became more contemptuous of people who
deliberately told lies. I then got a phone call from my friend Arthur in Barnsley. “I want to see you about coming back to Yorkshire”. I said. “OK, I’ll come up next weekend.” The election for the National President of the NUM was soon to
take place and Arthur always claimed there was no better organiser
than me. He made an offer I couldn’t resist, but which, unfortunately,
he was never able to deliver. I had no hesitation in agreeing, knowing
him as I did, and confident that if he could not deliver his promises
he would be the first to see I didn’t go without a pound.
Accommodation was arranged in Barnsley; Anne and another lass had a
big blazing coal fire and a meal for the three comrades who came from
Birmingham with my belongings.
Before I left Birmingham a farewell social was arranged but,
again, the leadership hadn’t a clue about the wide respect I had
earned from all sections of the Midlands community. McNally approached
me to inform me that they had agreed to hold this farewell social in
the club and the Morning Star Bazaar Committee would take care of the
catering. I told him to stuff it. Who did he think he was talking to?
Or maybe it was just another way of insulting me. The social club
couldn’t hold more than 100. When I told Pete Carter, to his credit,
he was furious and said: “Go ahead, book the Co-op, organise it
yourself and don’t worry about money, the Movement will cover all the
This farewell social was described in the Morning Star as, “The
farewell gathering that united the left”. Over 400 attended from all
strata of the community and Labour Movement. “A true son of the
working class” was how Ken Cameron of the FBU described me. “Frank”,
he said, “played a vital part in the great strike actions, the miners,
the steel workers and firemen”. Jack Lally, Secretary of the Midlands
NUM, paid tribute to my outstanding leadership in the shutting down of
Saltley Gate during the 1972 miners’ strike. Brian Mathers, Regional
Secretary of the TGWU and Ken Barlow of UCATT spoke about my role in
the unification of the movement and how, during my period in
Birmingham, there had been more united activity because that was
“Frank’s unique style of work bringing together all strands of the
movement”. Seamus Collins, the Secretary of Clan-na-Eireann, the
British section of the Irish Workers’ Party, with whom I had many
arguments about sectarianism in the Irish Movement, sent a letter
along with a £10.00 cheque saying: “If you want to get on with Frank
so much, be prepared to stand a good argument.”
Derek Robinson, on behalf of the Longbridge Joint Shop Stewards,
presented a cheque with a tankard from the Party branch in the
factory. Kenny King, a loveable rogue, presented a lovely glass-framed
poem, which I proudly display in my home. I think I can be excused if I
include it in this book, because it reflects the hidden talent in so
many sons and daughters of our class.
ODE TO FRANCIS WATTERS
When it comes to beautiful Braes & Lochs, Scotland has got lots
A miner’s son is our hero from Lanarkshire and Shotts
He headed south for England, so goes this wondrous tale
Then stopped and rested for a while, on a lovely Yorkshire Dale
At mining work our Frank did graft, he always did his bit,
He helped make miners militant in many a Yorkshire pit
Frank then became a leader, one whose past will never fade
We shook and trembled at that voice – “Come here, see mean, comrade”
A bark worse than his bite, he was no idle shirker
To get in his good books, just sell the Daily Worker
A dedicated Communist, who always worked so hard
He was the inventor of the begging Xmas Card
Our District Secretary Frank became, no more meetings in the pub
He soon had people working on the building of our club
The years past by, Frank carried on, known both near and far
At every strike and demo, he sold the Morning Star
The Austin Joint Shop Stewards think Frank is still the king
He turned up at our picket lines, then organised the thing
At Saltley Gates, Sanderson’s, Grunwick’s and Blackpool Tower
Frank showed his strength, his skill, his wit and the use of
Now Frank moves on to Barnsley, to us Brummies there’s a rub
The door’s already open at the Miners Welfare Club
We’ll miss you Frank, through thick and thin, you always did your
To put the Party on the map, to stand out from the rest
You’ve never had much money, worked not for personal gain
There will always be a welcome when you come to Brum again
How can a town like Barnsley pay a transfer fee so high
To a man with guts and calibre who makes sure our goal won’t die
So from me and Big Joe Glenholmes, if fly posting ends in jail
Pop down to Brum to see us, AND DON’T FORGET THE BAIL.
Now after 14 years in the West Midlands, first as Birmingham City
Secretary, then District Secretary, many years on the national EC of the Communist Party, finally as the Morning Star Circulation Representative, I left Birmingham with fond memories and many friends. I loved the diversity
and the challenge this wonderful working class posed, but they
certainly don’t deserve the right-wing heritage of the Terry Duffys,
Bill Jordans, Roy Hattersleys and many more who are firm advocates of
the emancipation of the working class, but “one at a time,” beginning
with the bureaucrats and apparatchiks.
In these next chapters, I will leave the reader to judge from my
subsequent activity back in Yorkshire from 1981 to the present day, if
McNally was right when he said: “You are finished.” I am sure many
will forgive me for finding the strength and guts to strike in defence
of my dignity and for my failure to find a suitable reply.
But before I leave my recollections of the Midlands, let me record
two interesting sidelights. As I mentioned, one of the things I had to
master during my fourteen years in the Midlands was the ability to
deliver the kind of oration at secular funerals, which did justice to
the deceased and gave comfort to the family and friends. This I think
I did with honours. There are two that will always stand out in my
memory. There was an old comrade called Arthur George who died in a
prison hospital, committed for killing a brother of his life-long lady
friend with whom he had a platonic friendship for over 40 years.
Arthur was one of seven children. His father had died from wounds in
the Boer War and the authorities decided that as a single parent his
mother was able to keep only two of her children, the others being
placed in care under what was called “The Poor Law”. Arthur was sent
to a home at the age of three where he remained until he was 17. Here
he developed a common childhood disease, measles, which developed into
an ear and throat infection causing deafness. This illness also left
Arthur with what he used to curse as “his stinking running ears,”
which often made him untouchable. He learned to be a carpenter, but,
more important, taught himself to read, especially history, and the
1917 Russian Revolution caught his imagination. He joined the army,
not to kill anyone, but for two other reasons; one to see other parts
of the world and the other to sow his wild oats. He didn’t see much of
the world, spending most of his time in trenches. As for the other
aspect, this also was a very disappointing experience because in
France he had to pay for it and, being an ardent walker, he soon gave
up this other hobby because of the cost and the way it sapped too much
of his energy.
His social background and defects meant that “Old May”, as he
called his lady friend, who was a talented pianist and only daughter,
never got her father’s permission to marry him. Arthur was employed
at, and, in the late Forties, was allowed to live in, the big
expensive house as a handy man and a talented gardener. When May died
she hadn’t prepared a will, so this brother or stepbrother claimed
the house and Arthur found himself back again in an institution,
surrounded by old people. He hated every minute of it. Then this heir
to the house put it up for sale and sent Arthur a letter telling him
to go and tidy up the surroundings, cut the grass, water the plants,
etc. This of course was too much for Arthur who knew there was never
any affinity between “Old May” and this person. That afternoon,
instead of carrying out his instructions, Arthur visited this person
and, with a pair of scissors, he committed the act that led to his
arrest for murder.
I was informed, but could do nothing until the Monday when, along
with Jock Leishman, and his wife, Chris, who looked after both May and
Arthur, I visited a solicitor and explained the circumstances. Also, I
had a six page typed document that a friend of mine, Ted Baker, had
taped and transcribed of Arthur and May’s life-long relationship. The
solicitor just couldn’t believe his eyes. “This is all I need — don’t
worry he will be alright,” he said. In the event, despite the solicitor’s confidence that he would be placed in a prison hospital, Arthur was actually
found guilty of murder and sentenced to ‘life’ imprisonment. Not that life meant
very much at his age. I visited Arthur regularly, encouraging him to
keep writing about his life. He was in Winson Green prison, but he was
allowed out in the yard all day, walking and chatting to his fellow
prisoners; happy as Larry. The only problem he had was cold winter
nights in his cell when he had to wrap himself in a blanket and walk
around the cell to keep warm.
When he died in prison hospital, I was asked by Jock and Chris to
do his oration. The social workers from the hospital attended and
expressed their gratitude for the dignity of the service and the
number of comrades who had attended. I had many letters from Arthur,
but there was one in which he told me that on his 80th birthday he had
sold his heart and kidneys to medical science for a substantial sum of
money. He was concerned that the beneficiaries would not know where to
find him in his new “accommodation.” On the other hand, he ventured,
when his time came to face the Lord, there would be no excuse for His
rejecting him on the grounds that he had disposed of such vital
organs! It is unfortunate that no one has ever written a pamphlet on this
unique working class philosopher.
The other funeral I will mention has a much funnier ending. Tommy
Degnan, an old friend and comrade, who back in the 1950s in his
inimitable way questioned whether or not I would survive in the
Yorkshire coalfield, requested that Arthur Scargill and I should
conduct his funeral. It was organised chaos from beginning to end.
Scargill phoned me and requested that he should do the first stint, as
I had more experience and could fit in anything he may have left out.
Fair enough, but it was only after we left the crematorium that I
learned what this sod had done to me. After his usual immense
appreciation for what Tommy had done for him as a young trade
unionist, he pressed the button. The curtain started to close and I
kept signalling for them to be opened. I was not aware of the
mechanism at the crematorium. Once the curtain closes the body starts
moving. There I was pouring out my heart and soul, pledging to Tommy
what we would do to fulfil his inspiration. By the time I was saying
goodbye, Tommy, we will miss you but never forget you, his ashes were
already in the bin! When I came out of the crematorium Scargill had a
big smile on his face. “What are you laughing at? I never burst out
laughing when you were doing your piece.” Then he went on to tell me
what had happened – a story which only he can tell and which has
raised many a laugh in its subsequent recounting.
Chapter 15 “A healthy political atmosphere – back in Yorkshire and the Peoples’ March for Jobs
Coming back to Yorkshire was just what I needed after my unhappy
political experience during the last few months in Birmingham. There was a welcome from every corner, including the Yorkshire District Communist Party. I was co-opted on to the District Committee and Secretariat and began
attending my local branch, where there was a very friendly atmosphere.
I began helping out with Gordon Ashberry, Sheffield Secretary of the
Communist Party, raising money for the movement, which I am good at. Visiting pits, making contact with local NUM officials to get extra readers for the Morning Star became a daily routine. I built up contacts in pits and
factories so that extra copies, especially for special features, only
required a phone call and early morning deliveries. Selling the paper
outside the NUM Area Council monthly meeting became a good way of keeping
contact with local leaders. The Sheffield AUEW leader, George Caborn
had retired but was still very active, especially with the Morning
Star, and this meant I was being introduced to many leading trade
union officials and shop stewards. My friend Arthur was still
President of the Yorkshire Area of the NUM at this stage and
facilities were provided for me to do research work. All daily
newspapers at my disposal, and there was a friendly staff and area officials
who all appreciated my years in the coalfield, whilst the name Frank Watters
was a legend following Saltley. Even my `Barnsley friend’ gives me the
credit for this victory!
It was in this healthy political atmosphere that I flung myself
into many of the class battles which expose the myth that the “Forward
March of Labour has halted”. What these pseudo-Marxists have lost is
the basic understanding of Marxism. As long as you have a ruling
class, based on the exploitation of its workforce you will have class
struggles and I am sure this will be a feature in Eastern Europe once
the big monopolies manage to exploit the rich mineral wealth there,
especially in the republics of the former Soviet Union. My record of
work since my return to Yorkshire up to writing this book will show
that my successor as Secretary of the Midland Communist Party made a false
assessment when he said to me: “You are finished” – and those who know my
three brothers know that the older we became the more our features are
similar. So we must have had the same father and that proves he was
also wrong in this second slanderous accusation that helped to make my
life so miserable in the last days I was in Birmingham.
There were two major political events I was immediately involved
in, the “Peoples March” against unemployment in May 1981 from
Liverpool to London, and later that year Arthur Scargill on a left
unity ticket was elected as NUM National President on the highest
majority of any previous President. The main propaganda material was
“Arthur’s little red book”. This controversial pamphlet for radical
changes in the mining industry was often compared with another popular
“Little Red Book”, the book of Chairman Mao and his thoughts on the
Chinese Cultural Revolution! Arthur quite rightly argues that he was
elected on a radical programme, which included a warning to the
Government and the Coal Board that a miners’ union with him at its
head would use strikes to protect pits and jobs; more on this later, of course.
The Peoples March for jobs, May 1 to May 30, 1981, from Liverpool
to London was one of the greatest events of the post war. I can
remember as a young boy, the hunger marches from Edinburgh to London
and the way especially the Communist Party worked so hard to provide a
meal and a hall to rest the weary bones of marchers. But this was
different. Here you see the advantage of a Labour Movement committed
to take on the fight for jobs. Not only did it give the moral support but
also thousands of pounds to provide the clothing, footwear, medical care
and at least three good meals per day. No trouble at all in getting local
authorities where Labour was in control to provide leisure centres for
a good swim and shower. Nowhere was this more profound than when the
marchers arrived in London, where Labour controlled the County Hall.
This meant a right ‘royal’ welcome with over 200,000 people turning
out to greet the marchers, which by this time was over 500 strong with
marchers from Liverpool, Midlands, Yorkshire and a small contingent
from South Wales, who were determined not to be left out. When we
arrived in Trafalgar Square, there were thousands more that had
travelled from all parts of the country. Here was a mass united
movement on an issue so dear to those of us that remembered the hungry
30s and who were responsible for sweeping Labour into power in 1945.
Unfortunately, like many opportunities, both the Labour Party and the
TUC were as much afraid of such a mass movement as the Tories, because
such movements might generate ideas, not just a change of Government,
but a change of direction for society.
In spite of pressure on the TUC to do more than offer sympathetic
words, they failed to build on the triple alliance that emerged during the march, of trades unionists, the public and the unemployed. Young
people were especially prepared to do something about their plight. In
fact, when the idea of a repeat march in 1983 was proposed, the General
Council was reluctant to sponsor it.
The South Yorkshire campaign, in which I was highly involved, was
magnificent. A high powered team of leading trade union officials,
shop stewards and community organisations all worked under the
guidance of the Yorkshire Regional TUC, which had a good stalwart of
the trade union and women’s movement, Beryl Huffinley, as Secretary,
and Owen Briscoe, Yorkshire Area President of the NUM, as Chairperson.
This meant we had no trouble getting the Yorkshire Area of the NUM to
give full backing and to put their money behind its success. I was in
charge of the coalfield campaign, raising money to sponsor unemployed
miners’ sons and daughters and others. We got NUM branches to sponsor
over seventy marchers at £100 each, plus some spending money. Everything was
done above board; Within weeks of the marchers’ return from London in 1981, a meeting of the South Yorkshire Steering Committee was called where an audited
balance-sheet was presented showing a balance remaining of nearly £2,500 on an
expenditure of over £26,000, finely detailed. The balance was duly handed to the Regional TUC treasurer, Harry Holland.
The Party emerged with flying colours, taking its rightful place
in the vanguard. At the centre of it all was Gordon Ashberry,
Sheffield City Secretary of the Communist Party, backed up with well-known
Communists such as Percy Riley and myself. I wish we could say the
same for the 1983 People’s March where we saw the underhand and
destructive role of those “Communists” elected by the Regional
Council, based on the reputation that the Party had earned over the
years of honesty, working as a collective in the best interest of the
movement. The “Euros” were now actively distancing themselves from the
The Tory Party Conference was being held in Blackpool in October
and Margaret Thatcher was due to speak on Friday, October 16. The idea
of a “Trans-Pennine March”, starting from Sheffield, arriving in
Blackpool on October 15 was being canvassed and the marchers were
willing. This was not a difficult task. After all we had a sound
financial start and with our previous experience in raising money we
agreed to go ahead. But now we began to see the disastrous results of
the Euros trying to distance themselves from the Regional TUC and the
setting up of a loose grouping of Town Committees that would organise
the March and appeal locally to the trade unions to finance it.
In other words a small group, mainly in the hands of the Euros, would
inherit this goodwill. I made my position clear, unless the
arrangements and the financial control were under control of the
Regional TUC, I wouldn’t touch it. A Communist Party meeting was arranged between three of us from South Yorkshire and three from Leeds, West Yorkshire.
The two main advocates for a loose organisation were Bill Innes and
Roy Rix. Dave Priscott had to use his casting vote in favour of
getting the support of the Yorkshire and Humberside Regional TUC. This
meant full support and no trouble in getting sponsorship. A
balance sheet was issued following the March that this time showed a
surplus of £4,875.63p.
All this experience decisively influenced what happened in the
next National People’s March starting from Glasgow on April 23rd 1983,
arriving in London on June 5th/6th. This time it had the official support
of the TUC, arising from a resolution from the NUM that the TUC should
set up a National Organising Committee composed of representatives
from the TUC Regional Councils and trade unions.
A meeting of the Regional TUC was called. The minutes record that
Roy Rix had been appointed to act as March Co-ordinator. On finance,
in respect of the mining area, donations would be made to Ken Homer,
Finance Officer of the Yorkshire NUM, and in turn would be forwarded
to the regional TUC. Harry Holland was to be Regional Finance Officer.
Jean Miller was appointed as the coalfield organiser. As usual, my
name couldn’t appear but everyone, including the Secretary, Beryl
Huffinley, and Ken Homer, who was now standing in for Owen Briscoe,
knew of my involvement. When I saw Ken Homer he said: “I expect you
will be able to play your usual role, guiding and looking after the
campaign without your name appearing on the Committee because, this
being under the auspices of the Regional TUC your name can’t appear.
That’s why Jean Miller was appointed with an understanding that you
will be the driving force”.
It did not work like that; Roy Rix took over and Jean was put in
charge of finance, but as Barnsley Branch Communist Party Treasurer she had been accustomed to handling only a few pounds, and now found herself
responsible for thousands. I knew this would prove too much for her to
cope with. It wasn’t long before the Euros showed their hand. Instead of
carrying out the instructions of the Regional TUC, that Ken Homer
should receive all donations, appeal letters asked for cash to be
forwarded to Jean. Her responsibility was to ensure sufficient sponsors were being
signed up and she was not supposed to have anything to do with the
sponsorship fees. Within two weeks of Roy Rix becoming the March
Co-ordinator he called a meeting on Friday, 11th March at 8.00 pm in
Barnsley. What NUM representative would be likely to attend a meeting
at that time and day?
Jean’s appointment as Treasurer created a rumpus. I was
being phoned asking why money should be addressed to her and not, as
previously, to the NUM Financial Secretary in line with TUC policy.
This meant that branches were reluctant to donate from their funds. I had a
phone call from Roy Rix asking to meet him, as the coalfield response
was bad. I agreed, but I made my point, no money should be banked in
anyone’s personal account. This was not only happening with sponsor’s
fees, but also with the cash from the sale of merchandise.
The result of all this was disastrous. The respected name of the
Communist Party was now to be dragged in the mud. One day Owen Briscoe, then
General Secretary of the Yorkshire Area of the NUM, collared me in the
centre of Barnsley and said, “I have been wanting to talk to you about
Jean Miller and Roy Rix, but I didn’t want the staff to hear our
conversation”. In his usual blunt way he let loose at these two
comrades. “Never did I think any member of the Communist Party would embarrass the movement in this way. These bastards put Beryl and me in a spot. I
have always supported any Communist Party member recommended by Beryl. From my association with people like Jock Kane, Eric Browne and yourself, I
would trust my life with any of them. But these pair of bastards had
better not put their foot in the miners’ offices as long as I am
This meant that during the 1984/85 miners’ strike, Roy Rix, South
Yorkshire Area Secretary of the Communist Party, was not in a position even to
visit the Yorkshire Area of the NUM, let alone have a discussion with
the area leadership. In fact I can’t remember Roy Rix being on a
picket line in the South Yorkshire area or visiting any of the South
Yorkshire strike centres. I was informed that following the march,
neither Jean Miller nor Roy Rix made an appearance for some time to
report to the Regional Finance Officer, in spite of repeated requests
for a financial statement. After a lapse of many weeks a statement was
presented but it was minuted as being a “Very unsatisfactory report.”
This was reported to all County associations of the Humberside and
Yorkshire Region of the TUC. You can imagine the embarrassment for
comrades on the TUC.
Chapter 16 “One good turn deserves another” The Lyons Bakery strike of 1982
I became involved in the Lyons Bakery dispute from its beginning as I was living
in the area and I made the acquaintance of the pickets as I passed them
every morning and evening. Soon I was introduced to the Vickers
brothers, John, the leader, ably supported by his brother, Sam. Many of the workforce they led were women and, though the wages were not generous, they often provided a vital income for families in an area
of high unemployment. The local pits at Monk Bretton, Carlton and Wharncliffe had already been closed some years before the wave of
closures heralded by the 84/85 strike and the bakery had been built on
derelict land left vacant by former pits. The industrial estate on
which it was built was a key element in the local authority’s efforts
to generate new industry, to fill the void left behind by the
shrinking coal industry, and local councillors were keen to see a
settlement to the dispute.
One of them telephoned me and asked me what chances there were of
the strike committee accepting arbitration. I asked him who he had in
mind to arbitrate and he asked me if I had any suggestions. Off the
cuff, I thought of Professor Michael Barrett Brown who was Principal of
the nearby Northern College, the local authority funded “Ruskin of the
North”. He thought the company would welcome any suggestions, as they
were keen to see an early settlement of the dispute. I asked John and
Sam to get the strike committee to consider the proposition but the
strike was absolutely solid and, with the money that was coming in
from pit collections and the other local support they were enjoying,
the strikers were in no mood for compromise. I told John and Sam that
I was confident that the outcome would be favourable and they agreed
to call a committee meeting after the imminent Easter holiday.
I was spending the Easter holiday in Birmingham and on my way
there I was held up by a lorry that had broken down on the motorway.
The lorry was loaded with spirits, which had to be disposed of, and I
acquired a bottle of brandy at a very reasonable price. Returning home
from the holiday weekend, I stopped to have a word with the pickets at
the bakery. I told the women pickets on the line it looked like being
a cold night and I gave them the brandy to warm themselves up. I went
home and phoned John to arrange to meet him at mid-day the next day,
after the strike committee meeting so that we could get on with
arranging a briefing for Professor Barrett Brown.
When I arrived at the picket line the following lunchtime I was
met by a very glum faced John. “How did it go?’ I cheerily enquired.
“How did it go?” he wailed. “There was a group of women on the picket
line last night and they came into the meeting at eight this morning
completely pissed up. I could not get any sense out of them. What I
can’t understand is where they got the drink from.” I looked him in the eye and made my confession. “Sorry, comrade. I
gave them a bottle of brandy to keep them warm during the night.” The
meeting had decided: no compromise, no arbitration, a fight to the end
It was obvious the firm still wanted a settlement so I suggested
that the union approach the management and tell them that they also
wanted a speedy resolution of the dispute but that they would prefer
to do it without outside intervention. It worked; a settlement was
reached and the union in the plant went from strength to strength.
John became Yorkshire and Humberside District Secretary for the Bakers
Union and Sam became a regional officer.
During this dispute I introduced John to various NUM Branch
Secretaries. There was no problem getting cash from the pits as many
of the miners’ wives or daughters worked at Lyons, but this was John’s
first foray into the class struggle and he suddenly found himself with
the unfamiliar role of public speaker, addressing packed meetings of
miners’ delegates and officials. At that time there were still about
20 pits in the Barnsley and Carlton areas and they were represented by
the Panel of about 80 delegates, most of them experienced and
articulate speakers. John had to face them and explain why the Lyons
workers were on strike. I knew he was nervous, but I assured him that
the Panel chairman, Ron Rigby, would give him all the help he needed.
He must have made an impression because the financial support flowed
in. John has since told me that as a union official he has had to
speak at conferences and on occasions at the TUC, but addressing that
crowded room full of miners was the most frightful experience of his
During the 84/85 miners’ strike the Lyons workforce honoured their
debt to the miners and their families. Twice a week a vanload of
cakes, pies and pastries arrived at the Barnsley strike centre at the
Junction Inn, just outside the town centre. Of course John and Sam,
who made the deliveries, were obliged to stop for a chat and to buy
the striking miners a pint or two, so it began to become a costly
excursion for them. The bakery management were approached and they
agreed to a token payment to cover these out of pocket expenses!
The Bakers Union at Lyons repaid their debts in other ways, too.
Through their good offices, I was able to buy plenty of cakes and
pastries from a special shop at the bakery when the local branch of
the British Soviet Friendship Society was entertaining a party of
visitors from the Soviet Union and the Morning Star Bazaars also
benefited from the same source. One good turn deserves another!
“Frank Watters taught us what trades unionism was about.”
By John & Sam Vickers
The Bakers, Food and Allied Workers Union, who represented more
than 1,600 members at Carlton in Barnsley and in Wakefield, were forced to withdraw their labour in April 1982. Although this struggle
revolved around the January wage settlement, the dispute was actually
about the disclosure of information. The representatives, led by
brothers John Vickers (Branch Secretary) and Sam Vickers (Senior Shop
Steward), insisted that we needed the information to negotiate on
equal terms with the company. The company had always denied the Union
the information in previous years.
However, none of the representatives at Carlton had very much
experience and they lacked confidence. 1982 was different. We had a
massive vote in favour of industrial action, 1,277 for, 44 against. We started that action with a work to rule in mid-April. The Union
at this stage was very pleased at the way things were going. Our
members were supporting any action that the representatives were
asking. However, two weeks into the work-to-rule the company went to
the night shift members at both Carlton and Wakefield at 1.00
a.m., issuing them with an ultimatum. They told our members that if they
did not work normally they would not be paid. Every one of our members
marched off into the canteen. The night shift steward rang the
secretary and senior steward. We held a meeting and decided we would
picket the day shift, and inform them what had happened. For the first
time the Union was not in control of the pace of the dispute.
Many of the officials had never been in this situation; most had
never been shop stewards. We were well organised inside while we were at work and we thought
we were not doing too badly outside the gates. We had informed the
Union nationally, set up our picket line and our District Secretary
was writing to other branches. Cracked it! Then, enter Frank Watters; he just appeared on the picket,
asking for our secretary. He picked us up by the scruff of the neck,
gave us names of contacts for help. He took the secretary and other
officials to meet Owen Briscoe, who was Secretary of the Yorkshire
NUM. From that meeting John Vickers was allowed to address the NUM
Council appealing for help. This proved to be greater than we ever
imagined. NUM secretaries were coming to our picket line asking for
our secretary, asking what help we needed and making donations to the
strike fund. NUM members were coming to the picket line giving
cigarettes, fuel and moral support. Frank Watters gave us many
contacts for other organisations, in particular the Trades Council.
But many of the officials at Carlton received much more from
Frank, they received guidance, experience, but most of all they
learned lessons that can only be taught by special people. He also
gave friendship. We met many new friends, particularly in the NUM.
When the miners’ strike started two years later, we knew what we had
to do. We owed the miners. We did not need to be asked for help, we
knew from our experience. Frank Watters taught us what trade unionism was about. We are all Comrades.
Chapter 17 “I will do my best”: the nurses’ strike in 1982
Rodney Bickerstaffe, General Secretary of NUPE, the largest union in the National Health Service, was the guest speaker at the Rotherham May Day Rally in 1982. I was introduced to him by one of the NUPE Officers, Sean Hilliard, whom I had met many times in the Labour Club in Wakefield during the People’s March campaign. Rodney said, “Frank, will you do for the nurses what you did for the miners in 1972”. My reply was simple: “I will do my best.”
A claim for a “common case” increase in wages and a reduction in working hours had been submitted in December 1981, uniting 15 unions in a variety of national bargaining units. The Secretary of State responsible for the NHS, as usual, tried to divide the various grades of workers by offering some 6.4 per cent and others, including senior nurses, increases worth only 4 per cent. All these were rejected and everything possible was done by the unions to avoid industrial action, including an agreement to go to arbitration or to the Government’s own conciliation body, ACAS. But the Government refused to budge. After all, if midwives and nurses come out on strike, who suffers? The TUC was called in to co-ordinate industrial action, but it was confined only to those covered by the claim. The 15 unions involved met on May 10th 1982 and declared a 24-hour national stoppage of work on May 19th. Starting on May 27th there were to be two-hour stoppages organised locally every Thursday.
The 15 unions involved should have done what the leadership of the NUM did, in Yorkshire, where we had three full days of action in support of the nurses and supported them on all their demonstrations. Arthur Scargill had just taken over the National Presidency. He had a meeting with Rodney Bickerstaffe on the day before the 24 hours stoppage took place and issued a Press release pledging full support to the nurses, including industrial action. That’s what you call leadership, and that’s what the miners needed when their turn came shortly after the nurses. The help the miners gave to the nurses was repaid with interest during the 84/85 miners’ strike, especially by Arthur’s Yorkshire friend, Rodney Bickerstaffe. Maybe Rodney had this in mind when, agreeing to help in advertising this book, he said, “Frank could always be relied upon when any section of the movement needed his help.”
There were two incidents during the nurses’ dispute when my friends Roger Poole and Sean Hilliard were involved. On a day of action, when the pits stopped work in support of the nurses, we had been tipped off that an effort would be made to break the ranks at Grimethorpe pit. Nurses were mobilised from the Pontefract and Wakefield hospitals and asked to join the miners’ picket. No trouble getting volunteers, but when Sean and Rodney realised that they would need to set off at 3.00 o’clock in the morning the idea was not as attractive as it first appeared. To their credit they arrived and the TV crew was present for the scoop. To their pleasant surprise, Sean and Roger enjoyed the early morning air and once the few miners who turned up saw the “Official Strike” placards that was enough. After a friendly chat with the TV crew, Sean managed to get a special interview so he was happy. Roger did a meeting in the Market Square with the late Sammy Thompson, then General Secretary of the Yorkshire NUM. I then took Roger for another meeting on the Sheffield Town Hall steps. He often recalls with me his experiences in the Yorkshire coalfield.
There was another not so pleasant incident that was the most shameful piece of anti-working class action by the then chairman of the Barnsley Trades Council, Jack Brown, aided by the unhelpful role of a NUPE official, Mike Stokes, who was the Trades Union Council secretary. A meeting had been organised by NUPE in conjunction with Barnsley Trades Council. A friend of mine, Ken Capstick, was one of the speakers. I was in the headquarters of the Yorkshire NUM doing some research. Before the meeting began, I went to speak to Ken Capstick on a certain matter. The following day I had a telephone call from Arthur Scargill in London to tell me that the Press were after me for my involvement in organising a meeting on the NHS dispute. He said: “Watch yourself … say nothing. I have confirmed that you were allowed to use an unoccupied NUM room for any research you wish to undertake”.
At the time I was living in an upstairs flat in Cudworth, outside Barnsley. About 4.00 p.m. there was a knock on the door. When I opened it, who should be standing there, but a photographer from the Daily Mail. Jack Brown had informed them of a mysterious Mr Watters working secretly behind the scenes at the headquarters of the Yorkshire miners. Anyone who knows me can imagine the fright that photographer got when he realised both he and his camera were likely to land at the bottom of the stairway! National and local media had a field day, but not for long. Jack Brown, a discredited ex-Labour councillor, later set up his own political party, the Barnsley Party, with Jack and his family constituting the bulk of the membership. At the biggest gathering in its history, the Trades Union Council later censured Jack Brown for using the capitalist Press to make “unfounded and damaging” comments. Mike Stokes, the Secretary was instructed to make a public apology to the NUM (Yorkshire Area), NUPE (Barnsley Hospitals), and to Frank Watters (Morning Star Circulation Manager).
Jack Brown was later removed as chair of the Barnsley TUC and failed again to win a seat on Barnsley Borough Council. What Jack Brown failed to understand was that my life-long commitment has been to serve all sections of the working class in the best way possible. Jack has always moved in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform, and his motivation has often appeared ambiguous.
Chapter 18 “There is only one law in this dispute – don’t cross picket lines!”
Dave Douglass, delegate for Hatfield Main; The Miners’ Strike of 1984-5
No sooner was the strike over than the ‘hindsight’ armchair philosophers were writing their post-mortem analysis of what went wrong. In fact, some couldn’t wait until the strike was concluded before they went into print. Pete Carter, the Industrial Organiser for the CPGB (one of the few Communist Party members allowed to write in Marxism Today, which was supposed to be the ‘Theoretical and discussion journal of the Communist Party’), asked why the miners failed to win the support of the wider public, especially through more solidarity action. Reading Pete’s article, one wonders if his criticisms about the course and conduct of the strike were aimed at the three national leaders, which Mick McGahey called the “troika”, who worked so hard together, or at the National Executive of the NUM. If he did mean the entire team, he would have to include leading members of the CP including George Bolton, the Chairman of the Party. This was more than he dare do, but one can draw one’s own conclusion to whom he is referring.
Then, in the April 1985 issue of the “New Statesman”, Beatrix Campbell saw the twelve months “as a strike that both the hard Right and the hard Left wanted.” Not about jobs or defending communities or public ownership. Then, within two weeks of the end of the strike, “Marxism Today” organised a “roundtable discussion” with Alan Baker, South Wales NUM, George Bolton from Scotland and Ken Capstick, branch delegate from the Selby coalfield, and a member of the Labour Party. It was chaired by Dave Priscott, Yorkshire District Secretary of the Communist Party, who deputised for John Lloyd of the Financial Times, no supporter of the strike and a renowned critic of the leadership, especially the President, Arthur Scargill.
The front page of this issue carried a very impressive picture of a working miner, Derek France, delegate for Silverwood Colliery in Yorkshire. Derek later wrote an article for the Daily Express reflecting on the “roundtable discussion” attacking Scargill. He was soon to be rewarded by British Coal offering him a position on the South Yorkshire Safety Committee as Dust Suppression Officer, so he left the NUM and joined the Coal Board. He was later recognised by the Queen in her New Year’s Honours List, approved by none other than Margaret Thatcher PM. I can’t make up my mind whether Derek got the British Empire Medal for his association with “Marxism Today” or with the “Daily Express.” I will settle for a draw as both were competing in the “Arthur Scargill” race with Derek as a willing participant.
Of course it was not only the CPGB journal Marxism Today that attacked the NUM leadership. Tribune was not helpful. ‘Ultra Left’ weeklies such as Militant attacked the NUM for not holding a ballot which “showed they lacked faith in the working class.” Only the Morning Star, now with a much smaller circulation, maintained a principled editorial policy. But the CPGB no longer encouraged members to buy, and they certainly didn’t sell it at rallies or the picket lines, in spite of an advert in a party broadsheet that said, “Read the Morning Star.” I had a personal parcel of 200 copies from day one and they were much appreciated, either when I distributed them on the picket line or when enjoying an early morning breakfast with the pickets returning and relating their experience.
I want to deal with the main bones of contention over why the NUM didn’t hold a ballot in 1984, alleged violence on the picket lines, timing, mass picketing and the question of whether the Nottinghamshire miners could have been won. But first, I must mention what happened in South Wales in 1981, before Arthur Scargill was elected President of the NUM, and the closure of Kinneil Colliery in Scotland at Christmas 1982. The ballot in South Wales over the closure of Lewis Merthyr pit was also very important, especially in South Wales in 1984 when there was a dirty distorted myth that the Yorkshire Area NUM, under Arthur Scargill’s leadership, didn’t fully support South Wales in their fight against pit closures. Alan Baker from South Wales in the “roundtable discussion” said: “Only 10 out of 28 pits voted in 1984 to come out on strike. The remainder had to be picketed out,” but to their credit they remained solid right to the end.
Early in 1981, Yorkshire, Kent, South Wales, Scotland and the Derbyshire Left met in London to review the pit closure programme that was escalating at a terrific rate, especially in South Wales and Scotland. All Areas were due to meet the NCB Directors, hear the plans for each individual Area and then plan industrial action, irrespective of whether there was a decision for a ballot vote.
South Wales had already called an Area Council and was given a mandate for strike action commencing from Tuesday, February 17. Yorkshire had decided to bring out every single pit on Friday, following the meeting with their Directors on the Wednesday and only three days after the South Wales strike had actually started. It was also the policy of the Yorkshire Left that if any pit decided to take action before the Council Meeting, to demonstrate their support, this would be welcomed. By Friday, when the Council Meeting was called, over 10,000 had already taken action in support of South Wales, and the Yorkshire Area had prepared a strike resolution for the Area Council. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that if South Wales hadn’t suspended strike action pending a meeting with their Area Directors, the entire Yorkshire Coalfield would have been at a standstill in support of South Wales before the Area Council meeting that Friday.
What really took place on Thursday, February 1981 was that Des Dutfield, the Vice President of South Wales, informed Yorkshire that they had decided to suspend their strike action until after the talks on the following Wednesday after which they would reconsider their position. This posed a problem because only South Wales had a strike mandate, and it was they who were calling off their strike action. After consulting colleagues over the need to retain unity within the progressive areas of the Union, particularly Scotland, South Wales, Kent and Derbyshire, who had consistently fought against pit closures, it was decided to fall into line with South Wales and suspend action pending the outcome of the talks on the following Wednesday.
I haven’t the details of what the Board and the South Wales NUM agreed upon, but to everyone’s “surprise” a flash appeared on TV that evening which implied that the miners had won every concession demanded. The closure hit list had been withdrawn. If that announcement hadn’t taken place, the whole Yorkshire Coalfield would have been on strike without a ballot or an Area Council resolution in support of South Wales. I hope this clears up any misunderstanding about Yorkshire’s willingness and readiness under Arthur Scargill’s leadership as President of Yorkshire NUM to give full support to any Area prepared to fight the Government and Coal Board pit closure programme. Already the campaign for National President was under way and maybe, as so often happens, the rank and file members were not always told the whole truth by some who had axes to grind. That may have caused confusion and left some with the impression that Yorkshire didn’t support South Wales in 1981.
In the other incident involving the South Wales and Yorkshire Areas I was fully involved and I may be the only person who can finally kill any myth that Yorkshire was not prepared to support any action undertaken by the South Wales NUM, or any other Area, in the fight to save jobs and their communities. In February 1983 the Board decided to close Lewis Merthyr. This time it was decided to ballot the whole South Wales Area NUM. Before the ballot was completed, none other than Doctor Kim Howells, now a Labour MP, was given the job by the South Wales EC to organise a mass picket into Yorkshire in support of the campaign to save the pit. Remember, the Left in the NUM had worked magnificently for the election of Arthur Scargill as National President. During the 1981 closure threat Yorkshire had done everything asked of them by the South Wales leadership. I just couldn’t understand why this time in the most unprincipled and irresponsible way, the South Wales leadership, without consultation, committed the cardinal sin of sending ten bus loads, over 500 pickets, into a friendly coalfield with a leadership totally committed to supporting any Area that decided to take on the Government and Coal Board against pit closures.
The outcome of this exercise could have been disastrous and Kim Howells, the organiser of this invasion, must be held responsible. All I can say is that Arthur Scargill is not the first flying picket pilot, Kim beat him to it, but he didn’t join his troops, he organised his campaign from Cardiff.
The Yorkshire Region of the Labour Party was meeting in Bridlington that weekend and all Area Officials attended but some came back on the Saturday evening. I got a phone call that Saturday morning from the District Secretary of the Welsh Communist Party requesting that I draw up plans for ten buses of South Wales pickets due to arrive in Barnsley on Monday morning to seek support for the Lewis Merthyr campaign. My immediate reaction was one of outrage. “Who made this stupid decision and who is organising this irresponsible and wasteful exercise?” I demanded to know. The reply was the South Wales EC and Kim Howells had been asked to co-ordinate it. “Who the hell is Kim Howells?” I asked. I had never heard his name before. “Well, he is the research officer for the South Wales NUM” was the reply. Never have I heard of such an important decision decided by an Area EC to be delegated to a member of the staff. Was it that the officials dare not show their face in Yorkshire in case they got invited to explain why an Area like Yorkshire, which had stood by all Areas fighting against pit closures, was not even informed of the decision to send flying pickets? I made my position clear; if any of these buses tried to stop at any pit, even for natural causes, Kim Howells would be held responsible.
The outcome of this conversation was that my feelings would be relayed to Kim but the buses were already booked, the pickets had been paid for an overnight stay, and longer if necessary. Nothing could be done; they were soon to be on their way. I phoned Owen Briscoe that Saturday night and his wife told me she was expecting him back, but normally he dropped into the club, so the best time to catch him was about 11.30 p.m. When I told Owen he went berserk and asked me to see Jack Taylor, the Yorkshire NUM President, to sort things out. The following morning Jack was enjoying his Sunday morning in bed reading the paper. I know he was surprised to see me because I had never been to his house before. When I revealed all that had happened he jumped up and got in touch with Emlyn Williams the President of South Wales. It was far from a comradely conversation. Emlyn confirmed the buses were booked. Some lodges had agreed to supplement the official pickets and he could do nothing about it as Kim Howells had organised the operation. “Who runs South Wales,” Jack asked: “Kim Howells or you as President?”
What was agreed was that they would not go near any of the pits – that I would meet the comrades in charge and explain that the Yorkshire Council was meeting that same day with a resolution for strike action in support of South Wales on the agenda. I told them all the delegates would welcome them and that the officials would invite as many as they decided to address the Area Council.
It was obvious from the majority of these good lads they had been misinformed. I knew one of the lads, Arfon Evans, who was on the EC of the Communist Party with me and he knew that they had made a tragic mistake. This was to be confirmed when a delegation was invited into the Council Meeting and a resolution had already been prepared. Their conduct was magnificent, chatting to the delegates as they arrived and soon the “Big Four” officials appeared on the steps welcoming their fellow miners and pledging full support. A delegation of eight was escorted into the Council Chamber. They reported back that a resolution would be put to the Council calling for a total strike commencing at midnight on Sunday March 6 and that the NEC would be informed of this decision for their consideration. They cheered. They were also given £200 to purchase a good old Barnsley dish, pie and peas, which was organised at two pubs near to each other in the hope it would hold them all together and deter them from picketing the afternoon shift.
But it was becoming obvious that a group, including one of the drivers, was now drinking heavily and in no way did they intend to go home. I must say people like Arfon and Tyrone O’Sullivan, and many others, played a wonderful role trying to get the majority to return home. But one group, from a certain pit, were determined to stay and were rashly promised accommodation at Northern College by someone. The least said about that the better, I had a job to persuade the Students’ Union not to take legal action for the racist, sexist and general behaviour that can only be described as disgraceful and which spoiled the good name of the vast majority of miners who had come to do an honourable job to save their pit.
Then I had another two busloads that was also over the limit. The problem was, would they try to picket the night shift? It was obvious they had no intention of going home. I then had an idea, to get one bus to the Silverwood Welfare and one bus to Wakefield Labour Club and if the worst came to the worst, as I had done at Saltley, I could get volunteers to stay with them all night. There are always plenty of good sofas. The Wakefield operation worked smoothly with accommodation in houses. But in Rotherham this group was determined to picket the night shift, they were real bastards. I was called all the Communist, Stalinist bastards in the book. In fact they were so aggressive some of the locals had to intervene to prevent me from being beaten up. We kept arguing until the night shift had gone down.
The disruptive group, with their drunken driver spent the night in their bus and overslept long enough the next morning to miss any day-shift picket. Jack Taylor phoned me the next morning and requested I come up to see him. The Big Four” were waiting for me. Jack said he was nearly going to phone me the night before because he had a late night call about what had happened to me. “How are you,” they all asked. “I am fine.” Jack said: “You are not fine and in no way are we going to let this die down. You were asked to help out in a difficult situation but we can’t be seen to be involved in entertaining people who hadn’t the decency even to inform us of their visit.”
At that, Owen Briscoe phoned Emlyn Williams and, as one Welshman to another, gave him a piece of his mind in his native tongue. It was eventually agreed that I was to receive an apology and be invited as guest to the South Wales Miners’ Gala that summer, but neither of these materialised. What was pleasant? I think it was when Sammy Thompson handed me £50 and advised me to have a bloody good drink on behalf of the “Big Four” and thanked me for all I had done.
I hope this will kill any myth that Yorkshire was hesitant in giving full support, in fact just as in 1981 it was South Wales who suspended the action. With hindsight, without a more concrete agreement on further pit closures they should have allowed the escalation that had already taken place to continue and their negotiations with the NCB would have been much more successful.
The ballot to save Lewis Merthyr was lost and maybe the Doctor would have been wiser and might have done the Welsh miners a better service if he had put the money and the 500 miners he sent into Yorkshire to tour the valleys to good use in his own area winning support for a “yes” vote. It would have been a tragedy if Kim Howells’ plans hadn’t been stopped. Can you imagine the position of comrades, who were prepared to call the entire coalfield to a halt in support of South Wales, finding themselves faced with a split and confused coalfield because of selective picketing?
Alan Baker in the Marxism Today “roundtable discussion” said: “Now I have been against mass picketing from the word go in this strike because it wasn’t only an industrial battle we were in but a political battle where we should have tried to argue the case for coal against the Government’s strategy.” Was the South Wales decision to have a strike without a ballot in February 1981 not a ‘political decision’? Was the South Wales action over Lewis Merthyr including Kim Howells’ mass picketing of the Yorkshire coalfield, not also a ‘political decision’? What was Alan’s attitude to Kim Howells and the Welsh District CPGB, of which he was a leading member, which was asked to contact Communists in Yorkshire to organise a mass picket. Weren’t all these pit closures politically planned by the Government in preparation for privatisation? No wonder Capstick said of the round table: “I was sick of the lack of politics in this discussion.”
All this of course was before Kim was selected as a parliamentary candidate against the official nomination of the South Wales NUM. But I understand Terry Thomas is not very upset as he is a political adviser for another Union after he also got a good handshake for early retirement. Another two members of the working class emancipated.
It is often argued that, alongside the question of whether or not the NUM should have held a membership strike ballot in 1984, which I will deal with later, the other major issue that is debatable is whether it was better for the year-long strike to end without a negotiated settlement. South Wales actually called for this position, but Arthur Scargill’s view was that this was the very worst thing possible. Even in 1986 McGahey took the view that South Wales was wrong. But the Special Conference that ended the strike took a different view and, like the democrat that he is, Arthur adhered to his union’s policy. Even so, arguably the miners were in a worse position without even the reaching of a valid settlement.
The NUM did try to get an honourable settlement. What were the talks about in June when there was nearly a settlement to withdraw the closure list? The question of exhaustion of reserves or geological conditions making it impossible for a pit to be ‘mineable’ was never a condition laid down by the NUM. The question then was when a pit was regarded as uneconomical. The massive closure programme of 1992-3 went far beyond this; pits no longer had to be just “profitable”, but profitable enough to attract a buyer when the industry would be run down sufficiently to sell it off. What the Union argued, is that what is today classed as uneconomical could tomorrow become economical. This is the story of the closure of Kinneil colliery in Scotland.
Kinneil was the first pit to fall victim to the most callous and ruthless closure programme, announced only twelve days before the 1982 Christmas and New Year holiday. The Coal Board knew the anger and reaction of the workforce would cause a complete walk out and that they would have difficulties getting support from the other Scottish miners as it would mean the loss of their holiday payment. This is traditionally the time of year when all production targets are smashed and as much overtime as possible is worked to help cover the heavy expenses of the holiday. In spite of the ruthless timing a few days before Christmas, the response of the Kinneil men and their families was magnificent. When the news was broken that the pit was to close, all came out on strike when the last shift came up leaving twelve behind to carry on the struggle with an underground sit-in, which lasted until Christmas day.
I know Mick McGahey welcomed this spontaneous action and along with the National President, Arthur Scargill, would have given full support but unfortunately, in spite of the Scottish leadership touring the coalfield holding pit-head meetings, a special delegate conference decided on December 28 1982 to reject the call for strike action to keep the pit open. This was another blow for miners throughout Britain. As Mick was to remark: “We got support from everywhere bar where it counted, from the Scottish miners.” Just like the ballot in South Wales over Lewis Merthyr. There is one action with which I believe Mick McGahey disagreed and that was the sit-in at this pit. He always claimed that there are only two places you organise a sit-in, either in a butcher’s shop or a pub!
The Board claimed the pit was uneconomical. But they never contested the argument that it was being “developed.” That meant it wasn’t producing coal but driving roads into large and profitable reserves. The timing was deliberate, now they could take on South Wales and Kent. In Yorkshire, like Scotland, the NUM Area had prior mandate of a massive vote to take various forms of industrial action including strike action if necessary, to stop the closure of any pit unless on the grounds of exhaustion. The problem that faced many of these miners was the guarantee of a job and £1,500 disturbance payment. In fact, the first Area to get this disturbance allowance was Yorkshire, negotiated by Area President Arthur Scargill, and some of the men had to travel less miles to their new pit with bigger bonuses.
From 1st November, 1983 there had been an overtime ban. The Board deliberately provoked stoppages, especially in the Manvers, Cortonwood complexes. So the mood throughout the Yorkshire coalfield was running high and one could feel sooner or later the crunch would come. Jack Taylor, President of the Area said: “Only Yorkshire has the muscle the leadership the mandate and a rank-and-file with confidence in that leadership to take the Board on.”
So, when the Area officials met the Divisional Board representatives they were told the days of consultation were over. A “take it or leave it” attitude had taken over. The Board was looking for a 4 million-tonnage cut in capacity and 400,000 tonnes of that was to come from Yorkshire in preparation for privatisation of the industry. What had changed was that the Board was no longer in control and policy was being dictated by the Government. A war cabinet was set up to take on the entire workforce and to try to destroy its Union in preparation for the sell-off. Was the Government now ready to implement the Ridley strategy; that plan the Tories had first elaborated before coming to office, to run down state industries, weaken their trade unions and soften them up for privatisation? Negotiated settlement was never in their vocabulary. They were looking for a complete capitulation, a signed document from the NUM that it was prepared to agree to run down their industry to attract buyers for the few remaining “plums.”
Yes, it was right not to sign Thatcher’s term of “full surrender.” But what would have been wrong was to go back to work and leave hundreds of their colleagues outside the pit gates. Those who still question the timing should ask the Kinneil miners and their families. They would confirm what Tyrone O’Sullivan said at the 1992 NUM conference – there is never a right time, and those who talk about not condemning violence on the picket line, only wanted Arthur Scargill to condemn his members and their families who were defending themselves against police violence.
For the 12 months from March 1984 my life was dominated by one event, the miners’ historic and heroic fight for jobs and the preservation of their communities, which depended on a thriving mining industry. Those of us who were fully involved clearly understood from day one what it was all about and were fully committed to this great, struggle, and, I am sure they will agree, it was a wonderful experience which changed thousands of life-styles, and engendered a new political understanding of the role of the state, the police and the judiciary. A so-called public enterprise, British Coal, controlled by the most ruthless Government, a media including TV crews whose only interest was showing scenes of violence mainly provoked by the police were also seen in a new light. All this was intended to isolate the leadership of the NUM. But they failed. After 52 weeks of struggle the overwhelming majority of Britain’s miners were still on strike. But the witch-hunt didn’t end, especially when the “Daily Mirror” and Central TV’s “Cook Report” made false allegations that Heathfield and Scargill used money donated to the strike, for personal gain.
These allegations were found by the Lightman Report to be “entirely untrue.” Now we are told that there is available documentary evidence showing that in 1985 the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee decree, signed by Mikhail Gorbachov, authorised the payment of £1 million to be paid into a trust fund to build up the Miners Trade Union International Trust Fund, money which Scargill and Heathfield were alleged to have received for British striking miners. No wonder Peter Heathfield and Arthur Scargill were so angry at the NUM Annual Conference. The Inland Revenue and the fraud squad have given them and the NUM “A clean bill of health.” But, unfortunately, too many doubted the assurances of these two leaders and failed to stand firm against this vilification and character assassination. The NEC should have insisted on an internal enquiry, instead of engaging a QC to investigate the allegations at a cost to the Union of nearly three quarters of a million pounds, I am sure many more would now have nothing but contempt for his acceptance of “evidence from faceless people,” as Peter Heathfield said.
How often do we now hear it said: “Scargill was right after all”? In 1984 he said there would be at least 70 pit closures and in 1985 that there would be 50 more closures. In 1987 he predicted that by 1992-93 there would be 20 more closures leaving 50 pits open. In 1991 he was saying that by the second half of the nineties, there would be only 30 pits left unless the government and British Coal were stopped. Arthur is not proud of it but his warnings were absolutely spot on. That’s what the 1984-85 strike was about, not wages, not improved conditions. It was about jobs. It will go down in history as a demonstration that, for the first time, a new generation of the overwhelming majority of the miners, showed they had the guts to resist the ruling class and their attacks. Now we are being told British Coal want another £500m from the government to close another 38 pits and cut more than 30,000 jobs because National Power and Power Gen only want British Coal to supply 30 million tons in the last year of a five-year deal, reducing the industry to 12 pits or fewer by mid-1990’s.
Before I deal with questions such as violence, the Nottinghamshire situation and picketing, I think it vital to point out that there are a number of phenomena about this 12 months’ that were different from any other industrial dispute, in particular the way Women Against Pit Closures blossomed in every coalfield with women joining their husbands or boyfriends on the picket lines, speaking for the first time at public rallies and organising the biggest national demonstration of women, in Barnsley, in May 1984. There was never any conflict between the WAPC and the national officials of the NUM and that’s how it should be. The involvement of miners’ wives, mothers and grandmothers no longer imprisoned in their homes, but enjoying the company and social crack in making sure these strong lads and lassies, after being chased and harassed by the police, were well cared for. Men who were not fit to join the picket were scraping potatoes and preparing the vegetables, then washing up, in many cases a novel experience.
Often for the first time couples found they enjoyed an evening stroll around the reservoir and the woods and the young lads who got up at the crack of dawn enjoyed the whistling and the chirping of the birds they used to curse when they had to go down that dirty, smelly hole. They were now greeting each other with “good morning” a rare expression, looking forward to a good game of football or cricket or a free swim in the public baths after picketing. The young girls went about with stickers on their blouses and children went to school with the same, “Coal not dole” was seen everywhere.
Yes, times were hard but they were also happy days. There were print workers with vans loaded with tons of food and other essentials such as toilet requisites. Such supporters always brought up plenty of money to ensure the lads and lasses and any other persons in the club were well catered for. No longer were the clubs paying hundreds of pounds for weekend entertainment that helped many to qualify for industrial deafness. Now during the day the clubs and welfares were food kitchens and in the evening they were available for charity concerts where the entertainment was magnificent. Excuse me if I name only a few: Mike Harding, Billy Bragg, Roy Bailey, The Campbell Folk Group, Sean Cannon from the Dubliners, who entertained many miners in the local Barnsley pub and Ray Hearne who did the same in Rotherham, and at rallies in Sheffield. The Banner Theatre group travelled all the way from Birmingham to perform freely at any request.
There is one wonderful story I must relate. It is about the world famous UB40 group based in Birmingham, which got their name like thousands more signing on the dole, from the civil service numbering of the unemployment benefit card. I know some of the group’s parents and grandparents very well indeed; the father of Ali and Robin Campbell of UB40 is Ian Campbell, of the renowned “Ian Campbell Folk Group”. Their grandparents, Dave and Betty Campbell, were lovely singers, always willing to help any progressive cause. (I have mentioned them in the context of the ‘Star Club’). Ian and his sister Lorna along with Dave Phillips and Nigel Denver maybe did more than any other group to put folk music on the map and certainly identified it with the peace and protest movement.
I had an idea. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the three generations of the Campbells performing on behalf of the miners’ cause? I phoned Ian and there were no problems of getting Dad, Mum and Lorna to come. But to get the lads, “UB40”, the problem would be the cost of transporting and hiring the necessary equipment. I asked Ian for some estimate, his reply was: “Over a £1,000.”
No problem, but the last person on earth I could ask for such a sum of money was Owen Briscoe, as he could see the once healthy bank account of the NUM going down and down every day. I discussed it with the Barnsley Strike Co-ordinating Committee, which was responsible for paying out thousands of pounds daily to the pickets. They all thought it would be a wonderful venture. The money was no problem. What we would do would be to ask the lads to forego their daily picket allowance of £1 for a week and we would give two tickets for them to take their partner or girl friend. If we charged £20 for other supporters, we could make a few thousand pounds for the strike fund. Where would we be able to accommodate the thousands who would want to attend? Then there was the question of security, traffic and car parking, normally done by the police. In no way could we even consider getting them involved.
The Dorothy Hyman stadium in Cudworth was ideal being owned by the Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council. The leader was Ron Rigby, a miners’ delegate, who always responded to any request to help the miners. When he told the Council treasurer to make available so much money for various demands like providing all kitchen utensils for the civic food centre school uniforms and other necessities, the treasurer would say: “We haven’t budgeted for that Mr Leader.” His stock reply was: “Well put it into next year’s budget.” All the local authorities were magnificent. If money alone could have won this strike, they were the first to respond.
I discussed this venture with Ron Rigby and like many more he thought I was mad, but said: “Go ahead, let me know what your plans are including the role of the police.” That was easy, we would get the traffic wardens to plan the operation and there was plenty of car space at the stadium. The Council would hire and build the platform. The strike committee would steward and the sale of TV transmission rights would cover most of the cost. Wonderful but the best laid plans, even occasionally of Frank Watters, “gang agley”. I phoned Ian and the group were prepared to perform, but it all came to nought I couldn’t understand what went wrong until two years later on holiday in Bulgaria I was enjoying a friendly chat with Ian Ferguson, who was a member of the Yorkshire Strike Co-ordinating Committee. He said he had a confession to make for which I would not give him absolution.
“During the strike, I got a phone call requesting to speak to Mr Scargill. When I enquired who was making this request – the answer was the manager of the UB40 Group and I said: ‘Who the hell are you? Mr Scargill is too busy and anyway he is at Sheffield.’ End of telephone conversation.” That evening Ian was relating the day’s events to his family and casually made remarks about this strange request from someone who called themselves “UB40.” When his teenage daughter and son heard this they went berserk. “Dad – were you really talking to UB40? Do you know who they are?” He told them: “How the hell am I to know every crank that phones up to speak to Arthur Scargill?” “Dad, they are the best and most popular group in this country.”
Jackie Campbell, who was a typical unemployed youth wandering about Birmingham in the 70s with an oversize army coat, would sometimes wander into the Star Social Club out of the rough weather. Now manager of UB40, he was the one who phoned Sheffield NUM headquarters where the administrative officer, Roger Windsor, who finished up on the pay-roll of Robert Maxwell, advised UB40 to go into Leicester, a mainly scab area. This event was a flop because, as it was not a commercial event, it lacked the normal ‘hype’ and publicity and, because most of the miners in that area were working, there were not the same possibilities as we had in Barnsley. That’s another good reason why I detest this former NUM employee who took “pieces of silver” from the thief Maxwell who robbed his workers’ pension fund.
This misunderstanding did not deter the Campbell Folk Group who spent a wonderful weekend in Barnsley entertaining and helping to raise cash for the hardship fund. Betty and Dave Campbell joined them, staying with my dearest friends Harry and Enid Hyde, with whom they built a bond of friendship. Unfortunately both Harry and Dave have died, but I understand Betty is still singing and to the credit of their grandsons who play in “UB40”, none of them have forgotten where they came from.
At a funeral recently in Birmingham Jackie Campbell, now much better dressed, confirmed to me this story about getting the brush off. What an opportunity missed! I understand they did a TV programme, but with grandparents Dave and Betty, Ian and Lorna, Dad and Aunt, along with their famous group UB40, raising money for the miners such an event would have made history.
Now about the issues over which the privileged “hindsighters” claim Scargill made so many mistakes. I am for a critical analysis, but I don’t accept that people like George Bolton, who as a member of a “Broad Left” throughout the dispute, and was part of the decision-making process, has the right to say weeks after the strike: “In my view the NUM could have won a national ballot hands down within days of the Special Conference in Sheffield in April: and there is no doubt in my mind at that time a national ballot would have been decisive for the strike.”
If George thought so at that time why didn’t he raise it at the meetings he was attending that were monitoring the dispute? I can’t remember the question of a ballot until well into the strike. In fact Mick McGahey denounced it as “ballocks.” I was and still am of the opinion that any decision to hold a ballot after the strike started would have been seen as abdication and a way out of a difficult situation by inviting a ‘no’ vote. It should be understood that the NUM had gone through a series of ballots. In 1982, there was a ballot on two issues, pit closures and wages, it was rejected by 125,233 (61%) to 81,592 (30%) with only four areas in favour of a national EC recommendation. Nottinghamshire, by the way, voted 23,488 (70%) against, 6,111 (21%) for. I think that was similar to the Area’s vote in March 1984, when the Yorkshire Area agreed to withdraw its pickets during the period when the vote was being taken.
Then in March 1983 there was another ballot, this time with the National Executive Committee’s unanimous recommendation to give it authority to take industrial action to prevent the closure or partial closure of any pit other than on grounds of exhaustion. The vote again was 118,954 (61%) against 76,540 (39%) in favour. Only four areas voted ‘yes’, these included Scotland (50-50 vote) and Yorkshire (54% yes, 46% no). Nottinghamshire was decisively against with a vote of 23,115 (81%) no and 5,556 (19%) yes. Surely the national leadership had to take this into consideration. The question of a ballot at any time was never a major issue in Yorkshire. Jack Taylor, in March 1985, speaking about the media diverting attention from the central issues that led to the strike, said: “Violence was not and never has been the issue, nor was the need for a ballot.” Maybe the reason is the way the strike was handled in Yorkshire from day one. I have no intention of making any lengthy assessment of what took place early in March 1984 when, at an ordinary review meeting, the Board informed the NUM Area that Cortonwood could close on April 6 1984 with no consultation whatsoever. A qualitative change had taken place. Consultation was out. ‘Take it or leave it’ was the order of the day. In fact the colliery review procedure was becoming a farce. In February 1984 the NEC had before it six pits in the review all awaiting the outcome of local discussions. So, to speed up matters, the Board decided to end ‘local discussions’ and take four million tonnage out of capacity making 20,000 redundant immediately.
Why Cortonwood, and not others that were already in the Review Procedure? Maybe they thought, seeing that Cortonwood was the only pit in Yorkshire that hadn’t supported Arthur Scargill for national president, they could be a ‘soft touch’ and if they got away with it in Yorkshire, as they did at Kinneil in Scotland and Lewis Merthyr in South Wales, they would avoid a national strike. They came unstuck. Cortonwood branch committee met the Yorkshire area officials the following day, March 3 1984, and told them they intended to challenge the Board and called for area support based on the 1981 ballot vote of 85.6% to support any branch that was threatened with pit closure on any grounds other than exhaustion. Cortonwood held a mass meeting that weekend and pledged full support. A special Area Council was called for Monday, March 5 and unanimously decided to take strike action from the last shift on Friday, March 9 “to stop the action of the NCB to butcher our pits and jobs.”
This was followed by a weekend of mass meetings where this was endorsed. So there was a ballot in the manner I have always supported, by “show of hands”, not under the distorting influence of the media and those not involved. The “Daily Mirror,” four weeks after the strike started, gave their front page to Neil Kinnock calling for a ballot. If, instead of calling for a ballot, Mr Kinnock had given full support to Britain’s striking miners, 80 per cent of whom by that time were estimated to be on strike, the outcome might have been very different. This, I am sure, could have been decisive for winning the strike and maybe even resulted in an early General Election under more favourable conditions than 1987.
I can honestly say, that with the benefit of hindsight, I think the situation could have been better handled in Notts. By 1984 the Left in the Nottinghamshire coalfield had made some progress. Henry Richardson was elected as an area official following the unfortunate death of Joe Whelan. Earlier, in 1981 Tony Benn actually won the Nottinghamshire nomination for Deputy Leader of the Labour Party against Denis Healey, losing the overall conference vote by only 0.6 per cent. By this time a number of lefts were holding key positions in a number of the large branches. Their presence on the Area Council and Area EC was reflected by progressive resolutions at the Annual Conference. It was my opinion then, and still is, that in areas like Nottinghamshire that weekend of March 10/11 they should have called special branch meetings and argued for strike action to commence on the Monday, March 12. I am not saying you
would have got the same response as we had in Yorkshire, but at least if a majority for strike was carried in a number of pits, those Nottinghamshire miners could have been used to picket others out. After all, only 10 out of 28 pits in South Wales voted to come out on strike, the remainder had to be picketed. But, it was the South Wales miners that were picketing their colleagues.
But neither this, nor the Yorkshire decision to picket Nottinghamshire, were major factors in the area’s rejection of strike action. When Henry Richardson said: “The Yorkshire picket won’t help,” my reaction was: “You will lose the ballot hands down and you and the left on the Area Council will become isolated.” To their credit many, including the two Left area officials, put up a good battle and those on strike for twelve months, along with their families, suffered more than any other section. The other problem that didn’t help to stabilise the Nottinghamshire Area was that in the first few days of the dispute there seemed to be no consistent leadership. I can understand Henry Richardson’s problem, especially with the benefit of hindsight since Lynk, Prendergast and Greatorex later proved where they really stood when they set up the breakaway UDM. Greatorex should never have been elected in the first place; a combination of opportunism and lack of discipline within the left resulting in a split Left vote let him win.
Now, on violence; yes, there was violence and anyone involved at Saltley and Orgreave knows it and I witnessed it on both occasions. I wrote an article for the Morning Star on the 20th Anniversary of Saltley Gate on “The Bloodiest Battle” at Orgreave, which will go down in history as the blackest chapter in any industrial dispute. From day one the police were in high profile. The day the Yorkshire Area was due to be sequestrated, the pickets started to assemble outside the Barnsley offices. In a military style of intimidation, hundreds of police had been sent into Barnsley for a dress rehearsal of how to provoke a peaceful picket to see how their mad dogs would act.
That afternoon we were waiting for information that the Court had decided to send in the Receiver. Suddenly, a policeman grabbed one of the pickets and was about to march him up to the cells in Barnsley – for absolutely nothing. I tell you I have never seen a scrum in any rugby match like what took place. I am not exaggerating. For at least 50 yards this continued with police helmets all over the road. More police arrived with dogs, a reserve team parked near a parapet wall outside the miners’ offices. The lads stood on the wall and if Jack Taylor hadn’t intervened, the van and the police would have landed upside down. The outcome was that during the battle, a group of police managed to get the picket through the ranks and took him to the Barnsley Police headquarters not far from this battlefield. The police by then knew that, in spite of their dogs, they were on to a loser. Anyone who has to handle tons of iron girders is good in any scrum. Result, the lad was set free without any charge – victory number one, but there were not many more.
Within one month over 300 Yorkshire miners had been arrested and by September 1984, nearly 2,000 members faced criminal charges. By the end of the strike it was nearly 4,000 out of nearly 10,000 nationally. Six years later, 39 miners were awarded over £500,000 in an out of Court settlement by the police over false prosecution and imprisonment, and many sacked miners are still victims of those false accusations. The Chief Constable in charge admitted that the “Battle at Orgreave was politically vital for the outcome of this dispute.” I just wish others would have understood the same and maybe we could have been able to record a different story, perhaps more like Saltley’s outcome.
With willing support from the judiciary, which imposed draconian bail conditions on miners throughout the 12 months of the strike, the police pushed back the frontiers of public order policing to the point where civil liberties were infringed. Free movement was denied to miners, who were stopped at roadblocks to prevent them moving from one county to another, although they had been guilty of no crimes. A non-statutory body, the Association of Chief Police Officers, set up an unauthorised de facto national police force, with its own co-ordinating centre staffed by senior officers at New Scotland Yard. From there they wrote their own laws as they went along, to suit their own strategy with scant regard for the constraints of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
Under this ad hoc ‘legislation’ miners from Kent were turned back from the Dartford Tunnel under pain of arrest, simply on the grounds that on the whim of an individual police officer they were suspected of heading north to Yorkshire or Nottinghamshire, where they might be expected to engage in picketing, which could just possibly lead to a breach of the peace.
With the miners tied down in this fashion, the police were then free to turn their attention to their main objective of breaking the strike in the Yorkshire stronghold. Thousands of officers were drafted in from forces as far away as London and the Thames Valley to impose a reign of terror in pit villages like Armthorpe, Grimethorpe, Rossington, Goldthorpe and Maltby.
Many of these villages still bear the scars of this oppression and many innocent bystanders were caught up in indiscriminate violent attacks which the police waged on individuals simply because they thought they might be striking miners. One such innocent bystander was eventually awarded £60,000 out of court settlement by the South Yorkshire Police Force in recognition of the fact that he had been reduced to a nervous wreck, his life effectively destroyed, after he was viciously attacked as he stood in his own front garden. Many other cases never came to court and for some it was too late for any sort of justice, however flawed.
One who paid the ultimate price was David Jones, who died on his 25th birthday while picketing at Ollerton Colliery in Nottinghamshire, within days of the beginning of the strike. The cause of his death was never satisfactorily explained. A father of two young children from South Kirkby near Pontefract, David was of only small build, but he was fit. Stopped at a roadblock on the way to picket, he and his mates had covered the last seven miles on foot, travelling cross-country to avoid police patrols. But cars left unattended in isolated places were often vandalised. In some cases it was the police themselves who were not averse to putting their truncheons through pickets’ car windscreens, but when they were not themselves involved they often turned a blind eye. It is believed David had been told that his car was being attacked and he began to run back towards it when he suddenly collapsed. An eyewitness, 23-year-old Errol Palmer from Doncaster, said: “We were walking away from the main gate when he was hit by a brick and collapsed.” Home Office pathologist, Dr Stephen Jones, said that the Yorkshire miner “could have come into contact with a solid object such as a wheel, post or vehicle.” If it was a brick or a piece of timber that delivered the fatal blow it was never explained where any such object had come from or who might have thrown it.
As soon as the news got back to Yorkshire, the NUM Area leaders set off for the pit and by four o’clock in the morning Arthur Scargill was at the scene appealing for calm among the pickets and calling for a two minute silence for David. The police doffed their helmets and stood with the pickets. In the House of Commons, the same day Home Secretary Leon Britton denounced what he called the miners’ “disgraceful and horrifying mob rule.” Shadow Home Secretary, Gerald Kaufman, accused him of deliberately inflaming the dispute prompted by Mrs Thatcher herself.
Three months later, on June 15 1984, the Yorkshire miners lost another stalwart supporter when Joe Green, a 55-year-old miner from Kellingley, died under the wheels of a lorry while picketing at Ferrybridge power station. The picket was actually being supplied that day by miners from Fryston Colliery but Joe, who lived nearby, had, typically, gone down to offer his support. He was trying to speak to the driver of a picket-breaking lorry when he was struck down. Howard Wadsworth, who was Branch Delegate from Kellingley at the time, said: “There is no doubt that when Joe died Arthur Scargill lost one of his most ardent supporters. Joe attended all the local meetings whenever Arthur was speaking and he lived and breathed his campaign.” Joe is remembered at Kellingley by a special brass plaque over the branch banner cabinet.
In these early days of the strike mass picketing was having an effect. In the Midlands, the Coal Board admitted: “In South Derbyshire, Warwickshire and Leicestershire we have 11 pits and nine of them have been brought to a standstill by pickets”, but they refused to say which two were supposed to be working normally. Nationally, all but 26 of the country’s 174 pits were stopped either by strike vote or by picketing.
Then the High Court decided that flying pickets were unlawful. But neither this nor the tragic death of David Jones had any effect on the determination of the Yorkshire miners, whose Area Executive agreed to “continue the normal established trade union practices to win solidarity for our members.” Flying pickets were to continue despite the threat of heavy fines or imprisonment. Dave Douglass, from Doncaster, said: “There is only one law in this dispute – don’t cross picket lines.”
In the first few weeks of the strike, the Nottingham miners demanded their own area strike ballot but until it took place most of their pits were picketed out by Yorkshire miners. Then the Nottingham leader, Ray Chadburn, agreed with the Yorkshire leaders and the National President that all the Nottingham pits would strike for the week of the ballot if the flying pickets were withdrawn.
But once the pickets were withdrawn they were never allowed to return. The right-wingers in Nottingham won their anti-strike vote and the police then played their part escorting working miners to and from the pits and preventing pickets moving into the area. Labour Leader Neil Kinnock echoed Thatcher’s own line that intimidation of those who wanted to work must not be allowed to win. Then the black propaganda machine was put into overdrive to denounce “picket line violence”, although Arthur Scargill himself always appealed to his members to act responsibly and anybody who witnessed the bloody battle of Orgreave could have no doubts about where the violence started.
Personally, I remember after the Grunwick strike in London when Arthur Scargill was acquitted after the Morning Star photographer was able to provide evidence that the police themselves provoked him by pushing him into the street. At Saltley too, I know that police had their own agents provocateurs in the crowd, pushing miners in front of lorries. Whether or not police were involved in the tragic death of David Jones will never be known. All that can be safely said is that in my own experience whenever the police have stepped out of their normal “peace-keeping” role and taken an overtly political stance on behalf of one side or the other violence almost inevitably ensues.
Another criticism levelled at the miners’ leaders was that they did not make sufficient efforts to involve the churches and the wider community in their campaign. Writing in Marxism Today in the month that the strike ended, Pete Carter said: “Support from the bishops and the churches should have been worked for and welcomed, not met with derision as it was in some quarters.” At the same time George Bolton was saying that the churches almost had to force themselves on the scene, with interventions from leaders like the Bishop of Durham. They might just as well have added that the Queen herself was reported to be distressed by the economic and social mayhem, which was rending Britain as a result of this the longest, bitterest national industrial dispute of her reign.
Mrs Thatcher herself flew up to Scotland for an audience with the monarch to put her mind at rest and to tell her why she had instructed the Coal Board to take a tough line on its pit closure programme. Thirsting for revenge for the humiliation of the Tory Party in 1974, Thatcher knew that any just settlement of the dispute would be seen as a victory for Arthur Scargill and that was the one thing she was not prepared to countenance, whatever the cost.
The same weekend as Thatcher’s visit to Scotland, the Coal Board met the NUM leaders for secret talks which led to a formula that might have provided the basis for an honourable settlement. But the Coal Board chairman, Ian MacGregor, was behaving oddly, or perhaps even more oddly than usual. For the first 15 minutes he appeared to be in some kind of trance, never uttering a word. Peter Heathfield remarked later that at one stage he thought to himself: “Either this man is dead or my watch has stopped.” But, as soon as the possibility of a settlement loomed, MacGregor became positively animated. He darted out of the room. Scargill made his own excuses and left the room as well to see what the artful old dodger was up to and came across him breathing heavily down a public telephone in the hotel foyer. He gratuitously volunteered the information that he was telephoning his sister. Scargill’s reply was typically pithy and laconic: “I didn’t know you had a sister in Downing Street.”
Whoever’s sister he was talking to, the telephone conversation marked a watershed in the talks that then went rapidly downhill all the way. Whatever the Coal Board itself wanted, Thatcher was determined there would be no settlement, irrespective of the Queen’s concern for her suffering subjects. With a few honourable exceptions, I saw little sign that the hierarchy of the established church had any real understanding of the politics of the dispute. The Bishop of Sheffield spoke out before and during the strike about the social consequences of pit closures and at many local levels of the churches there was genuine distress at the poverty caused by the dispute. Wherever such concern was in evidence, it did provide a basis for an alliance between the local churches and their own communities.
Many of these local clergy had good solid working class backgrounds themselves and they worked tirelessly throughout the dispute, collecting and distributing food and, in some cases, ministering to their flocks on the picket lines themselves. One who springs to mind is Father Rodney Marshall from Goldthorpe, whom I got to know through his tireless support of the local mining community during the strike and who I am proud to say is still a very good friend. At one stage there were a few of my more cynical friends who, fearing a Pygmalion syndrome, were concerned that my close association with him would result in my returning to the fold and re-embracing the old family faith. In the event it worked the other way! Rodney eventually left his parish in Goldthorpe and is now doing a first class job in Chesterfield helping his erstwhile flock to cope with the traumas of the aftermath of the pit closure programme and the massive local unemployment it brought in its wake. Same customers, same problems, just a different approach to dealing with them.
The end of the strike was heralded with mixed feelings. True, there was no way it could have been regarded as an industrial victory, but the end, twelve months after it began, was a beautiful March morning I shall always remember with pride. The pensioners were up before their wardens’ calls that morning, standing in their doorways to greet this new generation who had stood up to a ruthless government, daily battling with police, facing violence, arrest and imprisonment. Now they were marching back to work as they had come out – together.
I walked a good few miles with the Houghton Main and Dearne Valley branches, setting off from a rallying point at a working men’s club in Darfield. Beside me was a woman I had known since she was a girl. She was the manageress at the pit canteen and she had been out from day one. She was crying when we set off, but the sight of the pensioners in their nightclothes cheering from their doorsteps soon turned her tears of bitterness to tears of pride. “I don’t know if I shall be manageress for very much longer,” she said, “but I don’t care. I would do it all again.”
Management at some pits wasted no time in asserting themselves, refusing to allow the day shift down the pit because they were late. It was a beautiful day and these lads were savouring the memories of the previous year of fresh air with the summer sun on their backs, many of them for the first time since they had left school. They were in no mood to accept petty management diktats so they turned round and walked straight back out again.
Some, indeed, stayed out even longer in support of sacked colleagues. Some of those sacked miners are still outside the gates, victimised by vindictive managements. Thousands more have since been made redundant as the pit closure programme accelerated after the strike. David Jones and Joe Green did not even get that option.
An eyewitness in Armthorpe:
My old friend from the 1950s, Eric Browne, retired Armthorpe miner and former pit delegate, still active in the trade union movement (Eric has since died), has been good enough to contribute his own recollections of Armthorpe life during the strike., which follows:
“They’re `ere” By Eric Browne:
“Rumours about scabs going in at Markham had been confirmed for the branch by a mole we had in the management team. Management’s removal of the pit gates was another pointer, though it provided a source of great amusement for the pickets at the time.
“An under-manager who was renowned among the men for being a complete idiot arrived at the gates with a van full of oxyacetylene equipment and proceeded to burn through the hinges. When he had done and the gates were laid on the ground somebody unkindly pointed out to him that a hammer and a cold chisel would have been sufficient to knock the heads off the pins and the hinges would have been there for future use. Not that they ever used the hinges again at Armthorpe. Some of the lads say that the gates across the entrance to Downing Street are our old pit gates because they were never seen on our premises again!
One evening the police attempted to remove the permanent picket by force but we rushed reinforcements in and, outnumbered, the police withdrew. The following morning we wanted a mass picket from 4 am and, with no police in sight, the surface men entered the yard, started up the mobile crane and moved concrete bollards from the car park and strung them across the pit entrance. The crane was then immobilised. By chance a gang of council ‘workmen were repairing the village main street and we persuaded them to park their vehicles in the pit entrance. Road roller, macadam spreader, tractor, trailer the pit entrance was rammed.
At the beginning of the strike the manager had said that no picket would keep him out of his pit but when, at 9 am, he arrived leading the management team convoy of cars they took one look and shot off towards Doncaster. We had men in cars posted at every entrance to the village and at about 11.30 we had a report that police were massing at the water tower. When, to shouts of “They’re ‘Ere”, they entered the village over the railway ridge in a convoy three abreast, about 100 vans, and drove straight up to the pit entrance. As soon as they stopped, the sun was blotted out by a huge barrage of bricks, boulders, fencing, nothing that was not nailed down rained down on the vans.
The doors opened and the cops spewed out in all sorts of gear and carrying baseball Its. They formed up and charged the lads who scattered through the streets of the village. People who had not been involved were now at their garden gates, brought out by the uproar, and a lot of them were telling the pickets to run into their houses to escape the police who were by then on a rampage and completely out of control. Where they saw lads going into houses they charged up the paths and into the houses, knocking people out of their road and shouting down any protests from the owners. A lot of people were injured. One widow, lrene Kennedy, who had three sons on the picket line, was standing behind the kitchen door when police kicked it in, trapping her against the wall. When the lads in the house tried to help her they were told: “Leave the old cow alone and let her die.” Mrs Kennedy was in hospital for thee days with concussion and a suspected fractured skull. It was only after the strike was over that she received compensation and a letter of apology.
The pickets scattered all over the village, some of them running into Shaw Wood only to be chased out again by mounted police. By then the village was occupied by the police, their vans covering the road between the railway bridge and the pub, a distance of about 600 yards. They allowed no one in or out of the village and spent until late afternoon searching for pickets.
From that day until the end of the strike police were in permanent occupation of the pt and the village and their vans patrolled round the clock. At night they carried torchlights, which they shone into the bedroom windows and anyone found on the street who was unable to give a satisfactory answer to their questions was hauled off to the pit holding room until someone could be found to vouch for them.
They did not have it all their own way, though. A lot of vans were ambushed and there was always a safe house nearby for the lads to slip into and none were ever arrested. During the occupation no shop, pub or club would serve a copper. They all said the same thing: “We will still have to live here when you lot have gone.”
Once they even tried to stop a funeral because it had been arranged for the same time the scab bus was due to leave the pit. We warned the officer in charge that if we spread the word there would be trouble from the whole village and, sensibly, he delayed the departure of the scab bus.
All their efforts were designed to force scabs into the pit. Armthorpe was known as a union stronghold and their idea was that if the men went in there the strike would be lost. The day the police arrived in force one scab went in at about 4 pm and stayed for half an hour. By the end of the twelve months 22 scabs were going in; two coal face workers, one development worker, two fitters, two electricians, one materials man, six office staff and an ambulance room attendant. The rest were area salvage and development men, none of whom worked at Markham.
On the day the strike started a miner was transferred from Brodsworth. He was known by the nickname of Chicken George and because he thought nobody knew him he decided to scab. Of course we got to know and we phoned him and told him we were aware of what he was up to. He squirmed about, making all sorts of excuses and finally came up with the bright idea that we should let him go in so that he could keep us informed of what was going on in the pit. We reminded him we had our sources of information. How did he think we had got to know about him? He started shouting and calling the union all the usual crap, so we left him to it. Then one morning about a week later the manager sent for the Branch Secretary to tell him he had sacked one of our members for stealing. To our delight it was Chicken George. ‘We did think of sending off to the Guinness Book of Records to see if it was the only recorded case of a man getting the sack from a pit at which he had never worked. “
I am grateful to Eric for this first hand account but he has not told one of the funniest events of the Armthorpe occupation. Once a year, on her birthday, Eric’s wife, Dot, had the title ‘Lady Dorothy of Armthorpe’ bestowed upon her by family and friends. When this annual occasion came around during the siege of her manor she decided she could not let it pass unmarked so she went to inspect her “troops” on parade at the pit. Armed with a bag of five pence pieces from the club, she introduced herself to the inspector in charge. He was somewhat bemused but, sensing that this “Lady” enjoyed the respect and affection of the pickets, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and, to avoid any aggravation before the arrival of the scab transport which was imminent, he left her alone.
Dot marched up and down the ranks of sullen looking “Guards”, pressing the “Queen’s shilling” on each of them in turn. Within earshot of the inspector she remarked to the pickets: “These are a funny lot. Some of them are not much taller than me and I am only four foot five! Some of them have no numbers on their uniforms so I can’t make any recommendations about their scruffy boots and clothes but some of them look as if they are more used to survival training in the hills and these short back and sides are a disgrace.”
It took “Lady Dorothy” some time to carry out her inspection and the inspector was obliged to delay the arrival of the scabs who were eventually sped through the lines in a police van.
Chapter 19 The Euros’ Role from 1984
It is now nearly nine years since the Miners’ Strike. I have no
intention of trying to write the definitive story as I haven’t access
to the necessary vital documents. Perhaps Democratic Left, the
successor (of a kind!) to the CPGB will one day reveal, in the spirit
of assessing its history, with more clarity what really happened at
the EC meeting the weekend before the strike began. (After Frank wrote these words, a much-reduced Democratic Left was also dissolved after only a few years, morphing into a `politics network’. The resources of the CPGB, worth some £4.5 million were liquidated and taken into ephemeral `new politics’ think tanks.)
By this time the Marxism Today stable was well in control. The Editor of this
theoretical journal, Martin Jacques, had imposed a ban on `leading’
Communists being allowed to express the views of the Party, so we
can’t find many answers there. Pete Carter was Industrial Organiser:
Tony McNally, Midlands District Secretary. In Yorkshire Bill Innes was
virtually in charge, waiting for Dave Priscott to retire; Nina Temple
was being paraded as Gordon McLennan’s successor as General Secretary;
all of them associated with the theory that “The Forward March of
Labour had been halted,” or if not halted, the advance certainly
checked. How was it possible for the Party to play a leading role
in such a struggle with the Euro-Communists in control and caught on
this wrong theoretical foot?
My first experience of where it became evident that the CPGB was not fully
committed to the miners was at the Yorkshire District Committee
meeting in March 1984 when Bill Innes, from the Marxism Today
stable, made it clear that in his opinion it was the wrong time and
the wrong issue. A member of the EC, Janie Glenn from Hull, in her
contribution spoke about “male violence”. I wish she had joined the
miners’ wives on the picket lines. She would have discovered that the
police were not concerned with gender. Greg Douglas, a full-time
official in the Construction Section of the AUEW claims he could see
my hair rising like a peacock’s tail. He passed a note to me, which
said: “What do you think of that for a politician?” I replied: “You
have left out the words ‘so-called’ politician.” Beatrix Campbell writing
in the New Statesman in March 1985, the month the strike finished,
said: “This is the strike that both the hard right and the hard left
wanted.” Yet, Jack Taylor, President of the Yorkshire NUM, in his
Annual Report in March 1985 on behalf of all area officials said:
“This Union did not want to take strike action. It would, however,
have been a complete abrogation of responsibility had we not taken up
the gauntlet thrown down by the Board.” This is where the strike
originated from and not from the National Union Office.
Another incident convinced me that the CPGB was not fully in
support of the strike. No effort was made in Yorkshire to involve
other industrial comrades. Roy Rix, the full-time organiser for South
Yorkshire, who lived in Barnsley, was never seen on a picket line in
that area. In fact, when we were getting battered from pillar to post
and from tree to tree at Orgreave, he was sitting in his office
listening to an up-to-date report on the radio. The late Percy Riley,
whose untimely death was hastened by long hours collecting on the
streets for the miners’ relief fund in Sheffield in every kind of
weather, wrote to the Yorkshire District CPGB complaining about a
scurrilous attack on Arthur Scargill at the South Yorkshire Area
Committee in July 1984, which claimed that Arthur Scargill was the
main obstacle to getting the Yorkshire miners back to work. Guilty on
all counts! But where did this idea come from?
It certainly wasn’t any original thought from Roy Rix, but that same weekend Pete Carter was in Sheffield and Dr Kim Howells was in Durham advocating the same
line. This was only weeks before the TUC was due to meet, with five
resolutions in support of the miners on the agenda. In his letter Percy said: “It is
my opinion that the Area Secretary is out of touch with the situation
in the coalfield”. He was never in touch because he, like the other
Euro-Communists, was opposed to the strike. They used Scargill as their
whipping boy although the policy and decisions were made by the Troika
, which included Mick McGahey. In such circumstances one would have
thought that the District Secretary, Dave Priscott, a member of the
EC of the CPGB, would have acted to set the record straight if these
attacks were not Party policy.
Then we had the run-up to the TUC. Pete Carter had gone away for a
long holiday, so little or nothing was being done to get together the
comrades attending Congress. The five resolutions were by this time
all outdated. What was needed was a statement from the General Council
pledging full support for the miners. In such circumstances one would
have expected a get-together of the lefts, including the three NUM
leaders, with the industrial department taking the initiative. This
was not done. In fact the strike was into its ninth month before Mick McGahey
was able to get Gordon McLennan and Pete Carter to meet Scargill and
Following the dispute, Marxism Today organised a round-table
discussion on The Miners’ Strike. Ken Capstick from Yorkshire was
invited and just couldn’t believe how much out of touch the
representatives of the CPGB were, including the Chairman, Dave Priscott.
If Ken had known what it was all about he would never have
participated. The main purpose was to prepare for an NUM “Palace
Revolt”, whereby Scargill would be de-throned. It being claimed that
things were alright in Scotland and Wales, but that nationally they
needed an alternative “left” excluding Scargill and Heathfield. I am
sure they hoped to catch the big fish, Yorkshire, when Pete Carter had
a long discussion with Jack Taylor, President of the Yorkshire NUM. I
would love to have been a fly on the wall.
Charles Leadbeater of the
Financial Times, and also a member of Marxism Today Editorial Board,
wrote: “The first move to establish an alternative strategy was
launched by Pete Carter, the Communist Party’s Industrial Organiser.
This will reflect views of the Scottish and South Wales NUM. They
could provide the basis for left, centralist and right wing executive
members uniting around a common strategy.” This would have resulted
in pit level negotiations, which would have taken the industry back to
Under their plan the National Union would primarily service
the areas with research. The UDM members would be readmitted into the
NUM, guaranteeing an effective challenge to the left-wing leaders who
would be compelled to stand for re-election. Guess who was first on
Pete’s list? This was the stuff that Carter tried to peddle at a
Special Party Congress that took place in May 1985, where the main item
was his assessment of the strike. But it never saw the light of day, perhaps another reason for the need for full honesty about the CPGB’s recent history.
So we had a situation where the Industrial Organiser in charge of
giving advice was rejected by those receiving the guidance. No wonder
there was confusion and embarrassment when loyal Communists, who had
worked so hard to defend the Party’s policies, were faced with the
stark reality that the Party’s role nationally had been nothing less
than diabolical. This of course was not true about most rank-and-file
members. In fact I had been so proud when many of our miners returning
from London had high praise for so many Communists, especially for the
help they had received when visiting the Morning Star building.
The left split widened after the strike and, as Peter Heathfield
in his final speech at the 1992 NUM Conference said: “I can understand
the attacks from our class enemies, but when members of the CP join
in, it hurts. This was a Party whose analytical powers and strategic
vision were unique. Always they could be relied upon to heal the
divisions within the left and they were highly respected for their
organisational capacity, but the division within our ranks to which
Arthur and I have been subject is an act of humiliation for which the
CPGB hold a major responsibility.” Nowhere is that more true than on
the run up to the election of the National Vice President, when Mick
McGahey was due to retire in 1987.
What is interesting about the run-up to the selection of a left
candidate to replace Mick McGahey was the role of Neil Kinnock and
Eric Clarke, who was Secretary of the Broad Left in the NUM. Alongside the “centrists”, and “right-wing” on the NUM NEC,
the Party had another ally, none other than the Labour leader, Neil
Kinnock. After the Durham Miners’ Gala in 1986 in a report headed:
“Labour Unity attack paves way for NUM Palace Revolution”, The
Observer of 13 July 1986 said: “Kinnock backs left move to strip
Scargill of power.” The opening shot for the palace revolution was the campaign for
the election of Eric Clarke, Scottish NUM Secretary, to take over from
Mick McGahey as National Vice President. Scargill would be a prisoner
and Eric’s victory would be seen as an “Anti-Scargill vote”.
John Walsh, by then on the NEC of the NUM, was only 47 years old.
The fact that he polled 70,571 against Peter Heathfield’s 74,186 in
the election for General Secretary of the NUM made him a strong
challenger. But, Johnny knew there were two candidates in Yorkshire
eligible to stand, Jack Taylor, President, and Sammy Thompson, General
Secretary of the Yorkshire Area NUM. If either of these two stood,
Johnny would not be able to repeat his impressive performance against
Peter as he wouldn’t win the Yorkshire vote. Johnny by this time was
also part of the inner circle of the anti-Scargill brigade.
The Scottish District of the CPGB had met and decided that George
Bolton should replace Mick McGahey. After all, since the NUM was
formed in 1948, there had always been a member of the Communist Party
as one of the top three officials – and before it a similar prominence
existed in the pre-war Miners Federation of Great Britain. This of
course created problems. How could right-wing members of the NEC like
Trevor Bell of the white-collar section, win support for George
Bolton, who was now Chairman of the CPGB? This is where Neil Kinnock
stepped in to get “unity” around a left candidate, “to pave the way
for the palace revolution”, planned that weekend in Durham over an
early morning cup of tea shared by representatives of the some of the “left”
within the Broad Left of the NUM.
The Communist Party had to do a turn-around, forgo any chance of a
position within the NUM’s national triumvirate. On the weekend of
20/21 September 1986 the CPGB organised a weekend school with Hywel Francis as tutor. But no Party miner in Yorkshire was informed and,
because of very poor attendance, instead of Hywel Francis’ paper being
discussed, they decided to change course and consider the
Vice-Presidential election and, in the light of Kinnock’s
intervention, backed Eric Clarke. This was the beginning of a real split in the “left” in the NUM.
Following that weekend school, the CPGB leadership took over the driving seat in Eric’s campaign. Soon the Press went to
town: “NUM election set to register opinion on Scargill”, read one headline; “Unity candidate to topple Scargill”, said another. One would have thought it was Clarke versus Scargill rather than Clarke versus Thompson. What must be
remembered is that Eric, who was Secretary of the Broad Left, promised
his colleagues that he would call a meeting to decide on how to retain
the Troika for the left. Finally, a meeting took place early in 1987
in Sheffield, which supported Sammy’s candidature, a decision not
accepted by the CPGB leadership as they wanted an anti-Scargill candidate.
The election took place with four candidates. Sammy polled 34,796
to Eric’s 25,956. Big disappointment for the Glasgow Herald, which had
forecast a victory for Clarke. But, most important, the decision to
set up the so-called “alternative left,” embracing “centrist and
right-wing executive members” resulted in the genuine left and many
rank-and-filers blaming the Party for creating disunity in the NUM at
a crucial time by its decision to campaign openly against Sammy
What happened next, after Sammy died, was even worse and led to
further isolation of the Party and the so-called “left” dragging
Scotland and South Wales into alliance with traditional right-wing
areas like Leicester, North Wales, Power Group and COSA, who then
began to work more openly together.
Shortly after the TUC in September 1988, the Yorkshire Post
carried a story: “Candidates prepare for NUM job battle.” Eric Clarke
from Scotland was again the “Unity” candidate. There were strong
divisions among the “57 varieties”. Quite correctly, Trevor Bell
argued strongly for Johnny Walsh as the best nationally known and
tested anti-Scargill candidate. But again Scotland and South Wales had
problems. Not in supporting Johnny and accepting Trevor Bell’s
argument, but how were they to sell Johnny when they had campaigned
against him for both President and General Secretary of the NUM? So
they settled for Eric.
This new alliance was embraced by the Jim Conway Foundation, which
claims an interest in providing educational activities for the whole
movement. The Foundation also found itself involved in the internal
politics of the Soviet Trade Unions. The AEU sponsored one of the Vorkuta miners on a visit to Britain. Oddly, Terry Fields MP and Militant were originally in support, but even more revealingly, Searchlight, the anti-fascist research journal,
has exposed the links with the so-called ”Popular Labour Alliance”,
the NTS organisation. So named from its Russian initials, this
fervently anti-communist, subversive group has been operative in the
Soviet Union from the war years. Searchlight reported in June 1982,
that NTS “openly collaborated with Hitler’s invading armies. After the
war NTS quickly became little more than a covert CIA operation.”
George Miller of NTS regularly met émigrés from East Europe at
airports in the West, seemingly being extraordinarily well informed
about such things! As for the Vorkuta miners, Miller quickly put them
in touch with the “right” people – in particular Roy Lynk, leader of
the UDM. Miller offered the prospect of introducing Viktor Yakolev,
the delegate from Vorkuta on the tour of Britain, to the Jim Conway
Foundation and to big business with the view of obtaining £100,000 in funding.
Sadly, a number of left Labour MPs and others were originally
conned into being supportive of Yakolev, but he who pays the piper
calls the tune!! As much of this became clear the Vorkuta delegation
refused to meet the NUM, also being widely quoted in the British media
as endorsing privatisation and a return to the capitalist road. Many
rightly deserted this odd alliance.
To put the final nail in the coffin of this intrigue, Bill
Ronksley, Secretary of the Sheffield Trades Council, when meeting with
V Zharikov, the Head of the International Department of the Soviet
TUC in June 1990, was able clearly to establish that the body
represented by Yakolev was not a genuine trade union as such. Zharikov
in that interview also rightly predicted that the established trade
union movement would rapidly change from its historic role of being
almost an organ of the state in the world of production into something
more akin to our own experience.
Since the disastrous Russian coup attempt of August 1991, an
entirely new situation has emerged. It is now clear that the
established unions are the main defence force of the working class and
the realignment of the left, taking place upon the effective
dissolution of the CPSU is now providing new opportunities for
advance. Nevertheless, this experience of the NTS, the JCF and
probable CIA interference in the affairs of the Labour Movement in the
former Soviet Union has important lessons for us. The enemies of
progressive change are no less active in Britain than they are
I am sure people like Arthur Horner, Will Paynter, Abe Moffatt,
Jock Kane, Sammy Taylor, Joe Whelan and especially, Tommy Degnan,
would be turning in their graves if they knew how the movement had
been manipulated and subverted.
Chapter 20 “Frank, Finish” – the CPGB disciplines me
Alongside the miners’ strike there was another major issue which
concerned me during 1984 and 1985 and that was the split between the
Morning Star and the CPGB. Both were facing a crisis. The Party was losing membership and the
paper was losing readers. The Party had split into two main factions,
one supporting the Morning Star and its policy of reflecting the aims
of the British Road to Socialism which had been agreed at the 1977
Congress, and the other grouped around Marxism Today which was
increasingly demonstrating its own revisionist tendencies; although they were generally called “Euro-Communists”, or “Euros” for short, there was increasingly little Communism in their thinking.
Reuben Falber, at one time Communist Party National Organiser, had previously
complained about leading Communists being banned by the editor of
Marxism Today from writing in the magazine. The editor had also
admitted that he had been unable to support Congress policies since
the early 1980s and that he had never accepted the redraft of the
One would have thought the miners’ strike would have provided the
motivation for both sides to bury their differences in order to unite
all those who were calling for an end to Thatcherism. I am not
suggesting that those differences should have been swept under the
carpet but they could have been minimised and fought out within the
Party. After all, we would have had plenty of time to sort things out
after the strike, but the miners could not delay their strike, as it
was not of their making. Instead of a campaign to support the miners
with both factions uniting around the common cause of the defeat of
Thatcherism we had open warfare in the Party around the role of the
Morning Star, with calls for the sacking of the paper’s editor and
Outside the Party everybody agreed that the paper was doing a
magnificent job for the miners, covering meetings and rallies, and it
won praise from the miners’ leaders themselves. Some leading comrades who might have played a more conciliatory
role, instead joined in the witch-hunt which led to the expulsion of
lifelong members just because they refused to accept the dictatorship
of an Executive Committee dominated by Euros who, having removed the
Morning Star Editor and deputy editor from the Executive, were then
seeking their dismissal, so they could be replaced by their own
With Editor Tony Chater and deputy editor Dave Whitfield removed
from the Executive, the Party then failed to provide the means by
which it could have been ensured that Party policy was properly
reflected in the paper. Whenever Party rules conflicted with the
Euros’ aims the rules were simply ignored.
Nobody can wage internecine warfare like the Euros could and
heaven help anybody caught in the crossfire. I innocently strayed into
this battlefield because of my support for the Morning Star and I soon
found myself joining the hundreds who were removed from office or
finally expelled. It soon became obvious that this group were never
concerned with saving the Party or the paper or in supporting the
miners. Given hindsight, I hope that those who claim they were aware
of the two camps will join in the demands for the publication of the
minutes of the leadership meetings.
We could have been fighting on two fronts, giving priority to the
miners’ struggle. The Party had been in a similar position in 1939
when fascism was sweeping across Europe. Some comrades thought then
that it provided an ideal opportunity to settle their differences with
their own ruling class, not realising that a victory for fascism
elsewhere would have been a major world setback. Others recognised
that threat and argued for a fight on both fronts with the priority
going to the defeat of fascism. History has shown they were right and
I believe it will also exonerate those of us who argued that it was
wrong to sideline the miners’ struggle.
I believe a political rather than an administrative solution to
the dispute over the paper’s editorial control was possible.
The paper’s Management Committee proposed that Tony Chater and Dave Whitfield
should be invited to the Political Committee when the Executive was discussing
matters that they wanted reflected in the Morning Star editorial.
There should also be regular meetings between the paper’s editor and
the Party General Secretary. The Executive, under the Euros’ control,
rejected this formula and the Party and the paper were set for a long
confrontation which neither could afford and which neither side could
win. It is important here to appreciate that the Morning Star was not
(and is not!) the property of any party, but owned by a self-governing
co-operative, based upon equal voting rights of voluntary share
holders. Whilst owing editorial allegiance to Communist politics the
paper was always designed to be a focus for the left, in particular
the left in the trade union movement.
A special management meeting in May called for the Party to
declare a truce and seek ways of resolving the dispute but the Euros
refused to compromise on their demands for the sacking of Chater and
Whitfield. The media had a field day with reports of regional meetings
of the paper’s shareholders where leading Party members were shouting
at each other. Chater, it was reported, was booed and shouted down
when he tried to speak. At the Manchester meeting challenges to the
chair lasted an hour and in Glasgow the meeting was abandoned in
uproar and one young shareholder was assaulted as he left. Then came
the big showdown at the Wembley Conference Centre. It was estimated
that these meetings had cost the Paper £10,000 but the worst thing was
that there were miners’ leaders in Scotland involved in the factional
infighting and, in London, Labour supporters and good friends of the
paper like Ken Cameron and TGWU general council members were being
described by EC supporters as stooges.
To crown it all, by the end of 1984 over 100 loyal Party members
had been caught up in the crossfire and had been expelled. In the
North East District, election of officers was banned because the
national executive of the Party did not like the composition of the
District Committee. Then, in London, a District Secretary was imposed
against the wishes of the District Committee and, on the eve of the
London District Congress, a special Executive meeting was held where
General Secretary Gordon McLennan spelt out a number of conditions
that would have to be observed if the Congress was to go ahead.
When Congress assembled it went into secret session and the
General Secretary informed delegates of the special Executive’s
decision. I understand he also ruled on what questions would be
allowed. The atmosphere was hostile and delegates were being treated
with contempt and next business was moved. The chair pointed out that if next business was carried the
Congress would continue according to the Executive’s instructions but
if it was lost the secret session would continue to allow for more
questions. Tellers were appointed and then the General Secretary left
the meeting, taking a large number of delegates with him, including
some who were known to be members of a “fundamentalist” group. This
time, though, they obeyed instructions and joined Gordon’s army. Those
who did not were later disciplined or expelled.
During the miners’ strike there was an unfortunate incident that
split the Party in Barnsley. A number of branch members were involved
in one way or another with the miners’ strike. Roy Rix played a
disruptive role, aided and abetted by Bill Innes and Jean Miller.
The NUM Vice President, Mick McGahey, was allocated to speak in
Yorkshire but the branch was never consulted and the first we heard of
it was at the miners’ gala in Wakefield. A meeting had been arranged
in a workingmen’s club in South Kirkby and Frank Clarke, a member of
the Yorkshire NUM Executive, was to be an additional speaker. I asked
Frank if his appearance on the platform had been cleared by the
Yorkshire Area of the NUM and he said he assumed it had been since
Jack Taylor had agreed to speak as well. In fact, he added, that was
the only way he had been able to book the club as it was impossible
for the Party to book clubs for public meetings. Owen Briscoe saw the
leaflet and called Frank in and reminded him that Area officials and
EC members were not allowed to appear on public platforms without the
approval of the strike campaign committee. This was because some ultra
left groups had had a habit of advertising public meetings with
Yorkshire Area speakers without any approval from anybody. Normally
all that was needed was a letter from the Party to the Yorkshire Area
and approval would be given but, following the People’s March debacle,
relationships between Barnsley Party officials and the Yorkshire Area
NUM were still strained. Certainly Roy Rix did not dare write to the
Area seeking any favours.
The outcome was that Frank was told he couldn’t speak unless the
Party made a request. The club cancelled the booking and when I heard
about it I paid Frank Clarke a visit. He realised he had been conned
but he was more upset about Bill Innes’ attitude to the club
secretary. Innes had demanded compensation from the club for money the
Party had spent on publicising the meeting.
I visited the Empire Club at South Kirkby and spoke to members of
the committee whom I knew very well. They eventually agreed to the use
of their hall, but we now had the problem of the Vice President of the
NUM speaking in Yorkshire without any Area representatives on the
platform. I have recorded this incident mainly to clear the name of
Frank Clarke, who was later accused by some people of refusing to
share a platform with Communists, and to rebut the slander on the
Yorkshire Area of the NUM which has been falsely described as refusing
to share a platform with Mick McGahey, because it was organised by the
When I raised the matter in the Party branch I was told it had
nothing to do with Barnsley as South Kirkby was in the Pontefract
postal area. What they failed to realise was that South Kirkby pit
came under the Barnsley area and I was a regular visitor to the Empire
Club, as Frank was a personal friend of mine, and I lived only three
miles away from it. I knew that the reason I had not been consulted
was that I was one of the Party’s untouchables because of my
association with the Morning Star. I was being ostracised at all
levels within the Party and when I asked why I was told it was because
I was “too close to Scargill”. Impossible, I know I was born on
Christmas day and should be able to walk on water, but to be too close
to Scargill is much more credit than I deserve.
Of course the real problem was that the Party had spent so much
time and energy fighting within its own ranks it had lost sight of the
wider struggle. My experience throughout the miners’ strike was one of
sectarianism within the Party and isolation of the Party from this
At the risk of causing embarrassment to some individuals, I must
recount another incident that helps to demonstrate how this
factionalism was leading inevitably to the demise of the Party. Following a Party branch meeting in Barnsley, Trevor Fox, the
branch secretary, was involved in a heavy session of home-brewed beer
drinking. As the level of the conversation began to deteriorate in
direct proportion to the amount of beer consumed, comrades began to
drift away. I was not present at all as I had an engagement in London.
The upshot of it all was that one of the women comrades who was
very active in the Women Against Pit Closures organisation was
violently assaulted because she declined to take part in an
over-indulgent debate about the role of women in the strike. The police were involved, only to the extent of helping the woman
comrade to get a taxi to the home of another old comrade, the branch
chairman, Hylton Stewart. He advised her to go and see Jean Miller.
The next morning I saw Hylton in town and he told me what had
happened. He said that the woman concerned, Joan Davis, wanted to see
me and I eventually caught up with her where she was working at
Barnsley Enterprise Centre. When I saw her face bearing the scars of
the assault on her eyes and nose I could have cried. Her assailant,
Trevor Fox, had a record of violence against women and I told her what
I thought of him. My immediate concern, though, was that she should
have a safe home for herself and her daughter as her own home was
owned by her attacker. I was confident the council would be able to
find her somewhere suitable, but in the meantime she and her daughter
had to stay with Jean Miller.
The other problem was that branch meetings were normally held at
Trevor Fox’s home and this clearly could not go on. I was not too
worried about that, though. I knew plenty of Barnsley publicans who
would provide a room in return for a bit of extra trade.
I suggested to Hylton that he should inform the District Committee
about what had happened. The annual congress of the TUC was imminent,
so I also suggested that, as I was involved in it and as the miners’
strike was likely to dominate the congress, I would book a room for
the September branch meeting and make the TUC report the main item on
the agenda. Unfortunately Hylton was away on holiday when the
September branch meeting was held and Jean Miller was proposed to take
the chair. Before the agenda was agreed Roy Rix raised the question of
why the venue for the meeting had been changed and who had authorised
I would have thought the answer was obvious as Joan Davis had made
it clear she would never enter Trevor Fox’s house again. Rix moved
that all meetings should continue to be held in Fox’s house until
after the end of the strike. I pleaded with him that it was a very
sensitive issue and that the party could not be seen to be meeting in
the house where the assault had taken place, especially as the police
and neighbours all knew what had happened. I suggested that we should
wait for guidance from the District Committee. This was rejected and I
refused to be associated with any vote to return to Fox’s house. I
walked out of the meeting and never attended another one with the
exception of a special meeting called to discuss the matter, at which
Vicky Seddons and Dave Priscott tried to gloss over it by describing
it as a “domestic incident”.
Eventually, Joan decided to return to the house but within a few
months she was a victim again. In such circumstances and in the face
of such overwhelming evidence one would have thought that the culprit
would at very least be removed from branch office, but Fox remained
branch secretary. With no satisfaction from the District Committee, the matter was
referred to the national Executive but it took them two years to
decide to uphold the District Committee ruling that no action should
be taken because of a “conflict of evidence”.
It was hardly surprising that the evidence conflicted. The only
two witnesses called were the victim and her assailant and at the time
the victim was dependant upon her attacker for somewhere to live.
Though that is no longer the case it seems the Party preferred to turn
a blind eye, because it suited one faction not to upset the Yorkshire
District Committee because their support was needed by the Euros in
their vindictive campaign against all those loyal Communists who opposed
them. The one who upset me most was a national Executive member, Beatrix
Campbell, for whom I had previously had a good deal of respect for her
campaigning activity in the cause of women’s liberation.
Although I wrote several letters to her requesting her help over
Joan’s case she never replied to any of them. In my final letter to Beatrix about this sad saga, I made it clear
that I had no intention of harassing individuals but her refusal to
reply to my correspondence gave me the right to make public all the
submitted evidence. This I have now done, though it pains me to do so
and readers must draw their own conclusions. Male violence is, it
seems, acceptable to some people in certain political circumstances!
The witch-hunt was by now well under way against leading lights in
the trade union and labour movement. Ken Gill, then General Secretary
of the white collar engineering union AUEW-TASS; Derek Robinson, ex
convenor at Longbridge, British Leyland, sacked by Michael Edwardes in
1979; Ken Brett, Assistant General Secretary of the Amalgamated Union
of Engineers; Terry Marsland, Assistant General Secretary of the
Tobacco Workers’ Union and Arthur Utting, an Executive member of the
building workers’ union UCATT, were added to a list of over 100 who
were disciplined for “conduct deeply detrimental to the Party,” under
Martin Jacques, moving their expulsion, claimed: “They were found
to have actively promoted policies contrary to those of the
leadership.” This is the same person who claimed as Editor of Marxism
Today, the theoretical journal of the CPGB: “I have found it
impossible to carry out the policies of the recent Congresses of the
I joined this impressive list, being charged with two “offences”: 1) Writing an article in the Morning Star in May 1985 on the
miners’ strike. 2) Contravention of Rule 23(b) though a breach of rule 15(c) and for conduct detrimental to the Party. Yet this Rule 15(c) deals only with duties of members “To improve their knowledge of Marxism – to take part in discussion and formation of Party policy and to win support for the aims and policy of the
Party, including winning new members.” This charge was laid against me
despite my track record as Area Secretary in Scotland, Coalfield
Organiser in Yorkshire, Birmingham City Secretary, Midland District
Secretary and Member of the EC of the Communist Party.
I must have qualified on all these counts; a) to improve my
knowledge of Marxism, (when I joined the YCL I couldn’t read R.P.
Dutt’s Notes of the Month); b) To take part in the discussion and
formation of Party policy, (I was on the NEC of the Party during the
re-draft of the British Road to Socialism and represented the CPGB at
the Bulgarian Congress; c) Support the aims and policy of the Party.
Why did people like Bert Ramelson, Reuben Falber, John Gollan, Harry
Pollitt, Harry Bourne, Bill Laughlan and Gordon McLennan, support my
rapid promotion within the Party if I didn’t support the policy of the
The other charge of publishing an article in the Morning Star,
“Where he attacked the district leadership,” was dropped like a hot
brick when it became known that Pete Carter and Beatrix Campbell had
published articles in the New Statesman, and that Pete’s report to the
Political Committee for discussion at the special conference on May 15
never saw the light of day except in the March Marxism Today. I
understand that when Mick McGahey read it he said `NIET-NIET’ because
it attacked the NUM’s strike leadership. But McGahey himself was one
of the NUM “troika”, and George Bolton, the Chairman of the Party, was
involved in the “Broad Left” which formulated the strategy of the
strike. But Pete, unlike me, didn’t mention names.
So what else could they get Watters on? Rule 15(e); a rule in the
same batch but this time more serious, this refers to “Refusing
to fight against everything detrimental to the interest of the working
class and the Party.” This, by the way, was in 1985, after nearly
forty years of what Bill Morris described as my outstanding service to
“all sections of the movement”.
Let me make it clear, I was never officially charged with this
rule; it was only raised when they couldn’t pursue the charge over the
article in the Morning Star. After an hour’s debate at the August
District Committee in 1985, I defended my track record relating to
breach of rule 15(c). I kept repeating to all the members: “Have you
read this rule?” It was obvious they had not, or they would simply
have done what they did with the others and charge me on Rule 23,
“Conduct deeply detrimental to the Party” – like the “catch all”
charge used against our sacked miners “conduct deeply detrimental to
When the chairman, Dave Priscott, was ready to take the vote, he
looked at his Party card and I could see a strange look on his face.
He turned to Bill Innes, then District Secretary and said: “There has
been a mistake; this should have been Rule 15(e). It must have been a
technical error, so I suggest you change Rule 15(c) to Rule 15(e).” I
said: “Not on your life. I have three documents that state Rule
15(c). I argued my case on this Rule.” I kept repeating: “Do you
understand this is not a disciplinary Rule? This Rule does not carry
any disciplinary action.”
The meeting was in an uproar. I challenged the chair to rule “that
the charge should be dropped.” This fell on stony ground. Rule or no
rule, Watters had to be removed from the District Committee, from the
Mining Advisory, any position in his local branch and he had to be
made ineligible to be nominated for national or district congresses.
In other words he was to be put out to grass. My proposition was lost
and they thought people like Ken Gill, Ken Brett, Arthur Utting, Terry
Marsland, Frank Watters and others would join the Labour Party or
fling their weight behind the Communist Campaign Group, a front set up
to prepare for another breakaway, the Communist Party of Britain. None
of these, to my knowledge, did so as they had sufficient labour
movement experience to understand that such splits in the Communist
movements in other countries were disastrous and played into the hands of the Euros. (Frank Watters was opposed to the 1988 re-establishment of the CPB on tactical grounds, he felt that the fight to win back the CPGB had not been lost – at least until the 1991 dissolution of the CPGB. Whilst then joining the Communist Party of Scotland, he was in favour of the Communist Unity process that saw a subsequent qualitative change to the nature of the CPB.)
Now where did I go from here? I had been a proud member of the
Communist Party all my adult life, and squirts like the bunch around
Marxism Today who couldn’t lace the boots of those they claim were
carrying out anti-communist policies would not get us down.
I appealed against the decision. I submitted a three-page document for all members of the Appeals Committee to be acquainted
with my case before the hearing. Dave Priscott and Bill Innes
represented the Yorkshire District and made a verbal report. I expect
they had made enough blunders about their ignorance of Party rules.
Written documents could have been dangerous for them.
The Chairman was Reuben Falber and the other members of the Appeals Committee I had known for many years; Betty Reid, another real apparatchik, Alan Baker from the South Wales miners and Tom Mitchell. I made my point that my document said everything, but why was there no written evidence from the Yorkshire District Communist Party?
This was ruled irrelevant. I brought the committee’s attention to the
most blatantly inefficient method of work. Here we had someone being
charged with a certain offence and then we discovered it wasn’t what
it meant. It was like being charged for kidnapping and then having the
judge change his mind, “It should have been murder.”
Alan, Betty and Reuben, in defending the mistake of the District
said: “Frank you are an experienced comrade and you must have been
aware of this mistake.” Alan Baker kept repeating it, until I said,
“Yes, I know these silly buggers didn’t know the Rule book. One is a
member of the Political Committee and the other is District Secretary
– it is they who should be disciplined under Rule 23 for conduct
detrimental to the Party. If they don’t know their own Rule book they
shouldn’t be allowed to hold office.”
Then I went on to remind Alan of a fundamental tactic that all
trade union leaders use when defending their members. I was told: “You
always look at the small print, study the charge and if you find a
flaw you don’t even tell your client. In any tribunal or Court of Law
if the defendant is charged wrongly the case is automatically
dismissed.” I moved the same should happen in my case and that they
should use the rulebook correctly, not vindictively. I then said I
had had enough. I asked where I could collect my travelling and meal
expenses and told them I would await their deliberations.
On October 22 1985 Reuben Falber, Chairman, National Appeals
Committee, informed me: “The Appeals Committee decided that you were in breach of both Rules, 15(c) and 15(e). The Appeals Committee
decided to reject your appeal.” How could the National Appeals Committee uphold that the Yorkshire District were fully justified in taking action to remove me on the basis of a rule under which I was never charged? In such circumstances many would have called it a day. Not on your life, not with these people. I decided to appeal and face a National Congress, to be held in November 1987, to test whether they were all biased. The Appeals Committee for Congress is answerable to and approved by Congress.
Before I deal with my defence there, I must relate the most humiliating
experience. In all my years in the Party before then, we had tried to overcome differences by political argument and disciplinary actions by branches, district and the executive were very, very rare. The moment I entered the Congress hall, I was ushered into a room full of political criminals attended by guards to make sure they didn’t wander out of their courtroom. I requested the use of the toilet. At least we were allowed that privilege, but under strict guard to make sure that was all we did and to ensure we did not try to solicit support. The comrade who escorted me was an old Party friend I had known in Lanarkshire in the ’40s, Willie Duncan, and he stood behind me in the toilet until I finished. Another comrade whom I also knew from the 40s was on the same mission, Bob Horne, but he was a delegate and not under the threat of discipline. He remained in the Party until the end, then becoming a leading figure in the formation of the Scottish Communist Party.
The conversation with Bob went like this:
BH “How are you Frank?”
FW “Fine, but I am not allowed to have any conversation, I have been told.”
The last person I wanted to offend was my guide whose job was more like a prison officer than a Congress steward.
Now my turn had come. I was fully confident, well prepared and, as
usual, prepared to take on anyone who levelled false accusations
against me: “Working against the best interest of my Party and my
class, the working class.” That was the crime of which I was accused, no matter how anyone tries to disguise it or wrap it up in false
The chairperson read out the charge and made it clear. Length of
membership, service to the labour and trade union movement, service to the Party were all irrelevant. I couldn’t have got a better
introduction to test my nerves and class reaction. I don’t expect this
person knew anything about service to the working class because by now this, like socialism, was a dirty word to the Euros. The same people
who had hi-jacked the Party and made sure they had a majority of
delegates. I can remember Joe Stalin doing the same before he “cleansed” the CPSU of any opposition.
I was well prepared. I looked around the Congress. With the exception of the platform I didn’t know many faces. Watters’ blood was sweet and after all he deserved all that was coming because during the miners’ strike he was too close to Scargill and he, according to Alan Baker again in his infamous roundtable debate, “reflected the majority
of the young miners”. This was dangerous if the Party was to seek
alliance with the Liberal Democrats, or with the SDP, which Sue
Slipman, former CPGB executive member had joined.
I haven’t the space to relate my complete speech, but, believe it
or not, from what I thought was nearly a completely hostile Congress I
was rewarded with loud applause, though not from the platform, when I
said “Not guilty on all charges.” I went on: “In February of this year
the British miners expressed their gratitude for my services to them
and the wider movement by bestowing on me the highest award their
Union grants – Honorary Membership; the only Communist miner to
receive such a reward. But there is another who received this rare
award – Nelson Mandela. I am proud of my association and not one
member of that platform can display this card. Ask the car workers,
fire-fighters, health workers, steel workers, building workers, if I
have worked against their interests.”
I could add bakery workers, seamen, ambulance workers and the
campaign to release the black leader, Angela Davis. As Peter
Heathfield, General Secretary of the NUM, said in his letter awarding
me the honorary membership, in “recognition of, and as a tribute to,
your dedicated services to the NUM and its members.”
George Bolton who was chairman said: “Frank, finish.” I knew what
he meant, but I had the last word. “No George, not finished, I will
fight to my last day to remove this scandalous insult that my Party
has put on me – betraying my class, betraying my Party.”
I left before the count, but I was confident I would get a
respectable vote because I was sure they could not all be spineless
and there must be some with honest working class instincts. I was
right, in spite of the handpicked nature of many of them I won nearly one-third of the delegates. I was in a happy mood
when I bumped into Pete Carter outside Congress. Irrespective of my
strong differences with people, I always believe in “keep talking”. I
knew Pete had not supported me but he said: “You did well and the
Nelson Mandela card did it.” I replied: “It was truthful, that’s more
than I can say about the accusers who you support.”
Following Congress, I received a letter from Margaret Woddis,
Secretary to the EC, informing me that Congress had rejected my
appeal. End of play expected. But it was no empty statement when I
told George Bolton I would fight, fight and fight again. The next move was to put the ball back in the court of the District Committee on the grounds that my appeal to Congress was over my removal from office under Rule 15(c) and this was the only rule under which I was officially charged.
I understand the Yorkshire District Committee didn’t know how to
handle this new situation, which I suppose is unique in the history of
the CPGB. They replied: “a) National Congress has now confirmed the view of the National Appeals Committee and the Yorkshire District of the Party that you were in breach of rule; b) It would be helpful in considering your appeal, for you to comment on your current attitude to those breaches of rule and your intentions of adhering to the rules of the Party in future, and whether you will accept decisions of the National Congress and the elected leadership of the Party.”
No problem in replying, but not the sort of reply they wanted.
Bless me father for I have sinned on all three counts. By this time I had become an expert on Inner Party Democracy, the guideline to all Party Rules. Whether one agreed with all aspects of IPD, it was approved by Congress and binding on all party members, especially officers of the Party. Like any officers of a trade union, irrespective of whether they agree with the rulebook, they must abide by it.
I pointed out that I had exhausted any further appeal nationally.
They had rejected any further appeal. It did not mean, however, that I
must agree with its decision. IPD makes it clear:
1) Comrades had a right to disagree with Party decisions, and to
reserve their position. What they couldn’t do was publicly to oppose
the Party decisions;
2) I hadn’t changed my mind. But, lifting the restriction on my
Party membership was a matter for the Yorkshire District Committee.
What I was requesting was full Party membership rights in line with
the spirit of IPD procedure;
3) Was the restricted membership for life, or for a given period, as there were no rules covering this?
4) As for Party Rules, I had always accepted these, or otherwise I
wouldn’t have been a member for over 40 years. It was the Yorkshire
District Committee that broke the rules by charging me under a rule
that didn’t carry any disciplinary action. In these circumstances could I have my 1988 card restored to me with full rights as any other member in Yorkshire?
This caused more panic. Should I be invited to the District Committee to answer any further charges? Those who attended Congress
as delegates didn’t relish this idea. So, a compromise was agreed. A
couple of members of the Secretariat would meet me and discuss the
matter. I accepted with a condition that people like Roy Rix and Vicky
Seddons, who were members of the Secretariat who wanted to expel me, should not be included in any discussion as I was only removed from office.
When we met at Northern College, I didn’t get the impression that
the vindictive war of attrition was over. Bill Innes, in the most
provocative way, said: “Frank, you know there is talk of a split in
the Party around the CCG what’s your attitude?” (CCG was the Communist Campaign Group of expelled Party members that formed the basis for the re-established Communist Party of Britain.) He was hoping I would say “favourable” but he was disappointed by my answer. The next comment was: “Frank, we would all like to resolve this problem, but you must accept the removal from office was the least we could get the District Committee to accept. Unless you are prepared to accept that
you might have been wrong, then I am going to have problems with my
District Committee.” I replied: “That’s your problem, you created it,
now solve it. All I am asking is an end to my second class membership
and restoration of all my rights as I am not guilty.” I could see he
was getting upset that I was in no mood to make any compromise to
accommodate those responsible for my humiliating experience at the
Congress. Then he said: “Really Frank, do you want your card?” At this
I replied: “If you repeat that again your bloody head will go through
that wall.” It was obvious that what he wanted was an admission so
that the District Committee could enforce some penance before
I said: “Before I do something that will give you a legitimate
excuse I am off and don’t delay with your reply as time is running out
to the point where you may have another excuse under lapse of
membership after eight weeks arrears.”
On February 25 1988, two and a half years later, I was informed
that the District Committee had agreed that the disciplinary action
taken against me for breach of rule had now been terminated.
One would have thought after this “clean bill of health” that all
rights would have been restored, including being invited to the
National Mining Advisory meeting that was due to meet on March 19th that year. Pete Carter, who nearly broke his heart about the way I was
being treated, was consulted and Pete ruled that only working miners
were allowed to attend this meeting. I hadn’t worked in the pits since
1953, but I had not only attended National Advisories ever since but had been in charge of the Yorkshire coalfield.
How could Pete justify all those listed in the Sunday Times investigation over Edwardes’ Recovery Plan who didn’t work at British Leyland being allowed to attend advisory meetings? How could he justify Bill Mathews from Yorkshire, a retired miner, two editors of the miners’ papers, two full-time officials, Bill Innes and Roy Rix, plus Terry Wilde from the post office engineers, Jimmy Miller, an ex-miner from Scotland, all at a meeting in January to railroad the Party to support Eric Clarke. Young Jimmy Miller, the son, was at a later meeting although he had taken early voluntary retirement from Kellingley after he spoiled his good record by committing the cardinal sin of failing to process compensation cases, costing the Yorkshire Area thousands of pounds through settlements out of court. He was no longer a member of the NUM, let alone a working miner. Again, the goal posts were moved. I was not to be fully welcomed back into the fold. Maybe they were afraid that, after two and a half years of isolation, my hair like Samson’s had
grown back and maybe I might be able to play an active part in bringing down the “Temple”.
This brought me to the end of my active membership of the CPGB.
Although the Euros didn’t dissolve the Party until November 1991, I
remained a card-holding member but, with my hair growing longer, I
thought there were more important things than destroying the “Temple”.
Like those responsible for the corruption and abuse of power by
similar apparatchiks in the former Soviet Communist Party, those who
had failed the CPGB had no right to survive. I was no longer publicly
harassed, so I spent my new strength in the way I always have, fighting
for my class and bringing credit to the philosophy of Socialism in the
best tradition of the Jacobins, Luddites, Owenites and the Chartists,
new model unionists and syndicalists, as well as those thousands of Communist Party members I have been privileged to know over the years. This wealth of tradition and philosophy was based on the material and cultural satisfaction of humanity, not the satisfaction of a greedy few, or dubious political fixers.
“A proper code of conduct and respect for the facilities offered by the movement is vital” – The Seafarers’ Strike 1988-9
During the 1984/85 miners strike, members of the National Union of Seamen were very active, organising collections with seafarers on land and sea.
Also, along with the rail union, NUR (with which they are now amalgamated as the RMT), they played an important role in preventing foreign coal being dumped, especially in Humberside and Yorkshire. The late Sammy Thompson, Yorkshire Vice President of the NUM, and Jim Slater of the NUS from the North East of England worked very closely together and developed a personal bond of friendship. Naturally, when Jim’s members became involved in their own 1988-89 strike, he phoned Sam to see what help, especially of the financial kind, he could get. He was knocking at an open door as there has always been a close affinity between our two communities, sharing the common experience of a working life full of danger and tragedies.
I had a phone call from “Inky” Thompson, once a Branch Secretary
of the NUM, but, like many more, now made redundant. He had, however, remained active in the movement. Sammy and Inky were big pals, so naturally he contacted him to arrange a get-together to meet some seafarers from Dover who had been invited into the coalfield. Inky asked me to join them, knowing that, with my contacts in the coalfield
and the wider movement, I was the one most suitable to deliver the goods. Once I knew that Sammy, who by this time was General Secretary of the Yorkshire Area and Vice President of the NUM, was giving full support, raising money for the seafarers, or for any other sections of the working class, was easy.
The following morning we set up office. This time, alongside the
usual appeal to all sections of the Movement in Yorkshire, we had
another massive field to cultivate – the Working Men’s Clubs. I had
obtained a list of all Club addresses and phone numbers. In South
Yorkshire we had over 2,000 Working Men’s Clubs to which we could send appeals. My big friend (indeed a friend to many), Phillip Thompson, was in charge of Yorkshire NUM administration, and he found means to provide all the necessities, including a postman’s collecting bag, with free postage. Within two weeks we had received nearly £1,500 in donations.
One of the problems we had with this strike, different from any other,
was that we were operating from ‘far a-field’, with a quite
inexperienced crew with no knowledge of the area. We had to involve
many non-strikers, but always under strict instruction that they
should operate under the rules and practices laid down by those in
charge. I have had too much experience of the cowboys and political
vultures that use genuine struggles as vehicles to peddle their own
wares. The money collected was mainly for hardship, but instead of one
hardship fund, there were six groups, some large some small (Dover,
Folkestone, Deal, Thanet, Canterbury, Aylesham).
Each naturally wanted as much as possible for their own local fund. We made it clear that we wanted some guidance as to the numbers involved, so that we could share the cash equitably. We found it difficult to get a true picture. We always tried to insist on getting receipts for money sent, but they were not always forthcoming, especially from Deal. I raised this matter with Peter Mason, who was the main rank-and-file leader, but I got the impression they were all guilty of the sin of wanting to look after their own group. I also raised it with Sam McCluskey, NUS General Secretary, but again got little response, because it was such a hornet’s nest of a problem and, as it was only hardship money, not official strike funds, the officials closed their eyes to what was going on.
It was not a happy position we were faced with. A new team would
arrive every Monday, some staying a few days, some going home on
Saturday, some travelling on their own. Some began to make their own
arrangements for accommodation, once they had first visited the area
and found a more comfortable and attractive bed than those provided in
the student accommodation at Northern College, while the students were absent on their long summer vacation. Then there were problems with discipline. Some turned in at 10.00 a.m. or later, expecting to be
allowed to go for breakfast, instead of getting up early and using the
College facilities for breakfast and a canteen meal paid for out of
their £5 daily allowance.
The biggest headache was controlling the finances with the lack of
continuity. There should have been someone responsible from day one.
Luckily, I had a friend, Betty Hancock, wife and mother of two miners
who had twelve months experience of strike collecting. Betty would get
into the office provided by the Yorkshire NUM and collect all the post
addressed to the Seafarers. At least we had some control, and with
other volunteers we soon got cracking, organising pithead
collections. Mike Hyde and Keith Guest collected every Friday in
Barnsley market. Rodney Marshall and others went round Goldthorpe on a Saturday night, Sunday morning and Sunday evening, covering at least ten clubs and pubs. Rodney, of course, was available only on Saturday night and some Sunday evenings as he was at that time still wearing the “Cloth”, Sunday mornings being a working stint for a priest!
By the end of October, when this fund raising had been going on
for nearly four months, the physical and mental strain was starting to
show on Betty and myself. Expenses were reaching nearly £300 per week.
Cars arrived with one person in them, claiming £50 petrol money, plus
any running repairs. Some collectors disappeared over the weekend,
which were the vital days, and appeared on Monday morning expecting to receive three days’ allowance. They soon realised this was not on. I
wrote a strong letter to Deal, making it clear certain people would
not be welcome in Yorkshire. If they appeared, there would be no
expenses of any kind. I received a sharp reply to the effect that they
would decide whom they thought suitable and they demanded a written
reply as to why their conduct was being questioned. We treated this
with the same contempt as they had shown to us, with their refusal to
acknowledge cheques sent to them.
The situation got so bad that Betty broke down, crying at the treatment we had to endure. I was accused of withholding a cheque for over $400. The person who was responsible didn’t like my making him use a £50 donation from the FBU to cover his private accommodation. He thought it was a personal gift, but when I told him we didn’t give personal gifts to anyone on strike, I was in his black books. The only way I was able to get Betty to continue was with the help we now had from a good team we had developed with Pauline Smith, Eric Ilsley, Barnsley Central MP, Mike Hyde and Rodney Marshall.
Then we made a decision that only one seafarer would be required
in Barnsley at any one time. By this time a certain seafarer had his
feet well under a lady-friend’s table anyway and we needed someone who could sign cheques along with Keith Ward, from the Cokemen’s Section of the NUM Administration. The name of this seafarer was Dick Scaife and he later dropped a clanger, with another signatory to the account, Peter Cavrilovic, when they tried to cash a counter cheque for £400 the same day we closed the account, on January 15th 1989.
Along with Keith Ward, Scaife had signed a typed document in my
house to close the account. I was in possession of all the remaining
cheques. The following morning I saw the Manager of the Co-op Bank and explained that we had a balance of over £400 and I was depositing
another £600-worth of cheques that had come in after Christmas. Once
they were cleared and bank charges had been deducted, we wanted the
remainder sent to the NUS. That afternoon Peter Cavrilovic arrived in
Barnsley, contacted Dick Scaife and got to know there was a balance of
over £400 in the account. They went to the bank and asked for a
counter cheque. They were well known by some of the staff from their
weekly visits. The girl on the desk thought it was strange, with
thousands of pounds withdrawn through their chequebooks, why they now wanted a counter cheque.
She contacted the Manager, who immediately phoned Keith Ward whom he knew personally. Keith was well aware of my initiative and confirmed that the account was to be closed, so the Manager refused to pay the counter cheque. This, I understand, upset Peter who went to the Cokemen’s office to play hell over my intervention, arguing that no money should be sent to the NUS without their permission. Little did they realise my good relations with Keith and Idwal Morgan, the Secretary of the Cokemen’s Section. Keith made it clear that the only reason he agreed to be a signatory in the first place was that he knew that, as long as Frank Watters was in charge, everything would be above board. Peter then went on to slag off the leadership of the NUS, but he was lucky to be able to walk down the stairway because by this time Idwal had made an appearance.
All this was reported to the Union and I wrote to my friend John
Prescott, MP, for whom I have a lot of respect. Sam McClusky, I
understand, was going through a rough time, so I excused him. But
there is one lesson. Anyone on strike must be seen to be 100%
committed and scrupulous financially and certainly not to use absence
from home as an excuse for personal enjoyment. Always remember, there is usually a partner left behind to hold the fort, feed and look after
the family. Their contribution in many cases is greater. Secondly,
always remember there are others who may be on strike and need similar help. Therefore a proper code of conduct and respect for the
facilities offered by the movement is vital.
The big advantage was that Betty and others involved were so
highly respected that all this had no adverse effect in getting the
Yorkshire Area NUM to spare no effort in helping any section on
strike. It was always a pleasure to work with their staff, especially
my friend Phillip Thompson and Doug Fellowes before him.
Eliminating a large band of expensively maintained seafarers meant
we had only a minimum of expenses and a free hand and resources to
concentrate on giving every seafarer’s child a Christmas to remember,
just as the miners’ children had received in 1984. We informed all the
groups that no money would be released until a strange Father
Christmas called Betty visited Dover. I honestly think they thought
Betty would, like certain people during the miners strike, arrive with
a cardboard box or a briefcase loaded with fivers. To their surprise,
what Betty took was a £30.00 Co-op voucher made out in the name of
each of the children submitted to us. The cost was £10,380 plus £5,000
to be shared among the six groups. Not a bad Christmas box, but not
received in the spirit it was delivered.
I phoned Peter Mason and told him to look after Betty. When Betty enquired why he was not there to receive the vouchers and the cheque for £5,000, she received some rude remarks that Peter Mason was supposed to have made when he heard Betty was coming down to their Christmas Party. She spent the evening in the company of someone who had started the festive season early, who told her that they were happy to continue on strike as long as the brass flowed. You will readily appreciate that, in such circumstances, if any of those involved had put their foot in Barnsley, we could not guarantee their safe return to Dover.
We discussed all these tensions with the Yorkshire Area NUM
Officials, who were aware things weren’t too good, and agreed enough
was enough. We decided to try and get as satisfactory audit as
possible, with the balance sent to the NUS for them to decide upon its
destination. We worked hard, especially Pauline and Betty, and came up
with a balance sheet that showed we had raised £35,160. £10,330 had
been divided among the six groups, £15,830 spent on Christmas vouchers with some £7,000 in expenses. These expenses had mainly been the £5 per day paid to each seafarer visiting South Yorkshire along with petrol and car expenses. A balance of over £1,000 was sent to the NUS when we finally closed our books.
Chapter 22 The Ambulance Workers’ Strike 1989-90
Before I let Barry Hellewell, NUPE Convenor and Shop Steward, tell his
own version of this great historical struggle with which I was so
proud to be involved, let me set the scene. The public support was
magnificent and proved, if proof is needed to those who think Thatcher
has permanently weakened organised labour, that no government dare take on NHS workers lightly.
The “New Thinkers” who believe that “The March of Labour has been halted” must have got a shock then. This time the excuses of “Violence”, “Wrong issue”, “Lack of Public Opinion” and “No
Ballots”, used by Labour leaders to distance themselves from the
1984/85 miners strike, were not available. But these same, now
departed, Labour leaders like Kinnock and Hattersley, distanced
themselves from this strike as far as they did from the miners. What
an opportunity was missed to take up the banner that the miners had
had to drop a few years earlier – an opportunity to deliver a more
crushing defeat. This could have done more for the election of a
Labour Government than all the gimmicks and glitter of Labour rallies
and TV presentation.
This was the theme of what I will always remember as the most
pleasant and fruitful pep talk, when I was asked to address the
ambulance staff of Barnsley, Hoyland and Wombwell. I was under the
impression that it was only the strike committee I was meeting, but to
my surprise and later my delight, the room was packed with intelligent
ambulance personnel, many of them young women.
I got the impression they had much higher qualifications than
those attributed to them by Kenneth Clark, the Secretary of State for
Health, who described them as “Professional Drivers”. My impression
was different from his and, in the course of the next weeks, I had
proof that mine was the correct interpretation.
There are two incidents worth recalling for their lovely humanity
and class-consciousness. I remember one morning getting a phone call from Anne Scargill. “Frank, Dad has fallen in the house and they have sent a police ambulance – he won’t let them touch him.” The police and army were, of course filling in for the regular ambulance crews during their dispute – scabbing in fact. I told Anne not to worry. “Leave it at that – make your way to your Dad’s house – there will be two ambulance personnel, plus a proper emergency ambulance to look
after him.” Derek Johnson and Alan Foster, whose father was an old Party member and knew the Scargills and their parents, arrived within minutes. An emergency ambulance landed at the door, where there was
already a police ambulance, with two bewildered policemen unable to
understand why this old man, maybe with a broken thigh, wouldn’t let
them help. They soon discovered when Anne arrived.
One of the ambulance lads heard this young bobby saying, “That’s Arthur Scargill’s wife, that’s why.” Little did they know that Anne’s Dad,
Elliot Harper, had a longer and more bitter experience than Arthur
himself. Elliot was of a generation of militant miners long before
Arthur was born, and his hatred of scabs, be they miners or police ran
deep. That’s why he said, “Get your scabby, bastard hands off me.”
So the so-called “Professional Drivers” were soon demonstrating
their skills, lifting Elliot in a position to do the least harm. They
took the ambulance to Barnsley District General Hospital and helped
him to the theatre, where they knew he would be in good hands. Then
they returned to see old Mrs Harper and Anne to assure them that
Elliot was in good hands and as usual a nice cup of tea with a
friendly chat was welcome.
These are the lads and lasses old people have to depend on. Their
professional skills can’t be found in police manuals. It was these
caring people that were obliged over that Christmas to take to the
streets with their begging buckets to win a decent wage. They, like
the nurses, miners and many more were driven into taking strike
action. I am sure that this lesson and experience will have a lasting
effect. Of that I am certain and I appreciate it when I hear the toot
of the ambulance horns, when they pass me in Barnsley. I know that I
won’t have any problem getting this service if required!
There was another incident in which the Scargill family was
involved. Arthur was feeling under the weather. Margaret, his
daughter, then a medical student and now a qualified doctor, knew he
needed medical treatment, so she volunteered to take him to hospital.
I expect he was in one of those moods where only he knew best and he
refused to go. But he was up against one who was born and bred with
similar stubbornness, who would never take ‘no’ for an answer. He was
given the choice, “Go with me, or I will phone 999 and you will take
the consequences – scab police ambulance or a scab army driver.” It
wasn’t even Hobson’s choice, so he made a rare retreat and compromised.
Pic: Far left, Sean Cannon, then of the Dubliners, with Frank presenting a cheque for £600 to striking ambulance workers from Hoyland and Wombwell.
My thanks to the ambulance staff from Barnsley, Hoyland, Wombwell, for your wonderful inscribed briefcase that I so often proudly display. Thanks for the lesson to teach to all – don’t be afraid to take on any
Government if you think your cause is justified.
“Within 24 hours Frank had started the ball rolling!!”
By Barry Hellewell, NUPE Convenor and Shop Steward, Barnsley
In South Yorkshire, the ambulance crews began an overtime ban in
September 1989 as the first stage of industrial action aimed at
securing an increase in the 6.5 per cent pay offer. The crews pledged to continue handling ‘999’ cases, regardless of overtime, but on November 9 the action was escalated with the suspension of all transport of day-care cases.
Meetings were held regularly at COHSE headquarters in Sheffield
and at one of these it was decided to set up a South Yorkshire
hardship fund. There was a national fund, but it was felt a local one
would be more beneficial to local crews and help both them and the
contributors to identify with the dispute. A Finance Committee was
formed with one representative from each of the four South Yorkshire
In late November, it was decided to escalate the dispute further
by refusing to co-operate with management by “floating” staff from one
station to another to provide cover in the event of absence. On
December 4, management responded by suspending all accident and
This caused great concern among the staff, who had maintained
their pledge to guarantee there would be no loss of emergency cover
and an urgent meeting was called. There, it was decided that
volunteers would staff the stations on a rota basis, providing 24-hour
emergency cover, regardless of pay. The crews felt they owed a duty to
the public and that qualified ambulance personnel were better suited
to dealing with emergencies than the untrained and ill-equipped police
who had been drafted in by management. The crews maintained this
voluntary cover throughout, but management made a point of not calling on them except in the most exceptional circumstances.
Individual crews were trying to run the dispute from their own
stations and we thought we were pretty well organised, an assumption
which was proved totally wrong when I made a belated call to Frank
Watters. I had been told earlier to contact him, but it was December 13
before I finally rang him and told him that, although I had never
heard of him, I had been told he would help us raise funds.
He was very abrupt and told me I should have contacted him
earlier. We arranged a meeting for the following day at Barnsley
Ambulance Station and when he arrived he was aghast at the way we were trying to operate. We had no private telephone, nowhere to hold meetings and no privacy at all. Frank suggested that he and I should go to my home for a private conversation and there he explained who he was and how he had been involved in other disputes. He asked me to telephone the Regional office of NUPE, but for whatever reasons, no official could be found. Frank was dumbfounded and I had to agree with him when he asked how, in the middle of a national dispute, this could be so.
Within 24 hors Frank had started the ball rolling. He fixed us up
with a room at the Yorkshire Miners’ headquarters in Barnsley, where
we had the use of a telephone. The following day he gave me 300 copies
of an appeal letter to be sent out to clubs and pubs all over the
county. Unfortunately, he had omitted to get the original signed
before copying it and I had to sit down and personally sign them all!
I was at it for two hours from 6.30 a.m. to meet a 9 a.m. deadline,
when Frank had organised groups of staff to take them out and deliver
them – a task which took the rest of the day.
Within three days we had a response to this initiative and the staff were visibly lifted as funds began to come in. Over the next
seven days, leading up to Christmas, the response from the general
public was overwhelming. Frank accurately forecast this response but
warned us that it would wane in the immediate post-Christmas period. He came into our office every day, phoning to organise benefit
concerts and collections. Nothing seemed too much trouble for him,
though he always wanted everything done ‘yesterday’.
Then he arranged a permanent base for us in another NUM office
just up the road and had a telephone installed within 24 hours. Frank
then introduced me to an ex-NUM official, Eric Mountain, who proved to
be a great help to us all throughout the dispute.
As soon as we were established in our new office, I delegated the
responsibility for handling the cash to one of our members, Derek
Johnson. He told me he had never had any experience of bookkeeping,
but he took the job on. A little later I found him an assistant in the shape of John Green, one of our day staff who had been ill with Bell’s Palsy. He had previously been very active in the dispute and, as soon as he
recovered enough to come into our new office, he provided welcome
assistance for Derek and, between them, under Frank’s guidance they
kept all the finances in proper order.
Frank was meticulous about accounting for cash receipts and
disbursements and he gave Derek his own cashbook to record all the
donations that came in. The same book had previously been used in the
seafarers’ dispute and contained a similar record of the cash he had
helped to raise for them; a nice instance of the interconnections
between struggles in which Frank has been intimately involved.
As in any dispute, there were highs and lows. Many staff were
upset when they read in Press reports that the police were being paid
£19 per hour on overtime to provide cover at the ambulance stations –
far more than would have been needed to settle the dispute – and many
were also depressed by what they saw as a lack of support from the
Labour Party national leadership.
But there were abiding memories too of high points. One such was
the London rally, which proved a great success and provided a great
morale booster as over 50,000 ambulance crews and their families and
supporters packed Trafalgar Square. The response and support from the general public was unforgettable for all those who took part. Frank
said it was one of the biggest rallies he had attended and pointed out
there were no arrests. The following day the News of the World reported that “around 6,000 ambulance staff and their families” had attended. Perhaps they use a similar accounting procedure to calculate their circulation figures!
We learned a lot during the dispute, not least about ourselves.
Some characters whom I would not previously have expected to have the stamina or commitment for the struggle proved their worth and strength and one or two proved less reliable than some of us might have expected, but the vast majority of us in South Yorkshire pulled
together, inspired by Frank’s guidance and efforts. At the end of the dispute we organised a Back-to Work Disco in Barnsley, at which we presented Frank with an inscribed briefcase and Eric Mountain was presented with an inscribed tankard.
I still keep in touch with Frank and often visit him at his home.
I will always be grateful for his efforts on our behalf, not only by
raising vital funds but also by inspiring us all with the sort of
confidence the ruling class is constantly trying to undermine.
NUM Presidential and Vice-Presidential Elections and the problems facing the `New Realists’
In 1987, the Scottish NUM successfully proposed a resolution that all
miners’ officials be subject to periodic election. Being fully in
support of that position, despite the fact that he was not bound to,
Arthur took a decision that he would offer himself for re-election in
This caught the “New Realist grouping”, unprepared. Arthur
Scargill, a strong advocate of periodic election, dropped a bombshell
at the end of 1987 when he told the NEC that he intended to resign and
offer himself for re-election. This followed a decision of the NEC,
that any official elected before 1st August 1983 who decided to
contest another position inside the union should resign his current
position, in line with objectives laid down in the 1987 conference
When it became known that Arthur wanted to comply with this rule
Holy Hell was let loose. The Glasgow Herald carried the story: “Miners’ leaders attack Scargill but refuse to nominate a rival.” They were upset by Scargill’s decision to call a snap election thus avoiding pending
legislation, which would have changed the election rules. The Scottish
NUM President was quoted as saying: “In our view the election serves
no purpose. It is a waste of time and money.”
The rival candidate was John Walsh who declared he was not too
disheartened and drew comfort from the fact that the Scottish NUM was
not endorsing Scargill. Maybe he expected his friends in the
‘Left’-Centre-Right, anti-Scargill alliance to come out into the open
and declare their real allegiance. Walsh went on television and
declared he had the support of the Scottish NUM, including the
National Vice President, Mick McGahey. Thousands saw the broadcast but when McGahey refuted the allegation in a letter to the Morning Star it would have been read by only a relative handful. But it was Bolton’s
abdication of leadership that gave Walsh the chance to make the claim
in the first place.
South Wales took legal advice challenging the national executive
decision, in spite of the fact it was union policy and some like
George Bolton, had urged Arthur and Peter Heathfield to put themselves up for election as soon as possible and not wait until “Thatcher
determined the terms of their election”.
What was clear was that Scargill, a crafty fox who knows his union
rulebook better than any Bishop knows the Bible, caught most of them
out, thinking that if they were elected before, August 1983, they
were in for life, but Scargill was having none of it. South Wales got caught up in a legal argument that went on for weeks, meanwhile the ‘Re-election of Scargill’ bandwagon was well on its way. Over forty rallies and meetings were organised all over the country.
Arthur launched his campaign at a packed meeting in the
Copperfield Social Club in Ffynnoncroew, North Wales, where he got a
standing ovation in spite of the fact that this Area’s leadership
sponsored Walsh. When it became clear that Arthur had taken the gamble of his life and the response of the rank and file in areas like Scotland, South Wales, and North West was in contrast to that of their leaders, “Re-Elect Scargill” Committees sprang up in all these areas. In
Scotland where there was confusion about the name McGahey linked in
support of Walsh, young Mick McGahey, Junior, a sacked miner put an
end to this by becoming secretary of the Re-Elect Scargill committee.
Dave Hamilton, another sacked miner, started organising rallies in the
main coalfield. Pits like Monkton Hall, and Seafield, both in the
Lothians, the Barney in Ayrshire and in Stirlingshire now nominated
Scargill. In the campaign six meetings were held in Scotland over the
weekend of 11-13 December; the same occurred in Wales, Midlands and the North East.
Soon the “Re-Elect Scargill” stickers were appearing in hundreds
of thousands, and posters, and area election specials featured the new
Troika of Peter Heathfield, Sammy Thompson and Arthur Scargill calling
for a united leadership to meet the challenge that was ahead. In
Yorkshire there was no problem with the area leaders speaking in
support. In North Derbyshire, Gordon Butler, General Secretary, and
Johnny Burrows, Compensation Agent/Treasurer, lent their names to a
front page of a Derbyshire Miners’ election special. “WHY WE BACK
SCARGILL”. They said: “There’s only one man to lead that fighting
campaign – Arthur Scargill – and we call on all our members to vote on
22 January 1988; “Re-elect Scargill”.
I was totally involved especially in building up and organising
the campaign committees in areas where the area leadership either
opted out, not nominating any candidate or were openly coming out in
support of the right winger John Walsh.
Rank and file members that stood by the NUM leadership during the
twelve-month strike, along with veteran leaders of the NUM who
campaigned for years to stop Walsh getting a leading position in their
union were now rallying behind Scargill. A colourful leaflet was
distributed in thousands in every coalfield with an appeal and picture
of Owen Briscoe, former general secretary of Yorkshire area NUM and
Emlyn Williams, former President of the South Wales area NUM, again
arguing the case: “Why miners should vote for Scargill”. By now Mick
McGahey Senior had cleared the air to make it clear that he shared the
view of Owen and Emlyn. These three highly respected leaders gave a
new inspiration to those who opposed the right wing candidate John
Walsh, who was backed by the Tories, British Coal, UDM and surprise,
surprise, Neil Kinnock.
There is one meeting I must record to show the length some right
wingers were prepared to go to and the intimidation tactics used. Leicester had nominated Walsh and all stops were pulled out to
organise an impressive rally on Sunday January 3, 1988. The Bagworth
branch had invited Walsh, supported by Jack Jones, the Leicester miners’ leader. Only about 50 turned out.
In contrast, at the Catholic Club, St Wilfred’s, in Coalville, a packed meeting of over 200 attended. Chaired by Keith Vaz, MP for Leicester East, the local paper described the meeting with the headline: “Arthur still packs ‘em in”.
When Jones found out that Scargill was to speak on the same
evening as Walsh, he went berserk. He was furious that a local Catholic
priest had allowed “a Communist the use of his hall”. I was told
threats were made that if the meeting was allowed to go on the club
could be smashed up! No money was too much to offer the priest to
cancel the meeting, but to his credit he stuck to his guns and
confirmed to me later over a drink and chat at the bar: “that he
thought Scargill was a man of principle”.
It was a difficult campaign; in fact the celebrations had already
started in Castleford, John Walsh’s hometown, on the Sunday night of
the count. The significance of the election and result was illustrated when Alain Simon phoned us at Scargill’s house from Paris. The
local media there had carried the news even before the BBC flashed it. We toasted a great victory. On January 24, 1988, I received the following the hand written note: “To Frank, with my thanks, to the best organiser I have ever known and a dear friend and comrade. Arthur”.
Under the union rules that result should have seen Scargill
installed as President until he retired as, after a five-year term of
office, he would be over the age of 55 after which national officials
are not required to stand for re-election. This upset Thatcher and the
media, who thought they had finished Scargill off. Even Neil Kinnock
was quietly predicting a “Palace Revolution” within the NUM.
Out-manoeuvred by Scargill, Thatcher decided it was time to move the
goalposts again and another new anti-union bill was rushed through
Parliament requiring re-election of union national officials by postal
ballot every five years regardless of their age.
Then came the Vice-Presidential contest of 1989. Sammy’s ashes hadn’t settled down before Eric Clarke was announced as the “Unity” candidate. But in February, at a special conference on officials and staff cuts, it was decided that Scotland, with a membership of just over 3,000 but with three officials and four staff was to lose some of its top-heavy administration. Eric Clarke volunteered for early retirement so he withdrew from the Vice
During a tea break at another meeting of the ‘New Left’ the Vice President’s position was again discussed. John Walsh was on the NEC of the NUM and was under pressure to decide whether to contest for re-election or go for the National Vice Presidency. Johnny knew that,
with both positions running at the same time, it would not be to his advantage to have his name on two ballot papers simultaneously. The
outcome of this tea-break discussion was that John Walsh would stand as the front-runner, but George Bolton and George Rees would allow
their names to be put forward. This would allow them to hedge their bets and with a 1, 2, 3 treble one of them would win with Johnny Walsh
the favourite. Remember how Alec Moffatt was defeated by the transferable votes distributed to Sid Ford? This time the “Geordies’”
vote would go to Walsh. As the Yorkshire Post said, long before the replacement of Sammy was considered, Ken Homer, the Financial
Secretary of the Yorkshire NUM, would be the “Scargillite” candidate.
What Ken and others were concerned about were the finances of the Union. The proposal to elect the National Vice President from among
members of the NEC, rather than by an individual ballot vote of the whole membership would save approximately £35,000. All this would
require a change of rule. The special conference rule change vote was 0.6 per cent short of the necessary two-thirds majority.
Here, for the first time, the new “anti-Scargill group,” formed in 1986, came out in the open, with Scotland and South Wales voting with
renowned right-wing areas. The members of this caucus are listed in information bulletins of the Jim Conway Foundation. The rejection of the NEC recommendation meant thousands of pounds would be added to the overdraft, with heavy interest rates. The Union
was under instructions to proceed with this costly exercise of electing a Vice President whose term of office was only two years. At the February NEC, it was agreed to publish in “The Miner” details of how the “Ballot will be conducted to elect the National Vice President.”
This made it clear that “each branch” was entitled to submit one nomination of a person suitable for election as National Vice
President. Then it went on to state: “In the event of more than one nomination for the position of National Vice President, the Area shall
submit the nominations to a “branch” vote in order to determine the nomination to be submitted on behalf of the Area to the National
Fair, democratic, and with adequate time to call special branch meetings to nominate and a further branch meeting to consider any
other nominations. All areas complied with this except South Wales. They took out a Court injunction blocking the election of a new Vice
President. Many readers must be astonished that an Area like South Wales, with a glorious past history of struggle, which provided outstanding leaders like Arthur Horner and Will Paynter, should now see the current leadership moving so dramatically to the right, joining forces with the breakaway UDM, using biased courts against their own union. The judge ruled that Branches, and that meant members, had no
rights in the matter of nominating a suitable candidate for National positions. They could only make “suggestions.” Then the Area Executive Committees, comprising six or seven members, had to decide on who they thought would be a “good nominee”.
Not even the Area Councils could put forward “good nominees.” According to the judge, Sir Peter Pain, they had to accept “Hobson’s
choice,” or, as he put it, “The old, discredited ‘politburo’ style of centralism”, denying the rank and file members the democratic right of
choice. The cost of this undemocratic action by the leadership of the South Wales Area NUM was estimated at £80,000. Again it was paid from
a costly overdraft.
The outcome was that John Walsh was a victim. Johnny didn’t stand for re-election for the NEC. He awaited the outcome of the court case.
But a rule change was carried at the 1991 Conference whereby all NEC members, who were already elected by membership vote, could therefore stand on behalf of their constituencies for National office and Frank Cave was duly elected as Vice President.
All this could have taken place in 1988, saving the NUM £80,000 and avoiding the discrediting of the good name of the South Wales miners. I am sure many will find the motives of the South Wales leadership difficult to understand. But I am equally sure they will have no difficulty understanding why the judge favoured South Wales.
The Jim Parker incident “Pieces of silver … blood money from a crook and a thief”
At the 1992 NUM Conference, Peter Heathfield denounced former NUM employees who took “pieces of silver” from former “Mirror” proprietor and thief, Robert Maxwell. In the light of the revelations that many pensioners on a low income are among the victims, one would have
thought if these former NUM employees had any decency in their bodies they would hand back this dirty money and ask for forgiveness.
The one who upset me most of all was Jim Parker, Arthur Scargill’s chauffeur and life-long friend. Both joined the Young Communist League
together when I was the South Yorkshire Secretary of the Communist Party. I knew Jim and all his family and I am sure they are shocked if the truth was told.
On Monday July 3 1989 the Daily Mirror ran a story, “Scargill axes his minder pal,” in which it was claimed Arthur had made Jim take
voluntary redundancy because he couldn’t justify having him as his chauffeur as the Union was cutting down on administrative jobs. Jim
reluctantly accepted a £20,000 golden handshake and a pension for life but, according to the Mirror, an onlooker said: “There was a bit of a
bust up between the two old pals.” Who was this onlooker? He or she must have been in the building and no one was better placed than Jim
himself to reveal the name, a suspicion that he was, indeed, later to confirm.
When the story appeared under the by-line of Terry Pattinson on the opening of the NUM Conference in Scarborough, I treated it as another attempt by the media to distract attention from the real problems facing the NUM and the coal industry. It wasn’t until Mick Clapham, at that time the NUM Industrial Relations Officer, told me on Wednesday, July 5 that a strong rumour was circulating that Jim Parker had agreed, for a large sum of money, to talk to the press about matters relating to the 1984/85 strike and the President’s personal affairs. He asked me to try to see Jim as soon as possible as he couldn’t understand the basis for such an article. Mick, who was the staff trade union representative, said: “When the agreement was reached between Jim and the Union, the branch expressed its delight that a satisfactory severance payment had been agreed and Jim had accepted what, in my opinion, was a reasonable settlement under the
I was later asked by Arthur Scargill to see Jim Parker. He said he had tried to get Jim on the phone. He asked Derek Stubbings, another close mutual acquaintance, to deliver a note to Jim giving a personal telephone number to ring. “I just can’t make head nor tale of this, but I am concerned” said Arthur. “Leave it alone, I will soon get to the bottom of it”, I replied. I told Arthur I would make it a priority to see Jim when I got back to Barnsley. I tried to see him on the Saturday but he had gone away for the weekend. On Sunday, July 9 I phoned Jim’s home and he was in a jovial mood. I arranged to see him on the following day to talk over the matter.
We had a very enjoyable, friendly and serious discussion about the problems of the Party and the effect divisions were having on the Labour Movement. We then got down to the problem of this article in the Daily Mirror. At this stage Jim made it clear he was not aware of it until the Press had informed him a week before. He claimed he had never spoken to the Press and never would talk to the capitalist Press, especially “scab” Press like the Sun and News of the World.
I allowed him to pour out his feelings and I listened very carefully with an open mind and gave him the assurance that what we said to each other was on the basis of mutual trust and respect. But these kinds of rumours did worry people. People like Mick Clapham and Arthur Scargill, and I had promised them I would discuss the matter with him. I was under a personal obligation to inform them of our conversation.
Jim said: “That’s fair, but I am surprised that anyone, including Arthur Scargill, would ever think I would become a ‘Judas.’ I could have sold a story during the strike for £250,000, but if I had done that my wish would have been to walk out of this house and be struck dead by a bus. I am a Communist; my loyalty is with the working class. Arthur Scargill is the best leader the miners ever had.” I was convinced of his sincerity only at that stage. He then went on to describe what happened to the article on July 3 and the harassment he had been through since then.
He said he had been on holiday for two weeks before the event. The first intimation he had had was a telephone call from the Sun. In a good class reaction he told them where to get off. He admitted that he had got Arthur’s message, tried to phone him a couple of times and then must have mislaid the personal telephone number. When I asked him: “If, when you were on holiday, you never spoke to the Press and never will, who, in your opinion, did?” His answer was: “I don’t need three guesses.” He named another former NUM employee, who, he said, had often claimed that he would “do” the President.
At this stage I listed a number of rumours that he was alleged to have spread about Arthur’s privileges and personal style of life. His immediate reaction was one of dismay. I reminded Jim that he was like a private secretary who was taken into full confidence, not only by Arthur Scargill but the many, many contacts and friends that had to be made to secure the wherewithal to sustain the year-long strike. Any breach of confidence, either about union business or about one’s personal style of life could and almost certainly would mean the Press would use it for ulterior political motives which would result in many good friends of the NUM facing political and personal consequences.
After nearly two hours’ discussion I put the following propositions to him: a) I understand you left in a spirit of good relationship with Arthur Scargill; that you and Elaine (Jim’s wife) had a meal with Arthur and Anne Scargill and he expressed his gratitude for your ten years’ loyal service to the NUM and presented you with a watch to express his gratitude; b) that you and Arthur had spoken to each other since you left the Union and at no time did you suggest that you had been badly treated.
Jim’s reply was definitely “Yes.” I then put forward another proposition regarding Jim’s assurance that he had been set up by the other former employee whose name he had mentioned. I suggested that the Mirror article was libellous and that he should consider suing the paper for damages. I told him this would not cost him anything as he would be defending the name of his Union. I got a cool reception. He claimed if it became known that he had voluntarily accepted severance payment and had been offered another job he could be in difficulty with Social Security as he was in receipt of unemployment benefit as a redundant person. I told him he was all right. His dilemma arose from a request he had made to Mick Clapham, his Union representative, that he should be considered for redundancy payment under one of the three criteria for severance payment, namely that there was genuine job reduction and that he would not be replaced. He admitted Arthur Scargill didn’t put any pressure on him, but he was finding it difficult to adapt to other forms of work and working hours. Arthur was no longer on the TUC and the Coal Board was not talking to the NUM, so his old job as chauffeur was no longer a full-time post.
My second proposition was that he and I should get together with Arthur Scargill to discuss the issue. His immediate reaction was there was nothing to discuss and that the proposition suggested that I didn’t trust him. I said: “No, I trust you, but I want to see you and Arthur resume the kind of comradely relationship you have had since the days I first met both of you over 30 years ago.” I then asked him if he would meet Arthur. His reply was: “Certainly.” I told him that I had promised to phone Arthur and make arrangements and he said it would be fine any night except Tuesday. I phoned Arthur and told him Jim would call him and make the necessary arrangements. This never happened and when Arthur phoned me, enquiring about Jim’s phone call, he said: “He has no intention of meeting me.”
I must say that by this time I was having my doubts reinforced by the fact that Jim was reluctant to sue for damages, using the excuse of voluntary and not compulsory redundancy. As time went on, there was a further discussion with Jim about the minutes of his union which showed that he asked to be considered for severance payment under the third condition, “genuine job reduction”, and about his aggressive reaction to the question I put to him: “Would you sign a statement for the union lawyers that you were not sacked or axed. He had replied: “I don’t trust Mick Clapham, Dave Feickhert or Brian Parkin, and in no way will I go into court with them.” There is an old saying: “Those who live in lass houses should not throw stones.” I was now convinced that I had been taken for a ride.
Now the cat was out of the bag. Both Terry Pattinson, industrial correspondent and Roy Greenslade, the Editor of the “Mirror”, shed more light on who was telling the truth. “I have been working on the Scargill story for seven months” said Terry Pattinson. Roy Greenslade claims that Roger Windsor and Jim Parker had been under contract to the “Mirror”, that “The figure mentioned in the Press is £100,000 between them.” A bit short of the £250,000 Jim was offered during the strike.
The union he appears to have been prepared to betray gave him many years of an easy number and a golden handshake of £20,000 after only ten years’ service. That’s more than the Coal Board gave to many redundant miners. Maybe such a person is not concerned about any principles. The blood money he got came from a crook and a thief, who stole it from innocent pensioners. Surely now is the time to say enough harm has been done. Hand back the filthy blood money to the Mirror Group Pension Scheme and at least be able to sleep at night. I doubt that he has the guts to do it, though.
A clean bill of health – miners now need to defeat privatisation
1990 saw Arthur Scargill and Peter Heathfield subjected to a sustained
campaign of vilification by the media, particularly the crook Maxwell’s Daily Mirror, but following exhaustive enquiries by the Inland Revenue and the Fraud Squad they have both now been given a clean bill of health.
It has now been accepted that secret accounts set up to avoid sequestration and receivership during the strike were valid trusts and not the property of the NUM as was claimed by Gavin Lightman QC. The Inland Revenue has accepted that all money has been accounted for and loans repaid. The other allegation, originally made by the Daily Mirror and Central TV’s Cook Report, that Scargill and Heathfield directed a £1 million Soviet donation to a trust fund to build up the Miners Trade Union International for their own personal use has also been disproved.
The archives in the former Soviet Union have been opened and reveal that in 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev himself personally signed an authorisation for the payment of the money to Warsaw for the use of all miners affiliated to the Miners Trade Union International. Surely it is time the new leadership of the Labour Party accepted these same truths and turned its back on the vindictive campaign waged by some of its own MPs that saw even loyal members like Ken Homer being persecuted. Ken Capstick found himself a victim also and he has kindly written something of his experience for me to include here:
“The Hemsworth Selection” By Ken Capstick
“It was during the summer and autumn of 1991 that Neil Kinnock’s
vindictiveness towards the National Union of Mineworkers reached its
zenith. In June he associated himself clearly with the Daily Mirror
smear campaign against Scargill and Heathfield by making presentations to the three journalists involved at the British Press Awards and at the same time allowing himself to be photographed with them.
This prompted an emergency resolution to the NUM Annual Conference
in early July, in the name of the Yorkshire Area, expressing “Profound
disgust” at Kinnock’s actions. I was the Yorkshire Area Vice Chairman and I moved the resolution in the Winter Gardens at Blackpool. As I did so Kinnock himself was speaking to the Transport and General Workers’ Conference being held in the same building. Yorkshire’s resolution was carried unanimously. Kinnock must have been extremely angry and his actions over the next few months demonstrated an immaturity that was inconsistent with intelligent political leadership.
In September 1991 the NUM sponsored MP for the safe mining seat of
Hemsworth, George Buckley, sadly died, creating a by-election. In the first week of October, during the Labour Party Conference , which took place at Brighton, the process of choosing an NUM nominee began. It was also at this Conference that Ken Homer, the highly respected General Secretary of the NUM’s Yorkshire Area, who sat on the Labour Party’s Conference Arrangements Committee, was removed from that Committee in what reeked of a conspiracy. Homer’s vote, after being a consistent 5 million, suddenly plummeted to around 2.5 million.
After the Conference the NUM nominated me as their choice for Hemsworth. I had been born in the constituency and I enjoyed the support of five major unions and five out of the ten constituency branches. The Labour leadership could not miss this opportunity to take a further swipe at the NUM. Labour’s by-election rules allow for the Party’s NEC to choose a shortlist and, regardless of my overwhelming local support, a shortlist of four was announced which excluded me.
The General Management Committee in Hemsworth was livid and rejected the NEC shortlist by 56 votes to 11. The short-listing panel then imposed on this loyal mining constituency a candidate who was a headmaster, a loyal Kinnock supporter and a de-selected Euro MP with very little support in the Constituency Party.
The vindictive attitude to the NUM was an insult to the most loyal of unions and its membership who had voted by 92% to pay the political levy to support the Labour Party.
The NUM, however, had its day. In Sunderland North another re-selection took place where the by-election rules could not be used. Sunderland North decided upon Bill Etherington, the North East Area NUM Vice President. Although Bill Etherington was popular in the area many were of the view that the Hemsworth episode further enhanced his chances, ensuring that this able left-wing miner was returned to Parliament.
Ken Capstick’s treatment and experience was disgraceful and I for one hope that the Labour Party will refrain from such affairs in future. Victimising people for being friendly with Scargill is plain stupid politics as well as being unjust. I am sure John Smith, when he reads this book, as he will, must, like his predecessor in his Scottish constituency, Margaret Herbison, recall the help the Labour Party had from the Watters family of Shotts who helped to rescue North Lanark from the Tories. I know, too, that John Smith himself received the same sort of support from a younger generation of Watters. Vindictiveness and character assassination should never be practised in the Labour movement when differences emerge. The “Dream Ticket” team of Kinnock and Hattersley presided over the Labour Party when some of its leading members joined in the witch-hunt against the NUM. One who became involved was the NUM sponsored MP for Rother Valley, Kevin Barron, who has since been expelled from the union for passing on information from the NUM National Executive without authorisation. He has now been rightly removed as Labour’s parliamentary spokesman on the coal industry.
In 1984 the Sunday Times ran a story: “Pits will not go private.” It purported to represent government and Coal Board thinking at the very time that they were preparing for the massive cutback in capacity that provoked the 1984/85 strike. Now, at least, they are out in the open and their intentions are known. That should be the signal for all groupings within the NUM to abandon their petty factionalism and unite behind their leader to defeat the privatisation plans. Privatisation is not inevitable but it will take a determined, united campaign to defeat it. It was perhaps a forlornm hope but I genuinely meant it when I said in the 1992 edition that I called on George Bolton to use his influence on the
‘Left’-Centre-Right alliance in the NUM to persuade them, too. I will close by making a genuine appeal to the likes of George Bolton to use their influence to aid the process of unity in this fight against privatisation.
“Life moves on – I marry again”
A highly romantic story
It came as no great surprise to me that sooner or later the Soviet people, especially the young people, would not tolerate isolation from the rest of the world. I personally had a belly full of their stupid bureaucracy over an invitation I extended to a Soviet citizen, who is now my wife, to visit me in the UK.
I met Esta Meltser in Bulgaria in the late 1970s, following the death of my first wife. We shared holidays together both in Bulgaria and in the Soviet Union. Esta was an English teacher and during the miners’ strike her pupils asked what they could do for the British miners and their families.
We thought of an idea that they should send Christmas cards expressing solidarity with the miners’ children and a huge parcel full of them duly arrived at the Yorkshire miners’ headquarters. Owen Briscoe agreed it was a wonderful gesture on the part of the Soviet youngsters, but was a bit puzzled as to what he should do with them now they had arrived. I said that would be no problem as I knew of schools in Barnsley where pupils were studying Russian and the cards were distributed amongst them.
As a result of her involvement, Esta was invited as a guest of the Yorkshire Miners to their centenary gala in 1986, but then the Soviet bureaucrats stepped in and stopped her leaving her home in Sverdlovsk (now called Ekaterinburg). Worse, Mikhail Shrebny, one of the Soviet miners’ leaders, tried to use the episode as an excuse to engineer an invitation for himself. It was only after prolonged wrangling which is all too depressing to relate, which involved the Soviet bureaucracy right up to the level of their ambassador in London, that Esta was finally allowed to travel in 1989, when we were married in Barnsley.
Our marriage was a grand affair. Just as I had ensured my daughter’s wedding was a grand assembly of good friends, musical talent and working class cuisine! I am not an organiser for nothing – there have never been many perks to my job. It was pleasant that, because Arthur and I are such close friends and comrades, the media was so interested in our wedding. Particularly, for Esta, who was overwhelmed with the kindness and enthusiasm shown to her by so many people. Even the Yorkshire regional TV magazine programme “Calendar” devoted several minutes to a special report of what, I suppose, can only be called a highly romantic story. Well – two people in their twilight years, deserving of the close companionship that being man and wife implies; set apart by bureaucracy and brought together by the magical efforts of a well-known “personality”. It was a good story and I have to admit a good thing that happened to me.
Pic: Frank, always ready for new challenges – learning to swim for the very first time at the age of 67.
Changing one’s personal lifestyle so late in life is difficult. It was difficult when aged 36, I married for the first time. It was difficult when aged 56, I found myself a widower. Aged 69, I married again and, for a fair few years, Esta stayed with me, eventually returning to Russia to be nearer her own family; we have kept in touch and I have no regrets. Even with all the problems that married life inevitably brings, I can say that I have been truly blessed. Not once, but twice.
Chapter 27: By way of an epilogue
So, there it is – my story so far. I hear people say that they are sorry for Communists, having spent a lifetime in pursuit of an illusion. But after all these years I still feel sorry for people who have not had what Harry Pollitt used to call the “shining light of socialism” to guide them. Nor have I any shame for a “cowardly and useless past”, as Ostrokovsky would have it. “All my life and all my strength” was exerted for good not evil.
Pic: Harry Pollitt, long-term General Secretary of the
Communist Party; Frank always kept this favourite portrait of the man he most highly regarded throughout his life handy to him.
Like the Christian who argues that the message in the “Good Book” is the truth about his faith, not the cowardly antics of those who have called themselves Christian, I believe that the essential message of Marx, Engels and Lenin has validity. Christianity has to look the Spanish Inquisition in the eye, as Marxism has to account for Stalin’s purges. Christianity has seen far more splinters, factions, schisms, rows and alternative centres of authority than Marxism. Not much more, but more certainly! Roman Catholics today rarely defend Francisco Franco’s butchery in Spain, even though his murderous actions were committed in their name. Equally, I do not defend the worst excesses of Marxists carried out in the name of Communism.
But I do defend the record of British Communists. We have much to be proud of. We were against the First World War when it was not fashionable to be so; we fought unemployment imaginatively, leading a mass movement; we founded a daily paper and kept it going, even to this day; we opposed Fascism most courageously; we played a part in the trade union movement unequalled by any other section; we campaigned for world peace and against nuclear war, when it was difficult to do; we pioneered cultural alternatives to the establishment in science, art, history, literature; we struggled for freedom in the colonies and opposed racism when others dare not; we gave sustenance and support to all in struggle, whether it was 1921 and 1926, or 1972 and 1984/85, whether it was miners or nurses, always unhesitatingly; we brought organisation, discipline, professionalism, a sense of duty, vision, subtlety and a grasp of the tension between tactics and strategy, wherever we went and to all movements in which we were involved.
Above all we were audacious. No one can take that away from us. As Robespierre had it, “L’audace, l’audace, l’audace.” Boldness Forever! It is not for me to rubbish such qualities. Others are quicker to point out the failings of the CPGB! Let them do that and let me point out my pride in seventy years of sacrifice and toil. Great movements, great ideologies have a life of their own, as surely as their adherents do. I remain an atheist, a logical man. I reject superstition and dogma alike, but socialism, communism and Marxism ought not to be, and never were dogmas or superstitions. My beliefs are coloured by centuries of struggle, intertwined with logical, scientific assessment of the world about us; whether that is self-assessment or assessment of systems, nations and movements.
It is fashionable for commentators in the ‘Independent’ or the ‘Guardian’ to wonder whether ‘society’ is dead, history is dead, or whether socialism is dead. These ponderings are trite and fallacious. Humanity will always strive for betterment; a betterment for all, to boot. It is in our nature to be gregarious, concerned for others. Forms of society and governments come and go; the battle for social concern being waged in those societies in ways which reflect and mould the character of the world as it is at the time. The making of history goes on. Lessons of struggle are passed on generation unto generation.
My generation knew poverty, repression and war. Hard times occasioned harsh responses. The Communist Party, as it was, came about as the organised expression of the best instincts of the British working class and its allies.
Those instincts have seen expression before. This year is the 350th Anniversary of the outbreak of the English Civil War. Without the heroism and sacrifice of the ordinary folk in the New Model Army, Britain would never have been able to become what, in its better moments, it can be. The enormous debt the world owes to the French liberationists in internationalising the very concept of freedom was by no means lost on Britain. Progressive politics in this country were born out of the crucible of the struggles which these two great social upheavals jointly characterise.
The creation of a British Working Class in the Industrial Revolution took place against the backcloth of such traditions. Critics of the USSR forget that Britain became a modern country by savagery and brutality of the worst kind. No one knows exactly how many died in the creation of our canals and railways, or in the gigantic population movements which saw the birth of our cities.
That working class has experienced a long and difficult road to the present day. Trade Unionism and revolutionary politics are deep-seated phenomena. The struggle has often veered between industrial and political tactics and strategies. Early trade unionism gave sustenance to Chartism, the most successful single issue campaign ever, which virtually created Britain as a democratic country. Afterwards Model Unions were created, with efficient organisational structures, and the notion spread to the unskilled in the New Unionism of the turn of the Century. Syndicalists like Tom Mann, later a great Communist, strove for effective, militant unions. Workers rightly struggled to have their voice in Parliament.
This century has been dominated by the politics of war and empire. Our very own shop stewards movement owes its origins to this fact, as did the Communist Party. Clearly, the Bolshevik Revolution was a turning point for socialism. It signalled that struggle need not be blind or doomed. Success was and is possible, even if it is not permanent! In that sense, the 70-year history of Communism is as valid, more so in fact, than the two decades or so each of Jacobinism, Luddism, Owenism, Chartism, Model Unionism, New Unionism and Syndicalism.
As movements fade away, they re-emerge in new conditions, with new objectives but similar motives. Just like families, new blood comes in; births, deaths and marriages take place. The family tree of British radicalism is broad and deep. But it is truly sturdy.
Pic: Frank was intensely proud of his most immediate family and this was his favourite picture of them, taken in 1992 at a Miners’ Gala in Yorkshire, the year Frank’s book was published.
Decades on, his grandchildren, Ben Stevenson and Joanne Stevenson, are no longer small children (!) but leading figures in their own right in the British Communist movement.
Frank’s daughter, Lesley, and son-in-law, Graham are also in the picture.
What will come next? Ah, that’s another story, and you had best ask my grandchildren in 25 years time. They will know and I know that my life and my work will be part and parcel of the great changes and struggles that the 21st Century will see unfold. The seeds are already well sown; fear not, those of you who are uncertain and confused.
Whatever the politics of ordinary people is called, however left-wing radicalism takes shape, it will never leave us. Its origins are too deep in the experience of the nations which make up the British Isles. I think that I can genuinely look back on a lifetime which equals that of Communism itself, seven decades or so, and say that, in no small way, I contributed to that rich experience.
Disillusioned? Never! I was never “illusioned” in the first place; only fired with determination to do right by my own kind, as they say, in my own way. Being Frank Watters has meant being frank with my friends and enemies. Being Frank Watters has meant being fearless. This record of that experience has been a contribution to that endeavour – but I assure you, by no means my last!!!
Below: the obituary on Frank in the Guardian, 12th August 2002 – some minor inaccuracies arose from the peculiar demands of the paper’s house style and eccentric editing! A potted biography is available elsewhere on this site.