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Socialist Review, October 1994

Paul Holborow


Part of the union


From Socialist Review, No. 179, October 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Strike Back
Ernie Roberts
£5.95 (available from Bookmarks)

The recent death of Ernie Roberts at the age of 82 will have saddened many readers of Socialist Review. Over a continuous span of 60 years Ernie was directly involved in most of the campaigns of the left in Britain.

Astonishingly his first political involvement was during the election campaign of 1924 after the first minority Labour government had been bundled out of office by Tory and Liberal alliances. Blacklisted and repeatedly victimised as a young engineering worker, he became Coventry’s youngest ever AEU district president in 1944, a Labour councillor a few years later, and assistant general secretary of the AEU in 1957.

At the age of 67 he became Labour MP for Hackney North until 1987 when he was discreditably deselected in favour of Diane Abbott. Co-founder of the Anti Nazi League, he played a central part in encouraging significant numbers of the parliamentary Labour Party and many trade union leaders to sponsor the ANL. One of his last speeches in public was at the ANL conference this summer.

When in parliament in 1982, he moved the writ for the by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone after the death of the sitting MP Bobby Sands while on hunger strike. He was actively associated with many other issues including Ireland, unemployment (both in the Unemployed Workers’ Movement in the 1930s and the Right to Work Campaign in the 1970s), CND, Vietnam and the Institute for Workers’ Control.

Fortunately an account of this very active life was completed by Ernie a few weeks before he died. What emerges is that Ernie was shaped by the intensely political character of the engineering union during much of his life. By far the most democratic union in Britain at the time, all full time officials from national president to district secretary were subject to regular election. This democracy within the AEU rested on its strong shop stewards’ organisation established during the First World War, and which received a further impetus during the Second World War and the long economic boom that followed it.

In conditions of near full employment and expanding world and domestic markets the bargaining power of a shop steward was immense. Typically a strike only lasted one or two days, and it was an unwritten rule among AEU members to get a settlement before the national officials could step in and negotiate a less favourable deal. One of Ernie’s proudest achievements was the Coventry Toolroom Agreement which was made on this basis during the war, lasted for 30 years and became the benchmark for skilled engineering rates across the country. When I lived in Wolverhampton in the early 1970s, the self confidence of engineering workers was obvious. Over 350 shop stewards from every major engineering factory in the area would attend the shop stewards’ quarterly meeting and you had a real sense of a militant and confident rank and file movement.

But the contrast with the right wing national leadership of the AEU could not be greater. The long serving president was William Carron (later knighted), backed by Catholic Action and other right wing organisations. Those on the left in the union, Ernie Roberts amongst them, were systematically harassed and witchhunted by Carron’s followers. Those today in similar unions should take heart from the fact that right wing control was at least partially broken by the election of Hugh Scanlon as AEU president in 1967. However, as events were to prove, the do-it-yourself reformism of the shop stewards, which had been outstandingly successful during the long economic boom, proved no match for the employers when circumstances seemed less favourable, unemployment started to rise, and the employers switched tactics. A more political approach was required. The failure of trade union activists and the rest of the labour movement to adopt such a political approach opened the way for ‘Thatcherism’ in the 1980s.

The reasons for the inadequacy of the response from our side are many. Part of the answer lies in the fact it was the left winger Hugh Scanlon (now a life peer in the House of Lords) who was, along with Jack Jones, the architect of the Social Contract. There was also the compromising attitude of the Communist Party who while commanding a real following among militants refused to provide a focus of opposition for those who were becoming increasingly alienated and disillusioned by the Labour government.

Although Ernie’s book Strike Back does not deal with such questions, it does convey a real sense of the struggle and concerns of the labour movement as experienced by an active participant. This insider’s view makes the book both interesting and valuable.

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