History CP early 50s early 60s

Despite all attempts to rewrite history, looking at matters from the perspective of the time and not hindsight, the short-term effect of the events of 1956 on the British Communists Party’s actual strength and morale was but a relative blip compared to the devastation that had fallen upon it with the extraordinary level of east-west tension that had come with the most fierce portion of the cold war. But, as we have seen, Communists actually came back from their mid-decade challenges with a lion’s roar of a response, in the process clawing out a significant level of support in the working class that would echo for almost a couple of decades. By this time, the nearing of the end of our account, not only was the Party going from strength to strength but it seemed that the cold war had weakened the west more than it had the east. Arguably, public perception was, at least at this point in time, less exercised over the fall out from 1956 than it was from the obvious nature of western aggression set against a perpetual pleading from the Soviet Union for peaceful co-existence.

Indeed, the `cold war proper’ may be said to have begun to end – just as the British Party was beginning something of a leap forward – with the Berlin crisis, which ran from June to November 1961 and was over the status of post-World War II Germany. In defiance of the 1945 Potsdam Treaty, NATO had made its occupied territories in western Germany a sovereign territory. The USSR had reciprocated with a lukewarm in-kind response by allowing the creation of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or DDR in German). But this left Berlin, marooned in the heart of the GDR still occupied and divided between four powers. Hungary had been more a fearful reaction to a believed aggressive act by Germany that would have destabilised the balance of this delicate situation. But, in November 1958, Khrushchev had sought agreement on making Berlin a free, demilitarised city. NATO refused and now, having previously ignored it, insisted on the maintenance of the status quo as per the Treaty. Their determination to remain in West Berlin saw the Soviet Union seek a meeting in 1959 with the Big Four. Khrushchev’s visited the United States in September of that year and he and President Eisenhower agreed that all outstanding questions be settled by peaceful means through negotiations.

It seemed that resolution was not far away and the two leaders agreed to continue the dialogue at another summit scheduled for 1960. But when an at first unidentified CIA spy plane, a “U-2”, was shot down over the Soviet Union in May, the United States denied all knowledge. The Soviet government produced the remains of the aircraft and the pilot, Gary Powers, who had in fact been photographing nuclear reactor plants from extreme high altitude and deep within the USSR. Coming just a couple of weeks before the summit, this understandably caused a massive deterioration in relations. Khrushchev asked Eisenhower for an apology, which he refused, mainly since US technology companies had federal contracts already committing the US  government to the further development of the Corona spy satellite project, the A-12 Oxcart supersonic spy plane, and the Lockheed D-21/M-21 unmanned drone. More seriously, as tensions rose, the need to find a practical if rough-and-ready solution to what was in fact an already divided Berlin saw the affair culminate in the erection in August 1961 of a physical barrier within Berlin – the infamous wall.

By 1960, the campaign to rebuild the Communist Party was really moving. 2,000 people had applied to join the Party over a four month period at the beginning of the year.  The Party’s 40th anniversary was marked by major events organised in all districts and many localities. Despite having no YCL, Crawley organised a youth rally with Jimmy Reid speaking, “nine of the fifteen youngsters there had signed up”. Subsequently a YCL branch was set up. [World News February 20th 1960; August 27th 1960] Nottingham persisted with Sunday evening open-air meetings all the way through the 1950s in the main market square in the centre of the city.  Leicester, Mansfield and Derby began to follow suit only as the decade was turning. [World News August 20th 1960] The biggest Party rally for over a decade was held in Yorkshire in 1961; over a thousand people attended it, with 70 of them joining the Party on the spot. [World News February 25th 1961] From when the new `Party building campaign’ was launched in September 1960 to March 1961 3,310 applications to join the Party had been received.

In close synchronisation with Party growth the Daily Worker’s circulation was still increasing, albeit slowly; an increase of 75 a day recorded in the two weeks to March 6th 1961 brought the total increase in daily circulation to 1,754 from April 1960. [World News March 18th 1961]  It was of no consolation to the Party and to readers and supporters of the Daily Workers, which was after all a co-operative owned by its readers and not the organ of the Party that the next few years would begin to see the slow strangulation and eventual death of the paper’s companion as a paper of the labour movement, the Daily Herald.

Whilst the Herald continued to formally support polices of the Labour Party and TUC, its actual owners, Odhams Press, now felt that these political ties were hampering its growth. In 1960, supposedly faced with loss of sales and advertising revenue, Odhams had persuaded the TUC to relinquish its shares. In March 1961, the International Publishing Company was formed through the merger of three organisations, including Odhams. IPC decided to broaden its appeal of the paper and, in September 1964, the Herald was re-launched as the Sun newspaper. Five years later, this would be sold to Rupert Murdoch’s News International and, to say the least, the Sun’s content and message very soon altered very considerably!

More positively, the Co-operative Movement, the fourth component of what the Communist Party saw as a potentially intertwined working class alliance began to host a major shift towards left and progressive opinions; the four components being the trade unions, the Labour Party, the Co-operative Movement and the Communist Party. Harry Clayden, mentioned in the previous chapter, was a key figure in the creation of the London Co-op Society’s left unity coalition, the 1960 Campaign Committee, which eventually took control of LCS in 1962 despite a vicious and on-going smear campaign against Communists. The Daily Mail was particularly vicious in its interference during the London Co-op elections. In attacking all progressive candidates for the Society’s board, it wrote that “Communists are expected to seize control of the LCS”. [World News April 28th 1962] In actual fact, there were at that point only three Communists out of fifteen on the whole board. Moreover, only five seats on the board came up for election each year and only one out of the six “1960 Committee” candidates was a Communist, which would take the number of Communists to four out of fifteen – but the alliance with left Labour people would, according to the Daily Mail, give the Co-op to the control of Communists.

It was a harbinger of what would come in later years, as left unity became stronger and stronger, to denigrate all left-wingers as begin Communists. The more left-wingers outside of the Party feared association, the more the device worked.  But not amongst London co-operators, not yet at least! For many years, the 1960 committee would become a national beacon for what would eventually become the National Federation of Progressive Co-operators.

In September 1964, an important step was taken not only in the strengthening of democracy in the Co-operative Movement but also in the newly burgeoning anti-apartheid struggle when the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, with 385,000 members the second largest society in the country, covering much of South London, Kent and Surrey voted at specially convened meetings on a reso¬lution calling on the management of the society to boycott South African goods. The motion asked the society’s general committee to conduct a campaign to educate members on the reasons for the boycott. The management of the Co-op had ruled the motion out of order at a preceding annual general meeting and resisted all calls to carry out such an approach. Progressive co-operators were only able to win the right to a ballot on the boycott motion – a special AGM had to be convened – by appealing direct to the Chief Registrar of Friendly Societies, who ruled that the motion should stand since it did not conflict with  the  society’s aims and objectives.

Wider issues would once again test the resolve of progressives in the Co-operative Movement when, as a result of the introduction of the Restrictive Trades Practices Act, in 1964, the abolition of `resale price maintenance’ took place. This was the practice whereby a manufacturer and its distributors agreed that the latter would sell at certain prices. These rules prevented resellers from competing too fiercely on price and the abolition heralded intensive price competition in retailing that began to severely erode the base of retail co-operatives. The stage was set for an aggressive shift to competing with capitalist supermarkets on their terms. It would take the beginning of a movement, spurred by new technology, by large retailers to encourage `loyalty cards’, to re-stimulate the Co-op movement into restoring the divi, a move that has largely succeeded, along with a marketing approach based on corporate responsibility, in placing the Co-ops in a stronger position.

With its heavy involvement in so many struggles and movements of the working class came a sense that the Party’s recovery from difficult years was fast coming; the struggles that working people engaged in renewed a taste for militancy and the international situation dampened fears over communism as fast as it was raised over US and British military adventurism. But much of the Party’s recovery was due to its members’ heavy involvement not only in mass struggles at the workplace but also in communities.

But Communists continued to press the case for tenants’ rights and much of the work in these years was effective but not widely sung. Much of it led to electoral advances for the Party, as its candidates focused on door knocker issues in a way that would only later become associated with Liberal “Focus” tactics. Unlike any other national newspaper, the Daily Worker publicised tenants’ struggles. For example, rent rises of between 2 shilling and 6 pence (or old `d’) and 13s 9d a week were imposed on 60,000 Manchester council tenants in 1963. [An old penny was 2.4 `new’ pence, or `p’, and a shilling was 12 old pence.] In the intensive campaign that followed, no less than 23,000 signed a petition against the rises presented in a mass lobby of the council. In neighbouring Salford a lobby of two hundred tenants was also mobilised when a similar rise was proposed there. [Daily Worker August 1st 1963] Increases of between six shilling for those earning under up to £12 and 45 shillings for those with earnings of over £24 a week were announced in Poole, in Dorset. Some three thousand people were organised on a march by a federation of council tenants, in which local Communists were heavily involved. [Daily Worker August 3rd 1963]

There were plenty of struggles against rent rises during the 1950s and early 1960s but they were disconnected and localised; one of the most fierce was in London in the Borough of St Pancras, which disappeared from history when it was amalgamated in 1965 with the boroughs of Hampstead and Holborn to form the borough of Camden.
On 8th May 1959 the Tories were returned to office at St Pancras Borough Council; as in opposition they had made much of their concern over what they saw as uneconomic rents it was no surprise that they would now move to introduce higher rents for most council tenants.  When it came, the new rent scheme would have maximum and minimum levels based on rateable value. But this meant significant rises for most bringing St Pancras rents even above the levels set for private tenants under the 1957 Rent Act.
A campaign ensued, with Communists and others joining forces to organise meetings and called on tenants to refuse to pay the increase. By the 4th January 1960 some two thousand St Pancras council tenants were on partial rent strike. Month after month Council meetings were brought to a halt by massive protest demonstrations inside and outside the town hall.  Tenants associations were formed across the borough and met every week. From a number of volunteers, two tenants were selected who would refuse to pay any rent, and their flats would be fortified against the bailiffs. The two chosen were Arthur Rowe in Hampstead Road in the south of the borough, and Don Cook at Kenniston House in the north, both members of the Communist Party.

Jock Nicolson was one Communist in the thick of it, he recalls in his memoirs: “Don’s flat was on the top floor on the corner high above the road. It was perfectly sited for our purpose … The initiative and inventiveness of the tenants was amazing. There was a place nearby where old pianos were dumped.  These were hoisted on to the balconies so that every stairway could be blocked at a moments notice. Someone got a supply of lighthouse flares. In all the blocks there were a variety of warning systems so that tenants could be called out at any time, day or night. There was a twenty-four hour picket at both fortifications. This alert continued over a number of weeks.” [NUR Transport Review March 27th 1992; Jock Nicolson “A turbulent life” (unpublished, undated mss); Camden Journal September 2007;

The many demonstrations to the Town Hall and the media faithfully revealed rowdy scenes and clashes with the mounted police. Arthur Row’s flat fronted on the main road near Euston Station became something of an attraction for tourists and amateur photographers. “Arthur was a bit of a showman and knew how to respond. When crowds gathered he would lower a bucket by rope from his high-up window to receive the food and good things well-wishers brought him to show their solidarity.”

Eventually, a show down arrived; around five o’clock in the morning some five hundred police were mobilised. Nicolson records the response: “… according to plan … flares went up and the alarms rang out. Within minutes hundreds of people began to assemble at both sites. My own (rail) depot came out on strike that morning. All day long building sites downed tools as they heard the news and marched to Hampstead Road and Kenniston House to show their solidarity. The atmosphere was electric.”

Entry to Rowe’s flat was made by means of a ladder but, although slates were ripped off and the roof smashed in, “Don and his family were resolute, only numbers overpowered them”. Nicolson was arrested and appeared before a magistrate. A witness against him appeared to be one of the regular attendees at the weekly tenants meetings. “He was better dressed, always took notes but never spoke. I assumed he was from one of the posher blocks of flats and felt a bit uncomfortable in that very proletarian gathering, so I always made a point of giving him a friendly nod or handshake. Now the penny dropped. He was an undercover policeman and these notes were to incriminate me.”

The struggle came to a halt after this, with hopes being subsumed into expectations that electoral defeat for the Tories would ensue. The fact that, after some ten months of struggle, the council was left with rent arrears of around £20,000, perhaps equivalent to fifteen times that amount in today’s prices did not aid their case before the electorate. But, when defeat did come for the local Tories, in 1962, the promises of Labour councillors came to naught. St Pancras tenants were isolated and left with little choice after the campaign had faded and all eyes set to look to a change in government as a new hope.


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