History CP early 50s early 60s


The nightmare that was McCarthyism has rightly become a by-word for a gross travesty of the very thing it purported to defend. British “McCarthyism” took its brief from the 1947-8 period, when the Communist Party opposed the Marshall Plan and the military rearmament and expansionism that followed. British support for the plan effectively resulted in US demands for cuts in British housing and social service expenditure to finance its share of the burden. Communist Party opposition fuelled internal dissension in the Labour Party and in the trade union movement. In a state of righteous fury, Labour leaders launched an anti-communist campaign. An example of the ruthlessness, with which internal dissent was dealt with, is the expulsion of John Platt Mills, the left Labour MP for Finsbury for the “crime” of sending a telegram signed by 21 Labour MPs, wishing success to the Italian Socialist Party, who were contesting a general election in alliance with the Communist Party of Italy.

It was but a short step from silencing dissent in Parliament, to silencing dissent by act of Government. In 1948, the Cabinet approved proposals worked up over the previous year for anti-communist propaganda operations and Clement Attlee, the Labour Prime Minister, introduced positive vetting of the civil service in March, thus effectively removing Communist Party members from employment by the State. Communists were by definition removed from duties “vital to the Secretary of State”. The case of one Communist, Dorothy Abbott, can illustrate the lunacy of British McCarthyism. Abbott was seconded by the Department of Overseas Trade to be employed as a shorthand typist to the office of the commercial counsellor at the British embassy in Moscow from October 1945. But she was a committed, 25-year old, Communist when she went and the USSR was an ally of Britain, but it was inevitable following the launch of the cold war by NATO that her post would lead to problems for her.

Attlee’s 15th March 1948 statement set ground rules for the employment of members of the Communist Party as civil servants. Seemingly, “experience, both in this country and elsewhere, has shown that membership of, and other forms of continuing association with, the Communist Party may involve the individual of a loyalty which in certain circumstances can be inimical (i.e. detrimental, or hostile) to the State”. But it was as late as March 1951 before Dorothy was handed a memo that charged that she was “associated with the Communist Party in such a way as to cause doubts about her reliability”. The Air Ministry wrote to her in April 1951, offering her a position in the National Parks Commission at Devonshire House, Mayfair Place, which was conveniently near Green Park tube. She would retain her existing rank and seniority as a clerical official. By the following year she was seconded to a Foreign Office department, the Administration of African Territories, also in Mayfair Place. Others

Bans in Parliament, bans in Government … why then not bans in the trade unions? Setting the pace was the Australian Workers Union, which decided to ban Communists from holding office – the first union to do so after the suggestion of the Australian Prime Minister. One early British example of anti-communist intolerance was when Arthur Horner, the General Secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers was formally rebuked by his union’s President, Will Lawther, for a speech in Paris in October 1948 which encouraged and supported French miners in the CGT national strike against redundancies in their coal industry. From hereon Horner was barred from making political pronouncements.

Underlying all this was the assumption that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, that the Communist Party was a direct instrument of Soviet policy and nothing more and that because of this it constituted a danger to national security, which excused anything. That there was British security service penetration of the Communist Party is without question. The only issue at stake is how far into the organisation the interference went and how effective or even necessary it was. It is now well established that one Betty Gordon was a MI5 plant for ten years in the Party, “Soviet Weekly” – a British based friendship journal – and the British Society for Friendship with the Soviet Union (BSFS) in the Fifties. Whilst the F4 Division of M15 practically did nothing else but spy on the Party and its allies; F4 had deep cover penetration agents ran from a flat in Exhibition Road, South Kensington. Given such an obsession by the State, with a Labour Government in office, it proved possible to steer the trade union movement in an anti-communist direction. The TUC proved to be a willing partner in this crusade, particularly as the major trade unions and the TGWU in particular, with its huge block vote at Labour Party and TUC conferences, were paranoid about Communist infiltration.

As early as 1947, the T&G executive council noted that the Labour Party had proscribed the BSFS. By August 1947, its general secretary, Arthur Deakin acted against London Bus branches being invited to affiliate to the BSFS, well before the contrived walk out in January 1949 of Western unions from the executive of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), a body actually founded in London in 1945 and which united unions East and West, thus beginning forty years of division. Deakin had become President of WFTU, being nominated by the British TUC, in 1946. After he had led the departure of unions, preparations were made from June towards the formation of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in December. Clearly, during the course of 1948, Deakin became hell-bent on ridding British trades unionism of any Communist connections.

The TUC issued a statement on “Trade Unions and Communism” at the end of 1948 and a pamphlet entitled “Defend Democracy”, which centred upon a supposed Communist conspiracy to disrupt the economy of the West. Affiliated unions were asked to investigate the extent of Communist activity internally and to consider specifically whether Party members ought to hold office. The position regarding Trades Councils was immediately looked into by the TUC and a circular (which many Trades Councils ignored) recommending the barring of Communists as delegates was issued. The results of these preliminary considerations of the TUC were announced in March 1949, when the TUC roundly condemned the Communists, stimulating a general warning from the Prime Minister the following month about the evils of Communism.

The TGWU journal, the Record, in October 1949 proudly, if sycophantically, recorded that Deakin “impressed everyone with scathing words about the interference of Communist agitators.” This was especially strong, claimed Deakin, in the docks, where the Communists’ “avowed intention” was to do all possible to retard the nation’s recovery.” To avow is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “to admit or confess”; was this really the declared aim of the Communist Party? According to Deakin, the “strike weapon was obsolete”; now that really was an avowed intention to avoid strikes!

In January 1949, Deakin had claimed to have knowledge of a Communist Party plan to disrupt industry during the month of August. Was he shown some scanty report from MI5 based on surveillance? Or was it simply all made up by him? Despite this “foreknowledge”, the total number of days work lost through strikes in that year as a whole compared very favourably with previous years. There was only a small dispute by train drivers in ASLEF on east coast routes and a four day strike in the Yorkshire coalfield of 500 winding enginemen of any note at all; August was a very quiet month.

Deakin became obsessed by the “Communist spectre” beyond reason and almost above all else. He viewed the Communist Party as responsible for nearly all serious instability in industrial relations. Perhaps the fact that an increasing number of Communists and Lefts were elected to leading positions in the TGWU, in the aftermath of the radicalising effect of the war and the election of a Labour Government, unsettled Deakin. Ernest Bevin had been absent from the leadership of the union from 1940, but Deakin had never been really in control. Although nominally in charge whilst Bevin was at the Ministry of Labour, Deakin was very much under Bevin’s shadow. It was only in late 1945 that Deakin took over finally as General Secretary. Given his personality, views and style, friction between himself and the self-confident left was to be expected. However, Deakin did not have Bevin’s folksy charisma, so inevitably the conflict took an administrative and sneaky turn.

It was thus that the decision of the TGWU Biennial Delegate Conference (BDC) in July 1949 to bar Communists from holding office, by a vote of 426 to 208, was by no means an accident or a sudden reaction to some single event, it was the culmination of a clear political project initiated almost single-handedly perhaps by Deakin himself. The BDC had been swung to a majority on an ill-defined understanding that the bar would only apply in the future, so that no individual currently enjoying office or employment in the union would be penalised. But in the event, Deakin and his supporters were merciless. Nine full-time officials, including the Passenger Services National Secretary, Sam Henderson, lost their jobs and Communist executive members Bill Jones, a Finance & General Purposes Committee member and Bert Papworth, a TUC General Council member were removed from office when they all refused to sign a renunciary document, the Declaration of Non-Membership of the Communist Party.

Some members of the Communist Party resigned their membership and thus saved their jobs, but this was to the opprobrium not just of Communist Party members, but often of ordinary activists. One former left Labour MEP as a young boy learnt of such an action on the part of an Edinburgh TGWU officer, through the wry and bitter comments of his mother. Cab divers’ activist Sid Easton was characteristically more unforgiving. Harry Pollitt’s biographer, John Mahon, reveals how Sid was told, when he was obliged to deal with TGWU officials who had left the Party, by Harry, “It’s better to speak even if you call each other names, than not to speak at all.”[p433 “Harry Pollitt- a biography”, Lawrence and Wishart 1976]

November 30th 1949 had been fixed as the closing date for receipt of the declaration. Three officers failed to return the form, but this was due to absence from illness. The nine dissidents returned their forms, but did not sign the declaration:

S. Henderson National Secretary – Passenger Group Central Office
C.H. Player East Anglia Composite Officer  Area 1
W.J. Warren General Workers Trade Group Organiser  Area 1
C.A. Jordan Metal Engineering & Chemical Organiser  Area 1
D.J. Lewis Building Trade Group Organiser  Area 1
E. Scarr General Trades Organiser, Wolverhampton   Area 5
H. Fraser Grangemouth Permanent Docks Delegate   Area 7
G. McKay Temporary Building Trades Organiser  Area 7
H. Windle Huddersfield General Trades Organiser  Area 9

But of course it was not just the full-time officers who suffered debarment; very many lay office-holders were affected. Delegates to the 13th BDC which had taken the decision were debarred, as delegates hold office in between BDCs in case the need for an emergency or recall BDC occurs. Six delegates returned the form unsigned, although 128 refused to respond at all – possibly some were due to apathy, but it is equally likely that many were expressing a gesture of dissidence or disgust with the very concept of politically vetting delegates.

This removal of leading Communists was carried out with ruthlessness and even vindictiveness. When Deakin proposed to advertise the jobs of those dismissed, thus replacing them even before their appeals were heard, he declined a request to delay this pending the appeals and won the GEC to his position. Protests that the BDC had not meant that existing officers would lose their jobs were brushed aside. Since the resolve of the BDC was phrased ambiguously, Deakin could construct a sort of an argument that the union was opposed to victimisation, even opposed to Communists loosing their jobs because of Party membership. But, he now clarified, this was in industry!! Employers should not be allowed to get away with holding a person’s politics against them, but the union’s ban was about holding office. This sophistry was Deakin’s answer to the plea that the BDC was told that the ban would not apply to full-time officers. Deakin set his face against appeals that this was just not so. The protests of a Passenger Group National Committee remit to the GEC, challenging its interpretation of the BDC’s resolve was ruled out of order. It was not even allowed that a vote be taken to commit the union to Deakin’s implied interpretation – that if members (not officers) lost their jobs due to the ban they would be given union protection.

The protests of no less than one hundred and four branches, the Passenger and the Chemical and Allied Trades National Committees, Area 7 (Scotland) Area Committee and the Cab Trade Section in Area 1 were simply met by what Deakin presumably assumed was a clever “outmanoeuvring” of the “reds”, but what was patently dishonest trickery. Would the BDC have voted to accept debarment if it were clear that sackings would occur? We shall never know for sure of course, but the left of the day certainly thought not. The Chemical National Committee demanded the GEC recall the BDC to resolve the doubt. Perhaps the failure to answer this not unreasonable call testifies to the intellectual weakness of Deakin’s case. The BDC then and later earned a fine tradition of oft-experienced determination to trounce the leadership at least once or twice in each conference on matters of principle and a fondness for emotional appeals to fair-mindedness. Few who know of this could genuinely doubt that a capable speaker, armed with the fact of the dismissal of a popular figure like Henderson, arising from the passing of an ambiguous motion, could have at the very least dramatically reduced the majority of 218, perhaps it could have even been overturned.

Such a bar to office was completely against the spirit of the TGWU’s constitution, The 1922 Rule Book, the first, had provided the criteria for eligibility for holding official positions in the union … 1) two consecutive years “financial membership” … 2) a candidate must be employed (or have connection with) the trade group he or she would represent at the time of nomination … 3) the candidate would be “in full benefit” at all times on forfeit of the position. That was all.

Arising out of Bevin’s struggle with the London bus workers, control mechanisms were later added. The 1937 edition of the Rules introduced the requirement to produce a card as evidence of such a condition. While the holder of any official position was to conduct all union business within official union bodies only; a ban therefore on rank and file bodies, although these simply assumed organisational forms which evaded the ban. In these rules the GEC was given the power to proscribe any body which dealt with questions of wages and conditions (or any matter affecting the union). However, such organisations would have to be detrimental to the policy and purpose of the union and the GEC would be expected to impose penalties considered appropriate and just, where necessary.

Aside from the clumsy trickery which Deakin indulged in after the BDC, he allowed himself and the union an unduly imbalanced sense of discipline, whereby dissident views from the right were treated with a tender touch. It should be noted that the TGWU’s ban on Communists did nothing to restrain the activities of members of the Conservative or Liberal Parties, who continued to enjoy the privilege of holding office even though they supported parties that were strongly opposed to that to which the union was not only affiliated but a key player in, at this time. Any pretence that the ban applied equally to Fascists was a subterfuge, for the far right had never established a base in trades unionism of consequence and no fascist was ever brought to book under the TGWU Rules. For the moment at least, the ban was immovable and acted a brake in general on progressive and militant action by them union. More unpleasantly, the bans resulted in what was after all the biggest union of the time, in a petty and vindictive behaviour that targeted Communists for what one can only call a spot of licensed bullying.

Underlying all the official hostility to the Party was the assumption that war with the Soviet Union was inevitable, that the Communist Party was a direct instrument of Soviet policy, and nothing more, and that because of this it constituted a danger to national security, which excused anything. That there was British security service penetration of the Communist Party is without question. The only issue at stake is how far into the organisation the interference went and how effective or even necessary it was. Given such an obsession by the State, with a Labour Government in office, it proved possible to steer the trade union movement in an anti-communist direction. The TUC proved to be a willing partner in this crusade, particularly as the major trade unions and the TGWU in particular, with its huge block vote at Labour Party and TUC conferences, were paranoid about Communist infiltration.

That the TGWU’s ban on Communists did nothing, as with most other cases in the trade union movement, to restrain the activities of members of the Conservative or Liberal Parties, who continued to enjoy the privilege of holding office. Any pretence that the ban applied equally to Fascists was a subterfuge, for the far right had never established a base in trades unionism of consequence and no fascist was ever brought to book under the TGWU Rules. [See: Graham Stevenson, “Anti-communist bans in the TGWU 1949-1968”, in G. Stevenson (ed.), The Life and Times of Sid Easton, (1992)]
One example of the indulgence granted to the right was the case of one A. Tegerdine, from the North-East. His expulsion had been recommended by the area in 1952 for his activities in fostering support for the incoming Tory Government’s proposals to denationalise the bus industry. Tegerdine was the founder of the “Bus Workers’ Anti¬-Nationalisation Society”, surely an organisation detrimental to the policy of the union under the 1937 Rule amendment? Perhaps his chairmanship of the Tynemouth Council of Conservative Trades Unionists was sufficient to advise caution? But no even-handedness here! The union’s executive council found insufficient evidence to justify expulsion and no more was heard of the matter.

Compare this kid-glove treatment with another case from the same period. A London bus activist, E C Sheehan of the 1/325 Catford branch, had left the Communist Party and despite his Regional Committee’s support for his personal ban to be lifted after he signed the Declaration in November 1951, the leadership declined to accept the position. They would only reconsider their position if the individual could prove non-membership of the Party. He had to deny his membership and make contact with the Party as difficult as possible. Something more than a mere personal declaration was now being sought, perhaps an act that went far beyond mere renunciation.

It would be nearly two decades before some could contemplate a legitimate leadership role, unless they resigned their Party membership and recanted. Even then some found rehabilitation to be grudgingly given, dependent upon having a “good attitude”. Pure membership of the Party increasingly became only a technical matter in a war against rank and file militancy.

The witch hunt was relentless, if not widespread. Rather, it sought to intimidate by example. Action against shop stewards’ movements in the Docks and Passenger Groups increasingly became the real objective, with Party membership the formal excuse. In mid 1950, Bill Jones was given a final warning, with his union membership in doubt, over his association with a rank and file journal.  On Sunday August 31st 1952, his branch, Dalston, held an open mass meeting at Shoreditch Town Hall, contrary to an instruction given that this would an “unconstitutional act”, contrary to a General Executive Council minute of May 1946, which made it “not permissible for a Branch Secretary to summon a meeting of members of any other Branch than his own”. All Dalston’s branch officers and the entire branch committee were suspended by the Regional Secretary from holding office, contrary to the rule book. After the lifting of the suspensions to accord with the constitution, the Regional Committee debarred all concerned from office until the end of 1953.

The Peckham 1/1401 branch also held an open mass meeting at Catford Town Hall, Lewisham, in September 1952, again contrary to instructions. In fact both meetings were concerned with the reference of the annual wages claim to an Industrial Court. The GEC held an enquiry in October to look into the whole affair. Dalston’s defence was that the branch had only invited others to attend, they had never “summonsed” them.

Since Deakin had also introduced a new Rules Conference, a smaller body than the BDC, to assume the powers previously held by the larger conference and also made proposed changes to the rules something only permissible once every six years, the first attempt was at the 1956 T&G Rules Conference. This new entity, due to the internal mechanism used to select it, would gain a reputation in the long term of being ultra-conservative and very loath to make changes of any kind. Changes in the union arising from recent Deakin’s death had yet to percolate through and the motion removing the ban was lost by a vote of 60 to 27.

A few other unions had bans and constraints, but these were mostly in unions with a fairly right wing history; perhaps the other most serious one other than the T&G’s ban was the provision in the rulebook of the National Union of Railwaymen, which stipulated that its President had to be a delegate to the Labour Party and be eligible to sit on its national executive. Leading NUR Communist, Dave Bowman, it was widely conceded, was prevented by this device from becoming NUR president.

More likely, Communists would find themselves in conflict with employers and deserted by their union for fighting for fellow workers. Many faced victimisation at work in this period. From 1954, Jack Askins worked a conductor on Manchester Corporation, producing a printed monthly paper, the Busmen’s Clarion, from July 1954 to February 1956. The paper became very influential and was not liked by either the council or the union hierarchy. A clear plot to sack him ensued. After a union branch meeting, when he was not on duty but was wearing uniform, he was apprehended by an inspector, when in the company of four other uniformed employees, for not paying his fare. Some 300 other workers had left the meeting in uniform but only Jack was `tailed’. In those days, no staff passes were issued and workers generally recognised each other when they boarded a bus and were not expected to pay. With the union diffident about his dismissal and the corporation completely hostile to reinstatement, Jack did not press the issue, in the interests of maintaining unity amongst the workers for the more pressing struggles ahead. The effects of Cold War propaganda could still be felt amongst the workforce. After a spell on the markets, Jack went lorry driving but illness forced him to give this up but not his union work. Jack was a major contributor to the fight against bans and proscriptions against Communists in the T&G and became a regular delegate to the TUC from his union.

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