Chris Harman


Communist Party in decline

2. The Party today

(October 1973)

From International Socialism (1st series), No.63, mid October 1973, pp.19-28.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

When the congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain meets next month, the leaders will boast that the party is growing in both size and influence, and that the decline that occurred during the years of Labour government (documented by Jules Townsend in the last issue of this journal) has at least been halted.

Already they have noted ‘a modest growth of over 1,000 in the national membership of our party. The first time for nearly a decade ... It is significant that Communist Party membership has grown simultaneously with an increase of over 1,000 copies per day in the circulation of the Morning Star.’ [1]

If the Communist Party were really putting on muscle, it would be a fact of enormous significance for the development of the labour movement in the period ahead. For, the party remains the biggest grouping of the left within industry and the main alternative to the revolutionary organisation for left-moving militants. But despite the claims, the problems facing the party leadership have not been solved. The membership figures in themselves mean very little: since those who drop out of activity do not lose their party membership [2] and dues are only collected from about half the party members. [3]

More important is the fact that the breakdown in the internal cohesion of the party has gone further in the last three years than ever before, although the influence enjoyed by party members has proved to be much more significant in the struggles that have taken place under the Tories than those that occurred in the last years of the Labour government, with many of the major confrontations taking place in industries where the CP has traditionally been strong – the Clyde shipyards, the engineers, the mines, the docks.

As the class struggle has intensified, it has become more and more difficult to reconcile friendship with ‘left’ trade union leaders and a policy of militancy among the rank and file. Those CP members most enmeshed in the official union machine have tended to side with the non-CP union leaders of the Jones-Scanlon sort and try to avoid industrial confrontations. Many party members operating at the rank and file level have tended to respond by pushing for militant action. And the party itself has been stuck in the middle. A brief survey of the main industrial disputes since 1970 shows that even when verbally it has taken a ‘militant’ policy, it has been unable to force some of its most influential members to put that policy into practice.

The postal workers’ strike

The most important single industrial struggle in the first 18 months of the Tory government was waged by the postal workers. Although the postal workers had very few traditions of militancy, they held out for six weeks, without any strike pay. But then the union leadership found that paying £100,000 a week hardship pay had forced it into debt and that the other union leaders were not prepared to help it out. The CP’s friends in the AUEW and TGWU behaved no differently in this respect to the right wingers. The union’s general secretary, Tom Jackson, had a choice between publicly denouncing the attitude of the other trade union leaders and appealing to the rank and file directly to force their hands, or of calling off the strike. He chose to call off the strike and was backed by his executive council, by 27 votes to four.

Although a ballot vote of the membership gave a majority for Jackson’s line there was considerable discontent among many of the rank and file and most of the branches in the main urban centres voted against the executive’s recommendation. In Liverpool for instance, a mass meeting of 2500 workers voted by two to one against a return to work.

The Communist Party, however, was in no position either to provide the leadership which the militants would have needed to keep the strike going and outmanoeuvre Jackson or take advantage of the bitterness of the rank and file for recruitment purposes.

The CP had had quite a strong organised group inside the post office, particularly in London in the early 1960s. When the leader of the union before Jackson, Ron Smith, had disciplined the London regional committee of the union and expelled Maurice Styles and J.R. Lawlor, both CP members, in the mid 1960s, the party had been strong enough to fight back. It used legal action to get its members reinstated in their union posts, and managed to get Styles elected to the union executive. Soon afterwards Tom Jackson was elected to office with the backing of the CP vote. A honeymoon period followed as far as relations between the CP and Jackson were concerned and the CP organisation within the post office was allowed to fall into disuse.

But Jackson soon proved that he was not adverse to taking disciplinary action himself against militants. After a strike of overseas telegraphists in 1969, one of their leaders, Ron Beak, a non-CP member, was banned from union office for publicising details of an inquiry into the dispute. The party continued to believe, however, that Jackson was their man and made no attempt to revive their own organisation in the union.

It was this tie-up with Jackson that prevented the CP making considerable gains out of the 1971 strike or offering desperately needed leadership at the crucial point. Styles refused to differentiate himself in any way from the rest of the executive. At mass meetings over which he presided, he refused to accept resolutions at all critical of any aspect of the running of the strike. And Communists on the executive voted with the majority to recommend the return to work.

After the strike there seems to have been a half hearted attempt to revive the party’s organisation in the union. A meeting for contacts was held in Conway Hall with Styles and Lawlor (now an assistant secretary of the union) on the platform, as well as the CP industrial organiser, Ramelson. But the attempt was abandoned after Jackson criticised the activities of organised political groupings in the union, including the CP, in the union’s Branch Officers Bulletin.

Yet the long flirtation with the union leadership seems to have done the party little good in the long run. At this year conference Jackson, rattled by rank and file opposition on certain issues, launched into a bitter denunciation of the CP, comparing its activities to those of IS and the Socialist Labour League.

Upper Clyde shipyards

If the Communist Party played a rather inglorious role in the postal workers’ dispute, it seemed to do much better in the next major industrial conflict: the struggle against the closure of the Upper Clyde Shipyards which began in the summer of 1971. Communist convenors and stewards provided the main leadership to the struggle, leaping into national prominence and gaining for the party the most favourable press publicity in many years.

When the first report was issued recommending the closure of two of the four Upper Clyde shipyards, with the sacking of 6000 men and the introduction of ‘competitive’ wage rates (estimated to mean a cut of 20p an hour in wages) in July 1971, a wave of anger swept through the West of Scotland. The UCS stewards announced that they were going to resist the closure with an ‘occupation’, and an 80,000 strong demonstration in Glasgow on 18 August showed that the support existed throughout the Scottish working class for such resistance.

The Communist Party present the outcome of the struggle that followed as being an unqualified victory for the workers, but a closer look at the facts reveals a different picture. The aims of the workers at the beginning of the struggle were summed up by James Airlie, one of the leading Communist stewards, in a party pamphlet.

‘Once again we have confirmed that there must be no contraction and no redundancy in any of the yards. Any reorganisation must be based on the long term interests of the industry and be aimed at expansion, not contraction.’ [4] (Our emphasis)

In light of these aims, there was no great victory at UCS. Twelve months after the beginning of the struggle, redundancies had taken place and there had been contraction of the industry. Although the government was forced to retreat from the initial talk of 6000 redundancies, it did succeed in cutting the workforce by about 2000. And the shipyard workers at one of the yards, Clydebank, later Marathon, made concessions to keep their jobs that no other shipyard workers in Britain would have accepted, including a very dubious compulsory arbitration clause.

Yet real victory was possible. Such was the feeling throughout the West of Scotland when the government’s plans for UCS were first announced, that there is little doubt that in a confrontation with the government, the shipyard workers would have received massive aid from the rest of the class. The same solidarity which a few months later was to force the Tories to capitulate to the miners and over the Pentonville jailings would have forced them to capitulate on the Clyde. And in the middle of the biggest wave of redundancies since the war throughout industry, with unemployment fast approaching the million mark, the UCS example would have been taken up in dozens, if not hundreds, of other places.

There is only one explanation as to why a struggle which began with such fantastic possibilities ended up along the path of dismal compromise. It lies in the policy which the Communist Party pursued of trying to make the struggle ‘respectable’, so as not to cause offense to those who mould public opinion or to the established leaders of the labour movement. As a pamphlet put out by the Scottish CP explained, the decision was taken to stage a ‘work-in’, which meant co-operating with the government appointees to finish ships, rather than a strike and occupation, because:

‘A sit-in ... would have given the employers a good excuse to attack the workers by arguing that the sit-in made it impossible to fulfil any contract and aggravated the bankruptcy situation. This could have helped the Tories to alienate public opinion from support for the UCS workers.’ [5]

What ‘getting the support of public opinion’ actually meant was shown in the early weeks of the work-in. The main speaker at the mass demonstration in Glasgow was Vic Feather, right wing general secretary of the TUC. For a period the UCS stewards seemed inseparable from Anthony Wedgewood Benn who, as a Labour minister only two years before, had been responsible for 3000 redundancies at UCS. And even Harold Wilson was a welcome guest in the yards. The fact was that virtually any militant action would have ‘alienated’ such people.

Instead of a policy of confronting the Tories with massive militant action, the work-in tactic gave the government time to manoeuvre, while the strength of the workers began to run down. By continuing to complete ships, the UCS stewards were handing over to the authorities the main physical assets in the workers’ hands. And as the discussions over the future of the yards dragged on, month after month, many of the workers were no longer convinced, as they had been at the beginning, that they were going to win the fight. Fourteen hundred men had left the yards to seek jobs elsewhere by the end of 1971. According to one account, the percentage of redundant workers who were ‘working in’ fell from 48 per cent in October to a mere 14 per cent in June 1972. [6]

There was one real move to confrontation with the government: when the stewards announced that they would refuse to allow any ships to be launched if progress towards guaranteeing all the jobs had not been achieved by 20 January 1972. But when it came to the crunch, Reid and Airlie persuaded them to withdraw the threat. Instead, they placed all their hopes for saving jobs on helping to persuade an American businessman, Wayne Harbin, to take over the Clydebank yard. Harbin was good enough to offer to do so if the government gave him a free gift of a mere £12 million and if the stewards would make concessions on conditions and negotiating procedures.

The Communist Party has often in the past criticised the way in which the government pours money into the coffers of private industry and of the way industrial managements blackmail workers with threats not to invest unless concessions are made over conditions. Yet the criticisms, it seems, do not apply to Wayne Harbin and the Marathon yard.

That the concessions made at Marathon were not merely verbal ones was shown shortly after the end of the struggle. When the five London dockers were jailed at the end of July last year, one of the speakers to promise immediate industrial support at meetings outside Pentonville prison was a prominent UCS steward. But at the only UCS yard not on holiday that week, Clydebank, the yard of Reid and Airlie themselves, there was not a single meeting called to discuss industrial action during the five days the dockers were in jail.

What is more, the Communist Party itself has since become the victim of teaching its leading members to seek respectability. In recent months Jimmy Reid has been behaving increasingly like a successful trade union bureaucrat rather than a good militant – even going so far as to address a Guardian business seminar.

Of course, he has not abandoned the radical rhetoric – any more than Jones or Scanlon have. As a Clydebank councillor, he assured the town’s tenants early in February of this year that:

‘We are issuing this call today that in no circumstances will we implement this Tory Rent Act, whatever the consequences ... We are answerable to no courts – only the courts of the working class on Clydebank ...’

‘I would rather sup porridge with my principles than dine on smoked salmon and caviare without them.’ [7]

A month later the three Communist councillors in Clydebank voted with the Labour Party to implement the rent increases, even though by doing so they were leaving the Labour controlled council of Clay Cross to fight in isolation.

Such right wing practices have not been confined to Reid alone. They increasingly typify the behaviour of other CP members in Glasgow. A recent meeting of Glasgow trades council illustrated the point. Three affiliated union branches, with a combined membership of 5000, had moved that the trades council organise a special meeting on the trial of building workers in Shrewsbury, so enabling their case to be put to branch and shop floor delegates throughout the west of Scotland. The CP dominated trades council executive rejected their proposal and instead suggested just sending two delegates to a conference called by Liverpool trades council. When challenged over this, John Reidford, the trades council’ full time secretary and a CP member claimed that ‘the Pentonville five were released because of the official call of the TUC and the Scottish TUC.’ He went on to ask: ‘What is the attitude of the leaders of the trade union with most members involved, UCATT?’ [8] The right wing leadership in UCATT had advised its members to do nothing.

A month before, there was an even more blatant example of right wing words, as well as actions, from another CPer at the trades council. Hugh Wyper, TGWU district secretary and a member of the Scottish executive of the CP, warned of ‘the dangers of the isolation of the trade union movement if it does not participate in the Downing Street talks.’ [9]

The miners’ strike

The massive solidarity displayed during the miners’ strike of last year had a radicalising effect on hundreds, if not thousands, of workers, both in the pits and elsewhere. The Communist Party should have been admirably placed to take advantage of this, given that the mines are an industry in which it has been strong since the 1920s and that its members play key roles in the leadership of the union in the three most militant areas, South Wales, Scotland and Yorkshire.

Yet in Yorkshire at least, it seems to have been able to do little in the aftermath of the strike either to extend its base or to provide militants with the organisation needed for ongoing activity. According to the report to the district congress of the party, six months after the strike, the party only had 13 factory branches throughout the whole industry in the county and its membership had actually fallen in the previous two years. [10]

Branches and Membership




number of branches



number of members



dues paid

52 per cent

51 per cent

It was claimed that 50 members, not all miners, had been recruited on the coalfield. [11] However, the authenticity of this figure must be very much in doubt. For instance, one of the branches which seemed to be doing particularly well out of the miners’ strike was Knottingley, where the party was claiming a membership of 50 in the summer of 1972. But no more than six of these were ever seen to be active and these few were reported to be paying the party dues of at least half the others. When the branch held a widely publicised meeting in March of this year with Jack Dunn, secretary of the Kent NUM speaking, only nine party members turned up. [12] At the local pit, Kellingley, a life long CP member, Jimmy Miller, was undisputed leader and branch secretary at the time of the strike. Yet the party’s organisation in the pit was so weak that he lost the election for the branch secretary to a right wing Labour man this year. In Doncaster, the last recruit made to the party is reported to have been 18 months ago and the one or two activists complain that it is impossible to get the party to do anything because the members are all too old.

This picture of a party incapable, in Yorkshire, of responding to the opportunities in industry is born out by the sales record of the Morning Star.

Morning Star circulation in Yorkshire [13]

November 1970

September 1972



It seems that at least 150 members in Yorkshire do not want to read the party daily.

The party organisation is stronger in South Wales than in the Yorkshire coalfield, and considerably stronger in the Scottish mines. But in none of the cases does it seem to have grown appreciably because of the strike. Such a failure can only be explained by the long history of bureaucratic manoeuvring that has characterised the left in the miners’ union. What has mattered to the leadership of the Communist Party has been left sounding resolutions – on ‘peace’, on trade with Russia, on German troops in Wales, on the Common Market and so on – and it has been quite happy with a state of affairs in which men voted for such resolutions and held prominent office in the union without developing the base of the party. Indeed, to keep such figures happy, it was quite willing to close down what rank and file organisation had existed in, for instance, South Wales, in the early 1960s.

But without a rank and file organisation to discipline them, the party’s members in the leadership of the union – and even lodge officials who would be employed more or less full time on union work – became increasingly like any other union bureaucrats. This showed itself in the 100,000 strong unofficial strike of 1970. At the national and the local level the party members were split on whether to back or oppose the strike. Three of the CP members on the executive voted to accept a revised offer from the coal board, while other party members were trying to spread the strike.

Last year the party was not embarrassed by any of these dilemmas. When the union bureaucracy finally saw that the Tories were not going to let it get away without a fight, it decided it was not going to be humiliated as Tom Jackson had been the year before and it let the militants have their nose. The party could be militant during the strike without clashing with its members and friends in the union bureaucracy.

But the moment the Tories had made the concessions necessary to get the miners back to work, the right wing began its manoeuvring again. There were two sides to its strategy. One was to accept big talk about wage increases, while doing nothing to mobilise the members for struggle, thus bringing about a situation (as in the spring of this year) where the members themselves would vote against strike action in default of a lead from the union. The other was to push productivity dealing as an alternative to struggle.

The Communist Party and the broad left in the union, committed as they were to inner-bureaucratic manoeuvring, were not capable of countering these tactics. For eight months after the 1972 strike they did nothing to prepare for the next round of battles. The first leaflet put out by them on this spring’s wage claim did not appear until as late as February, although the need for it had been realised in December. Meanwhile the party’s left wing ally, Lawrence Daly, had put his name to a suggested productivity deal. Under such conditions, it is not surprising that any increase in membership in the mines was a paper increase only.

Manchester engineers

The general pattern of industrial struggle in 1972 was of victory for the workers. But there was one significant exception: the engineering pay claim. The engineering union had been the union where the CP’s strategy of winning positions and influencing the ‘left’ leaders seemed to enjoy its greatest successes in the late 1960s. The right wing leadership of Carron was replaced by a predominantly left wing leadership, with Scanlon as president.

This leadership decreed last year that the industry’s pay claim would be fought on a local, not a national basis. And when Sheffield engineering stewards voted to fight as a district for the claim, this was ruled out of order by the national leadership. By ‘local’ action was meant plant by plant bargaining. As a result, only in Manchester did any large scale struggle develop over the claim with 800 stewards deciding to ban piecework. Soon 30 factories were occupied by some tens of thousands of workers to forestall lockouts.

The Communist Party dominates both the AUEW in Manchester and the local confederation of engineering unions, with most of the full time officials being party members. The party was faced with an unparalleled opportunity of leading the fight for the national claim to success from its Manchester base. It had the local support from the workers necessary for this, and had it done so there is little doubt that it would have seriously undermined the remaining hold of the right wing.

It soon became clear, however, that the party’s ‘left’ allies at the national level were not prepared to give serious backing to the struggle in Manchester. There was no campaign throughout the union to raise funds to back Manchester, even though it was well known that the employers’ federation was pouring millions of pounds in to back its members in the area. Instead, in the middle of the strike Hugh Scanlon visited Manchester to advise his members to drop the demand for the shortening of the working week, and admitted that he had indicated to the employers before the struggle began that the union would settle without any cut in hours. Yet many of the occupied factories had been holding out for weeks precisely over the question of hours!

The leadership offered by the Communist full-time union officials in Manchester was scarcely better than that offered by the broad left nationally. They left each factory to fight by itself and to come to an agreement with the management separately. Even worse, they banned publication of the details of the agreements reached, so rumours were flying round that some workers had settled for much less than the claim. Finally, they allied themselves with right wing stewards from the biggest factory in the area; GEC/AEI Trafford Park, to push through a resolution at an all-Manchester stewards’ meeting on 15 May allowing settlements which contained no concessions on hours.

Workers then found they had been in dispute – in some cases for three months or more – and had in the end gained next to nothing out of it. In many factories there was considerable demoralisation – a demoralisation which was reflected early this year when a leading Communist full time official in the area, John Tocher, only just scraped home in an election against right wing opposition.

After the union’s failure to organise a united fight either nationally or in Manchester, the outcome of the claim itself was more or less inevitable. The final agreement added only about six or seven per cent to the industries’ wage bill over a 20 month period – by far the worst agreement accepted by any large group of workers in 1972.

The Communist Party had had the honour of presiding over the largest defeat of the year. However the politics of bureaucratic manoeuvre is also the politics of deception. There has never been any serious discussion in either the engineering union or in the Communist Party since on the Manchester defeat. And the Manchester district of the CP even produced a four page pamphlet claiming that the struggle was achieving success. ‘There is no doubt that the policy adopted by the Confederation district committee and the stewards was correct.’ ‘It is certain that the issue will be settled in favour of the engineering workers.’ But even CP members on the ground recognised the absurdity of such statements: the pamphlet was never sold in many of the Manchester factories where party members operate. [14]

The docks

The third great battle of last year, in the docks, was also one in which the party should have played a key role, since party members have been influential in both the London and Liverpool docks in recent years. But in fact the part played by the party was much less significant than it appeared.

In recent years the strength of the party in the London docks has been declining: the party branch has not met regularly since the introduction of the Devlin reorganisation in the late 1960s and the daily sales of the Morning Star have fallen from about 70 to about 25. [15]

Over two important issues prior to the containerisation issue, the party members in London were divided among themselves. When Devlin phase II was introduced in the docks, the official line of the party was to oppose it. But a number of prominent older party members in London, such as Buck Baker and Ernie Rice, spoke in favour of the scheme and sat on the negotiating team. And those members who opposed the scheme did not do so too vehemently for fear of embarrassing them (with the notable exception of Bernie Steers, who did fight the scheme). Even so, the scheme was rejected twice by the dockers: but for the support given to it by some CPers it would almost certainly have been defeated.

Again, when it came to the review of phase II in June 1971, a section of the CP members took a right wing line, sitting on the 18 man committee that recommended acceptance of a wage offer less than the rise in the cost of living and putting the recommendation to a secret ballot of TGWU members without prior discussion.

The CP has used its influence to keep rank and file organisation within the docks to a minimum in recent years. A national port stewards’ committee (NPSSC) was set up in 1970 and after about four meetings the CP managed to get Steers and Vic Turner (who usually follows the party’s line), elected secretary and chairman. There is no question that if the CP had wanted to, the NPSSC could have organised a national campaign over the Devlin phase two reviews. But they let the chance of a national battle go, with the result that individual ports settled within the Tory norm.

In the period leading up to Pentonville, the party line continued to be one of pushing for moderation. The party members were under pressure from the London organiser, Bill Dunne, to keep the picketing within tight limits. Militant dockers who are not in the CP complain that the party members were conspicuous by their absence from most of the picketing. As one puts it, ‘Bernie Steers had never ever been to Midland Cold Storage before he was arrested and neither had Turner.’ Some prominent CP dockers were even pushing an absurd plan at one stage which would have avoided any confrontation with the Industrial Relations Court at all: they were talking of a ‘work-in’ in the docks. [16]

While the five dockers were in Pentonville, most of the work of gathering support and organising continual picketing, was done by non-CP militants. Most CP members did nothing. And one leading CP docker caused much bitterness among militants by walking around saying that the only one of the imprisoned dockers who mattered was ‘our Bernie’ and that all the rest were just ‘fodder’.

The Communist Party outside the docks was equally unresponsive to the needs of the situation. Many individual Communist militants reacted, as did other trade union activists up and down the country, by immediately pressing for industrial action in solidarity with the dockers. But from the party itself the response was very slow. When the London docks stewards wanted leaflets printed, they had to turn first to IS and then to the Briant occupation rather than to the much bigger presses of the CP. And the party itself did not put out any leaflet calling for industrial action to release the dockers until at least three days after the jailings, by which time many sections of workers were already on strike.

The CP executive’s resolution on ‘left advance’ for the coming congress claims that: ‘Of great significance was the re-emergence of the weapon of the general strike over the Pentonville Five, which our Party called for.’ It would be more correct to say that militants generally began to push for strike action to free the five and that the CP as an organisation belatedly gave recognition to the movement.

An incident which occurred after the freeing of the five throws important light on the constraints which inhibit the CP from more militant activity in the docks. The dock workers themselves remained on strike over the containerisation issue, even after Jack Jones had reached a compromise agreement with Lord Aldington. The CP was compelled, by the feeling of its docker members, to back the strike. Jones summoned the CP industrial organiser, Bert Ramelson, to see him and told him, in no uncertain terms, that if such behaviour continued, the party would get few more favours from the TGWU. We do not know what Ramelson decided after this. But we do know that shortly afterwards Jones was again making friendly gestures to the Morning Star.

In the Royal Group of Docks, where Bernie Steers is convenor, there has been only one unofficial mass meeting since (and that was two or three weeks after the strike) although the Royal has a long history of such meetings. When militant stewards tried to replace Steers because of this inactivity, the party was, however, able to drum up a large attendance at a stewards meeting to reinstate him. The London shop stewards committee similarly failed to organise any basic propaganda through mass meetings or leaflets over the last 12 months. And the National Ports Shop Stewards Committee which Steers was also supposed to convene, did not meet for about six months after the strike. This meant that when the employers refused to offer a wage increase of greater than £1 plus 4 per cent, the different ports did not take a united stand over the issue and eventually settled, one by one, within the norm. The NPSSC has since been revived and is functioning well. But so far Bernie Steers has been noticeable by his absence from it and from any other unofficial meetings.

The builders’ strike

The builders’ strike of the summer of 1972 was the largest industrial struggle in the industry since the lockout of the early 1920s. At the height of the strike something like 300,000 workers were involved, many of them non-unionists brought out by flying pickets and the appeal of the demand of £30 for a 35 hour week.

The Communist Party should have been admirably placed to both give leadership to the strike and to recruit off the picket lines. The right wing leaders of the main builders’ union had completely misjudged the feelings of their own members and building was one industry where there was a viable rank and file organisation controlled by CP members. The Building Workers Charter appeared regularly, was backed by some hundreds of militants and was able to hold very impressive conferences. What is more, there seemed little reason for the CP to hold back from criticising the leadership of the main union, UCATT. Although the general secretary, George Smith, had once been a party member and had been backed by the party vote when he took office in UCATT’s predecessor, the Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers in 1959, the leadership had since moved very much to the right. In 1967 the full time executive of the union had connived with the London building employers to victimise stewards, mostly CP members, on two big sites, Myton Barbican and Sunley’s Horseferry Road. They had then advertised – together with other unions including the TGWU – for scab labour to break strikes that followed. Finally, they had removed from office the London District secretary of the union, Jack Rusca, again a CP member.

All this had forced the CP to build the Charter organisation if it was going to defend its base in the union. But the strike soon showed that some sections of the CP at least had not lost their faith in George Smith. During the whole 13 weeks of the strike not one issue of the Charter was produced, even though its role would have been invaluable in helping to spread the strike and ensuring a better basis for stable organisation afterwards. Meanwhile, George Smith himself was allowed to write in the Morning Star as if he were somehow involved in the leadership of the strike.

The real reasons for the non-appearance of the Charter soon became apparent. While CP members in Birmingham, and later in London, took the lead in spreading the strike, elsewhere, particularly in Scotland, they were much more conservative in their reactions. In such places there were still CP full time officials whose reactions were more akin to the union leaderships than to those of rank and file militants. The key issue in the strike soon became the question of local agreements. Two big Scottish firms in Aberdeen and Dundee, Camerons and Betts, offered to settle for company agreements about half way between the union’s demands and the company’s offer. Communist Party militants in areas like the Midlands saw clearly such agreements weakened the struggle.

But the full time officials in Scotland saw the deals as an easy option and recommended them. At first this line was accepted by the Morning Star – its front page headline (26 August 1972) was ‘Builders Notch up Strike Victories’ and the article underneath told that ‘20,000 strikers are to return because the employers have conceded the full claim.’ The only backing for this false story was provided by a statement from George Smith. Yet the day before 4000 building workers at a mass meeting in Edinburgh had voted down the recommendation of their CP full time union organiser to accept the agreements. At a meeting of the Charter editorial board shortly afterwards, the feeling was that the agreements should be opposed, but no vote was taken.

In short: because of their limited base still in the official machine of the union and their attempts to influence the leadership with sweet words, the party were unable to hammer out a single line around which they could agitate. Because of this their rank and file organisation could only function when there was no national struggle.

Freeze and fight back

The Communist Party pamphlet, Time to Change Course, quite correctly describes the tactics of the government after its defeat over the Pentonville five.

‘The immediate response of the Tory government was to strive to stamp out the spirit of class struggle which had swept over the workers and to ensnare them once again in the toils of class collaboration. So Vic Feather and his colleagues were invited to restart discussions on incomes and prices with the government and the CBI; and to this the right wing leaders were only too ready to agree.’ [17]

But what it fails to add is that the response of the ‘right wing leaders’ national trade union leaders was shared by all the most prominent ‘left wing’ leaders. Both Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon supported the idea of talks with the government, and were to do so continually over the following 12 months. They were, for example, part of the TUC team that participated in secret talks with the government even while they were supposed to be organising a national one day stoppage in protest at the government’s policy on 1 May.

A leading CP member, Reuben Falber, argued in mid-May that the TUC general council had ‘sabotaged the decisions of the 5 March special congress to fight the freeze.’ [18] However, it seems that such charges are not to be taken too seriously. The party’s industrial organiser has since written, in relation to the September TUC congress, that ‘the hopes and schemes of the right wing, the ruling class and the government were frustrated’. [19] This congress approved the general council’s ‘sabotage’ and agreed to the talks, by which the Tories hoped ‘to ensnare’ workers ‘once again in the tolls of class collaboration.’ But to the party, it seems, these questions hardly matter. ‘On the breaking off of the talks, for instance ... there was no acrimonious labelling which could have played into the hands of the right wing,’ wrote Ramelson. [20]

The Morning Star gave Jack Jones star treatment during the TUC congress, running an article by him on pensions on 1 September and headlines quoting his speeches through the week; as for instance on 5 September: ‘Wipe out scandal of poverty’ – Jack Jones. And it was not only Jones who got extravagant praise. The Star told its readers that: ‘During their week-long debating, the TUC struck some heavy blows at Heath and his cronies.’ ‘The resolution on price control which the Trades Union Congress adopted was a rebuff for Mr Heath,’ it said after the TUC had agreed to keep trying to reach an agreement with the government. [21]

Meanwhile the paper did not say a word about the instruction by Jones and Scanlon to their members in Chrysler to scab on the electricians’ dispute there. ‘Unity of the left’ has come to mean unity at any price. Jones and Scanlon may collaborate with the government – as they have been doing over the electricians’ strike at Chrysler – but the Communist Party will still continue to collaborate with Jones and Scanlon.

But CP collaboration is not a privilege reserved for the left in the trade union alone any longer. This was shown during the gasworkers’ strike of this spring.

Most of the gasworkers belong to the General and Municipal Workers Union, which has a record of right wing domination going back 50 years. The recently elected general secretary of the union, David Basnett, first leapt into national prominence three years ago when he collaborated with the management of the Pilkington plant in St Helens to victimise dozens of militant glass workers. Yet when the gasworkers began to strike, unofficially at first, in the early months of this year, the Morning Star was able to report the strikes without any mention of the right wing regime in the union and without reference to the call, made by rank and file militants throughout the industry, for all-out strike action. On one occasion only did it quote a shop steward as saying: ‘It’s about time our union leaders called on others for support.’ [22] Instead, the paper published an article by Basnett himself on the strike, as if he were leading it, not trying to sabotage it!

The Morning Star treatment of the gas workers’ strike was no isolated case. It was merely the most extreme instance of the general trend of Communist Party policy in the present period. The party is committed, above all, to increasing the number of trade union leaders who are prepared to do it favours. At the same time, the growing pressure of the class struggle means that an increasing number of trade union leaders want a left tinge to their image, providing it does not commit them to militant action. They are ready to help the party out – provided the party, in return, abstains from organisation among the rank and file of their own union.

The party leadership seem only too happy to make such bargains. They have ensured, for instance, that keynote speakers at the conferences of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions have included men like Eddie Marsden and Bob Wright. Marsden was the Communist trade union leader who advertised jointly with the employers on the BP construction site at Llandarcy in March last year for scab labour to break the resistance of 57 of his own members who were locked out. Wright is the man who recently abused militants at Perkins Peterborough as ‘paid anarchists’ when they tried to refute his lies about an agreement with the management.

The party leaders have also ensured that the Liaison Committee does next to nothing besides call conferences. Three years ago the body was capable of taking the initiative in calling for one-day political strikes against the Industrial Relations Bill. Over the last year it has done precisely nothing to keep the fight up. It did nothing over the jailing of the Pentonville five, it did nothing over the fines on the AUEW in the Goad case and it did nothing about Phase One of the freeze. Over Phase Two of the freeze its main contribution was very early in the year to call for a stoppage of work on 1 May – a call which the TUC leadership could take up because it meant the stoppage was delayed two months, until all the real battles over Phase Two were safely out of the way.

On the basis of such policies the party has been able to achieve paper successes. Its growing respectability means that people are no longer going out on a limb if they join it – but it also means that they do not expect to commit themselves to much by joining. In the unions its members are no longer persecuted – but then they do very little to make the right wing want to persecute them. They receive praise from the Labour left – and not so left – because politically, they become more and more indistinguishable from it. [See note at end on racism.]

Party organisation

The decline in the willingness of the party to take a political stand independent of the non party ‘lefts’ in the trade union bureaucracy and the Labour Party has inevitably weakened the organisation of the party itself. Very few of the branches claimed by the party actually operate as a political force in the localities or factories, educating their own members and putting across, week in, week out, socialist propaganda to non-members.

According to the party’s Yorkshire district committee, of the 13 factory and 59 twenty branches in that county, only 20 ‘had some form of regular education classes’ in 1970-72 (emphasis in original).[23] ‘With few exceptions, indoor public meetings have been few in number and not too well attended, and factory gate meetings have been irregular.’[24] The district committee has set itself the grandiose ‘minimum aim’ of ‘every branch meeting regularly and every branch making some regular effort with the Morning Star. [25] It argues that an ‘essential’ task is ‘to raise the theoretical level of the party cadres at all levels through more organised education, study of the classics, and the circulation of Marxism Today and other party literature.’ Yet Marxism Today sells only 102 copies among 1900 members, and the party fortnightly, Comment, only 197 copies. [26]

More than a third of the Yorkshire Membership is concentrated in one city, Sheffield, where the party has one of its strongest bases anywhere in Britain. The district committee noted that ‘the whole party looks to the comrades, with their splendid record in industry, to show how to make a break through in the Morning Star sales and party-building.’ [27] Yet between 1970 and 1972 the membership in the city actually fell, from 744 to 700; the proportion of members paying subs declined from 64 to 62 per cent; and the number of Morning Stars sold dropped by an eighth, until the daily sale exceeded the party membership by three copies only. In electoral terms the party was no more successful in Sheffield than elsewhere, getting an average of 108 votes a candidate in the May 1972 municipal elections. [28]

The Communist Party is stronger in Scotland than in England – and its strength is particularly concentrated in the Glasgow area, when, it claims more than 2000 Members. But this apparent strength does not translate itself into political influence independently of the Labour left. When workers have become disillusioned with the Labour Party in elections – as in 1967-68 – they have not turned towards the CP. In the 1971 elections the party only got 3337 votes in Glasgow. And in Dundee, where it is also powerful in the labour movement, its vote was only 887 compared with a claimed membership of 500. The lack of independent political influence is matched by the weakness of the party’s own political organisation inside the factories. There are probably no more than six functioning factory branches in the Glasgow area, although there are about 30 full time union officials in the West of Scotland who are party members.

A similar picture emerges from other industrial areas, where the party has considerable influence in the local labour movement, although nowhere is its membership of Scottish proportions. West Middlesex, for instance, is an area where the local party claims to have recruited 93 members in recent months and where a CP member is the district official of the engineering union. But at the biggest factory in the area, the party branch no longer meets. At another factory where the CP claimed 14 members, they invited a non-CP militant to a meeting to discuss joint activity during a battle against Phase Two: he turned up to find only one party member present.

One of the industrial branches which used to be very active in the early sixties at Heathrow airport, now claims five members who do not meet and take only six Morning Stars between them; in another airport branch, only about half the members are active in any way. The main political activity of the CP in the locality seems to be carried by a couple of members who run campaigns for a local left Labour MP. Only very occasionally does the party hold street meetings or sell the Star.

In Manchester, where the party dominates the official positions in the engineering union, it is doubtful if any functioning factory branches exist. Where these are claimed, it is usually the case of one or two individuals selling a few Stars. Earlier this year, there was talk of setting up broad left factory groups after Tocher was nearly defeated in a union election, but nothing ever came of the plan.

Reports from elsewhere in the country indicate a similar state of affairs, even in areas where the party has traditionally been strong and where it has not been effectively challenged in industry by the revolutionary left. Even in these areas, its factory organisation is minimal and it is completely unable to spread its influence into sections of industry that have only recently become militant. There are no signs of it taking seriously work among groups like hospital workers, gas workers, civil servants, and local authority manual workers. And even with some groups where it used to have a strong organisation, for instance power workers, now it seems merely to go through the motions without exerting itself.

The party membership is less and less tied to the party by real organisational links. What remains, however, is a feeling of loyalty – a feeling shared by many non-members – to what seems to be the only significant organised force on the left. This shows itself in the ability of the leadership to mobilise fair numbers of members for occasional demonstrations which appeal to the emotions of the party members – as the Yorkshire district committee has noted: ‘district events have been successful but there is only one a year.’ [29]

It is this feeling of loyalty to the party which gives it its real influence in industry – as the machine to which most left wing militants look when it comes to electioneering for officials. But the only kind of lead it can give them is one which does not involve a real clash with left and not-so-left union officials. In the past this did not matter so much – indeed, many militants had become so used to a relatively apathetic shop floor during the 1950s and 1960s, that they themselves took for granted manipulative methods within the bureaucracy that did not involve the rank and file. Even today, many of them feel that the party’s approach is more ‘realistic’ than that of the revolutionary left.

However, because all sections of the trade union bureaucracy shy away from the sorts of struggles that have characterised the last three years and which are likely to grow in intensity in the period ahead, the CP is much less able to give a lead to such militants today than it was in the past. It is not only that it is bound by a thousand threads to the union bureaucracy; many of its leading members are part and parcel of that bureaucracy. So in an increasing number of struggles, the CP as a party refuses to give a lead of any sort. The failure of the party to say anything about what should be done in relation to the electricians’ strike at Chrysler indicates the trend we can expect in future.

That does not mean that the party is going to disappear overnight. There are many individuals in the CP who would quite like to do a bolt into the Labour Party, where they could easily become MPs or councillors; but for the party functionaries, there is little to hope for in that direction: they would merely be abandoning the pretence to be important figures, who stand next to much more substantial CP leaders at international gatherings. For them the only perspective is to keep the party going as it is, going through the motions of trying to build up its strength, without even believing they can do so themselves, with their only real policy being the attempt to avoid open conflict between the rank and file and the ‘left’ union leaders.

But even this miserable task is likely to grow more difficult under conditions of almost permanent wage freeze and growing rank and file militancy. The very trade union leaders with whom the CP is most aligned have shown that their major concern is to find some device, some formula, to avoid massive industrial conflict. Under such circumstances, for the CP to maintain itself will mean it trying to hold back the mass movement below, or at best to ignore it. Yet it cannot admit that it is doing this; indeed it is possible that verbally the CP will move to the left in the months ahead, particularly in response to the catastrophic ending of the parliamentary road in Chile. But every programmatic formula will contain a let-out clause for those who are ensconced in the trade union machine, a clause which in practice will be much more important than all the rhetoric.

The short term aim of a revolutionary socialist organisation like IS must be to replace the CP as the main focus to which militants in industry look for a lead. This can only be done by exposing the contrast between the CP’s behaviour and what it professes to believe in. The best way to do this is by proposing united action to the CP leadership on important issues of principle in the class struggle on which it claims to agree with us.

Its refusal to take seriously these principles, for fear of annoying its bureaucratic allies, may or may not lead to numbers of party members splitting away to join the revolutionary left. What it will certainly do, over a period of time, is to weaken the ideological dominance which the party has traditionally exercised over non-CP militants and make it easier to win them to building a revolutionary party that can really fight over such principles.


1. Gordon McLennan, national organiser of the party, in the Morning Star, 18 July 1973. It is an interesting comment on the Morning Star that it is regarded as ‘significant’ that a thousand new party members actually read the paper.

2. The 1971 congress decided that members who did not register at the beginning of each year remain members unless they die or are expelled. cf Townsend, in IS 62, p.26.

3. In 1967-69 only 51 per cent of dues were collected and ‘average dues purchases from the party centre in 1969 and 1970 continued to be at the same unsatisfactory level’ according to the 1971 congress. Dues are only 5p a week.

4. In Alex Murray, UCS, The Fight for the Right to Work, 1971, p.16.

5. Alex Murray, ibid.

6. K. Alexander, in New Society, 20 September 1973.

7. Morning Star, 5 February 1973

8. Unpublished report by IS members who were delegates.

9. Ibid.

10. The Communist Party, Yorkshire District Committee, 16th District Congress, November 18/19 1972, District Committee Factual Report, November 1970-September 1972 (mimeographed),

11. The Mass Movement, The Party, The Morning Star and the YCL document to 16th district congress, as above.

12. Based on report of an IS member who was present.

13. Factual Report to 16th Yorkshire District Congress, op cit.

14. Engineers Fight, Communist Special, published by North West Communist Party.

15. According to reports by non-CP militants.

16. cf. Report in The Port, 27 July 1972 on a resolution moved by Ernie Rice and Buck Baker at 1/8 Branch of TGWU.

17. Jack Woddis, Time To Change Course, London 1973, p.109.

18. Reuben Falber in Comment, 19 May 1973.

19. Bert Ramelson, in Comment, 22 September 1973.

20. Ibid.

21. Morning Star, 8 September 1973.

22. Morning Star, 26 February 1973.

23. Factual Report to the 16th Yorkshire district congress, op. cit.

24. The Mass Movement, etc., op. cit.

25. Ibid.

26. Factual Report, op. cit.

27. The Mass Movement, etc., op. cit.

28. All facts in this paragraph from Factual Report, op. cit.

29. The Mass Movement, op. cit. It notes an attendance of between a sixth and a quarter of the district membership at these annual events – a proportion which tallies with the sort of turnout the party gets on demonstrations in London once or twice a year. On the basis of such a figure the real national membership that is at all active would seem to be about a quarter of the claimed membership and half the dues paying membership – i.e. about 7,000.

[Unnumbered note on racism] This is even shown in relation to the most elementary of the questions of internationalism – opposition to racialism. When the first controls on Commonwealth immigration were introduced in the early 1960s, almost the whole of the labour movement, including even sections of the right wing, denounced them as racialist. Now the CP has followed the Labour lefts in retreat on this issue of principle and is arguing that immigration needs to be controlled. A draft resolution from the executive to the coming conference reads: ‘while recognising that all governments have regulations covering immigration and emigration, the Immigration Act should be repealed as a discriminatory measure …’ It does not, of course, mention the fact that all the ‘regulations covering immigration and emigration’ in this country have been the result of racist agitation by the extreme right.

Last updated on 26 April 2010