Jack Jones was born in Liverpool in 1913.
He left school aged fourteen to work in the docks and at the age of fifteen became local ward secretary to the Labour Party. In 1936 he was elected a city councillor, and he fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War before being wounded at Ebro in 1938.
He served in the trade union movement all his working life, rising in 1969 to become General Secretary of Transport at General Workers’ Union, a position he held until retirement in 1978. He was active in the Anti-Apartheid Movement and was a lifelong campaigner for industrial democracy. From 1978 he worked for Age Concern. He was also president of the Retired Members’ Association and chairman of the National Pensioners’ Convention.
His autobiography, Union Man, was published in 1986. I interviewed him in 1997 and he died in April 2009.
You have devoted nearly the whole of your life to the working man. Would you say that the working man as you knew him is an endangered species nowadays?
Not really. We still have a very large number of people who have to work for their living. The nature of work has certainly changed in many industries – we’ve lost the traditional apprenticeships to a large degree, and there’s been a change to more and more white-collar work – but a great many people leave home in the morning and come back at night. Perhaps the old sense of community has altered, but fundamentally there’s still a case for a closer relationship between those who work for their living as against those who make money.
Would you say that the struggle you have been engaged in has principally been a class struggle?
It depends on what you mean by class. Obviously people who work for a large undertaking, the Imperial Chemical Industry for example, feel there’s some difference between them and the board of directors. The board of directors are probably making a lot more money, and their interests are certainly not the same when it comes to making decisions about closures or reducing the labour force. There’s a huge difference between the owners and those who work on a weekly or monthly basis.
Your own roots were very much working-class Liverpool, where you witnessed appalling poverty and hardship. Would you say that there is poverty and hardship in Britain on the same scale today, perhaps differing only in degree?
The answer to that is yes. There is a considerable degree of poverty. I live in Camberwell in London, and there’s a huge area of high-rise flats where people in the main are working at very low-paid jobs. I would say that their poverty is in many ways as great as the poverty I knew as a child. Of course we didn’t have television then, but you can be very poor and still have a television set. The difference is that we had the community of the street and family sort of relationship with our neighbours. That’s gone, because of the nature of high-rises and the mixed communities.
You remember the General Strike of 1926…would you say that was when your determination took root?
It certainly accelerated the process, although I was already very interested. My three brothers and my father were trade unionists, and so I knew about strikes before the General Strike. My father took part in the dock strike of 1924 and queued at the soup kitchens, and so on. One of my brothers was a member of what was called the council of action for the local trade union during the General Strike, and I myself actually felt part of it in the sense that I was always running messages on my bicycle.
Are the ideals which you started out with the same as those you have today, or have you had to change and modify with the times?
Basically, they are the same. I still think that the idea of a society of people helping each other is the right one, and I have become more and certain of the fact that we have to construct many things in a universal way. When my old mother used to take us to the local co-operative hall for lantern lectures, I remember a slogan over the platform which said: EACH FOR ALL AND ALL FOR EACH. That’s just as good a principle today as it was then when I was a youngster. When you look at the needs of pensioners, of children, of the health service, it is essential to grasp the idea that we can only handle these problems collectively. It’s quite wrong to farm them out to private enterprise. It’s not that I’m against private enterprise, but there are certain things that should be dealt with collectively.
As a young man you fought with the International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War. The reasons which impelled you to go there are stated very matter-of-factly in your autobiography, but there must surely have been a tremendous amount of feeling and idealism…
That’s right. Don’t forget this was a period when Hitler was marching all over Europe, and since I was then working on the docks, I met seamen who were able to tell me about the situation in Germany. One felt that here was a great danger to ordinary working people which should be resisted. One hadn’t felt the same thing as much about Mussolini, but it was very clear that a lot of what was happening there was going to be even worse in the case of Hitler and the Nazi crowd, and it should be opposed at all costs. When we got news about Spain – I was in touch with a lot of Spanish seamen – I helped to organize support as much as possible and then volunteered. I was in the Territorial Army, so I had military experience in that sense, and though I was held back for some time, eventually off I went and was prepared to lay down my life for a cause which I thought was justified.
But what was the feeling when the cause was lost?
My feeling was a sense of inevitability. It was clear that the odds were on Franco’s side, and on the side of the Germans and the Italians – they had all the heavy weaponry, and they had enormous access to well-trained troops. But I was determined to assist the opposition which continued in the form of guerrilla activity and trade unions – illegal unions as Franco saw them. We sent out Michael Foot to observe the trial of ten people who were threatened with death simply for trying to organize illegal unions. This is no exaggeration – some men were actually executed. In the case I’m talking about Michael Foot made representations, and once the Franco period was at an end the men were released – and some of them became leaders of the Spanish trade unions. And some of them are now personal friends of mine.
Just before you went to Spain you met and fell in love with Evelyn, whose husband had been killed in Spain. You said you both knew you would marry if you came back. Did you feel sure you would come back?
No, I wasn’t sure, but I knew that if I did, our relationship was such that we were identified together. And I did come back.
The present world is full of injustice and terrible problems and totalitarian regimes…can you think of any comparable situations nowadays which would motivate young men to go off and fight for the cause of democracy in the way you did back in 1938?
I suppose there could be circumstances, though it would be difficult to imagine precisely what they might be. What I do know is that there are many young people prepared to risk a lot for what they think is right – for example, those who work in overseas aid, those who give up careers and go and work in Central Africa. One has to admire the same sort of spirit as I think we demonstrated. I suppose we were in more danger of dying and being killed, but people who go and work in outlying areas face disease and death from shortages of various kinds. There are lots of young people now who are very courageous in Zaire, for example; it takes courage to help your fellow man, and I think you have to get that spirit young.
Do you still feel a glow of pride about what you did?
All I can say is that I still feel now it was justified, and I felt it was justified then. Probably in retrospect I feel even more that it was justified, and I regret that we didn’t have more people, and also that we didn’t somehow get the necessary arms that were refused us. We were just overwhelmed by the power that the other side had.
You were a local ward secretary of the Labour Party at the age of fifteen and a delegate to the Labour Trades Council at seventeen. Such things would be almost unimaginable for a youngster nowadays…
I suppose it would be, but of course the trades councils do not have the same influence that they had then. I became the youngest city councillor, maybe because my ideas took root very quickly.
Whom did you admire in the political arena at that time?
When I was young, Ramsay MacDonald was the leader of the Labour party, and he was greatly respected, but then people soon lost faith in him because he moved towards the aristocracy too much. Lansbury, who founded the Daily Herald, had a folksy style and attracted a lot of working people because he seemed to speak their language. If there was a strike on, Tom Mann would appear and make a rousing effort. In Liverpool itself we had a woman who was the mother of Bessie Braddock. She was a very popular, very courageous, persevering Scotswoman, well respected because she was prepared to help people when they needed help, especially if there was industrial trouble. Ernie Bevin was well known of course, very well respected amongst the dock workers at that time, and Cook received considerable publicity because of his leadership of the miners during the General Strike.
You were in the trade-union movement all your working life, and were responsible for the shop-steward system. Do you think that your contribution was a step along the way in the necessary transformation of the trade unions, or are recent events – isolation of unions, removal of their power, and so on – a travesty of what you worked to achieve?
The last point you make is correct. What I wanted was ordinary working people to play an active part, to count in their trade unions and in society. People who work for a living are too often ignored, and I believe it is right that they should be encouraged to have a say, to influence decisions made in relation to their working conditions or indeed their future. I was keen for them to be consulted through elected representatives, and that was the idea behind the shop-steward system. In the 1970s they reached a stage where they really counted in industry and some of the legislation in the 1974 Labour government was directed towards helping them, for example to have time off for meetings, to have access to information about the conduct of their companies, and so on. That was all part of my endeavour to ensure that there was a democratic structure. Trade unions have now lost a lot of influence, and individual trade unionists in many cases, except in the bigger establishments, often now risk their jobs, just as they did when I was young. If you were too active, you risked the possibility of being dismissed. I risked that many times.
But, in retrospect, don’t you think that the trade unions went too far in the end, and became too powerful – something which lost a lot of sympathy with the public at large?
I’m not sure that I accept what you say is correct. After all, I initiated the institution of the Advisory Conciliation and Arbitration Service as a means of ensuring that people would take their problems to consultation and conciliation rather than indulge in strike action.
But I remember a time when everybody seemed to be going out on strike.
That was never correct. Indeed, in 1975, when the trade union movement was the strongest it had ever been, we had fewer strike days lost in Britain than for fifteen years before. As trade unions grew stronger, industrial troubles in fact reduced. It’s true that 1979 was a problem, but that’s different. The government was insisting on a very tight wage policy which had not been agreed with the trade unions, and maybe some of the trade unions at local level went too far. For example, I don’t subscribe to the idea of not burying the dead, and there have been times when I’ve been in charge of strikes when I’ve urged people to carry out tasks in a voluntary way, without pay. Trade unions can exercise a humane approach, and they have often done so. But if you set up a situation where trade unions are virtually outlawed, then eventually there will be a measure of revolt, the worm will turn at some stage, and I think this will happen in industry, because so many people are feeling aggrieved. Though workers are producing more with fewer people, their hours of work in many cases have lengthened in Britain. If you take the London busses, for example, the men are working three or four hours a week longer for less wages. I campaigned many years ago for a thirty-five-hour week, and yet in so many industries, it’s gone in the opposite direction.
But do you think we can afford to be part of Europe and work fewer hours all the time?
Yes, indeed. The Germans and the Scandinavians have moved in the direction of shorter working hours, and so have the French.
Yes but they’ve got problems…
We shouldn’t be competing with these countries on the basis of worse conditions for our labour force.
The strike was perhaps the single most powerful weapon in the armoury of the trade union. Was it also much more than that symbolically – for the workers themselves?
The right to strike was always important, because it was the ultimate weapon the trade unions had, but it was used to a very limited degree. It was never the first thing that was thought about; it was always the very last. Certainly from my point of view, I always wanted to ensure that we exhausted every avenue of negotiation rather than withdraw our labour, and my record will show that although I’ve been involved with strikes more than most in the country, I always tried to find solutions that were peaceful.
Peter Riddell in his book about the Thatcher era and its legacy says that the trade union issue has disappeared from the centre of the political stage. Would you concede that?
The trade unions are weaker than they were, yes, but my impression is that from now on they will begin to get stronger, just as in the United States of America the trade unions became very weak indeed but they’re now recuperating and reorganizing. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the trade unions. People are insecure at the moment, and eventually they will stand together again in order to get better conditions.
Peter Riddell also says: ‘The power of Jack Jones in having a crucial say over the shape of the late-1970s’ incomes policy was replaced by the weak leadership of Moss Evans and the spluttering ineffectiveness of Ron Todd.’ Are these words painful to you?
They are, and I’m not in a position to say anything about my successors. I can only say that I stand on my record. There’s no question than through a combination of factors, not least the unravelling of legislation on the part of the Conservative government, the trade unions have been weakened, and you must take that into account, apart from the operation of individual leaders.
Do you feel nostalgic for the days when there were so-called ‘beer and sandwiches chats’ in Downing Street to settle industrial disputes?
Well, you know, beer and sandwiches never solved any dispute. They were usually brought into play when the prime minister wanted to talk to the trade unions and maybe also the employers, together or separately, because in the old days there wasn’t the conciliation and arbitration machinery that we set up subsequently. Beer and sandwiches was certainly the characteristic of the days when the trade union leadership were talking with the Wilson government about the proposals for a document called In Place of Strife, which was supposed to change labour law. As one old miner said at the time, the beer was not very cold and the sandwiches were so dry they were turned up at the edges. I don’t think they contributed to good industrial relations.
Twenty years ago a Gallup opinion poll found that 52 per cent of the British public thought that Jack Jones was the most powerful man in Britain. Did you ever actually feel that degree of power?
No, I didn’t, no. I was aware I was speaking on behalf of large numbers of people, but it had nothing to do with personal power; it was simply representative and it was used on behalf of the working population to try and influence those in real power – the government, the employers.
In 1979 the Conservatives set out to defeat the political power of the trade unions and to reduce the impact of strikes – and they succeeded in both aims. Was that a very bad time for you?
Yes, and I think it was a very bad time for the country. It’s worth remembering why the trade unions become so influential. Let me give you an instance. In 1956 when I was leader of the trade union movement in the West Midlands, the British Motor Corporation sacked ix thousand people overnight. People went to work at 8 o’clock in the morning and they were told, you’re not wanted, you’re finished, get your cards and there’ll be a week’s basic pay. That was it finished, they weren’t even allowed to enter the factory. When I contacted Ted Heath, who was then a junior minister of labour, he was sympathetic to our cause, and yet he was powerless against the employers’ decision. We had to have a strike in order to get some measure of sense. We didn’t win a total victory, but we won some understanding that there would be an opportunity for people to return to work when trade improved. That example was typical of what happened then, and it caused great feeling. The strike resulted in considerable interest amongst the workforce who weren’t in trade unions, so membership increased. We became very well organized in the motor-car industry, and I played a part in that. I was proud to do so, and I believe it was the right thing to do, and even people like Ted Heath would agree with me. All we ever wanted was good consultation, friendly relations, and the right to negotiate. The last is crucial, and any employer who thinks he can get away without negotiating will ultimately be defeated.
Your autobiography ends up with the conviction that trade unionism is required more than ever to secure quality and justice in society and in the workplace. That was written ten years ago. Would you put things differently now?
No, on the contrary. That message is stronger today than ever; it’s getting it across that’s so difficult.
But do you feel a bit like a dinosaur in Tony Blair’s Britain?
No, I don’t. I think my principles are still right: the idea of ordinary men and women who have to work for their living, having some respect, some recognition – that’s absolutely right. We’ve got to find some way of ensuring that these principles go into the law and into labour relations in individual establishments. I don’t accept the idea of every man for himself; we have to work things out collectively.
Does Old Labour still exist in any meaningful sense, and if so, are you still a paid-up member?
I’m a member of the Labour Party. The important thing is that the Labour Party should be democratic, that any infringement of democracy within the party be opposed. The great difficulty at the present time, not just amongst Old Labour supporters, but amongst people in general, is a malaise, a feeling that it’s not worth taking an interest in politics, because politicians are all for themselves, that they are there just to serve their own interests. All the sleaze business has lowered the respect for Parliament that used to exist, so I hope the Labour government will act in such a way as to bring respect back for Parliament, and also to demonstrate that the government is determined to act in the interests of the people as a whole. Don’t forget the majority of people who work for their living. We should not just fall on our knees before the law of the market; we should get together and make our country better collectively.
But wouldn’t you agree that Labour had to change its image dramatically in order to be elected?
Oh, but there were certain things in the Labour Party that had to be altered, I accept that. From time to time you have to adopt policies to meet the given situation. What I would say is, let’s see what Tony does, and I’ll work with him to the best of my ability, and I hope that others will too. We must give him a fair wind.
You refused to go to the Lords, even though Jim Callaghan suggested that you might. You have said that the Lords is proof positive that there is life after death…whilst it is obvious what you mean, would you not concede that some democratic purpose is served by the House of Lords?
Personally, I don’t think so. I believe the idea of hereditary peers or people appointed by personal preferment is totally contrary to democratic principles. I’m all in favour of an elected Parliament. My own view is that the nation pays enough to the House of Commons, and with their committee system acting as a sort of vetting instrument, I would have thought that everything could work well without the need for this antediluvian, very undemocratic institution. I go in there occasionally when I’m invited to meet people and although I respect some of the members, by and large my views about the institution, as presently constituted, become stronger than ever with each visit. I once said to Jim Callaghan that it should be turned into a pensioners’ club, and Jim said, ‘Oh, that’s exactly what it is.’
Was your refusal also perhaps to do with believing that going to the Lords would be a betrayal of your principles, a betrayal of your class even?
Partly, yes. If I had gone to the Lords I think it would have sent the wrong message to people I had represented over the years, and on whose behalf I still like to speak – ordinary working people who don’t want to see snobbery prevailing, who don’t want to see differences of class so strongly presented as they are in the Lords. It’s so out of date in its approach and conception that I would have thought that any sensible and reasonable person would want to see an end to it.
Would you say that many of the problems in British industry had their roots in the class system which is perhaps unique to Britain, and that this made confrontation rather than cooperation the natural relationship between shop floor and management?
I’d say yes to that. That’s a very good way of putting it.
In 1977 you delivered the prestigious Richard Dimbleby Lecture; your subject was ‘The Human Face of Labour’. Is Labour still the only party with a human face, would you say?
Not entirely, no. I respect parties like the Scottish Nationalists and the Welsh Nationalists, and there are sections of the Liberal Democrats for whom I also have great respect. And – please don’t misunderstand me – there are even some MPs in the Conservative party whom I admire, Ted Heath being one example.
Some years ago you stood against Princess Anne for the chancellorship of London University. Was that principally a symbolic gesture against the establishment?
It so happened that at that time I was an associate fellow of the London School of Economics, which is part of London University, and I was invited by a number of students to stand. I knew there was a possibility that it would be against Princess Anne – the outgoing holder of the office was the Queen Mother – and I decided on that principle I would accept, because I wanted to see the institution reformed. The only thing I regret was that after I’d agreed to stand, some of the younger students nominated Nelson Mandela. I wanted to withdraw, because if there’s one man in the world I respect very greatly it’s Nelson Mandela. Of course at that time his chances of being elected were not very great, and in the end I was prevailed upon to withdraw. But I didn’t like feeling that I was doing anything to damage the standing of Nelson Mandela, then or now.
Apart from the fact that Mrs Thatcher was perhaps the main enemy of trade unionism and everything that goes with it, how would you rate her?
I rate her as a determined woman but ultimately determined in the wrong direction. I believe she was unduly influenced by wealth, not so much by wealthy industrials as by the big-money men. Her ideas were influenced by people like Jim Slater who argued that what was important was making money, rather than making things. When she removed exchange control restriction, it was to encourage money to go wherever it was going to get a bigger return. She should have been more concerned with making our manufacturing base stronger instead of weakening it. She did a great disservice to the interests of the British people because of that.
Denis Healey once said that although you represented in your union the rejection of much of what Ernest Bevin stood for, you were one of the few union leaders who shared something of Bevin’s political vision. Would you agree on both points?
I certainly had a very great admiration for Ernie Bevin. He was a man of the people, and he put his effort into building a strong trade union and that’s what I tried to do too. The idea of pursuing the right to negotiate on the part of working people, that was a top priority with me, and in Bevin’s early days it was also his top priority. So I learned from him, but when he got into the realms of high politics, I did begin to question just where he was going. But that’s another matter.
I wanted to ask you about your attitude to Tony Benn…you were always suspicious of his support of the unions and said in 1974: ‘We felt he was with us but not of us.’ What were the grounds for saying that?
‘With us but not of us’ – by that I meant he wasn’t a working man with a working man’s experience, which meant his judgements were often impaired. He was more a product of the university than of the workshop. He took an idealistic view of the industrial situation, and in that sense he wanted to be with us, but I felt that he was often removed from reality. But in the main our ultimate objectives for a better society were shared.
Has your own belief in socialism ever wavered?
Not in the general sense, no. As long as it’s democratic, it’s taking the people along with you, respecting each other, irrespective of colour, country you belong to, and so on. If you work for a living or if you have worked, then to me you’re my brother or my sister.
The award which you apparently cherish most is the gold medal given by the TGWU. Why is that?
Well, it’s a recognition by my fellow workers. To have something like that is like being awarded the Victoria Cross of the movement. I don’t believe in medals all that much, but I think a recognition like that, decided upon democratically, that’s a nice recognition to have. And that’s as much as you need really.
You have had some very lofty ideals throughout your life. Which ideal would you say you have found most testing, or most difficult to live up to?
I haven’t found my ideals difficult to live up to. I’ve tried to serve them. In the main I’ve not served myself; we still live in a very modest flat in a very modest way, because I think if you represent people you have to be with them. If you believe in your fellow man, if you believe in the each-for-all-and-all-for-each approach, then it’s not difficult to continue with your ideals. I try to live with my conscience, and I’m always proud of the fact that my children take a respectful view of me and I of them.
Where do you stand on the question of religion?
I have none. You could call me a humanist, I suppose. I know people have strong feelings about religion; it’s a sensitive area and I wouldn’t try to persuade one person against another, but at an early age I came to the conclusion that what we see and what we know is just that. There isn’t anything beyond. When you die, that’s the end of the road. If you live a good life and you respect others, that’s the main thing.
In your autobiography you quote Dylan Thomas on death: ‘Do not go gentle into that good night,/ Old age should burn and rave at close of day;/ Rage, rage against the dying of the light.’ Are these sentiments you share?
Very much so. However old you are, you should still have the spirit to speak out, and if you see injustice to oppose it, and that’s what I try to do still. Of course if you get physically weaker, it becomes much more difficult. This is why I very much regret the diminishing of my wife’s physical powers, because she’s been a wonderful woman in her time. We’ve been very close, and still are of course, but physically she’s not able to play any part in the sense that she used to.
You also quote Milton’s famous words: ‘What though the field be lost?/ All is not lost.’ So you think these words may be applied to your own life and work?
Yes, I do. The flame of freedom, the flame of understanding for a better society is still there. It flickers, but it’s still there, it’s still burning and it’ll go into a flame again.