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International Socialism, May 1976


Steve Jefferys

EETPU: The Decline of the Narrow Left


From Notes of the Month, International Socialism (1st series), No.88, May 1976, pp.??.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The EETPU tragedy began 15 years ago when John Byrne was appointed General Secretary at the end of the 1961 Electrical Trades Union ballot-rigging trial.

Next month, Frank Chapple, one of the original litigants in that trial, stands for General Secretary for the third time. Victory in this election means he can remain in that position until he retires in 1986.

The past 15 years have seen other major trade unions shaken by powerful winds of change. The Transport and General Workers’ Union was to the left of the TUC in the 1960s and early 1970s. Now, Jack Jones has pulled his union far to the right. It is now the principal prop of current Labour policies of wage freeze, higher unemployment and public expenditure cuts. The Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers witnessed even greater political movement. Catholic Action headed the Union in the right-wing character of Bill Carron until 1967. For the next seven years the Broad Left dominated the union’s policy. While today, nothing could make clearer the right-wing’s resumption of control than Scanlon’s joining with right-wingers Basnett and Jones to sign a loyalty pledge to the government immediately after savage public expenditure cuts are announced.

Rising rank-and-file militancy in the late 1960s even moved through the staunchly conservative General and Municipal Workers’ Union. After the Pilkington glassworkers’ strike it began making strikes official. Among many large white collar unions (NALGO, CPSA, NUT, ASTMS etc) this same period saw radical changes that broke down the old ‘professional association’ idea. Rank-and-file organisation and militancy was the mid-wife of white collar unionism.

Yet these same 15 years have left the right-wing stranglehold on the old ETU (now Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunications and Plumbers Trade Union) untouched. How and why did this happen? Why have all attempts at opposition floundered so far?

The Right-Wing Take-Over

The most important single reason for the right-wing success lies in the way they took over. On 3 July 1961, John Byrne was made General Secretary of the ETU by Mr Justice Winn after a High Court trial lasting 42 days. The defendants, all Communist Party members, Frank Foulkes, ETU President, Frank Haxell, General Secretary, Robert McLellan, Assistant General Secretary and two others, were found to have used ‘fraudulent and unlawful devices’ to secure the re-election of Haxell in 1959. Rather than declare a new election, Winn simply declared that the Scottish right-winger Byrne was now General Secretary.

Byrne moved rapidly. He immediately appointed himself two Personal Assistants: former CP members, Les Cannon (CP member 1939-1956) and Frank Chapple (YCL full-timer 1940-41, CP member until after his election to the ETU Executive in 1957). Together they master-minded an election campaign against the existing lay Executive Council (which had an 8 to 3 Communist Party and fellow-traveller majority) that December. The press campaign, the expulsion of the ETU from the TUC in September, and the proven ballot-rigging all worked to secure a 9 to 2 majority for the right. The EC then sacked McLellan and a year later expelled the President, Foulkes from the Union. With Chapple’s election as Assistant General Secretary, Cannon’s election as General President, and Mark Young’s election as National Organiser, control was secured. It was clinched by the court decision, but it was endorsed in part at least through a genuine feeling of revulsion and support for rank-and-file democracy amongst the membership.

Why did leading Communist Party figures in the union resort to ballot-rigging? The strength of the CP and the left inside the post-war ETU was based on electrical contracting. The building industry with its reactionary employers, terrible working conditions and the constant need to start trade union organisation from scratch, is a hothouse for rank-and-file militancy. Strong sympathy for Russia after the Allied Victory in 1945 helped as well. Thus Foulkes was first elected General President in 1945 and two years later Walter Stevens defeated John Byrne to become General Secretary. Stevens joined the CP within six months of his election. And in 1948 Frank Haxell defeated Byrne in a second ballot fight for Assistant General Secretary.

The Cold War failed to seriously challenge the growing strength of the CP within the ETU, primarily because the boom effect of the permanent arms economy resulted in more jobs, more union members and rising confidence amongst the rank and file. Growing at a rate of about 3 per cent a year the ETU reached 220,000 members by 1955. The result was the election on a branch ballot system of a large proportion of CP and left officials. By the time of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, not only were the three General Officers of the ETU all CP members, but four out of the five National Organisers, six out of the 11 EC members and 20 out of the 39 Area Officials were either CP members or very close indeed to the CP.

The ETU became the centrepiece of CP political strategy. The British Road to Socialism, published in 1951, had outlined the essential task: to influence the Labour Party in a left direction. The ability of the CP to directly place resolutions on the order paper of Labour Party Conferences through the channels of the ETU delegation was crucial. In 1954, John Gollan, then General Secretary of the CPGB, wrote (The British Political System),

‘Writing of the British Labour Party, Stalin in 1927 said that although the Labour Party was in practice no more than a block of workers and urban petty bourgeoisie, it was justifiable to call it a Labour Party because it was “that type of organisation of a workers’ party by virtue of which under certain conditions it would be convened in the future into a real class party of the workers, in opposition to the bourgeois world ...” And the outstanding new feature of the 1953 Margate Labour Party Conference was the emergence of a powerful group of important trade unions with a vote of around one and a quarter million, including the engineers, electricians and railwaymen, in alliance with the majority of constituency parties. This alliance will grow and develop and is the key to the transformation of the situation in the Labour Party.’

The Hungarian Revolution and the resulting defections from the British Communist Party within the ETU shook this potential alliance and the entire strategy. Whilst there is no evidence that King Street directed the final desperate attempts to retain bureaucratic control (in the Haxell-Byrne election of 1959 the votes of 112 out of the total 625 branches were disqualified, with 109 of them being branches that had voted for Byrne), it is clear that those who rigged the ballot did so in the belief that they were carrying out necessary Party work. Their actions resulted from the strategy of the CP that meant (and still means) the friendship and influence of the trade union leaders is more important to the CP than the strength of independent rank-and-file organisation.

In 1962 the victorious right-wing moved rapidly to adopt democratic rule changes that contrasted starkly with the manipulative control exercised by the CP from 1947 to 1961. The CP had not set up a Rank-and-file Appeals Committee; they had not organised regular industrial conferences of shop stewards; they had not broadened Policy Conference so that every branch was represented; they had not insisted on regular provisions for rule changes. At a specially called Rules Revision Conference the right-wing introduced all these measures. In addition it introduced individual voting through a postal ballot conducted by the Electoral Reform Society; and it moved from an Annual to a Biennial Conference. But its attempt to extend the term of office of EC members was heavily rejected. The right-wing grip on the ETU was tightened because the former CP leadership had made it possible for Byrne, Cannon and Chapple to become temporarily the advocates of basic democratic rank-and-file demands.

The Boot Goes In

The Communist Party was thrown into disarray by the 1961 trial. The defendants were instantly disowned by King Street (CP head office). From being among the most revered CP members (Haxeil had come top in the 1959 election to the CP Executive with five more votes than Pollitt himself) they became the most reviled (in public at least). The 1959 version of the British Road To Socialism had been watered down still further to appeal to the left reformists in the Labour Party and the trade unions. Yet here were ‘leading comrades’ behaving like Stalinist stereotypes. CP ETU members were told in no uncertain terms to ‘cool it’. Whatever happened subsequently in the ETU, the CP wanted its activities within that union to get out of the limelight of press and television publicity. Rather than use its still very considerable strength within the union to mount an immediate rank-and-file campaign for democracy and a militant leadership, the CP signalled the retreat.

The so-called Reform Committee of former CP members. Cannon, Chapple and Mark Young did not hesitate. From 1963 they began the real attack. They were determined to turn the retreat into a rout and to make it permanent.

After an unofficial circular was sent round the branches that argued against the new rule changes being put forward in Electron, the official ETU journal, the Executive moved. In October 1964 it decided

‘there has been outside interference by the Communist Party in the internal affairs of the ETU calculated to determine a substantial part of the agenda of the Rules Revision Conference.’

They then held a special ballot of the members on whether Communist Party members should be allowed to hold any official positions in the union. The ban on CP members was carried by 42,187 votes to 13,187.

This vote created a second major crisis in the Communist Party. Should their full-time officials relinquish their CP membership cards and ‘stay in and fight’? Or should they return to the tools and mobilise the rank-and-file? The CP rightly decided that all of its members should resign, but then found that only one official, Bert Attwood, actually did so. All the rest preferred to leave the CP. Perhaps they realised that the CP’s commitment to build in the rank-and-file was only skin deep; or perhaps the previous CP leadership within the ETU had been based largely on career opportunists rather than on principled class fighters?

In the event this mass defiance of CP policy only had the effect of strengthening the right wing’s grip on the union. It undermined the morale of the remaining CP members, and it taught Cannon and Chapple that the officials would eat out of their hands. Later on, after the 1971 Rules Revision Conference when the CP actually campaigned for their shop stewards to resign their credentials ‘to show the members they couldn’t do without the CP’, many militants in the union saw the CP’s action as another example of its desire to avoid a serious fight against Chapple.

At the 1965 ETU Conference, deliberately held on the Isle of Man away from the possibility of demonstrations, the right wing narrowly won a majority for the two principle rule changes they proposed. The 32 rank-and-file Area Committees that linked members in different branches and were identified with the union’s militant tradition were abolished by 325 votes to 242. And the rank-and-file Executive was replaced by a full-time EC elected for a five year term of office. The following year Byrne resigned through ill health and Frank Chapple was elected General Secretary.

The Right-wing Digs In

The last ten years have witnessed the steady strengthening of Chapple’s hold. In 1961, Chapple, when questioned at the trial as to whether he had ever been a party to the ‘Communist Conspiracy’ in the ETU, replied: ‘I am saying not only that I was a member of that conspiracy, but that I am heartily ashamed of my part in it.’ Both he and Cannon had considerable experience of the autocratic methods of the CP within the ETU, and as they moved further and further to the right aspects of their earlier experience became more and more evident.

The strategy adopted by the right had two main aspects. Firstly, coming from electrical contracting themselves, they realised that the principle challenge to their control would continue to come from their important 70,000 strong membership in the militant building industry. The only industrial area over which the ETU had exclusive negotiating rights had to be controlled and reduced in its overall significance. Thus in 1968 they finally introduced the Joint Industry Board for Electrical Contracting. This joint Union-Employer body then became the effective policing body in the industry. Electricians were registered, graded, and paid the same rates right across the country. At a stroke the role of site shop stewards was greatly reduced and it became possible to officially discipline militants. The continuing threat posed by the giant sites employing several hundreds of sparks is now being dealt with by the appointment of eight new full-time officials for the contracting industry. Their job will, in effect, be to take the place of rank-and-file stewards as leading negotiators or site convenors on the biggest jobs.

At the same time as authorising this giant productivity deal package in electrical contracting, the right-wing quite consciously moved to extend the base of the Electrical Trades U nion far outside the confines of the building and electricity supply industries. In 1965 the name of the union was changed to ‘The Electrical, Electronic and Telecommunications Union’. In 1967 it amalgamated with the right-wing Plumbers Trade Union. Chapple’s policy of appointing ‘Recruitment Officers’ on the staff at Hayes Court was only in part intended to create a loyal apparatus. The main strategy was to expand union membership extensively inside the booming new areas of light electrical engineering and telecommunications. The aim was to recruit large numbers of unskilled, semi-skilled and women members from the hundreds of thousands of non-union workers who were being ignored by the existing general unions. It was highly successful. Today the union has 420,000 members grouped in some 500 branches. Electrical contracting is a small and increasingly isolated section of the union. To mount a real challenge to the right-wing means carrying organised opposition far outside the building industry.

The second aspect of the right-wing strategy is well known: the systematic erosion of democratic rights in order to make general organised opposition virtually impossible.

Among the changes introduced over the past ten years are the following:

Once established they also used several of the disciplinary devices that had previously been used by the old CP leadership.

Chapple didn’t need to introduce many of these kinds of rules since they were already in the Rule Book from the days of the Maxell/Foulkes regime.

The Years of Retreat – 1965/1969

When the proscription on Communist Party members holding office in the ETU was carried in 1964, the CPGB as a whole claimed a total membership of just over 34,000. This was much lower than the 1945 total of nearly 45,000, when Frank Foulkes was elected ETU President, but it still meant that somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 ETU members held Communist Party cards. By any standard a powerful nucleus from which to launch a broad rank-and-file opposition movement.

King Street directives, however, remained unchanged. Indeed, the prospect of success for the Broad Left in the Engineering Union, where Hugh Scanlon was elected to the EC in 1964, meant that even greater pressure was exerted on the ETU membership not to ‘rock the boat’. At all costs an all-out struggle in which the CP led a real rank-and-file campaign had to be avoided.

Local opposition did take place, often led heroically by individual Communist Party members. The biggest battles were those held against the introduction of the JIB, from 1966-68 in England and Wales, and from 1969-70 in Scotland. Local and area bulletins, like the Spark in Glasgow, organised groups of militants around them. But whilst the groups were in touch with each other there was no national direction.

In 1967 a mass picket at ETU headquarters in Hayes, Kent, gave Chapple a real fright. On 9 January 1968 some 500 sparks many of them masked turned up, but Chapple took care to get out of the way before they, arrived. Several meetings of contracting militants took place, followed by denunciations of several leading militants by spies who the EC had sent along. Several stewards were eventually expelled. The International Socialists produced a Labour Worker 3d pamphlet, Grading and the Contracting Spark, which attempted to link the struggle against the JIB to the building of a rank-and-file movement. But the one organisation which had the strength to do so, the Communist Party, studiously avoided any attempt to create a national organisation out of the widespread anger.

Two national rank-and-file papers addressed themselves to ETU members during this period. The Electricians’ Voice appeared a few times from 1966, as one of the series of Voice papers edited by Walter Kendall during the birth of the Workers’ Control Movement on the left of the Labour Party. It ceased publication in April 1968 after a libel action taken against Voice of the Unions and Ripley Printers by the EC of the EETU-PTU. (Eventually, the damages levied against the printers sent this small socialist printing firm to the wall.) While the Electricians Voice produced a powerful call for support for the rank-and-file candidate, Fred Morphew, standing for General President against Cannon in 1968, it did not claim to be an organiser. It was clearly not under the control of the Communist Party. The organisation of the nomination campaign that gave Morphew over 200 branch nominations from branches all over the country was, however, done on the quiet largely by the CP. It was a testimony to their continued strength; and also to their missed opportunity.

The Power Worker, on the other hand, clearly was a CP-inspired rank-and-file paper. It was produced for many years within the Supply Industry, mobilising shop stewards without regard to narrow union or craft lines (the unions in the industry are, in addition to the electricians, the AUEW, TGWU and GMWU). But it had previously been a considerable embarrassment to the old CP leadership of the ETU. Foulkes, for example, while still President of the ETU and Chairman of the Electricity Supply Industry National Joint Council, said in November 1960, ‘Unofficial bodies are not in the best interests of the industry.’ And as a result, fellow CP member, George Wake, Secretary of the Power Workers Combine was disciplined by the AEU for continuing to oppose the 2½ year productivity deal Foulkes signed the following year. By the late 1960s, the problem for the CP was not that they had friends in the ETU leadership, but that the Power Worker would be obliged to continue the attack on new friends: Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones. Thus soon after describing the 1968 Supply Agreement as ‘a plan for unbridled speed up and redundancy – non-union conditions – low wages,’ the Power Worker also ceased publication.

In May 1969, the first Biennial Conference of the EETU-PTU was held in Douglas on the Isle of Man. This Conference was held against the background of widespread opposition to the Labour Government’s White Paper In Place of Strife in the rest of the trade union movement. It marked, for the Communist Party the end of their continued retreat. The 3 to 1 vote backing the EC’s support for In Place of Strife was translated later that year into complete isolation for the EETU-PTU at the special Croydon TUC. It cast the only vote against TUC policy. Left opposition to the Cannon/Chapple/Young leadership of the union could now become respectable. It could take on the TUC’s clothes.

But the 1969 Conference also delivered a few sharp blows at the leadership on the issue of democracy. Charlie Montgomery’s challenge to Standing Orders in the opening seconds of the Conference was taken up by several other delegates and kept the Mayor of Douglas waiting 2¼ hours before he could make his official welcome. Chapple characteristically described the third of the 650 delegates who opposed the leadership as ‘a ragbag of Communists and Trotskyists’.

Conference also rejected some of the worst rule changes (see above) that were being pushed by the Reform Committee. The EC then used the mechanism of a national ballot to get them through. Nonetheless, this was the biggest Conference defeat for the right since the special 1962 Rules Revision.

The CP pressed for more action and got it. CP members in the union were now encouraged to mount a national campaign for a ‘No Vote’ in the ballot on rule changes; and more significant still, they got the green light to build an election apparatus around a new journal, Flashlight. For the entire EC were now coming up for re-election after their first 5-year term in 1970. Electoralism, organising to change the EETU-PTU by the ballot, suddenly appeared a safe path down which to direct CP activity.


From the start Flashlight made clear it did not intend to become a genuine rank-and-file movement. In September 1969 an unsigned Rules Revision Special Emergency Bulletin was published and circulated both through the contacts made on the Isle of Man and through the CP contact network. Its editorial Why we Publish began,

‘This bulletin is being published as an alternative method of communication between members of our union.’

In December, the first edition proper, Flashlight No.1, appeared. Its front page article, Our Policy took up the theme that rank-and-file organisation was an unfortunate temporary measure that could safely be abandoned as soon as ‘all of us will have a greater say’. The Editorial says:

‘This paper is being published exclusively by and for members of the EETU-PTU. We do so not because we believe in a rank and file movement or a rank and file journal within and for members of our union ... When union democracy flourishes there is little need for a paper such as this ... Unfortunately during the past few years our union leadership has developed into a self-perpetuating elite snowing more and more contempt for democracy and the will of the membership ...

This paper is not dedicated to any faction or aspirant to union office. It is dedicated to the best interests of all the members of our union irrespective of differing viewpoints. That’s what democracy is all about.

‘Our policy therefore is simply – Transform our union into a fighting instrument democratically run by the membership so that all of us will have a greater say in our union affairs and in our wages, hours and conditions of employment.

When we win that fight with your help, this paper will be unnecessary.’ (My emphasis – SJ)

On page 2 a little article called Full Union Democracy for Transport Union illustrates well the anti-rank and file direction Flashlight had from the start. Ignoring the fact that the TGWU has fewer elected full-time officials than in their own union (one as against 16 by December 1969) the article quotes Jack Jones with approval:

‘If the employers want good industrial relations the effective functioning of the trade union is essential. It is no use employers complaining about breach of agreements if the workers are not even aware of the terms of these agreements.’

And the Editor’s comment in capital letters:


Flashlight was never even comparable to the Broad Left within the Engineering Union. The years of CP control in which the CP dictated terms to the rest of the left had been followed by seven years of retreat in which the CP had turned its back on building a broad national opposition current. The effectiveness of the repression against those who organised with the CP also took its toll. It was a little too much for the traditional Labour lefts to stomach. With a few exceptions they stayed away. So the CP was forced to be more ‘tolerant’ of the anti-stalinist left (International Socialists, the Militant group) than in most other unions because they needed non-CP members to carry the Flashlight banner in the elections they were so concerned about.

The assessment the International Socialists made of the balance of forces was similar. We needed to work with the potential that the CP could muster. But within Flashlight from the start we pushed to transform it into an expanding rank-and-file organisation that would fight on issues rather than simply on elections. The refusal of Flashlight to respond to this pressure over time increasingly exposed the bankruptcy of CP strategy.

A handful of Socialist Labour League (now Workers’ Revolutionary Party) members and supporters were alone on the revolutionary left in rejecting joint work against Chapple. The fruits of their sectarian attitude can perhaps be seen in the defection of their leading militant in the industry, Jim Dormer, to Chapple in 1975. A ‘correct’ analysis that does not offer workers a real strategy to change the world (or even a little bit of it) is not living Marxism.

The first issue of Flashlight was enthusiastically supported by the militants. Some 10,000 copies were distributed altogether. Despite the CP protestations to the contrary, it was seen as symbolic of the kind of rank-and-file organisation needed in the Union. 1970 was the high point. Four editions appeared before the EC elections took place in November. In all save three divisions, Flashlight candidates got at least the three minimum nominations at Branch September quarter-night needed to stand against the sitting member.

On 10 June there was a one-day strike of 4000 sparks in protest against the introduction of the Scottish Joint Industry Board. As a result of his attendance at the Glasgow protest meeting, Charlie Montgomery, the Scottish Flashlight candidate, was expelled from the union in September by the EC. He had received 23 nominations all the same, and then took an injunction out against his exclusion from the ballot paper and his expulsion. Justice Plowman on this occasion ruled against the EC, so the election went ahead in January 1971.

The defeat of three sitting candidates (although only two were actually removed from the EC) and the high total vote cast against the EC members (45 per cent) were good results, if perhaps not quite the ‘tremendous success’ described by Flashlight No.5. After all, Bernard Clark, the new Wales and South West EC member was not a Flashlight candidate and did not take long to show his true colours. And the decision by Fred Gore to challenge the election results in court was a mistake that orientated Flashlight too much on the ground on which, despite the initial Montgomery success, the EC was strong.

The EC Election results for 1970/71 were as follows:

Div 2:





(This election was then declared void by a 7 to 4 vote of the EC, and another election was then called in June 1971. By then another candidate had entered the field and the final votes were:

Div 2:










Div 3:








Div 4:








Div 5:








Div 7:








Div 8:








Div 9:







Div 10:








Div 11:










Plumbers 1:








(The election in Division 6 took place in June 1971 and the sitting EC member Ashfield was re-elected against a far right Chapple supporter)

Sitting member
* Flashlight Candidate
= SLL/WRP Member

1971: Change in Tack

The success of the 1970 campaign pushed Flashlight further towards an exclusively electioneering strategy. Then six critical months elapsed. Flashlight No.6 only appeared immediately before the election for General Secretary in May 1971. During the half-year of major strikes and demonstrations against the Tory Industrial Relations Bill, Flashlight had made no major national attempt to bring EETU-PTU militants together round a common fighting programme.

In the election Flashlight came out unequivocally for Gore, naming him and featuring his picture and record. When the votes were counted, however, the result was: Chapple 65,231, Gore 18,132, Dormer 12,007.

Afterwards, Flashlight disappeared for another five months, until No.7 arrived, in newspaper format just before the October 1971 Rules Revision Conference in Blackpool.

Flashlight No.8 only appeared in March 1972, but it explained the extraordinary policy shift from 1970.

The death of Les Cannon in December 1970 had left a vacancy for General President. Mark Young decided he was the rightful heir and a fierce fight had broken out that split the Reform Committee and the EC from end to end. For Chapple had no intention at all of sharing the top position in the union with anyone. Putting up with the arrogance of Cannon had been bad enough.

Into this dog-fight stepped Jack Ashfield, the Midlands EC member who wanted Chapple to move over to General President while he, Ashfield, took Chapple’s job. And next on the act was Eric Hammond, the South-East EC member who’d been elected as a lefty in 1965 but who had then moved to the right. Hammond fancied his chances as General President.

The Communist Party’s ‘wise old men’ in the EETPU reacted true to form. Rather than seize the opportunity of divisions at the top to throw all their resources into taking the real issues of the Industrial Relations Act, unemployment, the miners’ strike etc to the membership with a drive to build a rank-and-file movement, they looked for the short cut. They began to argue that Flashlight should support Hammond. The national Flashlight meeting that considered the matter defeated them by two to one and renewed its support for Fred Gore. But in both the edition out before the General President’s election and in a special election leaflet, this support was played down and Hammond was played up.

Of Hammond, Flashlight wrote he had a ‘consistent outlook on certain important issues of concern to the rank and file’ and ‘that he shows himself as an able EC member is nowhere denied’. And they put his picture with the caption ‘Voted against supply settlement’ on the back page, while Gore was built up without any enthusiasm whatsoever:

‘Finally, what of the rank and file? In election after election candidates have stood who have presented the membership with clear alternative policies. Candidates who have responded to the rank and file desires and hopes ... To enlarge on Bro. Gore’s policy is unnecessary to the average reader of this journal.’

He only got a photograph of himself printed on page 3.

In 1971 a ‘Don’t Grapple with Chapple, Score with Gore’ open campaign was taken up by the still active organisation that had greeted Flashlight with enthusiasm in 1970. But by June 1972 the confused election position was a non-event as far as the rank-and-file activists were concerned. The results bore this out: Chapple 44,623; Young 10,972; Gore 10,747; Hammond 7,108; Dormer 5,820; Sanderson 3,834.

If any serious conclusion could be drawn it was that Flashlight‘s support for Hammond had cost Gore votes. Yet instead of arguing that the votes prove the need for more effective rank-and-file policies organised around a rank-and-file opposition movement, Flashlight No.9 pointed in a different direction. ‘Wider unity,’ it said, must be established in order to win ‘successes for democratic advance’. In other words the left should forget its policies and principles and support any full-time official standing against Chapple or one of his men who it is thought stands a better chance of attracting ‘wide’ support than a rank-and-file candidate. The CP was simply applying the main strategy laid down in the 1968 version of the British Road to Socialism: the primary source for shifting unions to the left are the existing full-time officials and their disagreements and irritations (personal and political) with the status quo. The rank-and-file merely play a supporting role.

The Mark Young Debacle

As a result of the split over the succession to Cannon, Mark Young was sacked by the EC in August 1973 when his (previously elected) position as National Organiser came up for re-appointment. Suddenly he gave signs of stepping into the leadership of a broad opposition movement based firstly on his own personal support, a new Left Labour development around the ‘Campaign for the democratic reform of the EETPU’; secondly on the North-East Plumbers Action Committee, built from June 1973 around major rank-and-file grievances with the amalgamation; and thirdly, on the support of Flashlight.

The CP were delighted. From October 1972 they had begun to campaign for an election to the supposedly vacant position of General Secretary (since Chapple had now been elected General President). Three issues of Flashlight came out between April 1973 and September building this campaign and also, without prior discussion at a Flashlight national meeting, building up Mark Young. Young himself told the Observer, ‘I will fight to the bitter end. I will go back to the tools, if necessary.’ (16.9.73). The CP tacticians were convinced they had a winner.

Electricians associated with the International Socialists argued a principled case within Flashlight. One issue of the occasional Socialist Worker EETPU Special made it clear, ‘Young is a careerist who will say anything to get himself elected.’ An opposition movement much wider than the narrow left group around the CP had to be organised. But, we argued, support for Hammond or Young was not only too high a price, it was travelling in the wrong direction.

The decline of Flashlight from 1970, when active local groups existed in at least a dozen cities, to half that strength by 1974 was the result of the CP’s continued opportunism. It was a decline that was in marked contrast with the rise of militant rank-and-file organisation in many other trade unions and industries in response to the attacks by the Tory Government. It could, we argued, be rectified only by turning away from an exclusive orientation on the declining numbers of elections and on Biennial Conferences and on the contracting side of the union. Hoping that Chapple would fall on his face was not a substitute for trying to build a rank-and-file movement that tackled the real grievances felt by the majority of the union membership, men and women, skilled and unskilled.

Principled political positions such as these began to make headway during this period, and finally, when a joint rally of three opposition groupings took place in May 1974, the declaration carried did not explicitly back Mark Young. Nonetheless, he was present at the rally and spoke. A fact that both the subsequent issues of the Morning Star and Flashlight chose to ignore. It was not that they failed to mention and quote by name leading rank-and-file members. They named Davy Hanson, the Plumbers’ Action Committee chairman, Stan Davison, the main spokesman for the three committees, Fred Gore, Billy Williams and Rab Jeffery (who both attacked Young’s record). And these EETPU members all subsequently received letters from Chapple asking them to confirm their presence and their remarks as quoted at the meeting. If an election for General Secretary had subsequently taken place previous experience suggests these reports might have been used to discipline them, but not, of course, the unmentionable Young.

The CP election strategy sank without trace when later that year Young left the EETPU to take up the appointed job of General Secretary of the British Airline Pilots Association. And the final coup de grace was completed by the EC who endorsed the Higher Productivity (Organisation and Bargaining) Ltd report (prepared by the company headed by the chairman of the JIB) that abolished the elected position of General President. This was then carried by 77,943 votes to 17,221 in a ballot vote of the membership.

1975 saw another Biennial Conference and a new round of EC elections. Flashlight accordingly appeared four times with the last edition to date. Flashlight No.18, appearing last November without any specific direction at all as to who the Flashlight candidates were. This ‘self-censorship’ plumbed new depths in the CP ‘Don’t rock the boat’ strategy. Accordingly the 1975 EC election campaign was not even a pale imitation of the mobilisation of 1970. Woodrow Wyatt didn’t fail to name the right-wingers, even if the left was more cautious. The right-wing majorities jumped with only one exception, the second round of the Scottish plumbers’ previously invalidated EC election.

1975 EC Election Results

Div 4:








Div 7:








Div 8:












(Before this election took place the CP canvassed the possibility in Flashlight of the rank-and-file candidate Atkinson standing down in favour of the Kent Area Official, Bill Banning, who was resigning his appointment to challenge Hammond.)

Div 10:








Div 11:








Plumbers 1:

Gannon† *

Returned unopposed

Plumbers 3:










Sitting member
* Flashlight candidate
= WRP candidate

The Break with the rank-and-file

Flashlight‘s quietest election campaign yet had been run in accordance with the old CP maxim: ‘keep it cool’. For as Wyatt pointed out, the election of just two or three ‘lefts’ to the EC could alter the balance of forces away from Chapple. And so a serious campaign by Flashlight might have initiated a major red-scare operation that would have harmed still further the falling star of the Broad Left in the AUEW. Neither event happened, and so a four-strong ‘opposition’ minority on the EC now faces eight EC opponents (two EC elections are still being held in abeyance) and Frank Chapple.

So far the ‘opposition’ grouping of Gannon, Harold Best and Phil Ramshaw (both elected on progressive platforms in 1973), has few achievements to its credit. At only his second EC meeting, for example, the Minutes record Best as seconding acceptance of the Stage 3 deal in the Electricity Supply Industry; that meeting took place, during the 1974 miners’ strike against the Tory wages policy. And when Flashlight No.13 headlined the need for the General Secretary election to take place, only Ramshaw voted against the EC decision to wait for the industrial consultants’ report. Gannon and Best went along with Chapple.

Worst of all, however, was the performance of the ‘opposition’ grouping at the 1975 Biennial Conference. As a result of the amalgamation and closure of branches, the numbers of delegates dropped successively from around 650 in 1969 to about 525 in 1975. But all the same, Conference remains an important occasion for pulling together the opposition and demonstrating defiance to the right-wing. But as one delegate wrote in Flashlight No.17:

‘The oustanding aspect of this year’s Conference on the Isle of Man was once again the dominance of Bro. Chapple within the leadership. Their apparent obedience to his promptings and wishes stuck out like a sore thumb. Although in all fairness, we do know that some EC members were opposed to many of Bro. Chapple’s remarks, it must still be said that it did not manifest itself in any way, unless their silence was itself a protest.’ (My emphasis – SJ)

Even their silence is, however, too ominous for some. It is believed that the 1977 Rules Revision Conference may well be asked to consider proposals which would reduce the size of the EC to seven or nine members. (The figure seven has a nice ring to it in right-wing ears, for it is the same size as the full-time EC of the AUEW Engineering section). Such a proposal, if carried, could be expected to carry a major threat to all the seats of the current ‘opposition’. Even if it isn’t carried at the Conference, on past experience it could still be put to the members in a ballot as another cost-saving device. The ‘opposition’ grouping felt they had to protest.

Harold Best therefore let it be known that he would stand against Chapple in the 1976 election for General Secretary. Best had been an appointed official for some six months before he was elected EC member for Yorkshire; but he had been an elected full-time branch secretary before that. This was perhaps why he included (as had Mark Young in 1973) in his election address the demand for rule changes to restore the election of all full-time officials. He had finally been supported in his election in Yorkshire by the local Flashlight group, since their own candidate refused to travel the branches in a serious campaign. Best however has always refused to become identified with Flashlight or indeed with any other ‘unofficial’ grouping that might jeopardise his position.

True to form, the CP tacticians were delighted by the news of a public split between some EC members and Chapple. And on any account it is certainly a positive development. But for the CP it was another case of Hammonditis. The failure of most of their rank-and-file candidates to win election victories didn’t teach them that they needed to run their candidates in tandem with the building of a rank-and-file movement. Instead they have drawn the lesson that they need to stand new candidates, preferably ones that can put ‘EC’ behind their name.

At a small ‘national leadership’ Flashlight meeting, in February, and without any prior discussion in the localities, the CP’s line was carried by a two to one majority. Best had offered no deal, no agreed programme, no proposal for an outward going campaign. Yet he emerged as Flashlight‘s choice in the first national election in 15 years without a narrow left rank-and-file candidate.

On each previous occasion the revolutionary left had been able to prevent a complete collapse into opportunism by appealing to a wider audience of militant EETPU members. By 1976, however, the persistent refusal by the Flashlight leadership to build a rank-and-file movement meant that this periphery had dwindled away nearly to nothing. There was no-one left to appeal to. The narrow left had a past. But by its own admission, it has abandoned the future to others.

The Future

Perhaps the single brightest point on the horizon within the EETPU is, paradoxically, the enormous scale of Britain’s economic crisis. The boom has ended and mass unemployment is sweeping sections of industry in which the EETPU has big numbers of members: telecommunications, electronics and light electrical engineering. Women workers are under particularly brutal attack. Living standards across the whole working class are falling. The social wage will be cut drastically by the end of the decade.

A rank-and-file movement within the EETPU has therefore tremendous opportunities to carry its base well outside the traditional left stronghold, the building industry. To do so it will have to be aggressive and prepared to fight for union democracy every inch of the way. But Chapple, as a staunch defender of the Labour Government’s Tory solutions, will face rising membership discontent on an even wider scale than before. You can’t sell a productivity deal more than once when there’s no money to pay for it. His answer, to return to diatribes about the Russian wheat harvest (November 1975) and red scares will work less and less effectively as time goes by. And the inner-EC intrigues will further damage his grip. Cannon, Chapple and Young were one thing. Chapple alone, although highly formidable, is not the same. A rank-and-file movement that uses these splits rather than the other way round can be very effective on one condition: it does not lose sight of its goal. To change the union from below, by the actions of massive numbers of members.

One sign that the birth of such a broad rank-and-file movement is not far off has been the activities so far this year of the ‘EETPU MEMBERS FOR THE RIGHT TO WORK’ group. They have drawn up the following fighting programme to carry into the union.

One of its supporters, Billy Williams, an unemployed electrician from Cardiff, has also taken on the mantle of rank-and-file opponent to Chapple. For in the election for General Secretary in May, Chapple is being opposed not only by Best but also by Williams. The only people who have any illusions about the result are, perhaps, some erstwhile backers of Best. The real impact of Williams’ candidature will not be measured by the number of votes he gets. It will be felt by the extent to which these arguments, the case for rank-and-file change in the EETPU, get a hearing and are taken up in the factories, power stations and on the sites.

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Last updated on 8.3.2008