Being elected general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TGWU) has, until recently, been akin to joining the royal household of the British labour movement: not, it should be emphasised as a lieutenant of the cavalry but as a kingmaker and, it must also be added, king destroyer.
In the case of Ron Todd, who has died of leukaemia aged 78, there was an important extra dimension: he established a unique record of being elected twice to what was then the leadership of the largest, as well as most influential trade union in the labour movement. That, in itself, was a notable first in labour history in the wake of such predecessors as Ernest Bevin, Frank Cousins and Jack Jones.
His first election to the leadership came in 1984 when Moss Evans took early retirement. Todd’s main opponent was George Wright, regional secretary of the TGWU in Wales and a man with wide experience, especially in the Midlands car industry. While Todd was Moss Evans’s preferred successor, not least because of a long-standing friendship, the balance of political favour was for Wright, a Labour moderate.
Wright was a formidably able and experienced official and strongly supported by senior figures in the Labour party establishment as well as in the media. He was a middle-of-the-road Labour moderate while Todd was well to the left.
Even so, the first election result gave Ron Todd a majority of 44,817 on a 41% turnout of the union’s 1,470,000 members. This result was immediately challenged by Wright’s supporters who claimed evidence of ballot rigging. Moss Evans repudiated any such accusations and declared Todd the winner arguing: “I am convinced we did things correctly.”
But Todd was not satisfied and after weeks of internal wrangling, legal challenges and whispering from Wright’s supporters, Todd himself insisted on a second ballot. Senior officials of the union tried to dissuade him from taking such a drastic step but they were waved aside.
Todd’s view as expressed to me was simple: “I am determined that the members of this union should have the full democratic right to elect a leader whose credibility is beyond doubt.” Todd knew that the allegations of ballot rigging could be damaging to the union and that only a re-run of the election would resolve the dispute. He was also sensitive to a national mood of anti-unionism in a period when prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s campaign to bring the trade unions under greater legislative control was starting to bite.
The result was a triumph for Todd’s insistence. The second election result, announced in June 1985, gave him a majority of 76,840, almost doubling his previous margin over Wright, and with a membership turn-out of 40% which was only 1% down on the first ballot. He was now the unassailable leader of the TGWU and remained so for seven years.
This incident at the start of Todd’s leadership lent powerful weight to his longstanding reputation as a man of unusual personal integrity – a characteristic that was not, then, overwhelmingly common at the top of trade union politics. In fact, the Todd “honesty factor” became a cornerstone of his reputation both as TGWU leader and member of the Trades Union Congress general council: so much so that friends as well as critics were heard to murmur: “The trouble with Ron is that he is too bloody honest.”
There is an anecdote on this going back to his working days on the Ford assembly line at Dagenham. His elder brother was a supervisor while Ron remained a shopfloor “spanner-and-screwdriver” man on the line before becoming deputy convenor of Ford shop stewards. One day his brother suggested a way in which Ron could increase his earnings by accepting overtime and dodging the occasional night shift. The younger Todd told his brother to “bugger off” – or words to that effect in much stronger language.
Todd was no political intellectual; no electrifying orator. He did not command the same attention as his illustrious predecessors. Bevin, Arthur Deakin, Cousins and Jones. But he won respect as a down-to-earth socialist, a man who would not break a promise, the working-class lad from London’s East End who never forgot nor betrayed his roots and scoffed at any suggestion of honours. He preferred to remain “Mr Todd”.
Yet it was precisely this earthiness and dedication to well-worn principles that brought him into conflict with Neil Kinnock and the Labour leadership in the late 1980s after Labour lost its third general election in succession to Thatcher. Following the 1987 defeat, Kinnock set about reforming the Labour party and effectively laying the foundations for what became Tony Blair’s New Labour agenda.
Todd was Kinnock’s first big hurdle. And it was a difficult one for the Labour leader since, in Todd, he was facing a genuine working-class voice, who could be tough and abrasive with a touch of cockney swagger as well as generous and supportive.
At the 1988 Labour conference, in the wake of the 1987 defeat, Kinnock’s scene-setting speech opened a new era for the Labour party. The modernisation theme was central to an agenda, which included abandoning unilateral nuclear disarmament as well as formal acceptance of a mixed economy.
There was no doubt in Todd’s mind that this amounted to a major challenge, if not the beginning of betrayal, and at the Tribune rally, following Kinnock’s conference speech, the TGWU leader lashed into the party leader and mocked the modernisation philosophy – especially the party’s abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament. Todd was determined to maintain the TGWU commitment to that policy – established by Frank Cousins, who famously defeated the then Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell on the issue in 1960.
The outcome of that 1988 conference, was a serious strain in relations between the Labour leadership and their largest affiliate. Arguably it never completely healed before Todd’s retirement in March 1992, one month before the general election.
Yet for most of the 1980s the cold war was still in operation. And Todd and other union leaders were compelled to recognise they were losing the battle against Kinnock’s abandonment of unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Todd’s criticism of Kinnock and the Labour leadership was resented, even by some on the left. To many observers it seemed uncharacteristically severe especially since Kinnock, a TGWU member was regarded as a man of the left. Yet it reflected a real lack of chemistry between the two men as well as Kinnock’s impatience with what he perceived as trade union reluctance to change. Yet some of Todd’s critics later came to wonder whether he was ahead of his time and already recognising a profound change that was emerging in Labour’s political agenda and notably in relations with the trade unions.
Much of Todd’s period as TGWU general secretary coincided with the most turbulent times in Britain’s postwar industrial affairs. There was Thatcher’s campaign to “tame the unions”; the miners’ strike; the decline in TUC authority, and falling trade union membership. Todd unsuccessfully supported the expulsion from the TUC of unions, such as the engineers, willing to co-operate with the Thatcher government.
One of Todd’s most emotive battles was his opposition to the government’s abolition, in 1989, of the dock labour scheme, created by Bevin in wartime to protect dock workers. The TGWU were ready to call a national dock strike, but Todd finally backed down having failed to rally his troops. It was the last time Britain faced a national dock strike. Anti-union legislation coupled with unemployment had eroded rank and file militancy.
Meanwhile Todd was frequently attacked from within his own union. There were divisions among his 39-member executive – sometimes on Labour party policy issues though more often because of left-right warring about how to cope with the hostile climate promoted by Thatcher. It was not a good time to be a trade union leader.
Todd was born in Walthamstow, east London, the the youngest son of a family of market traders. He was educated at St Patrick’s Catholic school, Walthamstow, leaving at 14 to sweep the floors in a local barbers’ shop. He then worked as a plumber’s mate before being called up into the Royal Marines in 1945. His father, George, had been a regular in the marines and shortly after Ron joined, father and son were even in the same camp. He served as a marine commando in Hong Kong and on the China border for two years. He kept a close association with the marines to the end, attending their annual assemblies – and being honoured with life membership. He saw no paradox between this and his unswerving commitment to nuclear disarmament.
After that national service he briefly worked as a gas fitter before joining the Ford plant at Dagenham where he remained until 1962 when he became a full time TGWU officer. In 1969 he was appointed an officer in the union’s Region No 1 – the London area – and became regional secretary in 1976. Two years later he was appointed national organiser and then came the general secretaryship, and membership of the TUC general council on which he remained until retirement in 1992. He was chairman of the TUC international committee from 1985 until 1992; a member of the National Economic Development Council from 1985-92; president of the Trade Union Unity Trust (1986-89) and honorary vice-president of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament.
Todd was a man full of paradox. His two great hobbies were amateur palaeontology – he collected fossils – and he was a man with a serious love of poetry. He had several books of poems published, proceeds of which he donated to charities. He was writing his poems on current affairs up to his final months.
He was an intense patriot and a profound internationalist and socialist. He was a relentless campaigner for South African human rights, a supporter of the African National Congress and a close friend of Nelson Mandela. More surprising was his friendship with the late Queen Mother whom he recruited as an honorary TGWU member, thus following on from her husband, George VI’s honorary membership.
Ron’s final move before he retired was to pave the way for his successor, Bill Morris, the first black leader of a major British trade union. That, in itself, was an epitaph characteristic of the man.
He is survived by one son and two daughters. His wife, Jo, died in 1996.
Denis MacShane writes:
Ron Todd’s contribution to the international trade union movement was a little reported but vital element in his leadership of the TGWU. Todd had seen, close up, the effects of extremist nationalist ideology when he supervised the execution of Japanese war criminals in Singapore while serving in the Royal Marines.
As a car workers’ leader he was confronted by globalisation long before this term took fashionable hold. The automobile industry has never been national – its employees, raw materials and sales depend on transnational relations. Thus, for Todd’s beloved Dagenham car workers, decisions in Detroit mattered more than those taken in Essex. Building links with Ford and General Motors workers in Europe were vital to protect the interests of British workers.
Todd built a friendly relationship with the United Autoworkers Union. This was the most progressive of American labour unions, constantly at odds with the arrogant, cold war obsessions of the elderly labour leaders in Washington DC.
Trade union internationalism has two faces. One is based on windy rhetoric proclaiming solidarity with toilers around the world, which was bought to perfection by trade union officials who never found fault with Stalinism or Trotskyism.
Alternatively, there is one involving the hard graft of seeking to build contacts and links with real, living workers so that solidarity becomes converted into effective help. Todd believed in the second. He gave time, energy and TGWU resources to organising links with workers in Europe, North America, Japan and further afield. He became an early supporter of the Polish union, Solidarity, at a time when Soviet-admiring union bosses in Britain, refused the believe that workers in eastern Europe wanted democracy.
He gave vital support to the independent black trade union movement in South Africa when it was viewed with suspicion by some exiled South African leaders. Todd knew that a strike in South African car factory, or a Polish shipyard would do more to undermine the dictatorships of communism and apartheid than pamphlets and speeches denouncing either written in the comfort of London or Washington.
Todd became an early proponent of engaging with the European Union at a time when many trade unions preferred the narrow nationalism of denouncing Brussels as a capitalist conspiracy out to do down Britain. He worked with the International Metalworkers’ Federation to create workers’ councils for Ford and GM employees.
Todd’s humanity and broad working-class culture – reflected in the books of poems he circulated to his former international labour friends in his retirement – made him one of the most popular British union leaders on the international scene.
• Ronald Todd, trade union leader, born March 11 1927; died April 30 2005
Geoffrey Goodman, The Guardian