Trade Union and Employment Forum

The Communist Party and the trade unions

History & Policy Trade Union Forum

This meeting of the Forum set out to examine key aspects of the Communist Party of Great Britain’s relationship with the trade unions. For, despite its having been wound up in 1991, 'the CP' had an influence on the unions and wider labour politics after 1945 out of all proportion to its formal membership. The historical presentation by Professor Kevin Morgan of the University of Manchester focussed on the contrast between the close control of party union activists attempted between the wars and the more pragmatic approach that can be detected emerging from the late 1930s onwards. A number of regular participants in Forum meetings then made short contributions on their own experience in, around, or with CP activity: John Lloyd, Robert Taylor, Peter Ackers, Denis Gregory, Jim Moher and John Edmonds.

Professor Kevin Morgan

The key differences between the earlier and later periods can be encapsulated in the larger-than-life Scottish Communist miners' leader, Abe Moffat's, deference to young apparatchik Scottish Party Secretary, Gordon McLennan in 1958. Moffat asked McLennan to approve the draft of a speech he was preparing, as if approaching a higher authority. That was always the ideal in the early period, when Communist union activists were directed by and meant to follow ‘the party line’, derived from 'Moscow' and shifting depending on the Soviet or Comintern leadership's instructions. But by 1958, McLennan found this request disconcerting, as by then the CP had changed into a more open and a less monolithic body. Moffat had been formed in a culture of a vanguard party, governed by rules of ‘democratic centralism’, McLennan's vision of the CP was very different. Yet the party was much more successful in the later period, when Communist union leaders regarded themselves as relatively independent and primarily subject to their own union's interests.

Indeed, iron Leninist discipline and 'democratic centralist' control was arguably one of the main reasons why the earlier CP had made so little impact on the British unions in the first period, when a significant number of militant union leaders had found it impossible to combine high union office with CP discipline, and had broken away or been expelled a short time after setting up the party in 1921. Chief amongst these was leader of the furniture trade union, the National Amalgamated Furnishing Trades Association (NAFTA), A.A. ('Alf') Purcell, the subject of Kevin’s recent book Bolshevism, Syndicalism and the General Strike. The Lost Internationalist World of A.A.Purcell (2013), the third part of a sequence on ‘Bolshevism and the British Left’. Purcell, a leader of the earlier British Socialist Party, had moved the original motion to form the CP in 1920, but he left in 1922 because he was more syndicalist-minded and found its Leninist discipline irksome. As a senior TUC General Council member and MP (Coventry and Forest of Dean, 1924 and 1925-9), he had considerable influence up to the General Strike, chairing the main strike committee, and continuing to promote a pro-Soviet policy as president of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU) until 1927.

Similarly, A.J. Cook left the CP (or was expelled) in 1921 and complained of 'outside direction' by a 'small clique'. He became general secretary of the 1 million-strong Miners' Federation in 1924 and after the General Strike until his untimely death from cancer in 1931, he was a major figure on the left. Yet another case was Robert Williams, Transport Workers’ Federation secretary, also syndicalist-minded who, with Purcell, had helped initiate the Red International Labour Union (RILU), but was expelled from the CP for his stance during the transport solidarity strike of 'Black Friday' in 1921.

The miners’ leaders Arthur Horner and Abe Moffatt were exceptions. They were part of militant Communistic communities and traditions in South Wales and East Scotland and so could remain in the CP while holding leading union positions. Nonetheless, many of these (especially Horner, the most influential CP figure), were often on the verge of being expelled from the party because of union decisions they supported and were freely accused of 'treachery and manoeuvring' by party activists. The equally able Harry Pollitt, who stayed in the party, found it very difficult to progress within his union, the Boilermakers’ Society, and opted instead for a leading party and National Minority Movement role. He became General Secretary of the CP from the late 1920s, a key example of the way the party, though tiny in membership at only around 3,000 at this time, was able to provide an alternative career path for activists. These were about fifty full-time functionaries in the London area alone in 1931, which was far more than the almost 1 million-strong Labour Party had.

These Communist activists saw themselves as part of a worldwide movement. The senior officials, like Pollitt, were on regular delegations to Comintern and RILU conferences and to Soviet celebrations of anniversaries of the 1917 Revolution. They were feted as the vanguard leaders of the proletariat in their own countries and met with top Soviet and Comintern leaders. For the lower ranks, there were numerous trips to the Soviet Union and Lenin Schools - some spent months or even years there - and their Marxist-Leninist faith gave them an ideological conviction that they were the wave of the future. Horner for one felt that this was at the expense of their independence and reputation at home, and referred indiscreetly to 'machines which only exist to say yes to every order'. McLennan, later general secretary of the CP, could not have saved his deposit in any parliamentary constituency even in the later days; and even Pollitt, in the CP’s strongest period as an electoral force, narrowly failed to get into parliament in the 1945 election. Phil Piratin (Stepney) and Willie Gallacher (West Fife) did serve as Communist MPs in this period, but with the onset of the Cold War even these limited footholds were quickly lost.

This failure to make any electoral impact has led some historians, notably the late Nina Fishman, to suggest that the CP deliberately vacated the political arena to focus on union activities from as early as the 1930s. Kevin thought there was some basis to this observation, but that its dating from so early a period was problematic to say the least. Perhaps it could be more plausibly dated from the party's disastrous performance in the 1950 election, when it fielded a hundred candidates, all but three of whom lost their deposits. As activists increasingly began to specialise in particular fields of activities so, as Brian Behan observed, there was not just one CP but about ten of them! At the same time, a sort of de-Leninisation occurred and little serious attempt was any longer made to control and subordinate the activities of leading Communist trade unionists or make them play a vanguard role, organising forces for revolution. As early as 1939, party member Arthur Horner, President of the South Wales Miners, could, in respect of his union activities, effectively ignore the CP line on the Nazi-Soviet Pact with impunity (though Pollitt had to step down as general secretary for a year or so). Kevin had discussed this in detail in his first book Against Fascism and War. It was this relaxation which created the climate for the emergence of a new cohort of Communist unionists after the 1930s. As well as those who held formal party membership there were many others who were close to the party or had passed through it, without ever becoming anti-communists. They could now aspire to, and become, senior union leaders and, in the 1960s and 1970s, many, such as Jack Jones (TGWU) and Hugh Scanlon (AUEW), did so with considerable success. Len Murray, Jim Mortimer and Clive Jenkins, were some of the more notable others who passed through the CP or YCL ‘finishing school’.

A major reason for this was the shift to the 'Popular Front' style of politics in the late 1930s, junking the previous 'Class against Class' hostility towards social democracy, looking more favourably on the opportunities in the mainstream institutions of the British labour movement and aiming to secure footholds there, especially union office. Meanwhile, the post-war expansion of union machinery and recognition afforded more purposeful and congenial roles as lay and full-time officials, than working in the CP apparatus on very low wages. Moreover, the CP leadership now also adopted a funding strategy less dependent on Soviet support, which reinforced its greater sense of political realism and independence, allowing its industrial activists to accommodate to long-standing forms of economic militancy. These sea-changes to a 'militant officialism' strategy, proved very successful in gaining a far more extensive CP influence and recognition of this influence by the trade union and Labour left. The important role of the daily Morning Star and its wide left readership, should also be recognised. By the time the CP industrial organisers of the 1960s and 1970s, such as Peter Kerrigan and Bert Ramelson, came along, the party had an organised presence within the unions which Pollitt could only have dreamed of in the 1930s. Now Ramelson could confidently deny that King Street dictated policy in the unions, and Kevin cited cases from his interviews in which he declined to intervene in internal disputes. As he put it to Arthur Utting, an important CP figure in the building trades, 'the boys in each union decide policy'.

Recognising that they no longer sought a Leninist vanguard role, Kevin asked what the party of Ramelson and McLennan was meant to do in the unions? Britain’s perhaps rather unique absence of mass socialist political affiliation (in contrast say to late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Germany), meant that British trade unions were the product of an associational culture that pre-dated organised socialism and was not directly moulded by it. Political formations such as the Fabian Society and Independent Labour Party, representing relatively small groups of activists, had already tried to influence the unions through a policy of permeation. The CP achieved significant influence only when it abandoned the logic of revolutionary leadership and accepted that same policy of militant permeation. Kevin left it open for discussion whether that influence had been to the benefit or detriment of the unions themselves.

John Lloyd

As a former official of the electricians’ union (ETU) from the other end of the political spectrum, John remarked that all his colleagues were very conscious of the extent of CP influence in the later period, and most took the Morning Star as their daily read. In explaining why Labour Party activists had resented CP interference in union affairs so much, he emphasised: the implication of all CP propaganda that ordinary, social democratic-minded activists were not proper trade unionists; the CP’s main priority to take over the Labour Party through the union 'block vote’; the manipulation of 'fellow travellers' and inner-core politicking within the unions and Labour Party; and their close links with the Soviet Union, which they tried to keep quiet, so that when it was exposed, they seemed like foreign agents.

Robert Taylor

Bert Ramelson had boasted to him in 1973 that the CP could develop a policy in the spring and watch it become Labour Party policy by the conference season in October. There was much truth in that then, and it was indicative of the serious influence which the CP wielded in left-led major unions, whose block votes delivered those left-wing policies at the Labour Conference. The biggest factor was the long-running conflict with Labour governments over incomes policies and proposals to regulate industrial relations, when trade unions were traditionally committed to 'free collective bargaining’ – which could be exploited by the CP through ‘Broad Left’ fronts. Their main redoubts were in TASS (the technicians - Ken Gill), the Furniture Trades, the Tobacco Workers (Doug Grieve), and the Fire Brigades Union (Ken Cameron). However, it was a delusion on Ramelson's part that after attacking the incomes policies of all governments the workers would move politically to the left: instead they switched to the Tories, especially in the case of skilled workers, ('the U2s').

Peter Ackers

There has been a lack of serious debate amongst historians and industrial relations specialists about the role of the CP, something it seems it is still not quite polite to talk about. The leading Nuffield School experts, Professors Hugh Clegg and Alan Flanders, thought the poor British industrial relations of the 1960s and 1970s was more to do with badly-designed institutions, so their books played down the role of the CP and instead stressed structural factors. But in his own view the CP had an important negative influence on trade union leadership after 1945. Its 'militant economism' was a very clever strategy which connected with working-class instincts in a period of full employment, but it used this influence to encourage constant industrial confrontation. For a time, this strategy seemed successful, but eventually it created the Thatcherite backlash of the late 1970s and 1980s, reducing the unions to the parlous state they find themselves in today, especially in the private sector.

Denis Gregory

He recalled having seen the influence of the CP on cohorts of lay representatives coming onto diploma and degree courses at Ruskin College, Oxford since the 1970s. Many with CP backgrounds were considering a union career, but they favoured the independent role of unions for the UK and not the 'conveyor belt' Soviet one. The CP had some influence in the Wales TUC from its inception in the 1970s, which owed much to senior union stalwarts such as Dai Francis and George Rees of the South Wales Miners. However, this influence, though solid, was not great, as leading figures in the Wales TUC, such as George Wright of the TGWU, had broken from their formative CP dalliances: as a researcher with the Wales TUC, Denis wrote many policies into which there was little CP input. He felt that nationally CP influence had withered away as a result of a series of discrediting international events: the Hungarian uprising against Soviet control in 1956, Premier Khruschev's revelations about Stalin's purges, and the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

Jim Moher

Recalling his experiences with CP activists on large construction sites in London the late 1960s, Jim thought the confrontational, 'anti-capitalist' image and ideology of many of the CP shop stewards was an important factor. They were hostile to all overtime working and individual-based bonus schemes, a cause of countless unofficial disputes. Especially as a vacuum was created by the poor industrial relations expertise of the large employers and the ineffectiveness of union officials, saddled with enforcing weak national agreements which did not reflect the new conditions on these sites. Thus, although it was not then the CP's official policy to denigrate officials, their local activists had no such inhibitions. The militant stewards reflected the mood of the men and, for a time, acted as a check on arbitrary foremen and site agents. In some ways, the CP influence was a disciplining and stabilising one, bringing some regulation by comparison to the anarchy of the 'free' construction labour market, in this way it was even regarded as beneficial by some employers and by some unions, ensuring that agreements would be honoured. A number of the CP activists became absorbed during the merger of the building workers’ unions into UCATT and settled down to a constructive role. However, the frequency of turbulent disputes in the 1960s did a lot to encourage anti-union strategies amongst employers, which eventually undermined all union efforts to achieve members and recognition.

John Edmonds

The trade unions had left open big gaps for the CP to exploit and use. One was the combine committees of shop stewards which were seen as a political driver by anti-official bodies. The second was national agreements which had not been updated regularly enough, putting the officials charged with enforcing them at a massive disadvantage by comparison with their militant critics at the workplace. Then, in the mid-1970s, new leaders on the left such as Jack Jones of the TGWU, abandoned those national agreements altogether and changed the structure of unions to devolve negotiating power to the shop floor stewards. Change was clearly needed, but these changes went too far, enabling extreme political groups to zone in on those 'rank and file' structures and often take control away from the union leaderships altogether. In contrast, the GMB had managed to negotiate some of the best national agreements around and did not have much CP influence. In fact, the CP were very predictable on one level: you just had to ask and they would tell you what they were after. The simplicity of their approach was far less effective in the complexity of the last few years as purist philosophies have largely broken down.


John Lloyd recalled that trade union education had been a natural target for the CP. Jack Hendry, the Electricians’ Education Officer during the period of CP domination, and Jock Haston, his Trotskyist senior tutor at the ETU College, dictated what was in the training materials of all tutors. So what was taught generally had a strong 'left' bias. As regards how the CP reacted to the growing influence of the far-left, they were usually bitter rivals (Trotskyist and Anarchist varieties), who also targeted the 'rank-and-file' union activists: 'Left didn't talk to Left'. The CP line of 'militant officialism' contrasted with the neophyte ultra-left who re-invented the earlier CP anti-official, 'anti-bureaucracy' approach.

Robert Taylor saw the policy of Communists towards the trades unions as entirely opportunistic. From their revolutionary days they had developed a deeply hostile analysis of trade unionism, seeing it as an expression of workers' adaptation to the emerging capitalist system. The only role they saw for Communist activists was one of using union organisations to wage relentless economic struggles to prepare the workers for their historical destiny of overthrowing capitalism by revolutionary means. At the same time, the reason so many known communists were elected as shop stewards by their workmates was because of their industrial incorruptibility compared, for example, with those who had done the twisted deals with Murdoch during the Wapping battle of 1980s. From an employers' point of view, Communist officials also tended to be the more responsible, as they would normally honour, and persuade workers to honour, agreements entered into freely.

Peter Ackers recalled that during the period of the 1980s onwards, when he was personally involved, and under Peter Carter and Eric Hobsbawm's influence, the CP majority tendency seemed to be trying to move away from espousing mindless militancy and to revisionist and reformist views.

Kevin Morgan’s response

The British labour movement with its single centre was admired throughout the world in both periods, but especially in the earlier one, when such momentous events were occurring. It had a strong culture of unity and was strong enough not to be excluded easily from wider social developments by parties or governments. So it was regarded as an important player in the global union and political world.

It puzzled the very anti-Bolshevik continental social democratic union leaders, why the British TUC was not more irritated by what they saw as major Soviet and Communist International interventions in their country’s industrial affairs. But Arthur Henderson, the Labour Party international affairs spokesperson (and later Foreign Minister), explained their initially indulgent attitude as one of, 'we all go through these radical phases' and 'we need critics' etc. However, from 1927 onwards, particularly after the General Strike, when the Comintern-inspired CP bitterly attacked the TUC leaders' conduct of it, Citrine and Bevin changed their attitude totally to one of deep hostility to the CP in all its manifestations. The CP soon after confirmed their non-independence of Moscow by adopting entirely the 1928 Comintern sectarian policy of 'Class against Class' which denounced all social democrat leaders as 'social fascists'. This squandered much of the earlier goodwill they had built up.

Kevin attributed the recovery and growth in CP membership and influence after the Second World War to the prestige of the Soviet Union from its massive contribution to defeating fascism and winning the war. In this period the CP had been only one part of a wider pro-Soviet mood in Britain: many organisations developed links with, and trips to, the socialist countries; many Labour MPs availed themselves of these invitations; there was a growing number of union activists attracted to Communism, e.g. in the engineering industry. This wave of sympathy lasted long beyond 1945, but the anti-Communist propaganda of the Cold War effectively erased it from the mainstream of public life. Meanwhile, in the unions, CP influence was less affected and the more sophisticated and more independent new CP economistic pitch enabled it to dominate their 'Broad Left' alliances in many unions for some time longer.

James Moher and Alastair Reid


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