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The last trade union hero

Jack Jones talks to Andrew Gimson about the plight of the poor and the luck of the middle classes, who buy 'bloody big flats for kids'

28 December 2002

12:00 AM

28 December 2002

12:00 AM

At a time when even the Labour party panders to the rich and to the middle classes, it is a pleasure to talk to a genuine socialist. Jack Jones, who will be 90 in March and was one of the most powerful men in Britain when he led the Transport & General Workers’ Union in the 1970s, retains the unfashionable belief that the purpose of the Labour movement is to improve the lot of the working classes and the poor. He was born in Liverpool in 1913, in a house which was that year declared unfit for human habitation, and was brought up in poverty. In his youth he sometimes taught at a socialist Sunday school, where he inculcated a socialist version of the Ten Commandments, including such sentences as, ‘Remember that the good things of the earth are produced by labour. Whoever enjoys them without working for them is stealing the bread of the workers.’

When I met him in his office at the T & G, where he still works each day in a voluntary capacity on behalf of the union’s retired members, he said he still very much believed in this injunction. I remarked that many members of the working class resent the way in which the welfare state is exploited by idle people, and asked him what he would do about indigenous English people who do not appear to have a strong desire to work. To this he replied, ‘Such as the people at the Savoy Hotel? I don’t see them working very hard.’

Mr Jones remains a formidable negotiator, always seizing in a good-humoured way on the weakest point in the other side’s case. I found myself defending the people at the Savoy. ‘I think lunch isn’t quite the institution it used to be. In the City, certainly, I don’t think they sit around drinking port all afternoon. A lot of them work like maniacs.’

‘Not many of them,’ Mr Jones countered. ‘You know and I know that a lot of people in Britain have got fortunes collected by their ancestors…. We have quite an idle population at the top.’

I offered a brief defence of idleness, as giving one the time to think, to which Mr Jones responded, ‘Oh, I think people should have a right to stand and stare…. That doesn’t mean idleness to the ultimate degree which people enjoy at the top of society, the very wealthy. I don’t like the lords and ladies and the big estates. I think the land was stolen from the people and we should have it back. I’m very much inclined to have sympathy with the fellow out there in, not South Africa, the next country.’

‘Oh Mugabe!’ I said, with an incredulous laugh.

‘I’m not being serious,’ Mr Jones said at once of his African comparison, ‘but you know the land was stolen from the people in Britain.’

‘When was it stolen, as a matter of interest?’

‘Oh, a couple of centuries ago,’ Mr Jones said. ‘People were forced off the land to make way for the sheep. The big estates, they’re the lords and ladies, the dukes and duchesses that run our society still to a large extent…. I see no reason at all for the House of Lords.’

He pointed out that a motion to abolish the House of Lords had been carried ‘by an enormous majority’ at the Labour party conference in 1977 and said this was ‘still party policy’.

‘What would you do about the Duke of Devonshire?’ I asked.

‘Oh I’d tax him, increase taxes and tax the very wealthy, tax them out of existence.’


It emerged, however, that he gets on ‘quite well’ with the Duke of Devonshire, who was ‘very friendly’ when Mr Jones had to ask him for permission to build an education centre for the T & G in Eastbourne.

Where did Mr Jones get the idea that the land was stolen from the people? He said it was not from any particular writer; nor did he trace it, like Belloc and Chesterton, to the dissolution of the monasteries. It was something he had ‘imbibed with my mother’s milk. I was brought up in the slums and the local agitators used to talk about the land being stolen from the people…. Ultimately, I think the nation can acquire a lot of land that can be used to build reasonable houses at reasonable prices for ordinary people…. It’s not something that can be achieved overnight, but it should be recognised that the very big landowners and others, technically they’ve been living on stolen earnings. The whole of the land should belong to the nation…. It’s not practical politics at the moment, but quite clearly there is a case for looking at these large properties whose ancestors stole them from the people.’

‘If you taxed the rich very heavily,’ I said, ‘the rich would go abroad and various of our industries would suffer.’

‘Well, they wouldn’t have much riches to take abroad if I had my way,’ Mr Jones said.

He lamented the decline of our manufacturing industry, which he believes was precipitated by Margaret Thatcher’s abolition of exchange controls. ‘They were encouraged by Mrs Thatcher to send their money abroad, weren’t they? To invest their money abroad…. So we exported capital and lost our motor-car industry.’

I suggested that the real trouble with our car industry was that it had been badly managed, but he denied this and gave as an example the success of Billy Lyons – latterly Sir William Lyons – and the workers in Coventry at building up Jaguar. Coventry at that time was a city full of new industries, where Mr Jones had great success as a union organiser in winning new members. By the late 1970s the T & G had a membership of well over two million, which has since shrunk to 850,000.

Mr Jones was persuaded to go as an organiser to Coventry in 1939, a year after he was wounded while fighting in the Spanish Civil War. He is one of only 37 remaining members of the International Brigade in the United Kingdom and Ireland. The wall of his rather spartan office carries a memorial to the men from Merseyside who died serving with the brigade, many of whom, he said in a sorrowful tone, he himself had encouraged to volunteer. He was at that time the youngest Labour councillor in Liverpool.

‘If you were a young man now,’ I asked, ‘what would you go and fight for?’

‘Today?’ he said. ‘Aha! I’d still be fighting poverty in Britain. There’s a lot to be done in Britain now, particularly in trying to raise standards among the very poor, of which there are still many in Britain. If you go down where I live [in a former council flat, now owned by a housing association, in Camberwell in south London] the housing tends to be very poor. What used to be council housing has tended to decay. It’s not very conducive to domestic happiness. People don’t see that when they come to London. Probably you don’t see it…. It’s a rotten life for children of the poor and we still have a lot of poor in Britain…. I really think that many readers of The Spectator would do well to reflect on the need to improve opportunities for the poorer sections of the population. If you’re going to have a more united nation, you’ve got to address that…. I think the government tends to satisfy middle-class people more than it does the working population.’

Many former Labour supporters would heartily agree. I observed that millions of traditional Labour voters are so disgusted with this government that they intend either to abstain at the next election or else to vote for the Liberal Democrats.

‘Well, personally I think that’s foolish,’ Mr Jones said. ‘The government has done many good things. It’s not the worst government. It has done better and will do better than a Conservative government would do.’

How does Mr Blair compare with other Labour prime ministers Mr Jones has known and worked with? How would he compare him with Mr Wilson or Mr Callaghan?

‘Intellectually, very favourably,’ Mr Jones said.

‘With whom?’

‘I’m not mentioning names,’ Mr Jones said. ‘One’s still alive, you know. Yes, very bright indeed. But I suppose it would be said that Callaghan and Wilson had a closer relationship with average Labour party opinion than Blair does…. I would like them [
the government] to be a bit more partisan, because I think it is important to have a satisfied and healthy working class…. The nation is rich enough to afford a better deal for the poorer end of the nation.’

Mr Jones declined to comment on Cherie Blair’s recent troubles, beyond remarking that it was ‘a sort of middle-class aberration to buy bloody big flats for kids’. Later he added, with no particular reference to the Blairs, ‘I think that some people do have these grandiose ideas of big houses, more than one house and so on, and I think that’s wrong. I don’t think it gives them satisfaction. It deprives others of opportunities…. We only live so long in this world…. We have to find a way of living together more closely and understandably. That’s my socialism.’

‘It seems to have a great deal in common with Christianity,’ I said.

‘Yes,’ Mr Jones said, ‘the best part of Christianity was socialism. Yes, I’m all in favour of putting down the mighty from their seats and exalting those of low degree.’

On Mr Jones’s windowsill stands a quotation, presented to him when he retired as leader of the T & G, which begins, ‘Man’s dearest possession is life, and since it is given to him to live but once, he must so live as to suffer no torturing regrets for years spent without purpose….’

Mr Jones does not appear to have spent so much as a day of his life without purpose, which is doubtless one reason why he looks so spry, though he has often found himself on the losing side. In an account of his service in 1938 in Spain, where he and his comrades were set the task of capturing

Hill 481 without artillery or air support, which was ‘almost impossible’ because ‘the fascists had placed concrete pill-boxes and machine guns in key positions commanding every approach to the summit,’ Mr Jones writes, ‘So many good men died, believing to the end in the cause of democracy. Win or lose, the world needs sincerity.’

British politics needs sincerity, and does not often find it in the honeyed words of those who now lead the Labour party, or in the anguished contortions of those trying to reinvent the Conservative party.


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