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Remembering Ron Todd: What we can learn about class in the Labour Party today


The objects of the Ron Todd Foundation are close to my heart.


The prevention or relief of poverty – but through working class education and organisation.


Ron Todd was a great example of working class self education and organising.


A product of a mass labour movement that developed and advanced its activists.


That model of organisation gave ordinary people opportunities to understand they could lift themselves through collective action.


Ron was both a great patriot and an internationalist. And his primary loyalty was above all to the working class.


I didn’t know him well, but we shared a few things in common.


We’re both from a working class background.


We both worked as plumbers mates. He was passionate about nuclear disarmament. I proposed the motion in the House of Commons to resist nuclear rearmament when Blair sought to develop Trident. I shudder to think what his reaction would be now when Putin appeared to refer to the use of his nuclear armoury. It is chilling.


We both worked through the labour movement – he worked industrially and me politically.


Our purpose was the same: to take on the establishment.


I only met Ron a couple of brief times.


But in a sense he was everywhere, I saw him on stage at party conference He was known throughout the country.


He was regularly on the news.


Back when newspapers and TV news had industrial correspondents.


And there is a reason why we had industrial correspondents at that time.


Trade unions - the organised working class - held real power.


In the mid- to late- 70s and the early 80s.


Those were the years the trade unions held their greatest power.


They had some of their greatest victories.


And some major confrontations.


And sadly, some defeats.


And Ron was part of all that.


This was a period of tremendous mobilisations of people in the workplace and in defence of our class.


Mobilisations to defend the gains of the post-war era, of a more, if not completely, socialised economy.

Certainly a more mixed economy, where many more people were employed by public bodies.


And by the 80s we entered a period where the public sector was rolled back.


The Thatcher government drove through the neo-liberal project.


Selling off public assets, public industries, for the benefit of private profit.


And often – too often – the only thing standing in the way of that Thatcherite drive was organised labour whilst the rest of society gave in.

Ron Todd was always to be found playing a key role in those times. And he was always on the correct side. If we want to understand the crises facing working class people now, we need to revisit those times, if only briefly. Looking back now, there were two phases which we might want to highlight. The first phase was the intellectual collapse of a section of the Labour Leadership in the years of the Callaghan leadership. And the second phase was the Thatcher government. I am not going to try and write a history of all this. At least, not tonight. But we do need to understand it.


So let me be brief. The Callaghan Government was confronted by deep fiscal problems brought about by a profound crisis in British capitalism. The response of that Labour govt was to cut public expenditure and bear down on the wages of the working class. The Labour cabinet was presented with three options one of which was a socialist response to the crisis presented to the Cabinet by Tony Benn. Years later, Denis Healey admitted that the Treasury under his chancellorship had miscalculated the fiscal crisis and that there was really no objective need to turn so massively to the Right during those years.

But the Cabinet majority went with a Right Wing response to a crisis which they were led to believe they faced. This Labour Cabinet majority I will call revisionists.

They rejected traditional social democratic measures, even keynesian economics, and in doing so turned decisively away from representing the interests of working people - the very part of the electorate who normally voted Labour. This revisionist tendency inside the Party continues to be very active in the PLP.


You know who they are.

Their allies in the trades union movement also have repeatedly sought to destroy the socialists bases in the unions as we shall see when I describe the events surrounding Ron’s election as General Secretary. But let's return for a moment to Ron Todd and the dying months of the Callaghan government. The Labour Cabinet not only cut public expenditure, but had sought to impose a 5% cap on wage increases. In a pre-election period and with inflation eating away at living standards of workers, this orientation was to prove disastrous at the next General Election. Now, at that time there was a powerful shop stewards movement that was deeply embedded in industry. It was in the Ford motor company - but especially at Dagenham where Ron Todd played a key role - where working class resistance to the pay policy broke through with a landmark pay settlement. But which broke the pay norms which Labour had established. Ron, in contrast to the Labour Government, had remained loyal, throughout, to his own working class origins and to the people who he served as a trades union official.

The election followed, many working people refused to vote for Labour and the rest in some ways is history. Then, the next decade saw the gradual ascendancy of right wing revisionism in the party, whilst in the unions the situation has been slightly more nuanced.


I want briefly to turn to the events of 1984-85.


I vividly recall that time. I was elected as a councillor in the great city of Leeds in autumn 1984. I rapidly became chair of the Finance Committee. It was also the time when Ron became General Secretary of the T&G.


But it was the moment of the greatest confrontation between the labour movement and the capitalist class in Britain– in the miners’ strike. Ron stood for national trade union solidarity with the miners. My role was different. We spent hours on the picket lines, days raising money, and moments when I was visiting miners homes helping to fix plumbing and heating problems. On the council, we fought our way through a thicket of legislation to find a legal way for the Council to donate money to starving miners’ families.


But these months are relevant to our story because we see the retirement of Moss Evans and the contest between Ron and the so-called Moderates for the general secretaryship of the T and G.

At that time, trades unions conducted their internal ballots largely in the work place. Ron was elected in 1984 as General Secretary of the T & G in this way, there had been other possible left candidates, but they had withdrawn so the left could coalesce around him. The turn out was 41%.


He won by a majority of almost 45,000.


But his victory was challenged by the right wing so-called moderates in the union machinery.


George Wright, the South Wales regional secretary, with the support of a majority of other regional secretaries, sought to use the machine against Ron Todd, the elected GS. By the way, I have had the opportunity this week in preparing for this event to review 11 articles written at the time in the Guardian and Observer about this GS election. They are dripping with prejudice against the Left. There is no other way to describe it.


As soon as the result became clear that Ron had won, the moderates began to bog the union down in complaints about process and procedure


Rather than insist on his victory, Ron took the challenge on, insisted on a fresh ballot and – to his credit – won with an even bigger majority


It's hard when reading about the challenge to Ron to resist the temptation to reflect on events in the Labour Party in 2015-16 where the legitimacy of the elected leader was itself challenged by the Revisionists almost from the moment that Jeremy was elected. In his second election as leader, Jeremy equally increased his majority, just as Ron had.


But going back to 84/85 the Thatcher Government now moved to end the system of workplace balloting, on the grounds that it was undemocratic. It is striking that in the recent UNITE election the percentage who voted was 9% rather than the 40+% which workplace ballots achieved in the 1980’s under the old workplace ballot system. Of course it is not possible to pay full regard to the long and active life of such a figure as Ron Todd in 20 minutes. I have chosen to speak about only a couple of moments from some time ago. But I believe there are important lessons to be drawn for how we act now. Let me point to several: 1) It was a dreadful error for the Revisionist Right to abandon Labour’s traditional commitment to the promotion of the interests of working people, especially since it was based on a false accounting of the public sector deficit by the Treasury.

2) The slide by Labour’s leaders in the 1970’s into a monetarist economics laid the ground for subsequent Thatcherite attacks on public spending, and equally the pressure for pay restraint by Labour opened the door to an all out assault by Thatcher.


3) There is a line of continuity from those fateful years through to New Labour and its broad acceptance of a substantial part of the Thatcher Settlement. 4) Throughout the whole of these decades there were trades union leaders who held the line and remained four square behind the class interests of their members. Ron Todd is one of the finest examples of this group. 5) So-called moderates within the trades unions consistently sought to undermine leaders who retained their orientation to members’ interests. And this activity continues to the present day. I say that it falls to our generation to understand the thoughts which the life of Ron Todd gives rise to. There are many thoughts. Let me indicate maybe two. First, the Left is notorious for internal factionalism. Ron’s election as GS shows that a single Left candidate is always better where possible than a divided Left.


But the second and more important thought is that the years which have passed have seen a major decline in the presence at a national level of working class leaders; particularly ones with a socialist orientation. In 1979, there were 83 Labour MP’s from manual worker backgrounds. Now, there are only 7. Of course, the nature of work has changed and there are fewer manual workers in the country. But where are the leaders who were workers in the new economy? The call centre employees, the Costa baristas, uber drivers, or people who worked in McDonalds. It’s in this milieu that we must find the Ron Todds of our new century.


Don’ t tell me they aren’t working class or that class no longer matters - which is what the Right would have us believe.

In these years of casualised work, and poverty pay just as the growth of the billionaire class reaches obscene levels, working class leaders are more important than ever. That is why it was great to hear from Sarah Wolley earlier, who is one of the new trailblazing leaders that our movement needs. As socialists we were always told that it was the task of the working class to secure its own emancipation. Ron’s life encapsulated this idea. That is why it is worth celebrating.


This speech was given at the annual Ron Todd Lecture on Friday 11th March 2022. To support the Ron Todd Foundation, please visit https://rontoddfoundation.org/


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