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Herbie Bell

Six decades of class struggle

(July 1978)

From Militant, No. 416, 28 July 1978, p. 2.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Herbie Bell of Wallsend-on-Tyne died on the morning of July 20th in his 83rd year. After more than 60 years of unstinting and self-sacrificing work, including some of the stormiest years in British working class history, Herbie will be long remembered by his comrades in the labour movement.

Brought up in a Northumberland village, Herbie started his life of agitating, educating and organising among workers soon after he volunteered to serve in the 1914–1918 war.

Herbie told many a tale of the victimisation and punishment he was meted out for spreading disaffection and “mutinous” ideas among the ranks.

Literally from his very first battles he was an uncompromising socialist and man of principle. He was not simply a pioneer of the ‘old school’ but drew his strength from a reading and re-reading of the works of the great teachers – Marx and Engels, Lenin and then Trotsky.

Herbie was above all an outstanding organiser and builder. In many areas of the North-East, and particularly in Northumberland, there are local Labour Parties that owe their very existence to the work of Herbie Bell. He was a founder member of the ILP in Blaydon, helped in the foundation of Newbiggin ILP a few years later, and throughout the inter-war period he was tirelessly engaged in arranging ILP propaganda meetings all over East Northumberland.

He was agent or sub-agent at Parliamentary elections in Blaydon, Scarborough and Berwick and was behind local election campaigns in literally dozens of other instances. At various stages he was himself elected an Urban District Councillor in Newbiggin, a Borough Councillor in Wallsend and a Northumberland County Councillor.

Herbie’s activities span the whole length of the Northern Region – from Scarborough and Whitby in the South (where as agent in 1929 he helped to increase the Labour vote from 800 to 6,700!) to Berwick upon Tweed in the north.

The work that Herbie put into the Berwick Constituency in 1951 was itself a monument to his commitment to the labour movement. The Berwick Constituency was at that time one of the largest divisions in Great Britain, covering 250 parishes and 15 county electoral areas, and over 90 polling stations. Herbie often talked in his last years about the campaign in Berwick – booking village halls for meetings, arranging meetings, dragging the candidate off to the next village, signing up new members, booking the next few villages, writing to the few Labour members there were scattered around, and so on – and Herbie was 56 even then.

In one year as agent for that constituency, apart from increasing the Labour vote from 9,000 to 11,000, he signed up over 500 new members! Even in his early sixties, at the time of the debate, over disarmament, Herbie’s work-rate was prodigious – he covered 32 constituencies in a campaign urging the Parties to accept unilateral disarmament.

In 1944, when the ILP had dwindled and the Labour Parties were not meeting even, Herbie joined the Revolutionary Communist Party. He remained a member until its dissolution – standing as the RCP candidate in the Wallsend election in 1945 on an anti-capitalist programme.

When he was not working full time as a party agent or unemployed (as he was for a harsh 5 years between the wars) Herbie was an active trade unionist, both as a miner and a sheet metal worker. Not least of the examples he set to all Marxists was the way he applied himself to any job. As a sheet metal worker he was revered on the Tyne not only by his work-mates but, legend has it, by his employers. They were torn by their desire to see him thrown out and blacklisted as a militant and their need to keep him on as a key worker in his trade.

Herbie was fond of relating vivid memories of the General Strike in 1926. As a despatch rider for the Northumberland and Durham Central Joint Strike Committee he was assigned to run his motorbike between Newcastle and Glasgow, and to distribute strike bulletins. But he didn’t get many trips in before he found himself in jail!

He would describe how he turned a corner in one of the villages in Northumberland and almost ran down a patrol of ‘specials’ – they promptly arrested him when they found he was carrying the bulletins. Undeterred, Herbie continued his political agitation as best he could – in Durham jail!

During the 2nd World War, when strikes were illegal, Herbie gave energetic assistance to the Tyne apprentices. They were organising strike action against the “Bevin Ballot” scheme of drafting youngsters into the pits. Herbie introduced them to the socialist movement, wrote letters on their behalf etc. – generally organising measures which were instrumental in acquitting the four leaders who were tried under the ‘Defence of the Realm Act.’

Over the years many an “apprentice” in the movement was put to the test by Herbie in relation to selling papers. In this activity too, his name was a legend.

Those who were laggardly had to beware of Herbie. Part of their training would be a visit to a pit village with Herbie to sell from door to door in the Miners’ rows. In certain periods older comrades remember, 300 sold in a day would be no exaggeration.

“I’d do it again!”

Through Herbie’s hands must have passed in their time thousands of copies of the Northern Star, Socialist Leader, The Miner, Labour Leader, Socialist Appeal, and, since its birth in 1964, the Militant. It is worth recording that even in his last weeks, restricted by age and illness he found hard to accept, Herbie was selling a regular six copies of the Militant. He was donating ‘fivers’ to the fighting fund whenever he possibly could and was ever on the look-out for new reader to pass on to the “young folk”.

In the North-East, and in Northumberland in particular, there must be hardly any area that has not seen Herbie Bell’s energy and activity devoted to it in some way over the years.

But it would be wrong to remember Herbie simple as a ‘work-horse’ for the movement. His Herculean efforts over the years were second to none – but his approach towards building the party was always political.

The clear perspective he maintained as a guide to action came from a painstaking study of Marxist theory. He laid great emphasis on education and was always an enthusiast for the National Council of Labour Colleges; he himself took courses and lectured widely on many subjects including Marxist economics.

Looking around the present day Labour Party, Herbie often complained, and quite correctly, about the demise of the NCLC and the general lack of political education in the Party. Herbie’s kind of Labour Party was that which is being fought for today by the supporters of Militant – he wanted a fighting, working class party and he made no secret of his Marxist views. Not surprisingly those views often led to clashes with the right wing of the Party.

Herbie may have aged and in his 80’s, he may have tired just a little, but he certainly never mellowed!

Only a year or so ago, the local Wallsend News carried an article under the headline The Godfather! It was based on a letter by Herbie about the bureaucratic manoeuvring of some Labour Party right-wingers in one particular ward. As a direct result, he was threatened with legal action – something he shrugged off and even found amusing! But the publicity went a long way towards helping the constituency as a whole to investigate and reorganise that particular ward branch.

Another ‘legend’ of his later years stems from a threat to remove him from the Labour Party for his “Trotskyist” ideas. Herbie would not do anything by halves, and rumour has it that he was going to organise a march through Wallsend with a colliery band at its head, to demand his reinstatement! Herbie Bell’s life work itself is an uncontestable answer to the smug claims of today’s right wing interlopers into the workers’ movement that Marxism has no place in the Labour Party.

Herbie found it impossible to ‘retire’ from politics – he tried at least twice, in 1965 and in 1972 when he was given the Labour Party’s Merit Award for long service. From his early activity during the 1914–18 war up to July 1978 he was a fighter for the working class.

Only three weeks ago, he was asked by Peter Taaffe, Militant’s editor and a friend of Herbie’s, what he would do if he had his life over again. “I’d do it all over again”, was his reply.

The labour movement will mourn the loss of this great man, but the best possible tribute that anyone could offer for the memory of Herbie Bell is to emulate the his dedication, his hard work, his 60 years of perseverance.

Above all, he would urge us to fight for the same goal – for a Labour Party and trade union movement based upon the ideas of Marxism, striving unstintingly for the interests and needs of the working class of the whole world.

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Last updated: 13 July 2017