Bill Turner (1926–2001)

BILL Turner died in Whipps Cross Hospital on 29 June 2001. I first met Bill in 1964. The Woolwich Marxist Study Group, a small band of dissident Communists, was holding a series of public meetings and had leafleted the area. Two older men – we were all youngsters – turned up. One was Archie Armstrong, who had been at the Communist Unity Convention in 1920, and the other was Bill. I recall Bill roundly berating the speaker, whose subject was Syria as a workers’ state. Bill thought it was anything but.

Bill’s roots were in Cavan, where his people were travellers. He never knew his father, and he was brought up by his grandmother. They came to rural East Anglia, from where he was called up for military service. He joined the Royal Artillery as an anti-aircraft gunner. His gunnery was not improved by the strength of the cider where he was stationed.

Like many bright working-class kids, his university was the public library (he claimed to have read Marxist literature while still at school) and later the public meeting. Considered potential officer material, he had to work hard to fail the exam. At the war’s end, he was disciplined for possessing leaflets which compared the incoming Attlee government with Kerensky’s government in 1917. On leave in London, he had bought a copy of theNew Leader, the paper of the Independent Labour Party. This was his introduction to organised socialism.

Bill went to sea as a stoker, and lived for a while in Canada. In the 1950s, he took part in demonstrations against the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the Anglo-French invasion of Suez. By the 1960s, he was active in the movement against nuclear weapons.

We lost touch for a while, but we met again at a meeting in Lewisham, where he had come to win support for a militant demonstration on May Day. The official demonstration was on the first Sunday in May. We also met at a meeting organised by the ILP to oppose the closure of the AEI factory in Woolwich.

The Vietnam War was raging, and Bill and I were active in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign. Bill represented the ILP on thead hoccommittees which organised the massive demonstrations in London. We would meet in the Lamb and Flag in Covent Garden, where assorted revolutionaries gathered on Sundays. After long discussions, I joined him in the ILP.

Bill was active in Tower Hamlets contesting local elections. He never won, but always did better than the Communist Party and the Mosleyites. He became London and Southern Counties Organiser of the ILP, and was elected to its National Administrative Council.

Bill was a libertarian Marxist and advocated a ‘libertarian vanguard’, which would avoid both the chaos of the anarchists and the bureaucratic centralism of the would-be Bolshevik sects. Sadly, he never theorised this. His libertarianism brought him into conflict with more orthodox and authoritarian comrades, such as Mike Baker of the Marxist-Leninist Organisation of Britain. Having been denounced in the Healyite press as a poisonous centrist, Bill was attacked in the MLOB’sRed Front. Despite this, Bill had an amazing ability to work with comrades of all stripes, including such eccentrics as Sid Rawle. Maybe the polemic had an effect, as Mike Baker later abandoned Stalinism and became a Council Communist.

A bitter debate was raging in the ILP as to whether or not the party should rejoin the Labour Party. Bill satirised the pro-Labour group in his Janus column in theSocialist Leader. Asked why he had chosen this name, he replied that some said he was two-faced, while others said he spoke out of his arse. The ILP was also divided over Ireland. The pro-Labour elements supported the Officials, while Bill and I supported the Provisionals.

Bill was a true internationalist. When the Italian Left Communist Bordiga died in 1970, Bill’s was the only obituary in the British left press. He also attended the ‘Red Europe’ conference organised by the Fourth International in Belgium.

Bill was also a staunch anti-racist and anti-fascist. After Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ speech, he helped organise community defence in the face of racist attacks. At an anti-fascist meeting in Welling, he stood in as a speaker at the last minute. The National Front turned up in force and was spoiling for a fight, but Bill faced them down. He narrowly escaped injury where a car full of fascists drove into a demonstration in Croydon.

After an altercation with the police and a short spell in Brixton, where he suffered the liquid cosh in the form of the major tranquilliser Largactil, Bill left for the Netherlands. There he was active in the movement of solidarity with the Irish struggle, and he did much to keep alive the memory of Henk Sneevliet, a founder of Dutch Communism who became leader of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, at one time a fraternal party of the ILP. Sneevliet was murdered by the Nazis.

On returning to Britain, Bill became active in the Greenwich Action Group on Unemployment, helping to set up similar groups up and down the country. However, nothing like the pre-war National Unemployed Workers Movement emerged. Many groups became clients of local authorities, and collapsed when funding was withdrawn. He went with GAGOU on a delegation to Derry, where he suffered a CS gas attack. Ironically, he had campaigned against chemical weapons, including leafleting the area where CS was packaged.

Bill was also a member of the Socialist Secular Association, which had been set up to oppose those in the secularist movement who fawned on right-wingers like Professor Flew. Bill played a part in the republication of FA Ridley’s classicSocialism and Religion.

Having joined the Labour Party in Blackheath when he returned to East London, he became Political Education Officer and then Secretary of Leyton and Wanstead Labour Party. After a conflict with the Revolutionary Internationalist Group, an entryist group, he became inactive. When I last discussed politics with him he was very disillusioned with Blair, and was thinking of joining the Independent Labour Network. He also talked of publishing a new socialist paper and of buying a computer to produce it on. Sadly, this never materialised.

In 1968, Bill had been involved in the Karl Marx memorial pub-crawl as a fund-raiser for the Vietnam Solidarity Committee. Of the seven who finished the course, three were ILPers, Bill amongst them. Some of his comrades will be repeating this world historic event, a fine tribute to a comrade who loved the drink and thecraic, who thought that capitalism already imposed too many restrictions on people, and that if socialism wasn’t about more freedom then it wasn’t worth having.

Terry Liddle

Editor: I also treasure fond memories of Bill. The Karl Marx Memorial Pub-Crawl, which I, Bill and another sorely missed comrade, Peter Ross, floated, won us international publicity, and made a lot of money for the funds of the Vietnam Solidarity Committee.

Back in the DHSS

Terry Liddle looks back on a life working at the Department of Health and Social Security

Having graduated from university on to the dole and then working on a short-term Community Enterprise Programme, which I tried to organise into the NUPE union with little success, I was back signing on. One day the counter clerk at the Unemployment Benefit Office asked: “How would you like to come and work for us?” The “us” was the local DHSS office in Lewisham. After a literacy test, I started work on a Monday morning as part of the lowest grade – clerical assistant.

The work consisted of linking letters to claimants’ files which were never where they were meant to be often being buried under piles created by overworked Clerical Officers. It was boring and the pay lousy, but better than the dole!

I joined the union on my first day. This was the Civil and Public Services Association, nowadays the PCS, and was then under the control of the right. In a little while the existing union rep was promoted to Executive Officer, this grade and above had its own union –the Society of Civil Servants. There was an election for a job most people didn’t want to do and I won.

I got a day a week facility time which was spent working on individual cases of which there were many and distributing union literature. I was also on the branch executive which was dominated by Militant (nowadays the Socialist Party) and the SWP who were part of the Broad Left. Within the Broad Left there was also the Socialist Caucus: this was the AWL and independent socialists. It was obvious none of these factions were interested in raising the political consciousness of members and helping run and win disputes for themselves. It was about control freakery and recruiting paper sellers. I felt very isolated. Later the SWP sent a member into my office, but he couldn’t cope and spent lunchtimes in the park getting stoned! Eventually he went sick and vanished.

Most of the union activists had degrees while most of the management had hardly an o level. This was the cause of much conflict and resentment. At one point the acting manager told me to fuck off out of his office. I replied that the next day I’d call a meeting and recommend strike action. He came in very early next day, apologised and told me how his family, like mine, were miners and had been in the Communist Party. My answer was “it doesn’t seem to run in families!”

Management would often lie to union reps about what was in the staff code even when the union rep had it under his arm!

Even with national disputes over pay, beyond the odd leaflet, little effort was made to win rank and file support. Picket lines would be very thin: once six bedraggled pickets had a van load of police each!

One dispute that did have widespread support was a strike against the employment at the neighbouring Hither Green office of BNP activist Malcolm Skeggs, who had been sacked by Lewisham council for using their photocopiers to produce BNP material.

Also popular was refusal to co-operate with the Poll Tax.

Hardest of all was trying to build solidarity between the staff and the claimants. Many staff saw the claimants as stereotypical scrounging scum and the claimants saw the staff as potential recruits to the SS. Any information I had about crack downs on claimants I passed on to the Catford and Woolwich Unemployed Centres.

Having been promoted to Clerical Officer I was sent to work on the fraud section! Management claimed this gave union reps greater leeway but I suspect the real aim was to break them. I discovered one fraud officer had been in the Young Communist League and another chaired a constituency Labour Party: but they were still steeped in the ‘claimants are scum’ attitude. I was often told I was ‘a social security officer not a fucking social worker!’

Eventually the DHSS reorganised much of the work being removed from local offices to large centres in areas of high unemployment like Glasgow. I moved on too becoming the welfare rights worker at Pensioners’ Link in Deptford. Some of those involved in it were veteran Communists and we had many interesting discussions. Some still supported Stalin’s tyranny! Pensioners Link then had offices scattered over London and I became steward for Deptford and then joint shops convenor. Management was corrupt to the core and accused the staff of being racists. The Victorian view of lady bountiful distributing improving tracts to the deserving poor persisted, and we were expected to tolerate poor conditions. The office where I worked didn’t even have a gents’ toilet! The full time TGWU official had no idea about the voluntary sector; he had worked in a power station.

After a bitter dispute about the willingness of colleagues to take a pay cut to save jobs I left. After suffering a near fatal heart attack, I am sure work-related stress was a major factor, I have ended up as a benefit claimant myself.

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Chris (13:44:45) :

Terry you write:

‘Within the Broad Left there was also the Socialist Caucus: this was the AWL and independent socialists. It was obvious none of these factions were interested in raising the political consciousness of members and helping run and win disputes for themselves.’

As someone who knows you and was also ten years in the Socialist Caucus you should know better than to write such inaccurate accounts of CPSA/PCS history.

The Socialist Caucus was not simply the AWL and independent socialists as such, the AWL were very small element, the Caucus included many sections of the far left not part of the Militant/SWP set up. The Socialist Caucus was the nearest to an organisation based on rank and file principles for many many years in the civil service. You don’t mention the Workhouse people who also joined the Socialist Caucus.

The Caucus was in the forefront such as in DHSS and DE in driving forward numerous disputes in the face of the anti-union laws and the left and right wing bureaucrats. For example Lee Rock at Kilburn a wild cat over the sacking of a casual worker, who mounted he defence of Rob Howard Perkins? Who led the campaigns such as London Against the JSA which directly linked the issue of attack on the unemployed as the main issue in what the Militant and SWP saw as mere safety dispute fro staff? Who defended the anarchists of Groundswell Resistance Network against witch-hunts by the Broad Left running the Group Executives? All the Socialist Caucus.

Chris Ford

Ex CPSA West London Branch Secretary

First published in The Commune 05/01/2012 

Terry Liddle on November 21st, 2010 4:04 pm

I had a copy of the November issue of the JWs Awake! thrust into my hand by a very good looking young woman who turned up on my doorstop with another woman. The illustrations amused me – atheists with short hair, clad in white shirts and ties! I asked the two women if they knew about the JW’s founder Charles Taze Russell, his connections with freemasonry, his separation from his wife, his miracle wheat and cancer cure scams. They replied this was libel. I asked up the bootlegging activities of his successor Joseph Rutherford. Again libel. I asked why they didn’t proceed to litigation. Their religion forbids this. Why do they accept some aspects of Mosaic Law ( the ban on blood transfusions ) but not others ( shaving beards, eating pork ).I was told Jesus had brought in a new revelation, a selective one it seems! They asked if I believed in angels. I replied that they were still living in the Middle Ages. I was just about to get into science and Darwin, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche but a fellow infidel arrived for dinner. The JWs left.

It is obvious they rely on the ignorance and poor education of their contacts. They are experts at exploiting emotional vulnerability and the crises this brings into peoples’ lives. It is knowledge, in particular knowledge of science, philosophy and history that will defeat them and all the other superstition mongers!