MICHAEL FOOT – an inspiration to all who embrace the cause of Labour

Michael Foot, former Labour leader, libertarian socialist, campaigner for nuclear disarmament, historian, litterateur and bibliophile, died on 3rd March, 2010, at the age of 96.  Author of some sixteen books, including a two-volume life of Aneurin Bevan; The Pen and the Sword on Jonathan Swift and eighteenth century politics; The Politics of Paradise on Byron and nineteenth writers and politics; a life of H. G. Wells; plus innumerable articles and pamphlets, he embodied the finest political and cultural ideals of the British Labour Movement.


The fifth child of Isaac Foot, a Plymouth lawyer, and his wife, Eva Mackintosh, he came from a long line of Devonshire Methodists and radicals.  Isaac Foot, after briefly flirting with Henry Hyndman’s Social Democratic Federation, became a lifelong Liberal, was twice elected to the House of Commons, and served briefly as Parliamentary Secretary for the Mines under Ramsay MacDonald.
Three of his sons, besides Michael, became prominent in public life.  Dingle became a

Liberal and later a Labour MP; Hugh, subsequently Lord Caradon, was Governor of Cyprus and Minister to the United Nations; and John was an ardent Liberal who became a Peer.  The other son, Christopher, was a solicitor and his two daughters did not become involved in the public domain.

Beginning in politics

Michael started off as a Liberal.  He was a pillar of Oxford University Liberal Club and was elected President of the Oxford Union.  However, after working as a shipping clerk in working-class Liverpool and coming under the influence of the then very left wing Sir Stafford Cripps, he shocked his family by joining the Labour Party.
In 1936 he became Labour’s Parliamentary candidate in Monmouth, a strong Tory seat, and fought an uncompromising socialist campaign.

Stafford Cripps

Thereafter he moved to London, where he became active in the left wing Socialist League until it was proscribed by the Labour Party and dissolved.  At this time, he campaigned against the British Union of Fascists and met Barbara Betts (later Castle) with whom he read and discussed Marxism.  He taught Barbara to drive, although this cost him his car, which finished up as a write-off.  He also met Aneurin Bevan, MP.


Michael obtained work as a journalist with the New Statesman but failed to impress the Editor, Kingsley Martin.  He therefore moved to Tribune, which was founded by Sir Stafford Cripps in 1937.  When Cripps decided to support the United Front and got rid of the editor, William Mellor, who had reservations about Stalinism, Michael could have had the job but he refused, on principle.  However, he later became a key figure at Tribune and remained so for the rest of his life.
Instead, he accepted the position of features writer on the Evening Standard whose right wing owner, Lord Beaverbrook, offered it on the recommendation of Aneurin Bevan, MP.  Despite his political views, he won unqualified approval from Beaverbrook for the quality of his writing.
Michael was turned down for military service on medical grounds, as he suffered from asthma and eczema, but he supported the war.  Without informing Beaverbrook, he co-authored a pamphlet, Guilty Men, published under a pseudonym, Cato, which attacked the appeasers, though not Beaverbrook.

He became Editor of the Evening Standard, while another Beaverbrook journalist, Tom Driberg – who had once labelled Michael a Trotskyist – was elected as an Independent in the key Maldon by-election.  Michael wrote another pamphlet, The Trial of Mussolini, which broke Beaverbrook’s conditions of employment and it became clear that his position would eventually become untenable.
Becoming an MP

The issue was resolved in 1945, however, when he won Plymouth Devonport for Labour and began a new chapter in his life.  During the war, he met left wing anti-Stalinist writers like Isaac Deutscher, Arthur Koestler, George Orwell and Ignazio Silone.  He now met a whole swathe of left wing MPs: Ian Mikardo, Leslie Hale, Stephen Swingler, Will Griffiths and others, and became deeply involved in the work of the House of Commons.  He also married Jill Craigie, whom he met when she came to Plymouth to film his election campaign. 
He was, from the outset, active with the Left in Parliament – which included his pre-war friends Aneurin Bevan and Barbara Castle.  In 1947 they produced two pamphlets, Keep Left and Keeping Left.  These called for more left wing policies.  While critical of Ernest Bevin’s foreign policy, based on the American alliance and the Cold War, however, Michael was also very critical of Soviet policy.  When the Korean War broke out in 1950, only two MPs, Emrys Hughes and S.O. Davies, actually voted against British involvement.


However, when Hugh Gaitskell, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, proposed an increase in prescription charges to help finance rearmament, Aneurin Bevan revolted.  Backed by Michael Foot and others, he resigned, leading to the formation of the Bevanite Group.  A pamphlet, One Way Only, signed by three who resigned office, Aneurin Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman, but allegedly drafted by Michael Foot, proclaimed their socialist faith.
Labour lost office in the 1951 General Election but Michael held on to his Plymouth seat until 1959.  During this period he wholeheartedly backed Aneurin Bevan and opposed the policies of Hugh Gaitskell.  He supported CND from the outset, however, and refused to back Aneurin Bevan’s opposition to a resolution calling for nuclear disarmament at the 1957 Labour Party Conference.
When Bevan died on 6th July, 1960, Michael was selected to succeed him as the MP for Ebbw Vale and easily won the by-election.  Back in Parliament, he renewed his criticism of the Labour Right and was put out of the Parliamentary Labour Party for voting against the defence estimates in 1961.

Labour leader

In 1963, however, Hugh Gaitskell died and was succeeded as Labour leader by Harold Wilson.  Labour won the 1964 General Election.  Michael joined the Tribune Group when it was formed and continued to argue for left wing policies.  Labour lost the 1970 General Election but returned to power in February 1974, when Michael agreed to take office as Secretary of state for Employment.  He played a key role in the abolition of Conservative anti-trade union legislation and later, as Leader of the House, in securing Liberal support to keep Labour in power up to 1979.
When this liaison broke down and Margaret Thatcher won the subsequent 1979 General Election, he reluctantly agreed to contest the Labour Party leadership election following the resignation of Jim Callaghan.  He won, against Denis Healey, but was immediately confronted with the breakaway initiated by the ‘gang of four’ and the formation of the Social Democratic Party.
Michael refused to follow the hard left line advocated by Tony Benn and opposed his decision to challenge Dennis Healey for the Deputy Leadership.  His main concern was to hold the Labour Party together, but he was bitterly attacked from both the left and the right, and by the press on such trivial issues as wearing a duffle coat for the Armistice Day ceremony.  As a life long opponent of fascism, he supported military action to recover the Falkland Islands following the invasion at the behest of the Argentinian dictator, General Galtieri, but the wave of chauvinism that followed Britain’s success aided the Conservatives.
He led Labour in the 1983 General Election, which resulted in the Party’s biggest setback since 1931, and was unfairly blamed.  He resigned, to be succeeded by Neil Kinnock, but remained a force for the traditional socialism of the Labour Party, despite refraining from open attacks on those who succeeded him in the Party leadership.

In retrospect, Michael Foot stands out as a towering figure in the British Labour Movement.  He was the finest orator of his generation.  He never wavered in his socialist beliefs and was a man of honour and integrity who will remain an inspiration to all who embrace the Labour cause.

Stan Newens

Michael Foot and Plymouth Labour Party


Michael Foot’s death on 3rd March 2010 was followed by a flood of obituaries and tributes. The subject of my  article will be Michael Foot’s role in Labour politics in my own city Plymouth. Foot was born in Plymouth and throughout his life displayed affection for and loyalty to the city of his birth. He was a lifelong supporter of the local football team, Plymouth Argyle and continued attending Argyle matches when he was in his 90s. He began his distinguished parliamentary career as Labour MP for the Devonport constituency in Plymouth and represented Devonport from 1945 to1955. Most important of all, he was a Plymouth MP during a pivotal period in the city's history, the years when Plymouth was rebuilt after it had been devastated by wartime bombing.  For Michael Foot, the post-war reconstruction of Plymouth was an example of democratic socialism in action.

Michael Foot’s family, early life. and conversion to socialism

Michael Foot was born on 23rd July 1913 at Number 1, Lipson Terrace in Plymouth, the fifth child of Isaac Foot, a solicitor and prominent Westcountry Liberal. Michael lived at Lipson Terrace until 1927 when the Foot family moved to a manor  house near Callington. Isaac Foot was a Liberal councillor in Plymouth and later became Liberal MP for Bodmin.
Michael Foot was originally a Liberal like his father, but in 1935 he travelled to Liverpool to work for a shipping firm and while there he became a socialist and joined the Labour Party.  In the 1935 General Election he stood as the Labour candidate in Monmouth, a Tory stronghold which Labour had no hope of winning. 

Michael Foot becomes the candidate for the Plymouth Devonport constituency.

In 1914, the three West Devon towns of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Devonport  amalgamated to form the county borough of Plymouth. The  newly-created borough of Plymouth was divided into three parliamentary constituencies – Devonport, Drake and Sutton.
In December 1938, Michael Foot was adopted as the prospective Labour candidate for Devonport by a unanimous vote. Foot himself wrote many years later that he had been adopted as Labour candidate in” what everybody at the time considered a hopeless seat for Labour”  Plymouth‘s economy was heavily dependent on the  Royal  Navy and the other armed services, and the royal naval dockyard in Devonport was  the city’s biggest employer . Plymouth‘s economic dependence on the defence sector meant there was strong support in the city for the Conservatives because of their commitment to high defence expenditure.
The Labour Party in Plymouth had some electoral success in the city during the interwar years. Jimmy Moses, a Dockyard worker and Labour councillor, became Plymouth’s first Labour MP in 1929. However, Moses lost his seat in the 1931 General Election and Plymouth Labour failed to make any electoral progress during the1930s.

Leslie Hore-Belisha

Leslie Hore-Belisha , the M.P for Devonport, was a formidable opponent . He was a National Liberal (the National Liberals were right-wing Liberals who supported the Conservative-dominated National Government). Hore-Belisha had become the National  Government’s Minister of Transport  and gave his name to the traffic lights –‘belisha beacons’ –introduced while he was  minister .In 1938 he was the Minister for War.  Foot wrote ‘ Leslie Hore-Belisha had held (Devonport) for years … primarily through his own flair and brilliance and noone had supposed he could ever be dislodged. ‘
Hore-Belisha was  regarded with enmity by the  Foot family.  In the1935 General Election, Leslie Hore–Belisha had joined other National Liberals in campaigning against Isaac Foot in Bodmin and made a major contribution to Isaac Foot’s defeat.  Hore -Belisha’s actions were not forgiven by Isaac Foot and his family.

Michael Foot and the leaders of Plymouth Labour Party

Foot was pessimistic about his electoral prospects but made useful contacts by writing.  No one ever thought I had a chance of displacing (Hore-Belisha) but I was making friends with the leaders of the Labour Party in the dockyard. The local Labour Party leaders whom Foot got to know  -Bert Medland, Harry Wright and Harry Mason, were all dockyard workers and trade union activists. Bert Medland had been Lord Mayor of Plymouth in 1935 and was a  member  of the National Committee of the Amalgamated  Engineering Union. Harry Wright was a boilermaker  and Harry Mason was a leading trade unionist and an alderman. Michael Foot praised their ability and their  commitment to socialism ‘ …all three were dockyardees who had left school at fourteen but had taken up apprenticeships in the yard. All of them could have made their fortunes  if they had just used their brains for their own profit . But they were Socialists.’

Plymouth during the Second World War.

Plymouth suffered massive destruction as a result of intensive bombing during the Second World War and it was clear the post-war rebuilding of the city was going to be a huge undertaking. James Paton-Watson, Plymouth city’s engineer and Professor Patrick Abercrombie, an  authority on town planning, wrote the 1943 Plan for Plymouth which contained imaginative proposals for the city’s reconstruction, including a new and more spacious city centre and new housing estates. The proposals of the Plan for Plymouth were accepted by Plymouth City Council which created a reconstruction committee to discus the implementation of the Plan.

Michael Foot and Hore-Belisha disagree over the Plan

The Plan for Plymouth and  the funding of Plymouth’s post-war reconstruction became an  issue in the election contest between Foot and Hore-Belisha. Foot wrote an outspoken article in the paper ‘Reynolds News‘ in October 1944 entitled ‘Plymouth is Betrayed’ which denounced the government  for its  refusal to provide Plymouth with national funding to enable it to  implement the proposals of the Plan for Plymouth. In contrast, Hore-Belisha argued that local reconstruction had to be a local responsibility and did not support the Plan.

The 1945 General Election in Plymouth Devonport.

Michael Foot was formally endorsed as Labour candidate for Plymouth Devonport at Victory Hall in Keyham on 8th June 1945.  Local Labour activists were not optimistic. Years later, Foot wrote “Devonport had never before even registered a decent Labour vote.  My best friend and agent, Harry Wright, knew the place best of all and thought we hadn’t got a chance.”
Foot asked for government help to make the vision of the Plymouth Plan a reality. He argued that planning and the public ownership of building land were essential for the success of Plymouth's reconstruction. In an election speech, he declared “every acre of land on which our city is going to be built should belong to the people” .

Hore-Belisha’s record

Foot constantly attacked Hore-Belisha’s political record. He denounced  Hore-Belisha’s association with fascist dictators - Hore-Belisha had been given a medal by Italy’s fascist dictator Mussolini in 1938. He denounced his failure as Minister for War to ensure the British Army in Belgium was properly equipped in 1940 and his opposition to full compensation for servicemen and their families when he was Churchill’s Minister for National Insurance.
The Labour Party won a landslide victory in the1945 General Election and all three Plymouth constituencies elected Labour MPs.  Michael Foot  won a 2,000 vote majority.

Results of 1945 General Election in Plymouth Devonport


Michael Foot                        13,395 votes

Leslie   Hore-Belisha           11,382 votes

Bert Medland was elected MP for the Plymouth Drake constituency and Plymouth Sutton was won by Lucy Middleton, wife of Jim Middleton, Secretary of the Labour Party. Labour won control of Plymouth City Council for the first time in the council elections of November 1945 and Isaac Foot became Lord Mayor of Plymouth.

Michael Foot and the post-war reconstruction of Plymouth

Achieving the reconstruction of their heavily bombed city was the priority of Plymouth's Labour MPs and City Council.  The MPs and the City Council worked hard to expedite rebuilding  and they received strong support from Lewis Silkin, the Minister of Town and Country  Planning , who helped Plymouth overcome delays.  In a Daily Herald article, Foot eulogised Lewis Silkin’s Town and Country Planning Bill as ‘the Plymouth Resurrection Bill’
In his book ‘Another Heart and Other Pulses:the Alternative to the Thatcher Society’ published in 1984, Foot described Plymouth’s reconstruction as an example of democratic socialism. He said that  “we needed a huge communal exertion backed with government  finance and municipal resources, to bind up both the wounds inflicted on so many individual homes by the blitz, and the ravages in the city at large. We had devised a far-seeing plan to carry through the whole idea. We had a Labour government and, for the first time in our history, a Labour city council, and we set the pace for other cities in Britain broken by Hitler’s bombs.  We had three imaginative Labour leaders, Harry Mason, Bert Medland and Harry Wright. They eagerly seized on the plan which had been prepared. . .  .With Mason as leader, Medland one of my fellow MPs in Parliament and Harry Wright as the council’s finance officer, and with the guidance of James Paton Watson, city engineer and fellow author of the plan, with Sir Patrick Abercrombie, we all went to work . .  to rebuild … . . (Plymouth) played a foremost role in the work of national and civic reconstruction. Property rights had to be set aside to make the feat possible; the people’s rights had to take their place. It was democratic socialism in action.” For Michael Foot, the reconstruction of Plymouth was the embodiment of his democratic socialist beliefs. The rebuilding of Plymouth was portrayed in 'The Way We Live', a critically acclaimed documentary directed by Foot's future wife, Jill Craigie.

Michael Foot’s activities as MP for Plymouth Devonport.

Foot was a hard-working and conscientious constituency MP and worked assiduously on behalf of  Devonport Dockyard and its workers. He participated  in the protests against the abolition of the Plymouth Drake constituency. The  Parliamentary  Boundary Commission, as part of a national redistribution of parliamentary seats, recommended the reduction of Plymouth’s constituencies from three to two which entailed the  abolition of the Plymouth Drake constituency represented  by Bert Medland. Foot and Middleton supported Medland in opposing this measure but the Government refused to alter the decision and Drake constituency ceased to exist. ending Midland’s parliamentary career.

The General Elections of 1950 and 1951 and Foot’s involvement with Bevanism

Nye Bevan

In the 1950 General Election, Foot‘s opponent in Devonport was  Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s son.  Nationally, Labour‘s parliamentary majority was reduced to only six seats but Foot increased his majority to 3,483.
In April 1951 Aneurin Bevan, Foot’s closest personal friend and political ally, resigned from the Labour Cabinet in protest at the decision to impose charges on National Health Service dentures and spectacles. The resignations of Bevan, Harold Wilson and John Freeman over this issue led to the creation of ‘Bevanism’, a movement of Labour leftists critical of the Labour leadership’s policies. Michael Foot became one of the leading figures of the Bevanite movement.
In the 1951 General Election, Randolph Churchill again challenged Foot in Devonport. The Conservatives won a narrow victory in the General Election and Lucy Middleton lost her seat but  Foot held Devonport  with a reduced majority of 2,390. He had become the sole Labour MP in Plymouth.

Michael Foot’s defeat in the 1955 General Election.

In the 1955 General Election, the threat to Foot’s position in Devonport was more serious. Parliamentary redistribution and new private housing had made Labour’s position in the constituency less secure.  Foot faced a strong challenge from the Conservative candidate, Joan Vickers, a former member of London County Council.  The election result was extremely close.

1955 General Election in Devonport


Joan Vickers, Conservative                           24,821

Michael Foot, Labour                                     24,721

A. Russell Mayne, Liberal                                 3,100

Foot had lost his seat by only 100 votes.

Michael Foot, unilateralism and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

Foot had opposed nuclear weapons since 1953 and advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament.. Bevan’s famous speech at the 1957 Labour Party Conference which vehemently opposed unilateralism ended the close political partnership between Bevan and Foot and it was some time before they were reconciled. When the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) was formed, Foot became one of its most prominent supporters.
Foot remained Labour candidate for Devonport and there was a risk that his passionate advocacy of unilateralism might be an electoral liability in a constituency where so many voters worked in the dockyard or other parts of the defence sector. Foot’s agent, Peter Jackson, wrote to him expressing concern about Foot’s high profile role in CND.  Foot would not compromise on this issue and replied “There can be no subject more important than this one of what we are going to do about these weapons which can blow us all to pieces”

The 1959 General Election in Devonport

By 1958, Foot knew he had little hope of regaining Devonport. The Conservatives were benefiting from favourable economic conditions and Joan Vickers had been a good constituency MP.  In the 1959 General Election, Foot was open about his unilateralist views and advocated giving up nuclear weapons in his first election campaign speech.  Foot‘s views on nuclear weapons became an important issue during the election campaign. Ron Lemin, a local Labour Party activist, recalled that at dockyard meetings Foot would talk about Labour ‘s manifesto and issues such as education and housing but someone would always ask him about his views on the atom bomb  “Well he couldn’t wrap up about it, so next day there it would be all over the paper again: the bomb, nothing but the bomb”’ On polling day, the Conservatives won a decisive victory.

Result of the  1959 General Election in Devonport

Joan Vickers



Michael Foot



Conservative majority                                       



There had been a big increase in Joan Vickers’ majority and the swing against Foot in Devonport had greatly exceeded the national swing against Labour. His identification with CND and unilateralism had contributed to his electoral defeat.
Nye Bevan became gravely ill and died in July 1960.  Foot was selected as the Labour candidate for Bevan’s seat, Ebbw Vale.  Members of Devonport Labour Party travelled to Ebbw Vale to help Foot in the by-election campaign . He was elected MP for Ebbw Vale in November 1960 and represented Ebbw Vale (later renamed Blaenau Gwent) until he retired from  Parliament in 1992.


See full size image

Michael Foot’s experience as MP for Devonport during Plymouth’s post war reconstruction had a lasting impact on him and he referred to it throughout his life. He regarded the rebuilding of Plymouth as an example of democratic socialism and the city’s revival was a demonstration of what the British labour movement could achieve in exceptionally difficult circumstances.  Now, when we face draconian public expenditure cuts which will increase poverty and inequality, it is especially important to remember the humane and egalitarian democratic socialist alternative which Michael Foot advocated and campaigned for.

Jonathan V. Wood

Labour Heritage AGM March 6th 2010

The Labour Heritage AGM took place at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square on Saturday 6th March. In spite of the all too frequent weekend engineering works on  London Transport, it was attended by over 30 people. There were three speakers.

Labour Party life in a small town

The first of these was John Gyford, who spoke on “Labour Party life in a small town – Witham 1925-1975”.
In the 1920s, Witham was an agricultural town of just 20,000 inhabitants. The main employer, however,  was the railways, and there was a large  branch of the National Union of Railwaymen. Other major employers were Crittals who made metal windows, and a glove factory, where the women had taken strike action over pay. The Labour Party was set up in Witham in the 1920s and had 123 members. There was one Labour councillor at that time.

Using the minute book

A member of Witham Labour Party since the 1960s  himself, John has used minute books from the local party, which are kept in the Essex County Archives. These minutes document the history of the Party from 1928-2000. John used them to show how minutes can be useful as a historical resource, and also their limitations. For instance,  minutes of the Labour League of Youth cover only the 1940s and 1950s, and those of the Women’s Section have vanished without trace.
He observed that terms of address by members over the years changed – initially Brother or Sister, then Comrade, then Mr or Mrs, and finally first names only. The lack of surnames presented a problem of identification for historians. Where surnames were included there is no indication  that many of them were related.
( John  happened to know all these people). There were twelve women from the same family, but all with different married names.
Many issues taken for granted by the participants do not put future generations in the picture. For instance there was  “an illuminating talk on the local elections” –  but why was it illuminating? Why was a heated debate on who made the tea at social events so important?   The minutes for the constituency during the war years 1939-1945 are missing, hence no report on discussions of the all important Malden by-election, when Tom Driberg broke the wartime electoral truce by standing as an independent.
However the minutes do give a  flavour of a Labour Party branch in a small agricultural town. For instance, the problems of getting people to the polls when few had a car. The importance of social events in holding it all together. In 1951 Witham Labour Party held nine dances, an outing to Clacton for seventy children and a Whist drive. The children were accompanied by forty six adults and were given a stick of rock each. A day trip to France was for men only –  why this was the case  was a complete mystery. The organisation of these social events took up a lot of the time of the constituency – there were discussions about whether they  should   hire a piano for a dance, could the members of the band be treated to one round at the Party’s expense at the “Spread Eagle”, and above all who should organise the refreshments.

The Spread Eagle pub

The New Labour Hall at Witham was built in the 1960s. By this time the main focus for the year was the annual “fish and chip supper”. Issues discussed included what chippie they should go to, who should do the delivery, should there be rolls and butter and a dessert. There was a discussion on who should be the speaker and even more controversially, who should be on the top table with the speaker.
Was politics ever discussed? John reckons that local housing was an issue, but also international issues such as the Common Market, Korean War and German re-armament. Nothing much on national politics. John speculates that this could have been due to the influence of the MP – Tom Driberg who was mainly interested in international affairs.

Labour Party roots in a large town – London 1880-1914

In contrast John Grigg spoke on “Labour Party roots in a large town – London 1880-1914”. His talk was based mainly on the book by Paul Thompson “Socialists, Liberals and Labour: the struggle for London 1885-1914”. The history of the labour movement in London was coloured by its lack of heavy industry compared to other parts of the country. Craft unions formed the basis for the London Trades Council and they had tended to support the Liberal Party. However the 1880s saw the rise of “new unionism” – militant struggles on the part of the dockworkers, gas-workers and the match girls. These were victorious and famous worldwide but the slump of the 1890s all but  wiped them out. There were defeats such as the engineers’ campaign for an eight hour day. By 1909 there were 20 local trades councils in London.

Progressive alliance

Until 1891 labour representation was locked into a  “Progressive Alliance” with the Liberals. From this Alliance representatives such as Sidney Webb, John Burns and Ben Tillett got on to the London County Council. Socialists in London were organised into the Fabian Society, which favoured permeation of the Liberal Party, or the Social Democratic Federation, which was nominally Marxist, but was led and financed by a former Tory aristocrat Henry Hyndmann. In 1891 the Labour Representation League was formed but there was little independent labour representation except  for Keir Hardie in West Ham.. The Independent Labour Party was not strong in London, but by 1908 had 59 branches with 2,500 members. It held few council seats except for West Ham.

Ben Tilllett

When the Labour Party itself was founded in 1906 it had 20 local parties and trades councils. The largest of these where it had council seats were in West Ham and Woolwich. The were the only places where a united party of labour had been founded. There was some difficulty as the Social Democratic Federation, which still had a lot of influence in London disaffiliated from the Labour Party in 1907.
In 1914 after the SDF became the British Socialist Party, now led in London,  by a Fred Knee, a London Labour Party was established and was in a position to fight for seats on the LCC.
Its founding conference attracted 420 delegates – 29 of whom were from trades councils. The 1916 LCC elections were cancelled due to the war, but 15 Labour candidates were elected immediately after. Labour finally captured the LCC in 1934.

NUPE and the Winter of Discontent

Bob Fryer spoke on “NUPE and the winter of discontent”. He said that in reality it was the “winter of discontents”, as strike action was carried out not just by public sector workers in NUPE, but also lorry drivers and Ford workers. There has still been no account written about this event from a trades union point of view. Politicians from all sides have attacked union members as being “villains” and “bloody-minded”. The leader of NUPE at the time- Alan Fisher, was even accused of “murder”. Low paid council workers were  attacked by the General Council of the TUC but Alan Fisher stood his ground and, at the 1979 Labour Party conference in September, he declared that the only peerage that he would accept would be to become “Lord Winter of Discontent.”
The pay policy of the 1974-1979 had particularly hit low paid workers, as inflation rose to over 30%. But free collective bargaining had also not been an option for these workers – Alan Fisher called for a national minimum wage - £60 a week, which would have been two thirds of the national average wage.    Many of these low paid workers were  in the public sector – refuse collectors, grave diggers, hospital porters – hence the strike action  became known as the “dirty jobs dispute”. On 22nd January 1979 there were as many as 1.5 million workers on strike and 150,000 took part in a demonstration. Many women workers took part, who had never been on strike before. It was a turning point for trades unionism in the public sector – 30 million working days were lost to strike action in 1979 – a level not surpassed since. There was more than one union involved – COHSE, TGWU, NUPE and GMB. They faced the unprecedented wrath of the Tory press – rubbish was piled high in Leicester Square, infestations of rats were predicted and even the dead could not be buried. Scaremongering journalists warned that burials would have to take place at sea or in people’s back gardens. Even thirty years on the “winter of discontent” is used to conjure up images of chaos. According to the press at the time,   these people “should know their place”. “How dare they – the great unwashed  hold everyone else to ransom?”
The strike action was blamed for bringing down the Labour Government. But the government had faced unpopularity with the IMF cuts of 1976. They had faced strike action from other groups of workers. Indeed if the Prime Minister – James Callaghan had gone to the polls in 1978 when Labour was 5 points ahead in the opinion polls, none of this would have happened at all. By February 1979 Labour had fallen 20 points behind in the opinion polls, the Tories were on the warpath and there is little doubt about who was to win the general election.
NUPE has never apologised for the Winter of Discontent. Today trades union is still established at over 50% in the public sector and only 15% in the private sector.

The meeting finished with a tribute from Stan Newens to Michael Foot, the veteran Labour left winger who had died during the week. The meeting held a two minutes silence in respect for him.

Labour Heritage held a short AGM which included a report on the year’s activities. The following officers were elected –
Chair – Stan Newens, Secretary – Linda Shampan, Treasurer – John Grigg, Bulletin editor – Barbara Humphries

First Labour minority government 1923

There was an inadvertent error in the Spring 2010 Labour Heritage bulletin in the report of my talk at Witham about the first Labour Government.  The report said Labour became the largest party in 1923 and formed a minority government.  Labour did indeed form a minority government but they were not the largest party. The election result was

Conservatives           261 seats

Labour                       191 seats

Liberal                       158 seats

Others                           5 seats

So why didn’t the Liberals support the Conservatives who after all had 70 more seats than Labour? The reason was because Stanley Baldwin had gone to the country on the issue of tariff reform – insisting that British industry should be protected from foreign competition by the introduction of tariffs on imports. 
Since the 1906 general election, when the Conservatives had been decidedly defeated on the tariff reform issue, the country had retained a free trade policy, although it had been expedient to introduce a measure of protection during the First World War.   The Liberal and Labour Parties supported free trade and this was still government policy when ill health forced Bonar Law from office in May 1923 to be succeeded by Baldwin.   Baldwin went to the country on this single issue but failed to gain an overall majority over Labour and the Liberals who both opposed Baldwin’s tariff reform.  Baldwin was defeated in the Commons by a combination of Labour and Liberal votes and the king asked Labour as the next largest party to form a government.

Ramsay MacDonald

This I believe is the only occasion when the largest party in parliament has not either formed a government or has been the senior partner in a coalition.

John Grigg

1989 – the summer of discontent: an account of the unofficial strikes on the London Underground

The year 1989 is memorable for the political events in Eastern Europe that led to the overturning of the 'Communist' regimes in the Soviet Union and its satellite states.
These dramatic changes naturally overshadow other events, but the wave of industrial action that dominated that summer in the UK should not be forgotten.

The defeat of the miners' strike in March 1985 was a defeat for the whole trades union  movement. The number and duration of strikes and other industrial action fell dramatically. But particularly at rank and file level it would be a mistake to conclude that there was no appetite for struggle. It was widely and correctly believed that the rail unions were next on Thatcher's hit list, and militants in the rail unions were not going to take this lying down. A  new leadership in the NUR (National Union of Railwaymen, now part of RMT) was not going to continue the policy of supine acceptance of management and government diktats that had characterised the previous leadership. The hot summer of 1989 saw serious fightbacks on London Underground, British Rail,  London buses, the docks and local government. What set apart the industrial action on the Underground was the fact that it started with a series of six unofficial one day strikes of traincrew between April and June 1989.


This paper is a summary of a longer document that provides a detailed account of the strikes, their background and outcome.
The present writer was the elected member of the NUR National Executive Committee (NEC) in 1988 and 1989 and the main source is my own diary of events over that time. To ensure impartiality, minutes of the NUR NEC (National Executive Committee) and London Transport District Council (LTDC) have been studied and contemporary reports in the Evening Standard newspaper referred to.

Mass movement

Unofficial strikes by members of well-organised strong unions like NUR and ASLEF (Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen) clearly beg questions about the leadership of those unions. That the NUR was out of touch with the aspirations of some of its traincrew members is clear with the benefit of hindsight, but it must be remembered that the NUR was (and RMT is) an all grades union which has to take account of the interests of members in line of promotion, the overall effect of job losses and the pay relativities between all its members. ASLEF, as a union only for traincrew, has only to promote a better rate of pay for those grades, so it is surprising that their leadership did not pick up on the discontent which was growing among all traincrew as a result of the spread of One Person Operation of trains. A claim for an improved rate of pay for Train Operators (T/Ops), who operate trains without guards, had been going round and round in the serpentine Whitley style Machinery of Negotiation for at least five years. Talks got bogged down, but following the NUR's failed strike of 20th May 1985 officials were reluctant to press for any action. A   rank and file movement for more pay was initiated around the end of January 1989 by discontented local officials of ASLEF and grew rapidly, quickly involving NUR members as well.

Not spontaneous

Unofficial strike movements are sometimes romantically portrayed as spontaneous uprisings of poor downtrodden workers ignored by a callous union bureaucracy. In this case, nothing could be further from the truth. Train drivers were already among the best paid workers on the underground, and some lower paid members (especially in the NUR) resented the fact that train drivers wanted to further increase their differential. Nevertheless, it was true that OPO did impose greatly increased stress on staff in a highly responsible job and that this problem needed dealing with. Some of the initiators of this unofficial  movement wanted to build a new union independent of both NUR and ASLEF with themselves in charge. Some saw it as a means of securing the re-election of the ASLEF District Secretary, who was greatly involved behind the scenes. Some, probably most, saw it as a chance to shake up two unions that had perhaps become somewhat bureaucratic and complacent. It was certainly a chance to punish a management that, since the defeat of the miners' strike had changed from the paternalist style of old to an arrogant, aggressive managerial style under Managing Director Denis “tons of shit” Tunnicliffe.
Certainly, the first unofficial strike, on Weds 5th April, came as great surprise to the leadership of the NUR and its NEC members. It had been called at an unofficial mass meeting of drivers and guards at Friends Meeting House in Euston, which had formulated a demand for a rise of £64.85 a week and £23,000 in back pay. This had been calculated as 50% of the savings management made by doing away with the guard.

Thatcher’s laws

One of the most important features of the unofficial strikes was that they were able to circumnavigate the restrictive effects of Thatcher's anti-strike legislation by not having identifiable leaders, keeping the date secret so as not to give management advance notice and time to prepare, and relying on the direct democracy of mass meetings to build solidarity. London Transport threatened an injunction, the unions condemned the action, but the strikes continued.


Possibly a unique feature, in contradistinction to the miners' strike, was the insistence of the co-ordinators leading the action that there should be no pickets at all. Partly this was so no leading individuals could be identified and victimised, and partly to foster the solidarity of a group who claimed they had no need of pickets. Indeed, when official strikes were organised later that summer, we found on both BR and the Underground that the anger and resentment of the members of both unions was so great that the pickets we organised had little or nothing to do.

One day strikes

The previous practice on the rare occasions when the unions had called official strikes had been to call out the whole membership indefinitely to achieve maximum impact. The experience of the miners, defeated after a year of privation and hardship, led militants to examine other tactics, particularly one day stoppages that could be repeated almost indefinitely without causing unacceptable loss of wages to the members. Such tactics, especially if imposed without warning, created chaos on the railways, especially in commuter areas like London. Union leaderships opposed this at first because it placed power in the hands of the members, but soon came to see the advantages. There were to be six unofficial one day strikes.

Official strikes

Some in the NUR opposed the unofficial strikes and any intervention by the union in the unofficial mass meetings on the understandable grounds that all they were out for was higher differentials for staff who were already relatively well paid. The NUR was losing members to ASLEF over this issue and stood in danger of losing its influence among the industrially powerful traincrew, who really did have a grievance over the way OPO had been brought in. NUR members had already become part of the unofficial movement and there really was no option but to get involved. When NEC members of both unions were invited to address the mass meetings on 4th May I accepted on behalf of the NUR and ASLEF's Bob Harris also accepted. The task now was to make the strikes official and stop the loss of members to ASLEF. The NUR was also in dispute over  station staff and other changes. A ballot of all members, including traincrew, had been ruled illegal by the courts in January, and the result of the re-ballot on this was announced at the same time as the Yes vote to industrial action by the traincrew over OPO pay, on 12th June. A strike of all NUR members on the Underground and British Rail took place on 21st June. This put the NUR firmly and officially back in the driving seat.  ASLEF had decided to ballot their members but had not yet completed their ballot, but ASLEF members unofficially supported the NUR walkout, showing more sense than some of their leaders. 20,000 bus workers also took unofficial action.


The NUR called two more official strikes for 28th June and 5th July. To their eternal shame, the unofficial co-ordinators called on their supporters to work on the 28th June NUR strike day ie scab, a call which was ignored by all traincrew. This was the ultimate test of the unofficial strike leadership and they failed it dismally. On 3rd July ASLEF finally announced their ballot result, a 13-1 yes vote, and the 5th July strike was another success.

LT Management

It took six more official strikes (the last one on 2nd August) ie 14 one day strikes in all before an arrogant but ultimately weak management offered through ACAS a deal that was acceptable to the unions' negotiators. They recognised that OPO had seriously increased the responsibilities of Train Operators “to an extent not hitherto envisaged” and the extra pay was to be without strings. Some of the unofficial co-ordinators wanted to trade off some of the T/Ops' conditions for more money, but the NUR was having none of that.

Charmed life

Once the unofficial strikes had got under way it was clear that management knew the identities of the leading co-ordinators. Management said they would not discipline them for fear of making martyrs of them. There may have been a morsel of truth in that, though it only demonstrated their weakness. But it is interesting to speculate as to what degree management was featherbedding the potential leaders of a new sweetheart union to undermine both official unions. It was notable that when the settlement was offered at ACAS management made it clear that any unofficial action against a settlement would result in dismissal of those involved, yet this was never threatened while the unofficial leaders were calling strikes. An unofficial strike against the deal was indeed called on 10th August but only a small minority supported it and a mass meeting on 14th August decided to stop the protests in light of management's threats of dismissal.

Evening Standard

It is also clear that the Evening Standard newspaper knew the identities of the unofficial co-ordinators but chose not to publish them, although it published plenty of information about the mass meetings and strikes. In fact, instead of its usual anti-union and anti-strike stance it often seemed surprisingly well-disposed towards the unofficial leadership. Did they know something we didn't? Was this a ruse to undermine the official unions? If so it backfired spectacularly.

An unofficial movement may not be all that it appears to be. Think long and hard before you try to elevate tactical questions to the status of principles.

Copyright  Martin Eady 22.06.10.


JOHN SMETHURST  :  1934 – 2010

John Smethurst, trade unionist, Co-operator, socialist and historian of the labour movement in North West England, died in Hope Hospital, Manchester, on 14th February, 2010.  Born on 18th January, 1934, the son of Wilfred Blears Smethurst, an Eccles Co-operative Society grocery shop manager and his wife, Hilda, John became an apprentice electrician upon leaving school, and obtained a Higher National Certificate in Electrical Engineering.
In his first job, he became a member of the Amalgamated Engineering Union and then the Association of Scientific Workers, but he took employment underground in the coal mines and joined the National Union of Mineworkers.  After leaving the pits he became a member of the Electrical Trades Union, but finished his working life in the Manufacturing, Science & Finance Union (MSF).  In all these he was an activist, holding various offices, and he also sat on Manchester & Salford Trades Council.
In addition, he joined the Labour League of Youth in 1947 and worked in the Labour and Co-operative Parties until 1962.  However, he then switched to the Communist Party of Great Britain until 1968, when he walked out over the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia.  This led him to rejoin the Co-operative Party, where he held a variety of offices.
From his youth, John was a member of the Eccles & district Co-operative Society and he was elected to its Education Committee and then the Board.  He was President of what became the Eccles & Prestwich Co-operative Society (1980-83) and, following its amalgamation into United Co-operatives, he also served as a Director on the main Board 1993-2004.
John was also deeply interested in local and Labour Movement history.  He was a founder member of the Eccles & District Local History Society in 1956, and joined the society for the study of Labour History from its inception in 1960.  Subsequently, he became a pillar of the North West Labour History Group and helped to found the Salford, Irlam & Cardishead, and the Urmston Local History Societies.  In 1971 he obtained a BA degree in History as a part-time student at Sheffield University, and an MA in Social History at Warwick in 1983.

He was a close friend of Eddie and Ruth Frow and pressed them to establish the Working Class Movement Library Trust.  He became a trustee from the outset, and was the last survivor of the original trustees.
One of his great interests was the collection of Labour Movement badges and Co-operative ceramics, side by side with his extensive library.  However, his principal legacy is the fruit of his never-ending research.  His publications include a bibliography of Co-operative Society Histories, Lancashire and the Miners’ Association of Great Britain & Ireland
1842-1848, numerous articles, principally in North West Labour History, and Volumes 4 and 5 of the Historical Directory of Trade Unions – an exhaustive work.  The last two publications were produced in co-operation with Arthur Marsh and Victoria Ryan.

John was a very active sportsman in his younger days and played Rugby, but in later life he suffered disablement and the acute deterioration of his sight.  However, with the completely dedicated support of his wife, Alice, he carried on writing to the end.

John is survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.
His funeral took place at Peel Green Crematorium on Friday, 26th February, 2010.

Stan Newens April 2010.


George Barnsby, the outstanding historian of the Labour Movement in the West Midlands, died on11th April, 2010, aged 91.  Born on 29th January, 1919, in Battersea, at three years of age he lost his father, a railway porter, who died from pneumonia aggravated by the effects of being gassed in the First World War.  With a brother, Sydney, sixteen months younger, he was brought up by their mother, Eleanor Barnsby, on a scanty Army pension, and at the age of fifteen, in 1934, he left school and then had a succession of clerical and manual jobs in London until he was called up for military service in October 1939.

In his teens he became an Arsenal fan and was keen on ballroom dancing, but he was attracted to Communism by reading the Daily Worker and buying pamphlets from the left bookshop kept by Clive and Noreen Branson at Lavender Hill.  His army experiences strengthened his convictions.  He published a soldiers’ paper advocating a second front, and later served in India, where he observed the Indian famine of 1943-44 at first hand, and in Burma.
After his demobilisation in 1946, he spent his gratuity of about £100 in seeking university entrance and was accepted at the London School of Economics where he gained a BSc.(Econ.) specialising in economic history.  This enabled him to become a teacher, principally in secondary modern schools, and in 1954 he took a post in Bilston and settled in Wolverhampton.  Already deeply interested in the history of the Labour Movement and a member of the Communist History Society, he began his studies of the Movement in the Black Country.

He later took several years off teaching to do research at Birmingham University, which resulted in two books: The Working Class Movement in the Black Country 1850-1867 [1977] and Social Conditions in the Black Country 1800-1900 [1980].  For these he was awarded an MA and a PhD.
George resumed his work as a teacher but, in 1979, took early retirement as he was experiencing heart problems.  He now devoted himself to further historic research and produced a succession of books and pamphlets –

Birmingham Working People: A History of the Labour Movement in Birmingham 1650-1914
Chartism in the Black Country
A History of Education in Wolverhampton 1800-1972
The Origins of Wolverhampton to 1085
A History of Housing in Wolverhampton 1750-1975
A History of Wolverhampton, Bilston & District Trades Union Council 1865-1990
Robert Owen and the First Socialists in the Black Country
The General Strike in the Black Country 1926
The Standard of Living in England 1700-1900
The Great Indian Famine 1943-44

In addition to his historical studies, he was active in political work and served as Secretary of Wolverhampton Communist Party for twenty years and as a member of its Midlands District Committee and Secretariat.  He was a founder member of Wolverhampton Community Relations Council in 1965 and campaigned against racism to the end of his life.
He wrote One Third of the Autobiography of a Communist, but spent much of his time in his last years on the production of a political blog.  In retirement he suffered from serious health problems but carried on his work thanks to the dedicated support of his wife, Esme.

He is survived by his wife and two sons, Robert and William.

Stan Newens,
April 2010.


Joan Baker died at the age of 90 on June 27th. She had been active in the co-operative movement for most of her life, joining the Co-operative Women’s Guild in 1944. She became its national chair.
Joan was also active in the Labour Party. She joined in Gosport with her husband during the wartime years. She was to stand as a parliamentary candidate in Eastbourne and Barnet, and for the council three times in Ealing, in the Hanger Hill ward.
I interviewed Joan over fifteen years ago for the Labour Oral History project, and the tape of our interview is now deposited with the British Library sound archive. Extracts from the tape were included in the book which was made from this project by Dan Weinbren – “Generating socialism”.
Joan was entertaining in how she described how she and her husband heckled the Tory Party candidate in the 1945 election campaign in Gosport. When she moved to London, she was active in the Acton Constituency Labour Party. She remained very much a party loyalist, and was quite hopeful about the prospects for a Labour Government in 1997.

Barbara Humphries

Fabian Archive online

The Archives Department at the LSE Library has made an archive of the Fabian Society available online from its web page.

This includes over 580  Fabian tracts going back to 1884. The authors include famous names such as Beatrice and Sidney Webb,  George Bernard Shaw, Harold Laski, Tony Benn, Harold Wilson and Gordon Brown.
What might be more surprising are pamphlets written by John Burns – “The unemployed” in 1893, and by William Morris “Communism: an address to the Hammersmith Socialist Society” in 1893.
The collection contains the first edition of  “Facts for socialists” written by Sidney Webb in 1926.
Titles within the collection are diverse covering subjects such as the eight hour day,
land nationalisation, the Poor Laws, local government in London, Christian socialism, state pensions, housing, transport and liquor licensing.
One intriguing title is “Socialism for millionaires” written by George Bernard Shaw. He concludes that “money is worth nothing to the man who has more than enough and the wisdom with which it is spent is the sole social justification for leaving him in possession of it.”
In the 1920s tracts reflect the progress of Labour into government – in 1923 Sidney Webb wrote “The Labour Party on the threshold” – his address as chair to the Party conference. And after the defeat of the 1929-31 Labour Government – “What happened in 1931: a record”. He had been a cabinet minister in that government. A  pamphlet written about child starvation in the 1930s by  Barbara Drake gives an insight into the conditions of the unemployed during the 1930s economic depression.
Another interesting projection, in the light of current debates,  is contained in “Our ageing population” written by A. Emil Davis in 1938. Discussing the problem of falling population in the UK he projects that by the year 2,000 the population would have fallen to 17,700,000! The issue of longevity is also recognised. He writes “it must be realised however that owing to improved health conditions people are younger at any given age than was the case a generation ago, when the man of 60 probably shuffled about in carpet slippers, wearing a smoking cap, and the woman of 50, spent her evenings at home wearing a mob cap, whereas today probably both play tennis and almost certainly spend some of their evenings dancing.”! The author goes on to talk about the financial consequences of this – more retired people having to be supported by a smaller number of those in work and the cost of pensions doubling within 25 years. However he adds that this would be partly offset by the increase in labour productivity.
The archive is goes up until 1997  and includes  a couple written by Tony Blair explaining why he thought change in the Labour Party to be necessary, including the abolition of “Clause 4, Part 4 of the constitution. (this had been drafted by the Webbs in 1918 and had committed the Party to public ownership.)
It is impressive how prolific this organisation has been and the extent of subjects covered.

These pamphlets are freely available on the internet and can be printed and downloaded.
They are an excellent introduction to the history of social policy and the labour movement in the UK. For those who want to reclaim Labour’s roots, you could do worse than start here.

The first Fabian tract  was entitled “Why are there many poor?” it’s author asked

Do economists, reformers and sociologists stand hopeless before this problem of poverty?
No! for the workers must and will shake off their blind faith in the Commercial god – Competition, and realise the responsibility of their unused powers.”

Barbara Humphries

Labour Heritage has a new web site

Note that the address has changed slightly.

Contents include – Labour Heritage events, including adverts and reports. Information about publications and a membership application form. Soon it will be able to be found via Google using the search terms “labour history”.

Labour Heritage - Recording Labour History

Articles for the next Labour Heritage bulletin to Barbara Humphries

West London Labour History Day

The next West London event will be on Saturday 4th December 2010
2 - 5pm at the Labour Party Offices, 367 Chiswick High Road, W4 4AG
Entrance: £4 (concessions £2).
Speakers to be confirmed
For further information, please contact John Grigg, 020 8743 0189

Discussion meeting
2-4.30 pm Saturday 13th November 2010-10-11 Rutland Arms, Brown St. Sheffield

Further info.