Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/24906
State surveillance of unions: PCS assistant head demands inquiry
Tory government schemed against socialists in the CPSA
Secret government files released under the 30-year rule show that Margaret Thatcher's government directly meddled in the internal affairs of civil servants' union CPSA, the predecessor of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union.
The government was concerned about the growing influence of the forerunner of the Socialist Party, the Militant - in particular, Militant supporter, the late John Macreadie (died 2010).
John won the general secretary election in the CPSA in 1987. "Subversives ... cannot be tolerated in such jobs" one official memo has been reported as stating. So the union's right wing had him undemocratically removed (see extract below from 'The Rise of Militant').
Socialist Party member Chris Baugh, assistant general secretary of the PCS, worked alongside John Macreadie. Chris spoke in a personal capacity to Neil Cafferky for the Socialist.
I believe you were targeted for some smear campaigns in the 1980s by the right-wing press?
We were subject to a number of press smears attacking the six of us Militant supporters that were on the union's national executive committee at the time, by various articles in broadsheets and other newspapers.
But this was, of course, in the context that many of the tabloids during CPSA elections used to run the right-wing 'moderate' slate, with an encouragement for readers to vote for them in order to keep out the left, and in particular the supporters of the Militant like myself.
The papers show government officials - at the behest of Margaret Thatcher - met with unnamed leaders of the CPSA, when the CPSA was controlled by the right, to discuss the rise of Militant. So why was the left - and particularly Militant - growing in the CPSA in the 1980s?
Well I think you have to understand the nature of the civil service. Contrary to the media caricature of Whitehall mandarins, in actual fact the civil service is a vast network of public service organisations across the whole UK. And CPSA represented a largely young, female, low-paid section of the workforce.
Now, it's interesting to note that in the infamous Ridley Report that was produced before Thatcher took up office in 1979, which set out a plan for undermining trade union power, there was specific reference to the civil service trade unions.
And of course we saw a massive strike, the biggest civil service strike in history, in 1981, when Thatcher scrapped the pay agreement that had been in place since the 1950s.
That was the prelude to what Cabinet Office ministers called the "bonfire of regulations" as various national agreements were ripped up. And there was a systematic attack on pay, jobs and conditions reflecting the government's attacks on trade union conditions and workers' rights at that time.
In the CPSA membership, many of us joined the civil service - contrary to the impression given by the right wing in the union that the problem was Militant recruiting us in the first place to be sent into the civil service - we just joined the civil service looking for work in different parts of the country.
The idea we were parachuted in to subvert the workings of the civil service, of course, is a ridiculous proposition.
What happened is that people like myself and many other CPSA members were drawn to the ideas of socialism. In particular Militant, whose track record was to provide the most militant defence of members conditions, faced with the attacks that took place at the time; led a whole series of notable disputes.
And it was Militant who played - I would argue - a pivotal role in building up a network of activists into what was then the Broad Left [alliance in the CPSA]. And that attracted many activists who were appalled not just at the scale of the attacks being inflicted by the government at the time, but the abject failure of the right-wing leadership to offer any sort of resistance.
And this [the union's right wing] is a political grouping who we have been able to show has links to the state and to business. And their whole purpose was to counter what they regarded as left-wing subversion within the civil service. It was reflected in their election material.
And of course, [Thatcherite journalist] Woodrow Wyatt, for example, reports in his diaries that Kate Losinska, leader of the 'moderates' at the time, visited Margaret Thatcher at the time of the ban of unions at GCHQ. Bernard Levin, a Times journalist, used to reproduce the entire list of the right wing.
As we opened up discussing, the media were always very supportive of the right wing and assisted the right wing in their attacks on activists - who won support because they were seen by union members to be the most serious in fighting back, and the most serious in offering an industrial and political alternative.
It's clear, isn't it, that the right wing of the CPSA, the leadership, were colluding with the government, in effect colluding with the employers. But of course that wasn't the only underhanded methods they used in the battle with the left. There were also bureaucratic methods within the union in the 1980s and 90s.
One of the other reasons that Militant's ideas attracted support from all the best and most active CPSA representatives is that we were those that fought to hold the leadership to account, and to make the union democratic.
It was we that were fighting to extend elections; to ensure that the elected leadership carried out the decisions of conference. And the question of the members having a say and exercising control over officials was a crucial theme in building up support among activists.
And this was prompted by the actions of the leadership who simply presided over the ripping up of a whole series of national agreements, including on pay - which, of course has been used to deploy a classic divide-and-rule tactic and limit the union's ability to speak, act and fight back on behalf of its entire membership [due to ending national pay bargaining].
There were all sorts of allegations about discrepancies in how the elections were run, all sorts of irregularities, that prompted us to challenge how the elections were run, and to constantly put the right-wing leaders under pressure to ensure that when they did take place they weren't interfered with.
But the other alarming aspect of this is the discussion at a very senior political level involving interference in the operations of a trade union.
In addition to the latest papers, under the 30-year rule cabinet papers were released in 2014 which revealed that Lord Armstrong, the cabinet secretary, had presented a paper - prompted by MI5 - exposing concerns about the growing influence of supporters of the Militant tendency within the civil service.
It was the intelligence services that had raised this with the cabinet secretary and prompted him to present this paper to Thatcher.
To cut a long story short, it explored how - to use their words - they could "quietly purge" supporters of the Militant from within the civil service.
The reason they opted to do this quietly rather than publicly is actually set out in Armstrong's papers, which show that in particular the chancellor, Nigel Lawson at the time, was very concerned - having just banned unions at GCHQ. And of course, given that in the autumn of 1984 the miners' strike was still underway.
They were very alarmed about opening up another front against unions, creating martyrs, and instead opted for the operation of what they called "purge procedure."
This involved - rather than sacking them publicly for their political affiliation - that they should be monitored quietly, that they should be checked as to whether they're getting promotion, their work performance should be monitored, and their activities should be closely watched, to ensure that they didn't become an overt 'security risk'.
So we know that this has been going on for many years. And of course this is not an entire shock, particularly to those who've been watching and noting the level of state surveillance of trade union activity.
I mean it's significant there's a protest [on the day of this interview, 13 March] in support of the miners that were victimised around Orgreave.
We've seen the results of the magnificent campaign of the Blacklist Support Group in showing the involvement of big construction companies - and, allegedly, the state - in keeping records of workers to effectively blacklist them because of their trade union activity.
This indicates the extent, the massive extent of state surveillance of trade union activities. And I think it would be naive to think that what was taking place in the 1980s, in light of what we know today, that there is not still surveillance of trade union activity.
Which prompts, I think, a perfectly reasonable call for a proper public investigation.
Very much so, particularly in the context of what we know about blacklisting for construction workers. So what kind of action do you think should be taken now, on the heel of these revelations?
I'm effectively John Macreadie's equivalent, as the assistant general secretary of PCS. So I think there should be a discussion about how we raise concerns about what the employer is up to, in particular the Cabinet Office, who've not surprisingly declined to comment.
We should officially ask the Cabinet Office about what surveillance is taking place of trade unionists today. But I think more fundamentally that we now need to raise a call for a proper public investigation into the monitoring of trade union activists.
And in the light of the Pitchford Inquiry [into undercover policing] we need to speak to lawyers involved in that; other trade unionists that have been subjected to monitoring and victimisation.
We should have a discussion about how we raise a very public and clear call for a public investigation into the interference and subverting of legitimate areas of trade union activity. And to expose the extent to which individuals have been targeted because of their support for socialists - in the past, Militant, and we know through Pitchford, the targeting of Socialist Party members as well.
We need to raise this within the union, raise it with the employer, discuss with other trade union colleagues, and think about how we can increase pressure for - if not Pitchford, certainly for a proper public investigation into what the state and government has been up to.
John Macreadie elected
The following passage on John Macreadie is from 'The Rise of Militant'. This chronicles the political turmoil between 1964 and 1994 and the role of Militant, now the Socialist Party, in leading struggle. A sequel detailing the early history of the Socialist Party is due out in April.
The growing importance of Militant in industry was underlined by developments in the CPSA.
The election of John Macreadie as the new general secretary of the union had sent a frisson of fear through the ranks of the right wing, throughout the trade unions generally as well as in government circles. When the results were announced, John Ellis, the right wing candidate, commented:
"I took a short break because I thought it was the last chance I would get for a holiday for some time. I thought I would be general secretary."
On the most flimsy pretext, the right wing moved to invalidate the results. John Macreadie, nevertheless, declared on national lunch-time TV: "I'm the new general secretary of the CPSA."
The right trotted out the usual accusations of 'ballot rigging', despite the fact that John Macreadie had been elected in probably the fairest election in the history of the CPSA. The right then proceeded to move heaven and earth to have his election blocked. We reported - "Right wing hijack CPSA":
"The right wing have decided to overturn the democratic wishes of the membership... The members voted for a new leadership, but the right wing have declared no confidence in the membership. They have hijacked the union, putting in the defeated candidate."
A ferocious campaign by the left then opened up in the unions. Legal action was also taken in an attempt to stop the coup of the right wing against the democratic wishes of the members.
However, with the help of the judiciary, the right frustrated the members' democratic decision in electing John Macreadie. The courts sanctioned the re-run of the election for the general secretary.
All the stops were then pulled out in support of John Ellis, the right's candidate. He won with 42,000 votes to John Macreadie's 31,000.
He was helped into power by the splitting tactics of 'Broad Left 84', dominated by the Communist Party, who put up its own candidate, Geoff Lewtas, who received 13,000 votes.
In the House of Commons, a right-wing Tory MP, Peter Bruinvels, and two other Tory MPs welcomed "the victory of John Ellis in the ballot." There was a tremendous sense of disappointment amongst left activists in the union. But rather than undermining Militant's support, it strengthened it for the battles to come.
Indeed, John Macreadie was soon elected onto the general council of the TUC, the first ever Militant supporter to hold this position.
At the TUC congress in September 1987 he emerged as a significant figure, standing for the fighting traditions of trade unionism and opposing the policies of despair summed up in the "New Realism" of the right-wing general council.
This aroused the ire of the capitalist press. Even before the TUC congress had finished, the London Evening Standard carried the statement of John Ellis, CPSA general secretary, under the headline "Militant hounding me out."
He complained that "a campaign of vilification and victimisation" had been taken against him; the union had decided that his Opel Senator car was not his and if he wanted a car he should buy one.
The new left-wing controlled national executive committee of the union had also linked his pay to that of a senior principal secretary in Whitehall and awarded him a £5 per week pay increase. Moreover, his American Express card, to pay for "official union business," was also withdrawn.
He received £26,000 per year while many CPSA members were on as little as a £110 per week after tax.
- 'The Rise of Militant' by Peter Taaffe, £11.99 from leftbooks.co.uk
This version of this article was first posted on the Socialist Party website on 14 March 2017 and may vary slightly from the version subsequently printed in The Socialist.