Last October the Amalgamated Engineering Union counted 1,146,865 members. This is a powerful total: even if the Transport and General Workers’ Union is bigger, it probably does not include quite so many members working in the growth sectors of the economy, and it almost certainly does not embrace so many vociferous, aggressive and politically aware militants. Yet the t & gwu has been led from the left, and is systematically ranged against the Government’s major commitments in social and economic policy; while the aeu has been the apparently entailed property of an extreme rightist caucus, directed by Sir William Carron and (more recently) Jim Conway. They have been somewhat uncouthly abetted by such assistants as John Boyd (‘an amiable rightwinger lacking in demagogic sex-appeal’ as the Economist described him) who achieved a remarkable reputation as the self-appointed hammer of the white-collar workers at last year’s tuc.
Respect for the niceties of the democratic process is not the most obvious characteristic of the Carron machine. A tight and privy faction of irredentist anti-socialists carefully watches all the numerous elections at every level of the union’s apparatus, and not only fields its own meticulously screened candidates, but, seemingly, operates, through an extended grapevine of permanent officials, a formidable lobby against the Left. This January the independent left-wing journal Voice of the Unions featured a facsimile of part of a clandestine appeal which involved 14 full-time officers of the union, in a conspiracy not only to influence the elections, but also to build up a network of factory and local agents under the direct control of a national secretary who appears himself to be a professional employee of the union. Of course, the development of blocs and policy groupings is part of the normal life of democratic organizations and ought to be generally recognized as such. The question involved in this episode is, why should a dominant caucus choose to associate in secret? Why do they not simply announce their aims, group their forces, and prepare for an
In the middle of last year, by contrast, a representative cross-section of the left-wing in the union foregathered, openly, in public, at a conference organized by Engineering Voice in Birmingham. This might have encouraged the secretive cabal to declare itself, to begin an open campaign. In this way union democracy would have taken a giant step forward. Not a bit of it. Instead, the front page of the aeu Journal, last July, was given over to a rabid outburst from Sir William. ‘Members—Be Vigilant!’ ran its headline. There followed an urgent plea written in Sir William’s own rather staccato if convoluted jargon: ‘officers and members of the Union present at the meeting were not only prepared to subscribe to the erection of a kind of organization within our Union, but that persons outwith our Union should be participants,’ he charged. ‘Members would be particularly disturbed’, he went on, ‘at the threat posed to the Union by those who take directions from sources made clear by their ideology’. ‘I conclude’, he concluded, ‘by the exhortations to the membership to be vigilant, to reject these attempts to negate our Union’s democracy and to resist the undoubted attempt to bring the Union under the kind of dominance which enslaved the etu for so long.’
So much for democratic pluralism: a public meeting is denounced as a ‘plot’, whilst a genuine cabal of intriguers goes unchallenged and even unacknowledged. Of course, Sir William’s bouts of temperament are well known. Many of his more active shop stewards recall rather wryly the occasion upon which he endearingly described them as ‘werewolves’. But in this case, his exhortations are specious to an extreme degree. For instance, to speak of the dominance which en-enslaved the etu ‘for so long’ is either completely untrue, or a gross reflection on the probity of the present rather conformist leadership of that union: the communists in the etu won their positions in open and democratic contests, and their long rule was maintained, as far as anyone is aware, by the same means. The charges of ballot-rigging were only brought against the union’s leadership after the serious split in the Communist Party caucus in the union, which took place after the events of 1956. There is no evidence at all that improper practices were employed at any time before that date: and if Sir William implies that they were, then he is charging them to the account not only of the convicted and now displaced leadership, but also to that of the principal plaintiffs in the etu case, who are, in the main, now among the Union’s present leadership, and would, if Sir William’s implications were taken seriously, be assumed to have been themselves former conspirators. In reality, of course, Mr Les Cannon never rigged a ballot during the whole time he was in the Communist Party, and nor have the overwhelming majority of all those numerous communists who have ever held important office in the trade union movement. The etu scandal was a totally unique, exceptional and idiosyncratic affair, and can no more be held typical of communists in general than can Sir William’s own intolerance be held at the door of all Roman Catholics.
However, the right of tendency, of rational discussion between open contenders, is only one of the many canons of democracy which are not valued highly by the Carron apparatus. For a precise view of the manner in which Sir William interprets that democracy in defence of which he enjoins such vigilance, it is necessary to study carefully the behaviour of the aeu delegations at the tuc and at the Labour Party Conference last year.