Fred Thompson was born just that – Fred – and was known even to the media of his day as that. The only time he was erroneously called Frederick was when the constabulary charged him. He was from a large working-class family but an attempt to find his birth in the archives had not so far succeeded in disentangling the large number of namesakes. The introduction of elementary education up to the age of thirteen in 1870 was an important step but it was neither compulsory nor free from cost. This had a knock-on effect on the accuracy of birth dates and there was still resistance from working people to `busy bodies’ knowing their family affairs. As we shall see later, his origins are likely to relate to the water transport industry in the north-west of England.
He would have been in his early 30s when, in 1920, he was a founder member of the Communist Party. From the year previous, he was London District Secretary of the Dock, Wharf, Riverside and General Labourers’ Union (DWRGLU), familiarly known as the Dockers’ Union, before the merger that formed the Transport & General Workers Union (TGWU); he continued in this role as the key officer leading at least a dozen paid officials wholly concerned with the TGWU Docks Trade Group. Thompson was at the height of his powers and was noted for his charisma and power as a public speaker. His lineage and experience in the world of work had clearly marked him out as a natural leader.
THE JOLLY GEORGE
Thompson is often closely associated with Harry Pollitt, later the Communist Party’s long-term general secretary, in accounts of the refusal of dockers to load munitions on to the ship, Jolly George, which should have been bound for Poland’s fight against Soviet Russia in 1920. Although Pollitt was personally generous enough to confirm that nothing Thompson did in that regard had not been approved by Bevin, without the support of the London District Committee, which Thompson was key to, the action would not have taken place.
Though this may well have been because Bevin, as National Organiser of the Docks Union, was cautious enough to recognise that his own credentials for advancement as a union leader were much more administratively based than Thompson, who was the undisputed authoritative leader of all London dockers and more. as the Dockers’ Union rapidly became the main general union not just for dockworkers in London but all other trades in and around port districts, spreading to Bristol, Cardiff, and other ports in the south.
In 1932, Thompson would write for the Daily Worker his article: “How We Stopped The Jolly George”, which was expanded into a Seamen’s Minority Movement cyclostyled pamphlet used especially for the Port of Le Havre. He explained how the British government had turned to Poland as “the best instrument for continuing the attack and preventing the restoration of the economic life of the USSR”. Tens of millions of French and British money and thousands of tons of munitions were thrown into Poland. Munitions of all kinds were shipped to Poland with “the tacit consent of the British Government … at first shipped surreptitiously, and in small quantities”. When it became apparent that the official trade union movement would do nothing, “these shipments grew in volume and preparations were made to send full cargoes”.
But the London District Committee of the Dockers’ Union decided to take every action to prevent the transport of munitions to Poland. This was put to the Executive of the Dockers’ Union, but “as it failed to find endorsement, the London dockers decided to act on their own. Every dock and wharf in London were scoured for munitions, and action was centred on the SS Jolly George, then loading a full freight of munitions in the East India Dock”.
Laconically, Thompson observes: “it was necessary to use judgment and to render the ship unseaworthy before taking action. This was done by putting such a list on the ship that it would have been unsafe to move her, even in dock.” (22 March 1932 – Daily Worker) This means that many dockers, perhaps 50 to a 100 physically man-handled creates of heavy boxes from one side of the ship to the other, tilting the angle of `list’ to such a degree that it would `heel’ over and capsize in the water. `Righting’ a large vessel such as the George was a job for salvage crews and maritime law and insurance inhibited scabbing actions. The dockers had done this to prevent the company, or `yellow’ seamen’s union (of which more later) from manning the ship and running it to the Baltic.
Every docker on that ship and on the entire quay then ceased work at an agreed time, an electrifying action “changing the whole war situation”. Newspapers wrote of a fait accompli and “suddenly discovered the immorality of supplying munitions for use against a country with whom we were not officially at war”. The “warmonger Churchill”, did not surrender so easily and Thompson’s District Office was “besieged by phone messages and threats of Government action”. The threat to “flood the London docks with troops” was met with Thompson advising Churchill that “if a single soldier was put into the docks every docker in the port would cease work, he soon cooled down, only finding his voice again when told some facts of his family history”, a docker’s way of describing the politician as a bastard!
The Waldorf-Astor dynasty owned the Jolly George and then tried “threats, then persuasion, and finally, pleading”, agreeing the munitions be put on the shore front ashore at Greenhithe, near Dartford, where they rotted for two years before being taken for scrap. Thompson extracted from the magnates, as a condition of their ships being worked in the Port of London, an undertaking never to carry any form of munitions in the future.
A representative of the London dockers, Thompson played a leading role at the Dockers’ Union Triennial Delegate Meeting in Plymouth held from 18-22 May 1920, where he pledged opposition to war promoted by “autocracies, junkers. capitalists”. Supported by the delegate from Swansea, he also proposed that two delegates from the union be sent to the Leeds Convention of 3 June, which had been called by the United Socialist Council for the purposes of forming single Communist Party. (p595)
It was long-term dockers’ leader, Ben Tillett (1860-1943), who actually headed the DWRGLU as its General Secretary and he had done so for three decades. It would also be the largest of the unions which came together in 1922 to form the TGWU and was by then composed of more general workers than most other unions. But Tillett, perhaps conscious of his age, as well as his known weakness in administration, stood aside. Despite his gigantic reputation as a hero of the 1889 strike, he had turned 61 during the last stages of the merger talks.
Although four leaders contested the largely ceremonial role of President, which needed good chairmanship skills – warmth and tact – not Tillett’s best assets but something Harry Gosling was widely thought to possess. Seven leaders contested the then relatively significant function of Financial Secretary, which not only provided access to strike funds but also gave more than enough scope for patronage over bids for places in the sun. Tillett – who had been nominated for both Secretary and President – declined both roles “with a view to harmonising all the conflicting interests”. (The Scotsman 3 December 1921)
Whilst the astute Bevin, also a Bristolian, must have offered advance consolation, much as he did with leaders of other merging unions, since after the merger Tillett was granted the pleasant post of International and Political Secretary, involving lots of foreign travel and time in the Palace of Westminster, which he held until 1931, also retaining his seat on the General Council of the Trades Union Congress until 1932, when he was 72 years of age.
A member of the British Socialist Party well before 1920, Thompson had been the sole serious contender for the TGWU general secretaryship, against Ernest Bevin. Although Thompson’s vote had been small in comparison to Bevin as the successful candidate, he had been a serious and able candidate. It was no doubt since, one by one, an astonishing twenty-four other potential candidates had withdrawn in favour of the eventual winner, that a landslide effect was both predicted and created. A third candidate, G Porter, hardly made a dent.
It is likely that Thompson was a member of James Sexton’s National Union of Dock Labourers before becoming prominent in the DWRGLU. There was certainly a branch secretary of East Hull’s NUDL named F Thompson. (12 April 1912 Hull Daily Mail) Although formed in in Glasgow in 1889, the NUDL quickly moved its headquarters to Liverpool, reflecting the relatively strong support it had in northern England. Hull was certainly more a kindred spirit for Lancashire dockers than anywhere else. It was quickly renamed the National Union of Dock, Riverside and General Workers in Great Britain and Ireland by the time it joined the Transport and General Workers’ Union during the second tranche of mergers late in 1922, although its quirky membership had originally voted not to join the amalgamation.
The circumstances are suggestive of the likelihood that Thompson was already a seasoned veteran of union struggle and had possibly had to leave the Port of Liverpool, or its environs, for Hull after 1911 and then found it hard to get work during the imperialist war from 1914, Thomson was certainly working at Grays Port, Thurrock, in 1915, when he was a Dockers’ Union delegate to the TUC and formally seconded a motion moved by Bevin calling for a dedicated Minister of Labour. (13 September 1913 Western Daily Press) This seems a rapid promotion, unless there was prior experience, although the port was temporarily significant during the First World War, when Tilbury Fort was brought into action serving Flanders. Grays wharves were also home to the largest fleet of sailing barges ever recorded, that of E J & W Goldsmith (Thurrock History. ii. 70; vi. 35–9; viii. 50–3; Panorama, xxi. 8–9, 59–64; H. Benham, Down Tops’l, 156–61) Goldsmith’s vessels traded on the south and east coast as far as Yorkshire, which could have prompted a move from Hull to the south.
To return to the circumstances of his background, though no record of his birth has yet been found, his age was often stated by newspapers that is suggestive of him being born in 1878. There are four available ten-yearly censuses to check for a Fred Thompson (including Frederick) born in the period around that year. The only one that surfaces is a Fred Thompson, whose birthplace is not provided, in the 1891 census then living at “Fifty-Four Acre Huts, Ellesmere Port, Whitby, Wirral, Cheshire. The village of Whitby was connected by Dock Street to the port and this was very near the port. John Thompson, the 36-year old father of the family is described as a Canal Ganger, the foreman of a gang of labourers. Supplying the census taker with a birth date two years before 1878, our subject’s oft-mentioned year of birth would make him comfortably away from the just under 13 years of age that he probably actually was. A big man in later life, he would have looked older than his age in a period when many working-class kids were thin and scrawny. Surely, his father or his uncle would have had him already digging earth for the new waterway connection?
Five siblings, a cousin, an uncle, who was also a ganger, and his parents are accompanied by three lodgers who are each described as being a `navvy’. Almost certainly, this little community was part of a large workforce, almost 17,000 at its height, associated with one of the most ambitious projects of the time, to link Manchester directly with the sea. The never completed Ellesmere Canal was part of an 18th century project to connect the Mersey, the Severn, and the Dee rivers. Work on the Manchester Ship Canal, build to avoid the excessive charges of the Port of Liverpool, began in 1887 and finished only in time to permit a grand opening on 1st January 1894. The Ship Canal links to the Shropshire Grand Union Canal at Ellesmere Port, where the ganger Thompsons would have been key personnel in the massive project, the last of the great `navigations. We don’t know what Fred Thompson’s relationship with his father was, and we can’t be sure John Thompson, ganger born in 1855 was that man. But during the project’s life, the labour explosions of 1889, especially in the Port of London, demonstrated that labourers could unionise and effectively so.
The Navvies’, Bricklayers’ Labourers and General Workers Union was founded that autumn, probably on the Manchester Ship Canal, where the long-term general secretary had `flung muck’ into wagons, with possible links to London. The union was seemingly uncompromising, its motto showed astonishing class consciousness: “Union – no dogs or blacklegs need apply” but the union also revealed a smattering of the understanding of the labour theory of value, though one of this was to last!
Although his background in such a milieu is still largely speculation, Thompson’s rise in the Dockers’ Union was clearly meteoric. In 1917, he had been called upon at the TUC to second a motion on state education. (14 September 1917 – Common Cause) Thus, his appointment as a full-time officer of the Union in 1919 was only after serving a five year `apprenticeship’ in a southern port. For the next seven years, the press hung on to his every word. His very first headline grabbing statements had the Port of London and the government’s Food controller as complicit and guilty of wastefulness in the handling of food. “I have seen tons of grain and pulse-food left down the holds of barges, and grass growing on it.” (5 September 1919 – London Globe) Coal had been allowed to drop on 30 tons of wheat in the hold of the War Vulture at Victoria Docks.
Cocoa bean imports were historically important to Bristol and, as a Dockers’ Union appointee on a state-sponsored joint body like the Chocolate Sub-Committee, perhaps manufacturers expected concern to maintain a lucrative trade. The body had been appointed to inquire into allegations of monopoly price fixing against the Manufacturing Confectioners’ Alliance. In the end, Thompson found himself in favour of the consumer and not at all in agreement with any of the other four panel members over the margin of gross profit obtained on loose retailed weight. (17 January 1920 – Western Daily Press)
On 15 February 1920, Ernest Bevin, as Dockers’ Union National Organiser, reported to members on the Court of Inquiry into “Wages, Rates and Conditions of Men Engaged in Dock and Waterside Labour”, chaired by Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, otherwise known as The Shaw Inquiry. Thompson arranged a mass meeting of London Dockers at the Public Hall, Barking Road, Canning Town and chaired the meeting as District Secretary. (13 February 1920 – Daily Herald)
The Shaw Inquiry recommended a 44-hour guaranteed week, an end to casualisation, and sixteen shillings a day for dockers on time work, which would have been a fine wage if all six days could be worked. But little of this was implemented and pay hovered around ten shillings a day for a long time, with the number of days being highly variable, all due to the intransigence of the employers and the refusal of politicians to curb their excesses. That summer of the Inquiry, Thompson led a party of councillors showing the Minister of Labour the circumstances of dock labour across wharves in Wapping and Shadwell. (19 August 1920 Birmingham Daily Gazette) “Streams” of men were seen turned away after failing to get even a half day’s work at the 8 am `call’.
Thompson also chaired the first conference of 650 delegates that founded the British Section of the Red International of Labour Unions (RILU) on 15 October 1921. Commonly known as the Profintern, this international body was established by the Communist International and operated until 1937, largely with the purpose of creating `red’ unions due to the failure of the social-democrat led international union movement to provide any kind of solidarity or struggle. As Secretary of the British RILU Section, Harry Pollitt reported that, although this was the aim, they were “not going to doing anything dramatic”. They were working with the objective of compelling British trades unionists to “broaden” their outlook. Fred Thompson, in moving a resolution on solidarity had personal experience of the failure of social democratic international solidarity, in particular the handling of coal in ports and docks. (14 April 1921 Workers’ Dreadnought).
The following day, led by the NUR, the executive of the National Transport Workers’ Federation, which like the Dockers’ Union was affiliated to the Amsterdam-based International Federation of Trade Unions, which the Comintern disfavoured, refused to engage in solidarity action with the British miners in their struggle to maintain pay and conditions. That the Secretary of the NTWF, Robert Williams, was expelled as a member from the British CP for going along with this would seem to them to further justify the position London dockers now took, under Thompson’s guidance, to favour disaffiliation from the IFTU.
Tillett, as a major figure in the IFTU, was incensed but Bevin cooler in his thinking, being more than aware that a mass leader with this kind of background and a base in the ports of the north-east, the north-west and London, with strong left-wing credentials that matched the prevailing mood in the early 1920s, could be a thorn in his side. Thompson had given fair warning in his election address: “My candidature is a challenge to autocracy”. (A Bullock, The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, I, Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940  page 842)
But there was no sign that Thompson was accommodating himself to life in the new bureaucracy. He chaired the London District Conference of BRILU shortly after the 1922 TUC. Harry Pollitt may have been at the front rank of Communist leadership and, in coming up to 32 years of age was currently his Party’s lead trades unionist but he had a long way to go yet to achieve the pre-eminence he would later gain.
Arguably, the experience of the next decade would be the making of him, as it was the breaking of Thompson. Very many Communists were still dual members of the Labour Party. Intriguingly, Frank Smith, BRILU’s London Secretary, said at this 1922 conference that their aim was “to strengthen official leaders of the trade union movement”. This, even after the so-called `Black’ Friday climb down. Nat Watkins, for the RILU British Bureau, spoke of “revolutionising the existing Labour organisation (by which he meant trade unions as well as the Labour Party) by continual permeation”. (18 September 1922 Yorkshire Post & Leeds Intelligencer)
The last time such a term had been used in British politics was a quarter of a century before, when Sidney and Beatrice Webb employed the tactic as Fabians to push through mildly social democratic policies by convincing persons of influence of the merits of the argument, irrespective of their political affiliations. British “Reds”, as the press termed them, did not have the notion later called “entrism” advocated by Leon Trotsky when, in 1934, he proposed that the French Trotskyists dissolve their organisation to enter the social democratic parties to connect and convert left currents. BRILU seems to have been aiming for what might later be termed a `Broad Left’ approach.
London dockers had closer links to Rotterdam than they did Hamburg, which was much more in tune with the thinking in Moscow. This had significant connections to what came next, that the Left in Britain’s docks began thinking that RILU, or some hybrid version of it might have more practical effect in international solidarity between ports via the International Transport Workers Federation (always rendered ITF since in many of its now official eight languages `transport workers’ is a single word).
Its Dutch secretary, elected in 1919, Eduard (Edo) Carl Fimmen (1881-1942) offered a much more congenial `broad left’ perspective than the IFTU. After all, Robert Williams, NTWF Secretary was elected as ITF President the year following Fimmen’s election as `International Secretary’. The term used until 1924 after which `General Secretary’ was employed. Williams stood down from both NTWF and the ITF in 1925, the former organisation drifting into liquidation a few years later, the latter subject to attempts to captured it by the Right, in the form of Charlie Cramp, J H Thomas’ number two in the NUR assuming the ITF Presidency, whilst Thomas held the IFTU Presidency. The IFTU was certainly neutered for decades to come but the ITF increasingly showed the NTWF to be pointless, especially after the TGWU was formed.
Fimmen spoke and wrote French, German and English fluently, a great skill in his new role. His youth was dominated by adherence to a Christian Socialist ideology, though this inclined him towards support for an international general strike in the event of a war. An active trades unionist in the Dutch labour movement in the period immediately before the First World War saw him a fierce supporter of strikes for betterment of employment terms and conditions. He became a significant administrator and editor in various roles before the ITF. (Johanna M Welcker, Biografisch woordenboek van het socialisme en de arbeidersbeweging in Nederland / Biographical Dictionary of Socialism and the Workers’ Movement in the Netherlands, BWSA 1 (1986), pp37-42)
Despite the ever-watchful eye of the right in British trades union affilates, Fimmen’s leadership of the ITF in the early 1920s saw support for Austrian children in late 1919, boycott of Hungary during the ‘white terror’ after Bela Kun in July-August 1920, stopping the supply of weapons to Poland, used against the Soviet Union in August 1920, and aid to starving Russia (1921-1923). A friend of Comintern functionary, Willi Münzenberg, Fimmen became a member of various bodies such as the International Red Aid and the League Against Imperialism.
Fimmen strongly advocated the used of boycott and embargo tactics in international solidarity. But even more significantly he advocated that the IFTU be solely a federation of ITSs and that national trade union centre, of which there were often more than one, outside of the UK, only affiliate directly to ITSs. Failure to accept this would lead to his resignation in 1924, although this was refused, allowing him to avoid the pressure to become non-political, unless it was to support social democratic governments.0.
Not only did Fimmen support Red Aid, he held a dramatic constant contact with the Soviets in which he sought a united struggle against capitalism, imperialism and fascism, the latter culminating in the 1930s in significant and practical support for workers in fascist countries. The ITF provided assistance, encourage smuggling of pamphlets and periodicals, transferring funds for underground activity and bringing people out of fascist states. ASrms were even provided to Republican Spain.
Fimmen’s United Front mentality allowed the dual affiliation of French, German, and Italian trades unions to both Amsterdam and Moscow based international trade union bodies, something the cold war would take away until the influence of the TGWU during the 1970s once again aided international unity. .
Back in the TGWU, at least in the Docks Trade Group, many thought Thompson should have been appointed the first Regional Secretary for Area One, London and South-East England, Bevin preferred to keep him strictly corralled in his base, the Port of London. This was both a cunning thing to do but also arguably very risky and certainly at the root of serious tensions in the new union for the next four years. Thus, early in 1922, Thompson was appointed Secretary of the London Docks Regional Trade Group, arguably a fatal position for the relationship between the two men. Said to be a natural leader, with a powerful speaking voice, important in an age when amplified voices were rare, especially on a wharf, it may in fact have been more constructive for the union, if not Bevin personally, had Thompson had not been restricted to the ports.
Now focused on expanding the empire allotted to him, Thompson’s name was becoming something of a draw. He and his dozen full-time officers began organising every small port, wharf, and jetty within Area One’s coastline, which they scoured for opportunity. A new branch for Folkestone Harbour opened its second-ever meeting up to all local trades unionists to plan to maximise support for a visit by Thompson, who the local paper even described as an “able speaker”, to address two open-air meetings near the harbour. (13th January 1923 – Folkestone, Hythe, Sandgate & Cheriton Herald)
Bevin’s only response to the threat Thompson increasingly displayed was to concentrate more and more power in his hands, laying the basis for tight administrative control based on the domination of lay committees by paid officers. Such a culture was at odds with the tradition of the Dockers Union, but it would beset the TGWU for more than forty years. In the process, a culture of patronage would develop ensuring that lay committees were increasingly populated by those awaiting a paid officer’s position or accepting that the paid time off work to engage in extensive union activities was the most they would achieve. Plaudits for long service at senior lay level would accompany such roles.
STRIKE AND SPLIT
Meanwhile, Thompson focused on trying to win more job permanency for dockers, who along with water and road transport workers were at the heart of the new union, with goods transport almost totally focused on the ports that he knew so well. Whilst work to buttress support this was carried out, an unofficial national dock strike simply broke out in July 1923 when over 50,000 dockers walked out, hostile to Bevin’s signing of an agreement accepting new, lower rates of pay. The reduction from 8 shillings to 5s 6d for a four-hour minimum employment period represented a cut of almost a third. (14 May 1923 – Aberdeen Press and Journal).
Whilst the TGWU was dominant outside of London, in the Port of London, the lightermen and the stevedores had their own union. RILU supporters urged that all talk of splits be put aside in favour of unity to win the strike. Bevin clamoured that the very existence of the TGWU was under threat. Thompson was, for once, at odds with Pollitt, over this nuanced position. His friend and first biographer believing that Thompson had “inside information on the intention to form a new union”. (Mahon p 107) That may have been true but, as we will see, it was the maintenance of a multi-union national bargaining framework that Thompson prized.
Action began in Hull on 2 July but soon spread across the UK, lasting until 30 July. The strike was solid until half way through, when it began to weaken outside London. By the end of the dispute, thousands of dockers had left the TGWU to join the Amalgamated Stevedores’ Labour Protection League, which renamed itself the National Amalgamated Stevedores, Lightermen, Watermen and Dockers but was always known as the Blue Union.
Bevin had, nonetheless, signed an agreement as General Secretary, to which he had been elected by a landslide. Moreover, he had assigned for himself the National Secretaryship, often seen as a kind of general secretaryship for trades groups, of the Docks Group. Most of the permanently employed had taken the cautious line and went back, but casual workers, perhaps with most to gain and least to lose, rejected the idea. To maintain unity, despite being furious with Bevin, Thompson made a last-ditch attempt to persuade those who still held out to resume work. (24 July 1923, Pall Mall Gazette) His aim was to ensure that the rank-and-file strike committee retained some credibility.
But no doubt sensing that Bevin was ready to disown his members, the employers’ representative, Mr G Grinling-Harris, national secretary of the National Council of Port Labour Employers, insisted that if there was anything to discuss “we shall do it with Mr Bevin or Mr Gosling … But there is nothing to discuss. We have an agreement and that is sufficient.” It had been Thompson who had crafted the port shop stewards’ committee as a representative force of dockers, focused on local bargaining achieving the highest results and thus having national impetus. But Bevin imposed the idea that the union side of the National Joint Council was the body that would determine all – and Thompson was but a single but lone voice on that group.
The difference between the two men was one of strategy – but what a strategic gap! Bevin’s version was defensive, having bargaining unity at a national level so that the weakest was dragged up by the strongest just a little, while being constrained from reaching the heights being reached by most. Thompson’s instinct was more defiant – for the strongest not to be weakened by the bottom of the pile but, rather, to drag the weak up to the level of the strong.
Yet Sylvia Pankhurst’s Workers’ Dreadnought unhelpfully spread this misdirection as a claim that Thompson and Potter had sold out the dockers. (28 July 1923 Workers’ Dreadnought). Such mischievousness was grist to the mill, as Pankhurst’s reputation of being someone difficult to get on with might well had been a view shared by Thompson, had Pollitt not repeatedly pointed out he had no trouble with her, if he was polite and friendly always.
Although the London strikers repudiated the strike committee led by Thompson and elected a new one, when Pollitt met with them he found the new committee dominated by stevedores and lightermen, unwilling to act in unity with other ports, and refusing help from Communists! (Mahon p107) By mid-August the strike had collapsed. There was certainly a lot of anger and disillusionment about and this laid the basis for dockers’ disunity for decades. What became the Blue union now began to operate very effectively as a general port workers’ union, which it did just in London until the 1950s. Often a haven for Communists, who were not banned, the Blues sometimes consciously elected them as joint stewards, often just to spite the union’s bureaucrats; although the process of history eventually obliged a merger with the TGWU not long after the bans were lifted.
NASLWD systematically referred all major issues back to the membership for final decisions, a strong contrast to the officer-led approach that the TGWU was cementing as its own style. The General Council of the TUC immediately suspended the Blues, a decision rescinded four years later. It is, however, difficult to escape the conclusion that the experience now predisposed Thompson to readiness to form a new entity. Whilst another docks strike and the General Strike lay ahead, still.
Labour could form a government for the very first time in 1924 and an early act was to re-activate the wartime Supply and Transport Committee in the face of a revived dock strike against casual labour, just as it had declared a State of Emergency over a strike by London bus and tram workers.
The outcome of the dock strike was that a court of inquiry was set up, and the result was that it “came to an abrupt termination, because the case that had been put up, not in the precise form in which the men’s demand was made, but in a very similar form, was granted as the result of that court of inquiry”. (Hansard, HoC Debate, 26 June 1924, Vol 175, Col 699)
Years later, Bevin told a Labour Party Conference: “I know something about emergency powers. The first Labour Government rushed down to Windsor to get them signed to operate on me, and I have a vivid recollection of it, and we were only striking to restore a cut – not a very serious crime. I do not like emergency powers, not even when they are operated by my friends.” (Labour Party Conference Report, 1933, page 161)
A representative of P&O Line and other shippers faced Bevin, Tillett, and Sexton in leading the talks. Officials from Hull, Liverpool, Glasgow and elsewhere sat with Thompson in watching Bevin’s every move, giving guidance in adjournments. (11 February 1924 – Derby Daily Telegraph) But negotiations failed and, unless Gosling as Minister of Transport could get the employers somehow to settle, a strike for an increase in the day rate and a guaranteed week was on. Countering this, the employers offered a small increase and an inquiry in casualisation. (12 February 1924 – Western Daily Press)
But in the face of the first Labour government, operating in Parliament without a majority, and his union’s faith in the avuncular Gosling, the dispute was going nowhere. Not unless the dockers could break the resolve of the ship-owners who dominated the ports industry. A mass meeting of dockers at Rotherhithe Hippodrome heard the recommendation from Fred Thompson to return to work in absolute silence. Then, after the shock subsided, many demanded the strike continue in support of a counter-demand for a 2s 6d advance, shouting: “Never mind the blacklegs,” perhaps thinking Thompson was worried about the strike crumbling. But he genuinely strongly backed the recommendation on the basis that at least they had, most unusually, kept the employers together on a national basis; if there was one thing more than any other that had induced the Negotiating Committee to recommend a return it was that understanding. This produced the astonishing result that the meeting immediately switched and unanimously accepted the negotiated terms for a return of work. No-one else could have caused such a turn in the space of a single meeting, so great was the men’s trust in Thompson. (25 February 1924 – Dundee Courier)
After a period of negotiations, further threats of action emerged that an official strike would result unless it was accepted that at the very least the same rates of pay and conditions would be recognised by ell employers operating in the Port of London. (27 March 1924 – Daily Herald) But at what rate that should be was still a highly contentious matter. The press now began reporting that counter this, “threats were issued” of a complete shut-down, until Thompson announced that negotiations between the Thameside cold storage employers and himself had resumed. (28 March 1924 – Western Mail) His tactical approach was now clear – making the employer, not the government, the key target seemed to be working.
Attempts to fix up-to-date piece rates for a range of cargoes were ongoing for several years and there were still outstanding issues to address in detail. Thompson therefore returned to this task and put forward a complete schedule of updated and consolidated rates, including old war bonuses, which the employers claimed to accept. But, completely unchecked by the state and the media, the stevedoring companies refused to implement the terms and kept undermining `understood’ rates adopted by `gentlemen’s agreements’ by constantly introducing new ones and created new names for products until the whole system was so complex it required an army of clerks to understand it.
Although the dockers had won a principle, nothing much came from it as the employers remained obdurate. Thompson began a tour of key ports to rouse opinion. At a mass meeting in Portsmouth market, Thompson criticised both press and police, stating that the latter were “not carrying out their instructions for procedure in industrial disputes”, which was generally held to be complete non-interference. (25 August 1924 – Portsmouth Evening News)
In 1925, a mass meeting of TGWU members was held at the Elephant and Castle Theatre over these attempts by the union to end the system of casual labour, that members complained had seen no progress made since the previous summer. About 200 employees at Union Cold Storage at Thames Street depot had been on strike over victimisation arising from this for ten days. The TGWU’s GEC had unusually endorsed strike pay, which had been distributed on Saturday. Thompson was reported as saying: “The men are determined win to through.” Picketing was “very effective” and he did not think that the employers were having much success engaging new staff”. (26 January 1925 – Birmingham Daily Gazette; 28 January 1925 – Daily Herald; 3 February 1925 – Daily Herald)
The possibility of a revived national dock strike emerged once again from what was now 400 workers striking from the unloading of sheep and wool from Australasia for Messrs Scrutton’s. Thompson was quoted as saying there was a danger of a dispute over piece rates spreading beyond King George V Dock. Each time aa head of steam was reached, the employers backed off and sought to create internal conflict. The pressure continued, however, with local bargaining firmly in the hands of Thompson and his rapport with the men’s representatives being firm, the results were increasingly beneficial to the workers.
In April 1925, Thompson told the Daily Herald of his satisfaction that a dispute over piece rates lower than the norm involving 1,100 dockers at the Royal Albert, King George and Tilbury docks was satisfactorily settled. (4 April 1925 – Daily Herald) The day before, he had admitted that the dispute was unofficial but stated that “the men were justified in their action as every effort hitherto to get the matter put right had failed.”(3 April 1925 – Daily Herald) But there is no sign that Thompson was chastised by Bevin.
The 2nd Annual Conference of the National Minority Movement was held on 29 and 30 August 1925 and Thompson chaired. (7 December 1925 – Western Morning News) By this time, affiliation levels were approaching one million and the representativeness of the movement was pretty good. The permeation approach seemed preferable to splitting and some union leaders weren’t too alarmed at the process of the NMM’s incremental growing influence.
During the 1926 General Strike, although Bevin had committed the TGWU to an astonishing level of financial expenditure and could not be characterised as being wholly part of the TUC clique determined to destroy the strike from the start, after it was all over he became increasingly administratively focused. The message coming to officers and through lay committees was to conserve the union’s finances whilst they were rebuilt and that could take years.
In the meantime, negotiating the employers’ ideas for `scientific management’, or speed-up via new technology, for a share in the benefits was to be the approach. Such a notion cut right across what dockers had been seeking since the Armistice – an end to casualisation of work. The strength and force of dockers’ militancy in the intervening eight years had seemed to show that this was still achievable, no matter what else happened in the economy.
Perhaps to obfuscate the degree to which Thompson was egging the dockers on, supporting its rank-and-file committees, Fred Potter the Deputy Secretary of the London Docks Regional Trade Group was often in the line of fire. He was the man seen in 1923 encouraging Midlands canal workers to strike at the same time as dockers, at the end of the Grand Union. In such a role he was, understandably, very close to Thompson, who had been too powerful before the General Strike for Bevin to extract his well-known penchant for cold revenge from.
Potter, it turns out, was also originally from Hull, though he appears to have been a full-time official for Tillett’s Dock. Wharf, and Riverside Workers’ Union. That he was an official at the very time that Thompson possibly went to Hull for work, raises the probability that both had collaborated for a long time before the TGWU. During the war, Potter took on what must have been a desperate case of a single dock labourer, aged 33, appealing against conscription to the army. (18 October 1916 – Hull Daily Mail) The following year, at the height of agitation against the war, he was the main organiser, working with other key figures in Hull’s labour movement, agitating against the government’s poor record on food prices and supply, organised a procession and speeches. One of the key speakers was Julia Scurr, nee Sullivan, an Irish opponent of the war and confidante of Sylvia Pankhurst, later to play a leading role in the Poplar Rates Rebellion of 1921. (16 July 1917 – Hull Daily Mail)
Militant though Potter undoubtedly was, he and other local dockers’ representatives spoke at a mass meeting of striking Hull dockers on Drypool Green during a campaign to force war bonuses not only to be permanent but to retrospectively apply. The men were told that they “had nothing to gain by remaining out”. In the end, “the decision to return was carried with three dissentients”. (15 August 1917 – Hull Daily Mail) Potter was very nearly adopted as Labour Party candidate in Hull East for the 1918 general election. (30 August 1918 – Hull Daily Mail) But, the following month, a letter was read out “from the EC of the Dockers‘ Union, intimating that they were not disposed to sanction” his candidature. Being a full-time paid official, unless his union sanctioned him spending time in Parliament, he had to withdraw his nomination. Bevin would, of course, have been party to the discussion held in the executive. (19 September 1918 – Hull Daily Mail)
Potter was also closely associated with the local Trades Council and it was obviously something of a crushing blow when he was transferred by his union to work south, seemingly in an enforced move. He was then aged 52 and the shift to another city and port would have been a hard thing. Local trades unionists gathered to say farewell in a social function at which he was given highly generous keepsakes of the esteem he was held in. (5 October 1918 – Hull Daily Mail)
Contrary to the perception of some commentators that no attempt to organise Midlands canal boatmen took place until their strike of 1923, Potter was the Dockers’ Union official representing “99 per cent” of canal boatmen when they first threatened a strike in 1920. (6 May 1920 – Birmingham Daily Gazette) Whilst the connections with the River Thames made sense for Grand Union Canal workers to link up, it was, of course, the Port of London that would have dominated the work of Thompson and Potter. It seems the latter was a militant and left-wing member of the Labour Party from 1918 when individual membership applied. But he had no difficulty for working for a Communist as his direct line manager. In fact, they appear to have complemented each other well.
In 1922, when the Area Docks Trade Group called a mass meeting of dockers at the Public Hall in Canning Town, to first discuss the employers’ proposals for reducing wages, as well as Tillett and Thompson, Fred Potter was generously placed among the speakers. (19 June 1922 – Daily Herald)
Little can be traced about Potter’s life after the TGWU, except that, having reached pensionable age, he may possibly have been the 1936 organiser for an annual outing for working class children to Epping forest. Begun for dockers’ children in 1912, when it was claimed that striking dockers could not even care for their own, the event was now heavily backed by militant bus workers in the TGWU; “hundreds of busmen give up their day to drive the children”, said Fred Potter, who proudly boasted: “We have never lost a child.” (19 August 1936 – Daily Herald).
A long-running disciplinary investigation into Potter by the union executive, saw him suspended from work pending the outcome. This only finally emerged after the General Strike of 1926.
CLASS AGAINST CLASS
In the circumstances, Thompson decided to cause the creation of a breakaway from the TGWU, by no means the first or the last but a clear departure for him. His and Potter’s creation was the National Union of Transport & Allied Workers, but this does not seem to have taken off at all, even in the London docks, after the union poured resources and manpower in to rebutting confidence in the move. (A Bullock. The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin, I, Trade Union Leader, 1881-1940  page 373) It is not at all clear that Thompson seriously entertained a break, maybe even the name was a way of preventing too much thought about the Blue union?
The dismissal of a well-paid full time official, no matter how egregiously managed, was clearly not enough to move dockers, who had had little chance to enjoy full wages for some years. If permanent men, even, had been solid, if Thompson had been sacked, the move might have worked but, once again, Bevin had calculated the right time for the right move. It would not always come so easy to him.
Despite the unpleasant cynicism of Bevin’s biographer, who retails gossipy slander about both Thompson and Potter, whilst claiming that the split was easily beaten off by the professionalism of a huge number of full-time officers despatched by Bevin’s deputy during his absence on a foreign trip, the refusal to allow Thompson and his crew to speak to the Port of London men nearly backfired. During a tussle over who was accredited and who wasn’t, 1,500 permanent dockers at Tilbury walked out, followed by another 600, when the employers refused to allow a TGWU official on site. The fact that it was Thompson pointing out that this breached the national agreement meant that the press in port towns were seriously perturbed at the possible consequences. (4 October 1926 – Sunderland Daily Echo & Shipping Gazette)
The quiet that followed is difficult to translate. It certainly has echoes of what Nina Fishman described as the tendency of CPers in the 1930s to be “constitutional militants” by which time the CP had acquired the astonishing number of about 50 full-time trade union functionaries in the London area alone, (The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45)
Whilst, retrospectively, the TGWU bureaucracy was complacent and smug, it is probable that Thompson and Potter saw that, after three years of defeats, even with the lift that came from improved bargaining results, it was time for dockers to regroup. It is also li perhaps doubling the number over the mid-1920s. But it is more than likely that political guidance was at play.
Although Thompson was associated with the Minority Movement, a kind of early `broad left’, led by the Communist Party, of which as we have seen he was a foundation member, the preferred left-wing stance in British unionism was more a kind of `constitutional militancy’, erring just in the side of not breaching union rules and regulations as to not be thrown out of mass organisations.
It is not clear what Thompson was doing in 1927, though he is likely to have been heavily engaged in appealing and complaining about events of the previous period. Towards the end of 1928, he seems to have been offered a new prospect, probably by Harry Pollitt or someone acting for him such as John Mahon. In September 1928, the seamen’s union had been officially expelled from the Trades Union Congress, a dramatic step which now made it fair game for any union to poach and purloin membership from. At first, it seemed as if the TGWU would step in, but after the recalcitrant leader of the seamen died, the union also began to backtrack just a Thompson was upping his game.
In Moscow, the RILU leadership urged the creation of a new red union but the British CP was reluctant and hence caused the Seamen’s Minority Movement to be established in 1929 under Thompson’s leadership. The idea was that bringing the strength of dockers to seafarers might encourage the TGWU to see that it could organise more than just coastal shipping. In the absence of a significant and shore-based seafarers’ broad left, the best he could do The TGWU was “a fighting union with fighting traditions” argued Pollitt. (M Worley Class Against Class (2017) I B Tauris, p130)
The idea was for him to focus on agitational point scoring from without but not necessarily to alienate the TGWU. Deciding to go to Tyneside, perhaps because the local Party district was by far the most supportive and loyal to the Comintern, especially its New Line, Thompson established himself in North Shields and set to it. Although most of the handful of the members and contacts the SMM had were based there. In September a “large and attentive crowd” listened to him debate with a paid NUS organiser the failure of his union. Thompson said, not without foundation, that the union had been bought “lock, stock, and barrel” by the ship owners. (18 September 1929 – Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette)
The notion of splinter unions for seafarers was not so extreme as may be thought at first sight. Wage cuts had been imposed by ship owners in 1921, 1923, and 1925, each of which were supported by the National Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union (NSFU) which changed its name partly to get rid of the stigma of this to National Union of Seamen (NUS) in 1926. At least two splits from NSFU/NUS took place and the National Transport Workers’ Federation, which was livid at its scabbing in the general strike, and support for breakaway scan unions in mining, was now openly helped any new formation.
To make matters worse, in 1922, a new jobbing system called PC5 was introduced by shipowners with support from the NSFU, which meant that men could only get a job if they first obtained a card from their union. This worked against anyone who had been unemployed for a long time and hence had ceased union dues on economic grounds – there then being no reduced rates. Although an attempt had been made to link the various breakaway with the Minority Movement, this did not quite take.
But PC5 now began to take on a racial connotation and, when the Comintern learned of the Transport Workers’ Minority Movement criticism of the NSFU and its attitude to black seamen by aiding the bracketing of this with the 1925 Special Restriction (Coloured Alien Seamen) Order, hackles were raised, leading directly to the decision to create a red union. This unalloyed case of state-sanctioned race discrimination inside Britain was issued under the Aliens Order of 1920. Police were to apprehend undocumented ‘coloured’ men disembarking from ships. Since sailors were not required to carry passports and rarely stepped far from their berthed ship, few had such documentation to prove citizenship of the Empire. Indians seafarers were much to the fore in protest, which allowed the authorities some backing down.
Thompson was also National Organiser for the Seamen’s Minority Movement, an almost parallel body, and was `arrested’ for causing an obstruction while holding a mass meeting of seamen outside “Connaught Road Shipping Office” on Royal Victoria Dock in February 1930. This was the headquarters of the powerful Shipping Federation offices, an employers’ organisation for shipping firms, dedicated to maritime manpower issues. It was a particularly important voice in the running of the port of London. Formed in response to the London dock strike of 1889 the main function of the Federation was to counter trade unionism and strike action. (Daily Worker 19 February 1930)
Thompson was stopped by the chief constable of Sunderland himself whilst holding an open-air meeting in the summer of 1931. (12 June 1931 – Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette) A week later, he arrested with two others, Alex Robson, and Bill Masheder of Sunderland for refusing to give up a street meeting. Arrested since “trouble was brewing” they were each fined ten shillings. (17 June 1931 – Leeds Mercury) This SMM meeting at The Shrubbery in Sunderland had seen Thompson and his two comrades taken to the station by a procession of police snatch squads, followed by hundreds of people while crowds lined the streets, at several points holding up traffic. A sequel at the police court shortly afterwards, saw Thompson, described as aged 53, living at Hyltop Street, North Shields.
Thompson’s legendary voice and manner had clearly captivated Sunderland. Magistrates heard that the junctions of Athenaeum Street and Norfolk Street were completely obstructed. But the accused asserted that police evidence did not take account of the fact that their supporters had deliberately kept a free passage for pedestrians and that meetings had been held at that spot for over a century. The magistrates simply concluded that, if the police said it, “there must have been obstruction”. Thompson declared in response to the court: “This is not a prosecution for obstruction, it is political persecution.” (17 June 1931 – Shields Daily News)
The Shrubbery, which had originally been put in place for the benefit of the first residents of Fawcett Street, had become neglected and was purchased by Sunderland Corporation for the Town Hall and used to develop solicitor’s and accountants’ offices, but parts of the original open space had been left open and unused by the business district and was extensively used by the public. No doubt, it was less the public that complained to the police but those businesses with telephones able to contact the station discreetly. Today known as Sunniside it is still an open area in Sunderland’s city centre.
In August he was arrested at South Shields “Labour Training Centre”, when he attempted to hold a SMM public meeting without police permission. (8 August 1930 – Western Mail) In court, he was charged with obstruction. (8 August 1930 – Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer) He was said to have defied a police inspector when told he could not hold a public open-air meeting without police permission. Thompson said he was going to exercise the right of free speech and refused to get off the box he was standing on, so the inspector pushed him off. Thomson refused to go away and said he would continue to object to the police preventing meetings being held. (7 August 1930 – Lancashire Evening Post – Preston; 7 August 1930 – Coventry Evening Telegraph)
His accomplice, Alexander Robson of “Upper Pearcey Street, North Shields”, was Alec `Spike’ Robson, born in 1895, who had been a child miner but, as a cabin boy learned from an old sailor amongst the crew about socialism. A stoker on a White Star liner in 1919, he discovered the cargo was 700 British troops bound for Archangel and Murmansk. Robson fraternised with Red Guards and returned to build the first Communist Party branch in North Shields. After his experience with Thompson, Spike served a prison sentences for organising demonstrations of the unemployed. On his many runs to a wide variety of ports in the world, some political action would always ensure. The painting of slogans on ships from Nazi Germany, the smuggling of anti-fascist propaganda and the organisation of a protest march against Italian ships bound for their war against Abyssinia and the boycotting by merchant seamen of ship lying at Blyth bound for Japan with scrap iron, in protest at their war in China.
Outward bound from Boston in December 1936, he would discover that the ship he was on had a contract to carry nitrate, an essential component of explosives, to Seville, by now General Franco’s headquarters as he propagated the civil war in Spain. The crew held a sit-down strike and refused to sail for three weeks. During the world war, he was engaged in dropping supplies to the Yugoslavian partisans and was also based in Malta teaching partisans to use Mills’ bombs. In 1947, he returned to the Merchant Navy and was elected to the Executive Committee of the National Union of Seamen, the first Communist to serve in that capacity. Spike remained a committed member of the Communist Party to the end. (“Spike (Alec `Spike’ Robson 1895-1979) Class Fighter” North Tyneside TUC, 1987)
In January 1930 rank and file committees were created by London dockers in response to yet more pay cuts, once again endorsed by the TGWU. The Daily Worker was supportive but in the absence of Thompson, who was probably away on Seafarer MM business, Pollitt himself took a personal initiative going down to the docks and finding a lighterman born in Manchester. After enthusiastic discussion, he came away with a list of popular demands. Although the strike was defeated, the CP won quite several recruits where it had none previously. (Worley p296). It seemed that Thompson was still admired as a mass leader.
Although some will argue that a process of enacting Comintern decisions was now underway, a simple pragmatic approach applied. If unions fixed votes, sacked competent and honest leaders, and failed to do what unions were supposed to do, fight for their members, then they deserved to be criticised. Thompson had kept a dignified silence, loyally working within the party as best he could. Pollitt, irrespective of the factional playing of the Comintern he and Dutt had engaged in against Rothstein and Campbell now saw a chance to ginger up the TGWU, whilst playing to Bukharin’s gallery
Thompson appears to have chosen an unusual route to promoting The Red Leader, a newspaper of the Minority Movement. He was a key speaker at a conference of the London Newsvendors Provisional Committee of Action on Sunday, March 16, from 3 pm at Friars Hall, Blackfriars. It was announced that “definite proposals of organisation” were to be put forward. Sid Elias of the NUWM and Jack Leekie of WIR also spoke, suggesting that the conference was a means to apportion unemployed activists to the task on a commission basis, which the Daily Worker would itself soon employ. (13 March 1930 – Daily Worker)
An enthusiastic meeting, convened by the Clothing Workers’ Minority Movement, was held on Sunday in the UCWU Hall at Aldgate. The speakers, Ernie Pountney, Secretary of the UCWU, Fred Thompson and the Chair, Peter Zinkin, “brought out clearly the role of the Social-Fascist unions affiliated to the TUC, and through them to the Yellow International, as contrasted with the militant policy and leadership of the Red International of Labour Unions”. This is the only example on record of the application of the New Line being clearly associated with Thompson. (1 April 1930 – Daily Worker)
One of the more understanding of those several historians relying on CPGB history as their mainstay, and in particular the new Comintern line, Matthew Worley argues that Thompson was given a London Industrial Committee to develop “as an alternative to the London Trades Council” in 1929 (Matthew Worley, Class against Class: the Communist Party in Britain between the wars, p173-4, I B Tauris ) In fact, it is difficult to separate the work of the London Committee / Bureau of BRILU and the Minority Movement.
Indeed, following Black Friday, 15 April 1921, when the leaders of transport unions announced a decision not to take strike action in solidarity with the miners, the London Committee went into overdrive. In two months, its speakers, including both Pollitt and Thompson, had addressed 85 trade union branches. (John Mahon, Harry Pollitt – a biography (1976) Lawrence & Wishart p99. In parallel, with an increasing drive to the right in the Labour Party, largely driven by trades union leaders, many Labour activists were reluctant to break with Communists or sympathy for Soviet Russia.
The seeds of future tensions in the CP over the issue of whether the allied trade union movement, then especially dominated by the right-wing, began to emerge, partly as a reaction to the calamity of the General Council’s leadership of the General Strike. Raji Dutt was arguing as early in January 1927 for transforming unions from outside of them, an early indicator of a new line that only half emerged at the ECCI of May 1927, taking some years to consolidate and only mildly to impact on Communist trade union work.
Arthur Horner had taken an oblique route to diminish Dutt’s notion, in his article “The Need for One Mineworkers’ Union” (Labour Monthly, March 1927, pp. 146-154) in which he used the introduction of unsatisfactory district based pay structures after the end of the lock-out in 1926, set against the context of trade issues, to put the case for transforming the miners’ federation of county based unions (MFGB) into what would become the NUM within 18 years. Even the breakaway United Mineworkers of Scotland (1929-36) would not diminish the case for this, given that the local roots for separate unions long pre-dated the New Line and that the motives for breakaways were complex, real, and local. If the case for `red unions’ never really took hold in the CPGB, perhaps partly because the bulk of Minority Movement activists were miners and Horner’s case for one union accorded with what they felt was really needed, what about the problem that the CP had been founded out of a range of socialistic bodies whilst the bulk of its members had come from the British Socialist Party, which had not only been affiliated to the Labour Party but provided the basis for there being more than half of CP members still with dual membership until Labour’s October 1925 conference in Liverpool, with many staying on as secret CP members for years to come.
THE NATIONAL LEFT-WING MOVEMENT
In response to the exclusion of Communists, in December 1925, a National Left-Wing Conference was held, heavily promoted by Councillor Joe Vaughan, formerly a Communist Mayor of Bethnal Green. Other `Labour-communists were involved, as was Willie Paul, the Communist editor of the broad left Sunday Worker, which had a circulation of 100,000. The aim of remoulding Labour to the left had seen about a hundred divisional (constituency) and borough Labour Parties formally suspend operation of the Liverpool decision to exclude Communists. About 50 of these Labour Parties were officially part of the National Left-Wing Committee movement but various left groups operated across many others. Labour HQ simply began disaffiliating and dissolving organisations that refused to operate the ban on Communists.
The September 1926 NLWM conference, held in Poplar, where Thompson lived, anticipated a shift back to the left in the wider labour movement but effective co-ordination of the trade union block vote at Labour’s Margate Conference proved otherwise. But if the growing National Minority Movement commanded the support of a quarter of the total trade union membership, as was estimated, perhaps it was possible to turn this around? Despite the hints of a realignment in the movement towards open collaboration with capitalism, the strength of Labour-Communist unity was demonstrated with stunning urgency in the support for Dr Robert Dunstan in Birmingham.
Previously a Labour parliamentary candidate but a member of the CP, Dunstan was expelled from the Labour Party in 1928. Edgbaston Labour Party, the dominant area constituting the constituency he had stood in of Birmingham West, refused to expel him on a 50-19 vote. Of course, the national Labour Party merely ejected the local party by edict. Labour’s head office creation was so right-wing that the impact could be felt for decades. Even the Lancashire and Cheshire Miners’ Federation now declared for the affiliation of the Communist Party to the Labour Party.
What was the potential here? Although the CPSU (Bolsheviks) were still changing and there was much factionalism, had not Stalin himself argued in May 1927 that the Labour Party had real potential to “become a real class party of the workers, standing in opposition to the bourgeois world.” (J V Stalin, Talk with Students of the Sun Yat-Sen University, 13 May 1927, Works, Vol. 9, Publisher: Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1954) Describing it as a “special party of the workers that is based on the trade unions of the factory and office workers. No one hesitates to call it a workers’ party.”
It wasn’t yet standing in opposition to the bourgeoisie, whilst: “(a)ctually, it is the party of a bloc of two classes. And … it must be said that the influence of the petty bourgeoisie predominates in this party.” The contradiction is explained not by the “actual state of affairs” but the structure that should “in the future, given certain conditions, become a real class party of the workers”.
When the National Left-Wing Movement held its Second Annual Conference, in September 1927, it claimed about 150,000 individual members. But membership of the Communist Party stood at about 7,500. Could not, the thought emerged, especially as the unions drifted ever more to the right, the Communist Party capture most of these if there were not a Left-Wing Movement? During a visit to Moscow in in late 1927 Pollitt obtained support for dropping the NLWM.
The Ninth Plenum of the EC of the Communist International (ECCI) in February 1928 held an intensive investigation into this. The majority of the Central Committee, notably led by J R Campbell, Andrew Rothstein and Arthur Horner, stuck to the view that it had to be recognised that the British working-class movement continued to have faith in the Labour Party. This majority thesis, published in Communist Review of February 1928, had in mind that Communists could still get on to local Labour Party committees as trade union delegates. Moreover, there were twice as many Communists at the 1927 Trades Union Congress as before, and these combined with a number of non-party Lefts to form a substantial opposition.
The minority of Dutt, Pollitt, and Arnot argued that the Labour Party had now become something like the Liberal Party of the 1890s, whereas the NLW only encouraged false illusions, and acted as a block to the working class linking directly to the Communist Party. In Notes of the Month in Labour Monthly of February1928, Dutt affirmed this line.
ECCI upheld the views of the minority, perhaps influenced by events in France and Germany. But did the “New Line” mean opposing Labour, not just failing to support it? A by-election at Linlithgow saw the first ever call for abstention by the CP on the argument that building support for the Party could see it put up a candidate next time. In the Labour Monthly, April 1928, Dutt quoted Marx on the need to put up workers’ candidates, to fight “petty-bourgeois democracy”.
Dutt in the Labour Monthly of May 1928, ridiculed “the whole fallacy of the ‘ginger group’ concept in relation to the present formed and hardened Labour Party.” But, at the annual conference of the Left-Wing Movement in September 1928, up to 80 local Labour Party Left-Wing groups were represented. During pre-Congress discussion in October 1928, the New Liners complained that most of the Party leadership underestimated the Party’s influence. Dutt, in Labour Monthly of October 1928 forecast an increasingly diminished Labour Party, “while the Communist Party becomes established as the party of the mass of the industrial workers”. It was now the third capitalist party. But the municipal elections in November saw Labour’s vote rise, whilst the Communist vote fell.
The Party’s Tenth Congress in January 1929 saw a call for the National Left-Wing Movement to be dissolved. Those who wanted the Party to be linked to Labour’s left could go merrily on and find a home there. But J R Campbell and the majority of the was still doubtful. Where were the masses of recruits to the CP? But this line was lost at congress, by 55 votes to 52, with younger delegates responding enthusiastically to the radicalism of the anti-NLWM line.
Although congress policy was loyally followed by Party supporters in the NLWM, readers of the Sunday Worker were appalled. A deluge of protest that a decision about the United Front had not been taken by the United Front provoked indignation.
Dutt proclaimed in the Labour Monthly of February 1929 an “inevitable future fight against the Labour Government … to clear the revolutionary perspective of the period in front”. The Communist Party put up 25 candidates in the election in May and advised abstention where no Communists were standing, although a concession to the tradition of Irish abstentionism was that voters could write “Communist” across their ballot papers. Some CC members argued for putting up non-Communist left-wing candidates and, although preparations had been in train, notably in Birmingham, this was not pursued. Bill Rust spread hostility in the Party to George Aitken, Frank Bright, Johnnie Campbell, Albert Inkpin, and Andrew Rothstein and reprimanded by King Street for factionalism.
The issues did not seem to deflect Thompson at the BRILU Conference 24-25th August 1929. The Eleventh Congress of the Communist Party, held in Leeds in November–December 1929 registered the final, total triumph of the “New Line” in deeds as well as words, with guarantees in the form of changes in the leadership. In August 1930, Communist Review noted that “although we have stood on the line of the Comintern … membership continues to fall, and the Party is still largely isolated from the masses.” The Minority Movement would not be long before it followed the National Left-Wing Movement into oblivion.
A meeting to prepare for the 5th world conference of RILU was held in April 1930. Resolutions on the fight against capitalist rationalisation were submitted with Pollitt, George Allison, and Fred Thompson speaking. (4 April 1930 – Daily Worker) Whatever his view about the New Line, he had won over two hundred new members of the MM in Cardiff and had set up Ship Committees in Barry and Swansea,
A Seamen’s Minority Movement campaign in South Wales saw police not only preventing meetings being held “at the usual speaking places” but also threatening boarding house owners with the loss of their licences if they allowed MM meetings to be held at their establishments, whilst individual seafarers likely to be looking for a bed for the night were also warned off. Thompson was summoned at Cardiff Police Court for speaking at “what has always been regarded as a public meeting place”. Yet, “in the face of all this”, 200 recruits had joined up, many probably being Yemeni seafarers, some of whom would soon end up permanently residing in Butetown.
The Metropolitan police even banned a prize draw organised by London SMM after a police officer visited their headquarters. Thompson’s letter to the Labour Home Secretary, Clynes, explained the innocence of their project and asked for his “observations on this new political attack”. (6 February 1931 – Daily Worker)
At the global meeting of the RILU Central Council in November 1931, Pollitt sharply posed the argument for work inside reformist unions, explaining that successful MM work could push reformist unions in the right direction. (Mahon p173) Although his argument was not accepted at this session, it was clear that it had never been RILU policy to “advocate the general formation of `red’ unions in Britain”. (Mahon p174)
The MM took the RILU line that a” class union” was needed in place of the NUS to imply a deep-water section of the TGWU’s Waterways Trade Group. Bevin was prepared to move in that direction, but the death of the former NUS leader pre-empted that. Pollitt was not convinced without such a mass base a militant seafarers’ union could succeed. In the end, although RILU followed its Hamburg base in further promoting the ISHW, commitment to splitting the NUS, which now seemed willing to confirm to the culture of Britain’s single trade union centre, faded. Even so, Pollitt needed a safe pair of hands to at least go through the motions, sniping at the tail of the NUS in the hope it might be revived, a task that would take three decades more.
Another product of the New Line was the International Lenin School; perhaps up to 15 `graduates of it went on to become miners’ union or AEU officials, not a high number, but many more went on to be local militants.
With a decision of the CP EC in January 1932, a stop was put to such initiatives as Thompson was e0ngaged in as district Party controls began to reassert themselves, implying more local contact and familiarity with the local labour movement.
At the end of 1931, an assessment of the diversion of RILU’s idea for an international red seamen’s union saw Pollitt clash quite sharply with the Soviet head of RILU. Rank and file movements, led by Communists but involving other trades unionists of other parties and none, were forging ahead in engineering, buses, railways, and builders. Work in reformist unions was essential to developing new forms of militant leadership. In effect, this called an end to the fiction of red unions in Britain at least.
By 1932, the Seamen’s Minority Movement was 1,000-strong and had contact with colonial seafarers’ organisations and the Pan-African Movement. It had campaigned to end the PC5 system and to increase wages, reduce hours and improve conditions. But it’s had not seriously been able to dent NUS membership let alone supplant it. Pollitt fought a rear-guard action in Moscow, one in which he lost the battle but won the war, whereby RILU effectively gave up the attempt to destroy the NUS. It would take another 30 years for a serious undermining of right-wing dominance in the union and that would come from within.
In the meantime, the Comintern focused, mostly outside of Britain, on the International of Seamen and Harbour Workers, a transnational organisation which sought to aid the unionisation efforts of black maritime workers in the United States of America, the Caribbean and Africa during the 1930s. A key approach were the ‘interclubs’, scattered in ports across the globe, providing accommodation, education and recreation.
Thompson was sent back to the docks by the MM. Following agitation at the Red Lion Wharf, Upper Thames Street, and “in disgust at the repeated failure of the officials of the Transport Union to settle the many long-standing grievances of the dockers at this wharf, it was decided that the Port Workers’ Unity Movement, which is leading the struggles of the London dockers, should take a hand”. Fred Thompson addressed then men and they “decided to tabulate the outstanding questions which tie union had had in hand for over a ‘year”. Taking the matter out of the hands of the union officials entirely; a committee of five of the workers was elected to interview the “principal of the firm the following morning … (and to) authorise the committee to call a strike for Monday morning in the event of the demands not being granted, and to report back”.
Demands made were:
- That no scheduled man should do any work other than supervisory,
- That no boy be employed on any form of manual l labour, other than sweeping or as messenger.
- That non-registered men should not be employed where registration card is necessary.
- To inform the management that action would be taken against non-union, men.
- That there should be no transference of labour from the teams or vice versa during working periods.
This victory” although only directly affecting 100 men, will have a tremendous effect throughout the wharves of the Thames, for the whole of the dock worker-s are suffering from the cutting and displacement of labour caused by foremen, boys, etc., doing dockers’ work, and by the transference of labour from. wharf to wharf. Thompson was thanked for the advice and guidance he had given. (7 November 1932 – Daily Worker)
WHAT NEXT FOR THOMPSON AND THE CP?
Born in 1878, Thompson would have been 70 in 1948 but male retirement was reduced in 1940 to 65 years, when he was just three years away from receiving a state pension. It is likely that he retired at this point. He appears to have been working with the Daily Worker, probably after 1935. Two years after that, the paper reported that it had been “limiting results obtained from the recruitment of new readers on London’s May Day by members of our staff to the editorial department only. For Gabriel (the cartoonist) didn’1-win first prize, after all. He made ten new readers, but Fred Thompson, of our advertising staff, went one better—no, four better. Fred’s work among the transport section (and not the busmen part of it!) won us 14 new regular readers. Further, at a May Day meeting in the evening, he added another 12. Twenty-six in one day. No doubt about it, the prize goes to Fred.” (8 May 1937, Daily Worker)
The Party’s trade union base had come from those who had come from the Clyde Workers’ Movement and similar shop stewards’ movements across the country. But, as well as militancy such activists also brought problems. Many were sectarian and long prone to being insulting towards Labourites and trade union officials, almost as a point of principle. Many of the best fighters had come from the Socialist Labour Party, which formally refused even to fuse with the BSP to form the Party. Many opposed even the idea that Communists could become union officials as they would inevitably become corrupt.
Pollitt took up the challenge in the February 1924 issue of the Communist Review, suggesting that the early Party had little practical influence in the wider labour movement. Whilst things had changed, there was no magic cure: “There have been difficulties, there always will be, and we shall overcome them as we go along. During the last 16 months we have tried to get down to brass tacks–Many members have fallen out, because the demands made upon them were too exacting, but many more new members have come in, who are carrying out the work well. There are more members active than ever before … The greatest hindrance to the growth of our party is not the lack of political training, it is a number of practical difficulties that our members are meeting with … Ask any local organiser in South Wales or Scotland what their biggest problem is, they won’t say it was the absence of ‘the will to revolution’, they would say it was the lack of a common meeting place. Ask them what other things they were up against, and we would find it wasn’t ‘the fetish of mechanical formalism’ but lack of finance due to the poverty of the members.”
At the beginning of the year the EC issued a resolution which ended with the statement: “Let our slogan for 1925 be: A Mass Communist Party.” The party had made a serious turn towards industrial work with the formation of the National Minority Movement in August 1924 representing 200,000 workers. Party members Tom Mann and Harry Pollitt were elected President and General Secretary respectively. With one or two exceptions the Executive of the NMM were all members of the party. By August 1925 the Second Annual Conference had registered substantial growth with 683 delegates representing 750,000 workers. Its influence was spreading throughout the trade union movement and even the TUC began to become increasingly influenced by the initiatives of the Minority Movement. Coupled with this was the drive to establish factory branches of the Communist Party. Albert Inkpin explained “the party locals ought to base their activities on the industrial concerns that come within their localities. The transformation of these concerns into Communist fortresses should be their fundamental task–The establishment of a factory group in a large factory, mine or mill is as much a victory for communism as is the winning of a local or even parliamentary election.”
A Thesis on the Mass Party outlined the industrial perspective: “The chief road towards becoming a real mass party for us lies through the factory, the workshop, the mill, the mine and so on–the eyes of all Communists should be directed to the factory, and to the factory gate–“
CADRE PARTY OR MASS PARTY?
The Party had signalled a determination to return to trade union work in the January resolution of 1932. Six years later, after both United Front and Popular Front work, Pollitt was franker than any leading Communist had ever been in speaking of the way CP branches operated: “the same half-dozen members turn in on themselves and fail to appreciate that their work is hampered by their complete divorce from the daily struggle and life of the workers”. In a speech that mentions trade unions nearly fifty times, Pollitt could not be clearer in what was effectively a call to turn to the world of work: “The main drive of the Communist Party must be in the factories and trade unions. The political effectiveness of the Communist Party depends on its really leading, and at the same time understanding the needs and aims of the decisive sections of the working class. This is the basis of our strength … Our success depends on how far our party membership is representative of the best and most militant workers in the industrial fields and organisations. If the party is strong in … trade unions, it means the difference between impotence and real political life and influence – between temporary enthusiasm and real power on a lasting basis.” (Peace and Plenty: Report of the Fifteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, pp. 25-87 and 112-30)
In speaking of the impact on the lives of the Kuczinsky family, German communist exiles in London during the 1930s, their biographer makes the salient point:
“Particularly in historically turbulent times the personal does become political, whether the individuals consciously choose a political role or not …. The demands made on every single comrade were high, as there was so much work to be done and no time to lose. The Party became involved in every comrade’s personal life. It had to ensure everyone found work, accommodation and had sufficient income to survive, this involved monitoring who was living with whom and discouraging couples and children under such precarious circumstance a sad occurrence, but also it had serious implications, when marriages fell apart or (and it was always their partners too often. (John Green A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and The Cold War, Routledge Studies in Radical History and Politics (2017) pp124n)
The cult of the cadre party attracted some, the professional revolutionary who has a perfect understanding of theory and practice, historical and practical knowledge, and can act in a disciplined collective way, as they devote all their time to advancing the work of the Party. Experience showed that this was not the direction the British Party could travel in, at least as far as its trade union work went.
Before Chartism, political parties had their origins in elite societies and clubs, often linked to important people. The British parliament still reeks of this but, with the gradual extension of the franchise, groups of MPs developed networks of supporters. Although these inevitably linked up across constituencies, creating a cadre of activists, most people were excluded from the political process other than at election time. In conditions of illegality, it was inevitable that the ‘cell’ structure would develop with its main aim to judge the quality of its adherents in the task of executing a specific objective. Crafting a formal structure with the objective of creating a party that acted in a mass way, the Communist Party in the 1930s built workplace cells as part of a conception whereby these would zest the wider working-class movement. Party propaganda initially focused on self-produced pit papers. Building cell branches by bringing activists together was engaged in.
A cadre party and a mass party are two distinct types of organisation rather than being about difference of size. The former operates in an open and inclusive manner.
Today, the advent of referenda, online polling, and social media means that it is impossible to lock members out of meaningful involvement in policy making decisions.
Harry Pollitt’s comment that the CP of the 1930s was “a small party of the elect … not a party of passive members, but activists”, has been taken to mean that, rather than aiming for a mass party, the aim should be a cadre form of organisation. (16 January 1935 Daily Worker) The date is a critical piece of evidence in suggesting that, at best, this is a misunderstanding of the historical trajectory of the British CP.
Writing in anticipation of a round of Communist Party District Congresses, Pollitt urged “great attention” on the question of building a mass Communist Party, since the “objective of every phase of Party policy is not only to strengthen the immediate fight of the workers, but to recruit and build up the Communist Party out this daily work”.
This work should not be “some fetish of one or two more zealous minded comrades”, it should be the “natural outcome of everything” all members do. For the stronger the Communist Party becomes, the stronger does the whole working-class struggle”. Building the United Front would build the Communist Party.
Pollitt indicated the trend was “to end once and for all the obstacles that our own methods and attitude towards recruiting have placed in the way of building the mass Communist Party”. The plain fact is that Pollitt was ridiculing the notion of a cadre party. It wasn’t because people were “not ready to join” but because “we are not convinced there is any necessity for them to join. We are self-satisfied with our present strength. We still believe better to have `a small party of the elect’ of those `we can rely on in a crisis’ than to have a mass party of the workers.” The phrase has its origins in Calvinism, which defines the elect as a group whom, alone, God has pre-determined to save from damnation ahead of their death. All others are predestined to eternal damnation. Constant prayer and reading of the Bible will be of no avail, because the non-elect is totally incapable of believing any of it. Adam was the first Elect, or “chosen one”.
The point of Pollitt’s sarcastic reference to the barriers the CP of his time was placing against ordinary working people, with all their strengths and weaknesses, joining the Party in great numbers, was to urge that Communists let go of their romantic illusions and join the real world. His article gave example after example of situations when groups of Party members were sat down by him and asked to list good activists they knew who might join, their “shortcomings” suddenly recalled; but was what held us back the fact that the inadequacies we ourselves have might become all too obvious in the process? Such resistance to recruiting raw workers was ended at a stroke that year, while in 1938, the CP congress, held deliberately in Birmingham not because of its militancy but because of its success in operating broad `non-elect’ style of work, urged a turn towards trade union work, the effect of which could still be felt in the 1960s and 1970s. Party membership rose from 6.500, which it had been at the point Pollitt wrote his `elect’ article to 18,000 by the time of the Birmingham congress.
In practical experience, the British Communist Party, through the agency of people like Fred Thompson and his relationship with Harry Pollitt, along with countless others, proceeded from an understanding that, as Harry Pollitt was to write in 1954: “despite years of bitter experience … the working class does not spontaneously develop a political, socialist consciousness out of separate or even out of a series of struggles or campaigns.” (“The challenge to labour: political report to the 23rd national congress of the Communist Party (1954) p. 42) Politics, he argued, is not rhetoric, or revolutionary nostalgia. It is the essence of life. It’s all the things going on in peoples’ lives about work and study, housing and health, both physical and mental, domestic violence and equal treatment. What is the point of the Communist Party? It is surely to provide:
(it) socialist consciousness and understanding
(ii) leadership in all struggles
(iii) an organisation for those working people capable of carrying out these two tasks.
Whatever limitations and problems arose, the intertwined story of the TGWU, Fred Thompson, and Harry Pollitt displayed how that understanding was forged in mass struggle during the first half of the 20th century.