“We might be lions led by donkeys but..” the man on the television with the round red face on the squat but powerful frame paused momentarily and then spitting out the words, “but at least we´re not jackals!”
A huge roar and the Trades Union Congress conference delegates rose to their feet to cheer and applaud. Ron Todd, leader of the Transport and General Workers Union, my Dad´s union, 1984, at the height of the Miner´s strike against the government of Margaret Thatcher. It was the most important political and industrial confrontation of the second half of the twentieth century in the UK.
I was never really one for skiving, at school or at college. But when I did then it was normally during the Trades Union Congress or the Labour Party conference.
I´d heat up some tinned chicken soup, (you always had chicken soup when you, supposedly, weren´t well) and buttered toast with it, to share with my Dad. And then we´d sit back in our own smoke filled backroom, like special delegates over from Ireland, to enjoy the wonderful richness and diversity of our adopted country.
Working class voices, so common in soap operas and comedies, are rarely heard in the media as voices of authority. Even in the conference t.v. coverage there were, of course, the usual privately educated middle class men, the Robin Days and the Dimblebys, to explain to us what it all meant. We ignored them.
And paid attention instead to these passionate, funny and earnest women and men, reporters from the front line of ordinary people´s lives, defying the latest Tory outrage in the tones of the Mersey, the Thames and the Tyne, Leeds, Manchester and Glasgow, Sikhs from West London, West Indians from the West Midlands, cleaners from South London, and miners from South Wales.
Dad had worked at the textile factory in Aintree in Liverpool, next door to the famous Grand National course. Airplanes had been made there at the start of the century, then silk for parachutes during the Second World War, then it was taken over by Courtaulds, a multinational and, at their peak in the seventies, the largest man made textile manufacturer in the world. Their biggest customer was Marks and Spencer.
The factory had closed in 1981, one of the first to go in the high interest rate, high rate of sterling recession deliberately designed to deindustrialize Britain by the Conservative government. Where the factory once stood there´s now a retail park.
We knew that, though Ron Todd could spit defiance, he wasn´t about to call for a general strike.
“Won´t matter though, will it Dad? If the engineers and electricians won´t support the miners then they´re going to lose, aren´t they?”
It had been the Electricians leader, Eric Hammond, who´d just incensed the conference by referring to the miners as lions led by donkeys.
“Most likely. If they did strike, and that bugger Hammond will make sure they won´t, the miners would win overnight.”
I had visions of a national fuse box somewhere, and a big switch the electricians could throw and that´d be the ruling class sorted.
But they never threw the switch. And the miners lost. And my Dad is sadly, like Eric and Ron, long dead.
Eric became a good friend of Mrs Thatcher, worked secretly with Rupert Murdoch to destroy the print unions when News International moved from Fleet Street to Wapping and was awarded an OBE from the Queen. On the other hand when he finally took early retirement nobody from the union thought it worthwhile having a farewell party to mark the occasion. He never left the Labour Party.
Ron Todd led his Union for seven years, feuded with Neil Kinnock as he moved the Party to the right, and refused all honours but recruited the Queen Mother to the T. and G. as an honorary member. He wrote lots of poetry in retirement and his memory is kept green by a facebook page. He too died a member of the Labour Party.
And now that the neo-liberal deep chill is finally beginning to thaw, my Dad was very much with me in spirit as I watched the Labour Party conference (on line) last week.
“Bloody disgrace that chairman.”
I could hear him say as the conference chairman ignored party rules to stop a vote the right wing might have lost. But he would have said it with a smile.
“…. that´s what the right of the party have always been like. Big on power. What do they say? By whatever means necessary.”
And the big picture is the fact that the right were up to disreputable tricks like purges, coups and court action is proof that there is finally a left worthy of the name.
And he´d have loved it that the accents of London, of Leeds, of Manchester, of Stockport could be heard and not just from the conference floor but from the shadow cabinet!