Issue 266 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published September 2002 Copyright © Socialist Review
Who will miss the trade unions' lousiest right wing double act? asks The Walrus
So, off you go then Ken and Barry, quite possibly the lousiest double act ever to have trodden the boards. Mercifully yanked off stage by the great umbrella handle of history. All that's left is to look forward to your villas in Marbella, your bolthole of choice. The rather flustered-looking stage manager, Mr Blair, will no doubt be hoping that the rest of us put the miserable duo to the back of our minds ASAP. But before they are finally upended into the great wheelie-bin of yesteryear, it might be worth remembering how they managed to land the gig in the first place, in the hope that nothing quite so dire gets foisted on us ever again.
Ken Jackson and Barry Reamsbottom have always appeared as the least cogent of a long procession of right wing union leaders. Part of the reason they have both ended up being blown out so spectacularly by their own membership is that they clung to a brand of anti-Communist, Cold War rhetoric that means next to nothing to anybody under the age of about 40.
When he stood against Derek Simpson, apparently not for a minute realising that he might actually lose, this was the very first sentence in Jackson's election address (a bit rashly as it turns out): 'One issue is as vital today as it has ever been--that we prevent our great union falling into the hands of left wing extremists, Communists and Trotskyists. I have fought them all my life while my opponent was a member of the Communist Party and his campaign today is organised by the extreme left.' Reamsbottom used virtually identical rhetoric when he launched his coup attempt against Mark Serwotka, again totally oblivious to the fact that most of the membership had long ago made up their minds that it was Barry who should go.
The brand of hysteria peddled by Jackson and Reamsbottom no longer cuts any ice with most union members for a very simple reason--it has more in common with the McCarthyite witch-hunts of the 1950s than with any of the real problems facing ordinary workers in Blair's Britain. But for many years, the strain of anti-Communism which both of them dished up was a particularly virulent one. And many of its most forceful adherents held leading positions in what used to be the EETPU, in the old AUEW and in the CPSA (forerunner of the PCS).
By far the nastiest advocates of what became the closest equivalent in Britain to the business unionism of the US were active in the EETPU. The leader of the EETPU from 1966 onwards, Frank Chapple, was a rabid free-marketeer long before Margaret Thatcher and won control of the union on a mission to expunge what he coincidentally described as 'the Communist and Trotskyist-based opposition in the union'.
Between them, Chapple and his protégé, Eric Hammond, gleefully took up the calling as scourge of the left, dealing mercilessly with opponents from inside their own union. The EETPU supported an aggressive pro-nuclear stance, privatisation of major state industries (like the Post Office, for example) and signing up to single-union 'sweatheart deals' with the bosses, all the way through to collaboration with media magnate Rupert Murdoch against the print unions during the Wapping dispute.
Probably less well remembered is the fact that throughout the same period, from the early 1960s to the late 1980s, a series of right wingers found their way into top positions in the AUEW (later AEEU)--names like Jim Conway, Sir John Boyd and Lord Carron, all three as backward as you like. In fact, Carron's abuse of his position led directly to the election of Hugh Scanlon as the first left wing president of the AUEW in a very long time, in 1967.
Though not quite of the same calibre, a number of individuals emerged in the main civil service union, the CPSA, in the 1970s and 1980s, every bit as rabid as Chapple and the rest. Notable among these was Kate Losinska, and later her shadow, Marion Chambers. For year after year in this period, Losinska and Chambers were key allies of Barry Reamsbottom in the battle to suppress any semblance of left wing influence, at the time mainly grouped around the Militant Tendency and the highly successful rank and file organisation, 'Redder Tape'. One of the things they would all be most worried about is that the membership of the civil service unions includes some very high-ranking people in the heart of government and, of course, at GCHQ.
Every so often it would emerge that one or other of these individuals was either directly or indirectly involved with organisations not renowned for their pro-union sympathies--like the CIA, for example, or Nato, or the Foreign Office. In 1978 CPSA president Kate Losinska admitted that the 'Daylight Group' (as the 'moderates' were known at the time) had been financed by an organisation known as Truemid, which was also active in the AUEW. Truemid had been set up by a complete headbanger called Colonel David Stirling, who had not only been founder of the SAS but had organised his own paramilitary strikebreaking force during the last big upturn in the early 1970s!
As can be discovered by reading the excellent coverage on the evolution of these shadowy networks on websites like 'labournet' and 'the lobster', the ideology which unites them is one of fervent pro-capitalism with unwavering support for US foreign policy. The latest incarnation is an organisation called the Trade Union Committee for European and Transatlantic Understanding (TUCETU), which not only boasts Sir Ken Jackson and Barry Reamsbottom as joint vice-presidents (along with Lord [Bill] Jordan and Doug McEvoy), but also--surprise, surprise--among its 'vice-chairmen' are listed Lord [Frank] Chapple, Eric Hammond and Kate Losinska.
Of course it would be a mistake to get too complacent about exactly how much of a threat these very extreme 'moderates' currently pose. On the other hand, any ambitions they had to block Derek Simpson and Mark Serwotka have not proven tremendously successful and most of this lot are so far past their sell-by dates you wonder if they are still allowed out anywhere, unless it's dark. The fact is that the ideas they represent are wildly out of kilter with the broad trend in the unions at the moment. And this is confirmed not only by the triumphs for Derek Simpson and Mark Serwotka but also by the fact that Tony Blair can now rely for unquestioning support at the TUC and Labour Party conferences on only one or two of the very smallest unions. Stage Manager? Get' im off!