Born in 1920, Don Brayford was active in RAF as a serviceman from 1938 to 1948. During the Second World War, he was stationed in the Middle East, where Communist activity in the forces was particularly strong. He was involved in the Cairo Forces Parliament from 1942-3 and was a key figure in a 1946 strike in India.
On returning to Civvy Street, he joined the Communist Party in June 1948 and became a leading figure in the Communist Party in Walsall. This was a borough where the Communist Party’s important figures from the 1930s were Don and ‘Dusty’ Bennett, both of whom fought in Spain where Dusty died. Don Brayford could later recall being able to sell 500 Daily Workers at the opening of the famous Arboretum Lights, despite the onset of the cold war.
He was a member of the Clerical and Administrative Workers Union (later APEX now part of the GMB) and was a member of its Midlands Regional Council from 1948-51. But this was a fiercely anti-Communist union and Don moved to the TGWU, which – despite also having a ban on Communists holding office – was more much friendly at that time in its Midlands region. Despite the ban, he became a shop steward and a branch official; he was also on the Executive Committee of Walsall Trades Council until 1957.
He became a full-time Party worker in 1953 as the South Staffs Area Secretary and was a full-timer for the Communist Party for the rest of his working life, rising to the position of Midlands District Organiser, in which he was primarily responsible for membership and finance. He was married with four children.
George Barnsby recalls him as an “organiser who made great sacrifices by living on an inadequate Party wage, which often never arrived, and of whom my abiding memory is of Don on his motorbike in the bitter weather of the New Year out every night re-registering reluctant Party members”.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Walsall Communists were to the forefront of a long struggle by council house tenants to maintain decent social housing at reasonable cost. Don Brayford was the Secretary of Walsall Council House Tenants Association from its formation in June 1967. He, his wife, Maude, and others played a leading role in the co-ordination of this and in the National Association of Tenants and Residents.
An attempt was made to use the introduction of conurbation status for Walsall in 1968 as an excuse for increasing rents of between 15/- (75p) and as much as £4 12s (£4 60p). After a massive struggle, during the course of which huge numbers of tenants were mobilised, Walsall council completely climbed down. It was a high point, along with similar action in other places such as Clydebank, which would signal a widespread campaign that culminated in a huge national demonstration of tenants in Trafalgar Square against the rent increases sweeping the country.
A wave of tenants’ activity took place across the country in response to government aims to set rents at a `market level’, with rent strikes and new organisations set up in many towns and boroughs. In Tower Hamlets, a borough with a strong Communist municipal presence, 2,000 tenants lobbied a council meeting. By November 1968, 11,000 London households were withholding rent. A demonstration of 3,000 tenants outside the Housing Minister's home in Hampstead was held. In the face of this widespread action, in November 1969, the government passed legislation limiting rent rises.
It had been hoped that this mass action in Walsall might translate into a breakthrough for the Communist Party in the area but, in the event, when Don Brayford stood in the 1970 general election for the Walsall North constituency, held by Labour, he polled 597 votes, or 1.24% of the vote. The new Conservative government brought in by this election, amongst many other reactionary moves, then passed the 1972 Housing Finance Act, which instituted a `fair’ rent concept. By law, the rents must increase by a swingeing £1 a week from October 1972.
Walsall featured strongly in the campaign against the Act launched by the National Association of Tenants and Residents. Over 80 rent strikes and tenants’ protests took place across the country. Three Labour councils refuse to implement the act and were surcharged. No affiliate to the National Association was more committed than Walsall to the campaign to defend Clay Cross, the north-east Derbyshire Labour borough associated with the Skinner brothers in the campaign arising from its refusal to implement the 1972 Act and especially the rent rise.
Eventually the Constituency Labour Party barred the eleven councillors from its list of approved candidates and the District Auditor ordered them to pay a surhcarge of £635 each, finding them guilty of negligence. The surcharge was upheld by the High Court, as well as barring the councillors from public office for five years. Clay Cross urban district council was absorbed by the North East Derbyshire District Council from April 1974.
Even with these set backs the Walsall tenants’ movement remained one of the longest lasting of such associations. In 1980, rent strikes once again took place in Walsall against large rent increases, even as the Thatcher government brought in the policy of a `right to buy’.
Although he had briefly toyed with opposing the line adopted by the Communist Party over the events in Czechoslovakia in 1968, Don Brayford remained a loyal member of the Communist Party of Great Britain until the end.
But this did not stop him becoming especially incensed over Ruben Falber’s revelations in the early 1990s of considerable Soviet funding to the Party over the years that he had scrimped and saved to maintain the financial basis of the many impressive achievements of the Midlands Communist Party. The leadership of the Walsall tenants’ movement was one such accomplishment, much of the credit for which must go to the gritty integrity of Don Brayford.
Sources: Harry Bourne report to CP EC 31st December 1968 – CPGB Archives; GS personal knowledge; George Barnsby: [http://gbpeopleslibrary.co.uk/blog/?m=200507; `The Story Of Clay Cross’ by David Skinner and Julia Langdon (1974)