SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 217 April 2018

Memoirs of a careerist

Overalls to Ermine: the life and times of Lord Garfield Davies

By Lord Garfield Davies

Published by New Generation, 2017, £12.50

Reviewed by Iain Dalton

The history of the trade union movement and its leading figures are full of lessons. Unfortunately, the memoirs of Garfield (now Lord) Davies, general secretary of shop-workers’ union Usdaw (1986-97), offer very few. They are of secondary consideration to tales of his friendships with the establishment’s ‘great and good’.

Campaigns, such as the one against extending Sunday trading in the 1980s and 1990s, are skimmed over. The victory of the strike of 8,000 Co-operative Insurance Society agents, Usdaw members, is put down to "the union’s strength" without any explanation of how it was mobilised. Even so, it does expose the mind-set of a trade union bureaucrat. A week-long overseas trip on behalf of Usdaw is recalled because "the occasion’s significance as a major career move was not lost on me".

Davies’s recounting of the 1985 general secretary election he won mostly discusses who backed him, and that the outgoing incumbent introduced him to various movers and shakers. These included Brendan Barber, then TUC press officer, later its general secretary – knighted in 2013! There is no mention of the issues facing Usdaw members at the time.

Nonetheless, his victory – the last general secretary election in Usdaw to be conducted on a branch basis rather than individual members’ votes – was a blow to the right-wing Mainstream group which had controlled the union. Its candidate, John Flood, came last out of three, with the Broad Left coming second. Davies’s careerism had split the right-wing vote, with the union’s machinery lining up behind him.

His successor, Bill Connor (knighted in 2001), took ‘new realism’ to a new level – reflecting the rightward shift of most labour and trade union movement leaders following the defeat of the miners’ and printers’ strikes, and the collapse of the Stalinist states. Connor set up a partnership agreement with Tesco which has left rank-and-file members worse off to this day. This cosy relationship between management and Usdaw officialdom began early – the company even circulated Connor’s election leaflet!

Davies still faced a challenge from the left, including the election of Broad Left candidate Audrey Wise as Usdaw president in 1991. He says that Wise’s presidency "… amounted to little more than a nominal role, it was sufficient to cause irritating problems for her colleagues". In other words, the right wing did all it could to sabotage Wise’s attempts to challenge the rule of the bureaucrats. For example, it blocked her attempt to become Usdaw’s representative on Labour’s national executive.

Wise also refused to accept senior Usdaw officials’ efforts to bind the union’s executive. This is how Davies describes the situation: "It was our practice before meetings of Usdaw’s executive council for the president, general secretary, deputy general secretary [Bill Connor], administrative officer and treasurer to confer informally on the composition of the agenda. In our dealings with our [sic] governing body it was necessary for us, as senior officials, to present a united front, otherwise meetings could become disorganised, not to say chaotic. Sadly, our little arrangement did not seem to meet with Audrey’s approval".

Such practices, designed to undermine democratic scrutiny and accountability, continue in Usdaw today. Its outgoing general secretary John Hannett wrote the introduction to Davies’s book. Hannett mentions the campaign for a national minimum wage, eventually implemented at a low level as one of the few reforms under Tony Blair’s New Labour government. He fails to mention that it was supporters of Militant (the predecessor of the Socialist Party) who had argued for this policy year after year at Usdaw’s annual delegate meetings.

Hannett also mentions that Davies was a "staunch advocate" for one member one vote in the Labour Party, one of the many changes introduced to weaken the voice of the organised working class in the Labour Party. This is not a book to read if you are looking for inspiration! But it is one that will anger you at the arrogance of the bureaucrats who continue to mislead sections of our trade union movement.

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