COMMUNISTS AND THE ELECTRICIANS TRADE UNION (ETU)
If it is immediately obvious that such hostility and unpleasantness towards Communist trades unionists was quite out of court, many will have been confused by the oft-repeated claim that Communists were guilty of outrageous ballot-rigging. The truth may never be recovered, or at the very least awaits further clarification if archives ever surface, for matters may be even stranger than any information currently available suggests. The awful allegation is that Communists had, at the very least, conspired to maintain their dominance of the Electricians Trade Union by illicit interference in the democracy of their union.
Frank Haxell was both a Communist Party member and General Secretary of the 200,000 strong Electrical Trade Union in the 1950s. From 1945, all three leading officials were Communists, the lay President being Frank Foulkes and the AGS Bob McLennan. As himself being the Assistant General Secretary in the early 1950s, Haxell had been a rising force. With other Party members, Haxell played a leading role in turning the ETU to the left, smashing a 1950-1951 wages freeze and building successful guerrilla strikes across the contracting industry in 1953-4. This made him a special hate figure for the media which mounted a vicious campaign against him personally. By the latter part of the decade, he was General Secretary and the combination of Haxell and Foulkes was too much for some. The huge British Electricity Authority employed the vast majority of the electricians in Britain’s power plants and it was this arena that the state saw as sensitive and became increasingly worried at the strength of the ETU and of the Communist power base inside it.
Foulkes also led a major dispute in the contracting industry in 1954 that brought him to international attention. For two weeks a guerrilla campaign ensued; then 35,000 employees of private contractors were brought out for a one-day strike, halting some construction work (among other things) at six of Britain’s eight atomic establishments. Employers retaliated by giving every striker a “one-day unpaid unholiday” the following day, effectively locking them out. In return, Foulkes called out 7.000 electricians in the London area.
By the time Haxell was General Secretary, the ETU had grown to 240,000 members, largely one the strength of this militant leadership. The aftermath of the events in 1956 saw a leading member of the Communist Party, Les Cannon (1920-1970), leave the Party and rapidly turn into a rabid anti-communist. As a Communist activist, he had been elected a member of the ETU Executive Council, representing North Lancashire and Merseyside, from 1948-1954.
The debarring of Cannon, arsing from a breach of internal procedures, as a delegate to the TUC congress in 1958 led to an unseemly row. A Labour MP, Walter Padley, then President of USDAW and later a Foreign Office minister, jumped to the rostrum to demand a debate on this internal matter of the ETU, causing uproar. Cannon had been artfully placed in the visitors’ gallery but Foulkes explained that this was not a matter for congress but for the ETU, which could accredit whoever it wished or did not wish as a delegate: “I don’t like Walter Padley, but I don’t try to stop his union sending him here,” said Foulkes, reasonably.
The TUC President, Tom Yates, tacitly endorsed Foulkes’s position and moved the business on but, Padley having placed the issue in a public place, the media fanned debate about the supposedly iron control of Communists in the ETU. The supposedly liberal newspaper the Guardian even suggested a tightening of the rules banning Communists from office so that no affiliate could send delegates who were members to Congress. It wondered why union should be “expected to put up with Communists as a matter of political course?” This before any real challenge over ballot-rigging had properly emerged; indeed, when it did, it seemed vary much a case of pop calling kettle black, as both sides threw allegations at each other.
The affair began to become truly serious when Jock Bryne, a Catholic Action supporting ETU official in Scotland and an outright anti-communist stood against Foulkes but, having been declared the loser in February 1960, he took the matter to court. Cannon, who had been dismissed from a role in the union’s education establishment at Esher Court, now claimed to have uncovered a ballot rigging scandal in the ETU and he and Frank Chapple, also an ex-Party member with a career-orientated grudge dating back before his discovery of anti-communism, now moved into a full-scale campaign to capture the union, using anti-communism as their unique selling proposition and gaining a great deal of mainstream media backing in the process. Both men teamed up with Catholic Action’s Jock Byrne and yet another former Communist, Mark Young. Each was able to travel up and down the country on this `work’ due to financial aid from a group of Catholic businessmen and from the Moral Rearmament Movement. Les Cannon was even given a year’s leave of absence on full pay by his employer. Woodrow Wyatt MP, who had already been much to the fore in anti-communist crusades made allegations of corruption in an article in a magazine and the rest of the media pack followed. Wyatt took part in a series of BBC Panorama programmes on the ETU and this was followed by further allegation in the New Statesman.
The TUC was drawn into the controversy, and demanded an explanation from the ETU leaders. An internal ETU enquiry exonerated the union from allegations of malpractice, although it accepted that some branches in the General Secretary election had been disqualified for irregularities. Vic Feather, who we have already noted was in close touch with the security forces over Communist activity in unions and was the TUC AGS in 1960, “played a crucial role”. [Stephen Dorril and Robin Ramsay, “In a Common Cause: the Anti-Communist Crusade in Britain 1945-60”, Lobster magazine May Issue 19 (1990) .co.uk (Issue 19)]
However, Byrne and Chapple issued writs against the union for alleged fraud and the case was heard by Lord Justice Winn. In June 1961, the High Court concluded that a group of ETU leaders, including Frank Foulkes and Frank Haxell, must have acted to prevent Byrne’s election by “fraudulent and unlawful” means since the court could see no other explanation. The judge pronounced Byrne duly elected as General Secretary of the ETU with immediate effect and Haxell was removed from office; he was subsequently also expelled from the union. Even so, neither the union, nor the Party, nor the courts were ever able to actually satisfactorily explain precisely how the malpractices occurred and who was individually responsible, despite the accusation constantly being made.
Press-sponsored scares over union ballots would become a norm of life in the next decades, during a period of intense struggle by the state against the power of unions generally. Although, with much publicised concerns over postal balloting and computer-monitored voting, it is now the case that union balloting procedures have probably more integrity than those overseen by most western `democracies’ and, particularly, the current British state! It was the reality of life in working class organisations before the most recent times, especially without widespread literacy and numeracy amongst manual workers, and limited access to typewriters, duplicators, calculators, computers, word processors, and the like, that most bureaucratic tasks were left to the one who could write! Making copies was a function of the carbon copy (“cc”) piece of paper slipped underneath. Local level organisation of an administrative character, especially at the workplace, was scanty.
Most of the time, it was not even clear how many members a union had. All that was known was the amount of money coming in centrally. Until the late 1980s, most unions did not even operate internal budgets of any kind; if they had money, they spent it, if they didn’t, they didn’t! Notoriously, most union democracy was focused on the workplace. If a leading figure had the confidence of the workers, then as far as everyone in the union movement was concerned that made them the custodians of the individual as well as collective voice. This could mean that it was perfectly normal for a branch representing a thousand members, or votes, to decide at a formal branch meeting attended by maybe only five or ten per cent of the members to cast the block vote of the thousand, even in a supposedly individual member ballot, one way or another.
This had little to do with left or right politics; it was the way things were done. Indeed the kind of mess that beset the ETU from the result of internal dissention and outside interference happened in most unions, which is why most union leaders largely kept out the affair. Moreover, the establishment’s main strategy for bringing unions into a more government led approach to industrial relations meant that there was little appetite for causing them trouble over this aspect.
If the British state had largely cleaned up political life in the 20th century, it did not want to be reminded that the buying of votes and impersonation had been carried out wholesale in the previous century (and was still a problem in Northern Ireland!). The forcible bringing to trade unions of bourgeois norms in the arena of balloting would be a step taken only under the Thatcher governments of the 1980s, and even then it would be necessary to accuse the biggest union in the country, the T&G, of a widespread culture under the leadership of Ron Todd, a man if impeccable integrity who was merely guilty of presiding over exactly the same election administration regime, with bewildering local variations in practices, that Cousins and Jones had also operated under. It did not suit powerful forces in the early 1960s to pick a fight with a powerful union such as the T&G, although twenty years later, different considerations would apply. The ETU was, arguably, a powerful union, led by the `wrong’ people at the `right’ time.
Apart from the Daily Worker, no media outlet reported in any significant way what it called “the miracle” of the ballot in the British Iron, Steel and Kindred Trades Association (universally known as BISAKTA; a union that would morph into the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation and today “Community”. Always a very right-wing union, BISAKTA managed to elect a section of its exe¬cutive by a national ballot vote in 1960 “in which the voting was on a national basis (and) showed an all-time record of votes cast”.
It accepted that it was a common practice in some unions for a block voting system to be used and create an impression of a total turnout. This was not rigging as such but, oddly, BISAKTA was not a union that enabled such a system to operate, indeed its rules specifically outlawed the practice whereas many unions (including the T&G) simply did not mention the matter; members had to turn up to their branch to vote. A range of voting patterns existed according to the official results, with the smallest number of members voting being 48,262 votes in one sectional election; but as many as 56,901, 66,247 and 61,360 seemingly turning up to their branch nights in others. Since the union only had 120,000 members, this was a phenomenal feat in the exercise of democracy, or BISAKTA branches were operating a block vote system against the rules of their own union, particularly in a union that accepted that branch attendances varied from minimal to up to a maximum of 20 persons. The probability is that perhaps 12,000 persons might have actually voted, if that. Why was no-one interested in this? The paper called on Harry Douglass, the general secretary, to “tell the world how such results are achieved”. [Daily Worker February 25th 1960]
To this day, the precise circumstances remain a mystery. Haxell’s guilt was presumed by all on the basis that supposedly no-one did anything in the union without his approval but he denied responsibility to his dying day. It had been claimed in court that the Party’s `Advisory’, the group of ETU Communists who liaised with each other had an iron grip on work within the union and that the Advisory operated on direct order from King Street – presumably with the implication that their instructions also came direct from Moscow! This rather unreal account had not even received the endorsement of the judge. Understandably, the Communist Party immediately distanced itself from the affair and Haxell resigned from the Party.
Arising from the legal judgement, the TUC obliged the ETU to debar its existing officer-holders for five years. A refusal to do so resulted in the ETU being expelled from the TUC and then the Labour Party. In the ensuing witch-hunt, most of the Communists and any supporters were soon removed from the leadership in the union executive elections. These were conducted under new procedures and with massive media support, which saw the hard right win nine out of eleven places on the executive.
Byrne became general secretary and Cannon became President from 1963). Chapple became a member of the EC and later the General Secretary and Young was given a full-time position. The rules of the ETU were then changed, banning Communists from holding office. From January 3rd 1964, the ban in the ETU began and 20 Party members resigned so as to keep their jobs and positions; many more simply refused and would find themselves elbowed not only out of their union but their jobs in industry.
From here on the ETU became a by-word for right-wing manipulation and control, edging ever closer to employers, engaging in activity that undermined other trade unions for the next three decades and effectively abolishing lay member control. As for Frank Haxell, he finished his working life as he had started it, as an electrician and continued to support progressive activities within his union, despite the increasingly authoritarian grip of the right wing. He died at the age of 77 in 1988, protesting his innocence to the last. [Time Magazine February 1st 1954; September 15th 1958; Morning Star 27th May 1988]
ENDING THE ANTI-COMMUNIST BANS IN THE TGWU