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Jim Higgins

More Years for the Locust

Chapter 7

[Trade union leaders] ... had overnight become important people. They were visited by MPs by Lords and other well born rabble, and sympathetic inquiry was suddenly made into the wishes and needs of the working class.
F Engels

Membership figures are not the be all and end all of revolutionary politics and it is a fact that to increase from 30 to 200, while a useful step and a necessary one on the way to the first million, means no more than that the propaganda can be spread just a little wider. Even so, there was an improvement in the social composition. We have already noted the development of the Group in Glasgow, where an overwhelmingly young and working class base was leavened, if that is the word, by Paul Foot, then carrying out his stint of provincial journalism before qualifying for the big time in Fleet Street. Blowing up Franco Another recruit of that time was Stuart Christie, who subsequently left IS to become an anarchist. In this new role, he went off to Spain with a suitcase full of anarchist literature and, according to Nicholas Walter, a plan to assassinate Franco. Almost immediately apprehended, he was sentenced to 30 years in gaol. In Glasgow, the IS comrades organised a protest at his sentence outside the Spanish consulate. Ian Mooney prevailed on his mother to run up a fair replica of a Spanish flag that could be symbolically burned outside the consulate. As the man who provided the flag, Ian insisted on being allowed to set it alight. To ensure a merry blaze he first soaked it with lighter fuel. Unfortunately he was extremely shortsighted and, while he successfully soaked and lit the flag, he also soaked and lit his own boots. Thus what might have been an easily forgotten protest has danced – along with Ian Mooney’s flaming boots – into the annals of Glasgow socialist folklore. (Stuart Christie was freed a few years later and was associated with the Angry Brigade, who were responsible for blowing some bits off the Post Office Tower. However, he was found not guilty of this offense.)

Harry McShane was close to the Glasgow IS members. He had been a member of the SDF before World War I, a close comrade of John Maclean and a leading figure in the CP and the National Unemployed Workers Movement before WWII and, after he left the CP in 1953 in the wake of the Berlin uprising, a follower of Raya Dunayevskaya. If, in most places, the results were not as promising as Glasgow, there was a heartening trickle of, mostly young, workers joining mainly from the YS. In the nature of youth, they were inexperienced and had little or no position in their union or place of work. It was, however, a basis with which to work and, for a group that took the long view, an earnest for future developments.

In 1961, Industrial Worker was launched as an agitational industrial paper, with the overly-ambitious aim of involving workers in the writing and selling of the paper. The first editor was Karl Dunbar, assisted by the members of the Kilburn branch of the Group, and a few ETU members. The paper could not be described as a runaway success, although it contained some good articles and involved a few non-group people in the writing.

Karl certainly had ambitious plans for the paper with a programme of special supplements on particular industries and unions, none of which came to fruition. As part of his plan to brighten the newspaper he acquired, for a few pounds, the letter press half tone blocks from Tribune, who were going over to litho presses. This was a novel departure for the Group because, until then, Socialist Review had managed to get by without pictures at all.

Karl Dunbar, quite rightly, took the view that the right picture was worth a thousand words. As if to prove this contention he produced a well used block that, he claimed, showed a black worker and a white worker carrying a trade union banner. Without doubt this picture, suitably captioned, would enhance our article about racism. This, together with the rest of the copy, was sent off to our printer, a Pilsudskist Pole who atoned for his antique equipment, his awful print and execrable politics by being incredibly cheap. In the fullness of time the edition hit the streets. There over our caption, “Black and white workers unite to fight racism”, was a picture of a small black child and a small white child doing a bit of finger painting on a piece of paper pinned to an easel. Our shame at this blunder was only partially mitigated by convincing ourselves that both of these infants were probably resolutely anti-racist.

Socialist Review at about this time became something of a poor relation, nurtured only with such energy as was left after International Socialism, Young Guard and Industrial Worker had been produced. The format was reduced to A4, and the articles were inevitably shorter, with the natural consequence that it became less authoritative and less interesting. By 1962, it ceased to exist, unable to find living room in the small space left for it by the other three journals. Having outgrown the actual magazine, the Group had to find another name and International Socialism was chosen as the replacement. [1]

In line with the junking of Socialist Review, there came a revamp of Industrial Worker. The title was changed to Labour Worker and in line with this it became the main agitational paper of IS, covering all the themes of the group’s politics. By 1964 the circulation was in excess of 2,000 and the first Labour Worker conference, that same year, attracted about 140 people.

As the newly named IS Group grew, albeit slowly, the more experienced members were actively involved in servicing the work in the YS. For example, most YS branches met once a week and part of that meeting was devoted to political education: anyone with a smattering of knowledge and some ability to impart it, was involved in YS education. At the same time there were papers to write and to produce, trade union and Labour Party meetings to attend and, on top of all that, IS Group meetings. It was a busy and exhilarating time.

In 1964, for the first time for 13 years, there was a Labour government, born in the white heat of Harold Wilson’s rhetoric about, “the white heat of technology”. At the time the Labour slogan was, “Thirteen wasted years”. Twelve months later, Gus Macdonald coined a new one: “Fourteen wasted years”. For all that, it is true that many socialists were extremely hopeful of the Wilson administration. Distance had lent a certain roseate enchantment to the post-war Attlee government and Wilson was thought to have been on the left of that administration. Certainly, in the beginning, Wilson had a talent for the rolling phrase and the telling sound bite that suggested, without actually promising anything, that great things were in the offing. In practice it had far fewer ideas and was significantly less radical than Labour in 1945.

Along with every other post-war government it planned to solve British capitalism’s problems at the expense of the working class, this time through the medium of incomes policy. Corridors of power No matter how you dress it up as “socialist planning”, incomes policy is not intended to even out incomes – indeed, it invariably hits those on the lowest incomes hardest – but to give British capital the edge by giving it a bigger slice of the cake. It is a policy that puts the emphasis on national discussions, with the TUC General Council wearing threadbare the carpets in the corridors of power. The powerful magnates of labour, together with captains of industry and Labour ministers, were negotiating how big the cake should be and how small could they make the workers’ slice. For industries where national bargaining was the norm the effect was almost immediate; for those industries where local bargaining by rank and file representatives set a large chunk of pay above the national wage, the employers’ hands were strengthened. It was a recipe for disillusion, at least amongst those who started off with any illusions. IS had none.

In January 1966, the stewards at ENV took the initiative in calling a meeting to set up a Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee (SSDC) to defend shop floor organisation and develop the struggle against incomes policy through rank and file committees around the country. The meeting, of about 200 people from various factories and committees, was addressed by Reg Birch, a leading, but dissident, CPer, Jim Hiles a building worker and three IS members (Geoff Carlsson, Geoff Mitchell, both stewards at ENV, and Jim Higgins). The plan was an ambitious one and, in the event, it turned out to be over ambitious.

A number of meetings were held in different parts of the country but, at the time, there was insufficient base to support a continuing organisation. The SSDC did issue, under its imprint, the pamphlet Incomes Policy, Legislation and Shop Stewards by Tony Cliff and Colin Barker. It was an excellent pamphlet, far better than anything else on the subject produced either before or since. It explained why British capitalism needed incomes policy, how it worked and how to fight it. The introduction was written by Reg Birch. It was, if not a mass sale item, extremely popular and sold in thousands, most importantly to shop stewards’ committees and to trade union branches.

The growing disenchantment with Labour meant that there was a small but growing audience for IS politics. Here were some promising areas in industry which represented, in IS terms, a considerable advance. There were members in ASTMS, the POEU, TGWU, the ETU and the AEU.

Jewel in the crown was the ENV factory in Acton, North London, an engineering works making pre-selector gearboxes. (The name derived from the French, “En V”, a reference to the cylinder layout of the aero engines it made during World War L) The story of ENV is both interesting and instructive, it shows the importance of day to day leadership at rank and file level; it also indicates how serious political militants can, through patient and sensitive work, develop policies that increase the solidarity and consciousness of the workers. It also indicates with brutal clarity that, in the final analysis, there are definite and well defined limits to trade union struggles.

It is worthwhile, perhaps, to detail some of the history of what was certainly influential in forming SR/IS politics; an experience that informed much of the industrial strategy. [2]

In the 1930s, the factory had been badly organised and wages and conditions were poor, comparing unfavourably with other local factories. In the aftermath of the war, however, the shortage of skilled labour, allied to the organising ability of the stewards, meant that rates were as good as, if not better than, those generally paid in North London. It was a factory where the day to day issues of work and the rank and file response were the currency of conversation. From the most militant to the most moderate there was a feeling that the price of good conditions was eternal vigilance; each section policed its agreements rigorously. Naturally enough, the employers were not enchanted by this state of affairs and were continuously attempting to steal a march by the introduction of new machines and practices.

An employer’s cost-cutting strategy often has the effect of over-exciting the ambitious, but cerebrally challenged, line supervision and at ENV they had just such a foreman. Taking his lead from the disastrous course pursued by Charles I, he enunciated a doctrine of the divine right of foremen. If anyone on his section had a grievance his decision, so far as he was concerned, was final, despite the fact that procedures were in place to take matters further up the management tree. Inevitably, this behaviour formed the subject of a meeting between the convenor and the management. During the course of this meeting the offending foreman physically menaced, swore at and threatened the convenor Bill McLoughlin. All of this was reported to a mass meeting of the workers and a decision was taken to strike until the foreman was sacked.

The strike lasted for 13 weeks and was hard fought, with the stewards organising financial support all over Britain – they collected a total of £14,000 which was a considerable sum at the time. The Transport and General never made the strike official and attempted to sow discord between T&G and AEU members. Eventually, the AEU executive agreed to a Court of Inquiry, whose findings would be binding on both parties. It was to be under the chairmanship of Professor Jack, an academic and a well known chairman of allegedly impartial inquiries. His findings, which were meant to appear Solomon-like, were in fact about as partial as you could get. The foreman was to be moved to less sensitive work but McLoughlin was to be removed from his convenorship. The AEU Executive member Scott, like McLoughlin a CP member, urged the acceptance of Jack’s ruling and, with only Geoff Carlsson’s lone opposition, the stewards’ committee reluctantly accepted.

Here was a dispute that challenged the employer’s traditional prerogatives of hire and fire and fought for three months for this principle. In the process the TGWU had been opposed and the AEU, despite the fact that the North London District was firmly under the control of the CP, shuffled off the dispute to a quasi judicial tribunal. Interestingly enough the greatest financial support did not come from CP strongholds, such as Ford Dagenham (£25) or Austin Longbridge (£50) where, in those days, there were literally tens of thousands of workers. It was a strike with a result that would normally be expected to break the union organisation at the factory. That it did not was a function of the way that the workers were involved regularly in discussions and decisions about the way forward.

It was also due, in large measure, to some excellent work by two young revolutionaries: Sid Wise and Geoff Carlsson. Both of them had been members of the RCP, Wise subsequently joining Healy’s organisation and Geoff Carlsson to help found the SR Group. Neither of them were radical birds of passage, serving a little industrial time that would spice up their reminiscences in the Senior Common Room. Nor were they intent on a career as full time union bureaucrats. Starting in the mid-1950s, first Wise and then Carlsson was the convener. As a matter of principle they insisted on a full meeting of the workers once a week at which they discussed matters of immediate and of long term interest. They worked out a programme of demands to combat redundancy.

The levee en masse, far from proving a cumbersome device, actually defined and refined significant areas of policy. With informed discussion a spirit of support for the programme was powerfully engendered. As a result of this conspicuous solidarity, ENV had a number of trailblazing agreements, ones that could only be raised, never mind achieved, by workers convinced of their case. Thus they had a policy of no overtime and if only one individual worker just one hour’s overtime then the entire factory was guaranteed three months without redundancy. Time and motion study was banned by the workers and nobody anxious to maintain production was seen with a stop watch.

Just before Christmas 1957, the management informed the convenor, Geoff Carlsson, that there would have to be a ten per cent redundancy. At the mass meeting, the workers were adamant that the programme for redundancies should be followed. When Carlsson informed the manager that they would not accept redundancy, the managers handed over the running of production to the shop stewards, mistakenly assuming that they would cave in at this daunting prospect.

Having accepted the responsibility, the workers had to organise a four and a half day week, transferring men to different sections where necessary. The process was not without problems and a deal of seat of the pants fine tuning was required, but for nine months the factory stayed united. At the end of 1958 an upturn in trade made the continuation of the policy unnecessary. For nearly a year the workers organised the disposition of labour within the factory and, effectively, the production process. Obviously, there is no such thing as socialism in one factory, but this has all the hallmarks of workers’ control. Even when it was finished, the self confidence acquired during that time made possible further advances. Long before it became at all common in engineering, women workers had equal pay at ENV, wages were the highest in the district and turnover of labour was minimal.

Not only were conditions good at ENV, but they had a highly commendable record of solidarity with other workers on strike. In 1963, for example a strike of mainly black workers started in the Southall factory, Marriott’s. A levy of one shilling a head was collected at ENV for 30 weeks collecting £1,717, or 18 per cent of the total collected nationally.

In 1962 the American firm of Eaton, Yale and Towne bought ENV. This was a tough management who intended to break the power of the workers and were prepared to run through any number of managers in pursuit of this objective. Emerson’s, a large work study company, were introduced to the factory, but nobody would cooperate with them, so they sat around for some months and then went away. Productivity bargaining was introduced on the promise of no redundancy. The packers, for example, agreed to a reduction from 16 to 12 men and to help with loading the lorries, in return for increased pay. In fact, there were only 12 packers in the first place and they had always helped load the trucks. Similarly the fork-lift truck drivers accepted one shilling an hour to “become mobile”. That is, to actually carry pallets into, as well as from, their own section. With a management like that, who needed a compass to find their own backside it really would have been sensible for Eaton, Yale and Towne to permanently hand over the organisation of the factory to the workers.

Sadly, it is in the nature of industrial life that, eventually, all good things come to an end and ENV was no exception. The management decided that, despite ever more far fetched stratagems, there was no way of establishing a rift between the stewards and the workforce, and it was necessary to push things to the limit. In August 1966 they announced a phased shutdown of the factory. For the first time there was uncertainty amongst the workers, an uncertainty that also existed in the shop stewards’ committee. Were the management serious, or was it yet another stratagem to obtain concessions? The convenor, Geoff Mitchell and the chairman, Geoff Carlsson, believed that the management was bluffing and that it should be challenged by strike action. Unfortunately, a majority of the stewards’ committee and the workforce did not agree with them. Management’s well established, but untruthful, rumour was that any strikers would be guilty of industrial misconduct and thus lose redundancy pay, which for a stable and long standing workforce such as ENV’s was substantial. Carlsson and Mitchell and several hundred workers were sacked over the next few months. ENV stayed open a little longer but the company never managed to assert full management prerogatives and not long after it closed its gates for the last time.

Over his years in the factory, Geoff Carlsson, like any sensible revolutionary worker, found allies where he could. He worked with CP members, with the Club member Sid Wise and with anyone else who agreed on the need to strengthen the organisation and defend and extend the workers’ interests, but he did not spend his time castigating “Stalinists” or attacking Sid Wise for thinking Russia a “workers’ state.” He sold Socialist Review and, when appropriate, argued his politics and in 1959 he ran for President of the AEU. Although he had no chance of election, the AEU rules allowed each candidate was entitled to an election address circulated at the Union’s expense. In his address he condemned wage freeze, class collaboration and sell out by right wing Labour and trade union leaders. While commending some CP militants, he pointed to their antics in Eastern Europe and their anti-working class measures at home. When the votes were counted, the right-winger, Carron, had 57,127 votes, Reg Birch, the CP candidate, had 19,799 and Geoff had 5,615. A very creditable performance for someone with no electoral machine.

At ENV recruitment to the IS Group was slow. For some years the only recruit was Les Bennett, but when the breakthrough did come in the mid-1960s it was, superficially, spectacular. Over a number of months a series of discussion classes were held in the Harlesden Labour Club, generally led by Cliff but also by Jim Higgins and Geoff Carlsson, on and around the main themes of IS politics and contemporary issues. After some time, an ENV IS branch was formed with 12 members. Some were young and of no previous affiliation but several were ex-CP members of some years standing – Geoff Mitchell, John Hogan and Danny Flynn among them. This resulted in an increase in Labour Worker sales in the factory and to a certain hostility from CP members in the district, although this was mitigated by the fact that Reg Birch, a long time leading CP member in the AEU, was conducting a struggle against the party that would lead to him founding one of the short lived Maoist groups. In the fight against the management the existence of the IS branch in the factory was not noticeably more effective than its members were as individual militants. It was too recent an entity to have raised any general consciousness in the factory and its real strength would have been as an integral part of a nation-wide network of IS factory branches. There were no other factory branches and, paraphrasing the old saw about socialism, there is no such thing as a branch network in one factory.

The cliche runs that even the defeats and failures experienced in the struggle are valuable if they are analysed properly. And, funnily enough, it is true. The experience of one of the most advanced and militant factories in the car industry could not help but provide valuable lessons. Even the inability to develop the Shop Stewards’ Defence Committee was of value, in that it indicated very clearly that the transfer of experience takes time, continuing effort, patience and resources. Revolutionaries are very good at working hard, some put in heroic stints at the agitation-face. On time, they seldom have enough of it, are invariably racing against it and are frequently tempted to take a short cut, a temptation they are often unable to resist. So far as resources are concerned, they never, ever have enough of them. We can, however, as Trotsky enjoined us, “Learn to Think” and that is what IS set out to do. To try and learn from the experience of the small but encouraging growth of the Group in general and its ability to attract a few experienced militants.

Without bending any sticks to the point of wood fatigue, it was necessary to attempt to provide the sort of analysis and activity that would attract and involve advanced workers. It had to be a policy that offered the perspective of working to build in the workshop and the unions at rank and file level, work that would generalise the struggle and the experience of the most advanced factories and workshops and spread it into less developed areas. In a word, it was a perspective, no matter how long term, of developing trade union demands into class demands. It was building the bridge to the revolutionary party.



1. The next change of name to the International Socialists seems to have occurred in the late 1960s, for what reason I have no idea.

2. This account is taken from The ENV Strike, Socialist Review, Jan/Feb 1952 and The Lessons of the ENV Strike, Socialist Review, April/May 1952 both by Geoff Carlsson and A Working Class Defeat: The ENV Story, in International Socialism 31 by Joyce Rosser and Colin Barker. This text has also been checked by Geoff Carlsson.

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Last updated on 31.1.2003