the trades unions Royal Commission

Few readers familiar with the history of trades unions’ encounters with their members employers will have been surprised by the Royal Commission’s discovery that the movement contained more than its share of ‘louts’, ‘bullies’, ‘thugs’, ‘thieves’ and ‘perjurers’ . The Commission’s one-sided investigation into trades union corruption brought back memories – probably less than entirely reliable – of my earliest experiences of what would now be called political corruption. Growing up in Southeast England in the 1940s and ’50s I learned to expect that people went into politics for the money. My parents’ right-wing newspapers – the Daily Express and the Telegraph – while assuring us that most wealthy Tories had made, inherited or married into their money before entering politics, revealed that many senior Labour parliamentarians retired from politics as relatively wealthy individuals, an outcome that could not easily be explained in terms of their parliamentary salaries. In this period, I began to appreciate, as I still do, the old Trotskyist idea that elected politicians should be paid no more than the average industrial wage. Labour Party apparatchiks dismissed this dangerous idea with the offensive formula: “if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys”. The apparatchiks who – continuing with their parallel between people and animals – parroted this formula seemed, like their counterparts who I later encountered in Australia, to be blissfully unaware of what it revealed about their opinion of most Labour Party members and supporters, only a few of whom earned significantly more than the average handful of peanuts.

Some years later in the early ’60s, after limited undergraduate experience in university politics, I moved on to post-graduate study at Liverpool University and joined the Liverpool constituency Labour party. As a new and relatively young Party member, I would often be taken aside by older, more experienced members who took it upon themselves to explain to me the realities of politics in the city of Liverpool, and most importantly the links between the Tory Party and both the local brewers and the relatively small Protestant Party. While the PP, whose existence surprised me at the time, had originated in attempts to block the influence of the, largely Catholic, immigrant Irish community, its principal raison d’être by the time I arrived on the scene was to keep Labour out of power, and the Tories in, at the local level. Labour Party members told me – as if it were common knowledge – that the Tories subsidised the PP while they themselves were funded by the brewers. There was a popular story about the ‘pub-in-the-field’, an infamous, and ultimately successful, pub that had been built by one of the local brewers in the middle of an area that the (Tory/Protestant controlled) City Council subsequently earmarked for a new housing estate.

What seems curious in retrospect is that I do not recall anyone presenting these issues as instances of corruption. They were simply unfortunate facts of life which Labour had to recognise. The first memory I have of corruption being raised as an issue in contemporary politics is of the Tories going after T. Dan Smith in the early 70s. Smith had been born in Wallsend, next to Newcastle-upon-Tyne on the north bank of the river, and grew up to become a major figure in the Labour Party in North-East England. He was both leader of the Newcastle Labour Party and, from 1960 to ’65, Leader of Newcastle City Council. In this last position, he talked of turning Newcastle into ‘the Brasilia of the North’ and became known to his political opponents as ‘Mouth of the Tyne’. Smith presided over massive redevelopment of the city and was admired and loathed in roughly equal measure for building many blocks of public housing apartments and for demolishing fine historical buildings and destroying long-standing working class communities in the process. In 1962, he established his own public-relations business, subsequently forming a semi-professional relationship with the architect John Poulson who designed serviceable but architecturally unexciting apartment blocks. Smith sent work worth over a million in fees in Poulson’s direction and Poulson gave him over 100 thousand in return. Smith’s PR firm was caught up in a minor scandal in the London Borough of Wandsworth, which lead to Smith being charged with bribery. On this charge he was acquitted but later, in connection with his Newcastle dealings, was charged with corruption and finally sentenced to six years imprisonment. His Labour supporters argued that Smith’s payment was inconsequential what really mattered was that he got results, that large numbers of homes were built. His Tory critics cited the example of Smith’s dirty hands to show that Labour, , unlike the independently wealthy Tories, could not be trusted in Government. There is more to be said for and against both views than I have space for here.

Since the Smith affair, I have not been able to take contemporary accusations of corruption at face value: there always seems to be an unstated political agenda in play. Thus, when the Dyson Heydon Royal Commission was established, and even before Labor and the unions started to complain about it, I felt that it had been designed to damage the Labor Party.

I had settled in Australia some years earlier, after arriving just in time to see John Dawkin’s disastrous reform of Australian Higher Education and the Liberal Premier Nick Greiner’s Government establish the New South Wales Independent Commission Against Corruption in 1988. While the magic word ‘independent’ in its full title, was clearly intended to suggest that ICAC was above politics and in no way dependent on the Government of the day, it appeared clearly designed by the Liberals to hit the NSW Labor Party while it was down. That Greiner himself was one of ICAC’s first major victims – an episode discussed in my Corruption and Democracy in Australia – was a kind of poetic justice.

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