The Way We Were: No Longer Taken as Red

Article excerpt

The battle honours of the former Communist Party national industrial organiser Bert Ramelson include the International Brigade and Tobruk. They also celebrate the Seamen's Strike, two dock strikes, the postal strike, two miners' strikes, one of which brought down a government, and mark decades when the Communist Party had an influence in inverse proportion to its membership and boasted a squad of general and deputy general secretaries wheeling to its command. It was the age of agitation, union muscle, industrial turmoil. It climaxed in 1979 when strikes cost 29,474,000 working days. Last year's figure was 759,000. You would look up the Communist Party now under Democratic Left and find Bert Ramelson, disowning the mutation, in Catford, tending his roses, not all of them red,, and recalling, how it was.

Bert Ramelson lives in Catford, a short ride on Network Southeast from his old stamping ground in London's Covent Garden. It is a pleasant stroll to his house from the station, along suburban avenues whose front gardens are resplendent with rose bushes and edging plants, and whose uniformity is broken by the addition of conservatories, car ports and Georgian-style porticos.

Ramelson's home is pin-neat. His wife fusses kindly with tea and biscuits, and pops out through the French windows to tend the garden. He is in his 80s now, a lion in winter. Only a few momentoes, photographs, a Communist Party pamphlet Bury the Social Contract', and a slightly foreign accent, serve notice of the way-stations that have brought him to retirement in this Tory territory: birth in the Ukraine, law school in Edmonton, Alberta, shooting war in Spain and the Western Desert, class war in the coalfields, docks and car plants of England. Names do not come as easily as they did, the aftermath of a stroke, but the mind is alert. It does not much like what it sees. There isn't a Communist Party now, whatever they call themselves" he says. The Left now is just gimmicks, a lot of academics and ex-students who haven't a clue of the role of the trade unions. There's no input from industry -- it's more of an idea than a working class reality.

'The only thing I'm satisfied with is that the struggle is a reality, and it must return. Some of the Party will survive and return.' It sounds a little like whistling in the wind.

Twenty years ago matters were rather different. Communist troops were within sight of over-running Indo-China, the Soviet Union was busy expanding its influence in Africa and the Middle East, and Bert Ramelson, then a 62-year-old operating from a shabby office in Covent Garden with a take home wage of 121 a week, was being described by employers as 'the most dangerous man in Britain'. Ramelson was the Communist Party national industrial organiser. He did his work well. During the seamen's strike of 1966, the then prime minister Harold Wilson said that the Party 'has at its disposal an efficient and disciplined industrial apparatus controlled from its headquarters. No major strike occurs anywhere in this country in any sector of industry in which that apparatus fails to concern itself.' In a famous phrase that gave the first top-level warning of the damage the Party was inflicting on British industry, Wilson claimed that 'a tightly knit group of politically motivated men' were successfully prolonging the strike. Challenged to substantiate the charge, Wilson gave the names of eight Communists to the Commons. Ramelson was first on the list. The Prime Minister said that Ramelson and his colleagues were making a 'takeover bid' for the seamen's, docks and transport unions. The aim was to sabotage the Government's prices and incomes policy. Other Ramelson battle honours include the dock strike of 1970 and the prolonging of the 1971 postal strike. In 1972, he was active in the building workers' strike, a second dock strike and in organising flying pickets during the seven-week miners' strike.

It was an annus mirabilis for British Communists. …