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Ian Birchall

Ian Birchall

Torture, death, and ...

(June 1980)

Letters, Socialist Review, 15 June-12 July 1980: 6, p.28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Simon Turner (SR 1980:3) is quite right to suggest that current SWP policy on trades councils is haphazard; such work is largely left to the initiative of individuals with even district committees, let alone the national organisation, offering minimal guidance. Unfortunately Simon is wrong about just about everything else.

I think few of us who have worked regularly on trades councils think in terms of the 1926 experience; our concerns are much more pragmatic. An area with an effective trades council, which can at least provide communication between various sectors, and on occasion take initiatives, is better off than an area which has no such organisation. It is SWP policy to ‘defend our unions’, to develop and strengthen all meaningful forms of trade union organisation. Trades council work must be put in this context.

Simon is correct to say that the level of trades council activity varies enormously; that some councils are important, others irrelevant. But to put it like this is fatalistic. The experience – confirmed by all the reports published in Socialist Review – is that what makes the difference will be a small group of activists prepared to carry the burdens. In an ideal world, of course, trades councils would be personed by honest, dynamic and efficient left reformists, who would lick the stamps and duplicate the minutes; SWP comrades would conserve their valuable energies in order to inject the politics and fight for the correct line. (But then in an ideal world we wouldn’t need trades councils anyway.)

My own experience is of becoming a delegate to an almost totally moribund trades council. When I first started to attend, the average attendance was seven, with at least half of pensionable age, and the sole activity was listening to the secretary reading word by word through the correspondence received from the TUC. During the nurses’ dispute in 1974 I made the modest proposal that we write to branches inviting them to take whatever action they saw fit in support of the nurses. I was told that such interference in disputes was not permitted.

The first breakthrough came when we merged with the other trades council in the borough. (This should have happened at the time of the local government reorganisation in 1964, but we only got round to it in 1975.) The merger was opposed by one of the more long-standing members on the grounds that, ‘We were due to meet them twelve years ago to discuss that, but it was snowing, and none of them turned up.’

What the merger meant was that a small group of people – CP, LP, SWP – came together who were committed to trying to make the trades council a more relevant and interventionist body. An SWP member became president and an active and efficient CPer the secretary.

The achievement was limited and modest; we raised money for local disputes and sent delegations to pickets; we held two public meetings on the cuts and for a time circulated a cuts bulletin; we circulated to all branches for discussion a statement on the need for total opposition to the NF; we adopted a Chilean political prisoner and welcomed him to Britain when he was released (this got full-page spreads in the local press). That more was not done can be attributed partly to the general level of struggle, partly to the small number of activists. But at least a start was made; there is a potential for development as the situation changes.

The point is that nothing could have been done without the activists being involved in the procedural and bureaucratic aspects. ‘It is necessary to restructure the meetings, to farm out the boring routine correspondence to the executive so that trades council meetings could concentrate on major reports, speakers, local disputes and campaigns.’ To begin with we couldn’t even move that the trades council banner be sent on demonstrations because there was no banner to send; an SWP member (not me) had to do the sewing. To me the lesson of Bob Lloyd’s letter (SR 1980:4) on the bureaucratic entanglement of Oxford trades council is not the world-weary abstentionism he evokes, but rather the importance of fighting to win the chairpersonship.

The problem, then, is not one of seeking positions, but of doing jobs. It is futile our proposing that trades councils take on certain tasks unless we are prepared to make the effort to implement the decisions. If this means being elected secretary, minutes secretary or auditor, so be it.

Obviously there is a question of priorities. If a comrade has the choice between taking a meaningful position in the workplace, and doing trades council work, then it is obvious the former comes first. But many comrades, either because of their particular workplace situation, or because they are in a field of employment where the potential for militancy is limited, are available to do trades council work. The danger with Simon’s article is that it will discourage such comrades from seeking the possibilities, and allow them to take refuge in ultra-left justifications for the boredom and idleness that is natural to all of us.

After all, when comrades become revolutionary socialists, they accept, at least hypothetically, the possibilities of jail, torture, exile and death. Is a couple of hours boredom once a month too much to ask?


Ian Birchall
North London

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