Chris Harman


What went wrong in the AUEW?

(December 1980)

From Socialist Review, 1980 : 11, 12 December 1980–18 January 1981, pp. 9–12.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

One of the biggest defeats the left in the unions has suffered for many years. That was the result of the presidential elections in the engineering union, the AUEW, announced at the beginning of last month.

The vote for the left’s candidate, Bob Wright – at present assistant general secretary – slumped. And although the vote for the right wing sitting president, Duffy, was not higher than in the past, he was able to walk it on the first ballot – something virtually unheard of. In order to try and find out what went wrong, Chris Harman for Socialist Review talked to Bob Wright.

Obviously in the result there was some, how shall I put it, personal as well as political rejection, you’ve got to face that. But that’s not the only explanation. If it was on the merit of individuals, Duffy would lose hands down. If it was personal rejection of me, votes would have gone to the other candidates.

In the first ballot for the last presidential election (in 1977) we were equal almost. We had 90,000 votes and he 90,300. But in the second ballot he picked up most of the floating votes. In my re-election as assistant general secretary last year I got such a large majority that it was regarded as a marker – I could pull 140,000 votes.

This time there was less pressure against us from the press. There’s some evidence they said leave it, don’t push it. Everybody, including the right wing, assumed the big thing was the second ballot. In fact there was some argument as to whether I wouldn’t top the first ballot. Yet we only received 58,000 votes.

I’ve wracked my brain, sounded people out, to get reactions to this situation.

Bob didn’t accept an explanation in term of any general decline in the strength or organisation of the left over the last five years.

‘That clearly contradicts a lot of other things. There’s been a narrow position reached on the National Committee, for instance. Now I remember when on the National Committee the left could only muster a caucus of 14 in the early 70s, after Scanlon’s election to the presidency. But we’ve reached the point where last year – not this year – we got 26–26.

‘In terms of convenors and stewards, we’ve seen a distinct movement to the left – in the broad sense. It reflects what’s happening in the Labour Party, in the movement generally.’

The campaign this year, he said, had been as good as any in the years when the left won, based as it was on unity between the Broad Left, around the Engineering Gazette, and those farther to the left.

‘We’ve had more unity, better meetings, more meetings, we’ve pushed leaflets out, Charter did leaflets, there were other leaflets, we had contacts in factories, the Militant group, did well, the Charter lads did well.

‘We had indications of people who had previously supported Duffy were making a turn and supporting me – I was approached on a series of occasions at meetings, before meetings and after meetings, by prominent lads in the areas. For instance a lad from Huddersfield came to me at a meeting held in the trades club there. He said, “I supported Duffy last time. This time our stewards were unanimous in supporting you. I’ll guarantee you 600 to 800 votes from our factory.”

‘At the meeting in Manchester, where they’ve had all sorts of problems in the last five years, there was 380. It was the biggest meeting they’ve ever held on an election campaign. There were key lads there, key members. They weren’t just lads who’d come along, they were activists. The reception was tremendous, inspiring. And, most unusual in the union, I got a standing ovation after the statement I’d made – it was a tremendous feeling.

‘In Glasgow there were over 700. They had coaches from Dundee and Edinburgh. And that’s all 11 o’clock Saturday morning.

‘I’m not talking about the narrow left. This was a broad approach. We insisted on it.

‘Jack Robertson did his job with the Charter. Prior to the election Charter was doing a bit of a hatchet job on Duffy anyway, The famous thing was its printing of that speech Duffy made down in the West country. There were people talking about it, “Have you seen this. He was a buffoon.” They were literally saying it.’

Bob sees a central problem as being the impact of the postal ballot (introduced for major elections in the mid-1970s).

‘You’ve got to analyse the nature of postal voting. Why have the Tories pushed it? Why are the right wing pushing it?’

‘If you have a secret postal vote, away from the factory, away from the organisation, people lose contact.

‘We’ve not done well since it came in. Our difficulty has been in executive elections.

‘In district elections we hold our own and we’ve gained one or two, because they’re nearer to the members, they’re localised. We’ve had one or two setbacks but we can identify the reasons for those setbacks – even on the left we suffer from arrogance and a bit of bloody stupidity from some officials and so they get out of touch with the local situation.

‘Then at divisional level it can become a bit stretched and we get some queer backlashes. And when you get to regional level, then ‘you are getting into a position of remoteness.

‘Regions in our union are big – the whole of the Midlands and Greater Manchester is one region. And that geographically isn’t the biggest. The whole of Scotland is a region. You’ve got South Wales and mid-Wales and the whole of the South West is one EC division. Then you’ve got from Sheffield down virtually to the Thames – including Luton but not Enfield.

‘An individual can be known in one part of the region and not the other. This is where postal ballots take over in influence terms. And at national level more so – to the advantage of the right wing. We are faced with the influence of the mass press. And we are also faced with a powerful right wing machine.

‘They’ve got a highly disciplined machine and any one who breaches it is discarded. That’s reflected in an election that’s just been declared, a national organiser election. The man that defeated Laurie Smith (of the left) has just himself been defeated on the first ballot. They opposed him. I believe their machine is far more powerful than we give it credit for. In addition to the press they’ve got Trumid financing a leaflet campaign – not openly, through agents. They run a series of local newsheets – the Midland Worker, the Welsh Worker, News and Views.

‘The left has internal differences and challenges, is much more individualist in many senses. But not them. If people vote the wrong way at the National Committee, they really set out to destroy them. They brief Woodrow Wyatt, they brief Levin, they brief the editors of this Fleet Street group. They’re too accurate not to be briefed. Levin and Woodrow Wyatt don’t know their arse from their elbow when it comes to the union.

‘Their newsheets and leaflets are produced anonymously or with an address, sometimes fictitious. All this shows they have got a disciplined machine and they have got a dedicated group of active right wingers.

‘In the field in our union, the majority of provincial officials are right wingers. The district committees might be different. But not the officials. And they are supposed to be disciplined – if they aren’t they are opposed. The right always had an organisation. What Boyd has done has been to build a disciplined organisation. And they don’t forgive and forget.

Bob pointed out that the right wing ‘have always controlled the union in majority terms on the executive. But in the past they were not always a solid block.

‘In the Scanlon period the executive was split 4-3 to the right wing. But the left influence was there. There was Scanlon, whatever you might say about how he turned out eventually. There was Reg Birch – always a little bit of an individualist in some senses, but on basic issues with the left. So there was myself, Dixon, Reg Birch, and Hugh Scanlon. And then we had characters like Edmundson – very right wing, very anti-communist, anti-Marxist. Then you had Hearsey, basically right wing but occasionally would swing on internal issues.

‘Edmundson, for instance, came out as one of the most powerful resistors to the 1971 Industrial Relations Act. Me was adamant that under no circumstances would we compromise ourselves by even recognising Donaldson or the court. And he was one of the hardest liners, much harder than Scanlon, but right wing when it came to other issues. He was an old, traditionalist, union man who saw the union above all, although politically right wing.

‘Then you had Boyd and Bill John. Bill John was probably not even a supporter of the Labour Party in real terms. And Boyd opposed every move we made when we resisted the Industrial Relations Act. And now he’s the king. Whether we got that across in the campaigns or not, I don’t know.’

But how did the left come to win influence at the national level in the first place? Bob described the development of the Broad Left in Manchester in the 1950s and nationally in the 1960s.

‘In Manchester we built the left movement from the early fifties on what we called the broad left. That was the original broad left movement. And it was the unit we wanted to defeat reaction in the area. Scanlon was very much a signal to that, because he was elected defeating the right wing divisional organiser, in 1947. And from there we began to build. It was in 1951 that we persuaded the Communist Party that they had to broaden – I’ve always been in the Labour Party – and they agreed we had to have unity in the union.

‘It was based on left individuals – they weren’t all Labour Party even when they weren’t CP, and we broadened it as much as we possibly could. We invited people who were progressive, not necessarily aligned. And that to some extent set the pattern for our national movement. We recognised it was the issue you united on, we had to act upon, while we still had our divisions as regard to politics.

‘The attitude to some of the ultra leftists was keep them out, and some of the ultraleftists acted to put up candidates independently and so on and so forth. That could only be, in my opinion, to the advantage of the right wing. But I don’t think that accounts for the defeats at the national level.

‘We transformed the whole of that region with left victories. And so all the officials in No.11 were left of centre – I won’t say they were all what you would call, or I would describe, as left wing. And they worked together on a unity basis. So we had a mass movement in the area. Regular meetings, an organisation. And it was only after there were one or two retirements and Brett, myself, Scanlon, the team that built that machine moved away, down here, that we began to get problems in Manchester – I’m putting it crudely – of overconfidence, and they narrowed the left down until it was only a core of people, of sort of trustees.

How did Bob Wright regard Scanlon – moving from being a militant organiser in Manchester through the national president identified with defiance of the Industrial Relations Act to support for wage controls and membership of the House of Lords?

‘I knew him very well, and I knew him when he was a very vigorous member of the Communist Party with a very outspoken personality. He was a ginger element in the period I’m talking about, the 1950s and there is no doubt at all built a tremendous reputation through support for militant courses and activity. But I don’t believe Scanlon was motivated by politics, and ambition took over as he emerged and became recognised.

‘There was a period in which Scanlon was viciously attacked in the press even after he became president. And the Industrial Relations Act struggle was perhaps the culmination of his reaction. He began to personalise matters and to say, “I am the one that carried out the task, I am the one that carried the burden. I’m the one who was attacked.” And he began to personalise the issue, to see himself as the one who carried the banner.

‘Then after the Labour government was elected in 1974 and he’d been a member of the general council of theTUC for a number of years, he began looking for more and more prominence – that is my assessment. He was drawn into the higher echelons of the TUC, became a member of the inner committee. Finance and General Purposes, became involved in discussion with Harold Wilson and the government, committed himself to the social contract, and became a dedicated defender of it.

‘He began to have differences with the left and with myself. He could become extremely aggressive towards the left. That was the signal that he had gradually been moving away, and ultimately, after declarations that he would never accept honours from either Labour or Tory government, that was what he did. He said, “We’ve had the Tories, we’ve had this tremendous, traumatic period of conflict, the union lost millions of pounds, the result of the struggle against the Industrial Relations Act” (a lie which Boyd has picked up and exploited: the true cost to the union was about £300,000 – when I argued with Scanlon about this he said £2m a year was spent on strikes for those three and half years, though those were struggles over wages that had nothing to do with the Industrial Relations Act).

‘He then said, “I will do anything to keep Labour in power”. Now that was the blank cheque.

‘In one way or another he used his leftist position to quell the members in resistance to the social contract. And right up to the eleventh hour. If you take the TUC of that period, there was the (twelve month rule issue, in which he distorted the union’s position, there was the ultimate challenge on Healey’s imposition of the five per cent. And then he took the accolade of recognition.

‘My assessment is that this did damage the left movement in the union. My experience when I ran initially for president was that there was a backlash, that members associated the left with Scanlon, obviously, saying “He’s taken us down this bloody road what guarantee will there be that you’re not committed to the same politics?”’

During Bob Wright’s period on the AUEW executive there were a number of important industrial disputes. Many contributors to Socialist Review would see in the outcome of these the secret of the left’s erosion of strength. I asked Bob his view of two of these disputes.

First there was the struggle in Manchester in 1972 when more than 30 factories were occupied after the breakdown of negotiations for the national engineering claim over wages, hours and conditions.

‘There was support given in the sense that all those disputes were recognised. I was the executive member who went up and met them. I did a tour round the occupations. In that sense we did back them. The mistake was that the union broke off negotiations nationally and referred it back Ito the factories.

‘The intention of the executive, including Scanlon – which I opposed – was to break off and say “Do what you can in the isolated factory to defeat this particular challenge”. In most areas what really happened was that the stewards went in and said, “Give us more money and we’ll settle it”. And they did.

‘But in Manchester they stuck on the hours. And they had one or two victories.

‘Sheffield attempted to go down the same path, and so did one or two other areas.

‘The outcome of Manchester was to create division among the employers. They’d been taken on and the employers’ federation was under tremendous pressure. So they met the confed (under Scanlon’s chairmanship, on the engineering side) and they reached a settlement which excluded hours and other demands. And the next agreement (the follow up agreement, not the one that came out of the struggle) absorbed the advances that had already been made on holidays in other factories. This was where the criticism came.

‘It was a bad struggle, because it was in effect determining a policy of a non-national challenge putting the responsibility on the factory. But in the end they brought it back nationally.

‘I wouldn’t want to be misunderstood. Scanlon was not essentially the master of all that happened. There was tremendous pressure from other unions in the confed. They were applying enormous pressure to get back round the table and settle – the boiler-makers, the electricians, the municipal workers, and the T&G as well (they were against the notion of ‘let the lads in the plants have a go, despite the alleged policies of the T&G).

‘So there was all that, plus a majority on our executive. We had a hell of a job. And in the end Scanlon said, “Well, we haven’t got the response. If they’d all done what Manchester done it would be a different ball game. But we’re compelled either to destroy the national agreement and say that’s the end, go for contracts on a company-by-company basis, or get back round the table and resolve the minimum rate and other factors on the best basis we can”.’

‘The origin of that position, the responsibility, lies in the original the bad policy. It was passing the buck to the shop stewards in the areas. There was the presumption that the stewards could look after it. But they see their own power in a very different way to national responsibilities.’

A second very contentious dispute was at Chrysler in 1973, when electricians broke away from the plant negotiations during the middle of phase two of the then Tory government’s wage controls and struck for special payments. The TGWU and AUEW it is alleged, told their members to do work normally done by the electricians.

‘I never told people to cross picket lines. The electricians broke away from the negotiations in Chrysler, and declaring themselves apart from the joint shop stewards committee. The works committee refused to support them, and the workers in the factory never came out. Now I’ve heard of an allegation that I told them not to support the electricians. But we had two conflicts in mind. One was that the maintenance people with whom the electricians were largely associated had made it quite clear that if there was a concession to the electricians they would strike – not against the company, but against the settlement to the electricians. And the tool room said if the electricians got their level – that was the electricians claim – then they would take action to reinstate the differential. So the factory was split right open.

‘Scanlon reported all this to the executive, and the decision was that our members should not involve themselves, but support the district committee and the members.

‘Now I had the responsibility as the EC man of conveying that, that’s true. But as for instructing the members to cross picket lines, when the stewards raised it I said, “You’ve got to act collectively. Either you agree to back the electricians, but I’ll have more sympathy with the ETU when they get back round the table with the shop stewards.” But these breakaway situations – I don’t accept that when a group of workers launch themselves on a sectarian course that there’s an automatic responsibility that we’ve got to involve ourselves.

‘And the T&G were more adamant than I was that “in no bleeding sense do we support them”. The T&G convenors in Chrysler went to the employer and said, “You give them a penny and we’re in next day”.

‘I never instructed workers to cross a picket line.’

Finally, Bob Wright talked about what the left can do now.

‘Duffy is elected till he’s 65. The members have got to live with that situation.

‘But assuming that the constitution isn’t radically eroded, in the AUEW there is a balance of power. Even in the Carron period, prior to Scanlon, there was never an ascendancy of complete authority. It’s different to other unions. Deakin was the king of the T&G. Carron never had that complete authority.

‘The structure of the union is such that there is a balance. The central core of that structure is the district committee. My view is that if ever our members allow the erosion of the district committees, then we could end up with what the right wing in the ETU did – they wiped out their area committees and that was the origin of their centralising power.

‘Secondly the national committee itself is a balancing factor.

‘And thirdly, individual officials. One of the advantages of having an electoral system is that you’re not an employee, you’re an officer in your own right. That’s why I’m able to survive in the atmosphere of the office. I still have my rights as an official. And I can challenge them and I do.

‘This applied when Scanlon was president.

‘One of the complaints from the left was that Scanlon should have done this and should have done that, or I should have done this or that. I could go through a range of issues- on which I disagreed completely with district committees and the executive council. On issues in Leyland and Chrysler. I was over-ruled, and being an officer of the union you’ve got to carry out decisions which are taken. You’re not a free agent. As much as one would want to influence those decisions, that’s the fact.

‘Sometimes on the left we get confused. We elect someone to office and then expect he can deliver 100 per cent. He can’t. I know many districts with a left wing district committee and a right wing district secretary. And they control this district secretary very well.

‘Influence and power in the district committees is the root. There are far too many of the left who see their role as a steward or convenor in a factory but don’t extend that role out into the union organisation of the district, the branch, the national committee and so on. Until we find the solution to that then we are going to go on having some of the mediocre elements emerging who are prepared to fulfil those roles.

‘I know lots of left wing convenors who say, “We don’t want the district committee boys allowed in the factory”. They build a barrier. But then when they want the support of the district committee they don’t get it. Managements are being rearmed by Thatcher and company, and some of these edifices are being destroyed. Management are now challenging these power structures, saying “We’ve had your official in and he’s agreed”. Factories are saying, “What right has he to come in?” And the executive will defend him. There’s only one body that can control that, the district committee.

‘The executive will be worse than in the Carron period. They’ve closed ranks to the extent that they’ve become authoritarian to the extreme. A number of them are in liaison with Chapple and people like that.

‘I think the left has got to learn the lesson. We can’t afford to be divided. We are the opposition, we are seeds of change in society and in the union and in the echelons of power of the labour movement. Unless we unite under common policies to achieve change and defeat the right wing collaborationists we will not see success. And it starts from the rank and file.

‘That for me is the challenge of immediate future. And the executive elections, of course, that will continue – and we’ve got to have a breakthrough to win back seats on that executive.

‘Our boys have got to move in from the factories to branches and the districts – shop stewards reps on the districts, branch reps – that’s where we begin to re-establish control. That’s where the left is weak. I believe that is the root of the fight back. It won’t be on the basis of the Bob Wrights as individuals, it will be on the basis of that sort of struggle at the root. We can be a real opposition if we control the National Committee, the rules revision body, the final appeals body and then the executive.’

Last updated on 21 September 2019