John McIlroy

‘The First Great Battle in the March to Socialism’

Dockers, Stalinists and Trotskyists in 1945

The majority of the literature on the involvement of revolutionary Socialists with the dock workers deals with the 1950s, and concentrates almost exclusively upon the rôle of Gerry Healy’s ‘Club’ in the breakaway from the ‘White’ union (the TGWU) to the ‘Blue’ (the NASDU). The fullest account is that provided by Bill Hunter in They Knew Why They Fought (London, 1994), but it is also covered by his previous article ‘The Dockers and Trade Union Democracy’, Labour Review, Volume 3, no 1, January-February 1958, pp5-10; Peter Kerrigan’s What Next for Britain’s Portworkers? (1959); Bob Pennington’s ‘Docks: Breakaway and Unofficial Movements’, International Socialism, no 2, Autumn 1960; Harry Ratner’s Reluctant Revolutionary (London, 1994, pp157-71); Keith Sinclair’s How the Blue Union Came to Hull Docks (Hull, 1995); and John Archer’s The Struggle for an Independent Trade Union by the Dockers in Merseyside and Hull During 1954-55 (Huddersfield, 1995) reviewed below.

These later accounts have attracted a number of reviews and inspired a lively correspondence, including Keith Sinclair, ‘Quay Struggles: The Rise and Fall of the Dock Workers’, Socialist Outlook, 19 November 1994; Tom Cowan, ‘Labourism, Trotskyism and the Dockers’, and Bill Hunter, ‘Lessons of Portworkers’ Fight’, Workers Press, 28 January 1995; Al Richardson, ‘A Wasted Opportunity’, Workers News, February 1995; Harry Ratner’s review of Hunter’s book in New Interventions, February 1995, pp28-9; Tom Cowan, ‘SWL and the Portworkers’, Workers Press, 11 February 1995; Keith Sinclair, ‘Dockers’ History Vital for Trade Unionism’, Workers Press, 18 February 1995; Tom Cowan, ‘Move to Militants’ Union Did Not Strengthen Workers in Struggle’, and Keith Sinclair, ‘Matters Are Not That Simple’, Workers Press, 1 April 1995; Tom Cowan, ‘Dockers and Working Class’, Workers Press, 15 April 1995; Bill Hunter, ‘Dockers’ Breakaway Was Inspiration, Not Manoeuvre’, Keith Sinclair, ‘Move Wasn’t Totally Planned or Totally Spontaneous’, and Dave Finch, ‘My Late Mother-in-Law and a Little Sectarianism’, Workers Press, 29 April 1995; Harry Constable, ‘Blue was the Colour: Hull Docks in the Fifties’, Bulletin of the Hull and District Trades Union Council, April 1995; Sean Matgamna, ‘How the Dockers Forged Solidarity, and How They Lost It’, Workers Liberty, no 21, May 1995, pp30-3; John McIlroy, ‘Militancy in Blue’, Labour Briefing, November 1995; Bill Hunter, ‘More on a “Scabby Attack”’, Workers Press, 2 December 1995; and Mike Cooke, ‘How the “Blue” Union Came to Hull Docks’, and ‘The Struggle for an Independent Union’, Workers Press, 9 December 1995.

The following article is intended to meet three needs: to make a detailed chronicle of the work of the Revolutionary Communist Party in the earlier dockers’ struggle in 1945, and so rescue from obscurity its brave but unsuccessful endeavours; to provide an in-depth study of one particular aspect of the party’s activity following the example of McHugh and Ripley’s ‘The Neath By-Election 1945: Trotskyists in West Wales’ (Llafur, Volume 3, no 2, 1981) and Jon Lewis’ Raising the Flag: Trotskyism and the Neath By-Election, (Cardiff, 1991); and to place the activities of the Trotskyists within the context of the position of the dockers and the policy and rôle of the Communist Party. The first part of the article examines the problems of the industry in 1945 and the position of the dockers within it, culminating in the national dock strike. The second section examines the position of the Communist Party and the part it played. Then follows a lengthy account of the activity of the RCP. The main emphasis is placed upon what was going on in Merseyside, which was the centre of the strike and of the dispute within the RCP, but it also deals fully with national developments.

John McIlroy is a writer and lecturer researching the history of the left on Merseyside. He is a former member of the International Socialism, Workers Fight and Socialist Organiser groups. In addition to numerous articles, his recent books include The Permanent Revolution? Conservative Law and the Trade Unions (Nottingham, 1991); Trade Unions in Britain Today (Manchester, 1995); and with Sally Westwood, Border Country: Raymond Williams in Adult Education (London, 1993). An interview conducted by him on the work of Revolutionary History, ‘Saving our History from Academics and Sects’, is to be found in Workers Liberty, no 23, July 1995, pp22-4.

‘Every party member will wish to study scrupulously along with those comrades who were closest to the dockers’ struggle the experiences of this, the first great battle of the British working class in the march towards Socialism.’ (Liverpool District Committee of the Revolutionary Communist Party, 22 November 1945)

THE STRIKES of 1945 launched the dockers on their career as the most militant group of workers in postwar Britain. From March to November 1945 dockers were taking industrial action almost daily. A local dispute such as the London strike of March ‘cost’ 50 000 strike days. In the October-November stoppage, the first national dock strike since 1924, 1.1 million strike days were lost. On the docks 3134 worker days were lost annually during 1947-55, compared with 778 in mining. From 1947 to 1973 50 per cent of dockers were involved in strikes, compared with 28 per cent of miners. If the dynamic of docks militancy was sectional bargaining, dockers were also in the vanguard of broader struggles against the state; over the anti-strike legislation Order 1305 in 1951, and the Industrial Relations Act two decades later, and in disputes which required national and international solidarity.1

The 1945 strikes were of great importance in establishing forms of organisation and modes of action which were to characterise the period to 1979. They saw the dockers pitted against the coercive power of the state, with a Labour government introducing troops to break strikes. They witnessed the renewal of a culture of workers’ autonomy which asserted the ‘rights’ of dockers against state restructuring. And they saw the burgeoning of a ‘docks Syndicalism’ which sought to assert and protect the interests and identity of the docker against both the employers and the trade union bureaucracy, specifically the corporatist conglomerate, the Transport and General Workers Union. The year of 1945 saw the revival of self-reliance and ‘rank and filism’, the creation of links between the ports, and the emergence of a National Portworkers Committee. It was a fierce but particularistic rank and fileism, antagonistic to the politics of the TGWU leadership, but also suspicious of the politics of the left. An important strand within it was the ‘breakawayism’ which was to become so important in the Blue Union struggle of a decade later. Talk of a breakaway union was never far away in 1945, but the emphasis was on a new dockers’ union; the National Amalgamated Stevedores and Dockers was not viewed as a real alternative to the TGWU.

The militancy of 1945 drew the battle lines, and introduced many of the issues and combatants who were to play a large rôle in future struggles. Despite this — and despite the fact it involved the biggest strike of the war and the biggest strike of the immediate postwar years — the 1945 strike wave has received little detailed attention, even from those on the left.2 Its study provides an essential starting point for any assessment of postwar struggles on the docks and their relationship to Socialist politics. In particular, it illuminates the practice of the Communist Party and the Trotskyists in major industrial struggles which coincided with the election of the first majority Labour government.3

The Dockers in 1945

The causes of the militancy of 1945 have stimulated controversy. Vic Allen goes so far as to term the national stoppage ‘a strike which defies analysis, an excellent example of the inscrutability of dockers’ behaviour’.4 Its origins were more transparent. The replacement of prewar laissez-faire casualism by wartime schemes of regulation far from satisfied Britain’s 80 000 dockers. The schemes drawn up by Ernest Bevin as Minister of Labour introduced registration, and gave registered dockers a monopoly of work and a guaranteed wage for attending each call, whether they were hired or not. The schemes also entailed direction of labour, tighter control over work, and more rigorous discipline. Simultaneously attempts to rationalise port transport in the interests of a more efficient war effort and to placate the unions, the new schemes traded job security and higher wages for intensification of labour embodied in tighter management control, high levels of compulsory overtime, and the ‘Speed and Output Committees’ established in the major ports.

Dockers chafed against the new order. Direction of labour and centralisation of bargaining came up against their attachment to aspects of casualism, the ability to pick and choose jobs, to work certain days and not others, and to share work. Direct negotiation over piecework prices for cargoes backed by the threat of immediate sanctions maximised bargaining power. Putting disputes into the hands of the paid union delegates and time-consuming procedures dissipated bargaining power. The strength of feeling against the wartime schemes was expressed by the National Docks Strike Committee in November 1945: ‘Our wages were always small, but we did have a great deal of freedom. Since the event of the [National Dock Labour] Corporation our wages are small and we have lost all freedom — it is the concentration camp with invisible barbed wire.’5

Despite the innovations, dockers were aware of continuities: backward management who reluctantly accepted state regulation as part of the wartime emergency, appalling working conditions, squalid welfare facilities, and skeletal holiday and pension provision. The National Strike Committee appealed to the general public:

‘Sixteen shillings in 1920 — 16 shillings in 1945 — 16 shillings a day for what? Humping beef in a fridge ship 23 degrees freezing one day, sweating in a hold full of sugar — sweat and sugar acting like sandpaper on your back — a back covered with blood — coughing and spitting with cement and paper. Working your fingers to the bone on ingots of lead and copper — discharging wet hides and smelling to high heaven — going home smothered with lamp black, red ochre and oil — subject to asthma, bronchitis, rheumatism, lumbago — with a constant stream of casualties to the hospitals.’6

Earnings improved significantly during the war, but absenteeism reached high levels, and there were 33 recorded strikes in 1941-44. Throughout 1944 there was growing anxiety. Improved earnings reflected wartime overtime — 70 to 80 hours a week — and the basic £4.8s for a 44-hour week would become the average once normality, viewed as the normality of the 1930s, with 25 per cent unemployment in dockland communities, resumed.7

In 1945, despite bomb damage, dockers still often lived in close-knit communities in London’s East End, in Bootle or in Salford, near to the docks, centred on work. They possessed a powerful sense of identify as skilled, tough workers — ‘scratch a docker and you’ll find a fighter’ — and a rich occupational culture.8 They sensed it was time to assert themselves: ‘... the portworker is an important citizen and demands to be treated as such.’9 There was a strong sense of historic grievance that their efforts in a vital and dangerous trade went unrecognised: ‘Our industry is one of the most vital to the country, the docks are the gateway to our existence; but like the Infantry it is not the bloke that does the most important job that gets the most credit or cash.’ Dock labour was ‘one of the toughest and most vital of our industries and the biggest crime in Dockland is to grow old. The cry is young blood.’10 This was strengthened by a sense that wartime self-sacrifice was going unacknowledged and unrewarded: ‘We gave up our rights to help win this war. The boys from the forces are coming back. What can we offer them? Nothing!’11 The dockers remembered Bevin’s statement that only they had stood between Britain and disaster. As they walked amongst the bomb-damaged streets of dockland, they felt they had earned new opportunities. If not a ‘New Jerusalem’ or a ‘Land fit for heroes’: ‘We want a land fit for humans to live in. Bootle was never that.’ The mixture of an insecure wartime labour force with an average age of over 50, and the younger men returning from the fighting, was a potent one.12

The dockers feared that the switchover to peace would see redundancies, displacement of ‘wartime dockers’, and too few jobs for dockers returning from the forces. The dockers possessed a keen sense of nationalism and the rights of the ‘freeborn Englishman’. Some of the proposals mooted to replace the wartime schemes would, they claimed, ‘have broken the heart of the Finest Fighter the world has ever seen — the British workman’. They did not believe it possible that they would see the day when such proposals ‘would be sponsored by Englishmen’. And they distrusted the politicians who thought up such schemes: ‘We state here and now that we are not politicians but just Dockers, first, last and always.’13

The dockers’ belief that they had ‘fought and sweated for a New World and returned to find conditions worse than they were before the war’14 was sustained as 1945 got underway. Fears of redundancy were amplified by the weeding of the London register in early 1945. An official report on the nine-day London strike in March — the biggest national strike of the war — emphasised the extent to which it grew out of dissatisfaction with wartime constraints and fears of tighter management discipline.15 The termination on 28 May of the London Western Front Agreement on tonnage and piecework which had operated since the invasion of France was traumatic, coming only weeks after VE day. This was not simply because of the sharp drop in piecework earnings, which the dockers claimed took them back to 1922, rather than 1939, but because it signalled that the bad old days were back.16 On Merseyside there was anxiety that wartime concentration of shipping on the Atlantic ports would now be reversed, and there was concern about the fate of ‘wartime dockers’.17 Here, too, history was important: the national strike was conceived of as an attempt at renewal through purging the diseased past: ‘The strike is spontaneous because it is the ultimate result of years of poverty, ill-nourishment and exploitation and other diseases of every description both industrial and physical. It is the final bursting of a canker that has been present in every port in Britain for the past 50 years.’18

As early as October 1944 the London dockers sought ‘to make their mark on the postwar world’ by putting forward a demand for an increase of the basic day rate from 16s to 25s. It was ‘shelved by our union officials’, despite its centrality to any postwar policy, and was only again discussed by the TGWU Docks Group in the spring of 1945.19 The dockers took the intransigence and delaying tactics of the employers for granted. But the other key factor in the militancy of 1945 was their deep alienation from the TGWU. Around 75 per cent of dockers were members, but there had always been strong antipathy to this giant conglomerate that had been created against the grain of the dockers’ sectional communitarianism and attachment to its local predecessors.20 Democracy in the TGWU was in limited supply. The dockers could not elect the full-time officers who represented them. They were appointed by the General Executive Committee on which only two or three dockers sat. Only the Executive could authorise industrial action. The Docks Trade Group could not make dock strikes official. Bevin had drafted the TGWU constitution to centralise and professionalise power, institutionalise sectional militancy out of existence, and subordinate the rank and file to the leadership’s corporatist drive. Centralised power was increasingly utilised to facilitate entry into the machinery of the state at the expense of direct action — no dock strike was made official by the TGWU between 1924 and 1962. On Bevin’s entry into government these tendencies were continued by Arthur Deakin, and were strengthened by the election of the Attlee government.21

The dockers’ burning grievance was that they rarely encountered the TGWU as a protective association, but increasingly as their employer, for the union pursued corporatism in the ports as well as at Westminster. In 1940 22 full-time officers of the TGWU took up government employment, including 17 docks officials, and the union was drawn formally into the joint management in the docks. The wartime National Dock Labour Corporation consisted of 12 trade union and 12 employers’ representatives, with Deakin on the Board of Directors. By 1944 the TGWU had eschewed peacetime policies of nationalisation in favour of joint control of the labour force by union officials and management. Joint control took the TGWU a long way to the closed shop and control of the labour supply through the system of registration and representation on the dock boards. However, the TGWU in 1945 was insecure in its seat in the government of Britain’s ports. Its members had strongly believed that it had conceded too much to the state and the employers during the war. The employers opposed the increased financial costs which they saw a permanent scheme of decasualisation imposing on them. They were reluctant to share managerial prerogatives with the TGWU. And they were concerned that the union’s permanent integration into the administration of labour would make the TGWU an ineffective instrument of discipline. The union’s response was to emphasise even further its moderation and responsibility. The TGWU stood for the reform and not the removal of the anti-strike legislation, Order 1305, strict compliance with agreements, and the discipline and sometimes dismissal of its members who violated them.22 Support for increased productivity was underlined in Deakin’s periodic corporatist appeals for ‘work, loyalty and team spirit’ which his members contrasted with his desultory approach to improving wages and conditions.23

As the strains of Glenn Miller, the Inkspots and Vera Lynn faded from the airwaves and dance halls, the TGWU was viewed as an adjunct of the bosses in which participation was simply a waste of time. Branch meetings were only held every three months, and were poorly attended. The system of paid delegates was seen as a sickly surrogate of a shop steward system. One activist who knew the Merseyside docks well observed on the eve of the national strike:

‘The union gets more and more foreign to them. Disputes on the job are settled if possible by individual action because to call in the delegate invariably leads to sell-out. The branch room is deserted... No 6 Branch Birkenhead with 2000 members and one dozen attendance. No 3 Branch Bootle, 3000 members ditto attendance. Full-time officers appointed from above, etc, etc. The result is that dockers become like unorganised workers.’24

The other unions, the NASD in London, the Scottish TGWU in Glasgow, and the GMWU in the North-East failed to constitute an alternative pole of attraction. The NASD, the most likely contender, was more democratic and militant than the TGWU. In 1945 the NASD had only 2000 dockers in membership. They were outnumbered by the more conservative stevedores, and were concentrated in a few sections of the London docks. The NASD was quarantined by the employers, and had only recently been readmitted to the TUC. In consequence ‘dockers’ representatives had a feeling of helplessness in their unions, particularly the TGWU. Their members, they said, had lost interest in the union and no longer attended branch meetings.’25

As the war reached its conclusion in Europe, these were the main factors making for militancy amongst dockers. It remained at its wellsprings a parochial militancy, rooted in the individual workplace, in the practices of casualism and piecework. A sense of common identity beyond the workplace and port had to be forged. Collectivism was not organic, it had to be created. In 1945 we can see just how difficult it was initially to convince some dockers of the need to go beyond their own ports, and how a sense of communality began to emerge, as grievances in different ports were expressed in a very similar language, and formulations of problems in one port were taken up in others. The whole issue in 1945 was the construction of solidarity against the grain of sectionalism within and between ports. It was only in the autumn that militancy moved from the local to the national terrain. The task in 1945 was assembling the sinews of solidarity and the stock of common identity, and its substance required constant renewal, as the parochialism in Liverpool in 1947 was to demonstrate. Even when militancy transcended sectional concerns, it remained, in key aspects, conservative and defensive, seeking to assert the rights and autonomy of the dockers’ way of life against trade unions and politicians pledged to schemes of modernisation and decasualisation. If we examine what the dockers said, wrote and did, we see that it reflected what was essentially a corporate consciousness which sought to improve the dockers’ position within existing society. As Socialists were to find to their cost, it was an industrial militancy that could not simplistically be conflated with political radicalism.

Into Action

The strike in London of March 1945 was sparked off by a dispute over the transfer of a ‘call stand’ (where men were hired) inside the dock gates, which was seen to herald an intensification of work discipline. It was the harbinger of a spate of stoppages. In May 4500 were on strike in Glasgow, and there were disputes at Cardiff, Swansea, Grimsby and Immingham, with troops being sent in to shift cargoes. These disputes were demonstrative of the underlying unrest and the need to formalise the grievances driving it. A series of demands — a 40-hour week, two weeks paid holiday, retirement pensions and improved welfare and medical facilities — were added to the popular call for 25s a day to form a Dockers Charter. From early 1945 resolutions supporting the Charter were moved in TGWU branches, and by the spring support had already been built up in London and Merseyside.

The Progressive Committee which had led the return to work in the March strike saw its central function as focusing discontent on the Charter, and campaigning for implementation through the official structures of the TGWU and the NASD, facilitated by the support of Dickie Barratt, General Secretary of the NASD, who was a member of the Communist Party.26 Peaceful progress was punctured by the termination of the Western Front Agreement, and the decision to revert to daywork for which the agreements made provision. As this action, which lasted 10 weeks, began to bite in July, it came under fierce attack. The Ministry of Labour was able to announce: ‘The unions have made it clear to the men... that they are doing harm to all the members of the unions and they have urged the immediate resumption of normal working.’27

In the face of appeals by the TGWU National Docks Secretary, Jack Donovan, and Dickie Barratt to return to piecework, the dispute began to harden into demands for 25s a day. The gulf between the dockers and the unions became wider, and gaps between the Progressive Committee and militants started to appear. The employers went onto the offensive, and returned workers to the reserve pool. Troops were sent into the Royal Docks, a centre of the action. The union leaders, too, continued with strenuous attempts to end the work-to-rule. At a mass meeting at Poplar Palace on 23 July the old troupers Barratt and Donovan, subjected to constant heckling and calls for 25s a day, were forced off the stage. 28

One of the first acts of Attlee’s government was to despatch troops to unload ships at the Surrey Commercial Docks. Whilst Donovan defended the use of troops, the employers’ lockout gathered momentum, and tally clerks and lightermen responded by boycotting cargo handled by the army. With further strikes in the South Wales ports and Glasgow, the Progressive Committee came under pressure to link up with other ports.29 In mid-July four representatives from London travelled to Merseyside, where dockers had begun to boycott ships transferred from London, and a Provisional Committee was established there on 2 August.30

The TGWU leaders were particularly worried about the action, which they perceived as a dangerous diversion from their priority, a new Dock Labour Scheme. They regarded the Dockers Charter as a utopian daydream: the maximum the employers could be expected to concede was 20s a day, and wages militancy in dockland could be dangerous in stimulating expectations in other industries.31 Deakin and Donovan attempted to sideline the demands at the TGWU Biennial Conference in July by passing them back into the docks machinery. However, on 24 August, despite opposition from the TGWU leaders, a conference of branch delegates from all four unions adopted the Charter, and it was tabled for discussion with the employers for the meeting of the National Joint Industrial Council on 27 September 1945.32

The leaders of the Progressive Committee in their turn saw the work-to-rule as escalating from a useful means of pressure on the unions into a diversion from their priority preoccupation of the adoption of the Charter by the official machinery of the unions. On 13 August the NASD announced with the support of the committee a return to piecework together with 28 days notice of termination of agreements should the employers fail to agree new rates in the interim. With the men back to normal working, the NASD withdrew the notice on the grounds of lack of support from the TGWU, and the Progressive Committee dissolved itself in line with the position of the Communist Party that rank and file committees were ‘ginger groups’ to push policies through constitutional channels, and not to organise unofficial action opposed by the unions.33

But the impetus of the militancy was far from exhausted. On Merseyside an aggressive approach to piecework prices, fears of redundancy, with 4000 dockers still in the forces and 7500 wartime dockers still working, and the growing popularity of the Charter, all fused together to spark off action.34 The ignition came from Birkenhead where dockers struck on 25 September in support of 60 men claiming a special rate for handling pit props for Timber and Wood Ltd. Men on transfer from Liverpool joined the strike, and when they returned to their control they were refused their books and attendance money. Whether by coincidence or design 500 Liverpool dockers, largely wartime recruits, were given a month notice. By 2 October the strike had taken hold on both sides of the river, and by the end of the week the pit prop dispute and the dismissals had been overtaken by the demand for the implementation of a refurbished Dockers Charter, with the central emphasis on 25s a day.35

The National Strike

Stiffening the strike on Merseyside was the snail-like progress of the Charter. Meeting some five weeks after the Delegate Conference, the Joint Industrial Council adjourned with the employers’ representatives stating that they would delay their response until 18 October. When the TGWU circularised branches, they compounded matters by not even mentioning the date for the resumption of negotiations. Most dockers discovered the facts only via the press: ‘It was this fact coupled with the protracted negotiating machinery and the terrible conditions that exist that brought about the unofficial dock strike.’36

It quickly became clear that the dynamic of the action was directed against the TGWU: ‘The vast majority of the strikers do not want to hear Mr Donovan, and the more radical make no secret of their intention to howl him down.’37 On 2 October a strike committee was formed of two representatives from each of the 12 control points. Neither the TGWU or the NASD made the strike official, and its conduct throughout remained in the hands of the rank and file.

The committee was continually at pains to insist that it was not political: ‘no member had any political interest outside of his trade union activities’, although they declared their loyalty to the Labour Party! They were representatives of their members, and served only the dockers, not outside interests: ‘We are not Trotskyists. We are not Communists. We are just Liverpool dockers fighting a straight fight.’ They asserted their democratic credentials: ‘Every man on the committee is placed there by the dockers themselves.’ And they repeatedly declared their independence of, and antagonism to, the union officials, ‘the parasitic tribe that had come between them and their employers’. The committee was the legitimate representative of the men, not the TGWU: ‘They themselves were better trade unionists than any of their representatives.’ The union officials were viewed as ‘outsiders’, ‘arbitrators’ and ‘dictators’.38 The committee articulated a militant but introverted and anti-political Syndicalism that was soon echoed in other ports.39

This was embodied in their leaders. The committee, led by Frank Campbell, Bill Howe and Phil Callanan, had a strong sprinkling of ex-servicemen. Campbell, a former RAF pilot, received adulation from popular journalists: ‘big, smiling, determined... Frank’s six feet of cool, confident manhood has become familiar to thousands of dockside workers’. This excited fury and fear from the TGWU, who railed against the inefficiency of primitive democracy, and characterised the committee as ‘bungling amateurs who have never made any contribution to the improvement of the condition of the dockers’.40 Yet there was no question that the committee, not the TGWU apparatus, was representative of the dockers. The local TGWU branches were pronounced ‘dead’ by the strikers. The local officials on Merseyside, Simon Mahon and Fred Smith, possessed as little legitimacy for the strikers as Jack Donovan in London. Attacks on the committee by branch delegates declaring support for the full-time officers simply strengthened the conflict between the apparatus and the strikers’ democratic substitute for the official organisation. The publication of the Dockworkers (Regulation of Employment) Bill on 12 October, with its proposals for a new scheme, attracted little interest from the strikers.41

The Merseyside Committee demonstrated insularity on the question of a national link-up. The impetus came from other ports. Delegates from London, JW Murphy from Hull, Michael Byrne and Tom Christie from Glasgow, and Daniel Harvey from Manchester attended meetings in Liverpool, and the conception that this was simply a Merseyside affair progressively diminished.42 By 9 October the strike had spread to Bristol, Hull, Manchester, Preston and Grimsby, and on the following day in London it was spreading out from the Royal Docks. Building the strike in London was harder than in the north, but by 11 October 44 000 dockers were on strike, and the action eventually spread to embrace two-thirds of the country’s dockers. It took on the proportions of a small national crisis, and it was discussed in the Cabinet and with the King.43

Merseyside, and more specifically Bootle, remained the powerhouse of the stoppage, and the committees in other ports agreed not to return until the dispute was settled to the satisfaction of the Merseyside men. A new version of the Charter was developed as the platform for the strike, calling not only for complete decasualisation and a 40-hour week, but for reform of the TGWU with delegates being elected and not selected, and lay representatives sitting on disciplinary committees. This was taken up by the declaration of a new National Portworkers Defence Committee on 16 October. But there was no doubt that the central demand was for 25s a day.44

The Merseyside Committee initially directed its attention to the new government. There were real illusions in Labour, and on 8 October Campbell declared that if the dockers would stick it out for another 72 hours they would secure intervention from George Isaacs, the Minister of Labour.45 They were rudely disillusioned, as Isaacs refused to visit Liverpool, deplored the strike, and declared that the men should return to work and leave negotiations to their union.46 On 9 October the government declared that the army would be sent in to break the strike, and a week later 11 000 troops were shifting cargoes. Deakin refused to meet the strikers, and referred them to their local officers, and the meeting of the NJIC on 18 October only urged a return to work.47

Advice from Manny Shinwell, Davy Logan MP, Luke Hogan the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, and assorted members of the forces, urging the strikers to return was resisted by the committee with what the Manchester Guardian saw as ‘skill and ingenuity’.48 Campbell argued that if the public could do without bacon and eggs for six years, they could manage a little longer. He observed that this was a most unusual strike; no pickets had been involved, and ‘no pressure had been brought to bear against a single docker’. The mass meetings in Liverpool were regular and well attended. When 10 000 men voted to stay out on 17 October, Harold Flynn, the sole dissenter, was invited onto the platform to put his case. 49

Talk of a breakaway was widespread and was taken seriously by TGWU officers, who viewed the emergence of local and national rank and file committees with worried incomprehension. In London the National Passenger Workers Union, a busmen’s breakaway from the TGWU in 1938, put up placards urging the dockers ‘to abandon this Masters Federation union and build their own union’. Michael Byrne, the leader of the Scottish breakaway which was organised in Glasgow, fished for recruits in Liverpool, where, as in Manchester and London, the possibility of leaving the TGWU was discussed. But it was rejected by Campbell, who felt that whilst the rank and file committees were strong enough to form a new dockers’ union, the emphasis should be on the reform of the TGWU. As a Liverpool representative told the Manchester strikers: ‘We know the value of this union and don’t want to smash it, but it must function for our benefit, not to our detriment.’50

The refusal of the employers to produce any improvements of significance at the NJIC on 18 October, and the interval before the dockers were informed of the offer, underlined the problems of the constitutional machinery, but a refusal to negotiate further placed additional pressure on the strikers to return. The Merseyside Committee now met with Jack Donovan on neutral ground, the Lord Mayor of Bootle’s parlour, and urged the strikers to attend their branches to hear a report back on the negotiations. Despite intensified pressure from the TGWU, who knew a return on Merseyside would break the strike, a mass meeting on 26 October voted to stay out until the government declared it would nationalise the ports.51 The government announced that the 21 000 servicemen in the docks would now begin to move all cargoes, not just essential supplies, and Ellen Wilkinson, the Minister of Education, claimed the dockers were threatening the country with bread rationing, and harming the children. Moreover, she claimed, ‘if the strike goes on much longer it will make it impossible to build a Socialist state’.52

Arthur Deakin demonstrated that there is nothing new under the sun by coming up with the idea of a secret postal ballot. As it got under way local clergy, invited to supervise it, also proved there is nothing new under the sun by questioning the TGWU’s conduct of the ballot.53 The Strike Committee opposed the ballot, and although there was a drift back to work at some ports, the newspapers noted that the strike ‘was not collapsing as some people imagined it would’. But with no strike pay dockland’s moneylenders did record business, and hunger was taking a hand. This was seen most graphically after the men had returned, but not yet received any pay, when 200 women and children besieged the Public Assistance Office in Bootle with the cry: ‘We want bread.’54 With no apparent way forward the committee was looking for a way out, and a disciplined return seemed the best way to put the government and the TGWU on the spot. They turned to the Church and the Labour Party as face savers.

A penultimate mass meeting at Anfield football ground heard Father Fitzsimmons of Catholic Action and Canon Reeves, Rector of Liverpool, urge a return to work from a position of strength, and promise their good offices. Bessie Braddock MP assured the strikers that Isaacs had told her that if the men returned he was ‘ready to take a hand’ — a statement he subsequently denied. Throughout the dispute the government remained staunch supporters of the TGWU leadership in attempting to end the strike. The use of troops was not simply intended to move essential supplies, but to break the strike. Isaacs persistently refused to become otherwise involved, reflecting that ‘it would be unwise to let anything accrue to those who take unofficial action’.55 On 2 November mass meetings at all the ports accepted the National Committee’s recommendation, contained in sealed envelopes, to go back but to resume the strike in 30 days if the negotiations failed to yield their demands.56

Aftermath

Although the postal ballots showed large majorities in favour of a return to work, the rank and file leadership had kept control of the strike until the end, and it was they who had ensured a disciplined return in circumstances in which it was difficult to discern an alternative. They had developed effective democratic rank and file machinery which would act as the model for future militancy, demonstrated the potential of militant self-reliance, and frightened the leadership of both the TGWU and the NASD. On 5 November placards appeared outside dock gates bearing the figure ‘30’. The National Portworkers Committee, with Campbell as chair and Bert Aylward as organiser, produced a blueprint for a three-tier organisation at port, regional and national level. They would shadow every aspect of union activity, and attempt to ‘clean up’ the unions.57

On 22 November the TGWU negotiators rejected an employers’ offer of 18s, and the National Portworkers Committee called mass meetings for 2 December, the eve of the expiry of the 30 days notice, reiterating their demand for the full claim. With six days to go before the truce expired, George Isaacs announced the establishment of a Committee of Inquiry led by Mr Justice Evershed. At this stage the committee seems to have lost the initiative as mass meetings, convened by the TGWU and addressed by Deakin and Donovan, agreed to wait on the report of the Evershed committee, with the assurance that the TGWU was pressing for the full claim. On 19 December Evershed announced his recommendation that the basic day rate should be increased from 16s to 19s. This was greeted by Deakin as ‘the greatest single advance’ ever achieved by the dockers. A member of the committee in the Royals commented sourly: ‘It has taken them a week to consider offering us a lousy shilling more than the bosses offered.’58 It is clear in retrospect that the employers felt that the dockers were ‘in a particularly strong position’, and it is possible that more concessions might have been extracted.59

The committees in London and Liverpool rejected the report, but their demand for notice of a new strike failed to find resonance: ‘... to try to bring the men out now would present serious difficulties. It is a bad time of the year for a strike.’60 Moreover, important concessions had been made, and many dockers saw a 3s increase as an important step forward, if not a complete victory. The National Committee reluctantly accepted the situation, but announced its continuing presence with the first issue in January 1946 of a new journal, The Portworker.61

In the TGWU internal warfare continued. From its headquarters in the old ILP rooms at St Hilda Street, Kirkdale, the Merseyside Docks Welfare Committee, as it now styled itself, published the Official Newsletter and the North West Vigilant, which criticised the TGWU. Their turn into the branches worried the TGWU leadership. On 1 September 1946 it was announced that the members of the committee would appear before a TGWU disciplinary committee charged with acting contrary to the interests of the union.62

Campbell demagogically attacked the leadership — what right had bus drivers and insurance workers to sit in judgement on dockers? — and raised the question of a breakaway. At a meeting at the Canada Dock on 2 September Campbell ‘voiced his determination and that of the committee to form a new dockers’ union... and he advocated a breakaway from the TGWU’.63 The meeting voted unanimously to withhold contributions from the TGWU, and reform ‘the old Dockers Union’. On 8 September the National Portworkers Committee decided on ‘a plebiscite in nine ports to ascertain support for a breakaway and a new dockers’ union’. Campbell declared that 10 000 Merseyside dockers supported the move. Pressures now seem to have been brought to bear on the Merseyside rank and file leadership. Donovan took the threat sufficiently seriously to visit Liverpool that weekend. Afterwards the Liverpool TGWU announced there was little or no support for a breakaway, and several branches had reaffirmed their loyalty to the TGWU.64 Whether a spontaneous response to the disciplinary measures, calculated pressure against the TGWU, or a mix of both, the threat of a breakaway came to naught. On 16 September a mass meeting at the Stadium supported the committee’s volte face, voting overwhelmingly for their resolution ‘absolutely and unequivocally’ opposing any breakaway. With the press hinting at a deal, the committee members received only a warning as to future conduct. Campbell later became a TGWU full-time officer. Callanan went to work for the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board.65

The rank and file organisation of 1945 developed to fill the gap between, on the one hand, the aspirations of the dockers and their perceived need for a dockers’ trade unionism to articulate them, and, on the other, a bureaucratised general trade unionism increasingly aligned with the employers, and reaching towards the state and strategies to modernise dockwork. The committee stretched towards demands for nationalisation, but overall bore the hallmarks of a vehicle dedicated to militant economism. Nonetheless, it was naturally of interest to the organisations of the left, to which we now turn.

The Communist Party and the Dockers

In 1945 the Communist Party dwarfed its competitors. Despite its 45 000 members and daily paper, it was in numerical decline, having peaked in 1942 when membership was around 60 000, whilst the wartime conditions which had made it attractive to many were now history. On Merseyside alone the membership in 1945 was 1152, and in the Lancashire and Cheshire District, overall, 5000. If the membership did not punch its weight, the District enrolled some 40 full-time union officers, and on Merseyside possessed well-known and experienced political leaders, such as the veteran George Hardy, and leading trade unionists such as Leo McGree of the Woodworkers, and Bert Rule of the AEU. There was a strong caucus in the ETU, key lay activists such as Stan Marshall, convenor of the ship repair workers’ committee, and Tom Rowlandson, national president of the draughtsmen’s union in 1945, as well as leaders of the 1930s unemployed movement such as Joe Rawlings.66

The party claimed to have 300 dockers in membership in 1945, compared with 17 000 members in engineering and 2700 in the mines. There are no figures for Merseyside, although the docks are not listed in a statement of the Lancashire District’s strong points, and the party was by repute in these years, as later, stronger in London than it was in the Mersey ports.67 In November 1943 the District report noted: ‘The problem of strengthening our work on the docks is vital. Our influence is great but the leadership is politically and numerically weak.’68 The party made some gains from its intervention in the 1943 strike in Liverpool, a prime example of it going along with a strongly supported strike to gain control over it. It had strong influence on the 26-man committee which succeeded in bringing the dispute to an end, and claimed to have recruited 18 dockers in the South End as a result of its activities. Nonetheless, the party does not seem to have sustained this progress, and by 1945 its base remained in the North End docks in Bootle and Seaforth, and attempts to establish a functioning docks branch met with mixed success. Through 1945 the geographical Bootle branch, led by Amalgamated Society of Woodworkers activist JL Rothwell, was far more prominent.69

On at least one occasion during the war the party’s leaders on Merseyside directly contacted the TGWU’s right wing Secretary, Simon Mahon, to offer their services in arresting industrial action on the docks. They took public pride in the belief that they were more successful than the TGWU in getting the dockers back to work, and in boosting productivity. During the unrest over overtime payments during the summer of 1943, the local party organiser and former Industrial Workers of the World militant, George Hardy, claimed an unusual distinction. Addressing dockers in Birkenhead and at the Gladstone Dock after Mahon’s exhortations had failed, Hardy, too, was unable to secure acceptance of the employers’ terms. But he was more successful in convincing the men that they should return to work without pay, their earnings going to a local hospital fund. In the eyes of many rank and file dockers, the Stalinists were closely identified with the union machinery. The leading Communist Party dockers in Liverpool were Joe Byrne, a wartime recruit to the docks who had been prominently involved in the National Unemployed Workers Movement in Bootle through the 1930s and made his mark through his leading rôle in the 1943 strike, another former unemployed activist, Frank Deegan, and Bill Donaghy and Jack Lydon.70 Police reports to the Cabinet in 1949 after the ‘left turn’ depict a small group of active members possessing little influence on the Merseyside docks, and there is no reason to believe the position was very different in 1945.71

In London the party historically had a strong base in the Royal Docks and in the NASD, whose General Secretary, Dick Barratt, and a layer of activists led by Bert Aylward were members, but it had also built a fraction in the TGWU, where the main activists in 1945 seem to have been Ted Dickens, Pat Coleman, Ted Kirby and Danny Foley.72

Having gained control of the ETU and a powerful measure of control in the AEU, the party’s next target was the TGWU. Its preoccupation with Britain’s biggest union saw leading party activist Bert Papworth enter the contest for Bevin’s successor as General Secretary in 1945. Within a few months of the war ending, a quarter of the TGWU Executive and a third of its key Finance and General Purposes Committee were Stalinists.73 Eschewing rank and fileism, the party sought to penetrate and placate the trade union bureaucracy, its dedication to winning full-time posts incurring the barbs of Herbert Morrison. The party sought to suborn the TGWU by stealth, conciliation of the right wing, and a certain amount of petty corruption.74 Its press carried no criticism of TGWU policies, and the Daily Worker carried no campaign for Papworth, or any critique of his main opponent, Arthur Deakin.

Paying inadequate attention to the different terrain, the Communist Party’s models for the docks were the AEU and the TGWU’s passenger transport section. Their conceptions of creating shop stewards rooted in the workplace who would permeate branch and district organisation took inadequate account of the history, culture and prevailing consciousness of the dockers and their alienation from the TGWU. Communist Party programmes for the docks proffered engineering as a model for emulation, and despite the greater measure of democracy in the AEU, put forward no proposals to transform the TGWU, or even to elect its officials, demands which might have given dockers some reason for greater participation:

‘We would suggest that dockers and stevedores put a few blunt questions to themselves. How many of them regularly attend their trade union branch meetings? How many of them take a real live interest in the union’s affairs...? If the dockers and stevedores took a more lively interest in their own problems and in their own destiny then the existing official machinery with all its weaknesses could be made use of.’75

The dockers might have been more eager if this lecture had been accompanied by proposals to give them greater control over their unions. The party’s pamphlet on the docks did call for improvements in the Dock Labour Schemes. But there was no demand for the nationalisation of port transport, and the ‘realistic’ object of its wages policy was a £1 a day basic rate.76

The peaceful road to power in Transport House was located in the party’s conception of a peaceful road to a Stalinist Britain. In accordance with the Crimean and Yalta Agreements and Stalin’s desire to continue the wartime alliance with the USA and Britain, the party supported in the run-up to the 1945 general election the maintenance of a National Government, including ‘progressive’ Conservatives. Its continuation of wartime controls would lay the basis for a state capitalism based upon ‘a common interest between the working class and the progressive sections of the capitalist class’.77 Attlee’s victory produced only mild self-criticism, loyal support for the government, and a new drive for affiliation to the Labour Party. For the Communist Party, the maintenance of the international alliance and the desire to cash in on its wartime investment in collaboration dictated the continuation of support for the Labour Party and trade union leadership, and for industrial peace. It was viewed as essential if the Communist Party was to gain entry into the Labour Party and keep the government on the road to state capitalism.78

Industrial peace was essential for increased production, which the party championed as fiercely as in wartime. This would finance higher earnings if the workers ignored ‘the provocative actions’ of sections of the employers. Order 1305 should be improved, but not removed. There was indeed no necessity for strikes, for trade unions were now so powerful ‘that in cooperation with the Labour government they can secure the workers’ demands with the very minimum of industrial disturbance. The Communist Party will urge the workers to make the fullest use of the trade union negotiating machinery so that there may be the same steady increase in production for the needs of the people that has been necessary in the production of the munitions of war.’79

Any revolutionary, even radical, perspective having long since been buried, the Communist Party ‘slotted comfortably into a position some way from the left of Britain’s emerging political consensus’.80 Its attention was firmly concentrated on high politics with the vaunting ambition of joining its French and Italian comrades in government. If that was never on the agenda, its line as the upholder of industrial peace and legality in the TGWU achieved a fair degree of success; the attempt at the 1945 Biennial Delegate Conference to secure support for Communist Party affiliation to the Labour Party was only defeated by 352 votes to 258 after Bevin used all his influence to oppose it.81

Stalinism in Struggle

The Communist Party condemned the dock strike in March as ‘a tragic dispute which threatens to drive a wedge of hatred and misunderstanding between the fighting forces and the workers’.82 The Progressive Committee which now emerged under Communist Party control was a body specifically intended to limit strikes and channel unrest into the constitutional machinery. The Communist Party, in its strong opposition to rank and file movements, viewed workers’ committees as instruments of integration and subordination, not as instruments of independence. As the party said of its 1943 forerunner in Liverpool: ‘It is a piece of machinery we can use for preventing further dislocation of the industry by this Committee taking up grievances with the trade union officials as they arise. It provides the link between the union and the men. Properly utilised it can change the whole outlook of the men towards the unions.’83

The Communist Party did not bring rank and file demands into the unions so much to challenge their existing leaderships, but to render these demands more responsive to the limits of existing collective bargaining. The Progressive Committee was intended to be acceptable to the union leadership, to act as a supplement to official union structures, and perhaps as a focus for the creation of an embryonic stewards system, a forcing house for channelling the demands of the Dockers Charter into the unions. The party was the driving force behind the Charter, but it was not the only force. In Birkenhead, for example, the Brandon family was involved in a Dockers Defence Committee which sought to rally support for the demands and additionally, unlike the Communist Party, for the abolition of Order 1305.84 The chances of the Communist Party putting itself at the head of a new dockers’ movement diminished with the dispute over the Western Front Agreement. The argument that action should wait on the unions’ adoption of the Charter and negotiations at the NJIC was ‘pie in the sky’ to many as wage packets contracted. Under pressure from the rank and file, Communist Party dockers went along with the work-to-rule. In London, the Progressive Committee, which unlike its successors, was not fully representative with delegates from all docks, was pushed into the leadership. In the eyes of the more militant, the committee ‘did not hold regular information meetings and did not broaden the struggle, it did not initiate contact with other ports. It simply tailed behind in the hope that the struggle would die out.’85 However, as the employers’ offensive began and troops were brought in, Barratt came under pressure to preserve his constitutional credentials, particularly in relation to the NASD’s re-admission to the TUC. He was pushed into partnership with Donovan in calling for an end to the work-to-rule, at no small cost to his popularity on the docks.

King Street at first ignored the action, but in July the Daily Worker, like the rest of the press, began to report and amplify the drive to break the action: ‘the unions have made it clear to the men that they are doing harm to all the members of the union and they have urged the immediate resumption of normal working’.86 It was only on 20 July that Powell was given a platform to state the dockers’ case. There was no condemnation of the use of troops, but with the advent of the Labour government Barratt and the Communist Party Docks fraction directly intervened to bring dissident members into line. This was heralded by an article in the Worker by veteran Stalinist Peter Zinkin. Zinkin fully outlined the men’s case, but condemned the work-to-rule, warning the dockers sternly: ‘As a method of securing a far reaching revision of wage rates unofficial action is not only useless but dangerous.’87

By the end of July ‘the Communist Party was working day and night to get the men back to work’.88 As the Liverpool men began to boycott London ships, they received no leadership from Communist Party dockers on Merseyside. When the London men were prevailed upon to send delegates to Liverpool, there was a split between the delegates who were elected at mass meetings rather than being selected by the Progressive Committee. Whilst Powell, Brice and Stebbing called for support for the struggle, Ted Dickens, after consultation with the Liverpool Stalinists, declared that ‘no assistance was required from Merseyside and that the London struggle was a purely local issue’.89

The Communist Party now argued that a return to piecework, with the issuing of 28 days notice of a return to day work should the issue not be resolved, would strengthen the struggle by legalising it. Under Barratt’s influence the Surrey Commercial Docks were persuaded to return on this basis. This was then used to pressurise the other dockers to return, although there was resistance in the Royal Docks, where traditional Communist Party influence seems to have been shaken. This disillusion with the Communist Party was intensified by Barratt’s withdrawal of the 28-day notice, and was exacerbated by the dissolution of the Progressive Committee, which was motivated by the party’s attempt to remove a focus for action that it now found difficult to control. In Liverpool the Communist Party also played an ancillary rôle in the dissolution of the Provisional Committee for being ‘dominated by Trotskyists’. It was probably at this stage that the influential party docker Bert Aylward and others left the party in protest at its opposition to industrial action.90 But the line was stubbornly held when the national strike erupted.

As a critic of the Communist Party observed: ‘It takes great courage to tell strikers to go back to work on the first day of the strike. The majority of the Stalinists or bureaucrats remain silent or are carried along in the stream in a half-hearted fashion.’91 Many party members on Merseyside had little option but to come out. Joe Byrne, however, had the courage of his convictions. But when he attempted to address the mass meeting at North Park, Bootle, on 3 October, urging a return to work: ‘The crowd went wild and he had to get off the platform without opening his mouth to avoid being pulled off.’ Byrne was influential in limiting the progress of the strike through Bootle and the North End. The local press remarked, perhaps laconically: ‘The last dockers to come out were working at Gladstone Dock. It is understood that the influence of a leading Communist who is also a strong trade unionist kept them at work when all other docks were idle.’ Byrne’s leadership was rebuked by an American skipper: ‘There is a strike on here and we are not going to have blacklegs unloading.’ A demonstration at Gladstone Dock brought the dockers out, and Byrne was told that ‘if he attempted to prevent the men or attempted to speak at the meeting he would be thrown in the dock’.92

Somewhat chastened after their ‘rough handling’ at other meetings, and excluded from the strike committee, the Communist Party snatched at an agreement to put the pit prop dispute into procedure. The Daily Worker headlined ‘Mersey Dock Strike — End in Sight’, and the party issued a statement:

‘The Merseyside Area Committee of the Communist Party took a decision to support the recommendation to return to work after the employers had agreed to separate the pit prop dispute and allow all men to proceed to other work. By raising the national demands the dockers have given them national publicity and recognition but to publicly continue attacks on the union is exactly what the employers want. This can only lead to a weakening of the unity of the dockers. The men were never in a better position with a Labour government in power to win these demands provided they remain united behind their union.’93

Unfortunately for the Communist Party, by the time the statement was issued the pit prop dispute was history, the centre of gravity had shifted from Birkenhead to Bootle, and the strikers justifiably believed they would not win the national demands by relying on Arthur Deakin to overcome the employers’ intransigence. The strikers viewed the party, for all its abstract talk of unity, as disrupters of a strike which embodied a new unity in action. Incurring double enmity as agents of alien bureaucracies in Transport House and the Kremlin, the Stalinists were excluded from the deliberations of the Strike Committee.94 The strikers’ hostility was not dissipated by the Daily Worker, which, whilst avoiding any detailed statement on the strike, continually carried reportage whose message was that the strike was weakening, that the strikers should return to work, and that, in the best traditions of Stalinspeak, ‘interested elements were trying to use the dispute to sabotage the trade unions and the Labour government’.95 Throughout the strike the Manchester Guardian showed more sympathy for its rank and file leadership, and was more critical of the officials than the Daily Worker.

Opposition to strikes was now an ingrained aspect of Communist Party policies. There was, no doubt, a desire to impress the new government that the party had not once more changed its spots, to garner the votes of union leaders for affiliation, and to project Papworth as a responsible successor to Bevin in the TGWU. As Britain pulled into peacetime the last thing the party wanted was a major strike in an essential service. They drew the iron curtains, and hoped that this embarrassing reminder of the past would soon pass over. A considered statement of the party’s position was not published by the Political Committee until well into the second week of the stoppage. There was still no support for the strike, but the dockers’ case was endorsed as ‘a just and reasonable programme’. It was accepted, somewhat belatedly, that: ‘Lecturing the men on the harm caused by the strike serves no purpose.’ Negotiations, it was urged, should be speeded up and a ‘real gesture’ made to the strikers, with the government ensuring that the employers were ‘brought to heel’, and a satisfactory settlement assured.96 This studied vagueness and the new emphasis on supporting the strikers’ ends, but not their means, still evaded the essential problem — for the strikers’ ends and means were indissolubly wedded. The change of emphasis was motivated by the sidelining of the Communist Party, by criticisms from members that their leaders were exaggerating the dangers of the strike, and by fears that failure to support the dockers’ case more actively meant ‘only the Trotskyists and the bosses will benefit’.97 The party was feeling its way in the first major stoppage where it could not ground its opposition on the necessities of the war effort.

The failure of negotiations led the Communist Party forcefully to attempt to direct hostility away from the union leaders towards the employers — the only criticism the party made of the union leaders was that they had failed to keep their members adequately informed. The new line on the ground seems to have been that the best way to bring the strike to an end was to get involved in it on this basis. However, face to face advice to the dockers that they were right, but they were going about things the wrong way by inadvertently responding to ‘the employers’ provocations’, provided a rather inadequate entry into the action, no matter how much emphasis was placed on the first part of the statement. Experienced CPers felt that the party as a whole was making very little impact.98

In London the strike committee at first involved new elements thrown up by the summer struggle and ‘off the line CPers’. Later it was augmented by more experienced trade unionists such as Bert Aylward. Some party members in London went along with the strike, although Aylward, disillusioned by the party’s position from the summer, had in all probability left the party. He was quoted favourably by the party press as ‘sounding a note of loyalty to the unions and a strong refutation of the suggestion to form new unions that is becoming increasingly evident at the strikers’ meetings’.99 However, leading members such as Barratt and Dickens utilised the official structures to secure an opening for a return to work, with Danny Foley, a branch delegate, warning the strikers they were surrendering to ‘mass hysteria’.100

There is also some evidence that Communist Party members in other industries attempted to limit support for the strike. In the AEU, for example, party activists spoke against the strike as ‘disruptive’, and opposed resolutions supporting the strikers on the grounds that ‘strikes were out of date’ and that ‘all strikes make the workers suffer, not the bosses’.101

Far from using Parliament as a platform to seek redress for the dockers’ grievances, the party’s MPs Willie Gallacher and Phil Piratin remained silent over the strike, limiting themselves to praising the dockers’ rôle in the war effort. The party’s Political Committee pursued its more sophisticated line, and by the end of October sensed that the end was near. It announced that deadlock had been reached, but that ‘the whole working class movement is alive to the need for a speedy remedy and will tolerate neither the refusal of the employers to make concessions nor the dragging out of negotiations’. However, the dockers must now return: ‘A continuation of the strike will not secure concessions and will postpone the reopening of negotiations.’ The message was reinforced a few days later by Barratt. As the strikers returned to work the Communist Party convened a meeting of its supporters on the docks to regroup. The tactical nature of its position aimed at avoiding further loss of influence was underscored: ‘The line was that Communist Party members should go through with the present struggle but as soon as it ends should smash the national and local organisations formed.’102

Applying the Party Line

Dissatisfaction within the party at the minimal influence exerted on the strike was clear from the agenda of the party congress held on 24-26 November 1945. A range of resolutions criticised different aspects of the Communist Party’s policy on the strike. Some members argued that ‘the party has lagged behind the militant mood of the masses and has tended to tail behind the Labour Party’ (Paddington Borough Aggregate). The Aylesbury Branch felt ‘... it may be necessary to support strike action in existing circumstances and that the whole question of our attitude to strikes should be reviewed’. The Binstead Branch ‘deplored the lack of action taken by the party and the lack of support by the Daily Worker’, and asserted that ‘the dockers would be mistaken now in returning until their demands are met’. Southall criticised the silence on the use of troops and the lack of ‘a clear line of policy’ from the leadership. So much of the criticism came from the left. Other resolutions, however, saw the answer in improved procedures for industrial disputes (Leeds North East, Failsworth). Some, such as the resolution from Kirkdale and Scotland Branch in the Liverpool Docks area, opaquely criticised the paper for ‘lagging behind in the initial stages of the national dock strike’. Some branches, on the other hand, emphasised the danger of a strike wave, and urged that ‘it is the duty of party members to help lead such feeling into constructive channels’, for strikes disrupted ‘trade union machinery and strength’, played into Tory hands, and could bring down the Labour government.103

For the first time since the 1920s there was some openness in the debate, and the leadership admitted they had ‘underestimated’ the political consciousness of the working class in relation to their support for a national coalition. Whilst the critical resolutions on the docks strike were not carried, they elicited a forceful enunciation of the party line from Pollitt which justifies extended quotation:

‘You are either in favour of the line of the report, or of the line that has been expounded here of mass strikes as the only way to realise the workers’ demands. If the latter, I warn you you are playing with fire that can help to lose the peace and reduce the country to ashes. Nothing is easier in the present situation than strikes and our comrades should be most guarded... You can get a strike in the coalfield tomorrow if you want it. Will it advance the working class movement of this country or the perspective of our nation being a first rate nation in the family of United Nations?

‘On the dock strike I took the view that if our party had been so compelled to stick its head out in difficult situations in the war and compel our comrades to be stigmatised as strike breakers and blacklegs, we are not compelled to repeat that in the days of peace, but we would examine every dispute on its merits. The Daily Worker reported the facts and it is true we gave no lead for 10 days and that is no crime, because we considered the strike ill-advised. And because, comrades, we are concerned with reaping the harvest of our own work. I pay my tribute to our docker comrades, who fought last summer to get the Charter now before the employers to become the official policy of the TGWU. Our line was to advise the dockers to go back to work, to call for the intervention of the government to speed up the hearing of the case, the democratisation of the Dockers’ Section of the TGWU, for the recognition of dockers’ shop stewards as the AEU recognise their shop stewards. It was a positive line and because comrades got chased fighting for it, all right, it is not the first time and it won’t be the last.

‘If the Communist Party had supported the strike we would have had to call for sympathetic action of all transport workers. Would that have done the dockers any good?’104

The reality of a firm line which the members were required to apply was clearly stated in its key aspects. These were Britain’s need for industrial peace to reconstruct itself as a great power, capable of influencing events in the international interests of Stalinism, opposition to the strike weapon, even when democratically chosen, high politics in the labour movement, union loyalism and opposition to rank and file movements. The reasons for the Communist Party’s paralysis and the gap between the party and the dockers were laid bare, but also the pathos of its espousal of national responsibility and winning friends in high and low places. Workers could buy the genuine reformist article straight across the counter from Attlee and Deakin. Why patronise Pollitt and Papworth for an ersatz version formulated autonomously in King Street in total accord with the foreign policy of the Kremlin? Why indeed. Compared with Labour the Communist Party lacked the ideological and organisational ballast to integrate and mould a working class which sensed all too well what a Stalinist Britain held in store for it. In higher places, Attlee and Deakin knew their Stalinism. Whatever conjunctural form it took, they were not impressed. The craftsman Pollitt was also verbally leaping the real chasm that yawned between the dock labourers and the TGWU, on the one hand, and, on the other, the traditions that bound engineering shop stewards to their district committees and their elected full-time officers.

Yet the party went on with essentially the same line. The dockers were praised for accepting the advice of ‘their accredited leaders’ and waiting on the recommendations of the Evershed Committee. The Communist Party warmly welcomed the 19s award, and verbosely warned the committees that ‘to engage in strike action would antagonise not only the mass of the people but the working class movement in general’.105 With peace restored and the coasts cleared, the party’s Industrial Department on paper praised ‘the resoluteness, solidarity and discipline of the strikers’, the very qualities they had refused to support in practice, and which had caused them so much difficulty. The statement concluded: ‘That the dockers have won substantial gains goes without saying and it should be noted that these have resulted from the work of the trade union and not from the work of the strike committee.’106

This represented a serious loss of proportion; it was simply untenable to claim that the pressure of the national strike, with its powerful demonstration of rank and file anger and the emergence of an alternative leadership, was not a very important element in pressurising the TGWU leadership and the Labour government, and ensuring that significant concessions were made. In eschewing industrial action the Communist Party was eschewing an effective means of improving the dockers’ position. The ineffective alternative it proffered involved relying not on some energetic left reformist union leader or even a pugilistic business unionist, but on Deakin, whose support for wage moderation in general, and antipathy to the Charter in particular, were well known.107 It is difficult not to agree with Morrison’s comment in 1946: ‘They are not a party of the left as far as I can see.’108 The consequent marginalisation of the Communist Party machine could well have provided opportunities for groupings on the left. Amongst them was the Revolutionary Communist Party.

The RCP and the Dockers

The RCP in 1945 was a small group of 472 members with an additional forces membership of 130. It was characterised by a high level of activism, although many of its young members, recruited in wartime, were relatively inexperienced in sustained activity in the labour movement. The party’s composition was almost entirely proletarian, and like the Communist Party it had found in the engineering industry a favourable climate — half its members were in the AEU. This was, however, the only union in which it possessed a base of any significance, and it had only 21 members in the miners’ unions. The party still possessed a sizeable periphery built up during the war, which was reflected in the 11 000 to 12 000 per issue sale of the twice-monthly Socialist Appeal. Having united Britain’s Trotskyists, the RCP appeared in 1945 to be on an upward swing. It possessed an aura of confidence after the successful intervention of its major component, the Workers International League, in wartime industrial struggles, and its activist élan was demonstrated in its campaign in the Neath by-election in the spring. Nonetheless, a sense of proportion is required. For example, despite intensive, imaginative campaigning in favourable circumstances, the magnificent efforts at Neath produced only 1781 votes and 10 new recruits in South Wales. And the New World was to prove less hospitable to the Trotskyists.109

The RCP had 30 members on Merseyside organised in two locals, Liverpool Central and Old Swan, and a Docks Group, which had recently replaced the Bootle Local. The small group in Birkenhead, consisting of Harold Seal, Arthur Cowderoy and Bob Haill, does not seem to have functioned in 1945. The Merseyside District Committee, as it was rather grandiosely termed, had no full-timer. It was chaired by IP Hughes, a veteran Syndicalist and founding member of the Communist Party; its energetic organiser was Brian Crookes. A younger man in his mid-20s, Crookes had been recruited into the WIL group in Northern Ireland by Bob Armstrong. Since his arrival in Liverpool in 1942 he had put strenuous efforts into recruitment, successfully enrolling new elements in the Old Swan area. The Trotskyists had been weakened on Merseyside by members joining the forces in 1940. This was a continuing problem which was exacerbated by the call-up in 1945 of younger members Arthur Deane, Brian Deane and Don Ward, which had depleted the Liverpool Central Group.110

Levels of activism varied, with four members formally labelled ‘inactive’. Members worked in a variety of trades — building, engineering, electrical contracting and hospitals. The biggest concentration was in ship repair and port-related industries. There were five members of the ETU, and a couple of years earlier the WIL had no less than seven members active in the AEU. By 1945 activity in the unions was described as ‘the worst feature of our district party work. Only approximately five members are active trade unionists, although all comrades are trade unionists.’ The RCP had no real purchase on the reviving local labour movement. None of its members were active in the Labour Party, Hughes was pulled out of fraction work in the Independent Labour Party, and there was no real trade union base. Activity was centred on propaganda work, open meetings and Socialist Appeal sales — around 500 to 600 an issue — on the street, in pubs, factories, and along the docks. In early 1945 the Old Swan local held a series of meetings entitled ‘Greece’, ‘Labour to Power’, and ‘Fascism and Vansittartism’, with an average attendance of 20, and an average collection of 25s.111

Merseyside had always proved difficult terrain for effective organising. Matters were not helped in 1945 by political and personal differences between Brian Crookes and Tommy Birchall, on the one hand, and members of Liverpool Central, Frank Forster, an ETU shop steward at ARN Browns, Jim Kielty, a former busman from the Dingle who was now a shop steward in the building trade, and, notably, the indomitable and acerbic Gertie Deane, who was very active at this time. Crookes regarded Liverpool Central as an ineffective talking shop. He wanted the local broken down into a number of small geographical groups with recruitment the priority for each. Problems were not ameliorated by a cavalier attitude to administration by the District Committee, as Ann Keen, the Business Manager of Socialist Appeal, put it, ‘the terribly unbusinesslike way you do things up there’.112

In the spring of 1945, as peace settled once more over the bleak, blitzed, poverty-ridden city, the District Committee noted that ‘at the moment a deep political lull prevails on Merseyside, an uneasy lull which could be shattered overnight’.113 Given the weaknesses in their work and the local situation, they decided that priority should be given to building up the Docks Group, established earlier that year: ‘With the imminent collapse of Merseyside’s purely wartime industry the ship repair yards and docks are the only stable industrial bases of note which will exist. Therefore we intend to push ahead, with the maximum effort, the development of our branch rooted therein.’114

Charles Martinson, who had been recruited into the WIL in late 1943, provided the Trotskyists with an entry into the docks. ‘Mazo’ was an Irishman, well known in Bootle as a Communist Party activist in the National Unemployed Workers Movement and the fight against Fascism in the 1930s. Like the hero of Jim Allen and Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, service in the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War in 1936-38 and a spell in Franco’s prisons produced in Martinson a deep disillusion with Stalinism. Refused a dockers’ book on his discharge from the army in 1942, largely he claimed through the anti-militant machinations of the TGWU, Martinson, who lived off Derby Road in the heart of ‘brutal Bootle’s’ dockland, continued to work on the docks as a timber loader and gig boatman.115 A young member of Liverpool RCP in 1944 recalled Martinson half a century later:

‘I only spoke to him a handful of times, but he made a very powerful impression on me. He was a real fighter, permanently angry with the way things were. But he knew when to fight and when to keep his powder dry. He was a dedicated Socialist dedicated to the dockers, and saw the whole system he wanted to change, and get his own back on, summed up by the way things were on the docks.’116

Martinson could be a difficult man. He was ‘tough as teak’.117 Jock Haston had doubts about his new recruit, but conceded ‘he may prove valuable’.118 A further, if short lived, breakthrough occurred when the WIL recruited Bill Etherington, another well-known docker from Litherland, who worked from the militant No 1 Control in the North End Docks. Etherington was victimised in the aftermath of the 1943 strike, suffering instant dismissal for leading a walkout in protest against the delay of TGWU Area Organiser Simon Mahon in taking four months without achieving any settlement to the dockers’ grievances. A campaign for Etherington’s reinstatement was unsuccessful, and he soon left the WIL.119

Working closely with Martinson was Tommy Birchall. Brought up in Litherland and now living in Waterloo, the 25-year-old Birchall had been active in the Trotskyist movement since he came into contact with the Marxist League as an ILP member around 1935. During the war he had gone into Harland and Wolff where he was secretary of the stewards’ committee, and he possessed many contacts amongst the dockers. In 1945 Birchall was an alternate member of the Central Committee of the RCP and a member of its National Industrial Committee. An outgoing, humorous man who enjoyed a drink, he was a strong and dedicated activist, and to those who had never seen him on the platform a surprisingly effective speaker.120 In the early part of 1945 the RCP was holding regular meetings, at which Birchall and Martinson spoke, three days a week at the Langton, Alexandra and Gladstone Docks. They distributed beautifully printed leaflets which outlined in some detail the RCP’s programme and criticisms of the Communist Party. But in their heavy propaganda emphasis they had very little to say about the specific problems of the dockers or the organisation of their industry. Philip Couldry, then the National Council of Labour Colleges organiser in Liverpool, vividly remembers Birchall’s efforts around the 1945 General Election:

‘In contrast to Jimmy Deane, Tom was a more solid and less romantic figure. More down to earth, he was a good worker on the docks and a good speaker as well in trade union meetings. I remember when I was addressing the dockers on Merseyside in the general election campaign of 1945, Tom was always there, giving me support and acting as cheerleader. He also worked actively for the Labour Party in that great Labour victory of 1945.’121

The efforts of Martinson and Birchall were augmented at this time by the advent of Alan Christianson. Christianson was a veteran of the prewar struggles in the engineering industry in Coventry. By 1942 he was well known in London as a WIL militant. Christianson was capable theoretically, and an independent thinker: ‘When he was good he was very good’, but with a tendency to ‘unreliability’. In December 1944 he was expelled from the RCP for divulging party information to a non-member. His subsequent involvement with the police over criminal charges led the Political Bureau to withdraw a concession that he could work with members as a sympathiser. Nonetheless, Christianson made his way to Liverpool where he contacted Brian Crookes, and proceeded to do just that. Working at Vestey’s Cold Stores on the docks, Christianson’s undoubted abilities failed to cloak the real weaknesses of the RCP Docks Group.122

Gertie Deane’s jaundiced comments that Tommy Birchall was ‘the speaker, chairman and sole representative of the Docks Group... I don’t believe it exists except in TB’s imagination’,123 were exaggerated. But the group’s only other active member, in addition to Birchall, Martinson and Christianson, seems to have been Jack Ronan, a shop steward in the ship repair yards. Crucially it was a Docks Group without dockers. Martinson was sensitive to concerns amongst the dockers about the involvement of ‘outsiders’, and to the uses to which that involvement could be put by the right wing and the Communist Party. In the aftermath of the 1943 strike he publicly declared: ‘It is causing me a considerable amount of trouble explaining to people that I am not a docker, nor have anything to do with their grievances.’ In a situation, at least on Merseyside, where once you lost your book you lost your standing and automatic entry to the dockers’ inner circles, even if like Martinson you possessed a distinguished pedigree, the lack of any working dockers in membership was to prove debilitating.124

Nor was the situation any better nationally. The only dockers the RCP had in membership worked in Leith, and had been contacts of RCP Central Committee member Willie Tait. The most prominent was Robert Gardner, and, for reasons which remain obscure, they were expelled in 1945.125 In Glasgow the two full-time workers, RCP Industrial Organiser Roy Tearse and Frank Ward, had contacts, but there were no members.126 In London in early 1945 the RCP was reliant on the efforts of Norman Pentland, a 21-year-old AEU shop steward. Pentland, a delegate from Ilford No 1 branch to the AEU District Committee and Ilford Trades Council, became friendly that March with Tom ‘Sandy’ Powell, the emerging rank and file leader in the Royal Docks, who was a member of Ilford Labour Party. Powell, a former necktie cutter and professional wrestler, was an open, gregarious man, always willing to cultivate labour movement support.127 Elsewhere, the RCP Centre had very little first hand information on what was happening in the docks, relying initially on old contacts of John Archer in Hull, members of Frank Maitland’s family in Aberdeen, and the efforts of Heaton Lee around the North-East ports.128

Trotskyism in Struggle

Despite their weaknesses, those Trotskyists closest to the dockers saw their dissatisfactions as promising much for the future:

‘... the political and trade union conditions which prevail among the dockers provide us with a particularly favourable field of work. These conditions, whilst being general throughout the working class, have been brought to a sharper point amongst the dockers than amongst many other industrial workers. The utter and complete defection and treachery of the union leadership has been again and again and quite recently shown... Furthermore, the growing together of the leading Stalinist dockers and the bureaucracy has proceeded at an accelerated pace with the result that several well known Stalinists are widely regarded as merely the dirty work dish-rags of the bureaucrats. The result is that the entire official and leading strata are completely distrusted and are pushed aside at the first sign of trouble.’129

The RCP’s conceptions that the elemental militancy of the dockers and other sections of the working class was pushing beyond trade unionism, Labourism and Stalinism has to be located in the party’s analysis of the general situation in 1945.

There can be no doubt that in hindsight its perspectives were leftist. The RCP conference in August 1945 did, it is true, raise the question of the restabilisation of capitalism, a new phase of bourgeois democracy in Europe, and the consolidation and expansion of Stalinism. But the RCP leadership was convinced that a new revolutionary epoch, albeit with many ebbs and flows, was opening up. There were ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’, and the timescale of development was sometimes hazy. But the thrust of the analysis was clear: ‘The organic crisis of British capitalism would produce, with peace, mass unemployment and serious attacks on living standards which would strip away the historic illusions of workers as Britain became a third rate economy.’ The ending of the war would ‘release the pent-up energies of the working class... the labour and trade union bureaucracies no less than the Stalinists will have difficulty in stifling the resistance of the masses’.130

The leadership confidently asserted:

‘All the objective and even subjective conditions for tremendous explosions are maturing in the factories, mines and transport of Britain... a ferment is bubbling up in the other industries at the present time. The recent demonstrations against redundancy, the agitation of the boilermakers, the struggle of the Manchester gasworkers, the movement among the dockers and a host of other disputes constitute the writing on the wall for the capitalist class.’131

The employers’ offensive was already setting in train ‘the development of a profound molecular process of an essentially revolutionary character among the masses’. The election of a Labour government was simply the first step in an escalating radicalism. Whilst the first assaults might produce moods of apathy and cynicism in relation to the Labour government, the masses would move forward, producing again a split in the Labour Party: ‘The Labour government is a Kerensky government.’132

In the coming struggles it would be possible to fight to concretise the Transitional Programme, and relate the demands of workers in all the basic industries to the demand for nationalisation without compensation under workers’ management. The Militant Workers Federation would have a vital rôle as the bridge between the RCP and the radicalising masses, linking the new ‘Mass Committees’ which would emerge.133

Despite later valiant attempts to understand more completely what was happening, attempts which would honourably distinguish the RCP leadership from the epigones Cannon and Pablo and their epigone Healy, the RCP was far from grasping the economic and political trajectory of Britain in 1945. The underestimation of the attachment to Labourism of the leading layers of the working class, and the potential for long-term capitalist stabilisation, underpinned the open party position, and gave sustenance to leftist politics. We must guard against an ahistorical approach grounded in hindsight. But if the situation was not clear in August 1945, evidence would quickly emerge which suggested the continuing power of reformism and capitalism, and the lack of support for alternatives.134 A further problem with the scenario of escalating major struggles was the RCP’s own limited size and resources. This was acknowledged: ‘We are only beginning in this field of work. We have no industrial machine like the Communist Party has; we have no staff of experienced comrades devoted to this field of work.’135 But this was inadequately integrated into the grand sweep of perspectives. The RCP’s young, active, inexperienced membership was attuned to frontal assault and mass agitation, trying to address wide layers of workers, and aiming for the leadership of struggles. In some ways success had come from impatience with the approach of a small propaganda group — but in favourable wartime conditions. Yet they had only the resources of a small group, and unless a breakthrough was to occur quickly their small membership could produce only an ineffective, miniaturised, stamina-sapping mass activism. With peace and a Labour government, such a breakthrough was less likely. These problems had a significant impact on the RCP’s involvement in the dock strikes.

From March the Socialist Appeal gave sustained coverage to the dockers’ struggles. In contrast to the Daily Worker, its support was warm and unconditional, and the paper took up the attacks on the dockers by the bourgeois and Stalinist press. The emphasis was on developing the dockers’ demands, on criticising the union leaders, and on urging the dockers to think and organise nationally. Pentland, who wrote the early articles in collaboration with Powell, argued that the ending of the Western Front Agreement signalled an employers’ offensive; it meant unemployment, wage cuts, and a worsening of working conditions. The best way to combat the manoeuvres of the union leaders was self-reliance, but a self-reliance that made it ‘imperative that the workers attend their branch meetings and insist that the ECs break the industrial truce’. The strikers must contact other ports: ‘... to allow the struggle to remain a local issue, as the Stalinist controlled Progressive Committee did in the last big strike, is to doom the dockers to failure.’136 Socialist Appeal published the Dockers Charter, emphasising the unifying centrality of a national demand for 25s a day. Arguing that ‘the Progressive Committee is an excellent step in the right direction but its basis must be extended’, the paper focused on the committee’s unrepresentative nature, and urged it to include elected representatives from all sections and make national links — the committee’s Achilles heel. As the action deepened, the London District produced a leaflet which criticised Barratt and the Communist Party, but constructively put a series of demands on the committee. By August Socialist Appeal was able to publicise supportive action in Liverpool as ‘a lever to extend and strengthen the London action’.137

The RCP played the key rôle in initiating links between London and Liverpool. Martinson arrived at the RCP centre on 16 July, and was introduced to Powell and other members of the Progressive Committee as an emissary of the Liverpool dockers and a member of the MWF.138 It was as a result of this that the quarantine the union leaders and the Communist Party were attempting to impose on London was broken, and the London delegation visited Liverpool. This cemented relations with Powell, a member of the delegation, and stimulated the establishment of the Merseyside Provisional Committee at Coopers Hall on 2 August. At this stage the Liverpool RCP had at least a certain acceptance from the dockers, and both Martinson and Christianson visited London in August as representatives of the committee in Liverpool. It was reported that Christianson spoke at two meetings in the Royals, and was entrusted with the not inconsiderable sum of £11 towards the expenses of the Merseyside Committee.139

Nonetheless, the representative base of what was a provisional committee was limited — although 150 dockers attended the inaugural meeting. And a group around Phil Callanan was increasingly hostile to the perhaps premature attempts of the RCP to give it a harder political basis. The RCP failed to attempt to make the committee more representative. At a meeting on 23 August Callanan, supported by the Communist Party, secured the dissolution of the committee, citing the undue influence of the Trotskyists. The approach of the Liverpool RCP provided a target for this. In leaflets such as the Open Letter to the Dockers of Liverpool at the end of the August work-to-rule, they criticised the dissolution of the committee, and warned:

‘The main lesson we must learn is the necessity for a hard core of resolute men who can be relied on never to weakly dissolve a struggle, but who will press forward under all conditions. The chief lesson is the necessity to build up on the Liverpool docks, in the next few weeks and months, a body of reliable dockers, supporters of the Trotskyists, in the future struggles of the dockers. The RCP has reason to be proud of the fact that only its own members and supporters have proved and will prove to be the most consistent and solid fighters for a militant policy. Dockers! Learn the Lesson. Support the RCP!’140

The Liverpool group was showing a sectarian ignorance of the way to develop the position, and, in substance, demanding a less, not a more representative committee. As the RCP centre pointed out, this went way beyond the approach in the Appeal, and in ultra-left fashion put the cart before the horse. There was no committee in existence, yet the leaflet was arguing, in substance, for a Trotskyist committee — a demand too far in advance of the dockers’ consciousness. Their advice — that the Liverpool group should abandon their propaganda proclamations in favour of patient work with the minority of the dissolved committee — went resented and apparently unheeded.141

In London the RCP was encouraged by the disillusion of Aylward and others with the Communist Party. But they were far from automatically attracted to the Trotskyist alternative. Harry Constable, one of the seven dockers prosecuted under Order 1305 in 1951, had left the Communist Party in the early stages of the war, and was from around 1950 a member of Gerry Healy’s Club and subsequently the Socialist Labour League. Just demobbed in 1945, Constable was in the leadership of the strike in the West India Docks. He was even more critical of the Communist Party than Aylward, and clearly located the party’s political zigzags in its subservience to Moscow. But he was not convinced by the RCP. The main emphasis of the RCP was on the Royal Docks, on trying to build up a committee there and on bringing Powell closer to the RCP. Hopes in the latter were high but exaggerated. The 37-year-old Powell was a well-known and popular character in dockland whose principled support for the dockers was undoubted. He welcomed the support of the RCP, but remained, as events were to prove, at some distance from revolutionary politics. The RCP emphasised the need to recruit: ‘Everything must be done to bring dockers into the organisation. This cannot be repeated too often.’142 They tried to take advantage of what they characterised as a period of apathy and frustration after the end of the work-to-rule by holding meetings for the dockers in the East End, pushing for rank and file committees and a National Rank and File Conference. Socialist Appeal vigorously criticised Barratt, Donovan and the Progressive Committee for undermining the work-to-rule, arguing that Barratt and the Communist Party had accomplished what Donovan could not. In looking to the future it noted: ‘A number of members of the Progressive Committee and outstanding docks leaders expressed their opposition to this policy and [their] intention to organise rank and file committees.’143

These militants were the target of Jimmy Deane, the RCP’s London Industrial Organiser, who was given responsibility for national docks work after the August conference. Deane, 24 years old in 1945, had been involved with the movement since 1937. He was a charismatic, driven figure who walked — sometimes precariously — the line between a passion for revolution and a passion for life. His relationship with the Merseyside leadership had been acrimonious, and he was currently exercised by what he saw as their attacks on the Liverpool Central Local, and their expulsion of Arthur Cowderoy.144 Nonetheless, at this time, with encouragement from Haston, he worked assiduously, attempting to encourage and correct the efforts on Merseyside, and liaise with the National Organiser Tearse in Glasgow. Others involved with docks work were Pentland, Ajit Roy, Jock Milligan and Alf Snobel. On Deane’s own account over the summer: ‘The London Industrial Organiser, along with other comrades, had regular contact with the dockers. At London District Committee meetings reports were made weekly on the progress of this work. Discussions took place two and three times a week on the docks. Regular visits were made to leading dockers to discuss strategy.’145

Deane was an enthusiastic worker and a persuasive propagandist. He was more a winner of political souls than a builder of organisations, and a relatively inexperienced newcomer to the world of the London docks. Leaflets survive advertising meetings he addressed at the Royal Oak, Canning Town, and in Poplar in September. Although his surviving notes deal in terms of general argument with the recent disputes, the need for a national link-up, the necessity for politics, the rôle of the Communist Party and the RCP, they suggest little inside feel for the specific problems facing dockers at work and with their unions. Nonetheless, the RCP believed that ‘whilst they had until July been looked upon with suspicion and isolated’, the articles in Socialist Appeal, the leaflet on the Progressive Committee, and the work of the Liverpool members in establishing contact between the ports ‘won us much sympathy from the leading dockers and recognition by both the rank and file in Liverpool and London’.146

When the Merseyside strike erupted the local RCP was quickly on the spot. They were contacted by the Birkenhead strikers almost immediately, and their meetings on the Liverpool docks spread the word, stimulated the men to come out, and concentrated their minds on the centrality of the 25s demand. The Trotskyists’ meeting at the Alexandra Dock on 2 October seems to have stimulated the formation of the committee, and also led to calls for the reinstatement of Etherington. Martinson described the heated discussion amongst the dockers: ‘“Do you always have to wait for the Trotskyists to give you the lead?”, he said, “Why can’t you dockers set up committees elected by yourselves to go forward on these demands?”’ The mass meeting later that day, at Strand Road, crystallised the demands for a committee which would only involve dockers, and took its distance from the Trotskyists.147

Once the committee was established, however, the RCP found themselves firmly excluded from its deliberations. Martinson claimed that ‘the programme of the Trotskyists had sunk deeply in the minds of the dockers’. If this was so in terms of the strike’s demands, the dockers’ representatives wanted nothing to do with the Trotskyists’ politics. Tommy Birchall’s fears that the dockers would throw the Trotskyist baby out with the Stalinist bathwater were fully realised. The committee’s ‘No Politicians — Dockers Only’ rule was applied to the RCP as well as the Communist Party: ‘The Trotskyists tried every means of reaching the committee with the idea of delegations to other ports, but were blocked at every attempt. The Trotskyist bogeymen idea was deliberately raised by several of the men on the strike committee. Every day that elapsed without the delegates leaving has been, and still is, a step towards defeat.’148

Given this impasse the RCP decided to despatch Martinson on their own account to explore the possibility of extending the strike to London. There the RCP had been pushing Powell to take the initiative: ‘For days we persuaded, argued, and finally convinced Powell and the others of the need to extend the movement. We discussed every detail of the campaign... Powell didn’t want the responsibility.’149

Martinson arrived in dockland on 9 October as Powell was starting a meeting in the Royals to validate a strike decision taken earlier. On the request of the dockers he was brought from a café down the Connaught Road to inform the meeting of the position on Merseyside. Given the hostility of the Merseyside Committee, he was careful to state he represented the RCP.150 An eye witness recounted: ‘When he got the men’s blank cheque for the strike action Powell (clad in a dirty raincoat over a greasy navy blue suit and navvy boots) quickly made platform room for Charles Martinson of the RCP who had come down from Liverpool to rope in London dockers’ support for the Merseyside walk-out.’151

Getting the worst of both worlds, the RCP now found itself in the middle of a press witch-hunt. The following day’s Daily Mirror carried a front page story on London dockers ‘duped by the dictator Thomas Powell and his assistant Charles Martinson who is apparently acting for the Revolutionary Communist Party’. The Daily Mail had already carried stories claiming ‘the Liverpool CID and port authorities are investigating the activities of this underground party’. The attacks on the RCP were now taken up by Arthur Deakin, and reported in the Daily Worker.152 Powell distanced himself from the RCP in measured tones, insisting this was a democratic strike in which all strands of political opinion were represented. He probably spoke sincerely when he said he was ‘a loyal Labour Party supporter who wouldn’t touch Trotskyism’, but he admitted he ‘had worked with the RCP’.153 The press storm also intensified the Merseyside committee’s hostility. A mass meeting on 10 October supported their leadership, and ‘repudiated any connection’ with the RCP. Matters were made worse when Campbell announced that the RCP’s attempts to contribute to their funds — apparently the residue of the £11 Christianson had brought from London with additional money from collections — was an attempt to bribe the committee. The committee now passed over to red scaremongering themselves, and Campbell’s statement that they had been offered and refused £40 from the RCP was broadcast over the wireless.154

The RCP’s response was admirable. Jock Haston wrote to Campbell, pointing out he was ‘playing the bosses’ game’, and ‘abetting attempts to weaken the strike’.155 When Arthur Deakin returned to the attack, claiming the RCP was providing the strikers with expensive cars, meeting halls and speaking equipment, the RCP replied to ‘this miserable falsification’ with a statement that received national prominence:

‘If we had such technical means and the dockers had requested our assistance we would certainly have placed them at their disposal. So should every party that claims to speak in the name of the working class. If Deakin, Donovan and Co were to use the same energy in opposing the employers as they are using to undermine the workers’ struggles, and if the Labour government were to use the troops to end the sabotage of the owners, instead of lowering the standards of the dockers, the strike would be over tomorrow morning and the dockers would have their 25s a day and 40-hour week.’156

There is no reason, however, to doubt the estimate of the Manchester Guardian that the RCP’s influence on the stoppage in London was minimal. Indeed some dockers had resisted Powell’s initial attempts to bring them out, repeating the press comments that it was ‘an RCP strike’.157 On Merseyside, Frank Forster bemoaned the fact that ‘we haven’t got one comrade on the strike committee — not one sympathiser even... without one the position is hopeless’. Arthur Deane complained that ‘the dockers refuse to listen to anyone who isn’t a docker. They ask “Have you a card?”, and if you haven’t they just walk away.’158 He felt that the position wasn’t hopeless, that the Trotskyists could still convince the dockers they were on their side, particularly by working for support from other workers. But it was clear by now that the Liverpool leadership had given up on the strike committee. The only public statement given prominence towards the end of the strike by anybody connected with the RCP on Merseyside came from Billy Etherington. He called convincingly for the dockers to return nationally ‘in a solid body’, given the forces arrayed against them. The committee’s continuing paranoia was demonstrated in their requirement that delegates from London and Glasgow ‘take a solemn oath that they did not belong to any subversive Revolutionary Communist Party or anything else’.159

Relations were not improved by Martinson’s candidature against local TGWU Area Secretary Alderman Simon Mahon, in Bootle’s Mersey Ward, in that autumn’s local government elections. Citizens of the borough opened their local paper on 19 October to see the main front page story headlined ‘“Mazo” Wants to Get on Council’. The article went on to detail the ‘colourful career of Bootle’s surprise candidate’. It quoted Alderman Joseph S Kelly for Labour opining that ‘Charlie hadn’t the ghost of a chance’, and concluded: ‘Whatever Charlie’s electoral prospects may be, no one who knows him doubts his political sincerity.’ Mersey Ward was ‘the dockers’ ward’, historically marked by poor housing and endemic unemployment. It was, as far as Bootle went, in the political vanguard. The TGWU was intimately bound up with the Labour Party in Bootle. Mahon, a TGWU area official since 1936 and a councillor since 1918, was leader of the Labour Group. Alderman Bill Keenan, Lord Mayor of Bootle and newly elected MP for Kirkdale, was Branch Secretary of the key Bootle No 3 TGWU branch, and chairman of Bootle Trades Council and Labour Party. The third skein in the thread was the church. In an area that was strongly Labour and Roman Catholic, Mahon was an ornament of the TGWU bureaucracy and the Catholic Young Men’s Society. The RCP emphasised that their purpose was to take the dockers’ industrial struggle against the TGWU onto the political plane.

It was also, of course, a struggle against Stalinism. Rothwell, the secretary of Bootle Communist Party, declared his party’s deep hostility to their former comrade Martinson: ‘The fact that he is a member of an organisation having a policy so opposed to the best interests of the workers is sufficient to ensure that he must earn the enmity of all thinking members of the community.’ ‘The famous Mazo’, as he was styled by the local press, came under intense fire from both the Vatican and the Kremlin, as the Communist Party blitzed Bootle again with painted slogans proclaiming their displeasure. Somewhat incongruously Charlie found himself defended by The Bootle Times — no doubt strengthening the view of his opponents that Trotskyists lurked in the most surprising places. Its regular ‘Around the Town’ columnist rejected the libels of ‘the highly respectable, pale pink charger known as the Communist Party of Great Britain’, and inquired of the Stalinists: ‘We would like to know when Trotsky ceased to be a disciple of Karl Marx?’160

But the RCP was also aware that their candidature cut it off from Labour Party supporters, and opened it to charges of inconsistency, as its policy was to support other Labour candidates. The solution — Mersey Ward was a dockers’ area, so a conference of dockers should be convened to choose between Martinson and Mahon as their candidate — was utopian, and was apparently of little propaganda value, as it was scarcely pushed. Mazo received only 148 votes to Mahon’s 1438, and the RCP came bottom of the poll. Charlie claimed 100 of his supporters were pledged to revolutionary Communism. But the vote was worse than even cautious RCP members such as IP Hughes and Frank Forster had forecast, and it was adjudged ‘smaller than anticipated’ by the party leadership. The belief that the campaign in Bootle had created ‘the basis for a good group in the area and also a docks group’161 was to prove, yet again, incorrigibly optimistic.

Throughout the strike the Trotskyists firmly opposed any dabbling with the idea of a breakaway union. An editorial in Socialist Appeal declared:

‘Both in Liverpool and London the strike committee have explained the fate that would await those dockers who tampered with the idea of splits from the unions. At this stage, they explained, such splits would play into the hands of the Donovans and Deakins. No splits, but a struggle within the union to oust the present leadership has been the programme of the strike committee. In this the dockers have made a very important contribution to the Labour and trade union movement.’162

When the issue was raised again in 1946 the party reiterated: ‘The policy of the Revolutionary Communist Party is known to all militant dock workers. Our party has consistently opposed irresponsible splits and breakaways.’163 To paint up Dickie Barratt and his pals as a left or democratic alternative to Deakin and his crowd would have been the last thing to have occurred to the RCP or to militant strikers.

The Trotskyists saw the strike out with a burst of activity. Posters were produced for a Hyde Park rally on 5 November at which 500 workers heard Deane, Ajit Roy, and Jock Milligan speak. A further rally at Poplar Baths was also well attended. The party’s initial estimate of progress was optimistic — despite the failure to recruit, Socialist Appeal supported the ‘return with 30 days notice’ position, and argued that the strike had significantly strengthened the dockers. The RCP saw the creation of ‘a permanent national rank and file movement’ as a token of the growth in consciousness of the dockers. These gains, they claimed, ‘mark a tremendous victory against the sabotage of the Donovans and Deakins, Isaacs and Wilkinsons, the Pollitts and the Gallaghers’. It was argued that many dockers now realised that the only party to support them was the RCP.164 An internal assessment claimed that in London: ‘Whilst disclaiming the RCP, the majority of the committee maintained friendly relations with us and accepted our criticisms and advice. The SA was looked upon as a guide for their struggles.’ The party had not held public meetings during the strike at the request of the committee, a step it saw as increasing the confidence of dockers in the party. Members of the committee had responded by calling for nationalisation without compensation, and, despite the use of the Braddocks and the priests, ‘the solid return to work was excellent... a return to work was necessary as they could never have stayed out much longer’. The party could now go forward with docks work from a position of strength.165

Learning the Lessons

Despite this assessment, the party’s rôle in the strike was criticised from November from a variety of perspectives. Deane explained and justified the party’s intervention at length at the London Aggregate on 17 November, another London meeting on the 20th, and the National Industrial Committee on 30 November. One strand of criticism came from the Healy minority, who raised a number of points. John Goffe inquired in relation to the lack of meetings as to whether the job of the party was gaining sympathy or giving political leadership. Dave Finch pointed to the conference resolutions on the MWF and its absence from the party’s intervention, emphasising that in Bootle the workers had voted Labour, not RCP. This was because they were looking for progress from the Labour government, not from the RCP. Healy’s statement that workers were ‘turning in their millions to the Labour Party’ was exaggerated. But the minority did have a point here.166

Deane was feeling his way to a specific characterisation of the dockers as ‘traditionally backward’ regarding job organisation. He noted that amongst them there was a strong ‘Syndicalist trend’ and a ‘resentment of outside interference’. He justified the party’s self-denying ordinance as essential to demonstrate to the strikers that the RCP’s first concern was the success of the strike. They had warned the committee that at the first sign of weakness they would organise their own meetings. He asked: ‘What would have happened had we gone our own sweet way, [would that we would] antagonise the rank and file and its leadership... we must take into account the fact that the rank and file identify all strike leaderships with themselves.’ The RCP had strengthened the strike, increased their influence with the dockers, combated Stalinism, and given their members greater experience.167 There was some feeling, articulated most constructively by John Lawrence (and also by the Hendon Local), that there should have been more circulars, more information, and more central direction to throw the whole party into the struggle, particularly with regard to solidarity action. Others, such as Jim Hinchcliffe, felt this was the job of the locals, and it was a demand for ‘spoonfeeding’.168

At the National Industrial Committee, Gerry Healy expressed his concern at the failure to mobilise other groups of workers in support. Healy ‘desired to have it recorded that he did not think the party conducted correct work in mobilising the workers in general and that his opposition was bound up with his position in relation to the Labour Party tactic’. However, a resolution endorsing the party’s handling of the strike — with an addendum from Lawrence ‘recognising certain organisational weaknesses’ — was carried with only one vote — that of Gerry Healy — registered against it.169

This position was endorsed by the Central Committee. But there was a feeling on the part of those imbued by the conference decisions, and impressed by the spontaneous strength of the strike, that the party had not been adventurous enough. Awaiting demob in Dumbartonshire, Eric Brewer pointed to weaknesses in the model resolutions the RCP had put forward in the unions, citing in particular its omission of criticism of the use of troops, and its failure to urge the strike committee in the direction of workers’ control. Haston responded:

‘The mood of the workers is not as advanced as you appear to think when you speak of the resolution pointing to the possibility of the strike committees developing into instruments of workers’ control. Such a resolution could have little hope of success at the present stage of trade union consciousness and would most likely defeat the object of getting a resolution adopted at all.’170

Haston, of course, was always a realist. But Brewer, who admitted he was out of touch, had obviously based his overestimation on the view that the dockers had demonstrated the truth of the predictions of mass radicalisation, and that the militancy of the rest of the working class was just waiting to be tapped.

The fiercest critics were the Merseyside District Committee. They shared this estimation, and a dispute broke out within the RCP days after the return to work over the Merseyside Group’s desire to criticise the local strike committee. They felt such criticism was inevitable in the meetings that they were holding on the docks and in leaflets they wanted to produce. They also claimed that the strike committee would use the 30-day truce as a means of sabotaging the struggle. They resisted directives from the centre, resolving to stick to the line of Socialist Appeal only ‘where possible’. And they produced a long document on the lessons of the strike.171 Their statement demonstrated that some RCP members took the conference resolutions at face value:

‘Theoretically the ascent to power of a majority Labour government heralded the classic commencement of the pre-revolutionary era in Britain. Almost immediately, only two months after this event, came the explosion setting a practical stamp on the historical period. The broader significance of the dock strike is that we in Britain are no longer merely on the threshold of a period of great industrial storms but have actually entered it. As a first sample of what is around the corner the dock strike showed, both in militancy and scope, a qualitative difference from the industrial disputes of the preceding era.’172

The strike was militant, national and anti-bureaucratic. But it had thrown up a leadership which was politically inadequate. The Merseyside RCP argued that the job of revolutionaries in these circumstances was to expose the failings of that false leadership. The RCP had played a useful rôle in the formation of the committee, in establishing links between the ports, and in placing the 25s demand at the centre of the activity. But the Merseyside document took a harder look at what had been achieved:

‘In spite of the fact that we achieved a good degree of publicity and had hit the headlines to good effect, as far as the dockers themselves are concerned we can show no actual results, nor do we believe that we have sown any seed which will bear later fruit. The impression we got was one of following the dockers round, tailing after them rather than giving a constructive lead.’173

This was put down to lack of national coordination, denial of access to the Merseyside Committee, but also to the inadequately critical line taken. It was essential now, in order to assist the dockers to draw up a balance sheet, to criticise the committee for its vacillations in extending the strike, its exclusion of the Trotskyists, and its reliance on churchmen and MPs. A democratically elected committee could only be fully registered as a ‘gain’ on the basis of an analysis of its ideas and its actions. The 30-day truce had placed a brake on the militancy, the dockers had returned with no response to their demands, and negotiations were now back in the hands of the union leaders. There was a need to pressurise the National Portworkers Committee to demand representation in the negotiations and a ballot on their outcome. The RCP leadership was too optimistic; to fail to criticise the rank and file leadership was ‘to maintain a deceitful silence, is to indulge in the worst form of economism, and has nothing in common with a Marxist approach’.174

A problem was that the Liverpool case — certainly worth arguing if one believed as they did that ‘gigantic convulsions’ were in train — was, as is usual in these situations, combined with a range of disagreements with the leadership as to who did what, when and where, which might have been better rehearsed separately. The thrust of their criticisms was that the centre had inadequately facilitated and recognised their leading rôle in the dispute, and had failed to communicate properly at key points. The Liverpool group was understandably exercised by its personal antagonism with Campbell and Callanan, and perhaps less understandably with Deane, who had a lot placed on his shoulders throughout the dispute. A constructive attempt to get them to separate out their account of how things had happened — some of which was undoubtedly inaccurate — from their political criticisms of the leadership’s ‘pandering to non-political elements’, was unsuccessful. Liverpool insisted on the publication of their account, arguing that factual errors could be corrected in response, and refused to allow the document to go first for discussion to the NIC.175 Deane does not seem to have helped matters at an extended District Committee meeting in Liverpool. He described the document as ‘a pack of lies’, and threatened to charge Birchall, who was defending the document, but who was also a Central Committee member, with a breach of democratic centralism, leading Brian Crookes to declare ‘the DC would not yield its position to threats’.176

The document was duly published, and Deane replied at length, going only some way to meet Frank Ward’s request for restraint. A lot of the document was taken up with correcting points of fact, and in defending his rôle. He was able to point out that Liverpool in August had started to make mistakes. Instead of understanding that the ad hoc committee would disappear or go forward with the end of the London work-to-rule, they became subjectively hostile to Callanan and Campbell. Instead of putting forward arguments for building a militant representative committee, they had instead emphasised the need for building the RCP — ‘a choice example of how not to approach the workers’.177 They had driven the dockers towards Campbell, and had isolated themselves. The issue which had sparked off the internal dispute, the leadership’s embargo on a leaflet exposing the strike committee for its use of MPs and parsons as negotiators, was not aimed at criticism per se, but at its content and method. It was important to start from the real gains — national and local rank and file organisations. The involvement of MPs and parsons was not the point, the committee were militant rank and filers, not Trotskyists. The strikers, faced with troops, an adamant government and public hostility, could only have continued at the price of disintegration and defeat. The Merseyside and national committees were firm in their demands; there was simply no evidence to support the view they would sabotage future struggles, having stood firm on this one. The only criticism worth raising was their reluctance to make national links. They stood on the most advanced programme put forward by such a movement since 1926.178 The job in Liverpool was not to indulge in recriminations from outside, which would strengthen the wall between the RCP and the rank and file. It was to break through that wall, and to establish a relationship with the dockers’ representatives. Even with a committee which had illusions in the church and the government and was hostile to Trotskyism, the only way to advance would be to work patiently and carefully to win the confidence of the rank and file. It was incorrect to argue that the RCP could show no results, for there had been an increase in the party’s influence: ‘We have begun to build a tradition among the dockers who are an important section of the British working class.’179

The weakness of Deane’s document and much of the discussion was that it did not begin to address Liverpool’s characterisation of ‘the era’, and it did not begin to attempt formally to feed back the experience of the strike into any explicit reassessment of the general political situation. If there was, as Liverpool believed, a pre-revolutionary situation, their impatience with the ‘economism’ of the RCP leadership had some justification. If, as Haston suggested, this was a big strike in a situation of general working class quiescence, the implications — the situation was far from pre-revolutionary, and the signs pointed towards a re-establishment of capitalist stability — might well have been addressed more forthrightly. The documents were fully discussed at the February 1946 NIC, of which only a fragmentary note survives. Whilst the leadership had been concerned over the uses Gerry Healy might find for the document, he seems to have seen the Liverpool position as the product of ultra-leftism. Birchall remained adamant that a more critical approach was required, whilst Tearse was against high drama — errors had been made, there were understandable differences of approach, they should be shared and patiently examined. Haston was very satisfied with the work, claiming that the creation of a national committee and national demands ‘was due to the work of comrade Deane more than any other individual or group’.180

The RCP criticised the acceptance of the Evershed proposals, but agreed with the National Strike Committee that no resistance was possible.181 They continued to view their prospects optimistically: ‘Aylwood [sic] is our key man. We hope to get him... Give us three months and we shall have a good group of dockers in London.’182 However, when the RCP’s East End group was set up at the end of the year, there were no dockers in membership. Deane’s absence through ill health in early 1946 did not help matters. And by March, after many assurances to Tearse that progress was being made, he was noting:

‘My weak spot is the docks. I am very disappointed in my efforts in this direction. Since I returned from Liverpool I have been occupied every minute and so far have been unable to do the necessary chasing... the committee seems to have splintered a little. The core still remains but Powell and Aylwood [sic] seem to have fallen away. This week I am going to make a determined attempt to get hold of Aylwood.’183

Later that year Bert Aylward, Harry Constable and Bert Saunders joined the Socialist Workers League, a group led by Joe Thomas which had just broken from the Oehlerite International Contact Commission. By early 1947 they were openly criticising the RCP’s policy for dockers on the grounds that the nationalisation of the docks by Labour would only benefit the capitalists, and what should be demanded was a system of port transport governed by workers’ councils. A few weeks later Powell was being pronounced ‘hopeless’ by his first contact in the RCP, ‘bought over’ by the NASD leadership.184 The RCP in Liverpool was proved correct in its estimate of how little the party had achieved in the strike, but it never recovered from the problems, and resentments were highlighted and intensified by its events. In early 1946 there was more than a flirtation with Healy, and an attempt was made to overcome the hostility of what was now the Merseyside Docks Welfare Committee by working with them on the production of the North West Vigilant. In September the RCP readmitted Alan Christianson as a probationary member. The same Central Committee meeting suspended Brian Crookes, IP Hughes, Ernie Buchanan and Jack Ronan from membership for organising a secret faction, and attempting ‘to form an entirely unrepresentative and artificial committee between elements of the Dockers Welfare Committee and shop repair workers though such a policy has been condemned as against party policy by the majority of the branch and the local representative of the Central Committee’.185

They were later expelled. As the RCP again clashed with the Merseyside Committee over Campbell’s proposal for a breakaway union, their considered reviews of the strike still took a largely positive view of developments:

‘During the dockers’ strike the party, particularly in the London area, was able to make important contact with the dock workers. The importance of this contact is underlined by the fact that we had nobody in the industry. We were, however, not able to recruit these militant dock workers into the party who are traditionally difficult to organise politically. A definitely sympathetic attitude towards the Trotskyists was established which will have repercussions in the future. In Liverpool our comrades, despite the splendid initiative they demonstrated in the first stages of the struggle, in large part marred the effects of this work by what, in our opinion, was [sic] mistaken tactics.’186

Yet the strike had brought the RCP up against a reality which was proving different in key aspects from their perspectives. A major struggle, driven from below, its impetus strongly against the trade union leaders and Stalinism, developed even more quickly than they had foreseen. But the alternative leadership it threw up remained largely within the confines of reformism, articulating the dockers’ aspirations to improve their position in the postwar world, and not to claw down capitalism. On Merseyside it was explicitly anti-Trotskyist. What occurred was ‘a tremendous explosion’ of militant trade union consciousness. The rank and file leaders articulated it precisely: ‘The dockers’ main asset is his hands. He has every right to offer them to the highest bidder... He wants no more than he is worth. A fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work.’187

This consciousness was scored through with suspicion of the state and its allies in the union leadership. This produced an independent rank and fileism related more to a corporate philosophy of ‘stand on your own two feet’ than a Socialist critique of orthodox trade unionism. The small lever of the RCP was unable to transform what remained militant economism, or to win even a small minority to its ideas. The dockers were in key ways a special case compared with other groups of workers. The RCP was discovering the varieties of the working class and their anchorage within variants of a powerful labourism. They were discovering, like the Communist Party, that the dockers were not the engineers; the dockers’ more elemental eruption produced a feebler reach to radicalism. Despite the dockers’ hatred of the union leadership and their refusal of the Stalinist alternative, the Trotskyists had not begun to fill the space available.

Their reaction to the dockers’ militancy demonstrated the diversity of thinking and practice within the RCP. There was no simple straightforward party line, nor even majority and minority positions which were slavishly followed. The dockers’ action produced a variety of responses. But in the end there was a line to be imposed. This was done in a democratic manner, but it still produced conflict. The RCP leadership accepted in practice the limits which the dockers’ strike imposed, even if it jarred with their perspectives. They eschewed party meetings, attempts to push the strike into a collision with the Labour government, and attempts to build the MWF and other aspects of the upsurge perspective, in favour of a rôle as servers of the struggle, strengthening the strike, and establishing their bona fides with the key militants. There was undoubtedly strong emphasis in the paper and in leaflets on the need for independent rank and file organisation and opposition to the union bureaucracy and Stalinism. There was less emphasis on the rôle of the Labour government, the Labour Party, workers in other industries, and the need to go beyond economic demands. Even then it seems that only a small number of dockers came within the RCP’s orbit, and the sympathy Powell and Aylward felt for their politics was exaggerated. No recruits were made, then or later. The RCP drew attention to its small size and lack of resources, and to the fact that where it did recruit, as in the building trades dispute, this was related to the activity of experienced militants, already party members.188 To state these problems was not to solve them.

The alternative approach haltingly deployed in Liverpool was also unsuccessful. The title of this essay announces the problem. If the servicing strategy did not lead to success, the open assertion of the necessity of Trotskyism for workers in struggle, criticism of its opponents and calls to join the party, also bore no fruit. On Merseyside the RCP, after its initial success in spreading the strike and establishing links, played no rôle at all in the direction of the strike. Nonetheless, Liverpool’s leftism represented a real strand in the party’s 1945 perspectives, and its deployment demonstrated the problems with them.

For there was a cruel gap between the RCP’s conception of a movement towards a pre-revolutionary situation and the conditions in Britain in the autumn of 1945; specifically, sectional unrest within a broad acceptance of Labourism. The gap between the RCP’s analysis and the RCP’s practice was evoked in the exchange between Eric Brewer and Jock Haston. The practice of the RCP in relation to the docks militancy was probably all that could be expected, the strikers had no alternative but to return, they had won significant concessions, and the committees were a gain. But it contradicted the grand revolutionary rhetoric of the conference. But so did the consciousness of the dockers and the lack of any broader upsurge. The finger was pointing again to the need to confront the political and organisational resilience of Labourism.

So was the minority around Healy right? By no means. Entry could not be motivated, as they argued, by an impending capitalist crisis, nor by a surge towards Labour Party membership by large numbers of newly-radicalised workers. But in 1945 there was life in the newly-ascendant Labour Party, and favourable opportunities and attitudes did exist. In July 1945, addressing his victory rally, John Kinley, newly-elected MP for Bootle in a Labour landslide, singled out for their work in his campaign ‘two old ILP comrades, TA Jones and Tommy Birchall’. They ‘had come in because they felt they could not keep out of a fight against Toryism’.189 Having declared their intention to take their campaign against the local union leaders onto the political plane, the Trotskyists did so in October by counterposing the tiny RCP to the Labour Party. They thus yielded to their political opponents, without a struggle, the banner perceived by the vast majority of the politically advanced citizens of Bootle as the banner which represented the general interests of the working class. Leninism failed to penetrate the dense political and religious alignments of Bootle’s dockers structured by Labourism. Having ‘come in’ in the summer, Birchall and his comrades might have done better to have stayed in. They could then have fought Simon Mahon more advantageously for control over the ideas and the organisational levers of labour movement power. Standing inside would have given them a more stable base, a better framework, and a superior tempo for their work. It would have given them superior access to more workers, and greater legitimacy with them than open work, although not to the mirage of the radicalising masses. The options were debated by the Merseyside RCP in early 1946. Birchall asserted that ‘the question of entry needs immediate consideration’.190 But it was not taken further in any organised way until 1949.

The counterpoint was put by Norman Pentland: ‘I am wondering just how many dockers are at their Labour Party branches with their demands. Not many I would say. I suppose we should be there waiting for them while they take real action. I would feel like a fish out of water with no Socialist Appeal to press in a worker’s hands at times of big strikes.’191

Fair enough: ‘not many’. Nor, however, were there to be many more big strikes. And the Socialist Appeal was being pressed into fewer hands and having less impact when it was. For the Trotskyists the choice lay between two long hard roads: increasingly marginalised open party activity, or work inside a Labour Party where there was no mass radicalisation, and where real constraints were to be expected from the bureaucracy once small successes were registered. The Trotskyists were between a rock and a hard place. The hard place of the Labour Party was, on balance, preferable because of the open channels running between the trade unions and the party, of industrial and political activity, and because the party possessed the ideological loyalty of the working class, even if only a small minority were prepared to be active within it. The subsequent disintegration of the open party, ground between the pressures of a stubbornly reformist working class, and a stubbornly fundamentalist, opportunist and unforgiving Fourth International, told its own tale.

Some Concluding Comments

The year of 1945 represented at the polls and in the docks the triumph of labourism, the limits of which reflected the consciousness and political culture of the working class. There were in the autumn of 1945 real hopes amongst dockers that the Labour government would qualitatively improve their position. Only a handful looked to political alternatives. But the dockers’ hopes were in a sense traditional, defensive ones. They displayed vigorous activism in pursuit of their own corporate expectations of social welfare and a redistribution of income. They demonstrated less enthusiasm for the continuation of wartime planning and productionism. They were not enamoured with the trade-offs between autonomy, discipline and job security which the blueprints for a new dock labour scheme offered them. Nor were they impressed with its essential setting in the project of state, employers and unions to reconstruct the port industry, increase productivity, and revitalise the economy through an export drive. What emerged on the docks in 1945 was a distinctive ‘do it yourself’ reformism, its vehicle being a rank and filism in conflict with the corporative general trade unionism represented by the TGWU. This did not exist in a vacuum — it was inserted in a political universe in which Labour was the party to vote for, even if stronger attachments to it were refused.

If, as the events of 1945 demonstrated, Labour was not fully prepared to realise the dockers’ aspirations, if the dockers in their turn never internalised the economic logic of the new Keynesian Social Democracy, as time went on the dockers saw virtues in the National Dock Labour Board Scheme. Not the least of these was the contribution it made to creating a national identity for portworkers which transcended to some degree the localism still apparent in 1945. This study suffers from the limitations of any attempt to stop history at a particular moment. It suggests a complex ambivalence of attachment to Labour on the part of an important group of workers, and the development in the 1940s of specific forms of activism rather than the general passivity, lack of interest and cynicism attributed to the working class in the period of 1945-51 by the new historiography of postwar Labourism.192

This study also offers little support to the recent revisionist historiography of the Communist Party. Its claim — drawn largely on evidence from engineering — is that the party welded together successfully the conflicting elements of ‘trade union loyalism’ and ‘rank and filism’ to construct a powerful base in the unions. The party adopted in the 1930s and 1940s a benign internal regime with the party line in the nature of ‘flexible guidelines’. Its conception of democratic centralism was ‘highly derivative of working class non-conformism’, relying ‘on individual consciences to interpret the real world according to their own lights’.193 A caricature of the Communist Party as the party of ‘revolutionary pragmatism’ is achieved by decentring Stalinism. Rather than being organic to the party’s history in this period, it is glimpsed only furtively at the margins of the narrative, and goes unintegrated in analysis. The party’s preference for manoeuvre and manipulation as against democracy and open debate — which has led one historian not unsympathetic to the party’s tradition to opine recently that ‘the ETU culprits were unique only in getting caught’194 — goes unchallenged.

In relation to the docks in 1945, there was a clear if developing party line. Members were expected to adhere to the party line, and not follow individual predilections. There was dissidence and debate, but the limits were forcibly drawn by Pollitt from the podium of the Eighteenth Congress. There was party discipline. The party line was, moreover, unsuccessful in marrying ‘union loyalism’ and ‘rank and filism’. In contrast, the party’s support for the TGWU leadership incurred the hostility of the rank and file. The Stalinists possessed little support on Merseyside after 1945, and were regarded with suspicion even by militant dockers through the 1950s. By that time, the Trotskyists were more influential. Nor was the party line the product of the pragmatism of the British leadership, as it has been suggested. There was freedom for the party leadership to tack this way or that, but it was exercised within the parameters of an international Stalinism of which the Pollitts and Campbells were committed, organic adherents. There was no need for the Comintern, laid to rest in 1943, or the Cominform, not to appear until 1947, to tell them what to do. By 1947 the Communist Party had performed yet another somersault, turning once more to militancy in response to the predicament of the rulers of Stalinist Russia, whose needs they projected onto the British working class.

If the dockers had little time for Stalinism, they had only a little more time for Leninism. In 1945 both wings of the Revolutionary Communist Party possessed an apocalyptic vision which initially and mistakenly discerned in an important trade union struggle the origins of a revolutionary upsurge. Distorting the real movement of capitalism, this vision was a barrier to understanding the developing consciousness of the dockers and constructing a viable Socialist political approach. In the coming years the tensions between this perspective and the unfolding of events led a group around Jock Haston to close the gap by embracing reformism. The beginning of this process may be seen in 1945. The group around Gerry Healy clung to the microscope and a comforting catastrophism as capitalism boomed. The group around Ted Grant stemming from the RCP leadership took solace in evolutionary determinism and sectarian entrism. The success which the Healy group enjoyed in recruiting dockers in the 1950s proved temporary. Decade after decade, the struggles on the docks continued until 1989, when the strike against the dismemberment of the Dock Labour Scheme was tragically and conclusively defeated. The traditions forged after 1945 appeared to have met their nemesis.

Yet at the end of 1995, half a century after the events recounted here, the papers of the left once again headlined: ‘Liverpool: 500 dockers sacked’ — ‘Liverpool dockers stand firm’ — ‘Tenth week of strike; TGWU refuse to make it official’ — ‘Workers worldwide support the dockers’ The world of 1945 has faded forever. The fabric of our lives and our work has been transformed. The struggle, its conflicts, its difficulties, its dilemmas, remains with us.

The author would like to thank Paul Flewers, Sheila Leslie, Al Richardson, Bruce Robinson, Keith Sinclair, the staff of the Modern Records Centre (University of Warwick) and the National Museum of Labour History for the help they gave him with this article.

Guillermo Lora’s Complete Works

Guillermo Lora, the longstanding leader of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario Bolivia, is publishing his Complete Works, covering his writings from 1942 to the present. Eleven volumes have already been published, and it is anticipated that the series will comprise a total of 50 volumes.

Details of prices, conditions of payment, etc, are available from CSB, Apartado 35131, 28080 Madrid, Spain.


1. For background see VL Allen, Trade Union Leadership: Based on a Study of Arthur Deakin, London, 1957, pp172-211; B Hunter, They Knew Why They Fought: Unofficial Struggles and Leadership on the Docks 1945-1989, London, 1994; MP Jackson, Labour Relations on the Docks, London, 1973; K Knowles, ‘The Postwar Dock Strikes’, Political Quarterly, July-September 1951; G Phillips and N Whiteside, Casual Labour: The Unemployment Question in the Port Transport Industry, Oxford, 1985; K Sinclair, How the Blue Union Came to Hull Docks, Hull, 1995; P Turnbull, ‘Dock Strikes and the Demise of the Dockers’ Occupational Culture’, Sociological Review, Volume 40, no 2, 1992; P Turnbull, C Woolfson and J Kelly, Dock Strike: Conflict and Restructuring in Britain’s Ports, Aldershot, 1992; DF Wilson, Dockers: The Impact of Industrial Change, London, 1972.

2. It is touched on briefly, for example, in Allen, op cit, pp195, 201-2; M Allen, Postwar Dock Strikes 1945-1955’, North West Labour History, no 15, 1990-91, pp88-90; Hunter, op cit, pp22-4; B Pennington, ‘Docks: Breakaway and Unofficial Movements’, International Socialism, no 2, Autumn 1960. J Phillips, The Great Alliance: Economic Recovery and the Problems of Power, 1945-51, London, 1996, was published after this article went to press. The only extended treatment is D Baines, The Unofficial Movement on the Docks and the Rivalry Between the ‘Blue’ and ‘White’, unpublished MA thesis, University of Warwick, 1982.

3. For brief comments on the rôle of the Trotskyists see S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and The International: A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain 1937-1949, London, 1986, pp151-2; J McIlroy, ‘Dockers’ Struggles and Oral History’, Workers Liberty, June 1995.

4. V Allen, op cit, p195.

5. National Docks Strike Committee, To You, The Public, We Present our Case, Publicity Department, NDSC, November 1945, p3. Cf N Whiteside, ‘Public Policy and Port Labour Reform: the Docks Decasualisation Issue 1910-50’, in S Tolliday and J Zeitlin (eds), Shop Floor Bargaining and the State: Historical and Comparative Perspectives, Cambridge, 1985, pp91-103; and Wilson, op cit, pp93-5.

6. NDSC, To You..., op cit, p2.

7. Daily Worker, 27 June 1945; Manchester Guardian, 4 and 5 October 1945; ‘Wartime Gains for Dockworkers’, Lancashire and Cheshire News (Communist Party), 2 February 1946; Manchester Guardian, 20 October 1945; Knowles, op cit, p276.

8. Liverpool University, Department of Social Sciences, The Dockworker, Liverpool, 1954; London Central Strike Committee, Why Strike?, nd [1945].

9. The Portworker, no 1, January 1946, p3.

10. NDSC, To You..., op cit, p2; LCSC, Why Strike?, op cit.

11. LCSC, Why Strike?, op cit.

12. Bootle Times, 27 October 1944, 17 November 1944, 24 December 1944.

13. NDSC, To You..., op cit, pp1, 4.

14. Op cit, p1.

15. London Docks Dispute March 1945: Report of a Committee of Inquiry (the Ammon Report), Ministry of Labour, 1945.

16. Tom Powell, quoted in the Daily Worker, 29 July 1945.

17. Manchester Guardian, 29 October 1945.

18. Phil Callanan, quoted in the Liverpool Echo, 19 October 1945.

19. N Brown, ‘The Meaning of the Dock Dispute’, Labour Monthly, December 1945; NDSC, To You..., op cit, p1.

20. Cf V Allen, op cit, particularly pp187-211.

21. Op cit.

22. Op cit, pp113, 172-90, 221; Baines, op cit, pp7-8; Whiteside, op cit, p99.

23. TGWU Record, November 1945. Cf Jack Donovan to the employers in October 1946: ‘We will take our responsibility equally with you and we will fight our men if they are not playing the game...’ (quoted in V Allen, op cit, p180)

24. T Birchall, Report on Merseyside Dockers’ Strikes (Revolutionary Communist Party), 2 October 1945.

25. Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1945; Baines, op cit, p8.

26. N Pentland, ‘Bosses Declare War on London Dockers’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-July 1945; M Allen, op cit, p88; Baines, op cit, pp22, 30-31.

27. Daily Worker, 14 July 1945.

28. Daily Telegraph, 24 July 1945.

29. Daily Telegraph, l and 2 August 1945; Solidarity, Labour Government vs The Dockers 1945-51, London, 1965, pp2-4.

30. Daily Worker, 19 and 20 July 1945; Daily Telegraph, 1 and 2 August 1945; Labour Government vs The Dockers, op cit; C Martinson, ‘London Dockers’ Fight’, Socialist Appeal, August 1945.

31. Baines, op cit, pp22, 30-31.

32. NDSC, To You..., op cit, p1.

33. J Deane, ‘Dockers Struggle Undermined by TU Officials’, Socialist Appeal, September 1945; ‘Barratt Withdraws 28 Days Notice’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-September 1945.

34. Manchester Guardian, 11 October 1945.

35. Manchester Guardian, 2-5 October 1945; Daily Worker, 2-5 October 1945; Liverpool Daily Post, 2 and 3 October 1945.

36. NDSC, To You..., op cit, p1; Brown, op cit, p370.

37. Manchester Guardian, 3 and 5 October 1945.

38. Liverpool Echo, 10 and 11 October 1945.

39. In Hull, for example, JW Murphy (later to be involved in the ‘Blue’ union breakaway) criticised ‘the apathy, indifference and incapacity of the officials who have become dictators’ (Manchester Guardian, 15 October 1945).

40. Bootle Times, 12 October 1945; TGWU, Record, January 1946.

41. Manchester Guardian, 19 October 1945; Daily Telegraph, 13 October 1945.

42. Liverpool Echo, 9, 11, 16 and 22 October 1945; The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, RCP Liverpool District Committee, 22 November 1945, pp7-9; Manchester Guardian, 9-12 October 1945; Daily Telegraph, 15 and 19 October 1945.

43. Manchester Guardian, 9-12 October 1945; Daily Telegraph, 15 and 19 October 1945.

44. Liverpool Daily Post, 18 October 1945; Manchester Guardian, 18 October 1945.

45. Manchester Guardian, 9 October 1945.

46. Manchester Guardian, 11 October 1945.

47. Labour Government vs The Dockers, op cit, pp2-4; J Davis Smith, The Attlee and Churchill Administrations and Industrial Unrest, London, 1990; Liverpool Echo, 12 and 13 October 1945, Manchester Guardian, 17 October 1945; Liverpool Echo, 9, 10, 13 and 27 October 1945.

48. Manchester Guardian, 17 October 1945; Liverpool Echo, 9, 10, 13 and 27 October 1945.

49. Manchester Guardian, 17 and 18 October 1945.

50. RCP SW London Branch, Industrial Report, October 1945; F Ward, letter to M Haston, August 1945; Manchester Guardian, 17 October 1945; M Allen, op cit, p89.

51. Liverpool Echo, 26 and 27 October 1945.

52. Manchester Guardian, 29 October 1945.

53. Manchester Guardian, 2 November 1945.

54. Manchester Guardian, 2 November 1945; Bootle Times, 2 and 16 November 1945.

55. Manchester Guardian, 3 November 1945.

56. Manchester Guardian, 31 October, 3 and 6 November 1945.

57. The Times, 6 November 1945.

58. Daily Worker, 22, 26, 29 and 30 November, 2, 3, 11-13 and 15 December 1945.

59. M Allen, op cit, p84.

60. Manchester Guardian, 16 December 1945.

61. The Portworker, no 1, January 1946; J Deane, ‘The TU Leaders Betray Dockers’, Socialist Appeal, January 1946.

62. Liverpool Daily Post, 2 September 1946; Liverpool Echo, 17 September 1946.

63. Liverpool Daily Post, 3 September 1946.

64. Liverpool Daily Post, 9 September 1946; Liverpool Echo, 9 September 1946.

65. Liverpool Echo, 15 and 16 September 1946; TGWU Record, October 1946; F Deegan, There’s No Other Way, Liverpool, 1980, p65. Baines states that the breakaway fiasco saw the end of the Merseyside Committee (op cit, pp30, 37), that at the end of the national strike the London Committee ‘disappeared’ until 1947, and that the National Portworkers Committee ‘collapsed’ at the end of the strike (pp30, 35). However, the National Committee was still active with delegates from Liverpool, London, Hull, Glasgow, Grimsby, Aberdeen, the North East and Southampton in attendance in September 1946 (Liverpool Daily Post, 9 September 1946). The London Committee seems to have continued through 1946, whilst Campbell and Callanan’s committee was still active in the spring of 1947 (N Pentland, ‘London Dockers Prepare’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-July 1946; R Tearse, ‘Glasgow Dockers Fight Sackings’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-April 1947).

66. Lancashire and Cheshire News, 2 February 1946; Lancashire and Cheshire District, Report of District Work for Discussion in Political Committee, 18 October 1946; G Hardy, Those Stormy Years?, London, 1956; J Arnison, Leo McGree: What a Man, What a Fighter, Manchester, 1980; S Kelly, Idle Hands, Clenched Fists, Nottingham, 1987.

67. National Industrial Conference, Report, London, 13 January 1945; Lancashire and Cheshire District, Report of District Work, 1946.

68. Lancashire and Cheshire District, Industrial Report, November 1943, p13.

69. Op cit; Lancashire and Cheshire District, Report, 1946, p13; Lancashire and Cheshire District, Report, 1947-48, p2; Bootle Times, 27 October 1944, 9 November 1945.

70. Hardy, op cit, pp239-41; for Joe Byrne see T Lane, ‘Some Merseyside Militants of the 1930s’, in H Hikins (ed), Building the Union, Liverpool, 1973; for the Communist Party on the Liverpool docks see Deegan, op cit, pp46ff.

71. Allen, op cit, p91.

72. Hunter, op cit, p23; Socialist Appeal, September 1945; J Deane, ‘The Stalinists and The Dock Strike’, Socialist Appeal, November 1945; T Dickens, ‘A Docker’s Day’, Daily Worker, 23 October 1945; Liverpool Echo, 17 October 1945; F Lindop, ‘Unofficial Militancy in the Royal Group of Docks 1945-67’, Oral History Journal, Volume 11, no 2, 1983.

73. Allen, op cit, p273; B Darke, The Communist Technique in Britain, Harmondsworth, 1952, p65.

74. S Bornstein and A Richardson, Two Steps Back: Communists and the Wider Labour Movement 1935-1945, Ilford, 1982, p139. For Communist Party malpractice in the TGWU in the 1940s see J Goldstein, The Government of British Trade Unions, London, 1952. For example, he describes how in 1947 more than half of a branch’s ballot papers for the GEC elections were retained by the branch leadership: ‘A group of shop stewards, all members of the inner circle, gathered around a table one evening and with varied coloured pencils proceeded to place crosses by the names of Communist Party candidates, Papworth and Jones. To give the appearance of authenticity only 432 of the 518 ballots cast in this way supported the branch’s favourites.’ (pp97-99, 212)

75. B Aylward and P Coleman, London Docks, Communist Party pamphlet, 1944, p14.

76. Op cit, p16.

77. H Pollitt, Answers to Questions, Communist Party pamphlet, 1945, p2. Cf H Pollitt, How to Win the Peace, Communist Party pamphlet, 1944.

78. See Bornstein and Richardson, Two Steps Back, op cit, pp128ff; K Morgan, Harry Pollitt, Manchester, 1993, pp139-49; R Black, Stalinism in Britain, London, 1970, pp192ff. Both Black and Morgan note the similarity between the Communist Party’s position in 1945 and the later British Road to Socialism of 1951.

79. Communist Policy for Britain: Report of the Fourteenth Congress of the CPGB, 1945, pp14-15.

80. Morgan, op cit, p142.

81. V Allen, op cit, p271.

82. Editorial, Daily Worker, 7 March 1945.

83. Lancashire and Cheshire District, Industrial Report, November 1943, p13.

84. Leaflet, Dockers Defence Committee, April 1945.

85. J Deane, Reply To The Liverpool Document on the Docks Strike, nd [early 1946], p3.

86. Daily Telegraph, 24 July 1945; Daily Worker, 14 July 1945.

87. Daily Worker, 20 July 1945; P Zinkin, ‘Docks: What the Dispute is About’, Daily Worker, 31 July 1945.

88. Deane, Reply..., op cit, p3; Daily Telegraph, 19 July 1945; C Martinson, ‘London Dockers Fight’, Socialist Appeal, August 1945.

89. The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, op cit, pp2-3.

90. Deane, Reply..., op cit, p14; The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, op cit, p3; B Crookes, letter to J Haston, 26 August 1945. Pennington states that Aylward and others resigned in 1945 over the Communist Party’s strike-breaking, but it is unclear when, as, in his account, the work-to-rule and the national strike are run together (op cit, p6). Hunter suggests that Aylward left at the end of the summer action (op cit, p23). The only account of events on the docks in 1945 by a participant in the Communist Party of which I am aware, is Jack Dash, Good Morning Brothers, London, 1969, pp53-6. Dash’s hazy narrative is yet another example of the limitations of relying on memory. He has forgotten all about the national strike, and narrates how the 19s a week increase was won by a three week work-to-rule. He states he was a member of the Portworkers Committee, and notes ‘the workers who had stood together... to defeat the most vicious war machine in history were not broken by the “smart alec” tricks of the employers. We stood firm... we returned to work jubilant and victorious.’ There is no mention of the rôle of his fellow party members of Barratt and Co in trying to break the work-to-rule (p55). Dash inquires: ‘What was the reaction of the Labour Cabinet, the TUC and the right wing union officials? Out they came with a phrase that by now [1967] has become a cliché: “Don’t embarrass the Labour Government” — poncing on the loyalty of the working class.’ (p54) The Communist Party is omitted from the roll call of ponces. He remembers with disdain the ‘attacks made against us in the national daily newspapers’, forgetting that the list included the daily newspaper of his own party.

91. Birchall, Report, op cit, p2.

92. Op cit, pp7-8; Deegan, op cit, p64; Manchester Guardian, 4 October 1945; Bootle Times, 5 October 1945; Daily Telegraph, 17 October 1945.

93. Daily Worker, 6 and 8 October 1945.

94. Liverpool Echo, 9 October 1945; Liverpool Daily Post, 12 October 1945; Deegan, op cit, p64.

95. Daily Worker, 11 October 1945.

96. ‘The Docks Strike’ (editorial), Daily Worker, 12 October 1945.

97. P Blackman, ‘Keep in Touch with the Workers’, World News and Views, 3 November 1945.

98. J Owen, ‘“Keep in Touch” with the Workers’, World News and Views, 17 November 1945; cf D Foley, Daily Worker, 20 October 1945, on the employers’ ‘provocative’ refusal to make concessions.

99. J Deane, Notes to London Aggregate (RCP), 17 November 1945; Daily Worker, 25 October 1945.

100. Liverpool Echo, 17 October 1945.

101. N Pentland, AEU Industrial Report (RCP), 10 November 1945.

102. Parliamentary Debates, Volume 415, column 263, 30 October 1945; Communist Party Political Committee, Our Weekly Letter, 25 October 1945; ‘Dockers Must Decide’ (editorial), Daily Worker, 26 October 1945; Daily Worker, 3 October 1945; J Deane, letter to F Forster, 18 November 1945.

103. Resolutions and Agenda, Eighteenth Congress of the Communist Party of Great Britain, pp32-4.

104. ‘Winning the Peace: Harry Pollitt’s Reply to Discussion at the Eighteenth Congress’, World News and Views, 8 December 1945; Jock Haston, ‘Pollitt Admits Another Error — Strike Breaking to Continue but More Cautiously’, Socialist Appeal, December 1945.

105. Editorial, Daily Worker, 3 December 1945; Editorial, Daily Worker, 12 December 1945.

106. ‘Wartime Gains for Dockworkers’, Lancashire and Cheshire News, 2 February 1946.

107. Baines, op cit, pp31-2.

108. Report of the Forty-Fifth Annual Conference of the Labour Party, 1946, pp170-1.

109. RCP, First Annual Conference, 21 August 1945, summary document; ‘National Organisational Report 1945-46’, The Party Organiser, September 1946; RCP, Report on the Neath Campaign 1945. For background see Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, op cit, particularly pp114-208.

110. Merseyside District Committee, Organiser’s Report, RCP, nd [probably April 1945]; B Crookes, interview with author, 18 August 1995; G Deane, letters to J Deane, 23 April 1945, 26 May 1945.

111. Merseyside District Committee, Organiser’s Report, pp1-3; Political Bureau, Report to Central Committee, 3 November 1945.

112. G Deane, letter to J Deane, 23 April 1945; J Deane, letter to D Ward, 5 May 1945; B Deane, letter to J Deane 3 September 1945; A Keen, letter to B Crookes, November 1945.

113. Merseyside District Committee, Organiser’s Report, p3.

114. Op cit, p2.

115. Bootle Times, 19 October 1945; ‘RCP to Contest Bootle’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-October 1945; Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, op cit, p159; Deegan, op cit, pp10, 21.

116. D Ward, interview with author, 24 November 1995.

117. B Crookes, interview with author.

118. G Deane, letter to J Deane, 13 January 1944.

119. A Group of Militant Dockers, Victimisation on Docks (leaflet), nd [early 1944]; T Birchall, Report,op cit, p7; W Etherington, ‘Ex-Docker’s Appeal’, Liverpool Echo, 28 October 1945.

120. P Taaffe and T Mulhearn, Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight, London, 1988, Appendix 5; RCP, First Annual Conference, op cit, p1; B Crookes, interview.

121. RCP, The Revolutionary Communist Party Fights for Socialism and for a 100 per cent Socialist Policy, leaflet, nd [1945]; Philip Couldry, letter to author, 13 October 1995.

122. His wife Hannah was a member of the Liverpool Central Local; Alan Christianson, ‘Letter No 2’, State Capitalism and World Revolution, nd [1954?]; H Ratner, interview with S Bornstein, 4 February 1987, p29; Minutes Central Committee, 2 July 1944; Political Bureau, On the Expulsion of Alan Christianson, December 1944 or January 1945. It may be worth noting at this point the brief comments Alan Christianson made on the Liverpool RCP of 1945 some years later (below, pp160ff). He views the RCP in terms of a group of ‘proletarian militants struggling against the apparatus men’. The proletarian militants referred to are ‘the secretary of the shops stewards’ committee of the biggest ship repair yard in Liverpool’, and ‘the most vigorous and respected dockers’ leader’. The former is clearly Birchall, and the latter Martinson. To describe Martinson in this way is to evade the problems outlined here; he was not a docker, and was unable effectively to combat the actual leadership of Campbell and Callanan. Birchall had not, as is suggested, been won to the RCP by wartime struggles against the Communist Party; as a Central Committee member he could be characterised as ‘an apparatus man’. Neither Martinson nor Birchall are best characterised as ‘growing up in the school of the rising power of the shop stewards’, although that experience certainly marked Christianson. Other shop stewards who were involved, such as Jack Ronan and Paddy Henry, were politically inexperienced, whilst Brian Crookes had little trade union experience, and again, as the District Organiser, might well be described as an ‘apparatus man’. It is undoubtedly true that there was a powerful activist thrust in Liverpool independent of the RCP centre led by Christianson, Birchall, Martinson and Crookes, and based on their experiences of wartime militancy. However, some of the problems with this are treated in this article. After the end of the docks dispute Christianson, back in the RCP, was describing the Liverpool situation as ‘desperate’ in a comradely letter to one of the ‘apparatus men’ (A Christianson, letter to J Deane, 5 March 1947). His comments in 1954 must be contextualised in his embrace of the spontaneity and workerism of CLR James.

123. G Deane, letter to J Deane, 23 April 1945.

124. C Martinson, ‘Echo of Lie-Down Strike’, Bootle Times, 3 September 1943. Danny Brandon, Birkenhead dockers’ leader of the 1950s, makes a similar point: after his victimisation he no longer felt he was a docker and able to provide leadership. He expresses surprise at the situation in Hull where the dockers continued to regard JW Murphy as an unofficial leader after he had left the docks. The first thing Brandon says about Bob Pennington, employed by the NASD in the Blue Union struggle, is: ‘He wasn’t a docker.’ (D Baines, interview with D Brandon, 1981)

125. J Deane, letters to R Gardner, 6 and 15 October 1945; R Tearse, letter to J Deane, 10 October 1945; R Tearse, letter to J Deane, October 1945. Nothing seems to have survived about the Leith dockers except RG, ‘A Query on the Dockers’ Question and Short Reply by AT’, RCP Industrial Bulletin, no 1, November 1944.

126. R Tearse, letter to J Deane, 10 October 1945.

127. Communist Party, Report of Trotskyists Active in London, nd [1943?]; News Review, 18 October 1945, p8; J Deane, Reply, op cit, p2.

128. J Deane, letter to A Braithwaite, 6 October 1945. We must not overlook, even though we cannot deal with it here, the support that the Independent Labour Party gave to the dockers. At least one excellent leaflet from 1945, The Dockers Must Win, survives in the ILP archives.

129. T Birchall, Report, op cit, p2.

130. Revolutionary Communist Policy: RCP Conference Decisions, September 1945, p18. Cf Socialist Appeal, September 1945.

131. Revolutionary Communist Policy, op cit, p34.

132. Op cit, pp21-2.

133. Op cit, pp30-4.

134. Whilst I am in agreement with the view that the RCP leadership made valiant attempts to come to terms with the new world, this process still had its limits by August 1945, certainly in relation to the RCP’s immediate tasks. Cf I Hunter, The Ten Years for the Locust Reconsidered: The Legacy of the RCP, Sacristoun, 1981, pp11-12.

135. J Deane, Reply, op cit, p9.

136. N Pentland, ‘20 000 Dockers in London Strike’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-March 1945; N Pentland, ‘Bosses Declare War on London Dockers’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-July 1945.

137. J Deane, ‘Dockers want 25/- a Day’, Socialist Appeal, August 1945; Dockers: Organise Your Struggles, RCP leaflet, August 1945; ‘London Dockers’ Fight Demonstrates Need for National Link-up’, Socialist Appeal, supplement, August 1945.

138. The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, op cit, p7; J Deane, Reply, op cit, p2; Brian Crookes, letter to Jock Haston, 15 July 1945; Note by J Deane, ‘Mazo Down 16’.

139. B Crookes, letter to J Haston and J Deane, 26 August 1945; The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, op cit, p3.

140. An Open Letter to the Dockers of Liverpool, Merseyside RCP.

141. J Deane, letters to B Crookes and C Martinson, 5 September 1945, 13 September 1945.

142. Correspondence between Harry Constable and Keith Sinclair and transcripts of tapes by Constable, 1995; Liverpool Echo, 18 October 1945; News Review, 18 October 1945; J Deane, letter to B Crookes, 5 September 1945.

143. J Deane, ‘Dockers’ Struggle Undermined by TU Officials’, Socialist Appeal, September 1945; Socialist Appeal, Mid-September 1945.

144. J Deane, letter to D Ward, 5 May 1945; Arthur Cowderoy, letters to J Deane, 16 May 1945, 12 June 1945.

145. J Deane, Reply, op cit, p5.

146. RCP, Vital Questions, Invitation to all Militant Dockers, leaflets, September 1945; J Deane, Notes: East London Dockers, 21 September 1945; RCP, London District Bulletin, no 12, November 1945, p4.

147. C Martinson, Merseyside Dockers Fight for a Living Wage, Typescript, p2; T Birchall, Report, op cit; Bootle Times, 5 October 1945.

148. C Martinson, Merseyside Dockers..., op cit.

149. J Deane, Reply, op cit, p5; J Deane, Notes on the Dock Strike.

150. J Deane, ‘Support the Dockers in Struggle For Living Wage’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-October 1945.

151. News Review, 18 October 1945.

152. Daily Mirror, 19 October 1945; Daily Mail, 5 October 1945; Daily Worker, 13 October 1945.

153. London Star, 10 October 1945; News Review, 18 October 1945.

154. Liverpool Echo, 6 October 1945; Bootle Times, 12 October 1945; J Haston, letter to Merseyside Dockers Strike Committee, 13 October 1945.

155. J Haston, letter to Merseyside Dockers Strike Committee, 13 October 1945.

156. Manchester Guardian, 13 October 1945.

157. Manchester Guardian, 16 October 1945; RCP London District Bulletin..., op cit, p4.

158. A Deane, letter to B Deane, October 1945.

159. W Etherington, ‘Ex-Dockers Appeal’, Liverpool Echo, 28 October 1945; F Ward, letter to J Deane, 14 October 1945; The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, op cit, p8.

160. Bootle Times, 19 October 1945, 24 September 1943, 19 November 1943, 17 November 1944; F Forster, letter to J Deane, 5 November 1945; ‘RCP to Contest Bootle’, Socialist Appeal, Mid-October 1945; Tempus, ‘Keeping Our Doorstep Clean’, Bootle Times, 2 November 1945; J Rothwell, letter, Bootle Times, 9 November 1945; J Deane, letter to T Birchall, 11 October 1945.

161. F Forster, letter to J Deane, 5 November 1945; Liverpool Echo, 2 November 1945; ‘National Organisational Report 1945-46’, Party Organiser, September 1946, p4.

162. Editorial, Socialist Appeal, November 1945.

163. N Pentland, ‘Dockland: Defend the 29’, Socialist Appeal, October 1946.

164. J Deane, ‘The Stalinists and The Dock Strike’, Socialist Appeal, November 1945.

165. ‘On the Docks’, London District Bulletin (RCP), no 12, pp4-5.

166. J Deane, Notes: London Aggregate, 17 November 1945.

167. J Deane, Notes: Lessons of Dock Strike; Notes: London Aggregate, 17 November 1945.

168. National Industrial Committee, Report on Docks, 30 November 1945; J Deane Notes: London Aggregate, 17 November 1945.

169. National Industrial Committee, Report on Docks, 30 November 1945.

170. Statement of Eric Brewer on Dock Strike, November 1945; J Haston, letter to E Brewer, 8 November 1945.

171. F Forster, letter to J Deane, 5 November 1945; J Deane, letter to F Forster, 18 November 1945.

172. The RCP and the Dockers’ Struggle, op cit, p1.

173. Op cit, p10.

174. Op cit, p12.

175. B Crookes, letter to J Haston, 16 November 1945; F Ward, letter to J Deane, 7 December 1945; J Deane, letter to F Ward, 9 December 1945; Minutes of Merseyside District Committee, 25 and 26 November 1945.

176. Minutes of Merseyside District Committee, 25 and 26 November 1945.

177. J Deane, Reply, op cit, p8.

178. Op cit, p11.

179. Op cit, p13.

180. National Industrial Committee Discussion: Notes, nd; J Haston, letter to E Brewer, 8 November 1945.

181. J Deane, ‘TU Leaders Betray Dockers’, Socialist Appeal, January 1946.

182. J Deane, letter to R Tearse, 14 November 1945.

183. J Deane, letter to R Tearse, 19 March 1946.

184. E Rogers, ‘Joe Thomas (1912-1990)’, Revolutionary History, Volume 3, no 2, Autumn 1990; H Constable and A Aylward, letter to Socialist Appeal, 28 February 1947; N Pentland, letter to J Deane, 29 April 1947. Constable recalls that Aylward joined the SWL after he and Saunders (correspondence with K Sinclair, 1995).

185. Fred Bunby, letter to J Deane, March 1946; interview with Brian Crookes; RCP Central Committee, Minutes, 9 September 1946; Statement of the Central Committee on the Liverpool Case, 14 February 1947.

186. Party Organiser, September 1946, pp1, 8.

187. J McLoughlin, ‘The Docks’, The Portworker, January 1946, p3.

188. For the building trades dispute, see Bornstein and Richardson, War and the International, pp150-1.

189. Bootle Times, 3 August 1945.

190. G Deane, letter to J Deane, 11 March 1946.

191. N Pentland, letter to J Deane, 24 April 1947.

192. See, for example, N Tiratsoo (ed), The Attlee Years, London, 1991. Cf R Hyman, ‘Praetorians and Proletarians: Unions and Industrial Relations’, in J Fyrth (ed), Labour’s High Noon: The Government and the Economy, 1945-51, London, 1994.

193. N Fishman, The British Communist Party and the Trade Unions, 1933-45, Aldershot, 1995, pp333-6.

194. W Thompson, The Long Death of British Labourism, London, 1993, p47. Thompson views the Stalinists’ involvement in ballot-rigging as ‘a logical product of the contempt for meaningful democratic processes which afflicted the CP to a greater degree than it did the Labour Party or trade union machines’.