‘You can work as research assistant to Ralph Miliband.’ Thus my tutor at the London School of Economics gave me the news that he had found a way for me to finance my first year of study for an intended PhD on the Labour party’s housing policy between the world wars.
The idea was that for twelve months between 1964 and 1965 I would help analyse the changing occupational structure of the British workforce by comparing statistics contained in the 1851 census with those in the 1951 census. As a first step, my new boss took me for a drink in the coffee bar next door to the main entrance of the LSE.
Our discussion about the intended project went well. We were both enthusiasts for demographic statistical analysis. But then we got on to politics and the rest of our meeting was a social disaster. The problem was that I had very strong views on the tyranny of mind and body that I had seen the previous year when on a trip to the Communist bloc countries with the LSE chess club.
In the coffee bar I persisted in describing to Ralph my experience of Communist regimes. In Prague I had walked through a dark and shadowy Wenceslas Square with the chairman of the Prague chess club. He had been educated in Brighton and longed for freedom of speech. He was too terrified to speak to us in a building, and even in the deserted square he spoke in whispers.
In Hungary, I had sat in a sidewalk café in front of a wall riddled with bullet holes; holes created when people had been shot during the 1956 uprising.
I went on to describe the train journey from Budapest to Moscow. One of our party had asked our young Intourist guide if the watch towers we could see in the distance belonged to a concentration camp. Our guide, the son of a senior Russian official, had replied, ‘There are no concentration camps in the Soviet Union.’ When asked how he knew this, he said, ‘My father told me.’ The members of the LSE chess club had collapsed into fits of giggles.
Then there was the trip to the Hermitage. There we were banned from looking at any pictures other than the ones prescribed by our guide. If any member of our party tried to wander towards another picture that had caught their eye, our guide would shout: ‘Not that picture. This picture.’
And as I told Ralph, things got even worse when we went on to Poland and East Germany. Warsaw seemed freer; but I was none too keen on the soldiers lying on the railway embankments with their guns aimed at the underside of our train looking for escapees to shoot.
As for East Germany: I had been terrified by the sight of military police parading through the streets and training their guns under the bridges so they could shoot anybody who tried to escape to the West by swimming along the river. I could not see how all this authoritarianism benefited people either mentally or physically. Some people seemed to be near starvation, and the streets of East Berlin seemed to have more horses and carts than cars.
When I got to describing my cynicism at seeing a newspaper poster saying ‘Walter Ulbricht 99 per cent certain of being elected’, I realised just how agitated Ralph had become. He sprang to Ulbricht’s defence, and appeared to be blind to the East German dictator’s failings — he even refused to condemn the building of the Berlin Wall. I realised that Ralph was an enthusiast for the very regimes I had come to hate. In my three years at LSE as an undergraduate, I had sat through many a lecture and coffee bar discussion in which Marxists looked forward to the contradictions in capitalism leading to its collapse and to the advent of the dictatorship of the proletariat. But I was appalled by how hardline Ralph Miliband was. He must have known of the hardship suffered by people in Communist countries, but for him, I suppose, the end justified the means. The Communist countries were heading towards a Marxist heaven. There might be teething problems on the way; but things were better in East Germany than in Britain.
Ralph did not hate Britain. He just wanted to make it better by transforming it into a Communist state, and that meant destroying a lot of Britain’s social institutions because they promoted and buttressed social in-equality. The dictatorship of the proletariat would be preferable to Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
Despite our political dispute, I began work on the census volumes, but soon there were problems. The 1851 census volume on which I initially worked was owned by University College London. I used it each day while sitting at a table in a building that belonged to UCL in Flaxman Terrace near Euston station.
One morning I discovered that somebody had stolen the census volume overnight. Ralph was furious. Instead of blaming the security at UCL, he blamed me. The volume was very valuable and I would have to pay for it from my £750-a-year salary, he said. I refused to do so and he did climb down, but our relationship never really recovered.
The LSE also had a copy of the 1851 census, so I moved to work in its library. Unfortunately, the small print and bad lighting affected my eyes and my GP told me I should hand in my notice to preserve my eyesight. Ralph refused to accept it. ‘You undertook to work for me for a year’ was his response to my plight. So I soldiered on, only to be told a few months later that the computer on which my statistics were to be analysed was no longer available. With apologies, Ralph was making me redundant after six months.
Fortunately, the Labour party advertised that very week for a research assistant on housing policy and, given my projected PhD, I was ideally suited for the job. I clinched it when the chairman of Labour’s interviewing panel put it to me that: ‘You are married, so presumably you would be willing to accept the lowest pay grade?’
I swallowed my pride and feminism and said yes, because I needed the job. But I was learning that those who pontificate most loudly about the rights of the workers en masse are often those who, faced with an individual worker, can be less than perfect in their treatment of that worker. And as for the PhD — it never got written.