Book Review: ‘Frank Cousins, A Study’
Sincerity is not enough
‘Frank Cousins, A Study’ by Margaret Stewart (Hutchinson, 35s.)
Margaret Stewart, as a Fleet Street industrial correspondent, is in an admirable position to study a trade union chief. It is a pity that she confuses her study of Frank Cousins by the continuous use of those popular but vague terms, “the left” and “the right”.
In the introduction to her study Stewart poses three questions. First, why did the Transport and General Workers’ Union swing from the right under Arthur Deakin to the left under Frank Cousins? Them what has been the effect of Cousins’ campaign against wage restraint? Finally, is Cousins big in his own right or because he is the leader of one-and-a-half million trade unionists? The answer to these questions is to be found, mainly between the lines, in her following chapters.
Stewart shows that the great majority of union members are apathetic and do not influence union policy. Full time officers are constitutionally debarred from opposition and lay members in high office are inhibited from expressing opposing views to those of their chief. The delegates to the union’s policy making conferences are influenced by an autocrat like Deakin, to whom they listened in sullen silence, or by their hero worship of Cousins, whose speeches they greet with vociferous applause. For decades past they have accepted the views of their current General Secretary and voted accordingly. When Cousins came on the stage with a new policy the delegates remained loyal and supported him. The mass of the membership did not swing left or right. It noticed no change.
The members of the TGWU, like all workers, aspire to achieve the highest possible wage. Their aspirations were held in check by a government policy of wage restraint as expounded by Deakin and are equally held in check by the same policy as opposed by Cousins. Deakin proposed it, Cousins opposes it, but it is still there.
Stewart points to the series of accidents and incidents that catapulted Cousins into the union secretary’s seat in 1956. Such accidents or incidents could easily have left him in a junior office and he would have been as little heard of today as he was in 1955. He is big because he is the leader of a million and a half workers who follow him enthusiastically, mistaking his verbal fireworks and his sincerity for sound sense.
We accept Stewart’s assessment that Cousins is sincere and honest but, she says, even after writing her book, she still finds him an enigma. The things that make him enigmatic are his dual loyalties. As a trade union chief his job is to promote the interests of his members. As a member of the Labour Party he feels obliged to support the Labour government even while protesting against its anti-working class policies.
That is why, as Stewart tells us, Cousins considers the union rule that precludes “communists” from holding office is silly, yet he panders to the Labourites by aggressively opposing attempts to have the rule rescinded. At a TGWU Rules Revision Conference the present writer opposed political discrimination in the union and moved for the rescindment of the rule. Cousins opened his opposition speech with the words, “Waters says he is carrying a torch for no political party. Well, I am. I am carrying a torch for the Labour Party” (Loud cheers).
When union members are on strike they expect Cousins to lead them. The Labour government wants him to keep them at, or get them back to, work. He advocates opposition to the Prices and Incomes Policy but dodges open conflict with the government by taking the municipal busmen’s case to a court.
In capitalist society the interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed. In the ensuing struggle the workers organise into trade unions and the government, be it Liberal, Conservative or Labour, is compelled to safeguard the national capitalist interests. No man can serve both masters. If he tries, and he is not a rogue, he must appear an enigma to those who fail to understand the capitalist system.
Cousins accepted the invitation to join the Labour government because he thought he could do better serve the workers. he left it because he did not wish to be identified with policies that were to the workers’ detriment. But he remains loyal to the Labour party without apparently realising his invidious position.
Stewart’s brief description of the 1958 London bus strike is sound except that the reference to Sir John Elliot’s magnanimity is incorrect. He did not give the members of the busmen’s negotiating committee an autographed copy of his book. He only promised. No tears were shed.
We do not quarrel with Stewart’s narration about Cousins ‘ban the bomb’ activities, his attitude to the infamous Clause Four or his brief governmental career. We do quarrel with her reference to him as a Socialist. She likens him to Keir Hardie and quotes his old assessment of himself as an “old fashioned socialist”. She says his socialism is instinctive and comes from his heart as much as his brain.
At a mass rally of TGWU members in the Central Hall, Westminster in 1966 Cousins launched his “socialist plan”. A minimum of £15 for a 40 hour week with three weeks annual holiday for all workers. This plan is now adopted by the TUC. It bears as much resemblance to Socialism as it does to green cheese.