Well, my initiation wasn’t in the trade union at all. It was in the political movement. At the age of fifteen I decided that the world was wrong and I wanted to put it right, virtually overnight if possible. I did two things. First of all I wrote to the Labour Party and asked them if there was any youth organization which I could belong to, or if there was any association at all where I could play a part. Additionally I wrote to the British-Soviet Friendship Society; I was reading the Daily Worker at this time, and asked them if I could join because I wanted to further friendship between peoples. I got a reply from them but I didn’t get a reply from the Labour Party in spite of two more letters. I thought here I am, I want to contribute to a world where I know everything’s wrong and I want to try to put it right, at least play my part. I read Jack London’s novel the Iron Heel and many other of his works. I think he was more responsible for me being a socialist than anything. I was shocked that we can have a world of plenty and still starvation. And so I wrote to the Daily Worker and asked if there was a young Communist Party I could join. Within twenty-four hours they were at my house and I joined the Young Communist League. I was in the Young Communist League for about six or seven years and I became a member of its National Executive Committee responsible for industrial work. The secretary at this time was a very good friend of mine called Jimmy Reid, and we’re still close friends. A lot of other people on the National Executive at that time went on and became very respectable Labour mp’s in Parliament. Many of us started in the 1950’s in the Young Communist League. So that was my initial introduction into socialism and into political militancy. My father was a Communist. My mother was strictly non-political. But my father never forced me to be involved in politics at all. He left me to make my own judgments. Obviously the fact that the Daily Worker came into my house, the fact that Reynolds News came into my house, Tribune and other left-wing papers and books was bound to have an effect—this was one of the reasons I was able to read Jack London.

My father was never a union official, but he was always active. He never had any prominence in a sense of being a figure in local government or politics and yet I suppose he’s one of the best-read people I’ve ever met in my life. I owe more to my father than anybody else for my introduction into the trade union movement. And even today if I have a problem I think it’s a very good thing to discuss it with my father because I get a lot of common sense from him—a really detached view of the situation; and invariably it’s the right sort of decision he produces. I began to be very active in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was chairman of the Yorkshire district. I went to the Soviet Union to the World Youth Festival, met Khruschev and a lot of other leaders and played an important international role in the Young Communist League.

I went on very actively in the Young Communist League until I was about eighteen years of age; and then I gradually began to be interested in the union itself because it appeared to me that; irrespective of what I did politically in the Young Communist League or the Labour League of Youth as it then was, the Labour or Communist Party or any other political organization, the real power—and I say that in the best possible sense—the real power lay either with the working classes or with the ruling classes. Now the working classes were obviously identified with the trade union movement and not directly identified with the Labour Party which in my opinion had, and indeed still has, lost complete contact with the basic problems of the movement and the rank and file. And so I started to attend union meetings; I’ll never forget the first one. I stood on my feet and started to speak and I thought I was making a very good contribution; but the leadership of the pit, which is a very large one of 2,700 men, stood up, walked out and left me speaking to myself. What a fantastic state of affairs. This was just a forerunner of what was to happen to me over the years at the pit. I suffered terribly as a result of the right-wing domination. My pit was even more of a right-wing centre than you can imagine. It made some of the antics in the etu look like Sunday school. The leadership were responsible for some of the worst things that could be done to any workman, let alone a trade-unionist. I was compelled to work for three years on a shift that started at 6 o’clock at night and finished at 2 o’clock in the morning. Because of the intervention of the right-wing trade-union branch, there was no transport to take me home and I didn’t get home until half past four or five in the morning. Now you’ve got to imagine that I’d got to set off at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, so that my day was destroyed and my night had gone. I was getting home early the next morning and I was shattered. The idea was a very simple one—to get rid of me, to force me into a position where I would no longer tolerate the intolerable shifts and get out of the industry. Well, I was equally determined that they wouldn’t get rid of me. While I was on the shift the men elected me to be their leader. That was the first step in breaking the right-wing domination in the pit. This happened in 1960–1. That was when the breakthrough came. I had started working there in 1953, at the age of 15. From ’53 to ’59 I led a whole series of battles as a young miners’ leader. Once we had 2,000 miners demonstrating for the right to attend the branch meetings of our union. I hope people who are presently campaigning for democracy in the auew in the national press pay the same sort of attention to the num. We were at that time unable even to attend our branch meetings because of the policies of the right wing—supported, of course, by the mass media. We had to demonstrate and even come out on strike in order to establish the right to attend our own trade union branch meeting.

It was a combination of both. The branch arranged the meetings on a Friday when we couldn’t attend because we were on awkward shifts. We were young, we were militant and putting forward a line which they didn’t like, and so the only way they could think of stopping us was preventing us attending the meetings.

No, it was a very broad militant and progressive group of young miners at the colliery. In fact many of them had no political convictions at all, apart from the fact that they could see injustice. They didn’t accept that this should be the order of the day and they were determined to put it right. This went on for several years. Finally I led a strike at the pit over the question of training and I was expelled from the union at local level. It took the intervention of the Area President of the num to get me reinstated. It was ironic that the right wing at that time had guards on the door of the branch meeting and wouldn’t allow me to enter the room. This may seem incredible to you. This can be checked with anyone. There are people around who were there. In fact, some of them who were guarding the door! So here was a young man of eighteen years of age, being denied the right, physically, even to go to his own branch meeting. This was the sort of experience I have in the trade-union movement.

I was beginning to understand at this time the biggest problem facing the miners—it was to become crystal clear to a lot more people as years went by. The Coal Board and the former owners of the industry before them, had been able to play off one section as against the other, by different rates of pay, by different conditions, by little allowance at one pit as against another. A weaker pit not getting the allowance, a stronger pit getting it, but the result in the long run was the same—because all the pits were then made weak because they hadn’t got the combination of each other. I could see that this was the thing that had to be put right. We had to struggle on two fronts: first of all struggle within the industry against the Coal Board and, far more importantly, we had to struggle within the union for democracy, bearing in mind that we had an ultra-right-wing leadership, holding back not only Yorkshire and the miners, but holding back the whole of the trade-union movement in Britain.

A whole host of demands. Within the union we demanded a youth conference. We argued that young people had a right to be part of the union in an active way and not just be tolerated. We had the right as youngsters to be active in the union in the sense of being participants on the branch committee, even if it was only in the role of an observer. I am still of this opinion today. I think the sooner that this comes about in the whole of the movement, the better for our movement. Once you involve young people, then inevitably you will win them for progressive policies and for maximum participation.