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Dedication: To those Communists of integrity and honesty, loyal to their union, who were falsely accused of fraud against it.
Thanks to Bob Carr and Larry Braithwaite, Communist veterans of the ETU, for their invaluable assistance.
List of illustrations
Bob McLennan (AGS)
the extensive list of branches that nominated Jack Hendy for election as a TUC delegate.
The rank-and-file journal produced by Communists for the power supply industry
Wally Stevens – the talented and lamented leader
Frank Foulkes – the loyal and popular President
Frank Haxell as portrayed in the News of the World
Jack Hendy in 1952 at the Whitley Bay rules revision conference of the ETU
A contingency fund collecting card – ETU branches commonly funded their own strikes and other activity.
Jack Hendy in 1958
Bob Carr as seen by the Daily Sketch
An ETU ballot envelope
Sam Goldberg – Birmingham ETU’s non-Communist left activist
Neil Lawson – the defence barrister
Esher Place – the first union education centre
Jack Frazer, the man in charge of the Advisory
Humphrey, the suspect officer manager
Chart showing the number of reference to the electricians’ union in the Catholic Herald by decade
Press coverage of the aftermath of the trial was extensive
Telegram to Jack Hendy – all communications from the ETU were highly official
Chapple became a familiar figure on television in the 1970s.
Eric Hammond pictured left in his later years
The family tree of the ETU – to the AEEU, merger with MSF to form Amicus; T&G and Amicus form Unite – See: http://www.unionancestors.co.uk/
1 Communists and the ETU
2 Biographical sketches of key personalities
3 Anti-communism, the intelligence services, and the ETU
4 The hearing before Justice Winn
5 The 1961 TUC and Labour Party conferences
6 The judgement
7 The rules revision conference
8 The aftermath of the trial
9 Other ballot rigging cases
10 By way of conclusion
Of all the slights and insults thrown at Communists over the decades of the 20 century – and there were many and I’m sorry to say a few were even justified to some extent in retrospect – the belief that they were caught, as it were, “red- handed” in rigging a ballot of the electricians’ union in the infamous 1961 ballot rigging case has been the most persistent to remain unchallenged. And yet, it is the accusation that holds the least validity, in my view now.
It was a charge that long puzzled me in any case, so I have been most grateful to John Hendy QC for his donation of the private papers and documents of his father, John Hendy, to the Communist Party History Group, which enabled me to immerse myself during brief moments of respite from political and union tasks in recent years before my retirement as a senior union official in a union that, almost bizarrely to me, now included the very elements that had once been so hostile to my Party and its ideas.
Even more invaluable, because their testimony can never be otherwise recovered than what they have written for me to use here, is the word of Larry Braithwaite and Bob Carr. Electricians both, they were workers who participated in their union at the time of the events. Neither accepts the character of the slurs against Communists in their time in the ETU.
For my part, I always wondered and now firmly believe that, if there was an unambiguously obvious culprit in the entire story, it was the union itself – right and left – which maintained an impossible-to-maintain electoral and democratic structure. This provided the chinks for which some malevolent people placed their crowbars so as the lever damage to the union and in consequence the employment circumstances of its members.
One only has to look at the weakness of the national building workers’ strike of 1972 (in which I was involved, albeit at a tender age), and the subsequent rise of The Lump, to conjecture that had the ETU not followed an entirely pro-employer course from 1963 to almost the modern era, construction workers would be in much better position to fight back. The smashing of Communist and Left control of the union directly led to this.
But behind that lay a murky world, now impossible to identify with precision, of links between the right of the union, security forces, and media men. There are moments when you truly wonder what powers the ETU leadership actually had – their reach seemed a far one, and a malevolent one at that. The ETU right were known to be such a force for hostility within the labour and trade union movement long before its strange demise, not by the sword but by the pen of amalgamation signings.
So much was this so that, when I was asked to review the autobiography of Frank Chapple for a local newspaper in the early 1980s, being a frequent contributor, I felt comfortable with dubbing him the “Ian Paisley of the trade union movement”. To be honest, I hadn’t thought this especially controversial or imprecise; I even thought of it as being mildly humorous, if it is even possible for a Communist to use the word in the same context as the personality of Frank Chapple. The local ETU officer kicked up such a fuss, so offended were they, I wasn’t asked to review any books by that newspaper again.
The ETU was so fixatedly a craftsmen’s union that it was so slow to respond to any of the needs of the modern era and found itself outside of the larger trade union world. It must be a matter of debate as to what course it would have chosen had it not shifted right but stayed left. But one thing now seems evident, half a century after the passing of those calamitous events, it seems apposite to consider whether liberty for those to continue to peddle their argument that Communist did rig ballots should be allowed, or whether light should finally be shone on the affair.
Real political activity by Communists in the ETU during the later 1950s began to be sacrificed on the altar of the growing electoral struggle inside the union. The pressure built up by intruding outside forces, raised the stakes in what had previously been less sharply contested elections. This forced activists to become more or less permanently involved in mobilising activity designed to win votes and generating them. Apart from the fact that this is far from being the point of trade unions, the conflict from this pressure easily leant itself to exploitation by office seekers prepared to use outside forces that might give a hand up to them personally.
But big problems only began as ordinary Party members, using their common sense about individual personality flaws and errors, began to reject as candidates for office other Party members who had begun to feel themselves simply entitled to personal entry into and guaranteed continuance in the layers of bureaucracy and its associated comfortable and interesting living. This sense of entitlement was a trait later to be associated with what became to be called `Thatcher’s children’, the generation that reached maturity during the 1980s Tory government. Cannon and Chapple were much more the heirs to what some might wish to call `Stalinist entitlement’ than their erstwhile comrades.
As the vindictiveness, viciousness even, that we now know were the hallmark of Cannon and Chapple began to employed internally against comrades and brothers, more and more Communists turned away from them. It was this rising distaste that hastened their departure from the Party – not Krushchev, or Hungary. Q: What do you do when you realise that those whom you have provided authority to are not doing the right thing? A: You move them away from authority quickly because if you don’t they will dispose of you. This was, in fact, what was increasingly thought about the men who reneged on the Party they had joined as young men and was the reason for their shift to the right and the closing down of democracy in their union in the name of anti-Communism. It was the lesson suggested in Krushchev’s `secret’ speech about Stalin. When he was later removed from office, Krushchev consoled himself with the fact that he had made it possible for that to happen without him being put up against a wall and shot. In British terms, there was never a `wall’ for Chapple. No-one was ever able to remove him again; democracy was simply shut down in the ETU.
Long before their final victory – only ended by death, retirement, and that all-cleansing agent of trades unionism, the merger – when people like Cannon and Chapple found that Communists were beginning to doubt them as individuals, they decamped for the right-wing press and nefarious forces allied to it. There was no political conversion, really; rather neither man ever had a coherent ideology, other than sheer opportunism. It would take a long time for people close to the likes of Chapple to get this. But eventually, as his personal behaviour predictably became increasingly repugnant and inexplicable even to those who supported the right-wing views he now espoused, even such supporters would also slowly learn this lesson. Few today – outside of a very narrow band of dying cold war warriors – can be found who will laud Chapple, and Cannon is virtually unknown.
Anti-communism became the chosen vehicle for a clique of former member of the Communist Party not just because of ideological differences – although they must play a part – but simply because it was the only way either man could take high office in the union, having failed to do so via the Party. The unholy alliance of right wingers and Communist Party renegades inside the union was enthusiastically supported by establishment figures both in industry and the Labour Movement, and no effort was spared by newspaper and TV interests to guarantee intensive media coverage.
How could this have been so? Since the historic compromise, beginning before 1939 – and rising to virtual consensus in 1945 – that there could be no return to the “Hungry Thirties“, many began to believe that capitalism and their main spiritual cheer-leaders, the Tories, had been tamed by the Welfare State. Allied to this was a view that power was either within grasp of, or was already held by, a wing of the establishment that most of the Labour Movement leadership belonged to.
Although pockets of labour movement support for left policies existed during the cold war, (Bakers, Musicians Union, etc.), the ETU usually acted as a beacon of light in a sea of right wing darkness, and the Labour Lords had long directed their guns against the union’s leadership. It may also be important to recognise that much of what was revealed as damning during the Court case – such as archaic rules and less than competent lay officers – applied as much or more to right wing unions, which also tended to be less democratic as well as less militant. Behind some of the right wing gloating over the predicament of the ETU lay a fear of too close an examination of their own organisation. This no doubt explains the “restrained” or “statesmanlike” attitude adopted by some of the union Barons when refusing to support the ETU.
Right-wing machinations and fraudulent behaviour was not rare but the highest voting branches throughout the 1940s and 1950s in the ETU tended to be right-wing ones. There was a lot of speculation at the time internally about how they could so easily achieve what the Communists and their left-wing allies had to struggle so hard for.
Still, there is no doubt that by the late 1950s a lot of comrades and supporters had made their minds up they would not be swindled out of the union and determined to take whatever steps available to nullify these fraudulent, and media influenced results. The growing internal and media pressure from the right, was being matched by that from the Party and others on the left. This relentless pressure led some comrades and others on the left to privately embrace tactics which would previously have been wholly unacceptable, and this included some creative methods of inflating voting figures. One or two comrades with access to Hayes Court also became quite inventive.
The most frequent justification for these particular and desperate actions, often almost humorous tweakings of reality always falling far short of deliberate defrauding, was simply that they were cancelling out right wing fiddles; both sides were at it and some of these activists even twinned themselves with high voting right wing branches, matching them vote for vote. But for most, on top of all other activities – concentrating in particular on those areas and industries where large numbers of members worked – this tactic of cancelling out right wing voting involved visiting every branch on a regular basis, particularly on Quarter nights when nominations and elections took place; especially those most likely to have high returns for the right wing. If any left-wingers observed any anomaly or breach of the rules (with lay officers and complex rules this was not very difficult) they would report this to the Executive with the objective of invalidating the votes and nominations; and this activity reached an unprecedented level during the election for General Secretary.
Cannon’s claim of visiting sixty branches in two weeks is pure fantasy. The testimony of a long-term active Communist in the ETU, Larry Braithwaite, is that when he and Frank Chapple attended his then branch, East Ham, on one of those nights concerned with the ballot rigging case it was the only meeting he could have visited, because they arrived early, before 7.30, and only left after the end of the meeting more than three hours later. Yet this sort of distortion was commonly cited outside of the union movement and generally believed.
At this packed meeting, ex-communist Tom Vetterlein (a branch member) moved a motion highly critical of the the then leftist EC, which after prolonged and often heated discussion was overwhelmingly defeated. In the course of this debate, as Chairman, Braithwaite allowed both these visitors to speak several times in favour of the motion, ruling that they had a right to be heard without interruption or heckling. But when he cautioned them for their own frequent interruptions when others were speaking, he made it plain that if they continued to do so he would have no hesitation in telling them to leave. Chapple, in bully boy mode, said “you will have to do it yourself”, a remark which created uproar in the meeting and clearly exposed his contempt for the conduct of meetings. Interestingly, even before 1959, a number of right wing branches refused to allow visitors to attend meetings, let alone speak.
All those who were active in the union knew what was at stake and pulled out all stops for Frank Haxell when he stood as General Secretary in 1959, perhaps even more than they had for Frank Foulkes, when he stood as President, using their control, or influence over most of the big branches, and a lot of work place organisations. What they could not contain was the fact that most members did not attend branch meetings and large numbers, perhaps most members, were more likely to get information promoting the anti-communist candidate from TV or their daily paper, which sadly was not the Daily Worker. It was this reality that prompted the right-wing to shift their campaign of vilification up several notches.
Frank Foulkes (left) was a popular, capable and efficient President, and his last election result, though successful, was a huge disappointment, particularly since it followed a massively intensive campaign for his re-election. For a lot of activists, free time had become a luxury, and the little social life they had revolved around meetings and discussion about how to combat the right wing and ultra-left attacks within the union and the media led opposition from without.
After the result of the 1959 General Secretary was announced and it became clear that legal action was imminent, the Executive considered declaring the election void due to “unprecedented outside interference“, but were persuaded not to, a decision which later developments revealed as a disastrous one. Most activists felt that if they had lost this election they would be unlikely to win any in the foreseeable future, so the choice facing them was; declare the election void and almost certainly lose the rerun, or take on all forces arrayed against them including the High Court. In retrospect, so far as damage limitation was concerned, the former was clearly the best option. Jack Frazer, the main Party organiser inside the ETU at the time, maintained, privately, that before the EC meeting that decided the course, he and Frank Haxell had argued that the Party should agree to ceding defeat – but were overruled because of the overriding importance of holding on to the union – but only by campaigning fairly if hard.
Despite being left to carry the can, Frank Haxell was never critical of the Party at any time. But Larry Braithwaite does recall him, and others, expressing the opinion that things would have been very different had Harry Pollitt still been around. Harry Pollitt had earlier left for Australia (on a visit from which he never returned after suffering a heart attack), but Jack Frazer always remembered his parting words, “We can’t afford to lose this election you know”. Most participants from the time seem to think that the presence of Harry Pollitt would have produced a different outcome; perhaps one that would have recognised the difficult situation Communists faced in the ETU at that time.
Once the legal action was launched, it became vital to exonerate the Party of any suggestion of complicity in conspiracy of any kind. Sam Kahn took control of the direction of the defence with that firmly in mind, and the ETU comrades naturally took that to heart and resolved to go to any lengths to absolve the Party of any suggestion of undue or untoward involvement in the internal affairs of the union. So far as the media were concerned, the mere existence of Communist industrial advisories was damning enough to suggest outside interference even if they comprised only ETU members, and consequently, some comrades thought a total denial of meetings which included non-members was required. Because the prosecution had evidence to the contrary this position was scarcely viable. So the whole focus on advisories fell on what was and what was not discussed at advisories.
A valid denial of interference was deemed to hinge on a total non-discussion of elections, candidates etc., however unbelievable that might be in a hostile courtroom environment. This may explain a lot of witness box inconsistencies. There was a determination, verging on desperation, not to let the Party down, and this led, inevitably, to fear and confusion under questioning. Ordinary working class people can easily be out of their depth when mired in the trappings of a High Court, and being interrogated by sharp legal minds.
The Party could have had no involvement in any form of malpractice or dishonesty; it was, and is, utterly impossible to sanction, condone or in any way encourage such activity in any organisation. The ready assumption that ballot-rigging ever played any part in the weaponry of the Communist Party is simply wrong. But were individual Communists at fault in some way?
Larry Braithwaite wrote this to me: “It seems a long time ago now and I have been over and over these events in my head all too many times. But I am as clear now as I was back then that there is no evidence of a concrete nature, or even much in the way of circumstantial detail, to suggest that any of the main Communist players participated in any improper action. They were hostages to a cumbersome set of rules, and an unwieldy and old fashioned union structure, neither of which they could change meaningfully without arousing suspicion and criticism. And they were also victims of a hostile environment.”
Such men – and they were all men – were often placed in the ridiculous position of defending that which they opposed simply because they were immersed in that tradition of loyalty to their union. If anything worked against them it was their determination to defend the union, with all its faults, against all critics. Any suggestion that transgressions within the union were overlooked or allowed can be laid at the door of that loyalty. The ETU Communist leaders embraced the union warts and all because they had little or no opportunity to cosmeticise the warts, however desirable that might have been.
The frequently wide ranging discussions which took place at various Party advisory meetings complicated things still further. So when comrades were called to the witness box, their determination to clear the Party of any wrongdoing frequently led them to evasion, obfuscation and outright fibs, when cross-examined about Advisory and Aggregate meetings, or those archaic “fraction” meetings. There was a lot of confusion about what might be allowable in law or in the rules of the union, when discussing the affairs of the union with non-members. After all, there was a rule in the book, common with most old unions, that it was a disciplinary offence to disclose union business to non-members
The judge at the trial which changed everything, Justice Wynn’s had complete faith in his own ability to discern truth from lies. That this is so is heightened as a real weakness by Larry Braithwaite’s recall of the testimony of some whom Wynn completely believed but whom Braithwaite asserts that he categorically knows were “economical with the truth”.
Wynn pounced on Frank Haxell when he was evasive about where he had spent the Christmas of 1959. The judge detected, accurately for once, some unease with Haxell’s answers but wrongly immediately imputed this as evidence of an alleged activity in nefarious acts. Yet everyone in the union, including Cannon and Chapple, knew that, although still married to his wife, Queenie, Frank Haxell had a long term relationship with one Audrey, which lasted until he died many years later.
We must assume, one supposes, some aversion for some reason to divorce on someone’s part amongst the trio, probably Queenie. And a touching yet all so human regard for his now unloved wife on Haxell’s part. Certainly, opinion among those who knew Haxell was (and is) that it was simply to avoid hurt to Queenie and Audrey that he prevaricated on the witness stand and this greatly contributed to Winn’s poor view of the man. The reader’s view as to who should be remembered as the greater man is probably a cypher for your view on all these matters!
This key incident came from the judge’s own limited understanding that his own all-too human ability to read an attempt to prevent knowledge about something might not in itself imply dishonesty about the material issue. Thus, in an odd display of paranoid behaviour, Winn detected an aversion to elaboration but not the reason for this aversion. That weakness, compared to Haxell’s personal need to compartmentalise, if he was to have any kind of life at all outside the union, meant that the union general secretary was not thinking of his union in the least when he displayed reluctance to tell the world he had been sleeping in the bed of a woman he was not married to. This was the early 1960s still! In any case, Haxell would have been very anxious to avoid feeding any enticement to the tabloid press to engage in titillation over a sex scandal. Headlines about ballot-rigging Reds was bad enough – add sex to the mix and it would be a story that never faded!
The ETU defence was also placed in the curious position of virtually covering up right-wing electoral fraud, which had been widespread, in order to maintain the fiction of a total absence of such things. The mood of the times was that, if the union was a complete mess in administrative terms and it was led by Communists, then the whole left was at fault for allowing it. If it had been led by right-wingers (as it would be) then all manner of awkwardnesses would be forgiven by the media.
When this question was raised with the legal team, their opinion was that to introduce the issue of right wing fiddling, including that of JT Byrne’s branch, known to be a flagrant fiddler, would only reinforce suspicion that it was going on elsewhere. So, because no counter allegations would be made, only left voting branch officers were called upon to defend themselves, leading the Court to more easily conclude that only the left were guilty of any malpractice. Unlike Gerald Gardiner, who acted for Chapple and Byrne, the Communists’ legal team of Lawson and others were extremely cautious about raising this issue when they were questioning right wing branch officers, despite the fact that it could have discredited their evidence. Had such questioning occurred, it might also have made it impossible for Wynn to so blatantly appoint JT Byrne as General Secretary, as he did, thus ushering in some forty years of right wing control over the organisation of electricians.
COMMUNISTS AND THE ELECTRICIANS TRADE UNION (ETU)
During the 1940s and 1950s, Communists were widely banned from holding office in British unions, some were formally debarred from holding jobs in certain posts and industries, many were frequently sacked and black-listed from employment, or prevented from realising good promotion prospects. There were even cases of Communist being refused rental agreements. Simply out of hostility to their politics!
If it is immediately obvious that such hostility and unpleasantness towards Communist trades unionists as was visited upon them during the Cold War was clearly unacceptable, many will have been confused by the oft-repeated claim that Communists were guilty of outrageous ballot-rigging – at least, if only, in the electricians’ union. 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. But the awful allegation is that some 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.
From 1945, all three leading officials of the ETU were Communists. The President was Frank Foulkes. As Assistant Secretary in the early 1950s, Frank Haxell was a key force once he became General Secretary. By the latter part of the decade, he was General Secretary and the combination of Haxell and Foulkes was too much for some. But to make matters even more complicated, the union’s Assistant General Secretary, Bob McLennan was also a Communist, a member of the Party since 1926 and of the ETU since 1924. He had fairly recently beaten Frank Chapple in the election for National Organiser and was now in an Acting role as AGS.
Left: Bob McClennan, ETU AGS and Communist Party member
Many National Officers were Communists – Colin Benson, Batchelor (a defendant in the subsequent ETU trial), Gregory, Arthur Attwood, E J Turner, Ward, Stride, Gray, Maitland, Whittome, Elsom, were all CP members. Foulkes, Haxell, McLennan, Jim Cosby, Ivor Davies, Jack (John Norman) Frazer, Jim Feathers, John (Jack) Hendy and Ronnie Sell were no less than nine Communist Party members out of fourteen on the ETU EC.
The ETU, as a craft union, had members working in many industries as electricians. Usually, this was often a fairly comfortable job, even a secure one. But this did not necessarily pay the best money. One of the sectors that had a big demand for electricians and also could provide good earnings was in electrical contracting in construction but this could be an instable form of employment. As contemporary rank and file electrician, Larry Braithwaite recalled, “much of the work in the contracting sector was of a casual, short term nature. Every new contract in the building industry involved organising from scratch, knowing that the sack would follow the end of it, if not before; and the more successful that activity was, the less likelihood there would be of any future employment.” [LB written recollections, March 2012]
Despite the instability of the sector, the building boom that came with peace and the increasing dominance of the union by radical elements made the ETU wide open for left control. Larry Braithwaite, who joined the ETU in 1947, describes the impact of the war time introduction of reserved occupations, which “ensured that by war’s end, a number of ETU comrades occupied leading positions in the union, particularly in London (Haxell and Chapple to mention but two). There is no doubt in my mind that this was a careful and wise strategy to advance peacetime industrial organisation. Consequently, unlike most unions, the ETU that emerged from war had a much stronger and more militant leadership than before – and this naturally produced a considerable membership response. Rank and file activity was boosted, particularly in the building industry which was booming with post-war reconstruction, and ETU National Conferences overwhelmingly passed very valuable motions for discussion at Labour Party and TUC Conferences. A constant refrain from other union members in the building industry when discussing action was: `It’s all right for you, you are in the ETU’”. [LB written recollections, March 2012]
In 1948, the Attlee government had published a white paper claiming that militant wage bargaining threatened to undermine the value of the pound and reduce exports. Its line clearly argued that there were no grounds for general increases in pay, other than for exceptional circumstances. For two years, employers’ associations and trade unions managed to maintain a general pay standstill, but they could not stop earnings drifting upwards in the workplace. The ETU had been at the forefront of the opposition in the union movement to the notion that workers should hold back on pay in the greater interests of the wider economy.
Moreover, with other Party members, Haxell had 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, which at the time were a major source of raw material from its waste by-products for American nuclear bombs. It was this arena that the state increasingly saw as ultra-sensitive and became increasingly worried at the strength of the ETU and of the Communist power base inside But, despite the Cold War, the right did not make a great deal of headway in the union and the Communist Party remained very strong.
Indeed, with so much publicity about the union being so militant that it gained outrageous pay awards for its members, it became increasingly popular. With so much of British industry being related to electrical goods, or using electrical means, the scope of the union’s membership stretched far beyond the traditional maintenance `sparks’. Indeed, the ETU grew at a rate of about 3% a year, so that the ETU reached 220,000 members by 1955. The result was that the union’s rather antiquated branch ballot system of election continued to favour the winning by the many contested posts by a large proportion of CP and left officials. By the mid-1950s, the three General Officers of the ETU were all Communist Party members or close allies, along with four out of the five National Organisers, six out of the 11 EC members and 20 out of the 39 Area Officials.
Hostility to the ETU and its Communist leadership was openly aired in the early 1950s in the press; indeed, whenever the media wanted to complain about the excesses of modern trades unions, it was the ETU that was quoted in this period. The seeming contradiction between the relatively low support in electoral contests for the Communist Party, with trades unionists pouring their efforts into Labour, was often contrasted by media commentators with the remarkable level of support for Communists as trades unionists. As early as 1956, the Daily Telegraph was the first newspaper to suggest in print that wholesale rigging of ballots must be going on in the ETU to explain how strong were Communists in that union, something it was otherwise incredulous about.
There had been some precedent of legal challenges to unions with a political dimension. An interesting one was a rare libel action brought by the Post Office Engineering Union against the publishers of the Edinburgh Evening News about statements made on May 8th 1950. Essentially, a number of adverts had been taken out in the Daily Worker by the union (now a commonplace activity by unions with respect to the paper’s heir, the Morning Star and not so unusual even back then) sending greetings on May Day. Only three newspapers allowed that sort of advert and two were prohibitively expensive, hence the use of the Daily Worker. The local press reports had stated that complaints about the POEU “supporting Communism” were being investigated, when no such thing was occurring at all. The TUC was quoted as saying there was nothing it could do about it. The overall impression was left that here was a major political hot potato and the POEW would be in for it! Without any hesitation, it seems, the court awarded damages to the union and costs against the newspaper company. Here was an instance whereby using the combination of the press and the courts to damage Communist influence in unions hadn’t worked. [The Times October 15th 1951]
In 1951, a case was taken to the courts that hung on interpretation of the ETU’s rules and was set against the context of its leadership’s active sponsoring of militancy. In the case of Astley and Others v ETU, the union lost but only on a technicality. Alan Astley and six other ETU members had refused to take part in a non-officially sanctioned dispute involving employees of the London Electricity Board. 17 ETU members withdrew their labour from the installation department in Bethnal Green when a fellow worker was suspended for refusing to work with a TGWU member. No effort was spared in trying to win the seven who were disinclined to strike to doing so but they were unmovable. In time, some two thousand men were on strike but ETU rules made it difficult to retrospectively endorse the dispute. Nonetheless, the union made ex-gratia payments equivalent to dispute benefit to members, which ended up costing it the massive sum of £50,000.
Astley and others sought a ruling that this expenditure was ultra vires, or improperly made. They also wanted the prevention of disciplinary action against them by the union, which promptly responded that it intended none anyway and any threats made by others to this effect were unauthorised. Astley & Co also sought a ruling that the strike was “illegal” but it swiftly emerged that there was no basis for such a claim and this aspect was dropped. The judge noted the complex nature of the union’s rules, believing that it all hung on the word “distress”, for the relief of which union rules stipulated certain powers.
In that context, it had to be what the rules actually said rather than what they intended and, if the members of the union felt that was problematic, they had the simple remedy of altering their own rules by following the appropriate procedures for so doing. Thus, Astley & Co, were entitled, the judge felt, to a declaration that the union had not been authorised by rule to make the £50,000 payments. [The Times October 30 1951] In the coming years, this case would be raked up again and again to `prove’ the argument that the Communist leadership of the ETU was too eager to by-pass rules and procedures. But, for the press, the main concern was that the ETU was too eager to press industrial action in the interests of its members.
But it was more than that; the ETU was without doubt the conscience of the whole labour movement and at times made itself too unpopular amongst trade union bureaucrats for its directness and boldness, especially in political matters.
As contemporary rank and file ETU activist Larry Braithwaite recalls, “none of this activity was welcome to the nation’s leaders, particularly the TUC. Those Trade Union leaders who had been allowed to enter the corridors of power, in return for war effort collaboration with the employers, simply wanted those privileges to continue. The TUC General Council was (almost) entirely comprised of Lords and Knights, and the big unions were led by Lords. The prevailing mood was `don’t rock the Labour Government (or our gravy) boat’. When this right wing labour movement leadership hostility towards the ETU was strengthened by Cold War anti Soviet propaganda, the union tended to became more isolated.” [LB written recollections, March 2012]
When, in May 1952, R A Butler, the Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed a National Joint Advisory Council of the TUC, the employers’ confederation and the nationalised industries to find ways of relating wages to productivity, most trades unionists fell over themselves to welcome the mood. Even so, although this theme of partnership with government would emerge time and time again in the post-war years, the notion of co-operating with a Tory Government was a bit too much for many trades unionists to swallow.
Even so, the labour movement was in its most moderate phase and a resolution put at the annual TUC by the ETU that rejected the policy of “restraint” or “moderation” on wages was lost by a margin of 4.9 million to 2.6 million votes. Lincoln Evans, leader of the steel workers, put the General Council’s position. “There is no Tory policy of wage restraint; there is no Labour policy of wage restraint. There is a trade union policy of wage restraint.” For this rather thin reason, the General Council called for a rejection of the ETU proposal, because it declared that “no policy on wage restraint shall be endorsed”. [TUC Report 1952 Congress] The position adopted by the TUC would very soon have to be reconsidered in the light of experience.
Apart from anything else, a wave of militancy spread throughout Britain’s workforce in the late 1950s and early 1960s. A dispute in the national press industry ensued in 1955 when most national newspapers disappeared from newsagents’ shops for 26 days when just a few hundred maintenance workers in Fleet Street struck for a significant wage increase. Trying to face down electricians was a complete failure and the press barons caved in when losses hit £3m (try adding a nought or two to get the size of that!). The owner of the Mail newspapers was the chair of the employers’ association and the owner of the Telegraph group was its chief spokesman. These newspapers could hardly wait to vent their anger at what they saw as the architect of their misfortune.
Within days of the end of action, in May, Jack Hendy found himself the focus of a press campaign in its reports of the ETU policy conference. The Daily Mail had him on the front page in a piece headed: “Nationalise the press, cry ETU – violent attack on the Mail”. [Daily Mail; May 19th 1955] His attacks on the Mail and the Telegraph, which had been especially rubbishing the union of late, gave him prolonged applause at the conference. Hendy’s speech was endorsed by the secretary of the London Press branch who spoke of “filth and lies” in the press. The defeat of the press barons was clearly a popular struggle in the union. In articulating the mood, there must have been those in this period who wondered if Hendy was poised, perhaps, to become the future main leader of the union. Haxell made the official reply to the debate at conference but it was a pedestrian effort, relegated to the continued column inside in the Mail.
The Times was moved to comment, in a wide-ranging article mourning the “problem of industrial unrest” that “it is remarkable that no effort has been made to deal with the disturbing influence exercised by the Communist-dominated Electrical Trades Union in many industries.” [The Times June 20th 1955] So worked up about the ETU leadership did some journalists become that the New Statesman had even claimed at one point that Communists had been fraudulently elected, when in fact they had been merely elected unopposed. From here on, the ETU was seen as fair game by all the major newspapers, whether what we would today call broadsheet or redtop.
Above: The Daily Express May 20th 1955 – the article begins: “Until yesterday the name of Jack Hendy meant nothing to the majority of people in Britain. Then he came out, at the conference of the Electrical Trade Union at Worthing, in a call for nationalisation of newspapers. This is not the last you will hear of the saturnine Mr Hendy, a man, who they, say is being groomed for stardom in the 220,000 strong ETU.”
By the time Haxell was General Secretary, the ETU had grown to 240,000 members, largely due to 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. Arguably, the incendiary nature of the resentment that Cannon nurtured became the single most important reason for why the ballot trial occurred and why the Communist leadership of the ETU was so effectively destroyed. The first real signs, in retrospect, that a concerted plan to destabilise the union as a stop towards destroying it as an independent workers force were articles appearing in the press that could only have been placed following concerted involvement with security force sources.
An article in the Daily Mail [20th May 1955] supposedly written by Mail hack, Leslie Randall, bears all the hallmarks of one of those, now well-established productions, which originate from the security services, complete with inappropriate (in all senses) quotes from Lenin, estimates of the expenses or salaries of leading officials, the cost of maintaining those fancy palaces for members’ education. Haxell’s victory over Byrne was diminished by an unexplained reference to the AV system that applied, whereby Byrne had topped the first poll but not having an absolute majority had lost badly when all the votes of a rival non-right-winger had mainly repositioned to Haxell, “nothing less than a mass revolt of the membership”, Mr Randall thought, “is now required to sweep the Communists from office.” The notion was much more significant than can have been thought of at the time.
One Woodrow Wyatt was to all appearances, an interested if rather obsessed independent who had seemingly `happened’ on the story of Communist penetration of the unions, supposedly by accident. In fact he had longstanding associations with the so-called “Information Research Department” (IRD), which had links to the security forces and was, essentially, its media arm.
Elected a Labour MP from 1945 until 1955, Wyatt had been heavily used in the press as a hostile voice on the Briggs Motor Bodies workers’ fight against Fords, the ultimate owner of their company, on the short-time issue, a struggle that had been mainly led by Communists. After losing his seat, he became a reporter for the BBC’s Panorama current affairs programme. Woodrow Wyatt’s `The Peril in Our Midst – on Communist influence in trade unions’ was a 70- page booklet published by Phoenix House, a strangely unknown publisher, in 1956. A phenomenal trial by newspaper, TV and radio began with Woodrow Wyatt launching the most laboured attempts to darken the name of the ETU that had yet been seen. In November 1957, he had filmed a report claiming to expose ballot rigging in the ETU. Seen as something of an eccentric maverick, he returned to Parliament in 1959 as MP for Bosworth. Rebelling in the 1964- 1970 parliaments over steel nationalisation, he subsequently became known for being very close to Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdoch.
Under left leadership for the past 15 years or so, the ETU was nothing if not ready to come forward and back its members when they were in struggle. When 130 electricians on the South Bank site, employed by F H Wheelers as sub-contractors to MacAlpine’s on the Shell building, went on official strike, the union was still backing the dispute ten weeks later, when a Ministry of Labour Committee of Investigation was established. MacAlpine’s electricians got s weekly bonus in addition to basic pay of £2 15 shillings and a travel allowance of 5 ¾ d a mile calculated from home to site. But Wheelers did not get these benefits and worked for the standard rate alone of 5 shillings and 3½d per hour.
The director of the National Federated Electrical Association, the employers’ organisation, was only concerned that to concede this demand would simply result in over a hundred big construction jobs in the centre of the capital also seeing craftsmen demand something similar and then where would we be, he almost appeared to say. [Daily Telegraph 12th January 1960]
Thus, throughout the 1950s, the ETU had stood at the forefront of left political struggles. It has attracted the hostility of the rich and powerful and had become a by-word for militant unionism `controlled’ by Communists. This notion of the Party having some abiding say in the ETU, or any other union for that matter, which the media was obsessed with, was predicated upon the notion that, somehow, unions should be non-political, certainly not an approach most union leaders favoured, even if they wanted their members to simply fund the Labour Party, allowing their leaders significant political clout, without in any way being involved or concerned with that party. Strangely, the obsession of bourgeois liberalism with apolitical unions belied the fact that virtually all political parties.
Obviously, British trade unions have long had a close relationship with the Labour Party, since at its foundation several unions were key players. Affiliated unions are still a key part of Labour’s structures but in recent years even more sophisticated vehicles for party organisation (`interference’?) have been invented. For example, the Trade Union and Labour Party Liaison Organisation (TULO), created in 1994, co-ordinates the 15 affiliated bodies. There are no less than 58 TUC-affiliated unions, that is to say 43 unions that have no formal Labour Party structure within them. Are we to assume a completely non-political environment in these? Hardly!
Less well-known is the Association of Liberal Democrat Trade Unionists (ALDTU), which is that party’s organisation of trade unionists, as was the ALTU before it of the Liberal Party. ALDTU states: “It exists to support Liberal Democrat members in the trade union movement and to input into party policy.” The Conservative Trade Unionists (CTU) organisation was founded just before the First World War. Various pushes took place to further build Tory trades union structures, in the 1920s, then the 1950s, the 1970s and again in more recent times. Today the CTU is known as “Conservatives at Work”. The Tory Party even spent some time in the 1950s trying to emulate the Communist Party’s special position of strength within unions. Interestingly, in 1959 the Tories’ London Advisory Committee of trades unionists met and this was reported in the press, which claimed that workers in the electrical industry were present. The irony was not lost on Jack Hendy who wrote to Frank Haxell musing that perhaps they could identify when the Tory “National Advisory Committee” next met! [Letter from Hendy to Haxell 23 November 1959]
So, was it really so wrong that the Communist Party had its own organisational form inside unions? Many commentators thought so and turncoats were sought to provide dirt on this. One T L Vetterlein, of the ETU East Ham branch, born 1906, who had joined the ETU in 1930, joined the Communist in 1924 and left in 1958. He had been involved in Communist Party meetings of ETU members when they were referred to a “fraction meetings”, a distinctly Comintern (dissolved 1942) designation. Clearly, the Communist Party had been organising in this way for decades. Few had found this challenging; but the real targeting of the ETU by the right wing press began to look truly serious when J T `Jock’ Byrne, OBE, a Catholic Action-supporting ETU official in Scotland and a bitter and outright anti-communist stood against Haxell but, having been declared the loser in February 1960, took the matter to court.
Catholic Action, or as some ironically called it, `Catholic Reaction’, had very little strength in England but, in the then still religiously sectarian Scotland it seemed to have considerable influence. As some of his enemies called him, stressing what was in those days a euphemism for a body part, John Thomas Byrne, was a major beneficiary.
An encyclical issued by the then Pope – John XX111 – was entitled `Pacem In Terris’. Since a call for `peace on earth’ was perfectly in harmony with Party policy some Communist electricians even set about distributing it. The only ETU member that Larry Braithwaite knew who professed to be in sympathy with Catholic Action was utterly flummoxed by this. He also recounts that one Scottish Communist hilariously described the effect on the devout on being presented a copy of the Papal tract “initially they wouldn’t read it because they claimed it was a forgery, and even then refused since it had been `tainted with godless hands’“.
One Catholic friend of Braithwaite, a branch secretary and later a full time official in London, claimed that his local Church had denied all knowledge of it, so he presented them with a copy, courtesy of a Communist colleague! Larry also recalls that most of the Catholics he personally knew were Irish Republicans, some in the James Connolly tradition, who were never much influenced by Catholic Action. But, clearly the London Irish had not had the experience of religious sectarianism aping the north of Ireland that was bred in Scotland, which eventually led to the Celtic-Rangers divide that is now thankfully fading into faintness.
Byrne had been an elected full- time official for some time and was an assiduous contestant in union elections with a great knowledge of the system. So many offices in the union were elected that it was in a permanent state of elections. Yet the very essence of trades unionism, the voluntary activity of local lay representatives, was also so much at the heart of the union that administrative task required to maintain fair and efficient order in the process was virtually beyond the union. Added to that, an intensely competitive environment had somehow developed. Partly, this was connected with the fact that, in the 1920s and 30s, electricity was seen as new and modern. Young men who were electricians thought of themselves as innovators. They were often very clever, in an age when the working class were still largely denied access to education. The whole mix became toxic with the onset of the cold war. Add to that likely outside involvement, at least in the form of employer and church supported activity, and an intensely toxic mix lay ready to be combusted. Byrne was also a highly argumentative opponent of Communists in his union.
As far back as 1947 Byrne had stood for the general Secretaryship, when he polled 11,000 out of 42,000 votes. The following year, when he stood for the assistant general secretaryship, he had polled well. In December 1959, Byrne had stood against Frank Haxell for the post of general secretary. The result, which had been announced by the union as the following now became the source of intense litigation: Haxell 19,611 – Byrne 18,577. But it was the 109 disqualifications out of some seven hundred branches – or 15.6% of the total – that supposedly made the Byrne camp initially suspicious. This was clearly an awful lot of disqualifications but it was not necessarily out of the experience of ETU branch life. In 1941, when the union was nowhere near like being Communist-led and had about four hundred branches, 93 branches had had their votes disqualified – only 15.6% of the total. [C H Rolph “All those in favour – the ETU trial” [ETU edition, Andre Deutsch (1962)], p201] Yet, no-one had disputed that result.
It was Les Cannon, a former leading Communist and now a turn-coat, who claimed to have uncovered a ballot rigging scandal in the ETU. Although he had a career-orientated grudge dating back before his discovery of anti- communism, he and Frank Chapple, also an ex-Party member but one with a reputation from that time of being intensely vituperative and personal in his dealings with comrades, 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!
MRA was a campaign movement that, from 1938, was developed from the ideas of the American, Frank Buchman, which he had first elaborated in his earlier fundamentalist religious Oxford Group. He saw MRA as an ideology inspired by God upon which all could unite. Thus, in Buchman’s view, management and workers could work together, as MRA often put it, like the fingers on one hand. Its style was to hold weekend or summer holiday conferences in pleasant settings to which potential converts would be invited at no cost. These events began in the USA in 1942 and, within a decade, MRA had acquired considerable property used as training centres. These would include a theatre and a soundstage, the American version of which was actually used for the production of feature films. Both the American and the European arms of MRA, which extensively used a centre in Switzerland, focused heavily, amongst other things, on the training of anti-communist trade union leaders.
Woodrow Wyatt MP, who had already been much to the fore in anti-communist crusades, made specific allegations of corruption in the ETU 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 allegations in the New Statesman. But, even more damaging were the series of television commentaries on supposed ballot-rigging in the ETU.
It has been retrospectively frequently commented on that John Freeman’s pursuit of ETU leaders on television was a journalistic coup for democratic rights. At the time, many who it would not be thought of as natural allies of people like Haxell and Foulkes did not see it that way. Indeed five senior Labour politicians, representing a spectrum of opinion from the centre-left to the right of the party – but not the left – actually pointed out the dangers of what they called “television trials”. The five, who wrote a published letter to the Times, were Alf Robens, at the time a Labour MP but shortly to become chair of the National Coal Board for ten years, George Brown, shortly to become (right-wing) Deputy Leader of the Labour Party (and later a renegade to the SDP), former Labour cabinet ministers Douglas Houghton and Patrick Gordon Walker, and Charles Pannell MP, soon to become a minister in the future Labour government. Haxell had declined to appear on one programme finding it “impossible to do so”. The five defended his “liberty” to choose not to. “It seems to us that this was in itself a novel and alarming procedure. To create a situation in which very damaging effects upon a man may result from his refusal to appear on a programme is tantamount to coercing him by challenge to prove his innocence.”
But Foulkes had found himself under great and mounting pressure to appear in an interview with John Freeman on Panorama on February 22 1960, the following week. But, the five felt, almost touchingly given later media intrusiveness, that “this programme was even more alarming in its implications”. The point was that it was not the role of the BBC to set itself up as a tribunal “to coerce people to subject themselves to inquisition by spreading abroad accusations about them”. [The Times February 27 1960]
Extraordinarily, Freeman, the supposedly seeker of truth, the fearless and independent interrogator of Communist bureaucracy, found it necessary to spend the entire day beforehand in his Hampstead flat rehearsing his assault on Foulkes with Les Cannon, although this was not revealed at the time.
The minutes of the ETU EC in this period are voluminous and mainly consist of pages and pages of dense small font type detailing the results of negotiations and disputes across the country. In addition, tussles over ballots are frequent; in the December quarter of 1959 [Minute No 8, July 2nd and 3 1960, p281] complaints about the handling of ballots for five ballots by the Hamilton branch were considered. Essentially, the dispute was whether 200 or 20 spare ballot papers lay on the table during the meeting and whether any of them had been “stamped”, that is to say endorsed for use in the branch. The EC rejected the explanations from the branch by majority vote but, in an intensely partisan position, two right-wingers voted against and one abstained. Hamilton was a Catholic Action branch, near to Glasgow.
There were many such complaints at this one meeting of the EC. One came from a certain “Brother L Cannon”, who had attended the London Studio No 1 branch, a film industry branch. He complained that, as far as the Haxell-Byrne ballot was concerned, this branch had allowed two ballot papers handed in at a previous meeting by members unable to attend the Quarterly Meeting to be added to the ballot. Two other papers handed in at that meeting had lain there for a long time, whilst the branch secretary had brought out a hundred votes sent to him by post and other branch members had added papers to the pile. Two Communist members of the EC moved rejection of votes from an obviously left-wing branch, two right wingers abstained.
The Manchester Electronic Engineers branch votes for the Haxell-Byrne election were rejected by the EC, on the proposition of the left, after a former member, who had been promoted to supervisor, wrote to the General Secretary of the TUC because he continued to receive ballot papers. The explanation eventually surfaced that there were two members with the same name in the branch and the branch secretary, whose wife was seriously ill, found that on “going through the history sheets for addresses the marker where I left off may have fallen out”.
The sheer preponderance of elections held in the ETU cannot be imagined without an intense involvement in the minutiae of the day. It was not uncommon for some Quarter Nights (branch meetings where every three months a special matter was considered) to see five or six elections being held all at once.
Elections for each and every delegate to attend, for example, each year’s TUC congress were held. In 1960, to join the nine lay delegates, one had to gain as many as eleven to fourteen thousand votes. Contentious delegates such as Les Tuck, who polled 1,925 votes, simply had no chance of success. Whatever may or may not be the truth of the Haxell- Byrne election, the notion that Communists had the time and energy to manage the manifold characteristics of the chaotic, sprawling nature of ETU electioneering across the board is simply foolish.
A writ on behalf of Byrne and Chapple was issued on the May 10th 1960 but matters did not come to a head until a year later, when a lengthy hearing presided over by Justice Winn took place. By that time, the ETU now accepted some serious enquiry was needed and that something really serious had gone wrong in the Haxell/Byrne election, indeed that maybe the system the union was using was flawed.
Intriguingly, as J R Campbell wrote in his review of C H Rolph’s contemporary book about the case, the press had campaigned heavily against the ETU since 1948, initially in opposition to its militant union power and in the 1957 to 1959 period more so over the conduct of elections. Not one of the allegations having then been made were actually substantiated by the trial. This assault increasingly and obviously became more and more wedded to supporting a particular faction in the ETU that aimed for power within the union. Moreover, the inefficient electoral practices of the ETU were quite modest when compared to many other unions’ approaches, unions that were rather more to the right than was the electricians’ union. [Daily Worker 23rd March 1962]
Left: a long-service membership award badge for ETU activists
The book amidst many commentators “calmly assum(es) that because ballot rigging in 1959 was proved that therefore all previous allegations were equally true”. In fact, not only did the judge’s summation deny this absolutely, Rolph’s book made not one single reference to Justice Wynn’s specific comments in this regard at any point. Wynn said: “In general, my considered judgement on all these topics is that when fully examined as they have been, in at least adequate detail, they do not amount to or establish any fraudulent practice by any of the defendants.” Yet, remarkably, posterity recalls the whole affair as having been a massive and outrageous con-trick by Communists, when the evidence suggests something quite different altogether.
BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCHES OF KEY PERSONALITIES
Wally Stevens was the Communist General Secretary of the ETU in the immediate post-war period. His early death was perhaps a major contributor to the debacle that befell the ETU Communists in the early 1960s, for his leadership of the union was virtually totally unchallenged
in his lifetime.
Born in Woolwich in 1904, Walter Charles Stevens, he was the eldest of five brothers. Their father died when Wally was only ten years old and he was forced to find work out of school hours to help make ends meet. He was just over 13 years of age and he was in full time work. He began in the
electrical department of a film renting and production firm, then went into electrical contracting and finally returned to the studio as a sound maintenance engineer at Denham Studios.
Having joined the Eltham branch of the union in January 1929, he was soon a shop steward, making the studios 100% organized, branch secretary, branch president, and, in 1938, an elected full-time official for the London area. Two years later and he was Area Secretary and, in 1942, he was elected Assistant General Secretary, a position he held for five years, being re-elected unopposed in July 1947. More than 400 of the union’s 600 branches supported his nomination.
His election as General Secretary in 1948 was on the highest vote ever recorded in the union. Amongst other achievements, Stevens had the ETU purchase the first dedicated premises to union education in the British trade union movement in June 1953 at Esher Place, a residential college (pictured below). The ETU had also opened Rustington House in Sussex as a union convalescence home in 1949.
Stevens had the extraordinary privilege of being elected unopposed by the union as general secretary in that same year. [Main source for foregoing: The Electron, November 1954] He played a sterling role in opposing wages policies at the TUC general council and in congress in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Stevens died as a result of a car accident when coming back from a meeting in October 1954. More than one writer has noted the really odd circumstances of Stevens’ mysterious death. One decidedly non-Communist author noted: “The circumstances surrounding Steven’s death remain questionable to this day.” [Helen Tomkins “Mr Lewisham – a life of Les Stannard” (2001) p76]
Esher Place – Stevens’ legacy
Frank Foulkes was born in 1899 and joined the Electrical Trades Union as an apprentice in 1915. He served as shop steward, branch official, district official, area full-time official, National Organiser, and was elected General President of the ETU in 1945. Foulkes was opposed by the right-winger John Byrne in 1950 but comfortably re-elected. Unopposed in 1954, he was successful against Bill Blairford in September 1959.
Foulkes was a member of the Labour Party for 15 years and an election agent in the general election of 1929 before joining the Communist Party in 1931.
The role of Foulkes was hugely significant, for the ETU was one of a few British unions that had a President (the NUM was another, notable, union with two senior posts). In the ETU, the role of the General President was largely to oversee negotiations, whereas the General Secretary was more of an internal administrator. In many ways, it made the ETU President arguably a more significant figure for ordinary union members, concerned as they were about wages and conditions of employment.
The chair of the National Joint Industrial Council for the electricity supply industry and President of the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions, Foulkes had led a major dispute in the contracting industry in 1954 that was so significant that it even 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.
Foulkes was personally damaged by a highly public row over the debarring of Les Cannon, arising from breaches of internal procedures, as a delegate to the TUC congress in 1958.
Widely described as a leader of his union who was “loved” by his members, Foulkes’ career in the ETU ended in 1963 when a new right-wing ETU EC expelled him from the union over issues that arose during the trial of the union over procedures adopted in 1959, when Byrne had stood against Frank Haxell for the General Secretaryship of the union. In essence, it was Foulkes’ refusal to let Frank Chapple read into the EC minutes the names of branches whose votes had been disqualified for breaches of rule that attracted the hostility of the judge and provided the excuse to expel him. Foulkes made clear at the trial that it was only Chapple’s constant leaking to the press such information that motivated his refusal.
In a final indignation, and contrary to earlier public promises, the now right-wing dominated union denied Foulkes of his union pension.
Left: Haxell in the mid-1930s
Frank Haxell was born in 1912 and joined the ETU in 1929. A Communist Party member from 1935, he was banned from holding office in the union for five years in 1939 for supporting an unofficial strike of electricians in Chorley.
From 1945, all three leading officials were Communists and, as Assistant Secretary in the early 1950s, Frank Haxell was a key force. By the latter part of the decade, he was ETU General Secretary and also a member of the Communist Party’s Executive.
Haxell had played a leading role in turning the ETU to the left, and was instrumental in smashing a 1950-1951 wages freeze. 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 increasingly worried at the strength of the ETU and of the Communist power base inside it.
With other Party members in the leadership of the ETU, he was a key part of the campaign to build 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, along with Foulkes. But, by the time Haxell was General Secretary, the ETU had grown to 240,000 members.
Although nearly all the flak was directed to Haxell, neither the union, nor the Party, nor the courts were ever able to satisfa
ctorily explain precisely how the malpractices occurred and who was individually responsible. To this day, the precise circumstances remain a mystery. Haxell’s guilt was presumed by all on the basis that no-one did anything in the union without his approval but he denied responsibility to his dying day. Understandably, the Communist Party immediately distanced itself from the affair and Haxell resigned from the Party. 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. [Sources: Time Magazine February 1st 1954; September 15th 1958; Morning Star 27th May 1988] Right: Haxell in his heyday
Born John Hendy on the 15th February 1915 in Cornwall, the young electrician, always known as Jack, met his future life-long wife, comrade, and partner in everything, Mary, in an aircraft factory where they both worked during the war.
Mary was, it happened, also the youngest daughter of Baron Wynford, a hereditary peerage created for an early 19th century politician, with an estate near Dorchester in Dorset. But the then incumbent Baron was also an active Labour Party member, which oddly turned out to be more damaging for Mary’s growing radicalism. The fact that Jack had joined the Communist Party in 1937 proved to be a real problem for Mary’s family, the Best family, and she found herself disowned by nearly all of them.
Jack Hendy, who had joined the ETU 1936, became the Secretary of the Communist Party’s influential sub-committee, the Electrical Advisory, in 1941. This was effectively the Party’ faction within the union (the term implied that a group of leading comrades `advised’ the Party’s Executive Committee).
In 1946, he went on a scholarship to the LSE for four years where he took a BSc (Econ). Returning to the tools, Hendy was elected shop steward for London Co-op Society and the Executive Council of the ETU at a by-election that took place at the end of 1956.
By 1956, Hendy had acquired a role as part of the union’s education work at Esher Place and he was on the EC from 1957 to 1961, representing west and north-west London, Bucks, Herts, and Middlesex. He took office at the EC meeting of February 23/24 h 1957, having polled 1,879 votes to the loser’s 926.
In this period, Jack Hendy was on the Editorial Board of Marxism Today and a member of the Party’s Economic Committee.
To a large extent, the 1961 `ballot rigging’ legal case had less to do with any `rigging’ as such and much more to do the simple fact of the existence of a Communist fraction within the union. The key legal notion at the heart of the case was the common law offence `conspiracy to defraud’; in a sense, proving a conspiracy was rather more a serious matter than the proving of fraud! Hence, linking Hendy – an ETU EC member to the existence of Communist Party Advisories was critical. In the final analysis, the court case hung upon a letter written by Hendy to Les Cannon, a fellow Party member when it was written, but later a vicious anti-Communist renegade. The letter, dated November 23rd 1951, was by way of a report of a Party advisory meeting to Cannon, with whom Hendy was then friendly. Hendy had mentioned nominations for the election of the ETU delegation to the TUC in the context of a sort of complaint about the manner in which he had been outmanoeuvred in discussion by Frank Haxell over which names to promote. As a consequence of the discussion, Hendy thought it unlikely that he would end up as a TUC delegate.
The background to this was that Hendy had been the Secretary of the advisory in the immediate post-war period. But, whilst he was at the LSE, Jack Fraser (see later) had taken over from him. None of this was out with everyone’s support for the Communist Party but was strictly linked to each person’s personal ambitions. Fraser was clearly more favoured by the existing leading figures within the union and was probably being groomed long-term for the leadership.
Hendy had struggled to gain acceptance on his resumption of activity within the advisory after attending the LSE and, naturally, sought support from younger Communists such as Cannon. But his letter to Cannon was now a key piece of evidence that confirmed – from the horse’s mouth – the existence of the Party Advisory. The clandestine nature of the Advisory was especially a problem with conspiracy and Party activists now sought vainly to declare it discreet and non-constitutional rather than unconstitutional. But the excessively discreet character of advisory work was massively fanned both in court and in the media as a smokescreen to obscure the fact that no actual evidence linked orders from King Street, via the Advisory, to actual manipulation of union rule resulting in real forged votes. The case rested purely on the opinion of the judge that the very act of the Communist Party having a closed and discreet Advisory was in itself necessarily always a conspiracy.
Nonetheless, Justice Winn was forced to exonerate Jack Hendy of electoral fraud, noting that he had acquired the nick-name of “Honest Jack”! Winn judged him to be “a man of intellectual honesty as well as intellectual power, personally honourable to the extent that he would not adopt any course of conduct which seemed to him to be unjust to unless a considerable advantage to the Communist Party left him no choice”.
Despite the back-handed complements, Hendy found himself easily besmirched in the atmosphere that ensued from the court case. Even so, despite much artificially generated public hostility in the press, nearly 150 branches nominated Hendy as a candidate in the election of ETU delegates for the 1962 TUC. The new right wing EC simply refused to allow the ballot to proceed.
The Acton Gazette was forced to place an apology to Hendy in its own paper towards the end of 1961, having implied that he had been elected in a case involving ballot rigging, when it mixed up the General Secretary election and the election for the new EC that followed the court case in the normal course of events. Under the heading “all out bid to smash Communist grip on the ETU: THE BATTLE FOR CONTROL IN RED UNION”, the Acton Gazette certainly did not aim to win votes for Jack Hendy!
Local ETU branches in Acton, Shepherd’s Bush and Hammersmith were advised that the next week was critical. A photo of the good-looking Labour Party member now opposing Hendy led the piece. `Helpfully’, and most unusually, the local paper detailed the names of the six branch secretaries in the area, naming “at least four of them (who were) either Communist Party members or sympathisers”. [Acton Gazette and West London Post September 21st 1961] The day and venue of each branch meeting was detailed for readers, though this did not appear to become a regular feature of the service provided by local newspapers. Jack Hendy remained a member of the EC until December 31st 1961.
Extraordinary high levels of competence and attention were required by the union. It is little wonder that so many infringements of procedure were experienced. Even so competent a person as Jack Hendy could fall foul of the complex and stringent rules applying in the union. Acceptance of nomination for election to office was actually formally required and could not be presumed. In the election for the EC to take office for 1962-3, he was one of three candidates in the eleven divisional elections whose explanation for late acceptance of nomination was considered carefully by the EC before acceptance. Hendy’s excuse why he had not been able to return the form within five days was that he had left home for a lengthy period of negotiations regarding Fords just as he had received the acceptance form in an envelope of many other circulars relating to union business. As soon as he noted that the form had arrived he dealt with it.
On June 3rd 1962, the now right-dominated ETU EC voted 7 to 4 to charge Hendy with bringing discredit on the union. He was debarred by the now totally dominant and ruthless right-wing from holding office in the ETU for seven years, despite Winn’s exoneration, basically for not opposing the decision of the EC to award the election to Haxell.
Jack Fraser, secretary of the CP’s electrical advisory
In evidence of mitigation, Hendy submitted letters of recommendation from various dignitaries; Clive Jenkins (ASSET general secretary – later ASTMS and then MSF) mentioned Hendy’s “integrity”. The general secretary of ACTT (today part of BECTU) offered aid and the BOAC (the main British airline carrier of the period, after mergers, what would become British Airways) joint shop stewards committee was strongly supportive of Hendy. This involved the engineers (AEU – part of Unite), woodworkers (ASW – part of UCATT), electricians (ETU – part of Unite), painters (NSP – part of UCATT), furniture operatives NUFTO (part of GMB), general workers, NUG&MW (GMB), sheet-metal workers (NUSMW & C – now part of Unite), vehicle builders (NUVB – now part of Unite), and transport workers (T&GWU – now part of Unite)
As one of the youngest of the ETU leaders – and certainly the most able – Hendy was understandably distraught at the final outcome of events. He was urged by close friends in personal letters not to take the damage done to trades unionism and to Communism to heart. Nor should he feel a compulsion to return to his trade, especially now that he had shown such capacity for the law. The slight evidence of some personal correspondence is that Jack seems to have imparted in private a slight hint of annoyance at the Communist Party leadership for not intervening more and ensuring that higher standards of governance were followed by leading comrades in the ETU. This is contrary to all perceived wisdom that the Party’s leadership colluded with underhand techniques; certainly that is what Winn implied.
Of course, Hendy’s concerns may have reflected a correct estimate that, had he not gone to the LSE in the late 40s, Haxell and Fraser may not have dominated internal Party work in the union as much as they did, since Hendy may well have been more firmly in control of the Advisory. Unquestionably, whatever Winn’s attempts to smear the blame all around meant, had the union been more firmly in the hands of Foulkes and Hendy, more wisdom and more principle would have been applied.
Jack Hendy had been secretary of the Litigation Sub-Committee of the EC from the moment he took office as an EC member (there were also sub-committees for Establishments, Publications, Ballots, and other matters). He had always shown a strong interest in the law and was by now the expert in all of the ETU and the Communist Party on the law and the union. Little wonder then, that as he saw his union increasingly closed down not only to him but to two successive generations of electricians, he later studied law at night school and became a barrister, although he never practised. Instead he taught industrial law at Ealing technical college.
More happily, about Jack’s legal touch, Stephen Sedley [or to give him his full title, “The Rt. Hon. Lord Justice Sedley”, judge of the Court of Appeal of England and Wales] has said that Hendy, as a law lecturer who started life as a jobbing electrician, once said to him a most profound thing – that he had found that in both trades that the most useful thing you could have with you was “a well-filled box of junk”. It seems this is meant to point up the relative paucity of weight of statute law to precedent.
An activist in his union as a college lecturer, Jack Hendy became the first President of the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (today part of the UCU) at its first conference in July 1976, when the unions ATTI and ATCDE came together. Jack Hendy late in life in 1977
As Jack Hendy LLB BSc (Econ) Principal Lecturer in Law at Ealing Technical College, he became the new union’s new President. He received a silver-mounted gavil and anvil from the West Midlands region, to mark the formation of NATFHE, designed and made by staff and students of Hall Green Technical College and Bourneville School of Art (now both part of South Birmingham College).
Much later in life, in retirement, the couple moved from Ealing to Cornwall, where they remained Communist Party members until their deaths in the 1990s.
Born in 1922 Bob Carr was born in Jarrow where he has always lived and worked. He was noted, even from childhood for a strong sense of morality that involved supporting others if they were attacked. A natural leadership from his school days would lead into moral assertiveness as he experienced the world of work in the school of hard knocks that was industrial Tyneside.
His father was a shipyard hand caulker, a trade critical to sea-worthiness, ensuring that ships were watertight. Bob was interested in electricity from a very early age and was an able boy with his hands and mind, willing to attend night classes. Although as Bob was leaving school the jobs situation in Jarrow was disastrous, yards having financially caved in during 1933, exposing Jarrow to such privation and unemployment that the infamous and eponymous march ensued three years later. Although obtaining an apprenticeship was not always so easy at the time, he had reputation for being steady and some of his father’s workmates put in a good word for him. It would be the start of a lifetime associated with the now largely disappeared world of shipbuilding.
Unusually, Bob Carr became a shop steward when only very shortly out of his time, that is to say beyond the period of apprenticeship and classed as a time-served skilled worker. He was already a member of the union even as an apprentice and was actually formally defeated at his first election but the victor gave up the task almost immediately and Bob was elected a shop steward one mere month after finishing his apprenticeship.
He was around 17 or 18 years old when he started thinking about the Party. It was a joiner’s shop steward in the yards who first interested him in the Daily Worker. Then, from when he became a shop steward, he sat on the multi-union joint shop stewards’ committee at R & W Hawthorn Leslie and Co. Ltd. (usually referred to as Hawthorn Leslie), a shipbuilding manufacturer. Again, remarkably, Bob was elected Chair of JSSC at age of 22.
He recalls that he had picked up a perhaps too sharp a conception of politics, which led to him view even the most junior of management as class enemies. (The North-East District of the Party had been noted for the most radical stance of all during the Comintern left turn of 1928-34, less than a decade earlier; perhaps some of this sharpness may have been retained by local Party officials and rubbed off?) The result was that he refused, as JSSC chair, to make a presentation agreed by the stewards to two yard officials and this led to his prompt removal of as chair, something he now feels he should have avoided by a more diplomatic approach.
Bob joined the Communist Party around about 1941. He would very quickly distinguish himself as a keen and successful recruiter of new members. This skill rose to heady heights in 1948. Throwing light on this, we have the evidence of a record of a report received by the Communist Party Executive Committee on its own recruitment activities.
Now that the war was over, although Party membership had reached an all-time high, many more potential members were to be made. A large number were ex-Service personnel who had first become supporters during their military service but who, upon demobilisation, were now ready to join. In addition, there were those who had returned or who had never went away who had now made up their minds, and finally there were even applications to join coming in from the Forces, many of them from personnel serving abroad.
But, undoubtedly, the outstanding method of recruiting was through the work of members who volunteered for the task and Bob Carr was one of about one thousand cross the country who pledged themselves to win three recruits during the campaign entitled `Ask Them’, urging Party members to seek recruits amongst workmates and neighbours. Only three others personally made more recruits than Bob Carr, with the leader at 62 new members. Nonetheless, Carr’s result of 41 recruits signed up is staggering in its magnitude. 1948 would prove to be a turning point in the Party’s fortunes as the Cold War began to bite.
As a shipyard worker, Carr was a long-standing Jarrow branch secretary or branch chair of the Party. He was also, for some decades, a member of the North East England District Committee and its Secretariat, a sort of localised version of the Political Committee.
At various points, he was a branch chair or branch secretary of the ETU and had been a federation (CSEU) shop steward and secretary of a shop stewards’ committee.
When German rearmament began, West German destroyers came in to Palmers shipyards to be modernised. Knowing him to be an active Communist, the German government managed to prevent Carr from working on the ships and he was transferred to the workshop to manage civil jobs.
But it was his leading role in mobilising and guiding activists on the Tyne in shipbuilding during the 1957 dispute in the industry that would first propel him into the limelight. The dispute was so serious that the Minister of Labour and National Service in the Tory government of the time, Iain Macleod, made a statement on the dispute to the House of Commons. [See: HC Deb 12 March 1957 vol 566 cc985-90 985] On 17th September 1956, the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU) presented a claim to the Shipbuilding Employers’ Federation for a substantial increase in wages for all male manual workers. On 30th October the unions told the employers that they had in mind an increase of 10% but the employers rejected the claim on 11th December.
At a special national conference on 10th January 1957 the unions resolved to press the claim and they met the employers again on 13th February. On 5th March the claim was again rejected by the employers and on 7th March the unions decided to call a national strike in the shipyards to start at midday on Saturday, 16th March. The countdown to strike action had begun but the government ruled that an examination by a court of inquiry, a typical response of the time, could not be ordered as the causes of the dispute were clear.
Some 1,750,000 workers took strike action in the biggest action of its kind to that date since 1926. As in 1926, successive waves of workers within the CSEU unions were called out and the bulk of the English Midlands car plants and engineering works had not yet been called upon but were straining at the leash. The general secretary of the main Confed union, the AEU, was virulent right-winger, Jim Conway. But the key official was its President, Bill Carron, an even more abusive denigrator of militancy.
The government proposed an arbitration handled by Lord Evershed, Master of the Rolls, the second most senior legal role after the Lord Chief Justice. Although both sides accepted this in principle negotiations continued to flounder and a major strike loomed as negotiations with the engineering employers’ body, the Engineering Employers’ Federation, brought the entirety of the industry into conflict. In shipbuilding, the difference between the parties had been narrowed down to a 5% offer by the owners and the 7½% that the unions were willing to accept. As the dispute began and looked like spreading, two separate courts of enquiry were proposed one for engineering and one for shipbuilding.
Out of the blue, the CSEU, mainly due to Carron’s direction, called off the strike with no guarantees of any kind. Great militancy was in the process of coming in these industries and would lead to a major shift to the left in the AEU. The ETU’s largely Communist leadership had committed a great deal to the dispute. In many ways this marked them out for special retribution. Bob Carr had also been to the forefront in the shipbuilding industry. He too would find this counted against him. [left: Bob Carr in the Daily Sketch]
An accusation that someone had used a small number of false ballot papers in a relatively unimportant local internal election that he was the winning candidate arose. It was a mystery to Carr who was “left speechless by it all”. He had thought before the election that he had an excellent chance of winning the election, indeed was “absolutely confident” of doing so. Thus, when the accusation first emerged, Carr could not see what motive there was for rigging the ballot. Aside from what he saw as an intensely insulting accusation, it was to him always a complete mystery. Aside from the distasteful morality, it was not in the interests of the Communists to engage in such a risky activity for such meagre results.
As Bob Carr said in retrospect: “the rigging gave anti-communist forces in the union a lever to get rid of Communists – why would I want that? I never thought that there was true ballot rigging but there were extra votes that had mysteriously appeared. I never had any hard evidence that proves anything but I always felt that something had been deliberately done to blacken the reputation of Communists. Catholic Action certainly mobilised locally. Dick Fenwick (a former Area President himself) was one of them who was active in the ETU branch and they were constantly looking for anything.” [Interview with Colette Smith, July 2012]
Carr further recalled that being the Area President meant that he would merely be the chair of a monthly regional meeting: “The Area President was not a full-time position so it would be no specially big gain for the Party and I would never have even needed ballot-rigging, so confident was I beforehand that I would win hands down, being so well-known and appreciated locally.” That there were so many postal ballot papers in his support was “a complete surprise; it was over the top … Fenwick brought it up straight away and it seemed to me at the time as if he knew about it already. His making sure that he was an auditor was odd and he latched on to it all straightaway. It was even Fenwick who went to the post office to enquire about the envelopes … someone had gone around posting a few envelopes in different post boxes in one night in a relatively small area. At the time my opinion was that this had been done by anti-communists so as to make a case at the union branch for an investigation.”
A furore broke out in the media about the Jarrow branch case. Many apprentices and fellow workers locally gave Bob Carr moral support but it was a trying time nonetheless. The Carr house was surrounded by “crowds” of photographers and reporters. Outraged, Bob’s wife, Ann, tried to knock the cameras out of their hands! But the mob was ceaseless and the siege went on for nearly a week. For Bob Carr, the personal damage this unmitigated stress caused must have been enormous. In providing his own account of these days for this book, he has been unbending as to his own innocence even at the remove of half a century. One is reminded of the character and scope of distortion by the media of the day, as regards Carr’s personality, of the viciously wrong image portrayed of Derek Robinson, who endured the media tag of “Red Robbo” during 1979-80. Derek’s Robinson’s persona was as much an invention of some unpleasant sub-editor as was Bob Carr’s.
After some delay, Haxell and Foulkes met with the Jarrow branch committee, the proceedings of which were tape recorded, with the comments of both communists and anti-communists. In Carr’s opinion, Haxell was genuinely trying to get to the bottom of it when he visited. All of the comments of members of the ETU branch committee were taped
But, after the event, the recording was “never heard of again”, according to Carr. The allegation against Carr over Jarrow’s ballot was effectively dropped only to be hurled in by the counsel for Chapple and Byrne ad hoc during the trial before Justice Winn against the ETU leadership over the ballot for the general secretaryship between Haxell and Byrne.
If, as was suggested at the trial, Bob McLennan, the ETU National Organiser, posted handfuls of filled-in ballot papers regarding the only modestly important but not even full time Area President’s post on his time in the north-east on a tour of the country, why was this not mooted at the time? Why should McLennan even do this? `Oh,’ sounds the ever-suspicious right-winger, `it was a clever Communist plan well ahead of Haxell’s election …’. Even if we accepted a hardly believable excuse that the right didn’t think of it as it was a step so outrageous that it was too unlikely a thing to imagine an AGS defrauding the union like that. Why is it that no smoking gun was ever found? No evidence at all, in fact? What happened to the tape recording of the North-East enquiry? Why no MI5 evidence leaked now? Simple! Because the easiest and most likely explanation is the McLennan never touched any North-East ballot papers. Whilst the oddest thing of all is the practice of posting handfuls of letters in lots of various post boxes by roaming about a town – was, as we shall see, a practice that Les Cannon freely admitted to in his own book in another context and was not something that was mentioned anywhere else by anyone else.
So, even more puzzling is the question as to why was Bob Carr not called to testify in London during the main court case? Because a legal strategy had been decided upon by the ETU leadership with their counsel that relied on minimising the impression that the ETU was so badly run that there were problems with ballots all over. Bob Carr would have been more than a match for Justice Winn, as Jack Hendy had been. Indeed, one senses an intuitive feeling on Hendy’s part that there was something awry with the ETU leadership’s legal defence. Calling Carr, despite the likelihood that he would be unshakeable on the stand and would convey a powerful integrity, was just considered risky, yet it was probably the biggest mistake the ETU Communist leadership made. Jack Hendy spent the rest of his life atoning by becoming a legal expert who tried to apply the lessons.
The legal strategy of the union at the trial was geared toward not admitting any evidence of problems, using Carr would have mitigated against this. But it must have been thought that, in fact, the case of the Jarrow branch was the only evidence to suggest a problematic electoral system. In retrospect it is evident – easy to say but evident – that it was a mistake not to have used Carr on the witness stand. Right: an ETU ballot envelope
To make matters worse, when the new right-wing ETU leadership took him to task, Carr was told he had to put his defence case first so that when Cannon and Chapple put the case against him he was not allowed to come back to his argument. Such a dirty trick and clear infringement of human rights would become an all-too frequent right-wing ploy in the ETU. Thus, in 1962, Carr was barred from office for four years by the new right wing administration.
Of course, the ban on him personally was soon followed by a collective ban on all Communist Party members and this, effectively, stopped Bob Carr’s leadership roles within his union. Even so, he was elected onto the bonus committees to negotiate incentive schemes at the workplace and was able to speak at all the meetings despite having non official capacity. This led to him shifting away from being a working electrician to being an estimator. Over subsequent years, he was to work mostly as a chief estimator in shipyards, a largely technical position which removed him somewhat from the sphere of controversy with his union.
For much of the 1960s and 1970s Bob Carr was an honoured and leading figure of the Communist Party in the North-East District of the Party. This frequently saw him represent the district in national Party matters. For example, in 1961 he was a member of the congress arrangements committee at the 27th national congress of the Party. He was commended by Peter Kerrigan, the then Party Industrial (Trade Union) Organiser, in his overall review report to the EC on the congress for his work in managing the lists of applications to speak at congress, a sometimes fraught activity, fairly sorting them by District and subject.
At the November 1973 congress, Carr was the NE district representative on the Resolutions Committee, the body that handled the increasingly sensitive issues of policy formulation. Horace Green, the North-East district secretary in his report to the EC of the 1975 Congress report-back to his district noted that the debate began with two or three critical and negative assessments until, led by Bob Carr, “others came in with (a) positive presentation, and politically clear (approach and) this became the dominant note”.
This realistic yet positive analytical style was often cited by contemporaries as the hallmark of Carr’s political style. It would come in good stead at the 1977 Party congress, when he sat on the British Road to Socialism committee that, under the chairmanship of Bert Ramelson, managed the discussion to agree the version of the Party’s programme that came from that exercise.
Bob Carr continued to be a staunch member of the Communist Party to his death and was of great assistance in the preparation of this study.
Born in County Durham in 1930, Larry Braithwaite grew up in Stainforth, South Yorkshire. Like many who grew up during the Depression, his early life was difficult.
As he has recalled: “In common with many people at the time, both of my parents were broken by the long term depression and mass unemployment between the wars. After several years of unemployment in Durham, my father took us to Stainforth, South Yorkshire where things were not much better for him. My mother had a nervous breakdown and tried to kill herself. She spent the last year of her life in a mental institution, where she died in 1940. When my father died the same year, it was my misfortune to wake up one morning and find him dead alongside me. They were only in their forties and both death certificates said the same thing, `Died from Lobar Pneumonia’. It should have said “Died from poverty and despair”. The war-related full employment came too late for them.”
For the next few years he was looked after by a much older sister, and an aunt in Gateshead, an arrangement which kept him out of an orphanage. Despite all this tragedy, Larry did not feel especially embittered or hard done by, maybe because the level of deprivation and poverty in the community of which he was a part simply matched his own anyway. But the seeds of discontent with capitalism were probably planted then. “If anything I felt myself fortunate that I was spared the ravages endured by my parents, since I was rarely unemployed,” he has written.
Having left school in 1944, he started full time work in June that year. Landing squarely on his feet, it was his good fortune to spend more than a year living and working on a farm, where breakfast alone consisted of what would otherwise have been more than a month’s ration of bacon and eggs. “It was hard work with long hours, but I loved the work, particularly when with the horses.”
Demobilisation brought soldiers home looking for their old jobs back and Larry began work in a local brick works, followed by a spell in Pilkington’s glass factory in Doncaster. Then an electrical contractor called Holiday, Hall and Stimson, looking for cheap labour which they called “apprenticeships”, employed him in 1947 for the next four and a half years. He joined the ETU and began a life working in the construction industry in various parts of the country, carrying out various minor rank- and-file union activities in the process.
Larry also became involved in the Peace Pledge Union and was an opponent of National Service, which he reluctantly went through, given that he was totally opposed to German rearmament.
He joined the Communist Party in Southampton 1954, where he served as a shop steward in the docks and in Fawley oil refinery, before moving to Kentish Town, London, in 1955.
He transferred to Parliament Hill Fields branch of the Party, where John Gollan was then a member. He was probably seen as a member of the awkward squad even then, because he baulked at becoming one of the 500 Party members it was decided should be seconded to the YCL. Perhaps his attitude to this was mainly due to the fact that he had recruited a number of apprentices to the YCL and felt too old to be a member, although he was happy to support and work with the YCL.
In the ETU, he was a branch committee member and then the chair of Grays Inn Branch, Islington, from 1955 to 1959. The vehemently denied blacklist that operated among members of the electrical contractors organisation, the National Federated Electrical Association (NFEA) in England, and the Electrical Contractors’ Association (ECA) in Scotland restricted opportunities for work to non – Association companies, and it was one such firm that Larry was working for on the Shell Building on the London’s South Bank in 1960. It was one of several electrical contractors on what was probably the biggest project in London at the time.
There was also Larry recalls a rather peculiar event from this period. Since the South Bank site workers weren’t able to hold joint committee meetings on site, they usually met in the pub located on the south side of Waterloo Bridge. As Larry recalls, “sometimes these gatherings only involved a dozen or so, but occasionally 30 or 40 people might turn up. At that time I was a smoker and, one night, after ordering half dozen drinks, asked for a packet of cigarettes. The young woman serving behind the bar only deducted for the cigarettes and told me to “shush” when I mentioned paying for the drinks. There was general hilarity when I told everyone, they all thought baldy Braithwaite had scored. Several rounds later with pockets bulging with fags, I called it a day. Next morning I learned that a handful of seasoned boozers had continued all night paying only for fags. Free drinks for one evening might not be suspicious, but this continued day after day and it was noticeable that only sparks were being favoured. For quite a few people every day was like Christmas; one night this barwoman, who was very friendly and chatty, told me that “your lot” had drunk three barrels of beer the previous day. But eventually, word came that she was a policewoman, and when confronted with this she cheerfully admitted it, and just carried on with the cigarette trick. It was quite weird that she seemed to be very well disposed towards us, and not at all unhappy to be unveiled. Naturally, we told everyone to avoid the place, and shortly after we stopped using the pub I was told she had disappeared.”
Presumably, the aim of either Special Branch acting for MI5, or even the latter august body acting directly, was to obtain as much information linking the ETU, Communists, South Bank union activity, and the St Pancras rent strike, even at the cost of this extravagant expenditure, which went on for at least a month. Since there was little information that would not have been supplied without being plied for drink, it is perhaps the only instance of free beer for the workers that MI5 is known to have supported!
From the position of both an ETU branch officer and shop steward, Larry helped organise, among other activities, support for the infamous St Pancras Tenants Association rent strike, and the Joint Trade Union and Old Age Pensioners (as it was called then) Federation. Larry’s own account of the St Pancras struggle recalls that a “deputation of women arrived on site (at South Bank) and told us that Don Cook and Arthur Rowe had been violently evicted early that morning in consequence of the St Pancras rent strike, we called an immediate meeting and decided to take strike action from midday and march in solidarity to the estate. Several of us spent the rest of the morning going round the site informing every one of our decision. There is quite a story about that day, but suffice to say that at least a thousand building workers went north over Waterloo Bridge, and by the time we arrived at Leighton Road we must have numbered two or three thousand people determined to liberate the estate from police occupation, and restore Don and Arthur to their homes; we were only successful with the former.”
After this, having moved to the east end of London, Larry became a member of the Stepney Branch of Communist Party, where he worked with Alan Blatt and others on recruitment, canvassing and various election activities.
Throughout the fifties and sixties, Larry was also elected to various committees of the ETU, as well as Industrial and Policy Conferences but was always a rank and file union office holder at job or branch level.
He attended and helped organise meetings of the Division 11 Party Advisory Committee, as well as some London District Advisory and Aggregate (all-member) meetings.
The 1961 ballot rigging scandal in the ETU saw Larry edged out of influence in the Party since it was considered he had been too close to those such as Jack Frazer, Secretary of the National Party Advisory, who was a close and long-standing personal friend of Larry’s as well as an ex-work mate.
Braithwaite also knew Frank Haxell quite well, especially when the former ETU general secretary, now disgraced, became a member of Larry’s Chapel at IPC Magazines. George Scott, a lifelong Labour Party member, but also one of those accused of impropriety, was also a close personal friend. The only other personal connection Larry had was with the leading personalities of the affair Sid Goldberg, the Birmingham based labour Party member.
Though he had been close to these people, Larry never discerned any sense that any felt guilty of having committed the practices they were accused of. He has ascribed the `errors’, if they be such, to the fact that “most branch officers, however skilled as workers, received little or no training in minute taking, collecting and recording dues, or even the conduct of business. All these things might vary from branch to branch, the ultimate rationale being custom and practice. The one overriding caveat was that there would be no question of financial skulduggery. Therefore, widespread breaches of rules were generally those of innocent, though incompetent, lay persons and not the result of dishonesty.”
Together with many Communists, Larry participated in the first Aldermaston March from London in 1958 and supported many such events since. At one CND meeting held in a pub in Euston Road, probably in 1959, a block of ETU comrades in the audience defended a very frightened Canon Collins against fascist violence outside the meeting place.
From 1959 to 1964, Larry was again a branch committee member and then chair, this time of East Ham Branch of ETU. This was the largest branch in Division Eleven of the ETU, which had been electing Frank Chapple, hence the significance of a branch move.
Considerable involvement with Dagenham YCL followed, with Larry applying himself to an intensive recruiting role in both the Party and his union. At that time Dagenham was a very active part of the South Essex YCL with Cyril King, who was himself one of a large number of ETU members locally, as secretary. Seemingly, Dudley Moore, the comedian, actor, and musician was briefly a member, perhaps in the very early 1950s before he went on a scholarship to university. Moore was brought up on the Beacontree council estate where his father, Jock Moore, was an electrician for Stratford East Railway; both parents were very musical and taught Dudley the piano when he was eight years old.
Personal circumstances necessitated a move for Larry to Southwark in 1962, where his Party activity was mostly confined to canvassing and leafleting on behalf of Joe Bent and Nell Vyse (both covered in the Communist Biographies section of this site). Two children followed, Donna and Rachel, together with a homeless mother-in-law.
Larry’s wife, Frances (nee Bishorek), then a trainee lighting engineer, stood as a Party candidate in the local elections there. She had previously been Secretary of Islington YCL, at that time the largest branch in London, during that time she was tutored in public speaking by John Moss, the national leader of the YCL. She was briefly a member of Station Engineers No. 10 branch of the ETU, which was Frank Chapple’s branch, and for some time she was the Secretary of Central No.1 branch of the ETU in Peckham. Frances later studied, took a degree, and became a teacher, serving as Secretary of Brent NUT, the largest association in London, a post she held for many years, as well as being a member of the union’s EC, before becoming a Regional Officer for the Union.
Larry and Frances moved to Brent in 1967, where they again worked with Alan Blatt in covering a range of Party and non-Party activities, with most Party meetings taking place in their home, usually chaired by Larry. It was Alan who invariably stood as a Communist Party candidate in local elections. The Braithwaites were both officers of the local Tenants and Residents Association, although Frances was also very busy with educational activities, NUT and the Woodcraft Folk.
Larry worked and organised throughout these years as shop steward for a number of firms in the building industry and, due to the blacklist by electrical contractors association, also worked in shipping, the Port of London, exhibitions, signs, film, and television studios until 1969.
He was the Secretary of the Studio and Entertainment Branch from 1965 to 1969, when he was expelled from the union for organising opposition to the JIB for the electrical contracting industry. Due entirely to the actions of Communist lawyer, Jack Gaster, a successful High Court action reinstated Larry into the ETU. This was a remarkable victory at a time when the left was being hounded out of the union by a vindictive and ferocious campaign.
Expulsion from the union in 1969 gave Larry more free time than he had been used to, so “it seemed to be a good time to combine paid labour with study in order to educate myself beyond the various TUC courses I had taken. What I found was that City and Guild qualifications were academically worthless when it came to University entrance, and that two good A Levels were the minimum needed.”
So, he started a two year part time Diploma at Middlesex Poly that might lead to university entrance. “Perhaps it was the pseudo dog Latin title that appealed to me, D.I.R.T.U.S., or more grandly, Diploma in Industrial Relations and Trade Union Studies.”
This in turn ultimately led Larry to a BA at Central London Poly, where one of his tutors was Margaret Morris, “wife of Max Morris, a close friend and NUT colleague of my wife. Margaret had recently finished her book on the General Strike, published by Penguin”.
In the meantime, following Gaster’s direction, Larry had sought employment in any closed shop industry. In 1971, he was eventually able to fill a temporary vacancy at Oldham’s Press, Long Acre, which was in the process of gradually moving to Bouverie Street, where the Sun and News of the World were now being printed.
Larry was elected Chairman of the Chapel of Oldham’s Press until they finally stopped printing “The People” there, when he was elected Father of the Chapel (FoC) of IPC Magazines, an office he held until 1975. Moving to The Observer, he was elected first Deputy FOC, then FOC, an office he held until he was made redundant shortly before The Observer was taken over by The Guardian.
He began studying for a Masters back at Middlesex but, “in part because things were heating up in Fleet Street but also because the subject matter was not going in the same direction as me” and he never got to finish these studies.
A rather ridiculous example of what happened to many Party members involved Frances Braithwaite, Larry’s wife, during the Grunwick strike. The instance reinforces the keenness of interest shown in the couple by the security forces as late the end of the 1970s. Following a long phone conversation Frances had with her Head teacher, who had been arrested on the demo that day, she hung up the phone in order to make another call. When she picked it up again, it was to hear a replay of the previous conversation.
In the latter period of his working life, Larry carried out Party work in Print along with comrades such as Mike Hicks and Bill Freeman. His entire Chapel eventually became shareholders in the Morning Star, and the Press Branch of the ETU met weekly in Marx Memorial Library.
Larry now lives in retirement in Cornwall.
Neil Lawson – the ETU defence barrister
Born on April 8th 1907 (or 1908), Lawson was a member of the Communist Party member from about 1931, probably formally for a decade, possibly secretly or informally for another thirty years. But, in the post-war era, his Party role becomes more shadowy and almost all that is known about him arises from surveillance on him by MI5, which first began recording details on him in 1932.
In 1933, he was closely involved with D N Pritt in the legal arguments about those falsely accused by the Nazis of setting the Reichstag on fire. (MI5’s lack of sophistication in recording this has led to erroneous suggestions that Lawson defended Dimitrov in court, when the great Communist leader ably defending himself.
However, Lawson did help D N Pritt, who acted as the Chairman of a high profile international counter-trial of renowned judicial persons in a “Commission of Inquiry” in London from 21st-28th September 1933.
By 1938 he was Treasurer of the Legal Group of the Communist Party, which kept much of its activities discreet due to the sensitivity of the client base of many solicitors and barristers engaged in normal legal work. Lawson was also Secretary of the Communist group within the National Council of Civil Liberties (today’s Liberty).
As effectively now the Party’s main lawyer, Lawson acted for the ‘Daily Worker’ in a contempt of court case after it had criticised TUC general secretary, Sir Walter Citrine, when he had met the French Labour Minister in December, 1939 in Paris, amidst much talk of cutting workers’ wages in both countries as part of the war effort against Germany. Citrine sued the paper after Ben Francis, the paper’s industrial correspondent, accused him and his associates of “plotting with the French Citrines to bring millions of Anglo-French Trade Unionists behind the Anglo-French imperialist war machine”.
Ernie Pountney, officially the publisher, pleaded the British press equivalent of ‘fair comment’. Citrine alleged, in response to his lawyer’s questioning, that the Daily Worker received £2,000 pounds per month from “Moscow”, and that Moscow directed the paper to print anti-war stories. Citrine was awarded £300 damages, a sum the paper could ill-afford.
It is probable that Lawson’s contact with the Party diminished simply for practical reasons during the Second World War but MI5 were aware “from top secret and delicate sources” (in other words a combination of a mole inside the Party and surveillance) that after the war he renewed his contact with the Communist Party. His connections deepened in the cold war but Lawson’s legal career began to take off when he became a QC in 1955.
He had begun to let his overt connection with the Party fade, almost certainly for professional reasons. But Lawson continued to make financial contributions on the quiet until 1957 and may have been a secret member until then. The sums he gave were considered by the security forces to be considerable and not to be affected by either Krushchev’s revelations about Stalin, or by the events in Hungary, which MI5 noted was “a subject on which he entirely accepts the Communist Party line”.
The turning point for him in terms of his leaving the Party behind, which he did so in such a quiet manner that few realised he had ever been involved in the first place, seems to be so as to be freer in his legal career. The trigger seems to have been when he was appointed legal adviser to the “Rulers” of the Malay States on constitutional matters, in 1957, in the run up to independence. It is difficult to judge whether this arose as a vetting mistake in the first place, later turned to advantage by enticing Lawson into other lucrative and interesting work, or was simply a clever device to do that all along.
When he began providing legal advice to the rulers of Malaya, MI5 intensified surveillance on him. Lawson, who lived in Heath Drive, Hampstead, was followed through the streets of Hampstead and had his telephone calls tapped at an exchange in Swiss Cottage. He was followed to the barber, checked on during lunchtime drinks in pubs, and walks across Hampstead Heath. His reliability was seriously in doubt – Communist Party member Isobel Brown (see separate entry), who lived in Hampstead, visited him in chambers and Lawson mingled in social engagements with the left. But no hint of a link with a Soviet or Chinese source could be found despite the most intrusive of surveillance. Even so, he was self-evidently strongly linked to the British Party.
For several days in a row in September 1957 his every move was tracked and recorded with comments such as: “After purchasing sweets he waited outside Hampstead tube station where at 6.55pm he was joined by a woman whom we presumed to be his wife. Both entered the Everyman cinema.” There were also several after-work visits to a French woman in Ivor Place, near Baker Street, who was deemed to be his mistress.
What seems to have clinched a decision to run with Lawson as the legal advisor to the Malay team, and not tell them of his links, was the growing conclusion (oddly normal to be a standard MI5 response) that Lawson was likely to do an excellent job for his clients. Sources in London’s legal world provided information, which led to details about other well-known lawyers who might be crypto-communists, including several senior Labour figures. But MI5’s problem was that Lawson was widely regarded as being simply brilliant – “one of the ablest and most astute lawyers at the bar”.
Suspicions of how Mr Lawson had secured such a key role in the negotiations in Malaya turned out to be much allayed when the accidental nature of the allocation of the brief to him was identified in that he had simply known one of the country’s rulers during his university days, who decided to call on an old friend. Little adverse comment stuck to Lawson; one report on him for MI5 concluded that he must be “the most consummate dissembler we have ever encountered”.
Once engaged on his constitutional brief, his work had supposedly much impressed both his clients and, in turn, the Colonial Office. But, interestingly, the British government in the end concluded it would not tell the Malay Rulers of his Communist affiliations. Given that what was effectively been a civil war only a few years before had destroyed the Malayan Communist Party and handed the country to the Rulers, this was a remarkable thing to do. It was either an inspired case of deliberately giving the poacher a game keeper’s job, or it had somehow turned into that by serendipitous (for the UK government) error. Certainly, many professionals who had been black-balled during the cold war now found themselves allowed into the fold so long as they mentioned something like Hungary. Lawson didn’t even have to do that.
From having been suspected as a key figure for British Communists, should they have ever gained a whiff of state power, the establishment now began to welcome Lawson back into the fold. By 1958, when MI5 was closing the intensive surveillance on him, an assessment file concluded: “Everything on file indicates that Lawson is at least a convinced Communist sympathiser. It is almost impossible that, a subscriber to Party funds, he could not be a sympathiser and a very strong one at that. On the other hand it would not seem that his convictions rule him to the extent that he would jeopardise his successful and highly profitable career on behalf of the Communist Party. An astute barrister earning several thousand pounds a year has not, I suggest, the stuff of martyrs in him. Lawson is now a man of means and some maturity. It is unlikely that at this stage of his life he would begin to allow his heart to rule his head.” This was a remarkably prescient judgement; perhaps there was some incentive suggested as a result?
Several thousand pounds a year was clearly a gross under-estimate by MI5 of the sums he began to command after the Malayan case. Lawson surely did not allow worry about payment to hold him back when he represented the ETU in 1961, acting as its defence against a number of right-wingers openly backed by powerful and wealthy forces, including media empires. It was perhaps natural for the Party to recommend Lawson to the ETU but. given his seeming low-key attempts to ingratiate himself with the state, it is surprising (or is it?) that he took the brief to defend no less than 16, mostly Communist Party members, before Lord Justice Rodger Winn in the private prosecution.
Perhaps Lawson’s fee made a difference? Being paid 2,000 guineas up front, with “refreshers” of 150 guineas a day for a three week case, made him paid about three hundred times the rate of pay that his clients, the electricians of the ETU, got paid back then.
Lawson could be accused of leaving some key matters aside that may have helped the defendants. But as Winn seems to have been privately assured that a bug in the ETU headquarters supposedly confirmed the guilt of the leading persons, who can tell? Whilst Lawson’s performance was competent, no real body blows were landed by him in court. Despite the weakness of actual evidence to prove fraud, Lawson did not at any point challenge the judge’s obvious bias, clearly running throughout the case.
Not only was Rodger Winn, the judge, well connected to British intelligence circles, his brother, Godfrey Winn, was rather better known as a Fleet Street correspondent, at a time when such columnists were very influential. Britain’s media went had gone into overdrive about the `ballot-rigging’ case. Was Lawson finally nobbled?
He had already embarked on an establishment trajectory when Communist solicitors looked for a barrister they could rely on for their union comrades. But then as few knew he had been still with the Party prior to the Malayan case, as perhaps aware of where he was headed when he took the ETU brief. Certainly, his subsequent legal career becomes staid and establishment focused. Whilst no-one, at the time, or since, has linked the defence in the ETU ballot-rigging case to Lawson.
As his eminence grew, and his Party affiliations seemed far behind him, Lawson was destined to become a High Court judge and even knighted by the Queen, as Sir Neil Lawson! He spent the last 35 years of his life distanced from left-wing circles, to the extent that outside of the security forces few knew of his former staunch allegiance.
Lawson worked well beyond the normal retirement age after being made a High Court judge in 1971, following six years as a Law Commissioner. He died in January 1996, aged 88, as one of the country’s most respected silks.
[Sources: Time magazine May 13th 1940; National Archives – MI5 files; Camden New Journal September 1st 2011; The Times – Law Report June 29th 1961; Seifert, Sedley & Co correspondence 22nd November 1961]
Born 1902, John Thomas Byrne was an accomplished half-mile runner in his youth. He joined the Clydebank branch of the ETU in 1927 and went on to become a shop steward in local ship yards and a power station.
When Jock Byrne was first elected Glasgow Area ETU District Secretary in 1942, it did not prove to be much of a problem that he was a Catholic. After all, many West Coast Scots had their origins in Ireland and had, a mere twenty years before, like most leading Scottish Communists, been enthusiastic supporters of the war against British imperialism that led to independence in the south of Ireland. Thus, despite the later promotion of Byrne as a Catholic, it would be his strong commitment to the privileges of craft, even to the extent of open hostility to semi-skilled dilutees, which began to set him apart from Communists. The struggle against dilutees had seemed to make sense from a militant stand point during the First World War but by the time of the Second World War. things were changing rapidly, much to the discomfort of people like Byrne.
The process of speed-up in capitalist mass production had long since eroded the dominant position of time-served workers. The total numbers of these in Britain had been halved in the twenty years from 1914, whilst semi-skilled workers had almost trebled in number.
Whilst the drive to win the war through production had created a new breed (even, mainly temporarily, gender) of engineering worker; the view of Communist was that the challenge of even more new technology to come had to be faced by the unions involved in their sectors. Unions like the AEU and, especially the TGWU, were in strong positions to exploit these new developments but it seemed a real challenge for the ETU to do so. Byrne represented a view that the job of the union was to sit hold and tight on what they and their members had got, to the detriment of anyone else.
Plus, in Scotland, Byrne was at one with the comfortable semi-mafia that the electoral machine associated with mainstream Labour was becoming in councils and constituencies. Then the onset of Cold War seemed set to ostracize anyone and anything associated with Communism. The effect of all this was to lead Jock Byrne into flagrant and open conflict with the leadership of his own union for some fifteen years or so.
Thus, when the EC wanted slightly more freedom in their ability to invest the union’s assets, Byrne took to the platform at the 1947 conference, ludicrously hinting that the leadership had a plan to put ETU funds behind the Iron Curtain. This arose since the notion of investment abroad was part of the freedom desired, a measure perfectly in accord with the powers held by all of Britain’s major unions. Byrne demanded a whole membership ballot before accepting the idea of investment freedom. Although the `worst’ – from his point of view – that might conceivably have happened would have been the taking out of shares in the People’s Press Printing Society!
In retrospect, it is easy to see that this was all a self-promotion exercise designed to boost Byrne’s chances in the late 1947 election for General Secretary, which he easily lost to Wally Stevens, despite the heavy focus in his election address on the widespread `Communist backing’ for the eventual victor (anyone who supported Stevens was labelled a Communist). Publicity was also needed for the election that followed for the AGS post vacated by Stevens, but Byrne lost that as well – to Frank Haxell. It can be readily appreciated that these events were hard fought and led to serious and fixed personality clashes within the union.
This atmosphere was not eased when, less than a decade later, the Catholic Herald began heavily promoting particular candidates for internal office in the ETU as `good Catholics’, worthy of their readers’ support, a rather unprecedented action at the time. Yet, following Wally Stevens’ death, Byrne lost by a vote of two to one to Haxell the election for the vacant position of GS, held in April 1955. The same year, he again lost to Bob McLennan by an even larger margin the elected for the AGS position vacated by Haxell. The next thing we see is an escalation of support for Byrne in more mainstream national newspaper and even television.
After Byrne was declared the loser of the periodic 1959 election for general secretary, entirely orchestrated by Cannon, Byrne and Chapple took their gripes over this result to the courts in a case heard in the summer of 1961. Rather than declare a new election, a judge simply declared Byrne was General Secretary by default. Almost certainly as part of the deal whereby they had offered him backing and finance, Byrne immediately appointed Cannon and Chapple as `personal assistants to the general secretary’, enabling them to plan a wholesale coup d’état and purge within the union in alliance with a frenzied press campaign.
By common consent, backed up by Larry Braithwaite’s retrospective assessment, Byrne was not, as he put it, “the sharpest knife in the drawer”. It was no accident that, since the man’s given names were John Thomas, he was invariably referred by both left and right in this way. That it was a highly derogatory reference can easily be understood when it is recalled that D H Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” had been openly published only in 1960, followed by a high profile obscenity prosecution against Penguin Books, which had failed. “John Thomas” alludes to the special name used by the game-keeper in the book for his sex organ when mentioning it (frequently) to his lover. Byrne’s first names were a gift to harden bitten activists, akin to calling Byrne “a prick”.
Byrne’s entire period of office as General Secretary was one of domination by Cannon and Chapple, the latter of whom who was at least frank by the time of his own autobiography about his lack of respect for the man. Indeed, although they were co-claimants in the court case against the ETU about the Haxell-Byrne election, Chapple’s first publicly recorded comment about Byrne was at the 1947 rules revision conference in Ayr, when he opposed the `extremist moderate’s’ attempt to prevent the re-entry of members expelled in 1937 over unofficial action at Earl’s Court. Chapple had remarked on the tendency of “comedians who became officials”. [Lloyd p412]
Byrne suffered increasingly difficult health conditions, possibly much enhanced by office politics carried out by the two younger men who had been his allies in getting him the top job. This ailing health coincided with what was surely for Byrne a thoroughly miserable existence away from his home and social life in Glasgow to further stress the new general secretary who began taking more and more time off from the office to stay in his digs in Surrey. The more he was absent from his duties the more Cannon and Chapple consolidated their control of the union by ever-increasingly ruthless means. There is even doubt that Byrne saw, let along read beforehand, his `editorials’ in the union journal, which read more like Cannon’s style.
In the run up to the period when Byrne should have begun the process of submitting himself for re-election under union rules, he suffered a stroke and died.
[Sources include: John Lloyd Light and Liberty – the history of the EEPTU (1990)]
Francis Joseph Chapple was born on 8th August 1921 in Hoxton in east London (some sources say 1919). Chapple was a member of the Electricians Trade Union from 1935 (some sources say 1937) and the Communist Party from 1939.
During the Second World War, he served first in the Royal Ordnance Factories and then in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers in France and Germany.
During this period, he made contacts with the emerging German Communist Party and helped to run a Communist cell in the army education centre at Lubeck. In 1947 he and Leslie Cannon represented the ETU at the World Federation of Democratic Youth Festival.
A member of the Party’s national electrical advisory from 1949, he was first elected to the ETU Executive in 1958, shortly after which he was to leave the Party.
Speaking of internal dissidents in the Communist Party in the period after Hungary, Chapple later claimed to have been associated with “a couple of meetings to try and persuade these people to stay inside the Party, fight for their particular policy, try to democratise the Party and change the leadership”. In other words, Chapple was intensely involved in factional activity inside the Party. The meetings being discovered “through political spies”, he found himself suspended from involvement in the Party’s ETU Advisory work.
Clearly, events following the CPSU congress and Hungary took its toll on the ETU as well as on Party activists elsewhere. But a retrospective assessment of this as it affected the electricians union suggests a wholly disproportionate effect. From a lifetime of activism to judge on, Larry Braithwaite observes: “But of all those who left the Party, it was only in the ETU that a cabal of frustrated high office seekers emerged, who were prepared to use extreme anti-communism and the media in pursuit of personal advancement, and who were led by that trinity of ex’s, Cannon, Chapple and Young … Cannon was clever and nasty, Chapple was shrewd and mean, and Young was a bit less than either.” [LB written recollections, March 2012]
By the time Chapple’s suspension was coming to an end he had joined the union’s EC but more than that. The TUC was now taking up the clamour of the press to challenge the union about Communist influence. Chapple now joined this criticism, becoming intimately and notoriously involved with ferocious anti-communism thereafter. He supported the anti-communist candidate for the general secretaryship of the ETU, Jock Byrne. It was Chapple who was joint Plaintiff with Byrne in the infamous case heard before Justice Winn.
After Byrne was installed as general secretary, Chapple succeeded him in 1966. In 1970, the posts of president and general secretary were combined on the death of Leslie Cannon and the new powerful position held by Chapple who exercised an iron grip over his union, which increasingly became a hostile force in the labour movement.
Chapple even personally broke with Labour to support the Social Democratic Party (SDP), formed in 1981. He retired as general secretary of EETPU in 1984, when he was appointed to the House of Lords as Lord Chapple of Hoxton and died at the age of 83, on 19th October 2004.
SIR LESLIE CANNON
Les Cannon was born February 21st 1920 in Wigan. His father, Jim Cannon, had been an activist in the Socialist Labour Party prior to joining the Communist Party at its foundation but, when Les Cannon himself joined the Party in 1939, his father was not supportive of this. Jim Cannon had left the Party in 1929 when a row engulfed the miners’ federation pitting A J Cook against the Communist Party. Jim Cannon’s personal loyalty to Cook over-rode other considerations. But what happened when Les was only 11 years old, must have been life-forming.
In 1931, Jim Cannon stood in the election for the position of check-weighman in his old colliery. But, as luck would have it, there was a dead tie in the voting and he lost the position only by the toss of a coin. However, the victor was soon found to be too deaf to adequately manage the task of hearing out for the shouted weights of coal that he had to oversee for fairness and another election ensued.
But this election saw suspicions of shenanigans. Given the nature of shift work, “the sealed ballot-box had to be kept somewhere overnight. With touching faith in other people’s integrity, Jim Cannon agreed that the box should spend the night unguarded. The curious result was that Jim Cannon had fewer votes than he had polled before, an outcome, given his popularity for his work at compensation tribunals and the miners’ traditional loyalty, that was very strange indeed.” [O Cannon and J R L Anderson “The road from Wigan Pier – a biography of Les Cannon” (1973)]
Unprovable as fraud though this family gossip was, it must have weighed heavy in the young Cannon’s consciousness, for ballots and balloting became a key thing in his life. The tone of the account of the alleged ballot-rigging against Jim Cannon cannot be misjudged; this is a blatant accusation that Cannon’s father has been cheated out of a good union job by ballot riggers. The young Les’s childhood had been blighted by this fact. Did this experience later colour Les Cannon’s own thinking about defeat in an ETU ballot? Did he ingest his mothers’ sharp critique of his father’s touching naivety and faith in the integrity of others?
As a Communist activist, Cannon had been elected a member of the ETU Executive Council to represent North Lancashire and Merseyside, from 1948-1954. Encountering the usual problems a Communist activist had with maintaining decent and regular employment with heavy absence from work on union business, Cannon had sought to make life much easier for himself by accepting a full-time role with the union’s education establishment at Esher Court.
But questions about his eligibility to square his new job with the union with the role as EC member came up immediately. Cannon had not accepted – or, indeed, anticipated – that his employment status forced him to come off the EC, a rather idiotic thing to assume – and had a vicious row with leading Party members over it.
The quote about the claimed stealing of an election from Jim Cannon is from the only serious source for testimony about Cannon’s state of mind and personal ambition. This is the very bitter book written after his death by his widow in collaboration with an industrial journalist. It is seriously said in this book that that delays in discussing with staff the temporary closure of Esher between the EC decision and meetings held with staff after an Easter break were deliberate so as to keep “Les in suspense and so giving him a bit of additional punishment” [Olga p145].
This is but one example of comments of this character made repeatedly through the text. The tenor of a book is out of synch with being published almost fifteen years after the events described, a period punctuated by the triumph of two elections and a major court case win, some two years after her husband’s death. The tenor is, however, surely because Cannon’s own notes or recounting of events to his wife formed the core of the position adopted. It is Cannon, whose grudges so long after the event informs the tone of his biography, who moans about his treatment.
Despite the cultural mores dominant at the time of its writing, and the fact that Cannon’s wife was one of the pair, hints – possibly unintended – of serious mind problems in the Cannon family abound in this book. The quality of intimacy that comes with deep knowledge of personalities especially arises since the account owes much to snippets privately written by Cannon, as well as reminiscences of his family. The unchallenged assumption, with no evidence as far as can be judged, is that Jim had been cheated out of a plum job but had acquiesced since he did not want to cause a fuss. Cannon’s close links to his mother are well documented; her contempt for her husband’s ego-less state can almost be felt in the musings of Cannon’s biographers. In a way, it is not so damning to realise that the Cannon was made vulnerable out of all this. Indeed, the crushing nature of this 1931 blow at the height of the Depression is hard to convey; it ended the possibilities of a decently-waged job with status. It was not until 1936 – ten years after being blacklisted – that Jim Cannon obtained work and then it was as a toilet attendant at a Wigan bus station.
The humiliation and despair that Jim Cannon’s failure had brought propelled his wife – Les’s mother – into a wild threat to kill herself at a time when the young Les was a mere eleven years old. Sympathetic accounts of Jim’s subsequent highly detached behaviour suggest a man almost `out of it’ at times; so absorbed in his books and musings that he had no time for real life. To what extent any of this was deeply forming to Les Cannon must remain speculation – but it is interesting speculation at that! It cannot have helped the boy’s peace of mind that he saw his mother pushed to the edge of sanity by what he may have been encouraged to think of as his father’s indolence, arising from his having been diddled out of something good by ballot rigging. To say this would have no consequences would be foolish, at the least. [O Cannon and J R L Anderson “The road from Wigan Pier – a biography of Les Cannon” (1973) pp 40-41]
Hendy first met the 22-year old Les Cannon in 1942 at a meeting in Manchester, just as the younger man was about to finish his apprenticeship; when they met again at the union’s policy conference two years later they “became friendly”. [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p1] When Cannon was a member of the ETU EC, he stayed with Hendy in London as a matter of course as a friend despite being paid an allowance for accommodation. In due course, wise counsel prevailed and Cannon lodged elsewhere. Despite the supposed friendship, not only did Cannon oppose the ETU providing financial support to Hendy to go to the LSE to take a degree, when Hendy returned to electrical contracting afterwards, he said that he was “a fool” as he “could have got a much better job outside the industry”. [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p2]
Both Stevens and Foulkes thought highly of Hendy, enough to offer him a role in the Research Department, or as a London official, or, when the union began to plan to provide a major education resource to its members, to be the assistant to Jon Vickers (see biographical sketch elsewhere on site) in the union’s education work. But he had always declined since he understood the position to be “not to seek an elective position in the Union if appointed to the salaried staff” and Hendy thought his role should be there.
This education role was precisely the role undertaken by Les Cannon, who, when the job was eventually advertised, applied for it and was appointed but only as Acting Education Officer. [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p6/7] Cannon took over the role from Jon Vickers (1916-2008), a Cambridge- educated intellectual who had joined the Communist Party in 1937. In the post- war period, he had been the warden of Wedgwood Memorial College, run jointly by the Oxford University extramural department and the Workers Educational Association at Barlaston Hall, Staffordshire. In 1949, he was forced to resign after complaints about Communist bias but then got a job in the Electrical Trades Union research department.
Given his credentials, Vickers was eminently suited to become the union’s first education officer, working with Wally Stevens on setting up Esher Place. But in 1956, after Hungary, he left the Communist Party and the ETU and soon joined the Labour Party, though he remained on good terms with some of his Communist friends, notably the teachers’ leader CGT Giles. In 1960, Vickers became deputy general secretary and, from 1963, general secretary of the Civil Service Union. He died on June 1st 2008, aged 92. [Guardian June 23rd 2008]
When Vickers left the service of the union, Hendy was asked (as EC members were not infrequently expected to do) to perform the role of Cannon’s deputy for a period, which he did from July to December 1956. Cannon’s taking over education was really never considered permanent; for one thing, he had no teaching experience or qualifications, for another, no degree or obvious intellectual credibility. But that was not how Cannon saw things; indeed, he had quite a high opinion of himself, initially as a `worker intellectual’ who could set things right in the Communist Party.
Cannon had begun to express sharp opposition to the `panel commission’, or recommended list, system of electing the EC at the Party’s national congresses. Although in later years this system received much reform and became much more about achieving a balance of experience, location, area of work, and so on, earlier Congresses of the Communist Party were only allowed to vote as a whole for or against a list of new EC members prepared by a Commission. Delegates who wanted to change the list had to argue the case before the Panels Commission, which would require the member not only to justify any new name he wished to put forward, but also to say who should be knocked off to make room for the newcomer. Although Congress delegates were later presented with a complete list of candidates, and were free to vote for those who were not on the recommended list.
The pressure to best his father’s record of service in the labour movement meant that there was a lot invested in Cannon. Certainly, everyone was aware that “Cannon had been resentful of the fact that Haxell was on the Executive of the Communist Party, he felt that he, Cannon, as a much more mature Marxist than Haxell, who he said `was merely a trade union functionary’. He himself had contemplated standing for the Executive Committee of the Communist Party. He was very ambitious to get on and became a member of the Economic Committee of the Communist Party.” [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p3] Note that Hendy was a member of this prestigious committee, which Cannon clearly resented. As part of his campaign to prove his worth, he had written a 16-page pamphlet called `Productivity – for whom’ for the Party in 1955.
Cannon was in touch with Communists abroad, notably the Rector of Prague University, which all seemed to amount to a desperate desire to prove how influential he was. Cannon even unsuccessfully aimed to lecture to the High School of Economics in Prague during 1956. Miroslav Katětov was the rector with whom he corresponded with – he being a mathematician, chess master, and psychologist. This was the same period when Cannon suddenly left his job at Hawker-Siddeley before being sacked for persistent unauthorised absenteeism, as was imminently about to occur. This contrast between high ambition and a lack-lustre work performance was not new. It was not consistent with Harry Pollitt’s advice to aspiring Communist trades unionists, to be the best worker and to avoid presenting management with any opportunity to undermine you.
Deciding to conduct a campaign against the panel system (i.e. presenting an approved list of EC candidates to vote for) in particular, and democratic centralism in general, Cannon discussed this idea with Jack Hendy. In fact, he and Jack Grahl, assistant secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (which frequently used Esher Place) had drafted a letter demanding changes in Party structures and practices on pain of resignation, which they sought Hendy’s support for.
Cannon had a terribly fractured relationship with almost everyone with whom he worked when at the college. To a large extent much of this appeared to emanate from his own exaggerated perception of what his role was. He seemed from the first to think in terms of head of education as being some sort of senior executive of the union, although no-one else thought that and when Cannon was himself President of the union that was the last thing that such a role was considered to be.
For one thing, Cannon was severely disgruntled that his pay as head of education was not at the same level as a full-time officer of the union and was careless who knew it, engaging in open rows about such matters at the drop of a hat. Not content with upsetting everyone who worked at Esher Place, Cannon even refused to accept that he was subject to the normal staff grievance and disciplinary procedure. Thus, he rejected the assistance of the staff representative in processing his claims and demanded direct access to the General Secretary as a special procedure suited to his own role. What was said cannot be verified, since only Haxell and Cannon were in the room but Hendy vacated it to allow the “discussion” to ensue.
But it is clear that Cannon was so determined to get even with Haxell, who presumably refused to raise Cannon’s pay level to his own satisfaction that Cannon wrote to Harry Pollitt, general secretary of the Communist Party, to complain. Pollitt referred it to Peter Kerrigan, Industrial Organiser, who said that it was no business of the Communist Party’s what relative pay levels were amongst union officials. Cannon had wanted the Communist Party to arbitrate between him and Haxell!!! Cannon expected to be treated as virtually equal to the General Secretary, though he was only an Education Officer. Cannon was very annoyed, especially at Haxell, thinking that the Party could bring him to order and, indeed, should do. “One word from the Communist Party and Frank Haxell does just as he likes,” Cannon told Hendy. [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p6]
It wasn’t just Haxell that Cannon seemed to have a problem with; in point of fact, he appears to have alienated every single person he had to work with at Esher Place. Enormous friction had arisen between Cannon and the warden of the college and his wife, a Mr and Mrs Simpkins, “each accusing the others of minor irregularities”. The college typist, a Miss Mary Pullman, complained that she had to type all manner of pieces for Cannon that had nothing to do with the work of the union. She had little difficulty when offered chances to find fault with Cannon, even placing an official complaint that she had regularly overhead him putting in long-distant (then very expensive) calls on matters that had nothing to do with his union duties.
Then there was an unseemly row over the use of a union vehicle by Cannon who did not have a valid licence when he did so, which had resulted in him leaning on a handyman in the employ of the union at Esher Place to say that he had been the driver and not Cannon.
The tensions over these relatively trivial matters were but a tiny harbinger of things to come and it was always clear that there was some personality foible that motivated Cannon’s increasing hostility to certain Party members that was more significant than actual ideological differences. Although Cannon resigned from the Communist Party in 1956, he did not in fact resign specifically over Hungary, although some commentators over the years have assumed it to be so, even stating this confidently. Interestingly, his first reaction after leaving the Party was to contact the Socialist Labour League (later the Workers Revolutionary Party). Even though Cannon had met and married Olga, a Czechoslovak national citizen, after he had attended a World Youth Festival, he did not make great play of his differences with the Communist Party over policy as regards the eastern bloc. In fact, it was largely increasing differences with fellow Party members more senior to him in career terms that prompted his resignation from the Communist Party.
There’s no accounting for cultural differences but Olga’s account of her courtship is distinctly cool; she reveals that she refused Cannon’s offers of marriage many times before accepting. (Extraordinarily, in the light of later developments, the Communist MP, Willie Gallacher, and his wife Jean were Les Cannon’s witnesses at his wedding to Olga in August 1949.) Olga had been seeking a career abroad from Czechoslovakia – Australia, perhaps – when her path crossed Cannon’s, entirely by accident. Her account of her life in her home country makes clear her class origin was way above Cannon’s. Olga’s father had owned a wholesale tobacco business, which was nationalised after the war along with the entire tobacco manufacturing sector, leaving him just with a retail shop. It is clear that Wigan was not quite where she wanted to be and she was only happy when Cannon obtained work in Esher. His rapid elevation after the ETU court case was just what she had wanted and perhaps expected when she accepted his offer. No doubt a member of the Czechoslovakian electricians’ union Executive, as he was when Olga and Les met, was someone with clout and she expected that of her new husband. His difficulties with employment and the ease with which it was possible to loose status would have troubled her.
Six months after he left the Party, now openly and vociferously claiming differences over the way the union was managed by Party members, Cannon lost his job as head of the union’s college at Esher, after cost-cutting measures were adopted. Mostly, the measures were inspired by a plan to introduce professionally competent teaching and Cannon was not in the least qualified. But Cannon was convinced that the move was in spite for his leaving the Party. Yet, what was really suspicious, but never examined, was the fact that Cannon claimed to be “employed by a company from May 1957 to 1961, but never had to work for it; nor was ever short of cash for slap-up meals. He was obviously paid simply to stalk the union in pursuit of his stalled career.” [LB written recollections, March 2012]
A key turning point in the affairs of the ETU came in September 1957 when Cannon, now out of the Communist Party and now no longer working for the union in a staff capacity, lost an election for the Division 9 seat on the EC.
His opponent, Jack Frazer, was also secretary of the Communist Party’s Electrical Advisory, a source of some annoyance to Cannon since it was widely perceived that this role meant that the leading Party figures in the ETU saw such the holder in the light of being a potential future leader in one of the capacities of the union. Whilst Haxell was likely not to be replaced soon, the role of General President would certainly appear as available when Foulkes retired, which was not so long away. Cannon definitely had long thought he should himself be an heir apparent. It was Haxell he mostly blamed for upsetting his ambitions and Fraser seen as being Haxell’s right hand man. So, for Cannon, beating Frazer was but the start of striking out on his own ambitious trajectory.
Jack Fraser at the ETU’s 1952 Whitley Bay Rules Conference
But, to Cannon’s amazement, Fraser took 2,003 votes to his own 1,451. Cannon could not believe his defeat; he was sure that he was the better man and simply could not accept that he had polled less votes. Cannon’s wife, Olga, in her eulogistic book on her husband, implied that in the campaign during this election, he had visited 61 branches in the division in the two weeks of the nomination period. This seems incredible; at an average of six branches a night, it may be just conceivable but it would certainly be doubtful in terms of efficacy. With perhaps only twenty minutes at each branch, taking into account travelling, few candidates in any kind of election would be so certain that their personal touch had won the vote with so slight an intervention in the strongly definite manner that Cannon had. There is, however, no special reason to doubt Olga Cannon’s testimony, for she “worried” at his level of fatigue, even if she was “filled with admiration for the single-minded way in which he fought. [O Cannon etc. Wigan Pier p158] With absolutely no evidence whatsoever, Cannon began to cry foul immediately.
In a remarkable display of single-mindedness, Cannon sent an anonymous letter challenging the union’s position on the outcome of the election to the nearly 700 branches of the ETU, posting the envelopes “in different places in batches of ten to twenty” in Surrey. [O Cannon et al p170] I doubt many readers will have had to stuff and post so many envelopes, although perhaps a good few veteran Communists might have done in the past. That this task was seemingly handled by a single man during evenings when work had finished, writing or typing the addresses, placing dampened postage stamps on, driving to maybe over a hundred post boxes across an entire county is almost beyond belief.
A rather strange development now emerged, with Cannon and Chapple posing leftist tendencies to the fore. As a result, rather uniquely at the time, the ETU found itself with a pseudo-Trotskyist faction called the Militant Industrial Group (MIG). MIG produced pamphlets and a monthly journal called `The Militant’ but does not seem to have formally had links with any Trotskyist organisation in Britain or abroad, although there had been a long tradition in the USA of a Trotskyist newspaper called Militant and a British sect of the same name had existed in the 1930s. Indeed, this journal is thus far a bit of a mystery. A paper also called `Militant’, which many readers will be familiar with due to its expulsion from the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, was long associated in more recent times with the secretive Revolutionary Socialist League. A possible shadowy link between this and what would become the ETU right-wing rebels was through one Jock Haston, an old comrade of Ted Grant. It was the latter who started what would become known as the mpre well-known Militant in 1964, after the damp squib start of its secret insider `party’, the Revolutionary Socialist League, was begun in 1957.
This was conceived precisely as a device to attract dissidents leaving the Communist Party, although no real gains were made in this direction, the little that was captured went entirely to the Socialist Labour League (later the WRP). A now almost unknown group to rival MIG was heavily courted by the SLL. Although this had better short term success, especially with those who favoured entrism into the Labour Party, having allied itself to the Communist leadership out of political principle, it would suffer the same crushing repression that followed the wining by Byrne and Chapple of the trial. For example, David Finch, a long-term Trotskyist was a secretary of the Brixton ETU branch of the Electrical Trades’ Union, who was banned from holding office for life for, essentially, being opposed to Frank Chapple.
Though it is not clear at all that the MIG and Grant’s RSL were ever linked, it is possible that Grant and Haston provided some sort of advice to Cannon and Chappell for a short time. But RSL/Militant was on an entirely different course to the two future right-wingers, since the former would operate as an entrist force inside the Labour Party from the mid-60s to the early 1980s. One of its descendants is the (English and Welsh) Socialist Party.
Haston had been one of the main figures behind pre-war Trotskyism, indeed, a founder of the aforementioned 1930s “Militant” group. He had abruptly dropped out of ultra-left politics in 1950 and was now a member of the Labour Party. A lecturer for the National Council of Labour Colleges, once Cannon and Chapple had control of the union, remarkably, he was made director of education, the very post coveted by Cannon. Moreover, Chapple is supposed to have had a “soft spot” for Ted Grant. So much so that, almost unbelievably, the EEPTU remained neutral during the voting to expel Militant from Labour in ! [Andy McSmith “Faces of Labour – the inside story” Haymarket (1997) p284]
Yet Chapple had rough words in his autobiography for both gurus of British Trotskyism, Ted Grant (Militant) and Gerry Healey (SLL). He admits to meeting both in the early days after leaving the Communist Party, and to writing something for Grant, but describes them unsympathetically and claims no connection.
But, if it was Trotskyism, it was unlike anything seen before or since, thus the temptation is to consider MIG to be a creature of cynicism. Like later right-wing inspired bodies, the unique `selling’ proposition of MIG was to emulate the methods of Communist Party in creating effective and tight centres of influence in mass organisations that could challenge Communist hegemony. Yet little is known about the shadowy MIG and few records of its murky activities, or even existence, can be found. Perhaps Communist Party Advisories did not function in the public eye but the Communist Party did, whilst MIG operated at a most secretive level.
Much of what is known about it was revealed by T R (Dick) Reno in a cross-examination of his evidence during the 1961 court case. Dick Reno had left the Communist Party as early as 1953; oddly, (in a story so full of oddities it stinks!) his real name actually was T R Odlin. Official records show a Thomas R R Oldin registered as born in Lambeth in 1914 but no other reference to a name remotely similar to this arises until 1960, suggesting that he changed his name shortly before the trial. His death is recorded in 1995 in West Somerset as being that of T R Reno-Odlin.
The purpose of the defence team for the Communist ETU leaders appears to have been to establish MIG as another left-wing faction that existed in the ETU that had not been accused of thus acting improperly by its mere existence; a kind of answer to the issue of Advisories. But Reno was by now already a Labour Party member headed to the right. He claimed that MIG had membership of about twenty activists who came from a range of trades across a number of unions. There were, he said, plasterers, dockers, and electricians. Only half a dozen at the most were ETU members, said Reno, and, with himself, only a total of four ETU MIG activists are known. MIG’s chief organisers were Ron Cowan and Jack Britz, whose younger brother, Lew Britz, would later become an EEPTU, and then AEEU, bureaucrat, always being committed to right-wing positions.
Yet Larry Braithwaite recalls that MIG’s position was that the ETU wasn’t militant enough, the Communist Party had adopted a soft, revisionist line, and its programme, the British (later Britain’s) Road to Socialism, had no revolutionary core. Chapple courted the core MIGs when they all came together on a big job. Vauxhall motors at Luton embarked on a big modernisation program in 1957, resulting in electrical contracts for maybe over half a dozen companies employed a lot of sparks. Chapple, Young, Jack and Lou Britz, and a lot of Communist Party members including Larry all got jobs there. Chapple puts the contract as a year earlier and recalls it as much smaller, as well as having a quite different recall as to the outcome of his role, which he ascribes to his still being communist-orientated, implying the employers’ hostility to him.
Larry Braithwaite’s view is that, although Chapple would have used this Luton job as a base within the union but the number of Party members employed there (Chapple puts it as 17) prevented him from doing so, and he was removed him from the chair of the Joint Shops Committee, so he moved on. Given the dating, it seems as if Chapple’s `lapse of memory’ was designed to hide the fact of all this occurring before he lapsed from the Party, that is to say during a period when his political unreliability and unpleasant demeanour was becoming all too apparent to Party members.
Neither of the Britz brothers were electricians and were not, in Larry’s judgement, very competent, even as electricians’ mates. Despite causing a lot of dissention, MIG fizzled out. Both Ron Cowan and Jack Britz went into the electrical business on their own account, unsuccessfully so. [LB written recollections, April 2012; plus CPGB Archives re Reno; plus miscellaneous sources on Trotskyism]
Interestingly, Chapple claims, in his autobiography, that Reno told TV reporters all about MIG. Chapple appears to distance himself from the body, without rejecting Reno, commenting, possibly not exactly correctly, that this “tiny, irrelevant band of backroom revolutionaries was amongst the progenitors of today’s Militant Tendency, which has done so much damage to the Labour party” [ F Chapple `Sparks Fly – a trade union life’ (1984)]
Given Cannon’s virulent hostility to the union’s leadership what happened next in the slow crawl to disaster is, if not defensible, quite understandable. Indeed, it smacks heavily of Cannon having manipulated the outcome from beginning to end. His debarring, arising from a breach of internal discipline, as a delegate to the TUC congress in 1958 led to an even more conflicting atmosphere.
Cannon directly and abusively accused the EMI ETU branch secretary of bringing a large bag of completed ballot papers concerning the election he had lost to his branch meeting of being complicit in fraud. Given that such an action of a large factory branch was perfectly normal – be it a right wing or left wing activist – it is possible that Cannon knew very well that this would be controversial and had decided upon a deliberate provocation. It was also a factory heavily dominated by the Communist Party, so there was actually a completely minimal chance that there was even a need to rig this vote, so weighed would it be by shop steward recommendation. A casual allusion to this EMI incident, as if it were the perpetual state of play in the ETU, was made in Olga’s book [O Cannon et al p196], when she wrote that it was “all wrong to refuse to see Communists when they walk in with bags of forged ballot papers”.
The consequence of this accusatory act was that, perfectly predictably, Cannon was charged with actions damaging to good harmony within the union and summonsed to answer the charge before the Area Committee. A typical punishment of the time – in most unions – was a fining of a few shillings or pounds, which failure to pay would result in becoming out of compliance (or membership), resulting in a loss of office-holding. Even non-craft unions like the Transport & General Workers Union had such an approach – it being called branching, a disciplinary tactic common in that union until well in the 1980s.
Knowing that this would be likely, and that his attendance as a delegate at the TUC’s imminent annual conference would be affected by this, Cannon deliberately went on holiday (his wife boasts in her book). [O Cannon and J R L Anderson “The road from Wigan Pier – a biography of Les Cannon” (1973)] This was in fact so that he could turn up for the TUC congress ostensibly not knowing he had been debarred. In fact, he did receive the letter advising of this, redirected to the guest house he was staying at but pretended he had not.
Even more ludicrously, the TUC leadership had leaked the story to the press, which carried a major story about his `banning’ from the TUC on the Saturday morning before the congress began on the Monday, just as delegates were arriving in the seaside resort where it would be held. The whole thing, in retrospect, sounds like a complete set up; Cannon’s widow exalting in the cleverness of the stitch-up.
Then, at the TUC congress, 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 placed in the visitors’ gallery, Foulkes explained that this was not a matter for congress but the ETU, which could accredited whoever it wished or did not wish: “I don’t like Walter Padley, but I don’t try to stop his union sending him here.”
The TUC President, Tom Yates, tacitly endorsed Foulkes’ position and moved the business on but, Padley had placed the issue in a public place, thus 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 any 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 very much a case of pot calling kettle black, as both sides threw allegations at each other.
It is clear in retrospect that, behind the scenes, the media was being fed what was perceived to be any damaging information about the ETU. It did not even matter of sometimes this was just plain wrong. In October 1958, the News Chronicle confidently announced that “an anti-Communist candidate had secured a majority of no less than 300 votes in an election for a seat on the Executive Council”. [Letter from Jack Hendy to New Statesman February 3rd 1959] The trouble with this was that the announcement actually came before the votes had even been counted!
Cannon now engaged in a campaign to have the word “Acting” removed from his title. Having received a letter from MacLennan, the AGS, Cannon demanded an assurance that, should the union employ a professional university lecturer in its education work, that he would not be serving under such a person. Haxell declined to give such an assurance and the very next thing was that Cannon wrote a manifesto for change in the union and left the Communist Party. It was a decisive moment, as he saw it, born out of frustration that the union and the Party did not realise that Les Cannon was worthy of every possible accolade. It had very little to do with Hungary. Indeed, Hendy recalled that in an education session in 1957, when he played the secretary of a union branch in a role-playing exercise and Cannon played the branch president, the issue of Hungary had unexpectedly emerged. Hendy had not gone through the period untroubled but Cannon had “seemed to be quite untroubled and said that a Socialist country had the right to resist any attempt to subvert the Socialist system”. [Statement of J Hendy 29 August 1960, p7 and 8]
Hendy found himself approached by Cannon in November to leave the Communist Party and stand for the EC seat he was preparing to campaign for in such a state, arguing that he would be supported unopposed. In the event, Hendy declined this `offer’ and stood anyway as an unashamed Communist, receiving the nomination of every single branch in his division and hence being elected unopposed!
A major dispute emerged during 1957 between the Confederation of Shipbuilding and Engineering Unions (CSEU), then an alliance of scores of unions, and the employers. Although the employers’ body had long founded its own National Federation of Shipbuilders and Engineers, the parallel union federation did not emerge easily and quickly as the major force it could potentially have been. In its earliest years, unions representing unskilled workers were excluded and, to complicate matters, the main skilled engineering union hopped in and out of affiliation. Initially, the Federation focused on resolving demarcation disputes, but it soon concentrated on making national agreements for the engineering and shipbuilding industries. Only by 1936 was the Confederation formally constituted.
The formal establishment of Joint Shop Stewards’ Works Committees ensued, which was a major boost to militancy in engineering. But the rigid and slow procedure agreement that formally resolved disputes became increasingly decrepit and by this stage was effectively encouraging shop floor democracy and the role of shop stewards. Had the ETU maintained a militant position, it would have no doubt been part of a great flowering of militant unionism in the sector. As it was, in joint negotiations, the future ETU was a by-word for slavish adherence to procedure. Nonetheless, by 1977, the CSEU had two and a half million members and was the main conduit for dealing with unions in the sector.
Back in 1957, it seemed that a major and lengthy struggle would ensue and it is entirely understandable that the ETU leadership would have some of the foregoing in their minds. The ETU EC, in common with other unions, set about arranging its finances in order in case of the need for major expenditure in support of their members and others. A proposal to mortgage all property, to raise millions in cash, and to cut back on convalescence and education activities, which focused on expensive weeks away in hotel environments, was considered. The EC had to consider the possibility of having to pay some £150,000 a week in dispute benefit (such a sum should be multiplied by maybe 15 to get a sense of today’s value). Not only was education and convalescence a target for cuts, the ETU even decided to set up its own Legal Department to cut costs. Maurice Tarlo was appointed to a post heading this up.
With some temporary redundancies due in education and convalescence departments, very generous severance pay was agreed for all staff involved, without any favour being applied in establishing a policy of the aim of re- employing all in exactly the same position, once the situation changed. This resulted in Cannon temporarily losing his position at Esher but, in looking forward to the period after a settlement and with the potential financial crisis past them, the EC unconditionally determined it would to re-engage everyone on the same terms.
Haxell met Woodcock, the manager of the convalescent home and Simpkins, as `warden’, effectively the manager of Esher Place, together with Cannon to deliver this piece of temporary bad news. The next day, it was 13 March 1957, Cannon phoned Hendy to ask that he meet up with him at a café in Charing Cross Road that they had once commonly frequented, where Cannon poured out the whole story. There was still no sign of the maverick ultra-leftist Cannon would temporarily become before unleashing the vicious anti-Communist right-winger.
Cannon was still seeking to exploit his contacts within the Communist Party, which he had now definitely left, to maximize advantage for his personal position. Over the next period, Cannon would, at dizzying speed, hurtle through the ultra-left position to emerge as an ultra-rightist. Little evidence exists as to how this happened and with whom he engaged to enable this, beyond his tie-up with the Socialist Labour League and its antecedents. This is the group that would emerge in more recent times as the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, which eerily suffered a similar implosion to the CPGB also in the 1984-5 period, after a long period of oddity associated with police infiltration and even funding from such bizarre sources as Colonel Ghaddafi.
During the 1950s, it had long been a tiny grouplet buried inside the Labour left, when it began to pick up some high profile activists from the CPGB after Hungary. One of their best-known recruits from the CPGB was Peter Fryer, the correspondent the Daily Worker had sent to Budapest to report first-hand. Fryer would edit `The Newsletter’, a weekly which began publication in May 1958, although within another year he would have left the group. The SLL was formally launched in 1959 as an openly Trotskyist sect, although still with most of its members still in the Labour Party, especially in the youth organisation, the Young Socialists, which they gained control of until it was shut down in 1964.
Since there was little to create regularity of meeting between the two old friends, Hendy and Cannon did not meet up again until 22nd September 1957, when they both attended a meeting of the London Lift Engineers’ branch. There Cannon admitted to Hendy that he was planning to stand for the EC, which was surprising since there was still the offer of re-engagement as Education Officer. Something had clearly happened to change Cannon’s mind in the interceding six months. He was now definitely on collision course but a brief conversation with Jack Hendy in September 1957 saw Cannon becoming “guarded” in his conversation. [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p 9] A year later, Cannon and his wife had a conversation with Hendy at the annual TUC congress. She accused Hendy of helping to sack Cannon and he announced that he had letters from Hendy to prove there was a Communist conspiracy “against the union”. [Statement of J Hendy 29th August 1960, p 10]
At a meeting of the Reading branch of the union on 1st August 1958, Cannon was to produce letters from Hendy to himself that would supposedly prove this charge of conspiracy, although he didn’t produce any documents there. Others turned up to watch and listen – Jack Fraser and Mark Young amongst others. Cannon announced his discovery of “a vendetta against him by Haxell and the Communist Party”. The fact that he had been asked to pay for the unauthorised phone calls he had made (complained about by his secretary) was the only `serious’ example Cannon gave. There were no less than eighteen unpaid for telephone calls for Cannon to refund. It is important to note that, in this period, the vast majority of ordinary people used street kiosk phones. Domestic phones were a relatively unusual thing for people to have and it was commonly a polite thing to offer the cost of a phone when using a neighbour’s in an emergency.
Hendy was so disgusted with Cannon’s behaviour that he now gave up on the man and told him that he “did not wish to see him again”. [Statement of J Hendy 29 August 1960, p 10] As Larry Braithwaite has put it, Jack Hendy “maintained his trust in Cannon at least two years later than just about everyone else, and suffered accordingly”. [LB written recollections, April 2012]
Matters now simply went from bad to worse and, arising from their persistent public claims that the union was badly managed and subject to intensive ballot-rigging, Les Cannon and Mark Young (referred to in the minutes as “C Young”) having been charged with breaches of the union’s rules (R10, C(4)) appeared at the EC on 4 h April 1959. In their defence, they claimed their actions justified since they had fallen foul of an extensive Communist conspiracy in the union. The EC resolved to ask the two men to supply all allegations in writing so that they could be investigated. No reply was ever received from either man but, on 29th April 1959, the EC commissioned an in-depth report on the continuing press complaints, which was circulated to every member.
A Committee of Inquiry constituted of non-Communists and of no-one likely to be accused of involvement in ballot rigging was given carte blanche to look into all and every allegation. This comprised of H West, T E Vincent, and George Scott, a National Officer and a Labour Party member. Cannon and Young did appear before the committee of inquiry during May. Refusing to say much, the justification for this was that the President of the union should have chaired the committee of enquiry and that, as an officer of the union, Scott was unconstitutionally a member of the inquiry. Moreover, although both men claimed to have documentary evidence and witnesses who could substantiate their claims they refused to provide either!
To say that this stance was bizarre is something of an understatement. There were no limitations to the EC’s powers in respect of something like this, which had been set up entirely to meet Cannon’s criticisms and, if feasible, find a means to satisfy his concerns so as to move on. Nor was his refusal to co- operate with the enquiry based on any logical position. Surely, if Cannon had evidence, he ought to be willing to place it in the public environment if he wanted to find a solution within the union. Of course, this was nowhere near resembling Cannon’s aims by this stage. This stage in the story was, as most of it was, all about Cannon. In fact, Young was so little to the fore as a complainant that the committee of inquiry was so moved in its official report to suggest that Cannon had written Young’s notes for him and that, when pressed, Young was virtually unable to state what was in any case the thinnest wafer of a case imaginable.
The two men demanded firm assurance from the committee of inquiry that no legal action would be taken against them as a result of supplying evidence to the committee and that, should any allegations be made against themselves, that the details would be submitted to them for comment. The two were advised to note that a sub-committee was not the full EC but “so far as was in the power of the Committee, it would fulfil its obligations. Its ability to do so depended upon the co-operation, frankness and evidence that the members summonsed before the Committee would give.” Despite this, neither would provide the evidence claimed and stated that they had written to the TUC to complain about Haxell “exceeding his powers”. [Electrical Trade Union Committee of Inquiry Report – November 1959 – p4]
Faced with this the committee decided to meet again with Haxell, Fraser, Vetterlein and Hendy giving a response to what had been asserted by Cannon and Young and these hearings took place in June. The main accusations were that:
• the Communist Party was interfering in the affairs of the union.
• Haxell regularly usurped the powers of the EC by either refusing complaints or appeals off his own back.
• the EC condoned these things.
• Cannon was “illegally” charged for rule infringements in 4th April 1959
• the closing of the union’s college and his dismissal were “for a political motive and personal malice”.
• the ballot for Division 9, which Cannon lost, was problematic
• the ETU’s formal reply to charges made in the New Statesman
• the charge against Cannon at the Area 27 Committee, when he was fined and suspended from holding office for 5 years
That the accusers provided no evidence of any of their charges and the union provided reams of documents, easily providing a case contrary to the accusations, made the committee’s job a lot easier. But Cannon had gone further than that. As the committee reported to all members: “We noted that they avoided dealing with, and obstructed consideration of, the accusations they were deliberately attempting to waste time discussing trivial and incidental matters in order to obscure the main issues (committee’s emphasis) they were hectoring and insulting to the Committee and made innuendoes which they ought to have known were unjustified.” [Electrical Trade Union Committee of Inquiry Report – November 1959 – p6]
By now, aside from the generality that the Communist Party was against him and controlled everything, the accusations had basically come down to a virtually paranoid claim by Cannon that it was all about him. It may perhaps be a moot point but it is worth just pausing to consider just how toxic Cannon’s personality was, which seems to be well evidenced by the foregoing, and how this may have affected the whole ETU affair.
Cannon’s intense and almost uncontrollable impatience is repeatedly mentioned by his widow and she reveals that he was, as she describes it, “bedevilled throughout his life by an apparent insensitivity to other peoples’ feelings”. [O Cannon et al p253] Astonishingly, after having been resettled in a job as head of education, during the course of 1962, Cannon felt able to buy outright a holiday cottage for £450 in North Devon. At this price, this may have been a marvellous bargain, or a very small place, since most homes cost around £2,500 then; but it was worth some 30 weeks wages, meaning that today a sum of something representing maybe £15,000 to £20,000 was handed over by Cannon outright. It is not at all clear how he acquired these funds. An oddity amongst many oddities was that, seemingly, when the children were at school, Cannon used the cottage as a base for just himself as a solitary pursuit. Only when the children were on holidays was the cottage utilised by the family.
Indeed, we have seen, or will come across, many references to Cannon’s oddities and peculiar state of mind. That Cannon possessed a remarkably inappropriate grandiosity of the self had become increasingly clear to a lot of people. One anecdote worth relating is that, at one point, Cannon met Antonín Novotný (1904-1975), when he was the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (which was from 1953 to 1968 – he also held the post of President of Czechoslovakia from 1957 to 1968). Though still a Communist, and not a high one at that, and despite being completely lacking in fluency in Czech, Cannon was not impressed, he claimed, by the intellectual authority of Novotný. It may be true that Novotný was not an intellectual but the comparison of the position of one man to the other belies a sense of reality. The fact that he related the tale, even more so.
In essence, Cannon displayed all the hallmarks of someone trending towards a narcissistic personality disorder. In such a condition, a person is excessively preoccupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity. In normal life, we would think of it as being closely linked to personality traits such as self-centredness.
As a medical condition (about which it is impossible to say one way or the other whether Cannon was truly a sufferer) normal early developmental phases have failed to eradicate the tendency. This has become so to the point where the exploitativeness, sense of entitlement, lack of empathy, disregard for others, and constant need for attention inherent in the condition begins to affect the general well-being of those around the sufferer. Often ambitious and capable, the sufferer has a congenital inability to tolerate setbacks, disagreements or criticism. These weaknesses make working cooperatively with others difficult, especially in seeking to achieve long-term professional achievements. If Cannon did not experience to some degree these aspects (the condition can present as a spectrum, although diagnosis is based on attaining a certain level of triggers along with the degree to which it is a problem for other), he most certainly displayed them in inter-personal relations.
Two factors about Cannon oblige a search for understanding that is simply not supplied by mainstream commentators anxious to have this man go down in history as a great democrat. How is it that his outward lack of complaint about East European socialism and his love for his wife’s country, considered a little over-the-top by contemporaries, saw this man become such an anti- Communist? How is it that his initial reaction of veering wildly left led within months to a similar veer wildly to the right? It would perhaps be pointless to consider much of this further, except that the aspect of Cannon’s supposed discovery of anti-Communism – supposedly as a result of the events in Hungary opening his eyes – was so widely used in his lifetime that it virtually demands some further comment.
Since we can all have a little bit of the non-typical within us, a diagnostic approach to narcissism has been developed by psychiatry that requires many characteristics to be displayed before being concerned about the presence of a disorder. It would be expected to see a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, a need for admiration, a lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the eleven following:
1. grandiose self-importance, exaggerating achievements and talents, expecting to be recognised as superior without commensurate achievement.
2. preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
3. believes that s/he is special or unique and can only be understood by other high-status people (or institutions)
4. Requires excessive admiration of self
5. Has a sense of entitlement, unreasonable expectations of especially favourable treatment, or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
6. Is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
7. Lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognise or identify with the feelings and needs of others
8. Is often envious of others or believes others are envious of him or her
9. Arrogant, haughty behaviour
10. Mild to moderate paranoia, belief that others are out to `do him in’.
11. Predominant “name dropper”, boasting of or suggesting association with people of importance.
The condition was only finally given expression diagnostically in the mid-to-late 1960s and has only become widely understood, even in the medical profession, in quite recent times. Nobody could have recognised it in Cannon until the full force of his wrath was upon them and even then it would be difficult to understand. Abundant evidence (swept under the carpet by writers sympathetic to Cannon) exists as to the man’s difficult personal relations. The most powerful of these pieces of evidence is a judicially-inclined statement written by Jack Hendy, who had been virtually Cannon’s only serious friend inside the Communist Party. This statement was never used during the trial, mainly since Cannon was the proverbial lead man in a play that might have been called “Hamlet without the Prince”, never appearing in court to give evidence in any way.
Aside from his abrasive ways of dealing with subordinates, one particularly telling account of how Cannon treated the court-appointed J T Byrne once he was general secretary. Larry Braithwaite recalls that one of secretaries at the Hayes Court office frequently mentioned that Cannon in particular took an almost sadistic delight in goading and belittling Byrne. It might have been thought that Byrne’s determination to succeed might have been seen by his new ally as something that would favour himself in the long run and any foibles might therefore be tolerated – but not by Cannon.
Braithwaite thought that, “clearly, Cannon simply viewed John Thomas as an impediment to his own career; it would seem that he promoted the illness (possibly convenient) and subsequent departure of JT Byrne”. The secretary who had gossiped about Cannon’s unpleasant treatment of the man who was after all his boss was married to Tom Rice, a national officer of the union later associated with the Wapping affair. Rice had once been in the Communist Party and could not have been appointed to any office without performing some serious act of treachery against his former comrades. But his history of opposing Cannon and Chapple personally may have loosened his wife’s tongue about the nasty side of Cannon.
Sir Leslie Cannon died of cancer in 1970, aged fifty, after a short illness. This was also only shortly before he was awarded a knighthood in the New Year’s Honours’ List. Indeed, it may be said that his demise was occasioned by the most astonishingly swift on-set of cancer and suddenness of the progress of the disease. It was only some five or six weeks before he died in December that he had still been attending union meetings.
One final speculation has to relate to his relationship with Chapple. We can never tell how matters may have developed but since Cannon died within so few years of their having acquired joint power over the union, all speculation is pointless. Beyond that only a very clever manipulator could have wound Cannon up and pointed him in the right direction to cause havoc. That he did cause havoc is abundantly clear.
ANTI-COMMUNISM, THE INTELLIGENCE SERVICES, AND THE ETU
It is now widely accepted that a key factor in the Allies winning the Second World War, aside from the incredily loss of live and sacrifice of the Soviet peoples and their Red Army, was their superiority not just in numbers, finance, resources, and military materiel. The fact that British intelligence was more or less knowledgeable for most of the time of much of the activity of the German armed forces of all kinds was absolutely critical. It is extraordinary to consider that, until perhaps the early 1980s this fact had still been kept from the world at large (perhaps partly due to code breaking of Soviet diplomatic messages taking place). The key to the success of World War Two British security was Bletchley Park, now widely appreciated to have been the precursor to what later became GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), which itself became infamous during the 1980s when Mrs Thatcher banned the operation of independent trades unions there.
That development had had its roots in the practical fact that UK intelligence and US intelligence was beconing virtually symbiotic. The Americans have a much more robust view of the impropriety of trades unions interfering in the affairs of government in the early 1980s and it seems they were as sensitive in the early 1950s.
This was a period, well in to the cold war, when the fact that British electricians were so relatively relaxed about being led by Communists began to bother the CIA. In fact, an unrevealed but “embarrassing domestic security case” regarding the ETU and GCHQ had occurred in the spring of 1954 that damaged American confidence in British security. [Secrets of Signals Intelligence During the Cold War and Beyond” M Matthew (Cees Wiebes) p89] This caused the CIA to become acutely aware of Communist dominance in the ETU and to demand UK security force action as a price for continuing to share secrets as the decade wore on. The urgency for this became stronger as the scandals regarding the Cambridge 5 began to rise; something had to be done.
As well as having physicists, engineers, and puzzle-solving intellectuals, the British must have also employed fairly ordinary electricians to maintain the electro-mechanical devices (oddly named “bombes”) that enabled the decryption of the German “Enigma” encrypted signals during the second world war. Importantly, American-produced machines used the same functions but were engineered differently. Thus, when the initial British `bombe’ was produced in 1939 it would have been serviced by a local electrician who would certainly have been a member of the ETU, given the nature of skill and unions at that point.
Since 1947, when GCHQ was established in its present form, all the staff employed there have been permitted, and indeed encouraged, to belong to national trade unions, and most of them did so. (The inter-regnum of non-unionism imposed by Mrs Thatcher from 1984 was later lifted by a Labour government.) Six unions were represented at GCHQ. They were all members, though not the only members, of the Council of Civil Service Unions (CCSU).
The suicide of Alan Turing one of the key and brilliant thinkers behind the whole Enigma project, at Bletchley Park in 1954 greatly unsettled the CIA. Turing was a known homosexual, it was still illegal at that time, and he had had links with Communists in the past. A conviction for sodomy had cost him security clearance for GCHQ. Britain then resumed its own witch hunt, looking for spies within the Establishment. Some 300 spies were alleged to be identified in Britain and America at the end.
The link up between, on the one hand, ex-communists still claiming to be left socialists, Cannon and Chapple, and the implacably right-wing Labourite, Jock Byrne, was given a massive boost by the latter’s links with Catholic Action. A catch-all name implying the involvement of lay activists of the Catholic Church in social matters, Catholic Action would be more normally associated with the creation of a Christian Democratic Party. In mainland Britain, it tended to be more linked to attempts to prevent the Labour Party from becoming too socially liberal, which often went hand in hand with a perception that to avoid it trending to the left would better achieve these aims.
In the unusual context of the history of the British labour movement, this led Catholic Action in the early post-war period to conclude that destroying the Communist Party’s influence in trades unions was a paramount task before establishing an even more `moderate’ version of Labour politics than perhaps the later forces of the SDP, or even Blairism created. So extreme were the moderates of Catholic Action, especially in Scotland, that their version of extreme moderacy has been dubbed `proto-fascism’ by more than one commentator.
It is now totally clear that Byrne, Chapple and Cannon received financial aid from a group of Catholic businessmen, members of “moral rearmament”, whose aim was to deter workers’ militancy by appealing to their religious and “patriotic” fervour. Vic Feather from the TUC bureaucracy is supposed to have acted as the go-between for what was the real conspiracy. Born in 1908 and died in 1976, Feather was on the staff at the TUC from 1937 and was Assistant General Secretary from 1960 until he became General Secretary in 1969 for four years. Whether MI5 was behind this funding, linked to Common Cause, has not been admitted.
But the official history of MI5, “The Defence of the Realm – the authorized history of MI5” by Christopher Andrew [all details taken from the revised 2010 edition, pp409-411] strongly disputes the slowly rising tendency of even non-Communist historians to at least in retrospect believe the official Party spokesmen of the time that no knowledge or endorsement of ballot rigging activities had ever existed at the highest levels of the Party. Andrew asserts, without publishing the evidence, that ballot rigging did take place, that the Party knew of it, and that this was perpetrated by almost all Communist activists in the ETU.
Despite this bold claim – and the spin that MI5 has now stopped its nefarious activities designed to undermine leftist groups – and despite the now many published sources of MI5, no files at all that are relevant to this issue have been placed at the National Archives – not one. On a few occasions, the mere phrase “Security Service Archives” is used to justify a statement (always hidden in the fine detail of source references at the back of the book) in Andrew’s book; presumably these are still-secret files, of which even the names and numbers are still top secret. Whilst the “sources” for almost all of Andrew’s comments on the ETU are invariably no more reliable than that they are taken from the “Recollections of former security service officer”.
Denying the possibility of any latter-day revising of the perceived wisdom bound up in the supposed conspiracy to rig the ballot, Andrews tells us that “(e)avesdropping at King Street revealed that, in reality, (Haxell’s) anti-Communist opponent Jock Byrne had won the election”. Does this mean that a Communist was recorded (via an almost certainly illegal bug rather than “eavesdropping” at the door!) saying “No, Haxell didn’t win, Byrne did, but we rigged it.” Really?
Well, no, it seems. Andrew writes that “Haxell was heard reassuring Party comrades that he would fix the result.” Is this a quote from Frank Haxell? The conventions of quotations suggest not. Did he say something like: “Don’t worry, nothing can go wrong. I can fix it.” We don’t know but some faceless spook reckons he can remember it at a distance of some half a century, so that’s alright then. Have MI5 nothing better than that after all this time? Was it `fix’ or `rig’? And is that all? Forging results, or `fix’ as in make sure nothing goes wrong by being extra vigilant? These smears do not deserve to enjoy the term `history’.
Especially since we learn that, as well as bugging King Street, “two or three of the private meeting places” where the CP Electricians’ Advisory met for a dozen times in 1959 were also subject to listening surveillance. That is an awful lot of tapes and typescript; perhaps 24 to 36 hours’ worth of conversation, maybe two or three thousand pages of text. Two or three times the size of Andrew’s book! Yet neither he nor MI5 can muster a single direct and actual quote. Not even a page of contextualised conversation from the original manuscripts?
In fact, Christopher Andrew does not tell us at all what was recorded because those files are destined either never to appear or when they do they will tell us little, or only what MI5 wants us to see. Yet Andrew insists that “the Security Service was able to listen in on a series of meetings between the Communist members of the ETU executive and Party leaders.” [p 409] Could that luxury now perhaps be extended to the public? So that we do not have to rely on his confidence in aging spies who seek to justify their ruining of peoples’ lives. In the absence of anything but assertion, we cannot know what was actually done by MI5 in this case but the supreme reluctance to justify what must surely rank from its point of view as a remarkable operation is bound to generate suspicion.
However, we do know the devastation that emerged in the electrical contracting industry, in particular, in subsequent decades. As the balance of power swung massively towards the building employers, tens of thousands of workers and even more of their family members suffered considerably due to the activities of these anonymous friends to Chapple and Cannon. Arguably, the massive shift to the domestically owned housing market, which has shored up late capitalism, was much aided by a weakened workforce by the supine nature of electrical and plumbing trades unionism ushered in as a result of the victory handed on a plate to the right.
The only serious piece of evidence that might characterise as “vital evidence of ballot-rigging” would be a conversion between Haxell and Humphrey, the office manager, in which the former encourages the latter to embark upon a deliberate plan to segregate branches heavily supporting Byrne and to employ fraudulent means, such a dispatching a person or persons by motor car to tour the country posting envelopes after the deadline for receipt of genuine ballot returns. But we know of no such conversation and Haxell repeatedly and positively denied such had ever taken place. Humphrey has proved to be more difficult to source or find details of. Unless Mi5 know different? (Much confusion abounds regarding Humphrey compounded by the fact that many of those involved in all of this quite wrongly tended to utter his name as Humphries.)
Humphrey the office manager
Had such a conversation taken place it would certainly have been recorded, for we now know what was vehemently denied at the time that Communist offices and the union offices of Communists in senior positions within unions, as well as the homes of both, we routinely and extensively bugged. This along with most of the post sent to such persons being intercepted and read and many being followed most places they went.
Moreover, we do know that very many ETU Communists from this period had “memories of noisily tapped phones, intercepted mail and inept surveillance, etc. I’m sure we all had funny phone clicks and clearly tampered with mail.” [LB written recollections, April 2012] `Oddly’, not one file of evidence has yet emerged citing the verbatim record of the supposed ETU riggers. Perhaps because, as with all of those files that have been released, most of the material recorded contained the detritus of daily living. MI5 files that have been released on Communists basically show that these people had families, worried about their health, had affairs, found life a grind, and got annoyed with each other!!! Millions of hours of tape recording, millions of pages of intercepted post later – not one piece of evidence has emerged from the security forces that Communists consciously rigged a union ballot, let alone that this was done on the orders of King Street. Unless the masters of MI5 can now show us anything different?
As Party influence in unions was much greater than in wider society, little wonder that, during the Cold War, both the CIA and MI5 took a close interest in Communist Party influence within British trade unions. The ETU presented an easily justifiable target, especially to any Labour politicians worried about interference in the affairs of unions, because of the presence of its members at GCHQ.
The body that was much associated with the strategy to deny influence in the unions to the Communist Party was the Information Research Department (IRD). Founded in 1946 in anticipation of a conflict with the USSR, the IRD was a covert dedicated anti-communist propaganda unit within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, only finally closed down in 1977. In its time, IRD employed a staff of some three hundred people.
Sometimes posing as a publishing house or a kind of early political `think- tank’, IRD would end its days associated with promoting candidates for internal union election associated with the right wing factions on the AEU and the ETU. The IRD’s conscious and focal point for an organised attack by the British State on what it saw as dangers to its own position in politically militant trades unionism. Its main role was to supply misleading information up to and including fully written articles for journalists to place in the mainstream media that would damage Communism and Communists. [See “The Hidden Hand: Britain, America and Cold War Secret Intelligence”, Richard J. Aldrich, John Murray, London (2001) p.547]
It was right-wing lobby group `Common Cause’ that first established a trade union front, under the name of IRIS in 1956. It will not be lost on the reader, however, that the innocuous title of “Industrial Research & Information Service” (IRIS) is remarkably alike that of “Information Research Department” (IRD). Former Attorney General, Lord Shawcross, was a key player in setting it up. Although at first a big-business funded group, which secretly gave hundreds of thousands of pounds to aid the electoral campaigns of right-wing trade unionists, after IRIS had established its capacity in the ETU case, in 1963, out of the budget for MI5, the Tory government gave IRIS £40,000 (multiply by 15 times to get a rough equivalent to today’s money).
A director of Common Cause, working with Vic Feather of the TUC, was the one who siphoned finance directly to Les Cannon to enable him to work full-time of destabilising the ETU. [Lobster 19] The stated intention of IRIS and its government support was to influence elections in unions where Communists had a base. It was Tory Prime minister, Harold Macmillan, who was approached by Lord Shawcross, a former Labour cabinet minister, with a view to providing support for IRIS. For many years the main person to run IRIS was one Andy McKeown, who had close connections with Catholic Action.
The private sector matched this government funding. Tax-deductible charitable rules enabled donations from companies such as Allied Lyons, Bass, Boots, BP, Cadbury Schweppes, Cunard, GKN, Glaxo, Grand Metropolitan, Guinness, Hanson, ICI, Metal Box, NEI, P&O, Rootes, Rugby Portland, Scottish and Newcastle, Shell, TI Group, Unilever, United Biscuits, United Newspapers and Whitbread. IRIS was formally closed in 1992, believing that the destruction of much of the infrastructure of the Communist Party and the wider defeats of unions in the 1980s had brought them final victory.
A survey of the publications produced by IRIS shows that it was initially active in the period from 1957, when it was perhaps perceived that the Communist Party might be vulnerable to attack, after the Khrushchev revelations and the furore over Hungary, until the ETU trial. It then faded out of view, despite the injection of funding in 1963, perhaps as just before it was feared that a Labour government with a leaning more to the centre and left was about to come in. Thus:
1957 Labour & the Soviet state: An IRIS survey of trade unions in the Communist state
1957 The communist solar system – an IRIS survey of communist front organisations
1958 The British Road to Stalinism / an IRIS Survey of the British Communist Party since 1920
1960 Miscellaneous publications
1961 Communist grip on E.T.U. exposed: A summary of the judgement of Mr. Justice Winn
But IRIS’s main outlet was a regular bulletin that gave information (often simply gleaned from the Daily Worker and, later, the Morning Star) on left and Communist activists. Giving direction on whom to vote or campaign for in union elections was a high priority. Even if a candidate was a staunch member of the Labour Party, perhaps not even especially left wing but certainly not right-wing, IRIS opposed candidates would be invariably dubbed “Communist- backed”. The bulletin went not only to leading unionists and union offices, journalists would be sent copies. Naturally, the information found its way into paper both national and local, often simply repeating verbatim the IRIS-fed information without crediting it.
Apart from a half-hearted attempt to interfere in elections in the mid-1960s, Iris went quiet until it was perceived that the 1964-70 Labour governments were beginning to feel the need to tackle union power, thus a series of pamphlets were rapidly produced with that all important government funding that Harold Wilson had not known was still in place:
1967 Mischief on the building sites
1968 December Focus on the Car Industry
1969 April In Place of Strife: Policy for Industrial Relations: Outline of the White Paper
After the 1970 general election, a short period of quiet ensued. But, within two years, with a Tory government increasingly taking on the left in unions, an incredible burst of activity ensued. Indeed, this was the period of most intense activity for IRIS which was especially active in the AEU (and its various incarnations) during the 1970s in seeking to challenge the long-term left basis in that union, which it successfully destroyed. Every district secretary post that came up for election was challenged with great ferocity. IRIS published no less than four pamphlets in each year in 1972-3, as many as it had done in twelve years in the 1950s and 60s:
1972 April – British Mining Industry
1972 Aug – Public Interest
1972 – Incomes policy
1972 October – Electrical Power Industry
1973 April – Postal Ballots
1973 August – Multinational Companies
1973 December – Revolutionary Left
1973 February – Trade Unions and the E.E.C.
1974 August – International Socialists
1975 June – Industrial Democracy
1978 – Unemployment: the Facts, the False Trails, the Remedies
1978 – IRIS Ford in Britain: The company, the unions, the agreement
Possibly the most damaging connection to the destruction of Communist control of the ETU was the self-interest of the judge who heard the case against the union’s leadership. Unlike earlier judges, he did not seek to diminish the court’s ability to determine the affairs of an independent organisation. Rodger Winn (formally Sir Charles Rodger Noel Winn, PC, CB, OBE, LM, QC, 1903 – 1972) was a former naval intelligence officer and counsel for the Treasury. He was much honoured and decorated, receiving the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1943, the Legion of Merit in 1945, the Companion of the Bath in 1947, a knighthood in 1959, and becoming a member of the Privy Council in 1965.
Winn had actually been a keen student of Ultra during the war; so called because it was ultra-secret. This was the designation adopted by British military intelligence for signals intelligence obtained by cracking the encrypted enemy communications at the Government Code and Cipher School at Bletchley Park. The term “Ultra” has often been used almost synonymously with “Enigma decrypts”, although Ultra decoded almost anything. The obvious interest Winn might have with the concerns of the CIA and British intelligence sources that the ETU was encroaching into sensitive areas are abundantly self- evident and, seemingly, never before noted publicly anywhere.
This was the area where it is now clearly known that the CIA had serious worries about the ETU and its supposed ability to penetrate western defence security. Did the CIA ask MI6 to speak to MI5 to get them to bug the ETU headquarters so as to get evidence to convince Winn that these were dangerous people? It is a fact that, with all the revelations that we now are aware of concerning Soviet security forces that there was no discernible involvement in spying by any Communist electrician. This need not have stopped the CIA demanding action once and for all.
Of course, none of this necessarily makes Winn a biased judge; his class and politics might very well do that alone. But he was at pains to sound like the perfect English liberal conservative; he had no truck with the idea of a man’s politics being held against him, unless (as he put it) that man adhered to the principle that any means justify the ends! The idea that Winn entertained no concerns about Communists running the ETU, so long as they did it `democratically’, can be seen to be a nonsense once one considers the detail of his interventions in court but these glimmers about his background soon makes for concern.
But not only was Rodger Winn well connected to British intelligence circles, his brother was the rather better known Godfrey Winn (1906-1971). Known in Fleet Street as ‘Winifred God’, he was a notorious and Daily Express columnist, whose notoriety reputedly made him the highest paid journalist in the country. A sometime actor and film star, he was virtually openly gay during a period when homosexuality was illegal. ‘Approved’ subs of his copy, male or female, received nylons or perfume at Christmas! The two brothers may have seemed complete opposites but it did not stop them becoming jointly and heavily involved in a libel case in 1970. There is no doubt that they were in close contact at the time of the ETU trial.
Godfrey’s indiscretions could only ever have been tolerated by the establishment because he too had connections, as a former war correspondent, with abundant links to the security forces and, no doubt, lots of connections to the gay scions of leading families of the day. Can it be doubted that his columnist links, being fed tit-bits by various state agencies every day, were significant? Especially as the Express was one of the most persistent of the ETU’s critics?
The IRD controlled dozens of Fleet Street journalists in this period. The method of placing a story in the public domain was to brief a well-trusted journalist. Once the journalist had published their “exclusive” article without even the usual attribution to “official sources”, IRD would then transmit the story as gospel all around the world.
IRD had arrangements with several British newspapers which allowed it to reprint and distribute articles from them to foreign newspapers. These reprints made no mention that the articles had initially been planted in the papers by British intelligence. IRD also arranged British government funds for foreign newspapers who were finding it difficult to pay the subscription rates to British news services. For instance, a deal with The Observer’s Foreign News Service gave IRD the right to distribute articles cheaply or even free of charge to the media of selected countries. In addition, the department hired some of its personnel as “freelance” journalists to place material in British newspapers without the editor being aware of the source.
So, not only was the judge heavily tied up with spooks, his brother was probably in contact with them, also. It did not end there. The writer of the book on the trial that came out within months of the court case, CH Rolph, was none other than “Bill” Cecil Rolph Hewitt. Not identified in the book but, although by this time having retired to become a writer, he had served as Chief Inspector for the City of London Police from 1921 to 1946, a posh, even gentlemanly, enclave in the middle of the Metropolitan police’s empire. Mainly, he wrote for the New Statesman but he also wrote for the Spectator as RH Cecil. [The Independent Tuesday, 15 March 1994]
THE HEARING BEFORE JUSTICE WINN
As the trial began, Olga and Les Cannon went to see a play, `The Hostage’, which he found “shattering” [O Cannon et al p226) in its resemblance to the situation he felt he was in. This is a remarkable admission; let me sketch out what Cannon saw, without comment, and allow the reader to consider the fact that the play had such an impact on him in the light of earlier comments on Cannon’s state of mind, a factor we will return to. The play depicts the events leading up to the planned execution of a young IRA member accused of killing a policeman. But the audience never sees the condemned man but is focused throughout on the hostage in the play, Leslie Williams, a young and innocent Cockney British soldier, who is surrounded by prostitutes, revolutionaries and vagabonds in the brothel he is kept prisoner in. A love story develops between Leslie and a young resident of the house and the play ends with news of the hanging in Belfast and an armed Gardaí raid the brothel. Leslie is killed in the ensuing gunfight, by police bullets. In the finale his corpse rises and sings.
Whatever the significance or not of the play, as far as the trial is concerned, Cannon was not to the fore. Byrne and Chapple issued writs against the union for alleged fraud and the case involving just these two as plaintiffs, facing 16 defendants in the case heard by Lord Justice Winn. [The Times – Law Report June 29 1961] Defendants Davies, Feathers, Frazer, Hendy, Ron Sell, and Humphrey were all Communist Party members.
The Plaintiffs’ solicitors were Ben Hooberman of Lawford Solicitors & Co. of 9 Gray’s Inn Square, seemingly an invented name designed to sound more establishment. Senior counsel was Gerald Gardiner QC, who became Lord High Chancellor in 1964 and a Baron after that. Intriguingly, in 1981 and speaking in the House of Lords, Gardiner said that he believed his telephone calls had long been intercepted by a British intelligence organisation, though whether that was purely from when he became Chancellor or earlier, he never clarified. Although Gardiner did say that he had even felt the need to routinely take a car ride, so as to be able to securely talk to the Attorney-General about matters. [The Times, Wednesday, May 20, 1981] Even the junior counsel, Jonathan Sofer, was then a Labour supporter.
Intriguingly, it could be said after the trial that neither of “the plaintiffs (Byrne and Chapple) sought to denigrate the value of the services rendered by the personal defendants in their respective capacities to the material progress in the union in securing improvements in the welfare of its members and access of strength to its bargaining position in industry.” [J Hendy papers – private cyclostyle mss “Did Communist control the ETU” dated 1.9.61]
Even though the court case formally only concerned the 1959 election, the 1957 election for Division 9, in which Jack Frazer obtained 2,003 votes and Cannon, only recently having left the Party, was defeated with 1,451 votes was repeatedly returned to. (Frazer joined the Communist Party in 1939; he was an EC member of the ETU from 1954-61.)
The allegations were rejected by Justice Winn as an accusation simply without evidence. Cannon had not even appeared before Winn. Indeed, his absence from the trial in any formal way (other than acting as a clerk for the plaintiffs’ solicitors) was unremarked on at the time. John Freemen of the New Statesman, who supplied the introduction to C H Rolph’s book on the trial, twice referred in that to the fact that Cannon, who he realised was mysteriously absent from the trial, and Chapple were supposed left-wing socialists. This was Freeman’s answer to the Communist Party’s claims that much of the case against the ETU Communists was a product of the capitalist class. Certainly, by the time of the court case being heard, despite Freeman’s assertions, both men had long since jettisoned any claim to be socialists, even right wing ones.
National Officer, George Scott had written in the Daily Worker [14th December 1957] that the decision to invalidate the votes from the relevant branches was taken before the results were known and therefore no fiddling arose here. It turned out that, although Scott had genuinely believed his statement, this was not precisely accurate. It was arising from suspicion raised by Cannon that disqualifications of some branches in the 1957 EC election that he lost were dodgy, that some newspapers had added the votes of disqualified branches, many of which had produced good votes for Cannon, to the actual result and decided that he had won by a tiny majority. But they had not published details of the eight branches concerned and uncertainty and confusion emerged as a result.
Perhaps it was not surprising that the longest cross-examination in the trial was probably that of George Scott. For the whole of the first hour he was sarcastically asked about the nature of his left-wing views. Much was made of the fact, despite Scott having twice been an unsuccessful Labour parliamentary candidate and once a successful Labour councillor, of his coming originally from Fife where Willie Gallacher had been a Communist MP. The haranguing got so bad that Justice Winn was obliged to intervene to end this line of `inquiry’.
The point at issue in Scott’s evidence mainly focused on an article he had written for the Daily Worker that repudiated press criticism over the Fraser- Cannon election for an EC seat. In this, he had explained the laborious process the union engaged in whenever there were justified complaints of a branch failing to meet the exacting standards of procedure with ballots; i.e. that the branch’s votes would be disqualified as a means of collective punishment so that more rigour would be applied next time.
But it was not this aspect of his article that brought Scott into the limelight. It was his rough and ready calculations of the voting figures before disqualification decisions had been made, which the plaintiff’s counsel and Justice Winn drew attention to. These had seemed to justify the conclusion that, even if the entirely valid disqualifications had been set aside, Cannon would have still lost. In fact, as someone on the plaintiff’s side appears to have first calculated (and only in the run-up to the trial, never at the time of the election), Cannon would have won by 34 votes out of some 4,500. But this was entirely an abstract conception. Not only was the Fraser-Cannon result not a matter cited before the court for resolution, it merely holding evidential value in the Haxell-Byrne matter, no evidence was presented that any of the disqualifications were wrong under the terms of the ETU rules. The point of the exercise was that the press, somehow widely briefed that the difference was not 34 but 300, reported that Cannon’s defeat was a fraud when no such thing ever became even remotely nearly established. In essence, Scott was pilloried in court not only by counsel for the plaintiff but also by the trial judge for having applied faulty mental arithmetic skills on what would have been several pages of figures on something that was not even the point of dispute.
Added to the metaphorical crucifixion of Scott, a resurrection of a case from the north-east of England that had seemed dead and gone, or at least a relatively minor issue, was now projected as clear evidence of a supposed pattern. Basically, this centred on a vindictive focus by the media and shadowy right-wing forces on the person of one Bob Carr, at that point shop steward for electricians at Palmer’s shipyard Hebburn-on-Tyne, County Durham and an ETU branch secretary, who had been a Communist since his teens.
A media onslaught, mostly in the press, against any militant shop steward did not seem to stop Communists consistently getting elected as workers’ representatives. No doubt offended by this, the Daily Sketch, the Daily Mail’s attempt to compete with the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, `awarded’ several Communists their “Spanner in the works” medal during the 1950s. An attempt to employ sarcasm in the brow-beating of Communists, the No. 6 award in 1956 went to Bob Carr, who ws undaunted to such an extent that he is even to this very day still a member of the Communist Party.
The Daily Sketch heavily and negatively publicised Carr’s resignation as shop steward in May 1956 when some Hebburn members complained after learning that the ETU executive had “sent a gift of £20 to defend Cypriot terrorists”. [Daily Sketch April 24th 1957] Ordinary ETU members had clearly been fed the wrong end of the stick, for such a claim must certainly have consciously and deliberately obfuscated the facts. Carr had actually resigned in protest at the narrow-mindedness of a refusal to contribute to a legal fund for trades unionists set up for Cypriots arrested in the state of emergency declared on the island, which enabled arrest without trial, evidence, or hearing. The ferocity of imperial rule was such that, on February 1956, in Famagusta, troops had opened fire on a demonstration of students and school children.
Any protest in Cyprus, however modest, against British rule was considered `terroristic’. Cyprus was now in the midst of a desperate struggle to obtain sovereignty from the British Empire, a struggle that had been supported by the vast majority population of Greek-speaking Cypriots and, at this point, even most of the minority Turkish-speakers. But Britain increasingly saw Cyprus as critical to its Middle East strategy, since its armed forces covering the region were headquartered there and it would not countenance any weakening of the links with the Empire.
A significant minority faction of Greek-speakers with military links to Greece, mostly right-wingers, favoured the winning of a merger of Cyprus into Greece by waging terrorist war. Greece was then still in the grip of the political right after a vicious civil war in which lefts and Communists were brutally marginalised. However, the Cypriot left, dominated by Communists, were a major force on the island (as they still are) and were totally opposed to the terrorist campaign. Anyone with a vague knowledge of Cypriot politics could be under no doubt that a union such as the ETU, led by Communists, would not be in support of the terrorist forces. But, as with so many other anti-imperialist struggles, the British media did not distinguish between the mass forces of trade unions, farmers’ co-operatives, women’s, and community organisations in Cyprus, waging peaceful but hard protest against the occupation of their country by men from a couple of thousand miles away.
Up until early 1956, it even looked as if a settlement to the demands of the Cypriot people might be moderately easily attained. Then a much tougher British policy in Cyprus emerged. This was directly related to the plan that would culminate in the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt, all over control of the Suez Canal. British determination to wage armed war inside Cyprus against what everyone knew was the view of the vast majority of the Cypriot people was directly related to the aim of holding on to military bases there to service the October-November 1956 Suez war. Although the Daily Sketch did not advertise this, not only did popular hostility to the Tory government’s participation in this Middle Eastern adventure reach a new height, only a few months later, in March 1957, a national strike in shipbuilding and engineering brought much of industry to a halt. This added to an already building atmosphere of industrial relations crisis in the country, 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 a settlement rapidly followed.
Bob Carr was not only ETU Jarrow branch secretary; he was also active in promoting the strike in his locality throughout, especially in shipbuilding. Inevitably, this saw Bob Carr’s level of personal support in local shipbuilding and other industries rise significantly. The Sketch complained that Carr had talked a factory full of women workers making radios in Jarrow into taking action.
An election for the President for the North-East Area of the union, covering some twenty branches, now came up in the latter part of 1958 and Carr was nominated. Clearly, support from his own branch was critical. However, it contained a vicious opponent of Carr, one Dick Fenwick, a previous Area President, who was certainly deeply hostile to supporting Carr and was able to become a scrutineer for the election process in the Jarrow branch. Fenwick now told all and sundry, especially newspapers and later the trial, that as a scrutineer he had seen 61 shiny white envelopes, all with the same oblong stamp (it would be stated at the big trial to be an Empire Games 3d stamp, all postmarked at the same time in Jarrow. In the context of a media blitz on the ETU, Fenwick’s barely hidden accusation attracted much adverse comment in the mainstream press.
That Carr had stood in the local elections recently was deemed by the media – and his critics in the union – as noteworthy. That the number of votes he polled in a council election as a Communist could be exceeded by his contesting a union election was generally treated with incredulity. It was the same logic that led counsel and judge in the trial to refer to “Communist branches” of the union. Even so, the complaint against Carr trundled on and, in February 1959, the ETU executive sent an enquiry team to the north-east and subsequently the union wrote twice to all members of the branch seeking information about whether they had received a ballot paper and whether they had used it.
Bob Carr’s firm recollection back then – reinforced in his recollections for this study – is that, underlining the seriousness with which the matter was being taken by the union, Haxell and Foulkes themselves came to Jarrow to investigate the allegations against him. More significantly not only was their interview of the two scrutineers, Fenwick and Stoker, and of Carr himself, thorough and competent, a tape recording of the entire event was made. Carr further notes that, oddly, the tapes later simply `mysteriously’ disappeared from head office, meaning they could not be used at the trial as evidence to rebut the smear of allegations, which were trying to link the pattern of events in the north-east to supposed misdemeanours by Communists in the later Haxell election as some kind of systemised method tested out in Jarrow. In a sense, this made the Jarrow allegations a kind of dry run for the larger affair. Since Bob McLennan, the AGS, had been touring the country at the time of the ballot, it was insinuated that the strange appearance of extra ballot papers used by unknown person(s) in Carr’s election may have come from his being in the region.
As an aside it is important to note that, during an extended period of media hostility, Carr found himself transformed into a living example of what the American philosopher, Noam Chomsky meant by his observation that “propaganda is to a democracy what the bludgeon is to a totalitarian state”. Carr`s home was besieged by photographers and reporters. His wife sought to stop them from getting their snaps but to no avail; one photograph that suited the media’s purposes was snatched and widely used. Suitably presented, this gave an entirely false impression of Carr as a `Jack the Lad’, or a brash, loud show-off; far from the reality of the respected family man and champion of his fellow workers that he was widely known as locally, then later for some half a century.
Even Fenwick, when he testified at the trial about the incident, admitted that his branch members generally had very high regard for Carr, who was simply not able to account for the oddity of the white envelopes. Indeed, at the union enquiry branch representatives were absolutely firm that they had no doubts about the integrity of Bob Carr, who actually continued as branch secretary during all the fuss about the Area President’s election. Yet Justice Winn made a highly prejudicial judgement about the specific case of the Carr election in the course of the larger trial, which would later damage Bob Carr.
As we will see, a right-wing Executive Committee was soon ushered in by the effects of the publicity around the trial on the main case. This would then suspend Carr from holding office for a period of four years, meaning he could not be a shop steward or a branch official within that period. But ETU members of Hawthorn Leslie, the major shipyard where Carr later worked, gave their own response to all this by electing him to represent them on a shipyard joint employee management working group on piece work prices, a clear demonstration of the high respect Carr was held in by fellow workers. This would lead to a shift in career for Bob into ship price estimating.
Right at the very outset of the big trial being heard, counsel for the union had informed the court that they proposed a new election take place. Effectively, they sought a declaration to this end from the judge. It was a pretty standard approach and there had been so much work behind the scenes that suggested that it was going to need the wisdom of a latter-day Solomon to work out what the right thing was. But Winn’s response was that no proper administration of anything significant within the union was possible until it was agreed who the General Secretary was. It was a remarkably clean sweep notion and the case to that point simply did not provide grounds for thinking such an approach necessary. The only indicator, in court at least, was that counsel for Byrne indicated that Haxell’s resignation would mean that the AGS, Bob McLennan, would be allowed to step in and that did not suit them. On this and other matters, the plaintiffs repeatedly would come close to saying that they did not trust anything and anybody official in the ETU.
It really does seem that Justice Winn simply went along with this; hardly a `judicial’ frame of mind. Whilst there is no evidence to suggest anything additional was on his mind, it is as substantial a notion as appeared to guide the judge’s hand at times to speculate that he had been tipped the wink by someone connected with his old stamping ground of `intelligence’. Winn was either a very suspicious man, or (as has been claimed in a history of MI5), he had been allowed to hear recordings of someone’s conversations, naturally a leading Communist in the ETU. What these might have been, what was actually said, and what the status of such a possibly illegally recorded conversation (since no record remains of them) cannot now be divined.
More substantially, and in advance of the trial, it had not been possible for both sides to agree on what the position was as far as whether the election had any elements of validity or not. In those days of Photostat machines, rather than photocopiers, it was proving difficult to get common material relevant to the allegations of fraud by the ETU leadership for defence, prosecution, and court to study. The main problem was that it was not possible then technically to colour copy the original ledgers, since a complicated system of using varying ink colours (red, black, and green) indicated the status of members.
Some members had been deemed eligible to vote when they were in fact not and some had been ruled as ineligible to vote when they should have been able to do so. A thorough and detailed study was necessary, the union argued, before the court could reach a genuine conclusion. The union was perfectly happy for all sides to work together in running through this fine detail. Yet Winn point blank refused the union permission to adjourn the trial while it resolved the eligibility issues of some 30,000 members in the disputed branches.
Despite the complexity of confusion, Winn sharply refused an adjournment because, on an arbitrary sense of how long was appropriate in a court case, he thought that the union had had long enough to obtain the evidence needed. In contrast, counsel for the plaintiffs admitted that they didn’t know how many branch secretaries they were going to be calling as witnesses, since – as they put it – so many had been called to head office to answer concerns of incompetence or even administrative malevolence. The imbalance of the two positions must have sent alarm bells ringing in the defence counsel’s chambers yet the Plaintiffs felt bold enough to openly suggest that heavy pressure was being put on their witnesses by the union. Winn made no attempt to even appear impartial between these two distinct approaches.
Indeed, much of the plaintiffs’ case can legitimately be described as an extended fishing expedition. At no stage did they accurately indicate exactly how they thought the fraud could have been perpetrated and prove that this was so, or suggest a reasonably plausible explanation, and then definitively link it actually to the result and to each of the defendants by elaborating their role. On any definition of fair trial and proven beyond reasonable doubt, this was not it.
A ton (no hyperbole but a factual weight) of documents was entered into exhibits. Winn excused the constant demand for fresh production of minutes, letters, memos, and the like since Byrne and Chapple “not being able to see the end of the road, had to use (them) as paving material as they advanced” [Rolph p13]. This is a remarkable statement; in effect, the judge allowed the complainants to trawl for any justification of wild accusations that were based simply on made-up things.
Allegations that supporters of Byrne, Cannon, and Chapple were liable to accusations of ballot rigging were waived to one side as being irrelevant. A Communist, Walter Bolt of Peckham branch, testified to attending the LSE 14 branch, a Byrne-supporting branch, as a visitor in 1957. There he saw ballot boxes opened by branch officers that contained many envelopes with no postage stamp on them, perhaps over a hundred. Counsel for the plaintiffs, leapt in to say that these had been pushed through the door of the branch secretary’s house. Winn made no comment at counsel’s intervention even though no-one gave evidence to back up the claim of large scale door step posting at any stage.
This level of bias from the judge was by no means unusual throughout the trial. Abuses of the then prevalent `hearsay’ rule were un-corrected by Winn, who claimed they did not influence him but could be reported by the tribe of reporters who daily camped out in the court. (Current legislation defines hearsay evidence as a statement not made in oral evidence in criminal proceedings and admissible broadly only where a witness cannot attend, the evidence is in a document, or is multiple hearsay.)
More typically and unfairly, Foulkes was expected to explain, without prior notice, how a branch ballot in Belfast for a local full time official could have seen someone elected who had not won the ballot for the branch’s nomination. Pressed by Byrne/Chapple counsel to provide explanations for this “miracle”, Foulkes floundered about, explaining that branches didn’t always keep consistently to their position any more. He tried to imagine how one meeting might be well-attended and another not to see if he could come up with an explanation, ending with the declaration that the honest thing to do was say that he had no idea since he had not been present.
Contrast counsel for the Plantiffs making up an explanation without evidence, thus placing the argument in evidence himself, for lots of ballots papers arriving in a Byrne supporting branch with no postage stamp with the judge’s attitude to this. Winn went for the jugular: “So I would have thought in the first place instead of making up what appears to be to be an entirely tendentious explanation which is quite plainly erroneous.” Foulkes’ lament: “I thought I was assisting Counsel,” says it all.
Despite all this, the trial, held without a jury, began on the 17th of April 1961, with the judgment being eventually delivered on the 28th of June. By any standards, it was a very long case.
Byrne was able to field as a witness a renegade Communist Party member, W (Bill) B Blairford, a 47-year old electrician, who had joined the union around 1930 and was a member of the Communist Party from 1942 to 1956. A leading activist from Edinburgh, he was part of a tiny coterie in the ETU of renegades from the Communist Party around Cannon and Chapple. Although his grasp of Party structures was displayed as weak, if perhaps inconsequentially so, when he defined Communist Party national congresses as being “open to anyone who was a member”, when in fact only elected delegates representing specific constituencies attended. [Rolph p59]
Blairford testified that he had attended meetings of Communist supporters in the ETU from 1946 and claimed on oath that Haxell had shown himself “ready to facilitate such frauds” as electoral malpractice such as supplying extra ballot papers. Even so, Justice Winn found that the allegation was “not satisfactorily established”. The most the judge would accuse Haxell and Foulkes of was preferring “expediency to truth”; though the judge clearly betrayed extreme prejudice against the ETU General Secretary, despite cloaking this in mildly pejorative terms. Haxell, Winn thought, was a “most markedly dominant type of man, shrewd, ruthless, and persuasive”.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Winn did not paint a word sketch of Blairford – something he was geenrally prone to with witnesses – and history can record that, the moment that John Byrne was confirmed as General Secretary, his union job as Scottish ETU organiser was filled by Blairford. To say the least, such self-interest could hardly have ever made him a balanced commentator, nor was he. Not that the possibility entered Justice Winn’s head at any single moment, on the evidence of his words at least, despite the fact that Blairford’s evidence was so obviously contrived to cause maximum damage. To square the circle, extraordinarily, Blairford had to admit to his own supposed intent to rig ballots when he had been a Party member.
On the accusation by Blairford that Haxell had more or less told him in a discussion in a bar at the TUC in 1955 that any ETU branch secretary who was a Party member could apply for extra ballot papers and simply return them filled in, Winn simply decided that Haxell was a skilled liar when he denied it, even though he noted that Blairford’s response to cross examination betrayed a lack of “confidence and some confusion”. Haxell had said that he “wouldn’t be so foolish” as to have such a conversation. Winn thought that meant self- satisfaction at his cleverness. It may be thought that the following is astonishing but, although Winn accepted it was only an “impression” he had that Haxell was lying, his judgement was based on “the demeanour of Mr Haxell (which is) that he is a man to whose character the conduct suggested would not be alien!!!. 
Les Tuck, who had taken his union to court even before Chapple and Byrne, was another renegade Communist who testified before Justice Winn about the operation of Advisories, having been secretary of the “south-west” advisory, probably S W London. [Rolph p67] Tuck had claimed in his evidence that, when a Party member, he complained about Jack Frazer picking up spare ballot papers in his presence from a branch secretary’s house when he happened to be there. Although this had not been mentioned in the initial `pleadings’; counsel for the Plaintiffs argued that the union and the defendants had so little co-operated with the campaign to destroy them that he was reduced to “grasping opportunities as they came along”. It was another example of the Plaintiffs admitting they had no real evidence of their accusation and yet another example of Winn allowing the fishing expedition with Tuck to go into the record. His story was accepted as “probative material”. If it was true had he not realised beforehand? Could an affidavit not have been prepared? Or did he just make it up, having got to the stand?
According to Rolph, Winn was “long accustomed to the stratagems of the criminal bar” [Rolph p76]. If this is so, he appears to have rather rapidly lost sight of the old problem of `fallings out of thieves’! It’s probably well appreciated across society, whether familiar with the bar, criminal or civil, that trusting the word of one gang member against another is a suspect approach. But more than that, in this civil case, how could it be that Chapple could seek redress – as joint Plaintiff with Byrne – for loss arising from what he claimed was an on-going conspiracy? Only because the loss sought was restricted to the earnings potential of Byrne. But the case constantly meandered in and out of that territory.
When Chapple, testified as to the character of what he and Byrne defined as a “Communist conspiracy”, he was asked by counsel for the defence: “Are you saying that you were a member of that conspiracy?” (Italics in original.) Of course, being Frank Chapple, he not only admitted this but made a meal of so doing. But this only prompted counsel to point out that he was effectively saying: “Here is a conspiracy of which I was a member, and I am asking the Court to give me relief from the consequences of this conspiracy.”
All this caused was the judge to say that “It would really be for Mr Byrne also to decide whether to sue Mr Chapple, wouldn’t it?” Winn thought it “a little amusing” but wasn’t it in fact redolent of the ambiguities shot through the case, that Winn saw as much more serious? Had it been a criminal case, then Chapple’s evidence should have been treated with kid gloves. As it was, so larger than life was Chapple, so prone to exaggeration and hyperbole, even Winn could do no other than to admit that some of his evidence, for example as to whether and why written invitations to Advisories were sent, “had the appearance of picturesque embroidery”. [Rolph p69]
The term bold as brass had practically been invented for Chapple; criticism, no matter how well vindicated, had the effect of water on a duck’s back to him. No wonder that, in later years, the entire labour movement would eventually become sickened with his effrontery. Counsel for the defence took him through his complaint that the inconsistent use of the rule debarring a branch’s votes if infringements had been made with the purpose of rigging the results of ballots.
Chapple had alleged this was a factor in the Cannon-Frazer election. In the case of one branch, the London Lift Engineers, disqualification had arisen due to a failure to properly elect branch scrutineers at the preceding meeting – a perfectly valid procedure in the union. But there had been no disqualification of the LLE votes. To the annoyance of Winn, the union was disarmingly hit and miss about when it disqualified and when it didn’t. There was almost a `rule’ about the rule – one infringement allowed, the second time of occurrence in a short period causing rejection. On being told that the LLE votes being accepted, which Chapple was complaining had occurred, had in fact been 50 in favour of Cannon and only 6 in favour of Fraser, when his allegations implied it should have been the other way around, Chapple claimed not to be surprised at the revelation! His explanation was that the branch’s votes had been allowed so as to ensure that all the others would be seen as legitimate.
But counsel for the Plaintiffs had not referred to the LLE, so arguably this revelation was not so relevant, despite making a farce of Chapple’s claims. It had, however, erroneously claimed the London Technical and Supervisory branch was a “well-known Communist branch”. Counsel for the defendants pointed out to Chapple that it had actually voted 52 for Byrne and 14 for Haxell.
Is it really credible that a branch such as Staines that supposedly voted 18 for Byrne and 16 for Haxell would find itself the victim of a fraud to gain victory for Haxell by falsely ruling the branch returns out? For two votes? Even he admitted that the envelope with a late date on it might have been his handwriting. This allegation was, admittedly, eventually withdrawn but that it was initially put is a guide to the standard of evidence submitted. This was the worst case offered out of some 40 out of many hundreds of branches.
The Woolston Southampton branch, which supported Byrne against Haxell four to one, reported a strange occurrence of four ballot papers being returned to the branch secretary before the ballots posted to members could possibly have got back to him. [Rolph P53-4] Each had been marked with a vote for Haxell in the same hand and ink. Ultimately, the question of allowing the rest of the votes of the branch was debated by the EC and on the proposition of left and Communist members the Byrne votes were accepted.
But how on earth could the ballot papers have been sent? Only if a leak of the thousands of spare papers had been occasioned; but who would be so stupid?
Seemingly, the Express had got hold of the story and was speculating in the most lurid way possible. As the EC of July 2nd and 3rd 1960 noted the newspaper had calculated “that if four false or fake ballot papers had been sent to every branch secretary in the country (i.e. every branch in the country) then Brother Haxell would be returned by four times six hundred, namely 2,400 majority”. That such an anti-union paper could be so clear about the detail of internal union affairs is interesting. Was this really the method employed by a small group around Haxell to rig the ballot in his favour? If so, it was a remarkably stupid mechanism, posted `back’ impossibly early, with obviously the same handwriting on all four papers.
The Woolston case showed how easy it was for any rigging attempt to go wrong, yet it was so wrong that it begs the question as to whether the ham-fisted attempt was in fact a set up. All it would take is for some of the surplus ballot papers to be acquired by someone with a wish to smear Haxell’s camp. Details of the major supporting branches of Byrne would be easily obtainable by his camp. Who would have the guile, the audacity, and the intelligence to work out such a scheme? Two other Southampton branches also revealed oddities. As Sam Goldberg noted at the July 1960 EC, “someone in the Southampton area is underwriting an attempt to cast suspicion on the entire ballot”. [Rolph 56]
Winn appeared to face every which way. The standard of evidence as displayed by the Blairford and Haxell claim and counter-claim emerged as an atmosphere of seething hostility between two camps pervaded the court. It all hardly provided for a judicial setting, yet Winn blithely proceeded to attempt to claim an ability to discern the truth amongst it all.
The system of voting relied on the tabulation by branch scrutineers of reports of workplace voting by members brought to the branch by shop stewards. Thus, the votes from some 700-odd branches were sent to the head office. National Scrutineers had no power to check into individual eligibility or to query the local branch scrutineers’ reports. The only recourse open to the union, where it genuinely considered some disorder had arisen on the process, was to disqualify all of the votes from a particular branch. Winn noted the position with regard to debarments for not following the rule requiring the election of branch scrutineers at the meeting before the one that receives the votes. He did not view the rule as that obligatory but was “satisfied that it has been generally so interpreted in the Union”.
Winn noted a discrepancy between the precise wording of rules regarding the role of national scrutineers vis-à-vis branch scrutineers but evidence given to him that he did not dispute suggested that, at least since 1946 and probably almost always since the founding of the union, opinion in the union was that national scrutineers could decide to rule out a particular branch vote even when the branch scrutineers had accepted it. It is understandable that a judge would be bound to consider that a specific written text should form the basis for a particular approach but that an English law judge would not contemplate the role in shifting practice that custom dictates is surprising. The only redeeming point here is that there was no evidence before Justice Winn about past practice, only the rules and the evidence of Haxell. Nonetheless, he had little hesitation in reaching a decision that Haxell had acted ultra vires throughout even though no `relief’ had been sought in respect of earlier elections.
Justice Winn considered that the big error in the ETU system was that the general secretary had debarred particular votes before the scrutineers had met. Even so, this act had not been challenged in the Cannon versus Fraser election of September 1957. Whilst in retrospect it could be seen that the debarment had not even been within the rules as they then existed, this was not evidence of a fraud. Especially since the rules were so complex that they clearly had eluded the “grasp of some members” but this was still not evidence of fraud.
A particular problem arose when considering the rule about the deadline imposed upon acceptable returns from branches. Winn noted a variety of constructions of meaning possible upon the precise wording of rule and proposed his own view on what was reasonable. Even though he noted that, if the national scrutineers had followed his judgment, a large proportion of the disallowed votes in the Haxell/Byrne contest would have not been ruled out, he found that if any wrong conclusion was drawn by the scrutineers they did so “innocently despite all proper attention to their task and complete good faith”.
Pressed as to whether he had ever suspected a rigging, or now suspected it, on the stand giving evidence, Foulkes finally gave out that while he could not visualise the method “I would say that it has been rigged by Cannon and those people associated with him throughout the country … Rigged to produce a null and void election. My theory is that Cannon (and thingy) did not want Byrne as the General Secretary … they have never been very, very friendly. What they wanted to do was to encourage the atmosphere that has been prevalent in our organisation from four years ago when Cannon was discharged from the college”. [Transcripts p59-60 Day 32].
Asked his view about how a rigging that was hostile to his and his comrades’ position could have ensued, Foulkes postulated the following: “What I had in mind in the first place was the late postings. The other side have got itineraries out, a thing that I would never had thought about. I did not see the itineraries before I came into Court. When I examined the itineraries I find that anyone at our office would be foolish, even if they were so wicked, to do this late posting in certain branches, because there are certain branches on these itineraries that have not traditionally, but for many, many years been opposed to is, to the Executive and to me as a negotiator, the kind of branch that if I sent a letter to them informing them that I had been successful in negotiating an increase in wages for them that they would look for some sinister purpose. No matter what action we take they oppose it. If anyone was doing this, they must know, if they knew what the branches were like we know them, that there is going to be a row about that. They must know that the Press will obviously get to know, and so forth and so on. So I, personally, think that somebody other than my colleagues has been guilty of late posting in order to create a tremendous number of votes that were not valid in order to keep this atmosphere going; and they are my honest feelings – only feelings; I cannot prove a thing.”
By the time of his own appeal to the ETU EC, Foulkes no longer considered that the theory he had expressed from the witness box was correct. He was not prepared to challenge the judges’ finding that a fraud had taken place but he now simply could not say who “carried out the details or who planned the overall exercise”.
The union’s printers gave evidence that, in the 1959 election, they were given the actual numbers required. Yet 26,833 extra were printed. Winn considered that Humphrey ordered extra copies for friendly branches. But the evidence for this was highly circumstantial and largely based on guesswork. Norman Swift, managing director of Express Printers, the union’s Manchester-based supplier of ballot papers and ballot envelopes had mainly been concerned that no suspicion fell on his company or staff. Intriguingly, Winn noted Swift’s concern “about the possible unreliability of the temporary staff whom he brought in at the times of pressure” of business. We cannot know or even speculate about the meaning of this, save to note that this was a time of full employment, when workers could leave one job in the morning and enter another before the end of the day. Any group or force that wanted to discredit the ETU might not find it so difficult to do so. But there was not a shred of evidence to enlighten us as to such possibilities that ever emerged.
The defence later recalled the managing director of Express Printers, who had actually been a witness for the plaintiffs, and easily established from him that access to the company’s premises could have been obtained by any person hostile to the ETU, by obtaining a temporary job simply by appearing at the premises, who could have purloined ballot papers in bulk and spirited them away. Given the fact that Cannon was allowed to devote a year of his working life to pursing Haxell and Co, that the plaintiffs could conceive and allege a plot (supposedly proved by a private detective) to falsify postal evidence by touring the country, that (forty years later) it has been implied (without evidence) and repeated in the media that MI5 overheard Haxell order Humphries to fiddle the figures, nothing in this case might seem incredible. Did someone steal the papers and use them to discredit the ETU leadership? It’s at least feasible.
Cannon turns out to be absolutely central to the supposed evidence setting out how a defrauding plot was carried out. In two batches of trips in June 1960, as a solicitor’s clerk, Cannon personally visited in close order the following places: Eastbourne, Southampton, Woolaston, Crewkerne, Exeter, Bideford, Totnes, Torquay, Swindon, Cirencester, Gloucester, Cardigan, Swansea, Newport, Ebbw Vale, Yate, and Bath. Within days, his next trip took him to (in order) Liverpool, Prescot, Widnes, Rochdale, Kendall, Penrith, Silloth, and Glasgow. Then came Seaham, Newcastle North Shields, Bishop Aukland, Leeds, Huddersfield, Barnley, Boston, “and so on, and on”. [Olga p 228].
Little wonder than he obtained a new car in November. Oddly (or perhaps not?) it was in October that Cannon also first claimed to have discovered how the alleged fraud was perpetrated. This was also around the time that John Byrne had a stroke at his Surrey lodgings, causing him to absent himself from his General Secretary duties due to illness for some time. Cannon’s revelation came about, his wife later claimed, since he had put down a list of all the towns where right-wing ETU branch secretaries claimed that they had posted their branch results within time but that these returns were subsequently denied. They did not match up, showing an entirely random distribution pattern, as you would expect. But when he put them in the date order claimed by the post office stamp on the envelope, which he alleged was a false one, they matched up – he claimed – in geographical order as if travelling from, one to the other.
The only drawback with this is that the initial block of dates quoted fell only on just one of two days immediately after the deadline, again what you would expect if this lateness were a true fact. So, this could hardly be called an “ordered list”, merely a list of debarred branches and it would be quite easy to place a series of random dots on any map and join them up so as to claim some pattern – today actually a basic pyschological test. This `revelation’, following so hard on his own rides across the country, was to become the pivotal argument for the prosecution and Cannon’s widow makes the clear claim that the initial idea was `discovered’, or `proved’ by her husband.
In fact, Cannon’s leap of faith – if it was not entirely a cynical exercise – was simply a clear demonstration of the instinct of `pattern recognition’, easily observable even in babies. It is a basic human instinct, which aids understanding and gives creatures a sense of order out of chaos. The names of star constellations in the night sky, given to describe join the dots `images’ are an expression of the inborn impulse.
Assigning baser motives to Cannon, one suspicion might be that he pressed the argument about Communists driving across the country to post envelopes could be employed to bounce the case into this direction whilst Bryne, who was an old-fashioned stickler for procedure, was away on sick leave. The new General Secretary was an old campaigner who would have known just how chaotic were the branches when it came to keeping to the onerous standards of the union’s rule book. Whatever the case, counsel for the private prosecution ordered that a private detective be hired to attempt to recreate a tour to prove the argument. By the time this was done and Byrne back in harness, the `rural rides’ of the private detective were done and impressively backed the pattern hypothesis.
Interestingly, although we cannot now divine the connection, back in 1958, Woodrow Wyatt had funded – or more probably hosted the funding – of a “`grand tour’ of ETU branches, travelling up the east coast as afar as Dundee and back via Glasgow and the west coast”. [O Cannon et al p182] Clearly, the notion was not a new one to the right-wing in the ETU.
Branches with a high degree of members employed in electrical contracting, which frequently took them away from home to work, also and necessarily had a high proportion of members needing postal votes. This was true of Peckham but the evidence of the branch secretary that he and his branch committee were not satisfied with the percentage of the vote that their favoured candidate had received at the last election and had therefore called on large numbers of members at their home to urge them to use their vote, was simply ignored by the judge as the witness when asked who he had personally called on was “unable” to answer.
On another matter, Winn discerned a minor discrepancy of fact between a recorded minute of a 1960 EC meeting and statements of evidence before him. His standards of what was a worker-run club were very high, certainly for the time. Winn judged his discovered discrepancy to be “no more than a concealment, for motives of convenience and pride, of an oversight, but it was a lie”. Perhaps, in life, this was something we might call a `white lie’, in the context of the bear garden that was the media frenzy outside the High Court, a “lie” was a strong accusation, yet it was apropos nothing very much.
Winn simply rejected evidence when he was told of cursory examinations of accusations of fraud as being unbelievable; it is as if he had no conception that an institution might be collectively obtuse, a remarkable approach from someone of his background! Rodger Winn had been a captain in the war dealing with submarines and was also involved in naval intelligence; as counsel to the Treasury until 1959, he had only recently become a judge. Winn’s knowledge of trades unionism was clearly virtually nil. Lawson, counsel for the defence, patiently explained for the judge why it was that administrative things sometimes seemed haphazard in a union. “Here is the problem: these people are by trade and vocation electricians … They really know nothing at all about accountancy or office management, and I hope I’m not being offensive, but your Lordship may think they sort of try to muddle along.” [Rolph p105]
Aside from the obvious fact that Justice Winn had little understanding of how a union functioned, at times sounding almost as if he were matching the actions of the ETU leadership against his own London club, or maybe the Royal Navy, it is difficult to understand some of his findings. He was clearly seeking to distance himself from being accused of a view based upon anti-Communism, yet his over-cleverness in understanding what was meant by the various designations attached to Party bodies marks him out to have been informed in some way other than the evidence before him. The question that has to be asked but can never be answered is: `did Winn get shown privately the MI5 files of verbatim transcripts of bugged meetings of Communist Advisories?’ It would certainly have been very much par for the course for him to have been granted such access.
The sole piece of evidence declared in court purporting to support the theory that the Communist Party had effectively taken over the ETU, to the extent of defrauding its members of the true purpose of that body was a letter sent from Jack Hendy to Les Cannon, dated 23rd November 1951. This reported on a meeting of the leading ETU Communists with Peter Kerrigan at the Party’s offices in King Street that Cannon had been unable to attend.
The text made clear that differences between Hendy and Haxell existed and by implication that Cannon largely agreed with Hendy’s position. It was also evident that these differences largely focused on the attitude that Haxell had that he should be permitted the latitude to make decisions on his own without Party control, either via the Advisory or the Party EC.
Hendy was not so happy with Haxell making major decisions, since his instinct was that, in the absence of a collective approach, the general secretary tended to be too high-handed and not sufficiently subtle in his dealings with problematic issues. More nuance than substance yet, arguably it was proof that the Communist Party sought to control the union by giving instructions to its general secretary. Although Jack Hendy’s view seemed to be that without good leadership from the Party, the union’s members would be less well served. Was this therefore bad for the union? Basically, Winn ultimately side- stepped the issue.
Hendy’s evidence cleared up a couple of oft-repeated lies. One was that George Allison, a full-time Party worker had addressed a meeting calling for maximising of votes for Communists in union election, “by hook or by crook”. Hendy had complained to Harry Pollitt about the substance of Allison’s comments. Denying that the phrase “by hook or by crook” had been used, on oath, Hendy patiently explained that Allison had complained that too many unions had ridiculous and arcane rules and procedures and that what was needed was a focus on maximising the votes. He strongly denied that Allison had implied that defrauding was proper, merely that the complexities of nonsense in union rule books should not be deferred to in the face of the urgency of making a political stance.
Allison’s dim view of the pomposity of some union officials and the ridiculousness of union procedures was perhaps deep within his background; he had been effectively the leader of the British Minority Movement in the late 1920s. Hendy had urged Pollitt to remind Party officials of the need not to ridicule the traditional nature of British trades unionism. His recall was that a term more like “jots and tittles” of union rules was what Allison had said. (George Allison, born 1895 died 1953, was a founding member of the British Communist Party and was for a long time a member of the central committee, or executive, of the Party. He was effectively the leader of the British Minority Movement in the late 1920s. See grahamstevenson.me.uk/ for more detail)
A second suggestion was that Hendy’s nickname of “Honest John” implied his refusal to rig ballots. Whilst firmly agreeing that he would never rig a ballot Jack Hendy placed on record that his nick-name was not a jibe but a title of honour bestowed upon him by Wally Stevens, the deceased general secretary before Haxell, “because of my unfortunate habit of saying what I really thought when most people showed him great deference”. [Rolph p 183]
Yet, for all the bandying about of figures for this and that, protestations of innocence, allegations of evil, confusion and uncertainties, few unarguably proven cases of fraud emerged in the trial. Almost mutedly, Winn’s judgement eventually mentions the case of the Preston branch, perhaps one of the few instances where the branch secretary was seemingly caught out in the act of simply making votes up. He had altered a `0′ to a `9′ in his declared returns to head office, which happened to add 90 votes to one candidate’s totals, all without any knowledge by the defendants. Even so, at the end of the day it was his word against others and the documentary evidence was ambiguous.
Branch secretaries were required to report the number of members in default of arrears of subscriptions of more than five weeks within 14 days of a `quarter night’. It appears that, generally, “great laxity” was shown in enforcing this, “without any reason revealed to the Court”. No doubt the simple reason was that it had always been like that. Branch administration systems had been defined in an era when craftsmen `tramped’ for work from one town to another; when most workers wrote poorly, if at all; when trust was the watchword of the craft. Union branches still mostly met in pubs; it had been less than a century since the very entity of a union had been first given legal status, and most branch funds had been kept on trust in a box, often by the pub landlord. The ETU case would shock most long-established unions into slightly modernising their branch administration systems. But Winn gave the ETU no credit for any of this.
Having no experience of the hit and miss nature of union internal organisation (still with us at times!), the substantial over-ordering of ballots was, according to Winn simply “sinister”. But the over-ordering was about estimates of what each branch’s massively fluctuating needs would be as far as ballot papers.
Essentially, the administrative staff estimated in what was little more than a guess what would be used. In some cases, they felt a branch was inactive and would not feature well in the elections. In others they thought a major recruitment drive was underway and it had best be catered for. A decision about numbers might vary wildly from one year to the next. Since the decisions were entirely intuititive there was no satisfactory answer that could be given as to why one branch would need more ballots than another. Although an obvious connection between lively and militant branches and dull and conservative ones might be thought possible to anyone who understood the nature of a union like the ETU at that time.
Winn found that a grave charge was proven that Humphrey, as office manager, deliberately upped the numbers in branches likely to support Haxell and made it difficult for branches probably supporting Byrne to register their votes. Was he right? The only thing that can be said is that the evidence is too flaky. It’s certainly possible that Humphrey acted deceitfully and almost certain that, if he did so. it could not be without some assent of some kind from Haxell, or lack of knowledge. As office manager in the head office, Humphrey was in a prime position to mismanage the Haxell-Byrne ballot, either stupidly intending to aid the left or alternatively to harm it by doing this ineptly. He had not even properly taken over as office manager, he was that new in the role.
It does not follow in the least that anyone else, least of all Foulkes, was complicit. (Winn even accepted that Foulkes had no knowledge of a new procedure where spare papers were sent back to head office. But the real difficulty is the lack of evidence against the individual men. This is the explanation for the over- emphasis of Winn on his personal judgement of the quality and character of each witness.
It is certain that the ETU was culpable as an institution of maintaining a very creaky administrative structure that was overly concerned with elections, rules and procedures. In that regard, it was not so very different from most unions of the time. Indeed, it was probably only the new white collar, administrative, clerical and managerial unions that could point to a modestly efficient administration, largely due to the blank sheet they held on opening themselves up to the white collar employment explosion that the 1960s would bring.
Given that unions had started as only semi-legal bodies, which tended to be secretive and very defensive, even as late as the 1950s, their rules and constitutions tended to reflect this. As Larry Braithwaite, with his personal experience of the times, has commented to the author: “In order to conform with the complexities arising from decades of changes in trade union and civil law there was a tendency to simply add another paragraph or two to the rule book. There was inbuilt suspicion of anything that smacked of outside interference, added to the unwritten rule that democracy demanded that the affairs of the union remain firmly in the hands of its members and branches. Therefore, most, if not all unions in the 1950s and 60s possessed incredibly complex and confusing rule books relating more to historic needs of the past than more modern demands. Yet any attempt to do more than tinker with the rule book ran into a swamp of opposition from a shower of resentful interest groups who tended to be suspicious of the unfamiliar.
Few unions, if any, in the 1950s could emerge unscathed from the detailed legal examination that the ETU was exposed to. Most branch officers, however skilled as workers, received little or no training in minute taking, collecting and recording dues, or even the conduct of business. All these things might vary from branch to branch, the ultimate rationale being custom and practice. The one overriding caveat was that there would be no question of financial skulduggery. Therefore, widespread breaches of rules were generally those of innocent, though incompetent, lay persons and not the result of dishonesty.”
Despite the way the issue has gone down in history and contemporary myth, the plain truth is that allegations of a precise act of conspiracy as cited under the statement of claim para 5(1) was “not established”, according to Justice Winn. From what we are aware of, he had to rely on a set of vaguely implied and loosely linked events, including finally a tense EC meeting, and a plethora of vitriolic claim and counter claim.
Many ETU branch secretaries who were also Communists were called by the defence. None seemed live to the idea that spare ballot papers could be simply asked for and secretly used. Though, no doubt, sceptics will say that they were each coached to be convincing, or that all Communists learn to be practiced liars in the interests of the revolution. Notably, C H Rolph’s book only quotes Gardiner’s cross- examination for the plaintiffs. [See Rolph pp156-165] It was as if the honesty of these men might pollute the arguments against them and their kind. The obviously rebutting initial examination of Lawson of these branch secretaries is completely absent.
The casual atmosphere applying in official branch life appalled Justice Winn. On being told that it was general practice for ballot papers to lie on the table for members attending the branch to simply pick up, he exclaimed: “What on earth is the point of having any rules in this Union, I don’t know.” [Rolph p165]
R A Sell Ronnie Sell was an electrician employed in Fleet Street member of Eltham branch. He had been a full-time worker for the South-East Midlands District of the Communist Party for a time. He had attended the EC for the first time when the scrutineers’ report, that Haxell had won the election, had been received. Sell had himself seconded the acceptance. Justice Winn spent some time pressing Sell as to how come he did this. It does not read as a genuine enquiry but more as a form of pressure that might more readily be associated with counsel for the prosecution. Winn acted as though astounded that, as Sell’s “first activity on the committee, the first meeting at which you appeared” as he put it to him, that the man had engaged in this endorsement of what Winn thought was a tainted affair. [Rolph p170] In fact, Sell had spent an hour getting wound up by Chapple’s attitude to every single item on the agenda. Chapple questioned everything, hinting at dark deeds constantly, generally acting cockily and insultingly to one and all. Ronnie’s expectations had been that being an EC member would mean serious debate about important matters, not constant jockeying for the ability to mouth cynicism by Chapple who demeaned everyone in the meeting, including himself. On imparting some of this to the judge, Winn seemed to back off, or as Rolph even put it “the Judge sat back again”.
Sam Goldberg, a non-Communist but left-wing EC member, was not only a Labour Party member, he was also a local councillor in Birmingham. Yet Winn “disbelieved a good deal of his evidence” but did so in the most blatant and unpleasant way, frankly seeming to flip-flop about what was relevant and what wasn’t according to how it suited the Plaintiffs. [Rolph p151] Perhaps Winn’s disbelief was especially inflated when counsel for the Plaintiffs revealed Goldberg to have been involved with the Trotskyite “Revolutionary Communist Party”, probably almost twenty years earlier! How this was known to counsel was not disclosed but the implication was made openly that Goldberg was used by Communists in the ETU to make investigations or decisions look fair and proper, since he was well-known to be a Labour man. Though, when Goldberg’s own counsel sought to set the record straight about an organisation that the judge said that he had never heard of, and tried to establish that, in fact, Trotskyites and Communists might not be bosom chums, Justice Winn moaned “testily”: “What this has to do with this case, I really don’t know.” [Rolph p155]
A warning system about branch electoral infringements, which began to be systematically recorded, had been started in 1953. Such infringements might be: late arrival, holding the branch meeting on a wrong night, incomplete filling in of certain forms. It was Jim Humphrey who was the lead official on these matters. James Alfred Humphrey, born in 1901, was in the RAF until he demobbed and became a member of the ETU EC in 1948. He joined the Communist Party in 1950 and continued to be an elected lay executive member on and off until he was employed formally as office manager from 1960, although he had been partly performing related duties for a couple of years before. For Justice Winn, Humphrey’s evidence on certain key questions could not be accepted since the man’s “voice and face betrayed tension” . Tension??? One would have thought appearing in court charged with fraud was a pretty tense experience in anyone’s book!
Humphrey kept all the spares ballots in “an office that was not in use; he kept the key of one door, but gave that of another door to the caretaker each night. Having opened the parcels of ballots to supply branches that quite legitimately now needed extra papers due to misjudgements in the number of paid up members eligible to vote the effect was to “expose ballots for many branches”.
The spare papers were incinerated by a handyman who confirmed this but could not truly testify as to the precise character of all the papers burned. It was said that no-one else at head office knew of any of this. Winn thought this passed “credulity”. His main argument on this is that Haxell was the boss and was a candidate and a supporter of his, MacLennan, was “responsible for the conduct of the election”. 
Even Winn found many of the allegations of rigging wholly false. A charge against the Hendon branch, which asked for 35 extra ballot papers by phone, that these were used fraudulently was obviously disproven when the parcel was produced intact and unopened – they had arrived too late and could never have been used. Grays Inn branch were taken to task by the plaintiffs for a certain `oddity’ but the combined time factors prevented any likelihood of tampering or dishonesty.
In contrast, in the case of at the London North West branch, which had a large number of postal votes requested and used, Winn actually named the branch secretary as the probable source of fraudulence with not a jot of evidence other than his character assessment of the man. The secretary’s explanation that media attention had caused a surge in demand for votes was ignored, as was the fact that Winn had himself examined the ballot papers and envelopes concerned and found no cause for suspicion there.
Winn acquitted P O’Neill, the secretary of the London SW branch, of fraud but only because he was convinced by him that his recent election as secretary (Winn called it an appointment, displaying his truly deep lack of grasp of union dynamics), along with his enthusiastic style (though Winn said he was “prone to exaggeration”) might enable him to lead members of his branch to legitimately vote the way he preferred. Yet Winn claimed he was sure that he could tell that rigging ballots would not have been “repugnant” to O’Neill and, if the burden of proof was reversed so that O’Neill had to establish his innocence, Winn would not have acquitted him.
In the case of the Woolaston (Gloucestershire) branch, four postal votes were returned to the branch secretary before he had in fact sent out the already prepared papers and envelopes to branch members. Counsel for the defendants suggested that someone maliciously disposed to them, having arranged for papers to be stolen from the printers, had dispatched these in an attempt to discredit the election and Haxell’s victory. Winn rejected this theory.
The Belfast branch was one that saw a great deal of oddity in the pattern of its voting. What would not be clear to Justice Winn is that one branch night voting a certain way to nominate a right-wing candidate might easily be overturned the next if there were a groundswell of opposite generated for some reason. A decision might be easily overturned the next branch night after a mobilisation, say, at a factory such as Shorts by Communist shop stewards. It might be better not to tread down the road of considering that Byrne was a staunch Catholic and, certainly at this juncture in history, the bulk of the workforce at Shorts – perhaps 99% – were Protestant. It would not take much to provoke a sudden surge at branch night by suggesting a Catholic might be taking the branch’s support. An unpleasant observation perhaps but, of such considerations, Winn was seemingly entirely innocent.
In connection with these `oddities’ in the Belfast branch, evidence was supplied that on a flight MacLennan took to Belfast his “weighted baggage amounted to only 8.8 lbs (pounds), but it is not certain that this would have included any brief case or attaché case”. Yet this was deemed by Winn to be an instance of “fraulent rigging by the use of ballots knowingly carried and delivered by Mr MacLennan”.
A mass of complaints was simply set aside by Winn. Typical of his comment was that attached to one; he thought it an example of the “arbitrary way in which that varying and never consistent practice was from time to time applied (which) was bound to arouse suspicions”. It was in truth, the rough and ready manner of handling elections that was on trial in 1961; a manner that bore all the hallmarks of the profession that was largely served by the union. Power came through the union machinery readily but the wires behind the façade had better not be looked at too closely since they might be scruffy, untidy and occasionally a bit too sparky!!!
A case concerning the Hayes branch finally found to be based on “bad administration” (the branch treasurer had the numbers of dues-compliant members all wrong), caused Winn trouble in his head. He really ought to find no fault but hinted he would if he could since he found the branch secretary, Jim Smith, either incompetent or dishonest. No doubt this was explained since he was a Communist of the type “hostile to the settled order; his Party allegiance dated from 1939”.
Winn accepted that some branches simply ordered too many ballot papers – Gosport got 723 ballot papers when they only needed 522 and the judge was “satisfied that this was due to a mere error in the branch”. Winn also found the explanations given by London Jointers’ branch secretary excused him of accusations of fraud. Many members of the branch worked and even lived all over the country and, in addition, great efforts had been expended by the branch to increase the number voting. This witness had “made a good impression” on the judge. What was the difference between this branch and others? Perhaps only that the secretary was not a Communist.
Winn echoed Foulkes’ belief that chance was no explanation for the oddities that had emerged. The judge set out in the final stages of his decision alternative conclusions. Either Haxell and his supporters had hatched a conspiracy, or Byrne and his supporters had been the culprits. The only concrete reason Winn gave for not accepting the theory that a conspiracy against the Communist ETU leadership was what really had happened is his “acceptance of many of the (Branch) Secretaries as truthful witnesses”, even thought they had supported Byrne and now gave evidence on his behalf. Did no one ask how it was that forty working men could be called to London, with their lost earnings, travel and hotels paid for?
Implicitly such a conspiracy could only have been thought to have been planned by Cannon but with what resources, who can tell? If he plaintiffs were able to afford a private detective to tour Britain three times re-enacting the fraud, could they not have afforded paying someone else to do it in the first place?
The Plaintiffs claimed that 55 branch returns to the head office were destroyed or switched to other returns; then an empty envelope of an envelope with the original returns was posted back to the office. Witnesses from 40 of these branches insisted they had not posted late. Though how could they do otherwise? But how to tell the truth? Winn leant against the Court of Appeal judgement in Hornal v Meuberger Products (1957), which essentially said that a civil case need not rely on standards of proof that a criminal case might. Thus it was, for him, simply a question of who he believed. Winn said that 27 of the 40 witnesses were, to him, perfectly credible and four might be. Thus, even on his strange test of truth, Winn must have thought that 9 cases claimed were simply wrong.
It is the posting of substitute envelopes that is the key charge. Winn wrote that he did not believe that MacLennan or Foulkes participated, being too “prudent” even too “squeamish for so brash a crime”, though he thought they must have given tacit support. He laid the blame squarely with Haxell and Fraser, men he thought “blunt, unsubtle and ruthless”. Although (an interesting term) “(a)gents must have been used whom it is impossible positively to identify”.
It was argued that a tour by car was at the centre of the fraud – three different schemes were proposed that tied the actual dates of posting in particular locales on the strange envelopes. The notion was that one man could have managed the entire fraud. In rebuttal, other itineraries were posed that would, with more convenient diversions, in theory have enabled even more lucrative results for Haxell had his campaign team really organised such a desperate vote-rigging plan.
A private detective, or as Winn delicately termed him, “an enquiry agent” was sent out to reproduce the proposed patterns, which he did successfully although to achieve success in proving the model – there always seemed to be a mentioned but ignored `although’ in Winn’s summing up – “he had to drive very fast on certain sections” . Winn even mentioned chance as a possible strange factor, claiming this had forced caution upon him.
This weak circumstantial notion had not a shred of evidence attached to it. It doesn’t even seem as if there was any evidence taken as to who was able to drive amongst the plaintiffs, although the defendants had their movements analysed in detail. What was Cannon – the full-time paid campaigner against Communist leaders in the ETU doing during the period? Winn was quick enough to say in his judgement that it was probable that the Communist Party’s structure handled the car journey fraud! Let’s just revisit that – Winn stated that “it would not be inconsistent with the general probabilities” that the Communist Party network was invoked”.
To say that this is extraordinary is a massive understatement. Absolutely no concrete evidence existed about this automotively-carried out fraud beyond some indication that one defendant, Albert Claude Batchelor had bought a lot of petrol over the Christmas period. But Bert Batchelor was absent from court on well-testified medical grounds. Winn faced relying only on his trust in 40 witnesses – solid supporters to a man of the right wing faction, most motivated by Catholic Action – who basically said that they hadn’t posted a letter late and certainly not on the dates stated by the head office of the union. Then Winn simply invented a possible – yet bizarrely improbable – explanation in his summing up that it might have been the Communist Party “network” that enacted the fraud.
The phony car journeys undertaken by William Cobbett, the private detective, were simply unnecessary. If such a plan had existed, going to far fewer places than the route sketched by Byrne and Chapple’s solicitor, probably at the behest of Cannon, focusing on branches where the differential between Haxell and Byrne was greater, would have made sense. As it was, the projected claimed itinerary often involved branches voting less than twenty or so in favour of Byrne, whereas branches with majorities of a hundred were ignored. Paradoxically, the supposed itinerary was too complicated, too manufactured to make sense; the product of an over-worked mind, perhaps. But evidence? Surely not?
Despite the fact that Foulkes gave evidence at length, it was never directly and formally put to him that he knew that branch returns were falsified. In fact, the reverse was true, when counsel for Byrne and Chapple said to Foulkes, accusingly “You never asked” (Day 32 Page 28) This was supposedly a terrible mistake on his part but would he have asked if he had known? Of course not; so what was Foulkes guilty of? Stupidity or evil complicity? Simply, there was no evidence one way or the other to prove his complicity in the fraud. So where was the relevance of the burden of proof here?
It was not even put to Foulkes what was put to Sam Goldberg, that – in voting at the February 1960 EC meeting – he had complicity in the final act of conspiracy in the fraud. Other explanations for Foulkes’ actions were abundant in the case – for example, that Chapple was a visible provocation to him in the chair, as Foulkes put it he was “vexed” by the man. Foulkes’ view that the EC had no alternative but to accept the scrutineers’ report was another position that was not tested in his evidence by questioning for the plaintiffs. Justice Winn did not have to employ what he clearly believed was his sensational ability to read witnesses because the key questions that his answers to should have required careful checking of did not get asked.
Amongst witnesses Winn did not think produced shining shafts of truth and justice, the former Greenock branch secretary claimed he had left the union after 31 years of membership because “the Party in power (i.e. the Communist Party) had decided I was going just as far as they intended to allow me”, presumably in terms of union office. [Rolph p86] In cross-examination, it transpired that, in fact, his letter of resignation made it clear that he had left as a result of a change in his field of employment.
A local Labour politician – not an ETU member but probably a Catholic Action activist- had visited the Kirkcaldy branch during election night, when the branch had voted in favour of Haxell. His complaint was that unused ballot papers were “lying about” and other such tittle-tattle, moreover, the union had the temerity to explain to him, in effect, that it was “no business of his”! [Rolph p86]
The Bury witness, who Winn thought had a “satisfactory demeanour”, like many others for Byrne was absolutely adamant he could not have posted his branch results late. How else could he have behaved having travelled all the way to London at someone else’s expense to say so? This, despite the fact that he had been twice warned by the union for late delivery of ballots, once in 1953, when the vote was allowed, and again in 1958, when it was disallowed. His satisfactory demeanour must have come when he correctly answered the judge’s own query, designed to dull the impact of cross-questioning, “if you had yourself posted it then you could have hardly have forgotten doing it, could you?”. No doubt the reader can guess what the witness’s response to such a `firm’ line of questioning was! Winn had balanced a witness’s argument (put to him by Winn!) that such-and-such must be correct because he said it was so against the plain truth that the same man had actually unarguably twice posted ballots late. This was “satisfactory”?
The Barnsley witness, Arnold Bedford, according to Winn a “calm, steady and reliable” man, was actually so bad a liar that he was virtually accused by Lawson, counsel for the defendants, as having completely fabricated a story about remembering buying cigarettes and chocolate as a means of fixing the date he posted the voting returns, supposedly on Boxing Day. (Buying the cigarettes and chocolates from, for the time, an unusually efficient and well- stocked set of vending machines; some might think a rather unlikely scenario in such a location!). The Barnsley branch books were also before the court and displayed a strong tendency to complete incompetence, which Lawson dragged out into the light of day.
But Winn leapt in to aid the witness, almost as if he were counsel for the Plaintiffs, saying to him: “I suppose that you chaps have really quite a lot to do in working time as well as keeping all these? (indicating the branch books)”
“Quite a lot, my Lord,” smiled Mr Bedford.
“You’ve got families to support and a job to do?”
“It’s easy enough, is it, to make a few mistakes?”
“It’s quite easy.”
“Whatever did happen about these, you have done your best on it?”
“Quite true, my Lord.”
Winn then spewed forth a long diatribe about how difficult it must be for such stalwart working men to spend all their time and money on the difficult work they had to do after a long hard day. “However,” he ended this intervention, “that is comment”. Quite!
The London Station Engineers (LSE) 4 branch secretary was supposedly “calm and convincing”, at least as far as Winn was concerned. This was a man who had been warned by the union for late posting of ballot results in 1958 and who claimed he had posted his returns for the Byrne-Haxell election on December 20th, before leaving for Scotland for the seasonal holiday, from which he returned on December 30th. The union said his envelope showed collection by the GPO on December 31st.
The judge claimed the man was convincing, since December 31st was “an unlikely time for a Scotsman to have posted Union papers”. But was it not just as likely that he had forgotten to post it, in his eagerness to get north for Christmas, and only noticed the un-posted letter, say on the mantelpiece, on his return? What evidence was there either way? Balance the memory or honesty of one anti-Communist Scotsman who had previously unarguably messed up by posting late against a private detective’s claim that someone might conceivably have driven all over the place posting envelopes already received to place ballot information in. Bear in mind the absolute ferocity of the internecine war that the ETU had been through and balance the likelihood of an inebriated Scotsman against a plot so complicated that two barristers, their teams, and a judge at times got themselves into knots trying to make sense of it. No, “calm and convincing” it was!
The Silloth “credible personality” assessed by Winn was the man who denied the possibility of forgetting an envelope one has in a pocket for several days. “It’s something I’ve heard of, but it has never happened to me,” he amazingly and blithely told the court. (No, the verbatim records do not say `sounds of laughter’!) His home was 22 miles from Carlisle, where the supposed forged letter purporting to be from him (so as to receive a late date stamp) had been posted; counsel for the defendants suggested that someone wanting to pretend would be `crazy’ to do this. The witness merely remarked “there are crazy people”. [CH Rolph pp32-33]
Some branch secretaries admitted error but were so incensed by media interference that they could not think straight. The Silloth witness complained that a “journalist” from the Daily Express rang him several days before a letter from the union notified him that his branch returns had been disqualified. Yet it did not seem to dawn upon anyone that this should not have been possible unless either administrative workers or scrutineers had informed the press. Yet such persons were either completely exonerated of any blame or were targeted for especial blame for actions not in favour of the plaintiffs! The witness even admitted irregularities – his branch chair had acted as one scrutineer, when branch officials definitely should not do so, and the other scrutineer was so new a member he hadn’t even a month’s membership, also against the rules. A heavy vote for Byrne had been recorded yet only the branch committee were present.
When one witness confessed that he was utterly confused as to the meaning of questions put to him by the defendants’ counsel, Winn accused the counsel of “making jury points”, which he argued were unnecessary since there was no jury. Maybe it pointed to the fact that the evidence of some branch secretaries simply made no sense and that they were so utterly devoted to anything that was hostile to what they perceived as Communist plotting that they could not even understand the argument that they were simply mistaken in their belief that they had not erred in any way? Winn seemed not to think so.
The rather ridiculous allegation that there was a special Communist Party committee, designed to defraud the union of its own leadership, was maintained to the end, although that specific claim that Jim Feathers was a member of such a committee was withdrawn. He wasn’t for the simple reason that, to this day, not a shred of evidence has arisen that indicates the existence of such a committee. Not even in the voluminous files opened after 1991 for commercial rates in Moscow. Not a jot. Not a word. No documents. No evidence. No stool pigeons.
Les Cannon, carefully avoiding being a witness or a plaintiff but always present, was sometimes mentioned in court. Counsel for the defendants even mentioned the possibility that he would appear and a major debate arose with Winn as to whether the fact that someone had once been a member of the Communist Party was relevant to the charge that secret committees of the Party controlled the union and conspired to fix elections. Winn ruled that membership of a special committee was important but membership of the Party per se was not. Cannon did not give evidence, subsequently.
However, a major mention of him revealed not only that Cannon had visited the Doncaster branch “as a visitor”. Seemingly, he was employed at some period as a managing clerk for the solicitors representing the plaintiffs! But not, it transpired, at the time he visited Doncaster, according to the branch secretary who appeared to know all about this. [Rolph p35]
Counsel for Byrne and Chapple tried hard to establish a social relationship between the four guilty defendants. For example, Mr Gardner for the plaintiffs repeatedly tried to establish that Foulkes had lunch in the General Secretary’s office with “an assembly of supporters”. Foulkes asserted that he had “never, on any occasion, had lunch in the General Secretary’s office”. [F Foulkes carbon copy of Notes for an appeal] This `association’ was sought in evidence from Blairford in his painful attempt to prove a conversation in an unknown bar on an unknown date, during an unknown TUC conference, sometime in the 50s! [p56 of the judgement] As Foulkes dryly noted “The evidence of Brother Blairford proves disassociation rather than positive association”. Indeed, it had been asserted in the court case that his guilt was that he should have known about rigging and because of this “I must have known – and therefore I did know. The fact is, I did not know.”
But the effect of discharging National Scrutineers Rengert and Shipman – as Chapple must have been advised – was to throw the limelight on to McLennan and Foulkes. Yet Rengert and Shipman had repeatedly insisted in their evidence that “they took all the decisions in relation to the scrutiny of the ballot, and apart from seeking advice on various minor questions of no significance, (McLennan and Foulkes) played no part in the decisions that were taken”. [p8 Foulkes notes for appeal] The judge, Foulkes thought, “inferred that I had guilty knowledge of the distorted presentation of material to the National Scrutineers and he arrived at this conclusion by some mysterious logical process which is not apparent to me”.
Foulkes had indicated a concern at the level of disqualifications but had no idea of the relative balance between one candidate’s supporters and others. No evidence was submitted that he had and even in his wildest musings and imaginings Winn didn’t claim at any point that he had. There was no evidence of any kind linking Foulkes with the placing of returns in particular files, or the sorting into categories used in the scrutiny. He had not seen the files, did not have access to them, and had no discussions of any kind about them with any one. How on earth then did Winn link Foulkes to the precise fraud? His assertion was merely that a plan existed to push through the national scrutineers’ report through the EC and that Foulkes’ chairing of that meeting, which aided this process, linked him to the fraud.
Foulkes’ theory, aired in court, was that neither Cannon nor Chapple wanted Byrne as General Secretary. Something we now know to have been very much the case. Thus, Foulkes reasoned, they rigged the election to produce a null and void result that would throw the union into further anarchy. They had little notion – as did anyone else – that Winn’s judgement would be so comprehensively biased in their favour. Thus, they expected Haxell and Foulkes to hold on to power for only a short time to come. Foulkes would have been 65 in 1964 and Haxell was nine years older than Chapple and it would have been hoped that the intense flak directed at the general secretary would have weakened him either encouraging early retirement or a move to some other area of work. By this time, Byrne would himself be ready for retirement and the two newly converted right-wingers would be poised to fight for the posts of President and General Secretary, perhaps in opposition to Hendy and Fraser.
An arresting thought put by Foulkes – but not take up by any of the media at the time despite the positive interest of their reporters in the extraordinarily clever notion – was that if Byrne and Chapple could hire a man to go around the country pretending to rig a ballot once (when gathering evidence as to how the rigging occurred), they could have had him (or someone like him) do exactly the same thing the first time!
In summary, the plaintiffs’ case, as elaborated by Gardiner in his summing-up as their counsel, came down to the following:
(i) The theory of break-neck car journeys to repost envelopes was heavily pressed on Justice Winn. But all observers, even Rolph, seem to agree that this did not really convince the judge, let alone anyone else, even the press, well, the serious-minded press.
(ii) A visit by MacLennan to Northern Ireland on union business in the period in which these car journeys were undertaken was “at lest suspicious”.
(iii) The printers’ degree of openness to outside interference, restated by the manager of the company, who it was hinted relied heavily on the union for work, amounted to “a perfectly reasonable system, claimed Gardiner. Whether such a perfectly reasonable system was actually exploited by someone other than the defendants did not matter, it seemed.
(iv) The excessively unusual large number of witnesses who had affirmed, rather than taking the oath, (i.e. as atheists, they did not swear on the Bible that they were telling the truth but relied on their own honour to back up their words) was actually cited by Gardner as legitimate grounds for believing that “they needn’t tell the truth”. (This seems simply incredible to some modern sensibilities but it is the case that Gardner’s summing up focused heavily on this.)
(v) The big lies put by the defence, Gardner submitted were (a) that the private prosecution was motivated by the capitalist press and those who had malicious motives about the union, and (b) that the case arose from a “bitter feud between two groups” in the union. It seems wearisome to even begin, in the light of hindsight, to point out how ludicrous was Gardner’s disbelief in these two central points. For him, it was just a case of fraud by a power-hungry group.
Haxell was the biggest culprit, being evasive and a liar betrayed by a “large, nervous grin”, apparently. On the evidence of his appearance in the witness box only, Gardner thought Frazer was the kind of “man who would drive a car fast”; seemingly Justice Winn agreed with that. [Rolph p214-5] The duodenal ulcer that prevented Batchelor (also accused of being a fast car driver) from appearing as a witness on medical evidence would, Garner thought, surely prompt a jury (there wasn’t one!) to say “it isn’t going to kill him to go into the witness box”. [Rolph p216]
Gardner was not beyond twisting things and putting falsities. Non-Communists prominent in the ETU, such as Sam Goldberg and Harry West, were “stooges” claimed Garner. This relied on the ambiguous appearance of the word in hand-written notes made by Jim Feathers of a Party meeting in the early 1950s. The reference was in connection with `Black Circular’ trades councils, established by Congress House. The TUC was trying to get local trades council to ban Communists from being delegates on the grounds that many trades councils supplied delegates to local Labour Parties. In the end, the campaign did not work very well but was useful in some localities.
When a Trades Council refused to exclude Communists, the TUC would disaffiliate it and set up a new one. Anyone familiar with the dynamic would know that a Party speaker would refer to a Trades Council set up by the TUC as a `stooge’ Trades Council. In an anti-Communist jerk-reaction, Gardner insisted in his speech, unchallenged or contradicted by any evidence, that Feathers’ note meant finding stooges in the Labour Party who would make Communist-dominated Trades Councils look good, when it was almost certainly referring to the reverse case scenario. It was Congress House that recruited stooges, often previously non-trades unionists of middle-class and professional characters who were involved in local Labour Parties, seeking a political career. `Stooge’ fitted such a personality a lot better than a co- operative, left-leaning socialist who believed in militant trades unionism.
On 3rd July 1961, John Byrne was made General Secretary of the ETU by Mr Justice Winn after a High Court trial lasting 42 days at a cost of over £90,000, a sum perhaps worth in terms of early 21 century prices in excess of at least one and a half million pounds. The case was tried in court on 17th-21st, the 24th-8th, of April, the 1st, 5th, 8th-12th, 15th-19th, and 30th-31st of May, and the 1st-2nd, 5th-9th, 13th-16th, the 28th June, and the 3rd July.
In an intensely surprising mover, rather than declare a new election, Winn simply announced that Byrne was now General Secretary. Byrne himself immediately appointed two Personal Assistants: Les Cannon and Frank Chapple. Everything would now change dramatically but it would be several years before the iron grip of right wing business unionism was complete.
The judgement was 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. Yet 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.
THE 1961 TUC AND LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCES
If the court case was the first body blow to the ETU Left, and to its integrity as a fighting trade union, the response of the TUC and Labour Party was the second body blow. Yet it is now abundantly clear that TUC leaders at the time had been liaising closely with Britain’s security forces for quite a while. Indeed, the union was not at all minded to imagine it could get fairness from the TUC and for very good reasons. It had been told by a trusted Fleet Street source of the identity of the author of a two page article in centre pages of the Sunday Times under the by-line “a trades unionist” claiming to expose ballot rigging. Foulkes revealed in the trial only that this was “a key person from the TUC secretariat”. This is likely to have been George Woodcock, TUC General Secretary.
In fact, the secretariat of the TUC was heavily committed to promoting an anti- communist crusade and more than prepared to sacrifice the ETU. Already, Frank Chapple had been (properly) threatened with the charge of bringing the union into disrepute for writing to Sir Vincent Tewson, the TUC general secretary and an extreme anti-Communist, giving him confidential details of internal union matters that had not yet been resolved by the EC, who promptly his letter to the press.
It’s probable that it did not help that the ETU was seen as being the most vituperative of critics of the TUC – and Jack Hendy was known as the arch- typical vocal ETU critic. His speech at the 1956 TUC was reported at length on the front page in the Daily Telegraph. The motion Hendy spoke to “noted with alarm the absence of a fighting working-class policy from the TUC”. It linked the “shameful manoeuvrings”, associated with jostling to gain a seat on the General Council, with the “tamed tetrarchs” (a system of Greek political leadership involving an alliance of several people) of the general workers unions.
But Hendy’s speech had been not only erudite; it had been devastatingly sharp – deeply insulting even. Doubtless, many big-wigs had either to find an encyclopaedia or ask a clever researcher to explain his comments! On deciphering them, the then leaders of the TGWU, NUGMW, and TUC would have been livid with anger. Here’s Hendy in full flow: “Not since the Emperor Caligula made his horse a consul have so many submissive beasts of burden been caparisoned (a covering in place of a saddle for a rider less horse) in the robes of senatorial dignity. The honoured leaders of great trade unions – mineworkers and others – are rejected. The safe men get the seats.” [May 18th 1956 Daily Telegraph]
Almost immediately following the judgement, correspondence between the TUC and the ETU ensued. Prior to the judgement, such correspondence had been largely perfunctory. Despite Woodcock’s throw away remarks of criticism in his congress speech – that the union had seemed to want to delay by throwing paper in the way, Woodcock had been highly pro-active in this field.
He became uncharacteristically quiet after a meeting on 24th July of the TUC F&GPC with the ETU EC. Woodcock said that he had personally received a serious complaint about Jack Hendy, which related to the conduct of candidates in ETU ballots when visiting branches to campaign. Why he should receive such a complaint and not the union was not answered. Nor did any details ever emerge. Not only had the TUC General Secretary boldly claimed rights to oversee natural justice by failing to elaborate on his charge against Hendy, he justified himself when challenged since he felt that those in the room were “(a)ll members of the same Movement – except Mr Hendy.” No reply beyond that he would not debate matters with an individual was ever received from Woodcock. [JH letter to GW 4th August 1961]
Thus the 1961 TUC came after the summer period in which the Winn judgement had been made and a great deal of pressure had been applied in the run up to conference. The TUC was drawn into the controversy, and demanded an explanation from the ETU leaders. 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 Dorrill and Robin Ramsay, “In a Common Cause: the Anti-Communist Crusade in Britain 1945-60”, Lobster magazine May Issue 19 (1990), Issue 19]
When the agenda item concerning the ETU came up, the general secretary of the TUC, George Woodcock made the speech for expulsion. It had been time-tabled to last only 25 minutes but actually went on for 45 minutes without hindrance. He linked the issue before congress to that moment “pretty well three years to the minute” when the removal of Cannon’s credentials to attend the TUC had become known to all. He claimed the rising tide of concern over the next period at the safety of affairs in the ETU was “not general gossip or idle chatter”. Some two-thirds of Woodcock’s speech involved criticism of the union in the period prior to the Byrne-Haxell election that was the key to the court case. Most of his criticism was a weary account of how the union’s leaders – always politely – basically stone-walled the TUC secretariat’s queries about its internal affairs. Yet this was the basic modus operandi of the TUC, as Woodcock admitted, turning its reluctance to get involved into a rationale for why its strong position now was so valid. No affiliate would allow the TUC secretariat to interfere in their administration or policy – not since 1926 had that been tolerated.
Woodcock focused on Hendy’s testimony in court. He did not repeat the judgement of Justice Winn who “judged (Hendy) to be a man of intellectual honesty as well as intellectual power, personally honourable to the extent that he would not adopt any course of conduct which seemed to him to be unjust to unless a considerable advantage to the Communist Party left him no choice. But Woodcock focused on Hendy’s admission to, what he called, “(b)eing involved in a committee of the Communist Party, whose function was to control the affairs of the TUC from outside. That is not an offence against the law of this country, but it is an offence against trades unionism”.
Of course, the admission Hendy had made had not been to seeking to `control the affairs of the union’ but why spoil a good story with the facts? Not when he was in such a strong position, Woodcock’s call on the unions to put their own house in order, to show the public and the press that they could act strongly in this case, which he affirmed was so strongly proven, would settle the matter. [Speech by George Woodcock 4 h September 1961] The case for expulsion hinged on the fact, Woodcock said, that a group of Communists (though, he said, it did not matter that they were Communist as such) had decided to defraud their union. But Justice Winn had clearly said that this was untrue! “There is no evidence from which the court can infer that any Communist group ever decided that unlawful methods ought to be adopted,” the judge had ruled in his judgement.
Foulkes spoke in the defence of the union, much more briefly; he reminded congress that an attempt by “all our enemies and some of yours” to make the ETU’s expulsion or otherwise the most important business was not well motivated. The TUC had sought the debarment from office for 5 years of the defendants, including Hendy, whom the judge had actually exonerated. Foulkes took this alone to be evidence that there were forces in the TUC working for a split with the ETU. Only one EC member of the union had been found guilty of fraud by the court, yet the document prepared by the TUC staff for congress held all EC members responsible. Nonetheless, guaranteeing independence, a firm of chartered accountants would supervise the forthcoming EC elections, he announced. The TUC had asked that Foulkes be forced to submit himself for re-election and he now accepted the challenge but insisted it should be at a time and manner of the union’ s choosing not the media’s.
The issue of election and accountability was complex. Foulkes pointed out that 11 TUC general council members had been appointed by committee and not elected by all their members as leaders of their union for life. 13 members of the general council had however been elected by a mass membership vote but held office for life. Only 11 had been elected for a specific period such as applied in the ETU.
Left: the huge number of nominations received by Jack Hendy in his campaign to be elected to the EC
In the end only the smaller unions – the draughtsmen, the boilermakers, sheet metal workers, lighter men, musicians, cinematograph technicians, foundry workers, and operative printers were against expulsion, with the FBU abstaining. Although the Yorkshire miners’ (which had not yet made the shift to the left) delegates appeared to want to support the ETU, the NUM shifted against. This was important since the miners were then still a huge force and very much a weather vane for the rest. In the end all of the big six unions voted to expel in a decisive vote of 7,320,000 to 735,000, not breaking ranks and holding a solid front in favour of what was seen as keeping to the rules.
The TUC expulsion of the ETU was rapidly followed by the late September 1961 Labour Party NEC decision to disaffiliate the ETU came at the eve of the party’s annual conference and as the delegation was present in Blackpool. The expulsion from Labour was justified “on the grounds that it is a Communist controlled organisation” [Letter dated 30 September 1961 from A L Williams; EC Minutes October 3 d 1961; Minute No 13(196) p434]
A volatile debate with an intervention from the floor of conference saw a four to one vote for the suspension of standing orders so that a representative of the ETU could be heard. Sam Goldberg, ETU EC member for the Midlands was a prominent Labour Party member, and he was also the union’s chosen representative on this occasion. His main argument was that the unjustified move was a device designed to aid the right wing faction in the run up to the ETU’s EC elections. But, drawing inspiration from Winn’s legal judgement, the main problem was that the TUC obliged the ETU to debar its existing officer- holders from holding office. It was in effect a demand for regime change.
It had been expected that Winn would compile his judgement over several weeks but he reconvened the court within 12 days to present his 40,000 word judgement. Given that some notice must have been required this is a rate of some 4,000 words a day, delivery that many professional writers would greatly admire. The court had taken ten weeks to hear all the evidence but, despite any suspicion that Justice Winn was averse to the idea, both Goldberg and Hendy were not found guilty by the judge. Of Jack Hendy, who (it is worth constantly repeating this), was cleared of all charges, Justice Wynn had been constrained to note in as back-handed a comment as he could muster, that “He is a man of intellectual honesty as well as intellectual power. He would not adopt any course of conduct which seemed to him to be unjust to an individual unless his Communist tenets left him no choice.”
The judgement noted that the case was the culmination of “an internecine struggle that ever since 1956 or 1957 has rent and troubled the membership of this great union.” From the autumn of 1957 the anti-leadership faction had the “undeviating support of all national newspapers (except the Daily Worker) and most local newspapers”. The level of this intervention before the court case was unprecedented.
Winn – and for that matter all critics of the ETU Communists reasoned that a party with perhaps less than 1% of the ETU membership as also members of the CP could not seriously expect to be as much represented in the union’s leadership as it was. Communists thought this a strange criticism, only plausible if unionists did indeed vote for Communists because of their politics rather than despite them. It was the record as union activists that won most Communists their support. Foulkes had given as much as 46 years’ service to the union by this time, McLennan 37, and Haxell 32 years. Even the much younger Fraser and Hendy had 23 and 25 years respectively.
In 1951, it was decided that Peter Kerrigan, then Party National Organiser was to take over from the deceased George Allison as National Industrial Organiser but this needed to wait upon an appointment in the National Organiser role. Justice Winn relied upon a reference to all this from a letter that Hendy had written to Cannon, when he was a member of the Party, giving an account of an advisory meeting when Kerrigan explained this to ETU members. Winn decided that this must mean that Kerrigan was to be the chair of the advisory and had been appointed to the position by the Communist Party; this, even though a mere handful of paragraphs later in his summation, Winn refers to Haxell chairing the advisory.
Contradictory this might be, it was of little consequence to the judge who was determined to fix the Communist Party to making decisions for the union, so that he could judge a conspiracy to defraud not only Byrne but also the entity that was the union. Less controversial was the actual truth – completely backed up by even the supposedly hostile evidence – that Communist electricians merely met from time to time to discuss mutual matters of interest and occasionally invited a leading member of the Party not part of the union to join them. The motivation was certainly to ensure that the ETU maintained a left course but only because those involved thought that was actually good for its members. Despite suggestions that this was in some way conspiratorial, the evidence was that the anti-communist faction also held meetings of a similar character but with an even narrower remit that was essentially oppositionalist, negative and destructive.
Winn was clear in his judgement – he had heard no evidence that of any illegality as far as “gatherings or activities” of the Communist Party were concerned (perhaps to his disappointment!). However, Winn “resolutely refused to understand” that the winning of trades unionists to support for Communist policy, or parts of Communist policy, was much more important to the Party than the mere winning of a particular union office by a member or supporter. “Whom do you serve? The interests of the Communist Party or the interests of the union membership”, was the question he repeatedly put to witnesses. If witnesses said that they saw no contradiction, “the Judge was frankly contemptuous”; it was thought be many on the left observing all this as if he genuinely could not grasp that mass organizations comprise many different fragments that agree to come together in a common front for the greater good. And, of course, the plain fact is that
Lord Justice Winn could not understand collective organization in the least.
Winn’s judgement said that in his opinion the CP controlled the ETU by virtue of having the support of Haxell and others. The defendants did not deny that an Advisory existed, or that it sometimes went beyond advising on policy regarding a particular industry; they did deny that there was anything like a concerted conspiracy to control the very functioning of an independent trade union. The case ought to have relied on evidence that such orders on how to run the union were transmitted from the CP direct to Haxell and Co but, of course, no such evidence existed or would ever exists since it is not how Communists handle themselves.
Two lay national scrutineers J W Rengert and Charles Shipman had cases against them dropped early in the proceedings on the basis that there was “not a shred of evidence” for adding them to the list of defendants. [Royal Courts of Justice 3 July 1961 in respect of 1960 B No 1846 p25] They also received £25 each in costs as a token, most of their actual costs being borne by the ETU.
Mr Justice Wynn also admitted in his summing up that there was no evidence that any Communist group in the ETU had ever decided that unlawful methods should be adopted in the union. Evidence cited against Messrs James Crosby, Ivor Davies, Sam Goldberg, H West, James Feathers, George Scott and A C Batchelor was also simply found to be completely wanting any justification and the cases against them simply dismissed.
Yet, for all that Winn adopts a posture of high minded counter-balancing study, his judgement is a mélange of hate, deceit and intrigue. Above all Winn showed his extreme partiality when once describing Haxell, in his summing up, as a man whose “mind is not really open to any argument other than considerations of convenience” [p34]. It’s a superb put-down but does it belong in a judicial review? Whenever Haxell is mentioned by Winn, the judge cannot resist slagging him off in a most injudicious manner. But Haxell is only the worst of a bad bunch in the tiny world of Justice Winn. It is as if the judge has a gang of criminals, such as the Mafia, in front of him.
Communist witnesses were are variously and inevitably described as being judged by Winn as “arrogant”, “sly”, “sullen”, “evasive”, “unreliable”, “belligerent”, “self-satisfied”, “judged to be personally not incapable of fraud” (Winn simply loves the negative inflection as a means of stating the positive, no doubt meaning to imbue the phrase with an impartial sense of partiality!) The few Labour men who appeared for the defendants and did not oppose Communists were presumably, as one was described, “relatively stupid”.
In the instances where Winn found that ballots had definitely been substituted, a key part of his judgment was the veracity he claimed to detect about each individual branch secretary. In making these judgements, it is abundantly clear that the judge was anxious to make his role in assessing witnesses seem fresh and vital by the use of many different words as possible. The problem was that as the number of witnesses reached twenty, thirty and forty, this became impossible. It is simply not within the reaches of the capacity of the human brain to serious record the different aspects of so many people. His judgements were therefore snap decisions about a man appearing before him claiming not to have posted a letter on this day but on the other. The quality of evidence was undoubtedly variable.
In Winn’s written summing up, the word “convincing” was used seven times of a witness; five times the epithet “good” was applied as in a “good impression”; four times the word `calm’ was used; three times each, the word “demeanour”, “reliable”, or “satisfactory” came up; “careful” and “straight- forward” were used twice. A veritable thesaurus of words were employed by the judge; witnesses claiming not to have posted late were, according Winn: “accurate”, “clear”, “coherent”, “credible”, “impressive”, “modest”, “quiet”, “realistic”, “restrained”, “solid”, “steady”, and “unemotional”. Yet Winn only used the word “honest” (and no synonyms) once!
In respect to those cases where he found there to have been fraud, the following descriptions of the local branch secretary as a witness are the reasons he gave for believing in them and doing so:
• Abertilly “quiet, modest and careful”
• Barnsley “calm, steady and reliable”
• Bishop Auckland – the secretary’s wife posted the envelope, they were “a very straight-forward couple”
• Blackburn “wholly convincing as a person”
• Boston “satisfactory witness” Bracknell “good demeanour”
• Brigg “”restrained, accurate and impressive”
• Bury “satisfactory demeanour”
• Cambuslang “a very good impression”
• Cirencester “careful man who seemed wholly reliable”
• Gillmoss “calm, unemotional and convincing”
• Halesowen “straight-forward and clear”
• Leicester “a good personality and demeanour”
• LSE 4 “calm and convincing”
• Luton “convincing demeanour”
• Newport “completely convinced me”
• N Shields “particularly good impression”
• Nuneaton “a very good type”
• Peterborough “convincing witness”.
• Pontypool “coherent account”
• Prescot “a particularly reliable witness”
• Rochdale though a husband and wife story it was “realistic”
• Rogerstone a “palpably honest person”
• Silloth “credible personality”
• Stanley “calm and convincing”
• Twickenham “solid firm character – I completely believed him”
• Widnes “completely satisfactory – at once asserted his date of posting”
It is as if Winn is competing with himself to find as many different possible descriptions of believable behaviour in a witness; perhaps he had a well- thumped Roget’s Thesaurus! At times, studying the accounts of the trial, Winn’s bias is so wearing that it seems counsel for the defence must have had the patience of Job!
A number of branch secretaries were found to have made serious errors in dating matters, even so, Winn found ways to accept their evidence, making much in his written judgement of his ability to discern lying by posing “test questions”. In one case a branch secretary who pointed to a diary entry as evidence brought his claim to have been defrauded to “no better than probable” even by Winn’s very loose standards. This was remarkable since the supposedly false postmark was the place where the man worked not the village where he lived. According to Winn, this justified a conclusion that his envelope had been switched at head office by “someone knowing that he worked for ICI”. This is a remarkable level of detail claimed for the falsity. Perhaps it was all just an error on the part of the man who had been encouraged to believe that he had not erred. Would he not concur if assisted to do so? Seemingly, Winn could not contemplate such a possibility.
The Cambuslang branch secretary had included a letter about other administrative business dated the day after the date he said he posted the ballot letter. The branch secretary claimed he had posted the ballot information on 23rd December but his other letter was dated “24/12” – this is Christmas Eve! The postmark on the letter marked down as late and therefore invalid was 2nd January. Win believed that the Christmas Eve wrongly dated letter was “a mere slip”, that the branch secretary had simply written the wrong date. This was “more likely” than the branch secretary had got carried away with Christmas and Hogmanay celebrations and only got around to posting on the first day of normal life. [Royal Courts of Justice 28th June 1961 Appendices to the Judgement (1) c]
Such an approach is bound to allow for inconsistencies, for merely judging how honest a witness is and saying that when they say they did not flunk an important task, when it appeared to be an almost endemic practice in the union, hardly allows for confidence that things are as they are said to be.
Winn ignores the seasonal distractions in one case yet in another involving a branch secretary from Scotland, whose ballot letter had a postmark of 1st January, declares this to be “an unlikely time for a Scotsman to have posted Union papers”! Oddly, Winn did not accept the claim that the Ayr branch had had its voting interfered with, largely it seems on the grounds that the secretary “plainly uses a fair amount of alcohol at festive seasons”. More to the point there was no evidence of any kind actually produced on the day in contrast to claims in advance paperwork.
Five or six other cases saw secretaries’ accounts as witnesses so weak that even Winn discounted them; he said that one witness gave his account like a “parrot”! Nonetheless, Winn found five ETU leaders conspired to prevent Byrne’s election by fraudulent and unlawful devices: Frank Foulkes, the General President, Frank Haxell, the General Secretary, Robert McLennan, the acting assistant general secretary, Jack Fraser, the secretary of the Party advisory, and James Humphrey, the ETU head office manager.
It was this aspect of the judgement that was focused on by the media and which has been recalled ever since. A blurb on a book about the case, to which John Freeman wrote a preface, claimed that Byrne and Chapple had “successfully claimed that elections for the Union’s chief officials had for some years been fraudulently conducted by means of unlawful conspiracies”, when they had done no such thing. The blurb also charged that Haxell and Foulkes were members of “special committees” of the Party “whose function it was to secure the election of Communist leaders in the Union”, when this was of course a massive over-simplification.
Winn was so little knowledgeable about Communist politics that his judgement referred to the “Communist Party of the United Kingdom”, which had of course never existed since the Communist Party from its foundation did not recognise the Northern Ireland statelet and dubbed itself the “Communist Party of Great Britain”, arguably then less imperialistic sounding than it does now (and one of the reasons why the re-founded party calls itself the “Communist Party of Britain”). It was but one example of a constant stream of opinionated blunders about Party life and nomenclature that poured out of Winn. [Judgement in the High Curt of the Justice 1960 B No 1846 28th June 1961]
Winn followed the 1956 appeals case of Hornal v Neuberger Products as his “guiding factor” in approaching the case by relying on the principle that the preponderance of probability ought to be informed by. Professor Kenny’s “Outline of Criminal Law” (1952 – 16th Edition) at p 416 similarly states: “A larger minimum of proof is necessary to support an accusation of crime than will suffice when the charge is only of a civil nature. For in the latter it is sufficient that there be a preponderance of evidence in favour of the successful party, whereas in criminal cases the burden rests upon the prosecution to prove that the accused is guilty ‘beyond reasonable doubt’. When therefore the case for the prosecution is closed after sufficient evidence has been adduced to necessitate an answer from the defence, the defence need do no more than show that there is a reasonable doubt as to the guilt of the accused.” See R v. Stoddart ((1909), 2 Cr App Rep 217 at p 242).
Winn accepted that this gave him, in a civil case without a jury, practically carte blanche to decide what was true and what was not true. In comparing the ETU case with a criminal case, Winn missed the point, effectively reversing Professor Kenny’s dictum. But Kenny also wrote in stressing how strong the evidence had to be in a criminal case: “Even in civil proceedings, e.g. in actions of debt, a mere scintilla of evidence would not warrant the jury in finding a verdict for the plaintiff; for there must (as we have seen) be so much evidence that a reasonable man might accept it as establishing the issue.” It seems fairly clear in retrospect that Winn, in the absence of a jury, set out to establish the case for the plaintiffs.
A mere scintilla of evidence would be a spark or a flash. What Winn did was to seek to establish – but not beyond the bounds of reasonable doubt – so many scintillas, in the form of lots of branches with wayward electoral experience, that he established for his own satisfaction a fraud. But was it? Do forty similar scintillas equal a reasonable suspicion?
Winn had found that a group of ETU leaders, including Frank Foulkes and Frank Haxell, had acted to prevent Byrne’s election by “fraudulent and unlawful” means. The judge pronounced Byrne duly elected general secretary of the ETU with immediate effect and Haxell was removed from office and subsequently expelled from the union.
Even so, neither the union, nor the Party, nor the courts were ever able to satisfactorily explain precisely how the malpractices occurred and who was individually responsible. To this day, the precise circumstances remain a mystery. Haxell’s guilt was presumed by all on the basis that no-one did anything in the union without his approval but he denied responsibility to his dying day. Understandably, the Communist Party immediately distanced itself from the affair and Haxell resigned from the Party.
When considering what `relief’ to give from his judgement, Justice Winn opined that the “common sense” question as to what the case was about was that it was about two things – whether the election was “rigged fraudulently” and “Who is now the General Secretary of this Union?” [Royal Courts of Justice 3rd July 1961 in respect of 1960 B No 1846 p21] But was it? Arguably, the issue for Winn to have settled was whether the result of the ballot was safe. Even more prosaically, formally, the civil case revolved around the formal monetary loss that Byrne claimed to have missed as a result of being deprived of the post – some £380 prior to tax.
Even if one accepted the plaintiffs’ case in its entirety, it was not necessary to go on to say that it could be certain to define Byrne as General Secretary. The most judicious of decisions would have been to order a re-running of the ballot under strict conditions as to matters of rule, eligibility to vote and procedure. Almost certainly, given the adverse publicity, Byrne would have won but the integrity of the union would have been retained. Perhaps Foulkes, certainly Hendy, would not have been dishonoured and debarred. Possibly, the next thirty-odd years of vicious right-wing business unionism would have never occurred and the ETU would have seen a mood more akin to that of the 1980s AEU take hold?
THE RULES REVISION CONFERENCE
The question of organising a Rules Revision Conference was first considered by the ETU EC on 2nd/3rd April 1960. It was planned that amendments would be made by branches in their June quarter branch night in 1960, delegates would be nominated at the September quarter night, and the ballots to elect them would take place at the December quarter night. [1960 Minute Nos. 2 & 3; item 40] The Sub-EC, a kind of Finance & General Purposes sub-committee of the EC, proposed a system of allocation of branches into electoral divisions to the EC held on 29th August, which was endorsed by a vote of 7 to 3. [1960 Minute No 9; item no. 207] At the November 5th/6t h EC meeting, it was agreed that the nominations be accepted and that those that were in order go on to a ballot. This vote was 7 in favour, only 1 against (Frank Chapple) and 1 abstention. [1960 Minute 12 1960, item 245 (b)] At the same meeting it was announced that Leslie Arthur Tuck, branch secretary of the London lift and crane branch of the ETU, was seeking to use the courts to stop the election and cause a fresh one to be arranged. [1960 Minute 12; Item 247] Chapple and Hadley voted against the union defending the case against Tuck, even though, as we shall see, the judge did not really back the complaint.
Tuck had taken a complaint for an interlocutory injunction to the High Court in November 1960, long before Justice Winn’s presided over the main ETU case to come, so as to prevent the publishing of the names of delegates elected to the 1961 rules revision conference. The legal argument was that ordinary ETU members were powerless under the union’s rules to prefer any complaint against an official for breach of duty. There was machinery for appeals by branches from executive council decisions, but even if Mr Tuck was able to sway his branch in appeal against the allocation of branches into electoral divisions, the appeal could not be heard until long after the election. But more than that, the main issue arose from the rights of those nominated as candidates. The complaint was that nomination forms had been sent out late and this created unfairness.
Yet, under the rules of procedure, although the last day for dispatching the nomination papers was August 19th, they had actually been sent on the 15th. In any case, rights of branches would not have been affected even if the papers had been a few days late. There was no provision in the rules requiring publication of a complete list of divisions, and the procedure adopted had been used for the last twenty years.
Tuck’s case pointed out that this rules revision conference was critical since the next conference was to be held in every tenth year, thus implying special care was needed. The last set of rules had been adopted in 1957 and, now, the 1961 conference would be the last opportunity before 1971 of getting the rules and constitution of the union amended. But the main damage focused on the argument that some candidates had de facto prior knowledge of the branches which comprised their electoral division and this gave them some favour in campaigning for votes. As the judge queried and counsel for Tuck replied:
Q: “Some did not know their prospective constituents?”
Mr Tuck’s affidavit claimed that it seemed that branches had not been grouped into divisions “geographically and numerically” but his counsel took the matter further by trying to introduce the Communist bogyman.
It is clear that Justice Buckley did not wish to be drawn into the fight between Communists and Anti-Communists. Mr Wells, counsel for Tuck began spreading what he seemed to believe was a sure-fire way of damaging the union. Speaking of one candidate (probably Jack Hendy), it was pointed out that seven of the ten branches in this constituency had nominated him and: “according to the evidence this gentleman is a Communist. The personal defendants, and rightly so, make no secret of the fact that they are Communists. . . .”
The judge swiftly interrupted: “Don’t let us embark on a speech on this matter. Why do you say these passages are relevant to the present motion?”
“Because the delay in sending out the nomination forms has given one side an advantage which the other has not got”.
The judge responded: “So you are attacking the good faith of the defendants. That may be a matter which would have to be gone into at the trial of the action, but would not be a matter I could decide on an application like this for interlocutory relief. It is important that everyone should know in adequate time what the constituencies will be and matters of that kind. You are entitled to the whole of the time the rules say you shall have. I don’t think you need now to put into evidence of a lot of suggestions of ill faith, particularly when it is coloured with political matters.”
Mr Wells accordingly dropped the Communist angle completely and Mr Justice Buckley in his judgment said he did not think it proper to prevent the union from going on with the proposed election. His over-riding concern was not to prevent the ETU from running its election as it saw fit. Clearly, this result whereby the court seemed reluctant to interfere in internal union matters will have been mulled over in the right-wing camp.
Although nomination papers were sent out in August, the first motion to the Court was delayed because Tuck had applied for legal aid, which he got. In his submission, the nomination papers should have been sent out by the executive council by August 13th, the paper addressed to his branch was not received until the 16th and a covering letter was dated the 15th. Accepting this, Mr Justice Buckley said he thought the nomination papers had been sent out two days late. That was of some importance because—taken in conjunction with dates of meetings and the fact that it was not until then that the members learned of the grouping of the branches for the election—a candidate could not effectively canvass. A prima facie case of infraction of the rules had been made out and to some extent this had prejudiced Mr Tuck.
The Judge did not think it proper, however, to prevent the union from going on with the proposed election—but it would do so at its own risk. If Mr Tuck continued with his action, and was successful, he was unlikely to be prejudiced at any future election held as a result of that trial. The Judge made no order except that there should be a speedy trial of action. [Guardian November 19th 1960]
Perhaps this experience helped the ETU to seek accommodation. Interestingly, the 17th /18th December ETU EC accepted a report on the Tuck case, noting that his application for an injunction had been refused, with only one vote against (Chapple’s). [1960 Minute No 13; Item 271] The EC meeting on February 4th/5th now reviewed the position in the light of Tuck’s failure but also the impending Byrne-Chapple court case.
Many branch books had been made unavailable, so the whole ballot was declared void anyway. (This hardly sounds like the actions of a wholly-focused rigging machine.) A new election was agreed, this time by a vote of 9 for to nil against (Chapple did not vote against but perversely abstained). So, nominations were now called for in March, with voting in June 1961. [1961 Minute No 1; item 7(c) p23n]
Whilst the union was now going through the ordeal that was the court case presided over by Justice Winn, the National Scrutineers’ report for the election of delegates to the 1961 Labour Party conference came out. These were endorsed by the EC and sent out as such by Byrne as General Secretary. Now, there could, by definition, be no Communists standing in this poll! Interestingly, with three to be elected in the “rank and file section”, Sam Goldberg polled 10,491 votes to his nearest rival who happened to be W P Blair. Harry West was also elected with 6,409 votes but one W B Blairford trailed badly with only 4,394. [J T Byrne letter to EC members 15.8.61]
Even after all that had happened, 50 branches had had their votes declared invalid for reasons of infringements of rule but not one was a branch that had voted for Byrne and complained that their date of return had been falsified. 25 cases of “Late” were noted by the scrutineers. Many wrong meeting nights had been declared or minor bureaucratic infringements discovered. This set of elections also saw the results of the 1961 Rules Revision Conference.
Byrne sent out a circular [dated 8th January 1962] that leant on the Winn judgement by saying that the new EC was “satisfied that there have been material breaches of rules” with regard to the ballot for the RRC. But no details were ever provided. Even though the November RRC had amended the EC’s almost dictatorial powers, the EC now determined that they did not feel bound by it.
When it came, the Margate 1962 special rules revision conference saw the ETU take a major turning point towards what would later be dubbed `business unionism’. Frank Chapple chaired the conference; `Electron’ made the unlikely judgement that “his skill in handling conference was admired and approved by the overwhelming majority of delegates of all shades of opinion”. [Vol.51 No. 12] The breath-taking cheek, arrogance and elision of reality through the playing with words that would become a hallmark of the ETU over the next 25 years now broke out into the union’s journal in a big way.
Apparently, the platform were never desirous of seeking to prolong the life of the current EC since a new rule doing this would only come into force after elections for a new EC! Whilst extending the period by more than double when a member who had failed to comply with the rule that paying contributions was a key requirement to be able to vote in the union was highly democratic; “to take away a man’s vote was the most serious punishment that could be inflicted in any society”!
The 1962 Rules Conference was stitched up in a fashion that would increasingly become familiar to labour movement activists over the next two decades or so as the ETU style. A clear plan to provide an in-built right wing majority was set about but in such a way that many activists backing the right did not even realise that a coup d’état had been performed.
The mathematics of the operation was clever. Generally, the larger branches tended to be the less craft-focused and the more proletarianised ones. The latter branches tended to work in co-operation with other unions, even the despised semi-skilled TGWU. The larger branches tended to have sizeable branch committees, with a wider range of activists involved, instead of the branch being a bit of a one-man band. This all resulted in a strong tendency for larger branches to be more militant. Right-wing inclined branches tended to be single town branches, where little industry existed but skilled electricians plied their trade as employees (and, increasingly, owners) of small businesses. In the 21st century much of the work they performed has either disappeared, rejected by the throw-away culture of planned obsolescence, or handled entirely by self-employed people who the ETU – right and left – of 1962 would not have considered to be bona- fide workers.
The rigging of the future of democracy in the ETU by Chapple and his coterie was based on reversing the balance of power in the union. Of the six or seven hundred branches of the union perhaps two-thirds were small branches and tended to be dominated by independent craftsmen. This did not mean by any means that two-thirds of the membership was in such branches, perhaps only 40% of the membership was in smaller, town-based branches. Whereas the rest of the branches were dominated by proletarian employees of large factories, most of who were employed in electrical engineering. The logic of this would see the future ETU (by then the EEPTU) finally give up the ghost and create the Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union (AEEU) in a merger with the engineering union.
The device was simple and even sounded vaguely democratic – Rules Conference delegates would be apportioned by one delegate per each branch, irrespective of its size. This was by no means since the Right favoured small branches out of principle; indeed, once firmly in control of the union, the Right would increasingly shift branches to becoming gigantic and remote from their members. The device employed was informed by a clever mathematics and the politics of this meant that it was a simple job to distort the voting strength of the Left and Communists by creating an imbalance in representation by favouring small branches.
Thus, branches with less than a hundred members would supply 178 delegates, representing 9,092 members. Branches between one and two hundred members would provide 126 delegates representing 18,000 members, whilst 46 branches that had between 200 and 250 members had 10,236 members in all. Thus, a total of 350 delegates would represent 27,328 members. This left 333 delegates to represent 215,567 members; a roughly equal number of delegates could represent only one-tenth of the membership.
THE AFTERMATH OF THE TRIAL
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 unions began their modern inheritance in the form of localised independent units that federated nationally to create a central framework. Central registers of members were actually rare before the 1980s so, most of the time, it was not even clear how many members a union really 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, as a by-product of seeking to establish a system that would intimidate workers away from taking industrial action.
Even then it would be necessary to accuse the biggest union in the country, the T&G, of a widespread culture of ballot-rigging under the leadership of Ron Todd, a man of impeccable integrity who was merely guilty of presiding over exactly the same election administration regime, with bewildering local variations in practices, that his predecessors, Cousins and Jones, had also operated under. It did not suit powerful forces in the early 1960s to pick a fight with a strong union such as the T&G, although twenty years later, different considerations would apply. For business, the press, and government, the ETU of the 1950s was, arguably, a powerful union, led by the `wrong’ people at the `right’ time.
Unquestionably, the ETU leaders were treated unjustly, no matter what they had or had not done, in that impossible standards were expected of them by the court and the media. The fact that they were mainly Communists enabled, it seems, any accuser to malign them with little or no evidence other than their politics. Yet, 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, from 2004, “Community – the union for Life”. Always a very right-wing union, BISAKTA managed to elect a section of its executive 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. Thus, all members’ votes would be cast in the manner determined by a branch meeting. This was not seen as rigging as such, although it would later to be accepted as such as in the 1980s case of the TGWU 5/35 branch. 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&GWU) 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 in BISAKTA, 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 has been claimed 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, almost certainly to protect the Party from undue comment and criticism, taking the whole blame and not public speaking about it ever again. It is known however that he privately vehemently denied responsibility for fraud, or even that it was possible outside of the anarchic incompetence that was the administrative system.
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.
This new court-imposed leadership now began to set their sights on a campaign to overturn an 8 to 3 left majority on the existing lay Executive Council in the elections due that December 1961. The press campaign, the expulsion of the ETU from the TUC in September, and the court pronounced ballot-rigging all worked to secure a 9 to 2 majority for the right. The EC then sacked McLellan and a year later expelled the President, Foulkes from the Union. Many names later strongly associated with the anti- Communist ETU had appeared in the trial – Lew (Lewis) Britz, Tom Breakall, and Mark Young of the Finchley branch. With Chapple’s election as Assistant General Secretary, Cannon’s election as General President, and Mark Young’s election as National Organiser, control was secured.
Mark Young had been expelled from the Communist Party for publishing a letter in the New Statesman in 1958 that would be a catalyst to further events. During 1959 and 1960, he had been responsible for circulating anonymous circulars accusing the Communist leadership of the ETU of undue patronage. His “Reform Movement” was what he dubbed an “open organisation to oppose the Communist Party in the ETU”. [Cyclostyled four-page sheet `M Young, 76, Gilders Rd, Chessington, Surrey’ ND, estimated late 1961] Attempts to get the right-wing together had seen some 65 and 72 attending two fringe meetings at the conference, which would have had hundreds of delegates.) It was claimed that the Reform Movement would be time-limited. If the Communist Party stopped its “secret activities” and restore “democratic principles”, it would be disbanded.
As an ETU official responsible for Heathrow airport, Mark Young became secretary of the employees’ side of the Aviation National Joint Council in the 1960s. When airline pilots left the NJC agreement in 1967, two strikes of British Overseas Airline Corporation (BOAC) pilots followed within a year. (BEA and BOAC was united with British European Airlines (BEA) under one board in 1972, and this entity merged with Cambrian Airways and Northeast Airways to form British Airways in 1974.) [HC Deb 17 June 1968 Vol 766 cc707-13 707] The Secretary of State for Employment, Barbara Castle, acknowledged the assistance of Mark Young with problems from airline pilots during this period. Though still working for the ETU, Young acted as an ‘honest broker’ between BOAC management and the pilots.
For two and a half years after Cannon’s death, Chapple held the two top jobs in the ETU at the same time, with not a sign of elections anywhere; indeed, his EC did away with the need with a rule change. After Cannon’s death, Mark Young emerged as Chapple’s main opponent in the struggle for the leadership but badly lost the election and was “subsequently sacked from his National Officer’s post”. Seeking to assume Cannon’s role, even he had argued that the pendulum had swung too far to authoritarian rule. [End the ban – Communist Party members of the EETPU present the case for equal rights in their union’, 1979.]
After a period of giving informal help to the British Air Line Pilots’ Association, during the course of which he helped avert a BEA pilots’ strike in 1972, Young left the ETU and was formally appointed BALPA’s General Secretary in 1974, dying in office in 1991.
Soon after the Winn judgement, a campaign committee was formed at a meeting held on 15th September. Only once the formal legal Appeal was over would it be legally possible for Byrne to hound his enemies once and for all and before that he also had to curb the EC. On the appeal against Winn, Jack Hendy received what must have been a most unpleasant letter from solicitors Seifert, Sedley & Co (most partners were Communists). The ETU had to put up some £12,000 in respect of its own costs and it is likely that this was tripled by the end of the case. Neil Lawson QC had a fee if 2,000 guineas up front and “Refreshers” of 150 guineas a day for a three week case. His junior, Ralph Milner, got two-thirds of his fee and there was also a `junior’ njdunior, Bernard Marder, and clerk’s fees as well. [Seifert, Sedley & Co letter 22 November 1961]
Although the EC had already decided well before the court case on a Rules Revision Conference to be held on 21s November, and branches had long been invited to submit amendments, Byrne wanted the whole thing re-opening. He was able to now to seek virtually dictatorial powers entirely on the basis of Winn’s decision that he had won the election, rather than opting for a decision that the election was unsafe.
At the EC meeting on 10th/11th July 1961, it was reported that the London Lift and Crane branch, of which Les Tuck (who had brought court action in November 1960) was branch secretary, had called for ballots held on June quarter night to be declared void on the grounds that nomination forms had been received late. Chapple moved this be supported, to no avail of course. [1961 Minutes 5 & 6; item 86(b)] By 12t August, the results of the ballots for delegates for the RRC were presented to the EC. [1961 Minute 9; item 135 at page 323] The scrutineers’ report was accepted unanimously.
On 12th October Byrne sought a legal judgement to force an early decision on the Appeal against Winn’s judgement. The effect would be to enable the prevention of the conference from proceeding on the grounds that the delegates had been elected during the period of Communist leadership “the delegates to this conference, who were elected in June 1961, are predominantly Communists”. He also claimed that his position as General Secretary had been `usurped’! As his petition put it: “the Executive Council of the Union proposed to set up a sub-committee, the purpose of which was to usurp my functions ” He also complained that the ETU EC now met fortnightly and his own actions were “supervised and circumscribed”.
Even so, steps were being taken to distance the union from the former defendants. [Minute No. 5 1961 item 78 and Minute No 9 1961 Item 143] The EC had empowered its sub-committee to take all necessary steps to progress the appeal by the union against Winn. It now reported that the ETU’s own appeal – as distinct from the appeal of the individual defendants – was that, if the election was fraudulent, “no person was duly elected General Secretary”. The committee recommended discontinuance of the Appeal, notwithstanding the fact that a definite arguable case could be made for the union’s position. The recommendation was based on the position that “maintenance of the Appeal could be seen as the perpetuation of a struggle as to who should hold the post of General Secretary, rather than as an effort to vindicate the reputation of the Union.” [Undated carbon copy of Report of Sub-Committee]
On June 3rd the EC voted 7 to 4 to charge Hendy with bringing discredit on the union as well as Jim Feather (Liverpool), Ron Sell (London), and Harry West (Manchester). The precise charge was “dereliction of duty as an Executive Councillor”. Sam Goldberg, a researcher at the ICI electronics division, was also barred from holding office for seven years, but the significant thing about this action was that it was long enough to debar Hendy for two successive Presidential terms. Effectively, Hendy would be out of contention for the leadership until 1972 and he could only then be able to stand if he maintained an electrician’s career.
They weren’t the only victims, F Fraser (Preston) was barred from holding office for five years and, in a retrospective act of vindictiveness, Bob Carr of Jarrow for four years. This was just the start of what Hendy called an “act of terrorism and fear”. [Guardian June 4th 1962] It would be nothing set against the intensity of the following three decades.
The anti-Byrne majority on the EC came up with a proposition to create sub-committees for the journal, for union staff, and for issuing head office communications. The idea was put that these committees would work with the court-declared newly elected general secretary. The left viewed this as a gesture of collectivity and acceptance of Byrne’s election; the right saw this as an insult, since they wished to see Byrne in absolute control. On the EC’s proposition being put to the 1961 policy conference at Southsea, the vote was 216 for and 145 against.
The union’s executive elections were conducted under new procedures and with massive media support, which saw the hard right win nine out of eleven places on the executive.
The EC meeting on 2nd January 1962 decided to set aside the November 21st to 30th 1961 Rules Revision Conference and hold a new one. The left sought a high court writ against the aim of the new EC’s aim of overturning the decisions of the Rules Revision Conference. But it was not going to be so easy, even though the right had forced two separate ballots, and a national scrutiny of the last one, along with their own unsuccessful court action. The powerful London Press branch of the union, in the shape of its secretary, Edward Bright, launched this campaign along with Jack Hendy and Charles Corcoran. [Circular `Defend the union – defend the rules’ ETU London Press Branch, 18th January 1962]
Chapple was already to the fore in this case, whereby the ETU argued that the RRC had not been elected within the rules. Some nine individual points were cited as problems but some of these problems were small. It was claimed that, out of the delegates elected, two were not entitled to stand, the handling of substitute runners-up for four who could not attend was deficient, three elected delegates were on the wrong electoral roll.
These marginal difficulties were accompanied by reference to “a considerable number” of cases of delegates “fraudulently rejected”. This despite the fact that the EC that had approved arrangements for the RRC had included Chapple, who had voted for the adoption of all the points he now cited as reasons to cancel the decisions of conference. The EC even postponed the annual conference normally due in May 1962.
It was by no means supposedly tame left wingers who aided the Communists; one branch secretary from Ebbw Vale, one Colin Hudson, wrote to Jack Hendy that, although he was not a Communist, his commitment to trades unionism left him “shamed by this right wing group of individuals” who had brought a proud union so low. [Letter from Colin Hudson to J Hendy 6.1.62]
Hendy was refused legal aid to pursue a case against the new right wing leadership of the ETU on the grounds of it being “unreasonable that (he) should receive legal aid in the particular circumstances of the case”. [Law Society document 8 February 1962] In contrast, the motives of the new leadership were clearly what Jack Hendy called (in his private notes of appeal) “prejudiced self-interest”. Messrs Lawford, for whom Cannon acted as a solicitor’s clerk were even subsequently appointed the ETU’s solicitors.
The book about the trial, written from an intensely anti-Communist and anti-ETU perspective, “All those in favour” by C H Rolph, Andre Deutsch (ETU edition) Rolph, was widely distributed by Byrne, one might have normally written `despite’ the defamatory statements in it against, for example, Jack Hendy who had been effectively exonerated by Winn, albeit with distaste. But `despite’ would be the wrong word, Byrne bought thousand of this book precisely because it contained defamations that Hendy could not possibly afford to contest in court, not having the kind of funds needed for a such a challenge that, seemingly Byrne and Chapple could risk in launching their legal campaign.
A letter from Hendy’s solicitor to Andrew Deutsch, the publishers of `All those in favour’, noted the failure on pages 8 and 9 to differentiate between those defendants who were found guilty and Hendy who had been unambiguously found not guilty. The book hinted that the a plan for a “come back” involving Hendy as a candidate was likely and it would be accompanied by “as much as local trickery as Communist Branch Secretaries are allowed to get away with”. [Letter of 19t March 1962] Moreover, page 184 of the Rolph book stated: “And after further questions about the fraudulent disenfranchisement for which he was responsible, Mr Hendy faces this final one with the judge.” Needless to say, without unlimited funds behind him, there was little Hendy could do. The blatant libels remained, although the numbers of books sold, outside of the bulk purchase from Byrne, thankfully did not recycle the lies that much.
Eleven members of the Croydon area committee of the ETU were obliged to attend the EC to face charges of bringing the union into disrepute after they had attended the union HQ to protest at the sacking of MacLennan and the setting aside of the rules passed at the November 1961 conference. Chapple had already challenged the outcome of the conference on the grounds that some delegates were not properly elected. [Daily Worker 26th March and 31st March 1962]
On 23rd March 1962 Byrne wrote to Hendy advising him that he would be “called upon to answer the charge that you had knowledge of the fraudulent rigging of the ballot for the post of General Secretary in December 1959.” It was claimed that the February 1960 EC meeting that discussed the scrutineers’ report consciously sought to rig the result and Hendy was part of that. He had not made an objection to accepting the scrutineers’ report, indeed he had positively voted for accepting it. That and that alone, for the ETU leadership, proved that Hendy had participated in the fraud claimed by Justice Winn to have been perpetrated.
Even a cursory examination of the verbatim minutes of that meeting show an uncontested assertion from McLennan about the disputed election that the whole thing was effectively a mess: “RGM: Well, there was a whole number of branches disqualified as there usually is probably more so on this occasion because all kinds of people seem to have been having circuses running around the country trying to find out faults in ballots, and inevitably you are bound to get involved in more disqualifications in consequence.” [Verbatim minutes ETU EC 6th/7th February 1960]
Little wonder that there had been impatience to vote to accept the scrutineers’ report, Chapple was accused of making innuendoes, of holding up business of the EC for a whole hour at a time on arcane procedural arguments, disrespecting the chair. Foulkes even accused Chapple of being perpetually “cheeky”! Clearly, the fractiousness of the man who would become everyone’s idea of the Ian Paisley of trades unionism got to the normally calm and magisterial ETU President.
Moreover, cleverly, the new ETU leadership leaned on Justice Winn’s biased ambiguity. As well as seeming to exonerate Hendy, Winn had also said that given “such intelligence and so much experience of Union affairs that it is contrary to the balance of probability that he was ignorant of the rigging”. [A comment from `Vic’ attached to letter of 23.3.62 to Hendy, which he kept, stressed that this was being relied on by Cannon and Chapple long after the trial had finished.] This was merely a vague suspicion rather than any clear judgement of evidence and, by any standards of fairness, ought not have been in the judgement. Since Winn doubted that the test of “whether (Hendy) knew the method (of rigging) and participated actively in it” could be applied to him, he did not find him guilty.
By the time that the issue was being aired through written exchanges from each side’s solicitor (P R Kimber of Temple Gardens for the new right wing leadership of the ETU and F H Loeffler of Garber, Vowles & Co for Hendy, the issue had become the musing by Winn that, were he not forced to use the standard of evidence that he was (bear in mind it was civil law and therefore much weaker than it would have been in criminal law) he would have “found each of them guilty: each gave materially untrue evidence to the Court”. [Letter 2.5.62 from P R Kimber in reply to Garber, Vowles & Co letter to ETU of 27t April 1962]
But this evidence was deemed untrue because Winn guessed that it was, mainly since they were so much intelligent men that they could not have genuinely believed what they said – in Winn’s opinion. Although he hadn’t got to use the strongest possible kinds of test, such as beyond all reasonable doubt, he nonetheless had to rely on some standard of evidence and Winn hadn’t got any evidence before him. So he’d found Hendy innocent. Yet the ETU now sought to punish Hendy further by relying on some throwaway remarks by the judge that amounted to a suspicion that something smelled fishy. That the union’ leadership forced their legal representatives to come up with this rubbish is more saddening than outrageous.
On the 9th July 1962, Byrne wrote to all branches claiming that Hendy had sent out an unofficial circular and seeking confirmation that they had received such. The Bristol branch, which had invited him to visit their weekly meetings, did not seem much put off by Byrne’s approach, since they would be “appealing against all Exclusions and deprivation of rights taken by the present iconoclastic Executive Council”. Even so, as William Pugh, the assistant branch secretary discovered when his superior was away at Esher for a week, the secretary of the branch had written to head office at the very same moment he was inviting Hendy to visit. Not knowing this, as Hendy put it in his reply to the branch secretary accepting the invitation to speak, “offences are being invented as required to suit the circumstances and the individual”. Shortly after this, the assistant branch secretary privately contacted Hendy to warn him that head office had been alerted to his coming to the branch meeting: “You will be welcomed by a large part of the membership (and perhaps by somebody from the EC.) That is if they don’t think up some charge against you in the near future”. It was, of course, entirely prophetic. [Harold Knott letter to JH 14 July 1962; JH letter to HK 22 July 1962; William Pugh letter to JH 2nd August 1962].
“Electron”, the ETU monthly 34-page journal only gradually shifted from being a serious magazine – albeit sometimes with light-hearted pieces and cultural reviews – into a more evident mouthpiece of the union bureaucracy after Byrne and even more so after Chapple. The most obvious intervention was the reservation of the whole centre pages for a signed `editorial opinion’ from the General Secretary, written in very large and bold print in only a few words, rather in the style of a News of the World editorial, perhaps. But the union’s journal also became filled with pages and pages of technical articles on electrical practice, whilst commercial inserts for encyclopaedias and the like began to appear.
Byrne in the February 1962 `Electron’ wrote that the January 4th Daily Worker full page editorial was a “blistering attack on the Executive Council”. The EC had nullified the effect of the Rules Revision Conference because it considered there to be “grave violations of the Union’s rules in calling the conference”. The staggering claim was that “nearly half” of the delegates had been elected “in breach of rules”. The paper had also criticized what Byrne called the “termination of the temporary appointment of Mr R G McLennan”. Inventing a temporary post for the AGS was unbelievable, yet such a breath-taking revision of reality was rapidly becoming a hallmark of the new ETU, one that those who knew the union in the years from the right-wing take over to its merger with the AEU would immediately recognise. One might even call it a kind of `cheeky’ bombast. Seemingly, Bob MacLennan had shown “injudicious and injudicial partiality in deciding not to arrange an investigation of one case such as he had caused to be made in other cases”. [Undated contemporary account in the Daily Worker]
When one Eric Hammond defeated Les Tuck, the sitting EC member for South East London, Kent and Sussex, he was considered a left winger, perhaps mainly because he wasn’t formally part of the hard right faction. [The Times 2.12.63] This did not last and when, finally, Eric Albert Barrett Hammond, OBE, (1929-2009) became general secretary of what was by then the EETPU, succeeding Chapple in 1984, there was no doubting that his right-wing extremism was such that he now made Chapple seem positively militant.
Many on the left who were active at the time will recall during the debate at the 1984 TUC on the titanic struggle by the National Union of Mineworkers in their year-long strike to defend their industry, jobs and communities, Eric Hammond sneering at the miners as “lions led by donkeys” as he contemptuously stared at the powerful triumvirate in front of him of Arthur Scargill, Mick McGahey, President and Vice-President, and Peter Heathfield, General Secretary. Ron Todd, General Secretary of the Transport & General Workers Union and a noted animal lover mounted the platform to declare, to rapturous applause: “I’d rather be led by a donkey than by a jackal.”
Only once Hammond retired in 1992, giving his union over to sympathetic right-wing colleagues from the engineering union in the new AEEU merger was it possible to think of the legacy of the1961 ballot as beginning to pall. Back in the early 1960s, although no documentation as to supposed Communist plotting to rig ballots arose during the trial, or ever since for that matter, even transcripts of bugged conversations, “like the conjurer producing the proverbial rabbit from the hat (Cannon) suddenly announced the discovery of a Communist Party document that was alleged to have been circulated throughout the union”. [Typescript account `Where is the ETU going?’ from Jack Hendy’s papers] Although no-one was able to view the document `discovered’ by Cannon, it was used by the leadership as the excuse to go to a contrived ballot on whether Communists should be permitted to hold office in the union, a position endorsed by 42,187 to 13,187 votes.
After a rank-and-file circular had gone around branches putting a case against new rule changes being put forward in Electron, the official ETU journal, the newly right-wing dominated Executive decided this constituted “outside interference by the Communist Party in the internal affairs of the ETU calculated to determine a substantial part of the agenda of the Rules Revision Conference”.
Cannon’s `modernisation’ plan saw the EC become full-time officers, large branches be administered by Full Time Officials, area committees abolished, all endorsed by rules revision conference at the Isle of Man. A style of controlling and administratively-bound approaches to internal union organization was ushered in, whereby members were not burdened with lengthy debates, amendments were not allowed, and the management of union administration became the be-all and end-all.
By mid-August 1962, when George Scott was banned from holding office for bringing the union into disrepute he had already received more nominations for the position of Assistant General Secretary than Chapple, who was still a personal assistant to Byrne.
Hendy wrote to the apparently friendly Bristol branch on 22nd July 1962 noting that the General Secretary had written to all branches claiming that he had sent out an unofficial circular. “This seems to confirm my own impression (1) that Big Brother is now watching the branches for any sign of militancy and (2) that offences are being invented as required to suit the circumstances and the individual.” What he called the “drumming out of the men who broke the wage-freeze” should at last make clear what the purpose of the campaign to destroy the ETU was. “Head Office seems to imagine that circulars framed on the model of items in the News of the World are a substitute for action on economic issues.”
The minutes of the union now changed out of recognition. A report of the hearing of the charge against Jack Hendy at the EC of 2nd June 1962 was complained about by him and his branch. The lengthy statement read by Hendy, which drew attention to prejudice on the part of those who formulated the charges, was not mentioned. A statement that Hendy had “said he had done nothing to counteract the allegations against the Union of fraud and ballot-rigging” was not prefaced by the question asked which referred to allegations made prior to 1959 and which were held by Winn not to be founded in fact. Not only did Hendy deny being part of a Communist organisation designed to rig the ballot, he denied that any Communist organisation had ever existed for such a purpose, a stance on which he “relied upon the findings of the Judge in this regard”. Moreover, neither did Hendy say at the EC hearing that Communist meetings were held to consider ETU elections but, instead, he had positively asserted that Communists had as much right as anyone elseth to “concert their policy”. [EC minutes No 7 Item 133c, page 164; Letter JH 24 September 1962; EC minutes No 102 item 39, page 28]
At the meeting of the EC held 2nd/3rd June 1962 Chapple moved a motion that Foulkes resign, which was carried by 7 votes to 4. It was suggested Foulkes might cite illness as reason for leaving the post but he rejected this as dishonest. Resignation was not acceptable since he insisted he had no knowledge of electoral fraud and had in fact been the victim of a miscarriage of justice brought about by the very conspirators now hounding him on the EC. Running in an election held to clear his name was an attractive option but the difficulty was that the union’s rules only would allow him to resign and then re- run for election after a three years gap but that would leave him already over the retirement age.
Byrne then revealed that he had obtained a legal opinion that Foulkes could be expelled from the union under Rule 38, which would normally be used to discipline lay members. The appropriate rule for officers would be Rule 12 but this would permit Foulkes, within 14 days of a charge being made, to appeal to the membership by opening a ballot of confidence. It would have been a difficult fight but Foulkes was popular, Haxell had gone, and many who had not supported the defendants thought Foulkes was being unfairly treated by the new leadership. Since the TUC had called on the ETU to invite Foulkes to submit himself to a ballot, this would meet that call. But the right wing of the ETU were not about to provide such a gift to the Left and to the Communist Party!
Even if the switch from Rule 12 to Rule 38 had been a fair move, which it most certainly wasn’t, both rules provided for security of employment, in the case of officers with the union in the case of members in a union-controlled establishment, until the outcome of all disciplinary matters. These clauses were simply flouted by the EC and other than the Daily Worker, no newspaper, or legal forces paid for by unknown means, or other agency came to the defence of those who would have sought justice.
Foulkes announced his intention of applying for legal aid to fight for the pension rights denied him. The new right wing leadership immediately made a number of changes to the union’s pension fund. These changes guaranteed future pensions for the dependents of the new leaders but withdrew rights for the dismissed leaders. This was completely contrary to announcements made to the press that a `humanitarian’ approach had been made as regards Foulkes’ pension arrangements. The decision to expel, taken in July, was not circulated to branches until November, Foulkes’ statement of defence was even deliberately omitted, and the appeals procedure stretched in time beyond belief. It was not until January 1964 that the first stages of the Appeals machinery were reached and no ballot ensued since so many branches had been rules out of order on technical grounds.
Foulkes’ pension, agreed in July 1962, was terminated without explanation in April 1964 and Foulkes was sent his full personal contributions to the pension scheme, which had been made by him over twenty years, without interest and less income tax and national insurance. The Sunday Telegraph ran a report, no doubt on the basis of information supplied to it by the ETU, that a “decision had been taken on Foulkes’ pension” but no meeting of the union’s pensions body ever took place to make such a decision. Furthermore, no answer to any query about any of this was ever given by the union.
The right-wing EC was narrowly defeated at the 1963 conference when it proposed support for union participation in the NEDC. Despite making what many thought to be the best speech of the conference, Tom Breakell moved one motion that was lost by 310 votes to 302.
Another motion focused on opposing participation in the National Economic Development Council (NEDC), a corporatist tripartite economic planning forum set up in the 1962. The system of government consulting with unions and employers continued during the 1970s governments of Edward Heath, Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. Margaret Thatcher removed the role looking at the overall economy, leaving sectoral structures in place but even these were finally abolished by John Major in June 1992. The motion to the ETU conference not only opposed the NEDC but also called for “strengthened trade union organisation operating in a framework of untrammelled collective bargaining” and was carried against the platform’s recommendation by 320 votes to 283. Another reversal for the right was in voting for the new 11-strong appeals committee; five places were up for election and four of these went to the left. It is possible that these experiences led to the withdrawal of Tom Breakell from the contest in the hope that he might win the support or neutralise the opposition of the right so as to win a future Presidential election. [The Guardian May 30 1963] Les Gregory, national officer, and Eric Elsom, Sheffield area secretary were to be the other candidates.
In April 1962, the four who had been identified as guilty of electoral fraud by Winn were expelled from the union. Then, in May 1962, the ETU EC charged seven members (one current and three former EC members) with disciplinary offences, although the vote only went through by six votes to four, probably since Winn had actually found that there was insufficient evidence that any of the four were guilty of conspiracy. Not that that restrained Cannon, Byrne, and Chapple in any way. A charge of bringing the union into disrepute was enough for former EC members, Goldberg, Feathers, and Sell, with Harry West being the remaining member of the EC. Branch secretaries Bob Carr, whose case was discussed earlier, (Jarrow), F Fraser (Preston), E H Welton (Southend electronics) made up the total to seven. [The Times May 7th 1962]
The new executive of the ETU on a vote of eight to three expelled Haxell, McLennan, Fraser, and Humphrey. [Daily Worker 2 April 1962] Hendy would be allowed to attend the EC to answer charges against him. “I’m an obstinate fellow”, Foulkes was quoted as describing himself when challenged to resign by the press. More damagingly, the Daily Mail kept calling him “the chief judge” of the union, when reporting on the bannings from office that now came thick and fast. [Daily Mail June 4th 1962] Frank Foulkes issued a press statement on 14th September 1962 denying that he had received any kind of pay out for losing his position. An impression had been created by Byrne on 9th July that Foulkes would have a £750 a year union pension, supposedly conceded to him on humanitarian grounds. This was widely reported in the media.
Contests for electoral positions now became fraught for the left. J McKernan EC member for N Ireland and a Communist held his seat by a four to three majority. But the right captured the East Anglian seat which became vacant when Chapple became AGS. This was the start of the tag extensively used by the vicious right for the next 20 years, “Communist-supported”, even when the opponent was a mildly leftish Labour Party member. [The Times 2 December 1963]
By 1964, the new leadership of the ETU clearly felt that they were in danger of losing control. The purpose of introducing the ban on Communists holding office in the ETU, at a time when most unions were removing such bans is clear when considering the outcome of the 1961 Rules Conference. Whilst the ETU had a rule implying that its annual conference was the policy-making body in the union, unlike many unions an ambiguity had existed in the rule book. The ETU conference was held “to consider policy or special business”. It perhaps had not been significant when first written and, certainly, during the period of left control from 1945, no-one had doubted that what conference decided was union policy.
Perhaps sensitive to the shift towards authoritarianism indicated by the opposition in the ETU, which after Winn became the establishment, the left had clarified matters at the November 1961 Rules Revision Conference (RRC). Despite being claimed by the right-wing controlled new EC to be void, a Rule 19 was adopted at that RRC that made clear that conference was “supreme”. Moreover, an added item was the need for annual conference to review “the annual financial report and such matters as arise by way of appeal”.
Not only did the new EC wish to avoid the implications of this, they used the argument that some branches were collaborating around the supposedly abortive rule to claim that a massive Communist conspiracy was afoot. Even possessing a copy of the new 1961 rule was claimed to be evidence of conspiring, even though every branch had been sent a copy at the time. In this setting, the rule to ban Communists was proposed. At the same time, branches and members of different branches were forbidden to contact each other on pain of expulsion or ban from office. [Daily Worker July 24th 1964]
Cannon was opposed by Eric S Elsom and L J Gregory in the 1963 election for General President. Elsom had been a full-time official since 1954 and, in his election address, associated himself with “progressive policies” being opposed to wages freezes and incomes policies. He associated himself with a call for a returned Labour government and for policy determination by the union’s conferences. The smallest nod to his position vis-à-vis the cataclysmic experience the union had gone through was to state his intent to “create good will amongst our membership and unity of purpose in working together”. [ETU leaflet: Election of General President] Gregory was a Communist Party member, who had been a national officer since 1954. At only 48 years of age, he was nonetheless the most experienced and capable of any possible candidate. He had been elected the youngest EC member the union had ever had in 1938.
No sooner had the 1964 Wilson government been installed than Cannon pledged total and unconditional support; making it clear that it “should have the right to ask the trade union movement to agree to an incomes policy. Our union,” he said, “accepts that challenge”. Cannon saw such a policy as also having great connotations for not only the wages structure in society, with all that meant from a traditionally craft skilled union, the structure of the labour movement needed fixing, too. The TUC General Council structure dated from 1920 and he noted that the ETU did not have a representative either on that or on Labour’s NEC. It would take the right two decades to achieve Cannon’s objective on the former, whilst the union would also gain representation on the NEC in the end. [The Times 2nd November 1964]
Concession bargaining came first but, soon, the ETU and its future incarnations would rapidly shift towards business unionism. On Cannon’s personal intervention, in electricity supply, a 3-year agreement that came to an end in February 1966 was funded by an end to demarcation between five unions and increased productivity concessions. The union now demanded an end to opposition to “new ways”, calling it “ridiculous”. [The Times 3rd November 1964]
Byrne had been awarded two year’s salary and imposed as General Secretary by Winn. If it was the case that Byrne had been `elected’ in December 1959, then under the union’s rules he was due for re-election in December 1964. During the summer of that year, both Cannon and Chapple began signalling concern over the possibility that Byrne should have to submit himself for re-election at the end of the year.
George Tilbury, London area secretary, was being touted as a kind of compromise candidate by the left, who might position himself well for a future election even if Byrne did win. But he would then have to stand down, having reached the age of retirement, in 1966. The left still had three votes on the EC and the right was divided between an election in 1964 and finding a means to extend Byrne’s term artificially to 1966. In the event, after allowing the issue to float in the media to their advantage, Chapple and Cannon allowed Byrne to see out his time. [The Times June 1st 1964] Thus, in 1966, Byrne retired early on grounds of ill-health after he suffered a stroke, and Frank Chapple was elected General Secretary.
Appendices to Chapter 8
Leaflet – Communist Party Statement July 1964
Why the ETU Ballot?
Three years after it was elected on a policy of anti-Communism, and to promote democracy, the majority of the executive council of the Electrical Trades Union has embarked on one of the most sweeping attacks on members’ rights in the whole of British trade union history. When it was being elected it emphasised that it was not out to deprive Communists and Left Wing members of the union of their rights but merely to establish democracy and fair play all round.
Now, with a rules revision conference fixed for 1965, it is asking the membership to ballot on the proposition that all Communists in the union should be deprived of their rights to stand for union office at any level. Were this to succeed, the ETU membership would be deprived of the right to elect to union office without discrimination those whom it believes best fitted to represent its interests.
In short the executive council is claiming the right to incite one section of the membership to deprive another section of its democratic rights in the union.
All Progressives Menaced
It is true that the ETU president, Mr. Leslie Cannon, making a statement on behalf of the executive council, has disclaimed any intention of discriminating against other workers of Left Wing opinions. But every member in the union who is opposed to the present leadership is in danger of being deprived of his rights if the executive policy were to prevail. It is well known that once discrimination is practised against one section it becomes a precedent for acting against others.
As the Communist Party has been publicly attacked by this executive we claim the right to reply. Were the membership to vote for depriving the Communists of their rights the following would result:
A considerable number of courageous, efficient shop stewards, in whom the membership have every confidence, would be prevented from serving the union. They cannot easily be replaced. Numbers of branch officials, in whom the membership has repeatedly renewed its confidence, would be dismissed to make room for untried people.
Members who would have been elected to next year’s rules revision conference will be deprived of their rights to represent their branches. This could result in greatly changing the representation of the conference. Full-time officers, who have been re-elected over a number of years, would be removed from office. The membership has already the right to remove officers it objects to in periodical elections.
In short a regime inimical to any real brotherly democratic discussion and to all progressive thought would be established.
The Executive Council’s Excuse
The executive council’s justification for its action is that the Communist Party is interfering in the work of the ETU and is seeking to change the rules in a manner that would be against the best interests of the union.
The allegation, as reported in the Press, is that Communists who are not members of the union are being told about confidential union business and that Communist Party members in the union are being instructed by the Party as to how to carry on activity in the union.
The ETU executive is in possession of an anonymous document outlining certain proposed changes of rule, and is arguing that this document clearly comes from the Communist Party.
From these reports we gather that the principal proposition of this document is that there should be an annual conference, which would be the policy-making body of this union, and that the executive council is expected to carry out the decisions of this conference.
Certainly Communists believe in this principle, but so do most trade unionists, for it is a very old established principle in the trade union movement. Most large unions embody it specifically in rules.
The idea that Communists, not members of the ETU, have engaged in special activities to get this principle known and accepted in ETU branches is ludicrous, for this principle was definitely embodied in rules at the abortive rules revision conference in 1961 and was widely reported in the Press at that time.
Not all reported decisions were equally commendable but this one was.
The rules revision carried out at this conference was reported to all the branches at the time and was discussed throughout the union.
Why, therefore, was it not made clear to the Press conference that the proposals in the document are similar to, if not identical with, those adopted by the rules revision conference of 1961?
The propositions in the circular are inspired by union traditions and history; active members of the union of diverse political opinions were aware of them.
It would therefore be utter nonsense to suggest that they have been just injected into the union by outside Communist interference. The general secretary of the Communist Party has already stated that no such document was authorised by the Communist Party. The proposals advanced in the document are shared by Communists and non-Communists in all unions and not merely in the ETU. The executive council may not like the well-established, and in our view, democratic principles involved in the circular.
Judging from the reports of its Press conference, it objects to its general policy being governed by the decisions of an annual conference. But what the executive thinks is bad for it, or bad for its aims, is not necessarily bad for a union with the democratic traditions of the ETU.
A Healthy Democratic Trend
The more the executive emphasises the considerable number of branches which sent in resolutions on this principle, the more clear it becomes that this is a healthy, powerfully established trend in the union, which expresses the will of a large section of the membership.
The document, as disclosed at the Press conference, expresses a general trend in the British trade union movement.
Active workers in all unions are opposing the attempts being made by a section of the Right Wing to diminish the authority of the union conferences.
For it is at these-conferences that trade union democracy can find its fullest expression.
Whoever seeks to weaken the conference by ignoring its decisions is undermining the democratic basis of the union, reducing its powers of recruitment and is driving away thousands of potential members.
A growing number of members were evidently of the opinion that this was precisely the course on which the executive was embarking.
The Electrical Trades Union, in its conferences, has always rejected State restriction of wage increases, under whatever guise it was presented.
Yet at the Trades Union Congress the ETU executive, ignoring the decisions of the biennial conference of that year, cast the union vote for a form of wage restraint. Many union members understood the danger signal.
The Ballot Decision
The decision to hold a ballot to deprive members of their rights to elect whom they please to official positions drastically diminishes the authority of the rules revision conference and of the union branches.
A drastic change of rule is being proposed, not to a union conference, where its implications for the future of the union could be carefully examined and openly debated, but by a ballot in which the executive hopes to persuade members who do not normally attend union branches and therefore may not appreciate the full implications of the proposal, to vote for a ban on the basis of anti-Communism.
The executive council will no doubt state its case for discriminating against Communists to the membership. Will opponents of this discrimination be allowed to state theirs?
Every active trade unionist knows that the British trade union movement is facing great dangers, exemplified by the Rookes v. Barnard case and the decision of the Tory Government to conduct an inquiry into trade union organisation— an inquiry to justify a comprehensive and oppressive restriction of trade union activity. (Rookes v Barnard was an important case in labour law whereby the House of Lords established punitative damages against a union that it believed was guilty of intimidation by demanding an action from an employer. The case also touched on when punitive damages can be applied. Since the implications of the case were to diminish the ability of unions to take industrial action that damaged, lobbying saw a Labour government reverse the judgement by the 1965 Trade Disputes Act.)
Part of the trade union answer must be to base all trade union organisation and activity on the widest possible democracy, which means equality of rights for all members and the most careful safeguarding of these rights.
The ETU executive, by proposing a policy of segregation and apartheid with regard to a section of its members, is striking a terrible blow at the trade unions from within.
We are sure that the ETU membership will defend the democratic tradition of their union, will defend the British trade union movement by rejecting the dangerous and undemocratic proposals of the executive council, which can only weaken the British trade union movement as a whole.
Published by the Communist Party, 16 King Street, London, W.C.2, and printed by Farleigh Press (T.U.), Aldenham, Herts. CP/A/5/7/64
Clearly, this review of the effect of the shift towards the right in the ETU has to focus on the key personalities. But let us diverge for a short while to look at the effect on one relatively medium ranking Communist, barred from holding office in the ETU from 1965.
Freddy Gore had left school at the age of 13 in 1939 (since the school had no air-raid shelters!). He enlisted in the Royal Navy four years later, and served as a seaman torpedo-man for 2 years, often in the Pacific Ocean, and was demobbed in 1946.
Before debarment, Freddy Gore was a significant representative at what was then known as London Airport, or today as Heathrow. Entering the skilled section of the ETU in 1949, he soon became shop steward in a local factory and was convener there for four years. Obtaining work with British European Airways when the corporation transferred its engineering base from Northolt to London Airport, he was elected shop steward and then senior ETU shop steward. He was elected by ballot to the 1964 Trade Union Congress and had attended the union’s policy conferences regularly since 1960 and was a delegate to the special rules conference in 1962.
A member of his ETU area committee, he also represented the union on the Advisory Committee of the City and Guilds on Aeronautical Subjects. He served as Feltham branch chairman and secretary and was elected unopposed as secretary of the new London Airport branch of the union. His other jobs included secretary of the BEA Joint Shop Stewards’ Committee, chairman of the local engineering and maintenance panel.
In 1964, he featured In a BBC programme on the work of shop stewards. Gore had organised delegations of airport workers to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. [Daily Worker 28 August 1964]
OTHER BALLOT RIGGING CASES
In theory, a case such as Byrne & Chapple v ETU should never have happened again, although some repetition did arise. The main reason why there could not really be the basis for a similar trial was the establishment of the Trades Union Certification Office created by the Employment Protection Act 1975 and responsible for:
• maintaining a list of trade unions and employers’ associations
• receiving and scrutinising annual returns from trade unions and employers’ associations
• determining complaints concerning trade union elections, certain other ballots and breaches of trade union rules
• ensuring observance of statutory requirements governing mergers
• overseeing the finances of trade unions and employers’ associations
• certifying the independence of trade unions
The Certification Officer, David Cockburn, at the time of writing is not simply someone well-versed in law, he knows industrial relations and understands the ways of unions. He has chaired the Industrial Law Society (ILS), the Employment Lawyers Association (ELA), and the Employment Law Committee of the Law Society. He was also the founder treasurer of the Institute of Employment Rights. He is currently a vice-president of the ILS and the ELA and a member of the editorial board of the Encyclopaedia of Employment Law and the Industrial Law Journal. He is also a part-time chairman of Employment Tribunals and a Visiting Professor at the Middlesex University Business School.
But, even with the existence of this force, we have seen two other ballot rigging scandals, one concerning civil servants and another the T&G. There are aspects of the ETU ballot story that are very reminiscent in both cases.
In the 1980s, the shady outfit we met at the start of our story, IRIS, had a brief swan song chasing the Militant Tendency, a major entrist body from the Trotskyist tradition. Not only was Militant strong in some Labour constituency parties, it was also a force in the Civil and Public Services Association (which later merged to form the Public and Commercial Services Union – PCS).
In its interfering way, IRIS hit the jackpot once again, twenty-odd years after the Haxell-Byrne election over the election in 1986 of Militant-supporting John Macreadie as General Secretary. Press reports began to appear and demands for action, despite scant evidence for impropriety. Then the election was blocked by the courts, which ordered it to be re-run amidst claims of ballot- rigging. After intense controversy, attended to closely by the mainstream press, a right-winger won the general secretaryship with 42,000 votes to Macreadie’s 31,000, whilst a second left candidate obtained 13,000. But Macreadie won a ballot shortly after to become CPSA’s deputy general secretary and the left also later took control of the union’s National Executive Committee.
The second case took place in 1990. It concerned the Transport & General Workers Union and its elections for executive council seats, which had previously always been decided by a show of hands in a committee. The T&G did not now permit branch balloting and the sending in of results, as per the ETU, but a scandal hit the media after several thousand ballot papers being held at the union’s Central Office then in Westminster disappeared – 9,580 papers according to some reports. These were a reserve stock, presumably the current remainder of 10,000 printed and held so that members who did not receive ballot forms in the initial distribution could contact the union and be sent them. The truth is obvious to anyone who worked in the union’s head office back then. Anyone could have taken them but the pre-primed press spouted that it was the left.
It was said that four of the 39 EC seats being contested had been swung towards the Left as a result of the use of these spare ballot papers. In one of the nine or ten elections under suspicion, almost all of the ballot papers taken from this stock were cast in favour of the Left candidate, but it was still only enough to put him narrowly in the lead. A right-winger, who having been beaten would have immediately cried foul, obviously in a seat safely held such a contest. Not only would the result have been suspect, so too would the notion that a 100% turnout, for one candidate, could be recorded in a supposedly random set of papers arriving through the post. It seemed a move almost calculated to draw attention to that ballot. It had either been a very stupid act by a left-winger with no real grasp of our electoral system, or a stupendously clever act by a right-winger who knew it only too well. The former seems scarcely credible but few media outlets even considered the possibility of an alternative.
The Electoral Reform Society became immediately suspicious, when they saw a large number of papers consecutively numbered and in many cases marked with crosses in identical handwriting, exactly what you would expect with a moment’s thought. It is possible that it was all a set up by the right-wing faction, who were hoping to force re-runs in selected seats, narrowly held by the Left, or held by controversial characters, where they could damn our candidates as somehow being tainted by the very fact of re-run elections. Strange jokey comments had been made by right-wingers before the event, to the effect that they expected something of a coup.
Ron Todd openly accused the EEPTU of interference in a letter to its General Secretary. [Sunday Times 21.1.90] Certainly, Frank Chapple, by the evidence of his collection of now university-archived papers, collected a lot of material on this totally erroneous alleged malpractice. Whilst the News of the World printed the entire right-wing slate as a recommendation for its readers three times and most newspapers extensively and repeatedly commented adversely on the likely results and the conduct of the elections. [N o W 14.1.90, 28.1.90 and 25.2.90]
All this ballot interference on the face of it certainly didn’t seem the coherent act of a committed Left activist. If this was the `clever’ aim of the theft, Ron Todd certainly scuppered that by re-running the entire set of contests. [Independent 18.2.90; Birmingham Evening Mail 10.2.90] He bravely resisted all destabilisation pressures and subsequently made clear that the disputed constituencies that had been subject to tampering had not resulted in any different result, the same GEC would have been elected. It was a remarkable event, strongly suggesting that the Left had not been involved in skulduggery.
Ron Todd had weathered the storm arising from the flawed ballot, even though his every endeavour to arrive at a clean solution was disputed. The ballot having been re-run, the Sun had called for the police to step in and announced that a “top detective” was to interview Ron Todd and others. [Sun 13.3.90] As the results emerged, leaks to the media began again. The Daily Mail ran a piece headed “Left haunts Kinnock”, saying that he faced a resurgent Left in his own union. “The Left gained control of the ruling executive of the transport workers’ union – Britain’s biggest, and wielding a vital block vote at Labour’s conference.” [Daily Mail 27.3.90] In considering the argument that a second re- run ballot might lower turnout and affect the result adversely and unfairly for one candidate compared to another, Ron Todd explained that he and the ERS had looked in detail at a range of results and that the second ballot was a “total mirror reflection of the first”. Areas affected had been Textiles, Docks, Agriculture, Automotive, Building, ACTSS, Region 1 (inner), 5 (Southern), 6 (Merseyside). [GEC General Secretary’s debrief April 1990]
After the elections, the new GEC was now split 23 for the Left against 16 for the Right, compared to a 21 to 18 position before. [GS Diary 26.3.90] It had been an instructive contest. The Financial Times headlined the fact that “postal balloting may prove to be a mixed blessing”, given the clear evidence that the Left could still win them. Some of the seats contested, were close. The Docks and Waterways GEC seat was won by only eight votes! Left candidates in right-wing controlled areas did quite well. [Financial Times 28.3.90]
Perhaps the synergies will not be forgotten; there are simply too many coincidences between the first story, which was certainly tragedy, and the second, thirty years later, which was truly a farce. As well as the EEPTU being accused of involvement, there being missing ballot papers from head office, the News of the World’s involvement, and a disgruntled right wing faction. The likenesses are such that it is difficult not to begin to invent a back story involving a George Smiley character in one’s head but we probably will never know.
BY WAY OF CONCLUSION
Had there, then, been a massive fraud? Yes but not by Communists, manipulating votes and decisions of a union, debasing democracy as they did so. So what happened?
Take a branch like Bolton Supervisory; at their request, they were issued with 46 extra ballot papers additional to their previous membership and these seemed to have been used but by whom no-one will ever know. Yet Byrne and Chapple had made no complaint in law about that, no doubt since the branch had voted overwhelmingly for Byrne. The simple truth is that tweaking the results of branch ballots was open to both sides and many must have participated but probably far fewer than simply messed up the system by incompetence and inattention.
But to suggest that a wholesale plan existed is a big stretch and hardly proved at all by the court case. Had the test of criminal law been applied, and had there also been a complete absence of bias, and a true jury of their peers been summonsed, perhaps Jim Humphrey might have gone down as the fall guy. He seems to have had his fingers over ballot papers more than most but it is still difficult to judge him as anything more than complacent and, maybe, incompetent and/or inexperienced. Unless he was malevolently incompetent, always something rather difficult to distinguish from simply incompetence, as the modus operandi of all double agents proves. But it seems perverse to think many others could have been caught within the net.
Haxell seems guilty of a lack of politeness and a tendency to issue orders; call it ruthlessness, maybe, but there’s no evidence of this being anything other than a cutting-corners mentality. Fraser, the secretary of the Advisory, was perhaps too conscious of being an heir apparent, in waiting, as it were; but even his weaknesses seem to amount to little more than seeking to be a kind of `chip off the old block’. Foulkes was maybe only guilty of a charming insouciance about anything not directly related to the struggle ahead, and so on.
Yet, although most of the accusations of fraud were red herrings, it is clear that something improper existed somewhere. What had happened then? Either Humphrey, the relatively new Communist office manager had deliberately tampered with incoming ballots, or some clever mechanism to fake an attempt to defraud had been masterminded by Les Cannon. Or both possibilities occurred, somehow. Incidentally, little can be ascertained as to Humphrey’s activities after the right wing dismissed him from the ETU. He is likely to be the James A Humphrey who died in 1967, whose death was registered in the Elstree and Potters Bar district. If so, his short life span after the trial may explain his seeming disappearance from the scene and all subsequent post mortems.
Much was made of the fact that, for most years previously, the number of branches disqualified in elections had never been more than seventeen. The 1959 election had seen a massive rise in this number. Considering the high level of press interest in the election and that some eighty branches had taken part in the election that had not previously been much engaged, it was not surprising not only that some would get themselves entangled in the complexities of rules and procedures but that some degree of `over- enthusiasm’ might ensue. That this could be seen on both sides of the fence was not surprising. Nonetheless, a big disparity existed in those debarred that had voted heavily for Byrne than those who had voted Haxell.
This was perhaps the single most damaging accusation. But all this amounted to was a possibility that branches that would never have bothered entering the electoral race were encouraged by whatever network was master-minded by Les Cannon to have a go for a change. The effect of this was to see branches that did not really know the routine try to navigate through the enormous complexities that were the ETU’s electoral system. Put simply, most of Haxell’s branches had been encouraged, even trained, to know how to get through the taxing requirements, whilst most of Byrne’s branches were oblivious to this and completely puzzled as to why they ended up being debarred. It was easy to work the branch secretaries of these branches up into a frenzy of anti-Communist self-justification at it being someone else’s fault.
But consider the alternative, the reality of future history after Winn’s judgement. Effectively, the judge destroyed an independent and proud union. Democracy was destroyed in the ETU and its successors and members were told what to do by apparatchiks who may have been anti-soviet apparatchiks but they were apparatchiks to a man (no women, of course). The rules of the ETU were changed, banning Communists from holding office, from January 3rd 1964. 20 Communist Party members resigned from the Party, 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. Arthur Attwood (1913- 2008) was one full time officer who took a principled stand and resigned from office to return to his trade as an electrician, being very bitter about the lack of principle of some of his former comrades and colleagues. [For fuller biography of Attwood, see: http://goo.gl/DHofvV
By 1964, the leadership was already leaking the notion that it would seek to merge to grow. The idea of a “general union of craft unions” was aired. But it would be some thirty odd years before anything like this emerged and that would out of a sense of isolation and decline. [The Times June 15th 1964]
Chapple even went to the extent of writing threateningly to Hendy on 6th August 1964 over a letter he had written to the Daily Worker. All he wanted was to obtain Hendy’s confirmation that it was he who had written it and on what authority he had done so. Hendy coolly replied by admitting it was himself who had written the letter and that the authority was “that of the author”. [JH letter 8th August 1964]
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.
In the meantime, shut up or we’ll make you shut up became the (faux-Stalinist?) motto of the ETU, just as British Communism sought to ever more marry the nuances of Marxism with the British labour movement. As the Communist Party grew increasingly independent of Moscow, the ETU grew ever more focused on the needs of Washington. The merger with the plumbers was less about `industrial logic’ and more about shoring up the class basis of the right-wing within the union.
Even so, still feeling vulnerable, the right-wing leadership of the union sought even further rule changes in 1965 and it was ever thus. Whenever there was any sense that the left, or even forces that valued trades unionism independent of bosses and government, looked like they were getting too strong, something would be done to change the goal posts in favour of the now established order.
Thus the 1965 ETU Conference was deliberately held on the Isle of Man, which was then relatively difficult to get to and thus was far away from the possibility of demonstrations. The right wing only narrowly won a majority for the two rule changes they proposed. The 32 rank-and-file Area Committees that linked members in different branches were abolished, a vote agreed by 325 votes to 242, whilst the rank-and-file Executive was ended to be replaced by a full-time one. Also, members were forcibly moved from branches that they had been in for most of their working lives into branches based on trades rather than geography. The EC even peremptorily told 33 London branches that they were to be merged into 15.
In the arena of electrical contracting, the contrast with the previous union leadership could not have been greater. In 1968 a no-strike agreement was agreed with the employers, which affected 30% of the wages and conditions of its 100,000 members who worked on building sites. From here on, the Joint Industry Board deal was promoted by the ETU, and its subsequent incarnations, as a model way forward. Ordinary electricians were increasingly denied a voice in the JIB, which stitched up everything in the interests of the employers and the union bureaucracy, not the workers.
The Electrical Contractors Association (ECA) was happy to sign this agreement that covers all electricians on construction sites, since it was based upon a New York sweetheart deal. Under the terms of the JIB, employers paid the union subs for each worker covered by the agreement, which would have brought in hundreds of thousands of pounds a year for the union. Membership of other unions was vehemently discouraged by employers. But the workers in the sector were none too happy about the move, protest meetings were held up and down the country – 2,000 attended a meeting in the Matrix Hall, Coventry.
In July 1968, by virtue of the merger with the Plumbing Trades Union, the union was transformed into the “Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbing Union”, known widely as the EETPU. This union went on to cause the abolition of rank and file area committees, the closing down of branches, especially any that opposed the new leadership, the abolition of the election of officials in favour of appointments, a full time executive, the abolition of a rank and file appeals committee, and the end of elected trustees. A once proudly militant union became a mouthpiece for the government within the trade union movement, whether it was incomes policy or anti-union laws, the ETU put the case that suited business and government. In time, it turned out to not even matter whether it was a Labour or a Tory government.
Yet the very existence of the union was massively challenged in a way that simply adopting a pro-employer stance could never aid. New technology and globalisation increasingly rendered craft in the manufacture of goods obsolete and then UK manufacture itself redundant in favour of the globally extended supply line. Electricians in electrical supply – and many other sectors – became all-grades workers. Whilst those electricians that remained (outside of the new- build construction sector), increasingly became all-purpose self-employed handymen.
Craft engineering workers were hardly in a much better position. The foundry workers union joined the AEU in 1967, followed by the draughtsmen and then the construction engineers. In 1971, the resultant federation became known as the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW) but the draughtsmen (known by now as Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Staffs – TASS) demerged and went on to grow and then itself to merge with another union to form Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF) in 1988.
The demise of the EEPTU arose from its role in the newspaper publishing industry, which led to conflict with sister unions in the sector, then a willing role as a scab agent, and finally as a purveyor of no-strike deals that would eliminate competition from major trade unions. Far from saving the electricians’ union from extinction, the raucous behaviour of the EEPTU leadership merely seemed to encourage hostility from the wider movement.
Tension between the EEPTU and print unions had been brewing for some time when, in 1982, SOGAT found itself in a major row over `poaching’ at the TUC when 900 Fleet Street electricians left the 1,300 strong EETPU Press Branch over what they termed “political intimidation” and applied to join SOGAT’s London Machine Branch. The final straw for many EEPTU members had come after their branch defied a court order under the 1980 Employment Act, taking illicit sympathetic strike action with national health workers then in dispute. Sean Geraghty, the main local official of the EEPTU London Press branch, and father of the chapel at the Daily Mirror, then in Fleet Street like all major papers, was nearly imprisoned.
Originally, the main printing unions, the NGA and SOGAT, had supported the call for an official solidarity stoppage with NHS workers, but had backed off when faced with injunctions. But after visits by delegations of nurses, the tight- knit and traditionally militant electricians decided to go ahead. London editions of the main national papers were prevented from being printed.
To do this, the EEPTU branch had to disobey an injunction obtained by the Newspaper Publishers’ Association (NPA) to stop the threatened twenty-four hour strike on 11 August. 1982. Summoned to appear before the high court on a contempt of court charge following their secondary action, Sean Geraghty found himself speaking to a mass demonstration outside the court. Inside, the judge imposed only a small fine of £350 and ordered to pay court costs. Geraghty and the union branch refused to even consider paying this. But an ‘anonymous donor’, reputed to be the head of a big printing company, paid it off, presumably on behalf of the print employers, presumably to evade further lost editions.
But instead of receiving support from their union nationally, the EETPU’s general secretary, Frank Chapple, disowned the branch’s action. This provoked some 900 electricians who finally had had enough with the vicious right-wing leadership of the EETPU to leave it. The EETPU, in turn, demanded that the TUC took immediate action against SOGAT over its alleged Communist plot! SOGAT insisted that they had only accepted into membership those electricians who had previously and individually left the EETPU; therefore they were non-unionists when they applied to join them. [Tribune 2nd September 1983]
In response to demands for tougher action from the union movement, the TUC called an official day of action on 22nd September 1982. Massive numbers of workers took illicit strike action in solidarity, the Financial Times suggesting as many as two million were out. Even the Daily Mirror called it a ‘great day’. The EEPTU did not think so and was already gearing up to become, not the conscience of the labour movement as the brave words during the 1961 trial had it, but the filthiest, most corrupt, and most wretched scab operation of all time.
Chapple eventually handed over the reins to Eric Hammond, who was elected general secretary of the EETPU in 1984; already, as a member of the TUC general council from 1983, he showed himself willing to support some aspects the Thatcher Government’s anti-union law, particularly those that directed state funds for union ballots. This act of treachery and the attitude to the miners at the 1984 TUC, as we have already seen, was anathema to the entire congress, save the EEPTU delegation. It was the beginning of the end of the EEPTU as even the shell of a trade union.
In July 1985, Hammond even thought of setting up an alternative trade union centre, splitting the TUC. In his autobiography, `Maverick, The Life of a Union Rebel’, he wrote: “What better start, I thought, than striking at the heart of the Left, and giving one of its safe havens, the print unions, a bloody nose?” Thus, Hammond held secret talks with Rupert Murdoch, proprietor of The Times, The Sunday Times, News of the World and The Sun. The role of the EETPU in recruiting staff to help to launch and operate the Wapping plant was crucial. Hammond offered to supply members of the EEPTU to run a single-union, no strike plant for News International titles at Wapping. During the dispute with print unions that inevitably followed on January 21st 1986, the EETPU scabs were managed personally by Hammond and equipped by the EEPTU with the skills required to install and operate presses that were more electrical and less mechanical, so that they would do the work of printers.
Notoriously, the Wapping dispute was a decisive moment for the EEPTU and for the print unions. On 24 th January 1986 some six thousand newspaper workers went on strike; typists, telephonists, clerks and cleaners, as well as printers were out on strike. Then it was discovered that News International, infamously chaired by Rupert Murdoch, had secretly built and set up a new printing plant in Wapping to produce the Sun, the Times, the Sunday Times, and the News of the World. As a feint, Murdoch had let the world think that the new plant was to be used for a new London evening newspaper. Only with the active connivance of the EETPU was Murdoch able to carry out his plan to have what was effectively a non-union workforce.
Dismissal notices were served on all those taking part in the industrial action. In support of the sacked workers, print unions organised regular demonstrations and called for a boycott of the four newspapers involved. Notoriously, a massive police operation bludgeoned demonstrators to ensure they were not able to stop the movement of newspapers from the plant by sheer weight of numbers. After a year of picketing, the strike was eventually wound up on 5th February 1987. In the aftermath, within the wider labour movement, neither Murdoch nor the EEPTU were viewed with anything other than complete contempt from here on.
But, if Hammond had hoped to form a major foothold for the EETPU as a general union, he did not succeed. This promoted even more outrageous behaviour that targeted all unions as the EEPTU simply set out to steal members from other unions. This, the EEPTU finally came a cropper with its unprincipled and provocative policy of stealing recognition agreements from other unions in all manner of industrial sectors that it had little to do with and had no members in by making no-strike deals with companies. Eventually, it was expelled from the TUC in 1987. The particular issues that led to this were at Yuasa, a Japanese battery company, Thorn-EMI, and Orion, a Japanese electronics company.
The EEPTU now began to acquire a hostile and aggressive reputation towards the entirety of the rest of the trade union movement. In the case of Orion Group Ltd, the T&G had recruited 38 members out of a workforce of just over a hundred. A petition signed by 78 employees called for T&G recognition and limited stoppages had even taken place in support of this demand. Yet the EEPTU was called in by the employer and signed a recognition agreement when it did not have a single member. In another, Christian Salveson, a distribution company with depots nationwide, all of the employees were members of the T&G and to a lesser extent USDAW and the GMB. Then the EEPTU signed a single union no-strike deal covering two new depots, threatening the entire future of the joint recognition of the three unions.
In April 1989, the AEU’s policy-making National Committee voted 61 to 58 not to proceed with talks to merge with the EEPTU. Eric Hammond’s response, referring to the narrow majority of the democratic vote, was “can three people determine the policy of a 800,000 strong union? That is no way to run a union.” Perhaps the majority of AEU activists had no wish to be led by Eric Hammond? The behaviour of the union leader who had been expelled from the TUC only nine months before was almost calculated to create hostility. Little wonder that a leaflet circulated in the AEU opposing the merger: “We don’t need a bosses union”.
Around this time, the EEPTU signed a single-union, no-strike deal for a south Wales food processing plant, an industry dominated by the T&G. The agreement covered 150 workers at the Sun Valley Food plant and was won after a “beauty contest” between the EEPTU and the T&G. The latter union already represented 3,200 workers at Sun Valley’s poultry plant in Herefordshire and the UK company was wholly owned by Cargill, a US agricultural conglomerate. The hope of the ETU was that the South Wales agreement would put them in pole position for another new factory, set to employ some five hundred new employees. EEPTU officials were quoted as saying that they thought all this might lead Sun Valley to “review union recognition at its Herefordshire factory”. [Financial Times 15th May 1989; The Times 15th May 1989]
This was a medium-sized craft union actively seeking to morph into a large-sized general union. But its unique `selling’ proposition was to be an aggressive, pro-employer. Whilst this brought it a flood of mergers with tiny anti-strike house unions, or more nicely `staff associations’, mainly for managers, it did not bring numbers.
When the EETPU was finally expelled from the TUC for this behaviour, a small number of its members finally took the opportunity to leave. Some six thousand Fleet Street electricians decamped to the Society of Graphical and Allied Trades (SOGAT), a print union that by merger would eventually end up back in the same union as the bulk of the EEPTU members! This process began when SOGAT merged with the National Graphical Association to form the Graphical, Paper and Media Union in 1992. In the meantime, the renamed AEU and the EEPTU merged in 1992 to form the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU), which then merged in 2001 with MSF to form Amicus. Then GPMU subsequently merged with Amicus, which itself engaged in a merger process with the T&G from 2007-2011 to form Unite – the union, only now finally complete in 2010-11 with a single leadership, which now has a Graphical, Paper and Media industrial sector.
Back in 1988, TUC loyalists in the EETPU announced a three-phase plan for a new electrical and plumbing union having concluded that “if members of the EETPU should be allowed the chance to remain loyal to the TUC, there will be a need for them to be able to associate with a recognised trade union alternative. [J Aitkin circular letter dated 20th July 1988] TUC unions subsequently established electrical sections for EEPTU members to join; the next stage would then be a federation of such sections, finally a new Electrical and Plumbing Industries Union would be established to which the `holding’ unions would transfer members.
Some four thousand EEPTU members formed the new Electricians and Plumbers Industrial Union, which held observer status at the TUC, not being truly self-sufficient initially. Holding sections for EPIU members were set up by the T&G and other general unions but once EPIU had settled down these were disbanded. In time, the EPIU merged completely with the T&G. Of course, the creation of Unite saw the reunification of all electricians back into one union.
Unite’s restructured 23 industrial sectors now include both Electrical Engineering & Electronics, with about six thousand members, and Energy & Utilities with about 12,000 members, many of whom were never – or would never have been – in the ETU or EEPTU. Some electricians are undoubtedly scattered amongst other Unite sectors, especially in the 20,000-strong construction sector. But it would seem a stretched estimate to say that Unite currently has 25,000 of the kind of members that the ETU had in 1961 when the right began their forty year period of domination. That’s a tenth or less the size of the union that Haxell and Foulkes led. The conclusion is that the kind of ETU Cannon and his allies had in mind for the future was always likely to be doomed. Only the serious support of employers gave it artificial sustenance so that it lasted as long as it did.
So was it all worth it? Presumably Sir Leslie Cannon and Lord Chapple thought so. As Jack Hendy wrote, in an undated (other than that was a November 9th) letter to the Times, presumably apropos a debate about national adversity and how “we” and “our” were terms always employed, the working class was seen as a mere factor to be exploited as needs be. As he put it:
Hence the well-known shop floor ditty:
Here lies poor Jack
Who did his best;
But got the sack,
Like all the rest.
It could be said, perhaps, that Jack Hendy and his comrades were treated by his union, after it had been taken over by ruthless enemies in cahoots with equally ruthless forces of the state and big business, just like the rest of the class they belonged to. But, if `here lies poor Jack’, what does posterity have to say about it? What happened to Jack Hendy and certainly Frank Foulkes was dreadful and unjust. Probably Haxell, too. Few now look back on Les Cannon and Frank Chapple with affection. But few know of the truth about the men of honour, competence, and loyalty that those who did a deal with the devil damaged. Hopefully, this account will have redressed the balance just a little.