1990s >> 1995 >> no-1088-april-1995

Book Review: ‘Radical Aristocrats – London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’

Part of the union

‘Radical Aristocrats: London Busworkers from the 1880s to the 1980s’ by Ken Fuller (Lawrence & Wishart.

One of the myths about the Socialist Party, perpetuated mainly by historians sympathetic to the Labour Party or the now-defunct Communist Party, is that we are opposed to trade union activity (see review of Ernie Roberts’s book p21). But the fact is that there are few unions, in the London area at least, whose history would not have to include, if only in a footnote, a reference to the role played by Socialist Party members.

The London bus-workers are a case in point. SPGB members played so prominent a role here that in this fascinating and readable book even a sympathiser of the defunct Communist Party such as Ken Fuller has had to face what for him must have been an unpalatable fact.

In 1913 previously existing unions for busmen and cabdrivers (who were in a similar position through having to hold a licence to do their jobs) amalgamated to found the London and Provincial Union of Licensed Vehicle Workers (LPU). This was a militant union whose constitution allowed the members a large degree of control over policy (officials and organisers were subject to regular election and re-election, and all members had a right to attend the meetings of the union’s Executive Committee). A number of SPGB members were active in this union, including the E. Fairbrother mentioned by Fuller of pages 39 and 40 (he had been a founder member of the SPGB) and George Bellingham, who served on the LPU  executive for a while and was also one of its organisers till it amalgamated with the other unions in 1921 to form the Transport and General Workers Union (Socialist Standard, June 1938).

The London bus-workers, as the title of Fuller’s book indicates, were a relatively privileged group within the working class, enjoying more job security and higher wages than most other workers. The TGWU’s policy was to bring its other members, tram-workers for instance, up to their level, even if this meant not using the bus-workers’ full strength to get the best deal possible for bus-workers.

Under these circumstances tensions developed between the bus-workers and the TGWU leadership. A Busmen’s Rank and File Movement (RFM) was formed in 1932, mainly on the initiative of Communist Party members (whose anti-“reformist”-union line had been changed by Moscow earlier that year); mainly but not exclusively since the man who was elected chairman was Frank Snelling, described by Fuller as “a member of the anti-Communist Socialist Party of Great Britain”  (p. 111).

Within the TGWU the London busmen had an elected Central Bus Committee. In the 1933 elections the RFM assumed control of this body. Snelling became the chairman, a post he occupied until after the 1937 Coronation bus strike, which was defeated largely due to the strikers being stabbed in the back by the TGWU leader Ernest Bevin.

The result was the demise of the RFM and, in 1938, the formation of a breakaway union, the National Passenger Workers Union, by some of the non-CP members of the old RFM and Central Bus Committee (CP members were under instructions to stay in the TGWU). Snelling became one of the officials of this union which survived until after the war when it was squeezed out by a closed-shop agreement between the TGWU and the London Passenger Transport Board.

The NPWU revived the old LPU practice of electing officials and organisers – in contrast to the TGWU where they were, and still are, appointed from above – and adopted a non-political stance (i.e. didn’t support the Labour Party). In 1943 it was to be denounced by the Communist Party as “a hotbed of every kind of anti-working class politics – SPGB members (who believe the fight for Socialism is hopeless till every worker is a ‘Marxist’), ILP-ers, Trotskyists” (Socialist Standard, August 1943).

The existence of this breakaway union posed a bit of a dilemma for the Socialist Party and in June 1938 a meeting was organised by our Lewisham branch in which two bus-worker members, Snelling and Bill Waters (who had chosen to stay in the TGWU) debated the issue. The debate was attended by many local bus-workers and was reported in the local press (Fuller, pages 166-7). The position eventually adopted was that SPGB members were left to decide for themselves which particular union they joined.

Both Snelling and Waters reappear after the war. Snelling as the national organiser of another breakaway from the TGWU, the National Union of Port Workers (Socialist Standard, October 1946) and Waters as a founding member of an unofficial bus-workers’ journal The Platform that appeared between 1950 and 1967 (see Fuller, page 199). Waters was also a regular writer in the Socialist Standard on bus-workers’ problems (his February 1949 article is quoted by Fuller).

The Platform was edited, under the name George Moore, by George Renshaw who before the war had been the London Industrial Organiser of the Communist Party but who by this time had left the CP; Waters, in fact, went on record as stating that Renshaw was a sympathiser of the Socialist Party (Socialist Standard, June 1968).

Adam Buick

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