Born in Sutton Bonnington, Loughborough, Elinor Burns (1887- 1978) was active in the labour movement from 1917 when she joined the Independent Labour Party (MI5 files KV2/1763). In the period immediately before this, she was a prolific writer of books, pamphlets, and articles on the franchise, women’s education, equal pay. She joined Edmonton Co-operative Society in 1919 and was a member of the London Co-operative Society (LCS) from its formation. Being active in the Women’s Co-operative Guild, Elinor was a well-known figure of some importance in the co-operative movement for the rest of her life.
Eleanor was also one of the Communist Party’s most respected figures in the co-op movement, being a member of the LCS management committee from 1941 and its nominee on the Food Control, Insurance Tribunal and. other, similar bodies during the war. (LCS 1950 election leaflet, Michael Walker)
Married in 1913 to Emile Burns (1889-1972), with whom she would go on to have two children, Susannah and Marca, Elinor was also a life-long member of the Communist Party, which she joined in November 1923 from the Independent Labour Party. Emile was a founder member in 1920 and would be a significant figure in the Party’s educational and ideological work for very many decades.
In the 1920s, she wrote a series of extensive briefing books for the Labour Research Department, about Britain’s colonies – including Egypt, Ireland, China, West Africa, and Malaya. During this period, she was connected with the League Against Imperialism.
A member of the London District Committee of the Communist Party from 1936, she was Treasurer at the Marx Memorial Library & Workers’ School from 1936-38, when she was particularly anxious to raise funds to spread classes in Marxism around the country. She also worked in the office of the London district of the Party on cases of breaches of discipline. Elinor was elected to the national leadership of the Party at the 16th congress in 1943, at which the Central Committee was renamed Executive Committee. (MI5 files KV2/1763)
During this period, Elinor was a powerful voice at the national Co-operative Party Congress, becoming a nationally known figure. Since 1927, it had an electoral pact with the Labour Party, with both parties agreeing not to stand candidates against each other, and candidates selected by both parties contesting as ‘Labour and Co-operative Party’. But the Co-operative Party is a legally separate entity from the Labour Party, and Labour’s bans on Communists holding office did not formally apply at that time. In 1948, Elinor and others were removed from the Co-op Party’s speakers’ panel but this did not affect the ability of Communists to stand for the boards of co-operative societies (Daily Worker 6 August1948).
After the EC had discussed several important reforms within the Party, Elinor and others would establish the first formal Communist Party National Women’s Advisory Council in 1944 to “study all problems affecting women and to develop co-operation with other women’s organisations”. Secretary was Tamara Rust, the National Womens Organiser, and, sitting alongside Elinor were Dr. Joan MacMichael, Councillor Mrs. Mabel Lewis, chair of the Mountain Ash Urban District Council, Nan McMillan, a prominent figure among women teachers, and May Williams, an engineering shop steward.
Elinor was a regular feature writer for the Daily Worker on co-operation issues during the war. In the post war era, for some nine years, she was a member of the management committee of the Peoples’ Press Publishing Society, the publisher of the Daily Worker, and was for a long period its vice-chair. She went back to her roots as a trained economic historian in 1947 in making one of the first post-war Marxist analyses of wages drift in the Labour Monthly of March 1947. She was also a key figure in the CP’s National Cultural Committee at this time.
As revealed by now released MI5 records, the Burns family was under constant surveillance for much of their lives. The last known entry is June 1971. Elinor’s membership of the Party’s Social Services Committee was even of interest to the spooks, especially when she took Phil Piratin to task for what we would now call misogyny slightly gout out of hand argument, where she won the support of the other men.
But the main reason Britain’s security forces focused on the family in the 1950s was that the Burnses had taken a special interest in helping the Communist Party of the Netherlands to regroup after the Cold War had rendered its previously very popular existence somewhat tenuous. We now know that this was because western security forces were anxious to create a split in the CPN, which would eventually occur when Dutch secret police took over the entire party.
Little distinction between security force interest in Elinor or Emile is shown in their reports. Some sensitive matters, ostensibly only Emile’s business, involving both of them were inaudibly recorded by bugs. The home of the Burns family was even suspected as being used for some secret Party work, so clearly the couple operated as a unit. Their joint visits to places like Prague, Berlin, Warsaw, and Copenhagen clearly excited attention, although searches of their bags never revealed anything of interest. Elinor made her own journeys to the German Democratic Republic to advise on the setting up of a co-operative movement. Whilst a note from a senior liaison officer covering West Africa noted her involvement in something not recorded in her file in 1952. The over-riding impression is that Warsaw Pact forces trusted them above all, whilst NATO’s services were fascinated with their lives.
Though this less applied to the Co-operative Movement, where many Communists played an outstanding role in, not the least stiffening resolve to maintain its essential principles. Elinor was part of a group of party members who were highly regarded even by their enemies in the London Co-operative Society and she was the author of a number of pamphlets and booklets on relevant issues for the Party.
Her grasp of the big issues facing Co-operation was well revealed in Marxism Today in August 1958, when she wrote a piece promoted by the challenges faced by the movement after the end of rationing saw a rapid growth in consumption in the late 1950s and 1960s and self-service shops and supermarkets began to spread throughout the country. From around a mere 50 in 1950, there were 572 by 1961. (Jane Hamlett, Andrew Alexander, Adrian R. Bailey and Gareth Shaw, `Regulating UK supermarkets: an oral-history perspective’, History and Policy.)
The Co-operative Movement then accounted for a fifth of all food spending and, while many chose to continue to shop at a Co-op because of the benefit offered by the dividend, counter service was seen as a friendly but time-consuming as women increasingly looked for work.
An independent Co-operative Commission was set up in 1956, following a resolution by the Co-operative Congress. Under the chairmanship of Hugh Gaitskell, the new leader of the Labour Party, and Secretaryship of Tony Crossland, a leading revisionist thinker in Labour, it produced a report recommending that there should be a reduction in the number of retail societies from over a thousand to two or three hundred.
The Commission also advised that the Co-ops begin to sell only at market prices and to cease a reliance on the dividend and this aspect saw Communists leap into action in countless Co-operative Societies right across the country.
Despite her high profile as a Party Co-operator in the 1950s, Elinor had been employed by the London Co-op. No doubt a lot of anti-Communist pressure had been exerted but this had failed. However, a party functionary was told by Emile in 1953, in confidence, that she was retiring and had a research job lined up. The conversation was recorded by a hidden MI5 microphone but the operative typing the report up was unable to understand it as Emile started whispering!
Both of the Burnses went through very serious periods of ill-health in the early 1950s, occasioning long absences from Party work. A succession of photographs in the period more than evidence the effect this had. Elinor was approaching 70 as the 1956 Party congress loomed and now simply recorded her occupation as “housewife”.
Although, some commentators have sought to make much of the fact that Elinor allowed her name to go forward as a nominee for the election of the EC but was not chosen by the 20-strong “panel” committee to once again be on the recommended list to be presented to Congress. Delegates were free to vote for who they wished but the committee’s role was to deliberate on representations to it over balance of differing types of representation. It has been implied that there was some political unease over Elinor going on to the EC, associated with de-Stalinisation. This is pure speculation based on thin air.
The Panel’s records are abundantly clear. There was great pressure to keep the same number of women on the EC. A case had been made to continue to include Bessie Wilde on the EC as new names came to the fore. Not only was she from Lancashire, which helped balance representation from that district, as a 49 year old teacher, who was on the board of her co-operative in Altrincham, and who was also a national delegate to the Co-operative Wholesale Society and on the EC of her district Co-op Union, it was no shock that the Panel reported to congress that Bessie was their choice.
After a review of inner-Party democracy , the Panel was replaced by the Elections Preparations Committee but the process was similar. One key difference is that comparing and contrasting candidates was not now permitted. Delegates lobbying the EPC did not need to argue for one candidate off to match the one they wanted on.
Elinor lived more quietly in her elder years, remaining active in her Party branch. It was not quite as common when she died at the age of 91 years to live to such a great age as it has become. She outlived Emile by six years. Both had done great service to their Party and the wider labour movement.
Thanks to Jim Coombs for pictures