Roger Cox was among the earliest members of the Socialist Review Group (SRG), founded by Tony Cliff in the 1950s, a group that would later evolve into the International Socialists (IS) and then the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). As one of the first industrial workers drawn into the group, he played an important role in its evolution.
Cliff recalled in his autobiography the relationship he developed with Roger in the late 1950s: “He used to come every Sunday to our house. We had dinner together and would then spend hours talking. I used to give him lectures for half an hour, or an hour, or even more, at a time. I taught him Marxism, economics, historical materialism, etc. It was a joy to see him developing. He taught me a lot about conditions at his workplace, the workings of the engineering union, the thoughts and feelings of young workers, and so on. In this microcosm I saw the whole world of young workers”.1 Roger spoke to Joseph Choonara about a life in the struggle.
JC: Can you start by telling me a little about the political influences on you in your childhood?
RC: I was born in July 1940. I come from a family that lived in the East End of London, in Haggerston. My father was a trade unionist, a railway worker. My mother came from a Russian Jewish family—marrying a Jew in the East End of London would be like marrying a black person in the 1970s. She encouraged my father to do a number of things. She encouraged him to learn to drive a truck to get more pay on the railways and to be involved in the union.
At Christmas, he would come out with stories and one was about the big fight against Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists at Cable Street.2 He said that on the day of Cable Street, he got up, got dressed and said, “Right, I’m off to Cable Street. We’ve got to stop the fascists.” He goes across to Hoxton where my uncle lives, bangs on the bedroom window and says: “Get up you lazy bastard. This isn’t the day for lying in. We’ve got to get out there and sort this out.” My uncle Harry was a very passive creature; my old man was tougher.
Anyway, my father said it was absolute amazing. In those days Kingsland Road had trams, and people filled the trams up, hanging on the back and the sides to get to the demonstration. When he got there, he said it was just a big crowd, a lot of shouting, and then the message came through—they’re running away. So they all went home!
Before my brother died, I used to go and visit him regularly, and we used to talk about the old man. We didn’t have a great relationship with him. My father was quite authoritarian. But my brother told me that before the Second World War, he was out walking with our father one day and they went past a pub and our father looked inside. He pushed my brother behind him and shouted: “No pasarán!” These guys came out, who presumably were Mosleyites, and—bang—he hit a few of them, being a good boxer, then grabbed my brother and said: “OK, now we’re going to run!”
And you went to school in the East End?
Yes, I went to Kingsland. It was quite a good education really, and in a way I was lucky I failed the 11-plus. Kingsland provided the children’s chorus for Covent Garden. So I performed in operas at Covent Garden—you had to learn to sing and perform, which gives you lots of confidence. I began to learn a bit about authority in school. My friend was appointed detention prefect and he made me his assistant,3 so we ruled the school. You learn how people can control things from below, even though the teachers assumed they were in charge.
I left school at 15 and became an apprentice. My father wasn’t very happy because he thought I should work in an office and have a nice clean job, but I wasn’t willing to live according to my father’s dreams. I went to work in this quite important Ford Main Dealer, repairing motor cars.
It was filthy and boring work. One of the things that upset me was that we used to wash in a bucket—about 20 adults, about ten lads, apprentices. The youngest apprentice, me, twice a day, would have to go to the top of the hill and fill the bucket with hot water. Anyway, you can imagine, it was absolutely appalling. So I told my old man, “That’s outrageous.” He said: “What you have to do is join a union. They’ll sort it out.” So I found out one of the other apprentices was in the AEU and so I got him to take me to the union and they signed me up.4 At first they were a little suspicious of someone so young joining. But I went to every meeting and, by about the fifth meeting, I plucked up the courage to stick my hand up under “any other business”. I remember saying: “Where I work at this Ford main dealer, they make us wash in a bucket.” And they went, “A bucket?!”
Of course, it was a Communist run branch with some Labour Party lefties, and they were outraged—I thought, what have I started here?
They passed a resolution condemning the firm where I worked and resolving to write a letter to the district secretary to take up this complaint. Eventually a message came back saying that it had been put in the hands of the factory inspector. A couple of weeks later I was in work and the foreman came running. He said, “OK, get all the apprentices together. Go down to the paint shop because the factory inspector is coming and you’ve got to put all the paint away,” because it was illegal to have it all left out. By the time we came back into the workshop there was a little old lady with a clipboard—the inspector. She was saying: “I’m not interested in the paint shop. I just want to walk around this workshop.” And then she found the bucket and asked, “What is this?”
A fortnight later, in came some builders and suddenly there was this nice row of basins. Some of the fitters who were quite conservative said, “Oh, isn’t the governor good—he’s given us these nice basins.” I blew up: “No, it was me and the apprentices who got them. We went down the union and kicked off. And the union said to the factory inspector: go and sort it out.”
So I was able to get all the boys into the union. I was the rep, although I couldn’t do much. I managed to get pay increased a bit for apprentices—we got a percentage of the male adult rate. I took some advice from the union. They said, don’t go for a higher rate of pay; go for more time for each job. So, if a job is supposed to be an hour and you only get 75 percent of the adult rate, push it up to an hour and a half. Anyway, I attended union meetings regularly so they made me the “minute secretary” because nobody wanted that job and I had good handwriting. The old Communist Party boys, many of them were Irish and some were quite important in Hackney Communist Party, some of them were really good. The meetings were lively; every second one would have a speaker. I think they assumed that I was in the YCL,5 but by that time I had joined the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS).
How did you end up joining the LPYS?
I joined Labour through my friend Malcolm Tallantire, whose father was a London Labour county councillor. We used to stuff envelopes during election times. My first demonstration was over the Suez Crisis in 1956. By about 1957-8 LPYS formed.
The Shoreditch and Finsbury Labour Party was quite rich because it was the only place people living on the housing estates of Shoreditch could go to play bingo. That helped to integrate the local population into the Labour Party. Because they were rich, they gave the LPYS a room in their headquarters. We were given a council ward where we had to collect the money from Labour Party members on Sunday morning—and later we’d go around with Labour Worker and con people into thinking it was a Labour Party publication.6
You weren’t tempted to join the Young Communists?
No. My father was actually quite strongly anti-Communist, funnily enough. I remember when he was very ill, many years later, I went to visit him in hospital and sitting around his bed were executive members of the NUR because he was quite a big noise—they were all members of the Communist Party. But he wasn’t himself committed.
So even as an apprentice you were integrated into a union and were beginning to become politicised?
Yes. I also became a delegate to the junior workers’ committee of the union. This was a subcommittee of the district committee. The district committee of the AEU in those days was a powerful body. It could have an influence, along with the national executive of the union, on when and if strikes were called. The guys on the committee were mainly people who worked in the aircraft factories and who were with the YCL.
It was a bit frustrating on the committee. There had been an apprentice strike in Glasgow, and we tried to spread it to London but it never really took off—partly because the rates in London weren’t bad. I had a decent income and a car, which at that age wasn’t bad compared to young people now.
Anyway, I didn’t like the work I was doing so I did all I could to make myself unpopular at work. I was on day release to college, and I worked hard at college and passed the exams. I got a distinction in the City & Guilds, the first distinction Hackney College ever got in motor vehicles! And then I did the technician’s qualification a couple of years later and got a merit, so I had very good qualifications. I was good at passing exams anyway; I was useless at fixing cars.
I was also invited by management to work in reception at the Ford dealer because I had nice handwriting. I used to infuriate the two other receptionists because, if a customer came and gave them money as a tip, they used to keep it, but I used to take it down to the fitter who worked the job. I knew what was right and wrong, and, coming off the floor, I knew what I had to do.
What did you do after your apprenticeship?
I got to 21 and then I left as soon as I’d secured a job at CAV at Acton in West London. CAV was part of Lucas Industries, which has vanished now—the factory is now a big block of flats. CAV produced fuel injection equipment for diesel engines, and they had just developed a new distributer pump that was very cheap and efficient. I got a job in the engine laboratories as an engine tester.
We were doing application work and some research work. So if Leyland7 or someone had got a new engine or modified an old one, the injection system had to be mated to it. So we’d run tests and measure everything. It was quite an interesting job. It was a factory of maybe 3,000 or 4,000 workers, a lot of them quite skilled.
The factory next door, British Light Steel Pressings, made car bodies, which were put on trucks and driven to the Midlands. The factory was on strike because they were trying to close it down, so there would be picket lines. There would be a regular collection for them in my factory. I remained in the AEU and by now I was a member of the party.
You mean the Socialist Review Group? How did you come across the group?
Yes. When I was in the LPYG, there was a little mob of us. There was myself, there was John Phillips, who became the husband of Mary Phillips,8 and Malcolm Tallantire, who was a talented guy who ended up on the national executive of the LPYS and was persecuted by the Labour Party for being a lefty.
The moment they formed the LPYS, it was rather like smearing honey on something and watching all the Trotskyist bees descend. The Newsletter group, Gerry Healy’s organisation,9 sent a number of young women into the group to recruit, but they weren’t nearly as effective as these two older guys, Mike Kidron and Reuben Fior, who were incredibly charming and were really funny.10 The most important thing about them was that they listened. You talked about life at work and they listened.
They asked John and Malcolm if they would be interested in learning about Marxist economics. So they were invited to Tony Cliff’s front room. Cliff had this dreadful little place, a slum that seemed like it was held up by books. There’d be people from the Young Socialists there and Cliff, whose English was absolutely appalling so people would end up giggling all the time.11 I was never really introduced to that. If I wasn’t at the LPYS meeting I’d be at my union branch, but they talked about it. Eventually I went with John to see Cliff. He was an incredibly strange man. He reminded me of Ben-Gurion.
He wanted to know what I did. He had this ability to ask the most profound question. And, again, he listened to what I was saying, which, when you’re in your teens is not a common experience. So you had Kidron, and Reuben—he was called Robin and then became Reuben12—and Cliff. And they were trying to find out about working class life. So I began to attend these lessons and meetings. My recollection is that I didn’t really understand what was going on, but I persevered. Eventually Chanie Rosenberg13 came up and asked: “Why don’t you join the group? It will only be half a crown a week.” And I thought, well, yes, I might as well.
I’ve heard that Chanie was the star recruiter.
Oh yes. Nobody escaped. And nobody got away with not paying their subs either.
What was it like being in the group at that early stage?
A process starts taking place. You have regular meetings and you began to assemble the ideas together. It takes you a couple of years but the endless discussions about state capitalism, the endless discussions about the permanent arms economy—you begin to build a set of ideas which at that time were very important.14 We were in the Labour Party but the argument in the Socialist Review Group was that this was only temporary, we were “entryists”. The argument was that reformism didn’t have a long-term future; it was doing well because of the permanent arms economy, but the permanent arms economy couldn’t sustain itself. The other side of it was that we were protected from being lured into the Communist Party, and from Stalinism, because of the state capitalism argument.
In my conversations with the YCL, I used to torment them about state capitalism, which they never really quite understood.
There’s a talk I remember which impressed me where Cliff spoke about the number of razor blades produced in the Soviet Union and his conclusion was that there’s not enough razor blades for the male population of Russia to have a regular shave. So, when some YCL members came back from the Moscow Youth Conference, I asked, “Is it true Russia doesn’t produce enough razor blades and everyone has beards?”. They just laughed and told me everyone was clean shaven. I went back to Cliff and said, “I think you’re wrong, you know.” And he said, “You’re such an idiot Roger. These bureaucrats are not stupid. Lots of foreigners are going to come to Moscow so they make sure there are enough razor blades.”
He could be perfidious! But generally the level of debate was much higher. The intellectual level of the Young Communist League was pretty poor.
Did people join the Communists because of their industrial strength?
If you talk about the old members of the Communist Party that you would go drinking with after committee meetings, you’d find people like Reg Birch who would come and talk to the youth.15 Now, around him were a number of people who’d built the factory movement before and during the Second World War and had suffered persecution and so on. They were quite hard and they were now established. But beyond them there was this periphery of hangers-on who couldn’t really build—they couldn’t punch their way out of a wet paper bag. The bureaucracy was reinforced by people who simply joined the Communist Party to get a job, not because they believed in the ideas like the old Communist Party members did.
The old Communist Party members knew how to operate. I remember there was a strike during some stupid bonus dispute at CAV in which we were out about three days. The Communist officials from the AEU turn up and say that they are instructing us back to work because we’ve breached the procedure. They asked the chairman to put it to the vote—so we all voted it down, which, of course, they knew we’d do.
What sort of struggles were you involved in at CAV?
We had a problem on my section with merit pay. Every quarter you had to go to the foreman’s office and he would read out these figures to you, and either your wages had gone up or they stayed the same. There was a national agreement but that only covered the minimum skilled rate.
They said to the steward, you’ve got to do something about this because no one knew what their rate was or what other people were earning, so it led to atomisation. We argued and pushed—there were a couple of other guys around me, including an ex-member of the Communist Party—and eventually I was elected as a union steward.16 The first thing I did was to write to the district committee saying, we’ve got this problem and I want authorisation that everyone in the union has to tell me what their wages are. They gave me a letter to say I had authorisation to do this. I found out there were something like 250 different rates!
We opened negotiations with management saying we wanted a wage increase and for this system to be changed. We called a meeting and had a walkout one afternoon in protest. There were about 30 engine testers and about 40 on pump test. Anyway, little by little we got a better deal. We got it down to about 12 different rates.
I discovered we were using asbestos and I read in a safety notice that this was dangerous. We said to the management, you’ve got to take this down and they refused. The factory doctor came over and told us asbestos was “natural”. Someone said, well coal is natural, what about miners getting lung problems? In the end we said, either it comes off or we don’t run engines. That afternoon they stripped it all off. Being in the party gave you a confidence and meant you had expertise around you.
However, politics was what actually scuppered me, particularly the politics of racism. There were redundancies in the factory and the policy of the stewards’ committee, which was fair enough, was that wherever there were skilled vacancies the guys who were mainly machine setters, who could claim they were skilled, should have priority getting these jobs. We had about five vacancies on engine testing because they could never get people to do this sort of work. It was quite specialised. I said to the convenors we should just train these workers up and I just faced down all the opposition.17
What was interesting was that they were mainly Irish lads. There were three Irish and two English guys, and they got trained up and they integrated, and they became part of the workforce, but it caused a little bit of resentment at first.
And then you had Enoch Powell.18 The whole thing nearly blew up because there was talk that they were going to bring “blacks” onto the section, and so we had a big row about it. They were baiting me, saying they were thinking of marching to join the dockers.19 I said, “I’m coming in with you then. I’ll walk on the pavement and you can walk in the gutter where you belong.” I wasn’t really helping myself, but I was so absolutely angry. There was another comrade in another section of the factory, who had joined the party about a year earlier. He met me outside and said, “We’ve got to make a concession, we’ve got to agree to immigration control.” And I said, “No we’re not going to do that.” I phoned Cliff and said to him, I don’t want to make any concessions but this member, Tom, is going to leave the group. And Cliff said, “Good. What use is he to us if he can’t maintain his principles?”
Anyway, I was having these constant rows about racism. I told Cliff I was in this terrible position and I said that I thought I should resign as a rep and stand for re-election, and Cliff agreed. I now think he should have told me to just fight to the bitter end.
I went for re-election and lost it to a Communist party member, who was actually quite a good rep, but was soft as shit on race. His opinion on race was the same as whoever the last person he spoke to had. After I lost, one of the three Irish guys said he voted for me and he said he was really angry about it. He told me: “Yesterday evening there was a knock at the door and there’s a Cypriot woman I’ve known for years. She had a petition supporting Enoch Powell. I snatched it out of her hands and tore it up.” So I felt pleased about that.
I was selling 15 copies of Socialist Worker on the section—and I continued selling 15 papers. Something I often say to younger members is that our ideas can seem futile because you have to constantly repeat them. I had to sell this paper, and it was always difficult. You’d go up and down the line, you know, “Copy of Socialist Worker?”, and people would say, “Banging on in defence of the black and the Irish?” It was a torment, but you have to do it. One day I was in the toilet having a crap reading the Guardian. And in come a couple of guys. One of them is an out and out racist git called George, who says to the other guy who I sold the paper to: “Bloody nig-nogs coming here, etc.” The guy turns round and says, “George, why don’t you shut up.” And he destroys him using the arguments that he’s read in the paper.
Then it dawns on you: it’s your consistency that’s being tested. Every week they’re testing you. So every week you’ve got this tension and you have to get through it. Is what you’re saying now the same as what you said last week? If it’s different, why is it different? They’ve got to trust you.
Workers seem to have had a great deal of control within the factories in those days.
Management in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s had very little control. One of the things I found out talking to some stewards was about a line called the CA45 starter motor, which was competing with the Bosch units. It was rushed through to get it on to the market but the speed they put it into the line, they didn’t calculate the time required for the job right. The guys found that they were accumulating starter motors and having to hide them in their cupboards. They could not declare them because the time study would lower the price. It got worse, and they were running out of space. So in the end they bribed a forklift truck driver to find space in the warehouse. At Christmas and holidays, they could produce the extra units and get an extra payment. Managers might have had suspicions but they couldn’t really pin down what was going on.
Anyway, during the annual holiday they brought a load of students in to paint the place. These students stole two of these machines and they ended up being installed on lorries, and eventually of course one of them broke down. They came into the world headquarters where all the guarantee work was done. The clerk looked at the labels on it and according to him this machine had not yet been made! The penny drops and management discovered where all these machines were hidden. But they still had to buy every one of them back, because they’d been made and there was a bonus for them. It taught you how much control workers had, because this went on for six or seven years.
The maintenance guys were called millwrights, and every time you passed the millwrights’ shop they were playing darts or reading newspapers. And the story goes there was a new manager who came in and was upset about these guys doing nothing. He had the foreman over to his office to explain it. The foreman says to him, “Look, when you see my blokes sitting around doing nothing you know every machine in here is working. You should worry when they’re not in the workshop. And he just walked out the office.” Even foremen had that level of confidence.
The other thing we did was during the campaign over the union laws. Although I wasn’t a steward by then, I was quite active behind the scenes. We agitated that there should be a mass meeting to vote on whether to join the Liaison Committee’s day of action.20 We didn’t think we’d win it. But we had the good idea of convincing Bernadette Devlin to come to the factory.21 So we got onto Roger Rosewell, the IS industrial organiser, who was OK those days.22 We smuggled her in. The chair for the meeting was the steward who had replaced me. He knew about it and thought it was a good idea too. When she spoke it went absolutely crazy—and we won the vote.
She did a great speech about how we shouldn’t stand for the attacks on unions. She was popular, there were lots of Irish women, and lots of the Irish workers, and even many of the English workers respected her.
We had a comrade called Steve Sheridan who was openly gay. I got him a job on the pump testing. And he fought and he won people. When we had a strike, he turned up on the picket line with cakes he’d cooked and he won them over. During the H-block days he went around talking to, I think, other gay men he’d found in the factory, all English, not one of them was Irish, collecting money each week and making food parcels, you could organise things like that.23
What was the relationship between the union stewards and the convenors in the plant?
Hostility—until you were in trouble. It was a funny situation because we had an AEU convenor and a GMB convenor. The AEU convenor ought to have been a lefty, but we were always outvoted by the GMB.
The convenor was a full-time position by then. You had this relationship where the convenors were seen as layabouts, but if you had a problem you had to rely on them, so you never made complete enemies of them.
An example of this was when the electrical steward was sacked by his foreman. It was totally unprovoked. It took me and the other stewards about 15 minutes to close the whole of the lab down and about 100 workers were playing football in the yard. Then the conveners came running over to get us back to work but they first had to get the steward reinstated, then everyone went home and did not return until the following day.
There was a woman rep in the factory as well. Women had worked there since the beginning of the Second World War. They still used to walk out on full pay on the afternoon before Christmas Eve to do Christmas shopping, something they’d established during the war. They did coil winding and then lacquering to make things waterproof. The “time and motion” people were terrified of going in and timing the women.24 By all accounts they used to attack them, drag them on to the ground, pull their trousers off and paint their balls with lacquer.
What was the impact of 1968 on your workmates? You’ve mentioned Enoch Powell but what about the May 1968 general strike in Paris or the student movement?
There wasn’t much impact. You could call a strike, and people would come out, but things were pretty apolitical. In our factory even the Communist Party hardly existed. We had a better presence than them.
There was an excitement about that time over scandals, you know, Profumo.25 We put up posters about the Tories mentioning that and management had to run around and pull them down.
And you were in regular discussions with Cliff around this time?
What Cliff was interested in was the lack of politics. The second time the AEU was taken to court under the union laws, we couldn’t call a strike. I argued with the deputy steward that we should call my section out, give a lead, but then it all just blew over and the government retreated.
A downturn in struggle had started in the mid-1970s. I didn’t recognise it myself back then, but looking back you could notice things were getting harder. Because the rank and file were so apolitical it was hard to sustain things. If there’s good political leadership in a factory, a retreat is a retreat. Without that it becomes a collapse.
The management changed the bonus schemes, tightened everything up. Then I went into a personal crisis I think. I just could not work. I was bored. So, in 1976, I left.
I went to work in a nut and bolt factory, GKN. But I got victimised quickly and got the sack. But Billie Taylor, the divisional organiser, a Communist Party member, got involved and changed it to a redundancy, so it wouldn’t come up on my record. So the only thing I could do was go work for British Rail.
What did you do at British Rail?
I worked on what was called ODM, outdoor machinery. We were maintenance workers. We were looking after the boilers, overhead cranes, steam cranes, everything but locomotives. It was a totally different world.
I found it quite interesting. Coming from a railway family I knew a little bit, but I was in the AEU and everyone around me was in the NUR. But then there was a wave of redundancies in the factories in Park Royal and all these young lads who were in the AEU turned up and started working for British Rail. I became secretary of the shop committee, a bit like a union convenor.
Was that a full-time union role?
No, but I was given one day off a week. It was mainly dealing with disciplinary cases and so on, but we also had a number of official strikes. It was demoralising because not only did some of the NUR members cross picket lines but also ASLEF members.26 Although I had good relations with ASLEF members, I could never win them to not cross our picket lines, although when ASLEF had a strike of its own, the AEU stood on the picket line to try to stop the NUR from going in. There was also a strike of supervisory grades at one point, and again we tried to get the NUR not to cross—but they hated the supervisors. It was all very difficult.
But we had one nice thing happen. The depot was absolutely enormous and it provided all the train services for Paddington including the night sleepers. So the carriages would be brought in and they would be cleaned and serviced. We’d have to look after the boiler house nearby. The women, who were mainly West Indian women, would then make the beds in the sleepers. Some idiot representing them sold out their war bonus, which kept them just above the minimum rate so they didn’t have to work overtime.
They went potty and refused to come out of their mess room. I happened to go in to make a cup of tea and saw them all sitting there. I said, “They’re bringing in the linen from the laundry and the supervisors are going to make the beds. Why don’t you go out there and form a picket line and send the linen guy off.” They tried, but they weren’t successful. A young Irish woman who was their steward, she wasn’t sure what to do, so me and another union member decided what we needed was a depot-wide strike in support of them.
We decided to use salami tactics. We went to different sections and said, “If you come out we’ll come out,” and so on. One of the best sections was the shunters and couplers, most of them were also black and they thought the situation was outrageous. So we asked if they would pledge themselves to strike if we picked a day. Bit by bit, people agreed. I think one important factor, because half the workforce was black, was that these white union members were supporting them.
We picked a day. And management were getting quite worried because they had all these contractors in putting in new steam lines. So I went and found the contractors’ union steward and told him that we were going to have a picket line and that he shouldn’t cross it.
The following day we had a strike. The contractors came up to the picket line, spoke to us and then went off to the cafe. Management went mad. They didn’t mind us coming out, but they objected to the contractors showing their solidarity. And that began the process of victimising me.
I had an argument with someone who had booked a day off on holiday during an official strike, and a manager overheard and claimed it had nearly come to a fist fight, which was completely untrue. They used that to discipline me. We had a strike for three days and then called it off and went into a disciplinary hearing. We demonstrated that management were incompetent, that no fight had taken place and that a number of other fights had taken place in the depot without people being sacked.
They transferred me to Paddington—and there I rotted. Eventually I went to the supervisor, and said, “I know I’ve been a total bastard to you, but I’ve come to strike a bargain: give me a reference and I’ll piss off.” He agreed.
So he gave me a wonderful reference and I went off the London School of Economics for a year and then did teacher training.
By that time the “frontier of control” had shifted in favour of managers.
Oh yes. And on the railways the degree of control was almost non-existent, even among drivers. The trade union bureaucracy was quite well integrated into management because it was a nationalised industry. If you were a boy and you’d joined the railways as an apprentice, there was a promotional route. At a certain point it would divide, and you’d either go into the union bureaucracy or into management. So the manager would know the official.
When you talk about control in a factory, there’s a story that Cliff always used to go on about, partly because he could never understand it. He asked me to repair something from the party printshop, I think it was a bolt that had sheared off and we had to drill it out. So I had this thing on my bench working on it. Out comes the foreman and he says, “After you’ve done that, I’m going to move you on to another bed.” I said, “That’s fine.” He didn’t know what it was I was working on. If he had asked he would have been demonstrating his ignorance. So I did the job and took the part back to Cliff, and told him the foreman had come up while I was working on it. Cliff gasped: “What happened?” So I said, “Well, I carried on repairing it.” The foreman wasn’t in control. The foreman had imposed this lack of control on himself in a way because he didn’t want to appear to not know what was going on. He’d just sit in his office and take calls or walk around.
While I was a steward at CAV, we worked on a Perkins engine being developed for tractors to be used in Israel. Perkins insisted that this engine will be working in the desert so the temperatures we were running it were too low. We had to raise the oil temperature. The foreman said to disconnect the oil coolers, and that didn’t work. So the foreman said to Danny Kaye, who was a party member, restrict the oil supply. Danny comes to me and says that the foreman wants him to put a valve in to gradually restrict the oil supply so the temperature goes up. This is incredibly stupid because the engine would just seize up.
So I said, “Set it up, but don’t start the engine. Call the foreman back in, and ask him, ‘Is that what you want?’ Log that he’s seen it. And then start it up.” Of course, when he’d done all that the engine seized and there was mayhem. And when the technician comes and looks at it and asks how it seized, we showed it to him and told him that’s what the foreman wanted. We just did what we were told. But we knew more than him.
That’s how things were. If you were on production in a factory, it was much more controlled. Bonuses were set by national agreements, and if there were changes it would be closely monitored and there would be big rows about what the price would be, so there’s all this bargaining going on.
A key thing was how the bonuses worked. In 1922 the lockout meant a defeat for the engineering union.27 The employers imposed a memorandum which described what and how incentives would be paid. Incentives atomise the workforce. You’ll be working on a machine and you’ll be timed. You’ll be told what you’ll get, and you accept it or reject it, in which case you just get the basic rate. If you reject it then you starve; the basic rate is too low. So you accept the rate. One of the things the Communist Party did was to win workers round to setting up shop funds. Everyone on the section knew what it was for. Then you pick someone, usually someone who doesn’t have kids and isn’t married, and get him to reject the rate. You also pick a component that’s needed rather urgently. The job doesn’t get done. Usually after a day, management would come back and give you a bit extra and the steward would nod, accept it. You’ve broken the rate—and it would then spread like wildfire. Any money you may have lost the shop fund compensates you. But it took a long fight to win these sectional disputes.
But it requires political organisation.
Yes, if you have political organisation and conviction you can use the instrument they’ve devised, against them. It strikes me that we could use this today with a bit of organisation.
Tell me more about the relationship between the politics of the International Socialists and the union activity. You talk about the Communists having a strategy that they drove through in a centralised way. To what extent was the early IS able to do that?
From memory, the key people around in those days were people like Geoff Carlson, who was an extremely interesting guy. And a couple of others such as Les Bennett. We’d have endless talks about what was happening in their factory, ENV.28 It was a Communist Party organised factory and had really good rates but the IS comrades won the leadership from the CP.
The first thing I began to learn from them was how you used the union rulebooks to get around the Communist Party. They would support things that increased their influence, but anything independent of them they could block. I remember we met a worker from a factory that had poor organisation and very low rates, and this guy was shocked. He started to organise people, get them into the union, but he didn’t really know what to do after that. He met Les in a pub or something and decided to have a meeting with us in the Willesden Junction Arms on a Sunday morning.
I mostly just sat there listening over a pint of beer. Bennett mentioned he’d found an obscure rule where the district committee could have a ballot and call a strike. So what they decided was that this guy would go to his branch with some of the members and demand that the branch go to the district committee asking them to authorise a strike under this rule. In the end they didn’t call a strike, but the officials went to the firm and got the rates up, which is exactly what the workers wanted.
The other thing I learnt was the importance of politics, of ideas. In the union branch that covered ENV, Carlson was in the process of undermining the hold of the Communist Party. It was all quite matey and so on—there were lots of good workers in the group. Anyway, the way he did it was this. The district committee man, a man called Blake, used to come and give a committee report. He would end with a recommendation from the district committee about something political.
I remember Blake saying one time: “District committee is calling for the branches, brothers, to condemn the American nuclear tests.” Up jumps Carlson: “Right brother Blake, we should send a letter to the district committee and to the US embassy,” and so on. A few weeks later, Blake came back to the branch and made some political recommendation or other. Up gets Carlson again: “I’m rather shocked brother Blake. A few weeks ago we passed a motion condemning the American nuclear tests. I’m just reading in my newspaper now that the Russians have just had a test. I think we should send a letter condemning that.” Blake was angry about this, but the Communist supporters split and didn’t know what to do. Bennett, who was really quite clever, managed to talk them round, and eventually all these guys joined our group.
Cliff used to go down to the factory and explain to them how you read a company’s accounts and discover all the hidden profits and it really cemented these guys into the organisation. So much so that Cliff told me, many years ago, that one of the proudest moments of his life was when one of these ex-ENV men, after the factory closed, got a job as a bus conductor. He died years later and they invited Cliff to go to the funeral to give an oration. Cliff said it was incredible. The bus garage virtually closed down. And he said it was full of black and white workers.
Every week this worker used to sell Socialist Worker. He stood on the party’s politics, fought against racism, took part in Lewisham,29 and all these people recognised it. Cliff said it made him so proud that this person—who somebody from the organisation used to drop papers off to, who got to the occasional meeting when his shifts allowed it—kept these ideas because we’d won him in a good, hard way.
If you were around in a period when you had the Communist Party on one side, Labour on the other, if you didn’t have clarity of ideas, you were crushed.
It sounds like anti-racism was a central feature of the politics you held.
Racism was prevalent among workers, although it often wasn’t really discussed. Inside the party we had at first a fairly moralistic view of racism, although we said it divided the working class and the rest. Until Peter Alexander wrote and connected it with slavery and so on, we weren’t really clear about the roots of racism.30
Then there was the rise of the National Front. We had a local council by-election in Harlesden in the late 1970s and through some stupidity I ended up standing as a candidate for Socialist Worker. The party centre told me to withdraw, but I couldn’t withdraw. It turned out the National Front were standing in the ward so we decided to make our campaign an anti-NF one. The Saturday before the election, we hired a lorry, got a steel band and took it through Harlesden. There was only one policeman, and it was almost a riot—people got behind our lorry and started dancing and so on. When it came to the election, my agent, who was a comrade from the ASLEF union, shuffles up to the National Front and says: “Are you going to win?” When it got to the vote, the Labour Party had won, the National Front vote stayed the same, and we got about 8 percent—because the voting numbers were quite small overall. The comrade who came from the party centre said, “You got a better vote than Paul Foot!”31
The National Front were angry, expecting to beat Labour, and all these youngsters attacked them, and the NF ran—and they never came back!
It helped to give us a bit of confidence about fighting racism. The contribution that makes me proudest of the party is what we’ve done, consistently, about racism—and the impact that it’s had on society.
How important were the Rank and File initiatives the IS took in the 1970s?32
I was secretary of the National Rank and File Organising Committee. I found the whole thing quite confusing in many ways. Basically the Rank and File organisation was based around the people who ran the various rank and file papers. The lifetime of those papers was often quite short because as soon as they got going they hit the downturn in struggle.
They were born out of a confidence that came from defying the Tories. They were the way that we took advantage of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions mobilising people—to get the better elements around us. I remember Car Worker.33 Sarah, my wife, was writing these books called “People at Work”. We went into the Vauxhall plant and I tagged along because it was the “three day week” and I had nothing to do.34 We’d written an article in Car Worker attacking a foreman in Luton, and it was pasted up on the wall—and management had not taken it down. So they had an influence, but it was very short-lived.
I think the downturn started in a way when the Liaison Committee said it had achieved its goals. Because what they introduced into the movement was the institutionalisation of the leadership of the rank and file into the bureaucracy, now they would wait for the left union leaders to give a lead. The Rank and File initiatives were, of course, opposed to that. We didn’t have any illusions in Jones or Scanlon.35 We pulled around us people who shared that. But our weight wasn’t enough to overcome that of the Communist Party.
Let me give you an example. The stewards at ENV sanctioned someone, I think a Labour councillor who worked at ENV, because he didn’t pay his dues or something, and he went to the courts, and that was the first hint we’d seen of the courts being used against stewards. So we formed an organisation called the London Industrial Shop Stewards Defence Committee to try to pull around people to agitate against laws being used against stewards. We were meeting one day and the door opens—in come four big Stalinist dockers who just took it over. They said, this is all very good, but we need a more united organisation. And so they formed the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions. But there was always a relationship in the Liaison Committee with the union officials. If the officials weren’t in the meetings themselves, their ghosts were there. Nothing could be done that would upset the officials. That was the case with Communist-led organisation even in the 1930s, but now, with the state going on the offensive, it was fatal.
Eventually you ended up working in a further education college. That must have been a little different to being in a factory.
Yes, I worked there from 1992 until 2005, when I retired. I loved the job, teaching those kids. But there was a complete lack of organisation. I ran into trouble straight away.
In September I would meet new staff and tell them about the union. I would say: “You can look at unions in two ways. Yes, there’s cheap insurance, access to legal advice, and so on, but that’s not what unions are about. Unions are about us sticking together and having to face the management against job losses, about wages and so on. You have to understand, management here are not nice people.” Of course, I didn’t realise the principal was in the room. The principal confronted me and said it was absolutely outrageous, and he de-recognised me.
I had a number of run-ins with him. He had argued, and we accepted, that there should be printed minutes of our meetings and that would be our method of communication with staff. One day we were in a room together and the union notice board was there. My secretary had put up a little handwritten notice about a meeting with management. The principal complains, saying, I thought we’d agreed not to have these handwritten notes.
I took him to one side and told him a story, a true one. “Years ago,” I said, “I worked in a factory, and we’d give out political leaflets, then we’d run into the factory and clock in. On a particular day, we rushed in and standing there was the superintendent, someone like you. He said, ‘Coxy, I want a word with you. That leaflet you just put out was appalling.’ And I said, ‘Well, it wasn’t written for you.’ He replies, ‘I don’t care about the bollocks you write. But you could hardly read it. Come with me.’ He takes me into his office, and there, under his desk, is an electric Roneo machine.36 He says, ‘Don’t ask any questions; it was found in the back of my brother in law’s motor. I told him I could find someone to put that to good use. Twenty-five quid—take it or leave it.’ So we bought it.”
The principal says to me, “I don’t see the point of this story.” I said, “The point is simple. We were writing outrageous things about management. But as a manager, he was so confident he didn’t care. But you lack confidence in what you’re doing. Poor old Angela puts up a handwritten note and you can’t stomach it.” He went completely puce and stormed out.
I have been retired now for 13 years and continue to be active. This is because of the support of my wife Sarah who is also a very active member of the SWP. I have to recognise the important influence Sarah has had on me. Not just caring for me during periods of illness, but that daily accounting of activities, arguments and discussions. Not that we always agreed, many times we found ourselves on opposite sides but it is having someone holding you to account that is important in a relationship and in maintaining your principles. She is a generous and kind comrade who has always been caring to others in the party.
The other important influence Sarah has made on me, is being able to think clearly and write simply and directly. She taught me to question what are you trying to say so it is understandable and not bullshit, undoing all those boring English lessons I had at school where they never expected you to use language as a weapon.
I am also very proud of the SWP. The ability of a small group of comrades to have an influence out of all proportion to our size is demonstrated by our ability to win around us greater numbers of people in the fight against the rise of racism and fascism. We have a disciplined organisation that knows what it is doing. It is a demonstration of the importance of a revolutionary party that keeps socialism alive as the only real alternative for humanity.
1 Cliff, 2000, p70.
2 The Battle of Cable Street took place on 4 October 1936 in East London. Mosley’s British Union of Fascists was prevented from marching by a mass mobilisation of anti-fascists, helping to break the momentum of the far-right in Britain.
3 In the British schooling system of the time a prefect was a student given responsibility over certain areas of student life, including, in some cases, in the area of administering discipline.
4 The AEU was the Amalgamated Engineering Union, founded in 1851.
5 The Young Communist League, the youth wing of the Communist Party of Great Britain.
6 Labour Worker was launched in the early 1960s by the Socialist Review Group. It was the predecessor to Socialist Worker, which was launched as a weekly paper in 1968.
7 Leyland Motors, founded in 1896, was at this time a major manufacturer of motor vehicles in Britain. In 1968 it was nationalised and merged into British Leyland.
8 Mary is another of the most long-standing members of the organisation and is noted, among other things, for her work as a proofreader of this journal.
9 Newsletter was, from 1958, a weekly paper launched by Gerry Healy’s Trotskyist group. The group had grown in part by absorbing disillusioned Communists after the 1956 “secret speech” in which Nikita Khrushchev acknowledged some of Stalin’s crimes, and the invasion of Hungary by the Soviet Union the same year. In 1959 this grouping would evolve into the Socialist Labour League and later the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.
10 Michael Kidron, Tony Cliff’s brother-in-law (he and his sister Chanie were raised in South Africa), was a brilliant Marxist economist who edited International Socialism during its early years in the 1960s.
11 Tony Cliff, whose real name was Yigael Gluckstein, was born to a Jewish family in Palestine. He moved to Britain in 1947, initially joining the Trotskyist organisation, the Revolutionary Communist Group, alongside Gerry Healy and others. In 1950 he launched the Socialist Review Group.
12 Robin Fior was the arts editor of International Socialism in its early years. He went on to work for the Black Dwarf journal and designed its famous “Paris, London, Rome, Berlin” front cover in 1968. In 1972 he moved to Portugal and was active in the socialist movement after the 1974 Carnation Revolution.
13 Chanie was Cliff’s partner and another founder of the group.
14 Tony Cliff’s break with mainstream Trotskyism was largely a result of him developing his theory of state capitalism. This argued that the Soviet Union was, from the late 1920s, run according to a version of capitalism in which the state took the place of private capitalists, and in which the logic of exploitation and accumulation associated with capitalism was enforced by competition (especially imperialist rivalry) with the West. The theory of the permanent arms economy is associated in particular with Kidron. It argued that the process of accumulation of capital that ultimately puts downward pressure on profit rates, pushing the economy towards crisis, was partly alleviated by waste spending, especially arms spending. This helped to explain the longevity of the boom that began after the Second World War, a period when, Leon Trotsky had predicted, the world would be beset by slump.
15 Reg Birch was an AEU member who joined the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1939. In 1968 he would break with the party to form a Maoist organisation, the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist).
16 A union steward is typically an elected lay representative of a trade union.
17 The union convenor is a senior union position in a large, unionised workplace. Often these are full-time union roles.
18 The racist politician made his infamous “Rivers of Blood” speech in April 1968. For more on the background, see Hirsch, 2018.
19 Dock workers struck and marched in support of Powell in 1968.
20 The Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions was a Communist Party led organisation that emerged in 1966 and existed until the late 1970s. It organised unofficial strike action against anti-union legislation.
21 Devlin was an Irish civil rights leader, elected to parliament in 1969. After the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry she famously slapped home secretary Reginald Maudling in the House of Commons.
22 Rosewell left the International Socialists in 1974 and would ultimately end up as an advisor to the Tory council leader Dame Shirley Porter.
23 The H-Blocks were where Republican and Loyalist prisoners were held at the Maze Prison at Long Kesh, near Belfast, during the troubles (1969-98). Republican prisoners waged a long campaign to have their political status recognised, culminating in the hunger strikes in which Bobby Sands and nine other prisoners died in 1980-1.
24 “Time and motion” studies involved closely monitoring workers’ activities, calculating the time for each activity and using it to establish norms, as part of the “scientific management” approach pioneered by figures such as Frederick Winslow Taylor.
25 Tory prime minister Harold Macmillan resigned in 1963 in the wake of the scandal caused by the revelation that war minister John Profumo had had an affair with a young woman who was also seeing the Russian naval attaché.
26 ASLEF, founded in 1880, represents train drivers.
27 Following the collapse of the post-First World War boom, the Engineering Employers’ Federation locked out 260,000 workers between March and June 1922, forcing concessions from the unions.
28 ENV Motors produced car parts from a large plant in Willesden, north London. It was well known for its organisation and militancy. For more on ENV, see Rosser and Barker, 1967.
29 The Battle of Lewisham was an important confrontation between anti-racists and the fascist National Front in south east London in August 1977. It was a key impetus for the launching of the Anti-Nazi League.
30 Alexander, 1987.
31 Paul Foot, the campaigning journalist and one of the best-known members of the SWP, stood in a Birmingham parliamentary by-election earlier that year during a short-lived experiment with electoral politics.
32 This was an attempt to organise rank and file workers through a series of initiatives including a number of rank and file newspapers introduced by IS members in different industries. In 1974 a delegate conference was organised involving 500 delegates from 270 union bodies, which set up a Rank and File Organising Committee. For a detailed account, see Callinicos, 1982.
33 Car Worker was one of the rank and file publications.
34 The three day week was introduced by the Tories in 1974 to conserve electricity during a miners’ strike.
35 Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon were two prominent left union leaders.
36 A Roneo machine was a type of duplicator.