Jim Higgins

Trade unions

Democracy at the Top

(October 1975)

From the Spectator, 18 October 1975, p.496.
Published here with kind permission of the Spectator.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Last week postal balloting commenced for several key posts in the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers. It is the hope of some commentators with an interest in these things, and not a few engineering employers, that the result will signal a distinct lurch to the right on the Executive Committee, the union’s leading body. If Jimmy Reid, the telegenic Communist, and Bob Wright, the present incumbent of the North-West England seat, are defeated there will undoubtedly be a spurt of enthusiasm in the press for postal ballots. Democracy, it will be said, has triumphed. The innate good sense and moderation of the working man confirmed.

Already there is a growing lobby which calls for the compulsory introduction of postal balloting. An even larger school of thought, moderates to a man, suggest that the government should cover the costs of such ballots for any union adopting the system. It all seems a bit excessive just to ditch Messrs Reid and Wright, or their peers.

I have argued before in these pages that the failure of left-wing candidates in recent AUEW elections is less to do with the postal voting system, more the manifest failure of the current left regime to satisfy the members on wages and conditions. That, however, may not be the point; perhaps the issue is democracy. The old AUEW procedure was for ballot papers to be issued, for those with fully paid up cards, at branch meetings. Voting took place at the meeting and counting at the union headquarters. Nowadays the union head office posts the ballot papers direct to individual members, who, if they feel like it, send them back to the union for counting. Under the branch system returns seldom exceeded 5 per cent of those eligible to vote, while postal ballots have notched up scores of 30 per cent and more.

Now that dramatic broadening of the electoral base is a powerful argument in favour of postal voting. However, for those who advocate this system (to flush the reds from under our union beds) there must be one or two reservations. In a recent postal vote one Laurie Smith, a currently unaffiliated, independent Trotskyist, won a post as National Organiser, beating his right-wing and communist opponents. This result has so encouraged the International Socialists that they are running their man, Willie Lee, for another organiser job with an impressive list of sponsoring convenors and shop stewards.

The arguments for a reversion to branch voting are not just advanced by Communists and their fellow travellers. Districts firmly under right-wing control have lived happily with the system for years. It is argued, that all those members with passionately held moderate views should be prepared to test their convictions against the minor inconvenience of attending a branch meeting. More convincing perhaps is the point that those who do attend meetings are more likely to know the trade union record of the candidates, than those who take their advice from the Sun or Woodrow Wyatt.

On both sides of the argument, of course, there is an element of special pleading. For my own part I would be more impressed by those partisans of democracy in the AUEW if they would broaden their concern to other unions with less democratic procedures. Even if the leadership of these other unions is impeccably, even ‘multi-chromatically,’ moderate.

Until recently the General and Municipal Workers Union operated an informal but effective type of dynastic succession. Election to high office required ties of blood with existing office holders. The Transport Workers Union elects only one official, the General Secretary, and once in office only death, age sixty-five or spectacular malfeasance can remove him. In the Electrical Trade Union, Mr Frank Chapple managed to combine the posts of General Secretary and President at the same time, a ploy that his Communist predecessor, Frank Haxell, no mean hand at stuffing a ballot box, would have thought coming it a bit strong.

Some years ago Mr V.L. Allen carried out a survey of almost all TUC affiliates to discover their method of electing general secretaries. Some seventy-three were elected and the surprisingly high total of fifty-five were appointed. Only thirty-six of them were subject to periodic election, while eighty-four, barring accidents, were there for life. Since Mr Allen’s survey there have been a number of mergers and amalgamations, most of which have sunk elective unions into ones where appointments the order of the day.

In a sense all of this is beside the point, further inquiry shows that the tenure of office of periodically elected officials is the same as for their appointed, and once-only-elected, colleagues. History records only three general secretaries who failed to be re-elected when they were eligible and wanted to stand. One, in the Carpenters and Joiners Society, in 1862 another in the Engineering Union in 1913, and the aforementioned Mr Frank Haxell. Incidentally, the ETU seems to have had some sorry experiences with their leading officials; of the first four general secretaries, three were sacked for pinching the funds.

In the light of these simple facts, the attack on Hugh Scanlon for his alleged undemocratic behaviour in exercising his casting vote in favour of a return to his union’s traditional methods, do seem a bit harsh. Interestingly enough, one of the problems facing the AUEW is the difficulty of achieving a joint rule book with the recently acquired draughtsmen’s union, TASS. Prior to the amalgamation, and still today, TASS appointed all their officials. The stumbling block to their full integration is the Engineers’ insistence on popular, periodic election. It is a matter of some irony that if Mr. Scanlon and his left-wing colleagues were to agree to appointment, then a reasonable calculation would indicate a permanent left-wing majority for the united leadership.

Those with a concern for the development of trade union democracy might well turn they attention from the red herring of postal balloting and concentrate on the question of recall. The truth is that whatever system is used to acquire officials the result is something of a lottery. Bearing in mind the vagaries of the elective and appointive process, it is not surprising that occasionally the venal, the corrupt, the overly ambitious and plain stupid attain high office. This unfortunate effect is of course not confined to trade unions, as anyone with half an eye to politics or business can testify. It is, though, doubly unfortunate if, once in office the offender stays there until the grim reaper cuts him down.

It is surely not unreasonable that members signing a requisition in sufficient numbers (say a fifth or a quarter of the appropriate constituency) be able to submit the official to a re-election process, whatever the method by which he originally got the job. It will be said in reply to this scheme that trade unionists should not wish to impose on their officials a security of tenure worse than their own. The answer this is that no members have security of tenure to match their full-time officers, as many of the rank and file are discovering on our vastly expanded dole queues. Even if it were true the answer would still be: ‘Yes they should’.

If, as is so often claimed on May Day platforms, the trade union movement is not a business but a crusade, then it is only right that the mounted and caparisoned leaders should be more exposed than the poor bloody infantry. In any case as Doctor Johnson said, in the context of imminent execution: “It concentrates the mind wonderfully well.”


Last updated on 2.11.2003