Class Traitor

Edward Pearce

  • Maverick: The Life of a Union Rebel by Eric Hammond
    Weidenfeld, 214 pp, £16.99, March 1992, ISBN 0 297 81200 9

‘“Bull,” I thought as I put the letter down on my desk. “You’re scared witless, Brenda.” ’ The style and address of Eric Hammond is unmistakable. He is here declining to be scared by a letter from Brenda Dean, ‘the pleasant woman at the helm of SOGAT’, trying to frighten him over EEPTU relations with Eddie Shah and Today.

Hammond would eventually be expelled from the TUC and has, in many places where ice clinks against glass, become an object of disdain, just as in heavy left circles he is in receipt of simple hatred. ‘A quiet well-spoken voice said: “You saw that we bunted down the paper store in South-East London [they had], and I just want to inform you that we’re going to burn down your office, burn down your home. You and your family are going to burn, you bastard.” ’ Later, outside the TUC Conference at Blackpool, being, as was his wont, jeered at by hard men wearing SOGAT badges, ‘I felt a chill go down my spine as I thought – I recognise that voice. That’s the bastard who threatened me.’ He was begged by Norman Willis and sundry other trade-union people not to make this a police issue as the man might go to prison. In fact, he knows the name, is legally advised not to reveal it, but the person claiming to have committed arson and threatening arson and murder against Hammond and his family and colleagues remains ‘in good standing with SOGAT’. As the man said, ‘I think we should be told.’

This is a good rough book from what one might call a good rough man. The exasperating aspect of Eric Hammond is there – an occasional tendency, as with Arthur Scargill and latterly Mrs Thatcher, to speak of himself in the third person, a rather pleased way of saying: ‘Hammond wasn’t having any of that.’ So, more seriously, is his dedication to quarrelling. For better or worse, this union in its modern shape and title was born out of the struggle waged by Les Cannon, Jock Byrne and the later deleted Mark Young against the Communist leadership which had rigged elections in a style which would have done credit to the Kennedys or the Daleys in Chicago. The ETU resistance (it was hardly less) had received no succour from the mainstream of the Trade Union movement, whose passivity when confronted with the infamous conduct of Foulkes, Haxell, Fraser and the rest of the Communist conspiracy devastatingly proclaimed a comfortable, institutional mediocrity of mind. This neglect placed between the Electricians and the TUC a two-stream gulf of guilty resentment, on the one hand, and rebarbative contempt, on the other. The history of the union after the court case was one of extreme prickliness towards most orthodox unions of a kind which intensified in the left-wing Seventies. No gap could have been wider than that dividing two nominal moderates. Frank Chapple of the Electricians and David Basnett of the G and M. Chapple began the tradition of heroic truculence, justifiable if unsubtle anti-Communism, double arm’s-length relations with the TUC General Council and aggressive modernisation. Basnett, an honest man inheriting a measure of corruption, was a pattern of inadequacy, essaying a United Nations style in his dealings with left-wing colleagues in TUC and Labour Party alike. His memorial is the system for the election of a leader and deputy leader of the Party.

Hammond is the heir of Chapple, in no particular less combative or more forgiving, and like him, running a tight, computerised ship with steel-edged financial controls and minute provision for membership consultation. (A comparison on this last point with the once fashionable and media-fancied ASTMS is vastly instructive.) It was fashionable among the more hero-worshipping industrial correspondents to accept the view that the Electricians and their leaders were an anomaly, a piece of eccentricity. In the glory days of Downing Street deference and the super-constitutional role of the General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers, Chapple and his successor were perceived as ‘old-style Cold Warriors caught in a time-warp’. But heroic trade-unionism is at one with the ancients, the white carthorse on the steps of Number Ten is dust with Bellerophon, the horse of Alexander. A cruel memory of that age lingers, the TUC trip to Poland at the height of Party-military repression in that country. It was a jaunt which the EEPTU opposed – violently of course, it never did things otherwise – which Mr Basnett approved and of which Len Murray, a man otherwise of much quality, said with historic feebleness: ‘But the tickets have been bought.’ With the slow-motion collapse of the Union power façade, what Hammond had inherited, conserved and brawled for began to look like the future, if a future shot through a lurid filter. Financially sound, open to no strike deals, pro-capitalist but painfully clean and above all wired deep into the will and psyche of its membership, the Electricians’ union is no Suffolk Punch but a fast, trim little horse with a filthy temper.

But beyond that background case-history, Hammond himself is an enormously important person historically, more important than his own cheerfully truculent self-estimate. It is a cliché of left liberal conversation that the mildest reform politics is impeded by what is called Essex Man, the self-seeking, self-aggrandising, uncultured, upper-working class to ex-working class. Hammond is not, in fact, in himself any of those things. He is quite a long way to the left and liberal side of a representative beneficiary of Essex thinking like the Conservative MP David Amess, whose opening and shutting mouth at the Basildon declaration must be the icon of the last election. But the sort of worker who in the heaviest of union ballots, ballots which were set up and commonplace long before Norman Tebbit’s legislation, recurringly gives enthusiastic support to an apostolic succession of Frank Chapple and Eric Hammond (both standing in the shadow of Les Cannon) has something to tell us. He has a skill, he is willing and ready to amend it, he wants to work for profitable companies, he comes to strike action only across broken glass with bare feet, he is indifferent to rhetoric about this great movement of ours and has been content for his own fiercely autonomous union to cease being part of it. He is also part of a lost élite and those who have lost him have lost more seats than Basildon.

Finally, this abstract figure we discuss is not merely an electrician, not merely a member of that one union or its new companion, the AEU. He is significant and numerous enough far outside Essex and Mr Hammond’s own native Kent to change the map of politics, to toss close-fought elections to a different party. After all, he has done so once already. Hammond is his natural union leader, his choice of spokesman.

And Eric Hammond is still a member of the Labour Party, and his chapter on relations with it demonstrates a friendly view of Neil Kinnock and the interesting fact that he suggested to Mr Kinnock before the ’87 election that it should commit itself to staging a referendum on unilateral disarmament. Characteristically, though, his rational skilled unionist’s dislike of the minimum wage proposal led to a piece in the Daily Mail which could only serve Conservative interests. Never, never does the chance of a fight, of subjecting himself to cries of ‘class traitor’ get passed up. My memory of Eric Hammond is of this energetic, physically well-balanced man coming to the rostrum, settling, like a boxer on the balls of his feet, spitting out ‘Hammond: Double E PTU’ and smiling with satisfaction at the programmed reflex of hissing and snarling which would arise from the prescribed corners of the hall.

He tells briefly here of his own background in Gravesend, the disabled father, the loving and loved mother, the evacuation to Canada during the war, the admiration for Gravesend’s original and idealistic MP Richard Acland, the bottomless contempt for his replacement, Victor Mischon, and his early days as a councillor and (fairly left-wing) union activist. His attitude to Mischon, who he thinks of as a smooth, ideal-free user of the Labour Party, is characteristic. The old ETU at one stage amalgamated with the Plumbers’ union, whose lawyers had been Mischon’s firm. As the ETU were already set up with Lawfords, it was inevitable that they would drop Mischon, but without malice or bad feelings. Hammond suggested to Chapple that he might like to leave Mischon with the impression that his, Hammond’s, hostility had been behind the move, and he delighted in Mischon’s resentful grunt as he hailed him: vindictive, but aimed at a good target and funny with it.

The book is candid about this trait and bristles with the opportunities Hammond took to turn an argument into a bitter row. One savage phrase he thought up in his hotel bedroom; on another occasion he records his pleasure at opponents having to apologise to him in front of Lord Denning, about which awful old gentleman he has a blind spot. Most of the things Hammond fought for were good and rational. Most of the ways he went about it were calculated to make opponents into enemies, to solidify the soft left around the hard left, and to produce more sport than instruction.

Of course, the EEPTU was right to want single-member no-strike deals, right to abominate the entirely destructive role of grupuscule leftists in succession to old-line Communists, right to despise the Isle of Grain mentality with its free money for no work, right to excoriate the ingrained eight-inch-deep dirty corruption of Old Fleet Street, right also to be fundamentally pro-capitalist. But he was wrong to have spoken in terms of unreserved admiration for the Police at Wapping, in terms to make Mrs Thatcher draw breath, when there is good reason to think that there was both police and striker brutality at that site which would have done credit to the 19th century or the USA. He is foolish, to put it mildly, to report his social encounters with Rupert Murdoch during the long Wapping episode: barbecues, lunches and other gatherings in Los Angeles and St James’s Place. He was also wrong, as he admits, to have expected reciprocation from Murdoch, who used the Electricians but later denied them full rights. Ironically, the role of the EEPTU was less at Wapping than by repute: members from its Southampton branch formed only a minority of the work-force which broke the printers’ grip, and that at arm’s length. The involvement never quite justified the five-act tragedy made of all the favours done by all participants. With Labour defeated again and the Unions reduced to the condition of painted ship upon a painted ocean in flotilla strength, most of the assumptions of Hammond and his old boss Frank Chapple are underlined as relevant. The actual moderation of the Edmonds/Laird/Jordan/Tuffin/Jinkinson TUC is more real than perceived. Yet Hammond is to be found quarrelling even with fellow moderates. John Edmonds in particular is an object of running scorn and antipathy. If, as he claims persuasively, the final expulsion of the union was not the product of the complex and ultimately unimportant Orion deal, but a long-nourished revenge for Wapping, might not the lack of good relations with non-left-wing unionists have something to do with it?

It is an honourable tale, and this copy has been set without surcharge, old Spanish practices, or menaces, as a partial consequence of his willingness to break a corrupt labour ring. But if Mr Hammond is candid with himself, he may still concede that while the union lost nothing in practical terms, yet modern, solvent, professionally-run, member-responsive unionism requires as much to be sold as fought for, and that he will be remembered rather for combat than persuasion.