DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS, CAMPAIGNS AND POLITICAL WORK
APRIL 1956- DECEMBER 1959
THE ECONOMIC SITUATION AND THE WORKERS’ MOVEMENT
The sharp recession that began slowly in 1955 and featured large in 1956 presented many concerns for working people, for example the sharp rise in now unregulated prices even caused the Daily Worker to appoint a “Food Correspondent”, who ran a regular `Shopping Basket’ column. The paper tracked the prices of basic foodstuffs, such as eggs, cheese, potatoes, and meat. In June 1956, it was noted that “the shopping list has jumped up by 1s 9d in the past fortnight and this is the biggest jump since we started a year ago”. [Daily Worker June 22nd 1956]
But beyond this a much more deeply worrying problem was the reoccurrence of unemployment. The re-emergence of a phenomenon that many had hoped had disappeared with the post-war consensus saw unions with a left-leaning leadership began to make threatening noises and workers grew restive. In late June, the British Motor Corporation made six thousand workers at its Longbridge factory redundant without either pay or notice. The shop stewards’ committee responded by calling a strike, which lasted for six weeks, strongly supported by Frank Cousins, despite the fact that it was the engineering union, the AEU, whose shop stewards had taken the lead.
The way the workers had been sacked, in an off-hand manner with only a week’s wages in lieu of notice, was seen by many as shoddy but was justified by the employer and the media outlets that relied upon its advertisements as inevitable due to a sudden fall in car sales. This would be a struggle of long-term significance with implications that would reach across to the decades ahead, particularly in its effects on the politics of the two biggest manufacturing unions in the country.
As we have seen, the Transport and General Workers Union had been in the grip of authoritarian and intensely anti-Communist control. This not only affected the most politically conscious of unionised workers but reached into ever nuance of employment relations at the place of work. Deakin was the archetypal trade union “boss”, who regarded internal union democracy as a hindrance, and shop stewards as troublemakers, needing to be continually policed and kept in check. Jack Jones, a later and rather different successor to Deakin, has written of the example of the Deakin-inspired agreement with the Ford Motor Company in early 1955, that this “put all power at the centre and virtually ruled out membership participation. A limited number of shop stewards were allowed, but their activities were tightly controlled and shop floor bargaining was virtually outlawed. The management could exercise a veto on the nomination of shop stewards and altogether trade union activity was effectively circumscribed. (Jones, p136)
Although there were perhaps as many as 14 unions at that time involved in the car industry, including many craft and skilled specialist bodies, the T&G and the AEU were the dominating unions. Although the AEU had right-wing leadership, at this time and for some time to come, its historic reliance on forms of internal union democracy gave considerable latitude at a district level to left-wing elements. Where this coincided with any measure of an official blind eye from T&G officials, that was now developing to see a rather different form of leadership emerging nowhere did this arise with more force than in the car industry.
A dispute at Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd, Dagenham, a recently acquired subsidiary of Ford’s next to its assembly plant that would be eventually subsumed as the body works plant, was the site for a dispute over union representation, which was referred to the Minister of Labour and National Service under the Industrial Courts Act, 1919. In the face of looming job cuts, automation was beginning to transform the car industry. Plans for a new factory lay¬out introducing American automation developments would transform Briggs Motor Bodies at Dagenham into the largest tool¬room in Western Europe. The post-war increase in productivity in bodies for Ford’s cars had seen a rise in 110,000 vehicles built in 1947, to 340.000 in 1955.
Now, new developments at Dagenham were to be implemented, which had already been tried out in the Ford Buffalo plant in the US. Some 20 workers would operate 12 presses where previously 70 would be in¬volved. When sequences were syn¬chronised, the presses would run at their maximum speed of 480 strokes per hour, as against the 220-250 strokes per hour with manual opera¬tion. The combined press shop capacity would produce panels for 800.000 vehicles per year—working a two-shift day and 40-hour week with a total labour force of 250 men per shift; this compared with a capacity of 60% of the 300, 000 vehicles being produced a year by working con¬sistent overtime and with the same labour force. On the production line for doors, where a con¬siderable amount of mechanisation had already been introduced, whereas 35 workers would have completed a certain cycle of assem¬bly at a rate of 100 doors per hour by the old methods, with the new set up only 10 workers would produce 300 doors per hour. [Daily Worker Friday June 22nd 1956]
Inter-union conflict merely represented a search by workers facing major changes in their employment for a responsive body to represent them. Fords having referred the problem to a legal mechanism, a court of Inquiry sat in public in London for four days in March to hear evidence and submissions, and also visited Dagenham. The body works had a history of conflict dating back to the dismissal of a shop steward in May 1941, twelve years before Fords took over Stoppages had been occurring “which led to the company attempts to secure discipline at Briggs in 1956, and the well publicised McLoughlin incident of January, 1957 when a (Communist) shop steward was suspended.”
The Court of Inquiry now considered the “failure of the 1955 Procedure Agreement to stop unofficial stoppages of work, and the immediate issue of the discharge of Mr McLoughlin”. The report considered “the possibilities of communist influences at Briggs, before turning to the general points about the endemic stoppages of work and the questions about the shop stewards”. Even this august body could not but note that it was the nature of the procedure agreement that led to problems, even if these establishment types turned their faces away from considering the bullying nature of management that traditionally applied in a stop-start enterprise of this kind. The Court made twenty points in their summary of their conclusions, and suggested seven recommendations for further action. [Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995, Cmnd. 131; Dispute at Briggs Motor Bodies Ltd., Dagenham]
But it would be the Midlands car industry that would feature most strongly in this new mood. Intriguingly, Jack Jones was, at this time, the Midlands Regional Secretary of the T&G. Despite his left-wing credentials and tendency to co-operate with exceptionally talented Communists, his own capability made him a difficult man to exclude. Whilst the T&G’s own motor industry activists were by no means to the left at this stage, with honourable exception such as Communists of the ilk of stalwart Jock Gibson and the then younger Eddie McCluskey, both in Coventry, Jones’ old stamping ground, the union in the Midlands region did not stand in the way of the strongly Communist-influenced AEU dominated automotive activists particularly in Birmingham. Communists in other unions in Coventry held significant union positions. Bill Warman was in fact the leading convenor in the Standard motor factory and a key figure in the battles of the late 1950s and became a highly respected figure in the Midlands labour movement. He was lay President of the Birmingham & Midlands Sheet-metal Workers Union and, as a full-time official, would eventually lead this into the National Union of Sheetmetal Workers, Coppersmiths and Domestic Heating Engineers.
In the T&G in Birmingham, Communist, Jim Falkner was the long-term convener of shop stewards for Bakelite, the plastics manufacturer, which he turned from a low-paid sweatshop in the 1930s into one of the best organised factories in Birmingham in the post-war years. A member of the T&G, he was a particular friend and mentor of Moss Evans, later that union’s General Secretary, during this period the Engineering Trade Group officer in the Midlands. Barred from formally holding office during the 1950s and early 1960s, Falkner nonetheless remained the de facto key figure in both Bakelite and the T&G’s presence in the engineering sector in Birmingham during that period. Under Frank Cousins’ leadership of the T&G, Faulkner was allowed – despite the continued existence of the ban to which a blind eye was turned by the regional leadership – to play a leading role in union affairs at a district regional level. Together with Sid Easton, during the 1950s and 1960s, Jim Faulkner also played a pivotal role in the Communist Party’s “Transport Advisory”, its development of a nascent Broad Left in the T&G and the campaign to lift the bans on Communists holding office in the T&G.
Increasingly, in the bus industry, in the docks and in the Midlands especially, the T&G’s ban on Communists holding office was effectively ignored at the shop floor level, especially after the election as General Secretary in 1956 of Frank Cousins, decidedly a man of the left. Such a circumstance would have powerful ramifications for the next quarter of a century and lay the basis for much of the events of the 1970s. Although, it has to be said that a keen rivalry between unions who strongly competed for members in manufacturing was at its most evident between the T&G and the Amalgamated Engineering Union (AEU), even in the Midlands!
BMC was the dominant car company in the Midlands, formed by the 1952 merger of the Austin Motor Company and the Nuffield Corporation, the holding company for Morris, MG, Riley and Wolseley. BMC’s headquarters were at Longbridge, on the far south west outskirts of Birmingham, where the largest plant was located. The outstanding Communist figure in the Midlands car industry in the period was Dick Etheridge, convener of shop stewards at BMC’s Longbridge plant for the thirty years from 1945, when he was then aged only 36 years. Colloquially often still known as `the `Austin’, this would later be incarnated as British Leyland, then BMW Rover and finally Rover. Following the merger, the shop stewards of the amalgamating companies formed a combine committee: the British Motor Corporation (BMC) Joint Shop Stewards Committee. In February 1956 Etheridge became Chairman of this Committee. Later in that year the Committee played a major role in the anti-redundancies strike during the fourth week of 1956 that brought the Midlands motor industry to a standstill. [Morning Star, 20 Mar 1985]
Communists had been organising Oxford’s car plants for some twenty years by this time and one of their most capable leaders, an AEU activist, was Arthur Exall, originally a Welshman, but who now led the Radiators factory as convenor. His competence and dedication had won him the position and there were powerful Communist groups in all the local car industry factories. One hiccup concerning Exall occurred during the heated anti-Communist atmosphere following the events in Hungary in 1956 that may illustrate how the refined air of theoretical debate amongst Communists did not always transcribe easily to the shop floor.
A group of politically reactionary workers were mobilised to protest at Exall’s leading trade union role in the Radiators factory; a petition was organised and management pounced on it by claiming this had effectively de-selected him as a shop steward and they were derecognising him. Exall refused to surrender his credentials card and went to the union district office seeking support. Whilst the AEU District Committee backed Exall, the terms of its motion did not commit it to doing anything about it. This uncertainty confused his members and, whilst in this state of limbo, Exall realised that the annual pay review was due in his department. He went in to see management and negotiated his own pay rise of 1/- an hour. When the workers asked him about it he told them that, since they didn’t want him as shop steward, he could only look after his own claims. Naturally, the majority of the workers cared more for this than anti-communist purges and he was immediately re-instated there and then by his members.
In his capacity as branch secretary for the AEU’s Oxford No. 4 branch, Arthur wrote to all and sundry to see of they would agree to form a BMC Combine Committee uniting all the shop stewards in the company formation that then applied to the car firms that would eventually become British Leyland and later Rover. The first attempt at gathering together in Coventry fell apart after the figurehead chair was sacked; the unity between plants was still sketchy so this went largely unchallenged. The next attempt saw the offer of a foreman’s job taken up by the person selected to front the Combine Committee, so they decided it had to be a Communist who would be the figure-head since they could rely on a comrade to resist both pressure and bribes. Les Girl was assigned the task and the Combine got together and went from strength to strength
Petrol rationing had been reintroduced in 1956 as a result of the Suez Crisis and sales of large cars slumped. BMC had been spending a fortune in its capital on development work that did not take any account of this. Indeed, the sudden surge towards the briefly fashionable bubble car that followed petrol scarcity caused something of a crisis for the company that had been brewing in any case. Since the industry had been born, it had geared production to the vagaries of the market, resulting in a culture of mass lay-offs and insecure employment. But the war years and the boom of the 1950s had bred a determination to end this once and for all, particularly amongst the now militant and strong workforce of 20,000 at Longbridge. There, the Communist Party had a factory branch of some hundreds, with scores of the shop stewards, then mostly AEU members, and sales of the Daily Worker running into several hundred.
Etheridge was backed on the powerful Works Committee, the joint shop stewards’ body by many fellow members of the Party. (An up-and-coming Communist activist in the plant was the then rather young and highly talented and later rather more famous Derek Robinson.) BMC was run by the unsympathetic Leonard Lord, a “hard-driving, foul-mouthed production man”, whose every action and word seemed designed to provoke the skilled and by now well-paid workforce. [Graham Searjeant, Financial Editor of “the Times”31 May 2007] Lord could not see that running as many as five car marques kept production and marketing costs high, dissipating cash flow and starving investment in capacity, design and quality engineering.
After an era of mass closures and the destruction of manufacturing capacity it is difficult to convey the full force of the political implications of these redundancies. Suffice to say, that a government reeling with the damage inflicted upon it by Suez did not face the prospects of a major confrontation with equanimity. This was a devastating blow, not the least since around 48,000 workers were already on short time in the region and 11,272 were wholly unemployed. Some 3,000 of the redundancies were to be at the Austin works in Birmingham and 800 at the Morris works in Cowley. Most of the remainder were at component factories in Birmingham, Oxford, and Llanelli. Other employees were to be put on a three-day or four-day working week. Short-time working had been introduced for some of the corporation’s employees some months previously. [The Times, June 28th 1956]
The shop stewards’ committee responded by calling a strike, which lasted for six weeks. Under Frank Cousins’ leadership, egged on by Jack Jones, the T&G strongly supported the strike, despite the fact that it was AEU shop stewards who had taken the lead. The company was reliant on highly integrated supply lines across many discreet but allied plants in the Midlands, which provided an integrated but complicated production process easily disrupted by strike action in one small part of the whole. Workers quickly discerned a new power accorded to them the very process of production.
In a completely separate dispute, a “complete breakdown” of negotiations was announced between the Standard Motor Company and the nine unions over proposals for a three-day week, by which it was hoped to absorb the 2,640 men declared redundant because of “retooling” at the firm’s tractor factory. The talks collapsed 24 hours after union officials had persuaded management representatives to consider three-day working as an alternative to dismissing more than a thousand workers; 1,325 were already laid off.
The atmosphere of major crisis was hardly eased when in Coventry, in a completely separate dispute, a “complete breakdown” of negotiations was announced between the Standard Motor Company and the nine unions over proposals for a three-day week, by which it was hoped to absorb the 2,640 men declared redundant because of “retooling” at the firm’s tractor factory. The talks collapsed 24 hours after union officials had persuaded management representatives to consider three-day working as an alternative to dismissing more than a thousand workers; 1,325 were already laid off. The T&G’s Harry Urwin, acting as Coventry district secretary of the CSEU, was handed a letter from the company that stated that: “The board is forced to the conclusion that it is put under duress by threats of strike action. Negotiation under duress is quite impossible.” So the Standard withdrew the offer to re-examine further short-time working, albeit that notices to extend the mass dismissals stood. [The Times June 28, 1956]
The year after the BMC dispute, the company launched the Mini as its answer to the bubble car. Despite the momentary success of the Mini, complacently as ever, the British car industry bosses continued on a long-term course of failing to invest in the development of quality products for a worldwide market, focusing mainly on the domestic market. Unquestionably, there were two gains from this historic and critical dispute; firstly, workers would from hereon always expect notice and consultation over dismissal, secondly, BMC workers moved to create their own combine committee and the value of this kind of co-ordination would not be lost on other workers. Within two years, workers in the car industry would be successfully seeking parity of earnings across the sector, as when 1,500 Pressed Steel workers in Swindon struck for over a month, causing lay-offs of 30,000, in their campaign to win the same deal as the allied Cowley operation.
In March 1957, national strikes in shipbuilding and engineering added to the atmosphere of a major crisis in industrial relations, involving as it did over a million workers. In consequence, the Tory government actually pressed employers to concede substantial wage increases. The dispute was referred to the Minister of Labour and National Service under the Industrial Courts Act, 1919 and a Court of Inquiry sat in public in London in April 1957. Agreement had been reached 29th February 1956 for increases of 12s 6d a week for skilled workers, 11s 0d for semi-skilled and 9s 6d for unskilled, to take effect from 5th March 1956. On 25th April the AEU passed a resolution urging the submission of a claim for a further substantial wage increase, and the Employers’ Federation refused this making it clear that they considered that further increases in wages would be inflationary, and against government policy.
In August, the AEU’s EC was instructed to press for rise of 10% across the board. The Court of Inquiry showed concern that the dispute had become “an integral part of an inflationary situation which confronts the whole economy”’, and, following a previous 1954 Court of Inquiry warned that such a movement could undermine the economy. The Court suggested “an authoritative and impartial body should be appointed to consider the economic arguments”. [Cmnd. 159, `Dispute between employers who are members of the Engineering and Allied Employers’ National Federation and workmen who are members of the trade unions affiliated to the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions’, Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995]
The shipbuilding part of the dispute was also simultaneously referred to a Court of Inquiry, which sat in public in London during April 1957. The Employers’ Federation pressed for an increase that took account of the costs to the industry if the full union claim were conceded. The Court of Inquiry looked at the contentions of the parties and concluded that “the claim is based on the present prosperity of the industry, and the brightness of its future prospects, and the alleged inadequacy of the existing minimum time rates for skilled and unskilled labour in the industry, and on the rise in retail prices which has occurred since the last wage settlement was made in February, 1956”. It suggested a wage increase of 8s 6d as an interim arrangement and commented on “the introduction of new machinery, the elimination of certain practices such as stoppages of work and embargoes on overtime, the proper recognition of starting and finishing times, and complete observerance of all agreements both national and local.” [Cmnd. 160, `Dispute between employers who are members of the Engineering and Allied Employers’ National Federation and workmen who are members of the trade unions affiliated to the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions’, Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995] Despite the circumlution, it was not a defeat for sure, even if the obsession with procedures clouded the underlying problem and the issue of piece rates was poorly addressed. For the AEU leadership, it was good enough and the union emerged with a renewed reputation, resulting in increased membership; the number of shop stewards rose by around a third between in just four years from 1957.
As for the T&G, it could begin to look upon its newish power bases in engineering and the car industry with some satisfaction but in one of its heartlands, the bus industry, things were not so good. Outside of London, the last half of the 1950s were marked by unsatisfactory yearly national battles in the bus industry on wages, as the pay of bus crews deteriorated compared to other forms of employment. Outside of London, the industry was organised under two national joint councils, one for the municipally owned companies and tramway sector and another for the private companies. The latter, the National Council for the Omnibus Industry (NCOI) saw a last minute settlement in 1955 avert a strike, when rises of between 5/-and 10/- were agreed. But, in 1957, an offer of 3/-, compared to a claim for £1 a week rise, triggered a national stoppage. A month’s notice of intention to strike was given and the stoppage was eagerly anticipated. Whilst this flexing of muscles was serious, there were problems in maintaining a major press for improved conditions and pay, aside and apart even from the Deakinite nature of many of the officials servicing the sector at the time. Bus workers were being employed on low pay and made up the difference by long hours of overtime and this state of affairs continued for some time to come.
But in the London bus industry, which still had a significant Communist involvement and had emerged as a major power base for the increasing set of new left-wing T&G leaders, a major conflict emerged during 1958. Interestingly, Sam Henderson, a former Communist dismissed because of his refusal to leave the Party, had left it over Hungary and was now reappointed as National Secretary of the Passenger Services Trade Group of the T&G from 28th April 1958, just days before an all-out London bus strike began on 5th May, ending on 20th June. If not directly connected, the symbolism of the connection was reinforced by the development within the union of a new determination to adopt a firm stance on wages. Cousins had made his views quite clear to the TGWU General Executive Council in December 1955: “To re-state our position as a union in a single sentence: we are not prepared that our members should stand still whilst die Government continually hand out largesse to those who are more favourably placed. [Ken Fuller, `Radical Aristocrats: London busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, Lawrence & Wishart (1985) p224]
In June 1958, Frank Cousins took charge of a major bus strike on London Transport. But this was a then publicly-owned business and the government determined to stand firm to restore its credibility as being able to live within its means. Having been careful to settle a pay claim with British Railways workers and London Underground before the bus strike, the government was in a strong position. Chancellor Thorneycroft had announced that public spending would be cut and that wage rises would be subject to a ceiling of 3%. But a claim for London busworkers of almost 12% was submitted. London Transport rejected the demand and by December 1957, a union delegate conference voted by 105 votes to 25 to continue discussions with the implication being that a request for action would come if no progress was made.
At the outset of 1957, after six hours of debate, a London busworkers’ delegate conference was persuaded by Harry Nicolas, T&G Assistant General Secretary, to accept an inquiry as a means of resolution. But Macleod announced a week later that there would be no inquiry, leading that “he had been overruled in Cabinet.” [[Ken Fuller, `Radical Aristocrats: London busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, Lawrence & Wishart (1985) p225] The Chairman of London Transport later admitted that without government interference it would have negotiated. Thus, the stage was set for conflict and, on 2nd April, the London Bus Section was given powers of action or the first time in 21 years; on 2nd May 6,000 busworkers heard Frank Cousins speak at a rally at Earl’s Court. London Transport was given notice that there would be a withdrawal of labour commencing on 5th May and when it came it was absolutely solid. The government planned to break the strike by providing for central London parks to be turned into massive car parks, passengers using the Underground rose by 10% per cent and British Rail’s takings in the London area rose by almost a quarter. [Ken Fuller, `Radical Aristocrats: London busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’, Lawrence & Wishart (1985) p 226]
The TUC intervened in the dispute, not to win or widen the strike, but to mediate between the workers and employers. Cousins’ stance on the General Council had already alarmed most union leaders and he was subjected to a “carefully worked-out strategy to cover the TUC’s retreat” from a “headlong confrontation between the TUC and the government”. [Goodman p182] Macmillan formally met the TUC leaders on 30th May but, unbeknown to Cousins, members of the General Council had been communicating regularly with the Prime Minister. Only months later did Cousins realise the full extent of what had been going on behind his back. Army leave was cancelled, in case they were called upon to move oil, in the event of solidarity action by the T&G-organised tanker-drivers. Talks re-opened over two days by early June the TUC General Council pressed Cousins to back off completely.
Cousins had great difficulty in persuading busworkers to return to work without having received any meaningful concessions. NUR members had voted to take solidarity action but their union and their employer employed disciplinary measures to bring them into line. In the event, a return to work came on 21st June, perhaps a defeat for London busworkers but an inspiration for millions of other workers and a signal that the role of the TUC was up for close inspection from here on. The extraordinary seven week struggle had implications extending well beyond the transport industry. This and other smaller but important struggles represented a fight-back of trade unionists against the employers’ and Tory Government’s policy of a wage freeze.
For the T&G, the incessant use of courts of inquiry were becoming irritating; in the ports industry, a dispute was referred under the 1919 Industrial Courts Act. Wage rates in ports had been resolved under an agreement of the National Joint Council on 20th May 1957. But a dispute arose out of the unique means of managing the labour force under a dual control mechanism based on a statutory scheme administered by the National Dock Labour Board, which had no responsibility for the settlement of wages. A claim for an increase in wage rates was put to the employers in December, 1957 and dragged on; eventually a deadlock arose. But the employers pushed the matter to a Court, which them merely concludes that conciliation measures were not fully explored. It noted a “negative attitude adopted by the employers … in full knowledge of the consequences of an unofficial stoppage in the London Docks” but simply hoped that the parties would “find of means of reconciling their differences”. [Cmnd. 510, Dispute between employers who are members of the employers’ side and workpeople who are represented on the workpeople’s side of the National Joint Council for the Port Transport Industry, Sessional Papers 1956-57, British official publications collaborative reader information service, Ford selections of British parliamentary papers 1801-1995] This push-me-pull-me approach would see workers look for other means of taking their needs forward, mainly in local bargaining; but in related aspects of the transport industry, the lesson had been learned not to rely on hierarchy.
Eric Rechnitz, later to become a key figure in the T&G, was in common with all Communist Party members, unable to hold official office Rechnitz was a key behind-the-scenes figure both in Smithfield Market and in the wider union. For example, he was closely involved in the 1958 nine-week strike of 1,700 lorry driver to Smithfield markets, which involved 58,000 workers. New schedules had been introduced for the meat haulage sector, which involved greater work for lorry drivers for poor reward and the dispute rapidly spread to London’s docks. [Paul Smith Unionization and Union Leadership]
In the period of full employment after the war tens of thousands of rail workers left the industry for better pay and conditions elsewhere. British Rail had to go abroad to recruit labour from Poland and Italy to fill the gap. NUR national disputes appeared to be brewing up for a strike in 1953, 1954, 1958 and 1960 but in each case last minute concessions averted a strike. In 1958 a further strike over pay was cancelled following Government intervention. The railway unions met Harold Macmillan, at 10, Downing Street on 22nd April 1958, and, after settling the immediate pay issue, an independent enquiry was established to compare railway wages with those of similar industries. The basis for this decision had been established at the 1955 Court of Enquiry. This independent Committee of Enquiry held its first meeting in December 1958 under its Chairman C. W. Guillebaud CBE, MA. The other members were E. Bishop OBE, DMA and H. A. Clegg MA; the Committee would not report until 1960.
In 1959 a national newspaper printing dispute hit local papers, which came out in truncated versions set by apprentices. Whilst an important observable development was the increased interest in the 1950s amongst white-collar workers in trade unionism, which provided a solid foundation for future massive growth of white-collar unions in the following decade. The Party had a strong base in some of these unions. Communist Harry Smith was the first President of the re-modelled Draughtsmen’s and Allied Technicians Association (DATA) when it was formed in 1961 out of the Association of Engineering and Shipbuilding Draughtsmen (AESD) and later became a national organiser for its successor organisation the Technical and Supervisory Staffs (TASS) union, laying the basis.
In mining, two elections for Yorkshire NUM Vice-President in 1954 and 1961 highlighted the significance of the union’s transferable vote system. Communist Sammy Taylor got 8,000 first preferences while Jock Kane got over 16,000 and led in the first round by nearly 1,500 votes. A division in the left contrasted with a unified right-wing. Following his defeat, Jock Kane said to Frank Watters in a very angry tone, “Now forget about me, I am finished”. The latter’s reaction was, “No, comrade, your turn will come”. One year later the Area Agent for Doncaster died and Kane was elected a full-time official. It was the start of a period of major influence for Communists in the Yorkshire coalfield. By 1966, Kane was elected as Yorkshire Area Financial Secretary and by this time he was also a member of the NUM NEC. The stage was set for big changes in the industry and in the NUM.
In 1959, the South Wales Communist, Bill Paynter was elected by an overwhelming majority as General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers, a position he held until 1968. His great challenge, in a union where the Presidency was dominant, was to face a right-wing dominated National Executive. His commanding achievement in the next few years was to bring about the unification of the British miners under one wages system – the National Power Loading Agreement. It was this that provided the spring-board for the great advances of the miners in the early 1970s long after he had retired.
The Co-operative movement faced challenges, too. With the end of rationing, a rapid growth in consumption in the late 1950s and 1960s saw self-service shops and supermarkets began to spread throughout the country. From around a mere 50 in 1950, there were 572 by 1961. [Jane Hamlett, Andrew Alexander, Adrian R. Bailey and Gareth Shaw, `Regulating UK supermarkets: an oral-history perspective’, History and Policy,
The Co-operative Movement then accounted for a fifth of all food spending, with 13 million members and 30,000 shops, 250 factories and 967 retail societies. At first, the movement did not take up the supermarket system and this much eroded its consumer base in the face of aggressive competition. While many chose to continue to shop at a Co-op because of the benefit offered by the dividend, many multiple grocers such as Lipton’s, Home Colonial also continued to offer counter service in their stores. Counter service was seen as a friendly expression of local identity. The Co-op was then seen as the store that offered everything. A key feature of share-owning membership of a Co-op was the dividend regularly issued, popularly known as the “divi”, a system of profit-sharing devised by the Co-op’s founders. Customer-members received over £40m a year in payments in total.
But as market share began to be eroded thoughts turned to `modernisation’. An independent Co-operative Commission was set up in 1956, following a resolution by the 1955 Co-operative Congress of the Co-operative Union. This sought recommendations initially only on co-operative production but the Commission broadened its work to consider co-operative as well. By 1957, Co-op market share in food retailing has plummeted to around an eighth. The following year, the Commission under the chairmanship of Hugh Gaitskell, the new leader of the Labour Party, and Secretaryship of Tony Crossland, a leading revisionist thinker of the Labour Party produced a report recommending that there should be a reduction in the number of retail societies from over a thousand to two or three hundred.
But, fortunately, such a shift away from localism was unpopular and most Co-operative societies ignored the report; only after decades of decline were amalgamations of societies forced as a consequence of financial necessity. The Commission also advised that the Co-ops begin to sell only at market prices and to cease a reliance on the dividend and this aspect saw Communists leap into action in countless Co-operative Societies right across the country.
Many Communists played an outstanding role in the Co-operative Movement, not the least in stiffening resolve to maintain the essential principles. For example, Norman le Brocq was first elected a director of the highly successful Channel Islands Co-operative Society in this period. He remained on the board for 35 years, and was its respected President for 27 of those years. Membership of the local retail co-op in that time actually grew from just over 17,000 to almost 76,000, bucking the trend of mainland co-operative development. Turnover grew by some fifty times to nearly £52 million a year. Le Brocq’s often recalled his insistence on the retention of the traditional `divi’ as the main factor in this success but undoubtedly his own leadership, especially as an almost unique example of being a wartime resister to the Nazi occupation of the islands, was also highly significant. [Co-operative News 21st January 1997]
Dickie Bond and David Ainley were heavily involved in the London Co-operative Society, the latter to the extent of becoming its president, a member of the executive of the Co-operative Union and a key officer of the International Co-operative Alliance; whilst Harry Clayden was a long-term President of the London Co-operative Society, which would soon see a major shift in progressive politics. Whilst London Communist co-operators were to the fore, there was not a part of Britain that did not see significant involvement by Party members. There are too many to mention but, to give an idea of the spread, Geoff Hodgson was elected Secretary of the Central United Local Committee of the Leeds Industrial Co-operative Society in the 1950s. Alec McCollough and Sid Atkins were prominent in the Birmingham Co-op, including serving on the board.