Blackpool Lights

An event of some interest to 400,000 members of the working class took place at Blackpool in May. It received a bit of coverage in the daily press, although this was mainly concerned with matters that had little to do with the supposed purpose of the event. There was the speech by Denis Healey, headed in the Guardian (13/5/81) “The Enemy Within”, designed to further his bid for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. There was also the odd mention of the “nasty Left”, “little Stalins”, and “dogmatic sectarians”. Oh no, you may cry, not another Labour Party meeting or Left Wing gathering. No indeed. The event was in fact the Bi-Annual Conference of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbers Union—the EETPU, a trade union of 400,000 members.

The Conference was one of those stage-managed affairs that anyone acquainted with the majority of non-socialist organisations soon gets used to. The daily press, while seeing fit to cover Healey’s speech, showed little interest in the fact that 5,000 members of the union in Birmingham were without any representation at the Conference because the Executive had decided to suspend the meetings of Midland Branch 18 months before. Nor was much print given over to the similar plight of London Central Branch, whose 7,000 members made the mistake of wishing to elect their own delegates to the local Labour Party; their main Branch activity soon became the collecting of members’ dues. Then, of course, there was the compositing of motions, weeding out those that might rock the boat, all helping to ensure that the Conference ran smoothly, without any significant opposition. Finally, there were the lost resolutions. No, not those lost through voting those resolutions lost in the post, that for some strange reason never reached the Conference at all. Like the one from Worcester Branch about Branch suspensions and—coincidence of coincidences—their delegate did not receive his credentials in time for Conference either.

There should be no illusions about democracy under capitalism. It’s ten to one that the word will flow from a politician’s or trade union leader’s lips whenever they mount a rostrum, but more often than not it’s a smoke screen for a power struggle over who is going to help run capitalism. The dispute between Benn and Healey in the Labour Party is mirrored in trade unions like the EETPU. The form of elections and voting is structured by those with power for the purpose of furthering their positions, and keeping any opposition out. While in the Labour Party the struggle is over whether MPs or the block union votes should dominate the election of the leader, in the EETPU it has been over whether Branches and local union organisations or the central executive backed by the periodical voting of the members should be the main decision makers. The latter sounds more democratic, but in reality little opportunity to put their case is given to those who wish to stand in opposition to the executive council backed candidates. The executive of the union have control of the union media, the EETPU paper, plus greater access to the national press. Besides this, any opposition that is elected stands a good chance of being ruled out of order for infringing some rule or other.

But these internal struggles for power and the manipulation that goes on cannot be divorced from the fact that the majority of the union members take little active interest in its affairs. For many, the union card has simply become a job ticket. Further, some of the traditional benefits of trade unionism, such as unemployment payout, have been taken over by the state. On top of this, the bulk of union funds is now spent on administration. Even when members are in a dispute they often find they have to fight the union as well as the employers.

Democracy is only as powerful a tool as the desires and aspirations of those who have access to it. It is not much use having the vote if it is not used, nor is it much use if its potential is not appreciated. While workers go on electing and believing in leaders, whether in unions or in government, then voting systems will never be more than potential means of creating a democratic society. But past experience shows that at election after election Labour or Conservative governments have been returned to run an economic system that operates against the interests of the majority of people. And, whether because of scepticism or a general recognition that it doesn’t make much difference who runs capitalism, many don’t bother to vote at all. The position in the EETPU in many ways reflects this, with only a small percentage of members bothering to vote at those few elections that do take place.

Frank Chapple, the General Secretary of the EETPU has a long history of participation in the internal power struggles of the union. He was a member of the Communist Party in the 1950s at the time when the CP took over many of the posts in the then Electrical Trades Union. The electrical trades being at the heart of most industries, this influence inside the union gave the CP a degree of power to disrupt large sectors of production. The union only had to get a few members to stop work for a short time and whole industries and areas could be brought to a standstill.

In the 1950s the revelations about Stalin’s atrocities in Russia led to many former believers abandoning the myth of Russian socialism. Frank Chapple was one of the the ETU members who left the Communist Party and who, along with political figures such as Woodrow Wyatt, worked to get rid of the CPers. They eventually succeeded, with the help of the law courts, in exposing cases of ballot rigging.

For most members of the union there was little immediate change. The exposure of ballot rigging and the subsequent change in leaders made little difference. The new executive council said it would ensure that democracy in the union was upheld, traditions respected—the usual rhetoric. All this happened in the early 1960s. Then changes were made. Certain members of the executive went to the
USA, were influenced by the business type, centrally organised unions there, and came back with big ideas. In 1965 major changes in the rule book were made. In the years that followed the streamlining measures included the abolition of area committees and the appointment by the executive of what were formally elected union officials. Members were sent voting papers which, on the face of it, appeared to be concerned with with wage rates, but in fact included changes in rules and conditions. Union members found themselves voting for all manner of things even though their main concern would be the increase in wages. On one of these votes even tea breaks were abolished (this writer remembers one socialist, at that time a member of the union, who on hearing of this decision tore up his union card). The last 15 years have been a constant process of movement toward a highly organised, bureaucratically controlled union, centralised to the point where nearly all correspondence has to circulate through the General Secretary.

What then has Denis Healey’s speech, at Blackpool, and the power struggle in the Labour Party, got to do with defending the wages and conditions of workers in the EETPU? Precisely nothing. It shouldn’t be surprising then that such Conferences are used as political platforms for expressing the views of one side or the other in the Labour Party’s power struggle. And just as “unity” is the constant call of all sides in that struggle (while they stab each other in the back) so “unity” in union affairs means keeping those who oppose the present leaders outside of the Conference. That is in fact where they were.