TERRY BARRETT, THE DOCKERS AND THE LEFT (1990)

Author: 

Sean Matgamna

Terry Barrett, who died in September, was one of the key rank and file working-class leaders during the years of the great labour upsurge of the '60s and '70s.

In the late '60s he was secretary of the London Port Workers' Committee, whose better known leader and public figurehead was the Communist Party member Jack Dash. This was a time when the dockers had the power to choke off supplies to British industry, and sometimes proved it.

In the mid-'60s, when I first encountered Barrett, he was a member of the Communist Party, in transition to the Socialist Workers' Party's ancestor, the International Socialists (IS). He had, I think, had had some previous involvment with the Socialist Party of Great Britain

He was the most prominent of a group of militants trying at the eleventh hour to organise a national resistance to the reorganisation of the ports, the so-called "Devlin scheme" to reorganise dockworkers in preparation for the technological revolution in the ports, the containerisation system we have there today. We brought three areas out on strike against Devlin - London, Liverpool and Manchester. As a result of these strikes, dockers gained a better deal for letting the reorganisation take place. But we failed in our main task - to stop the bosses reorganising the ports in their own way, for their own interests, and, ultimately, at the expense of the dockers.

Everything that has happened in the docks since flows from that defeat: the massive loss of jobs, the extirpation of the dockworkers’ legendary militancy and solidarity, last year's abolition of the Dock Labour Scheme.

I last saw Terry Barrett a couple of |years ago, at Bank underground
station on a Sunday afternoon. We traveled together for a few stops, Terry with his loud London mass-meeting voice commending the IRA, more to the rest of the passengers than to me.

I didn't argue with him. It was, I thought, more a matter of rehearsing tribal war cries with an old comrade than anything to do with current policies. It wasn't the place to denounce the IRA, and I'm not sure I'd have engaged him anyway. He seemed not in the best state.

I have better memories of Barrett. In 1967 he came to Manchester during a tour of the ports, attempting to create a network of support for a rank-and-file organising committee to strike against "Devlin".

The situation was complicated in Manchester, on the Ship Canal. Militants there, in Liverpool and inb Hull had joined a breakaway "blue" union – the National Amalgamated Stevedore and Dockers Union - in the mid '50s, but the strikes to force the Dock Labour Board - on which the TGWU, the so named “White union” had half the seats - to give the "blue" negotiating rights were defeated. A dozen years later, the TGWU in Manchester had most of the dockers, the "blue" was perhaps a hundred out of 2000 dockers, and there was some non-unionism.

An old rank and file Committee had been absorbed into the "blue" but the "blue" leaders, Joe Hackett, Joe Barry, and others, doubled as a rank-and-file leadership still. Exactly what was what was sometimes unclear, but they were the people who convened the frequent mass meetings on the croft (waste ground near the docks) to discuss events in the port. They did most of the talking.

They had good relations with management. They couldn't negotiate officially, but did, as they said, go "up the backstairs", while the official union - widely despised, its officials without influence except when strikes were petering out - went "up the front stairs". The "blue" leaders were good trade unionists, unlike the TGWU leaders, and had real respect. But they were tired, too. They were influenced by Catholic Action, and they hadn't a clue about Devlin.

Some younger militants – Trotskyists, Harold Youd and the writer – had been agitating about the need to fight the Devlin reorganisation scheme. We stirred things up enough to force it to a showdown with them at a mass open-air meeting, 1500 to 2000 strong.

A "compromise" proposed to "settle" the difference by electing Harold Youd and myself, and John Magennis, to "the committee" - the "blue" branch committee wearing another hat - had alarmed them mightily, and they unleashed a flood of tabloid-press style witch-hunting. Harold Youd and I were "politically motivated men" (the phrase was Harold Wilson's, from the 1966 seafarers' strike, whose leaders he had denounced in these terms) and "communists". We "didn't care about dockers". We were nothing but "homewreckers". They wouldn’t serve on a committee with us; if we were elected they would resign.

In scenes that could have come from On the Waterfront, groups of dockers squared up to each other. We lost the vote, about two-to-one. But we moved them. They had to move, to appear to be doing something about Devlin, or next time our vote would be more than a third.

Into this situation, soon after, we brought Terry Barrett, to speak on behalf of London Dockers. We announced a meeting on the croft, and put out a leaflet inviting people to hear the secretary of the London Dockers' Committee speak on the “Devlin Scheme” and the looming reorganisation of the ports.

The "blue" committee responded with a furious campaign. London? There were bitter memories in Manchester and Liverpool from the six-week strike for recognition of the "blue" in 1955. London, under Communist Party leadership, supported the TGWU, against the "blue", which was Trotskyist-influenced at the beginning. They prevented London solidarity action with the Dockers of Liverpool, Manchester and Hull. London worked through the six-week recognition strike.

Dockers had long memories. Good militants had a strong class
identity, but a sometimes stronger group and regional identity – They were Manchester dockers. The local identity was strong and important. People would tell us with scorn: "You can't rely on London. Look at them during the six-week strike".

Barry and Hackett and their friends stoked parochialism and bitterness. That London now represented militancy, and that Hackett
and Barry, the rebels of 1955, were now burned-out do-nothing second-string trade union bureaucrats, was something we had to
argue about with theiir supporters.

When we got to the dinner time meeting for Barrett on the croft,
there was a lot of suspicion and some hostility. Barry and Hackett turned up at the centre of a gang of their supporters and stood back,
waiting for a chance to pounce. I'd written Terry accounts of the various clashes, so he knew the score. No doubt he could feel the
atmosphere too.

When I had introduced Barrett, I gave him the loudhailer, announcing that he would explain about Devlin and report on London.

But he didn't. He made a short speech,almost apologising that he, a mere Londoner, should presume to come to talk to the splendid men of Manchester. It seemed to come straight from the heart of a humble
man. No irony, no mockery.

It was, of course, a "performance" to disarm some of the hostility. Terry seemed completely free of moralistic rejection of Manchester parochialism, the sort of feeling that would have made such a performance psychologically impossible for for others - me, for
example. He was fighting, disarming, pushing aside the parochialism, not "capitulating" to it. Having made his little apologies for troubling the Manchester dockers, he then
asked permission to speak. With the classical orator's gambit, "I pause for a reply", he put down the loudhailer and stepped back.

Of course they agreed to hear him! You admire the skills you haven't got - and Barrett's performance left me ruefully wondering whether with more skill we could have avoided some of the dramatic confrontations with "the leadership". Barrett made a fine speech explaining what reorganisation of the ports meant, holding out the convincing prospect of a national docks strike in a couple of months' time, and pledging that London would be "solid".

Two months later, Manclester was one of three ports that did "come out" against Devlin.

I have a second memory of Terry Barrett from the same period, July 1967.

The first of two national gatherings of rank and file leaders was convened by Terry in London. It was all terribly late. Reorganisation was coming in September, and here we were in July still trying to get a rudimentary national resistance structure in place.

The two docks unions, TGWU and NASD, were supporting Devlin. So was the only political party with enough dockers to give a lead, the Communist Party. The Healy group (SLL, later WRP) had strong support in Liverpool and some in Hull, but they were very sectarian, on the verge of going lunatic. They thought literary denunciation of the CP - including Barrett - was far more important than organising unity in the class struggle.There were only a couple of Trotskyists (Workers' Fight, a forerunner of A W L) in Manchester. There were lots of militant dockers in the ports, and a few unofficial rank and file committees - but no shop stewards, even (not until 1970).

It was all terribly late, but we met that first time with high hopes and in good spirit, around a long trestle table in someone's back garden in Tower Hamlets, shaded by trees from the sun.

Terry presided expansively as "mine host". Until we talked on the train, I'd remembered the scene as Terry's own backyard. I even remember him as chairing the meeting, though maybe he didn't.

I don't remember much else except the reports from the areas, and a member of the Communist Party executive, Danny Lyons, arguing that we should get the best price we could and accept reorganisation. My own awareness of how far we were from being halfway ready intensified. You can talk a lot about "the crisis of leadership", and we did, and yet still experience shock when you see and feel what it means in a real working class struggle.

The rest of my memories of Terry Barrett have a different colour. Yet they too should be recorded, because they deal with something of great importance: Barrett's subsequent political fate.

There were - and are - vast numbers of competent and sometimes inspired rank and file trade union leaders. Not too many of
them found their way to the revolutionary movement, though I guess some hundreds did over the years. Very few stayed for long. Barrett was representative.

Disillusioned with the CP, he went over to the IS/SWP, which was then a loose federation. Very middle-class, outspokenly “anti-Leninist”, tending to equate Bolshevism with Stalinism and a centralised revolutionary organisation with Stalinist or Healyite bureaucratism. The Healyites were held up as typical "orthodox Trotskyists", the logical result of the Bolshevik tradition. All good came from the rank and file. The job of the revolutionaries was to listen and learn "modestly" (in contrast to the Trotskyist idea that we also have something to teach because we try to be "the memory of the working class").

lS lionised Barrett - unmercifully, you might say. He became more and more of a prima-dona, openly contemptuous of the people who lionised him. He would have been very stupid not to see the lionisation as reflecting the middle-class nature of the group. He was far from stupid. But he accepted it. For a while.

Eventually Barrett stormed out of IS in a huff over some personal slight or conflict - nothing of any consequence politically. Influenced, I think by Bob Pennington, who, then a Healyite, had been a full-time worker in Liverpool for NASD in the ‘50s, Terry Barrett became a fellow-traveler of the British Mandelite organisation, the IMG for a while. He got the same lionisation from them as from IS, and then, as far as I know, quit politics. He moved from the docks to the car industry. He never, to my knowledge, again played any important role in industry.

The SWP claim that he rejoined them recently. I doubt that, but in any case neither the SWP nor Barrett were the same as when last they met...

For a while in the mid-'80s, Terry Barrett was a porter for the Greater London Council in the Ken Livingstone era. And there was a cruel symbolism in that too - one of the best militants of the '60s fetching and carrying for the career municipal socialists, who cared more for gaining publicity and lobbying the House of Lords than for the working class.

Barrett, to my mind, is the representative of a whole layer of militants who came to would-be revolutionary organisations for a while, and then moved on, often damaged, diminished even, when they should have been strengthened. They could have been the backbone in industry of a movement able to do more than talk about socialism. But because of weaknesses of their own and more to the point, because of the state of the revolutionary left during the great labour upsurge of the 1960s and ‘70s, they were lost, just as that Great historic tide itself was lost.

Barrett remained a socialist to the end. The socialists who continue owe him respect and a debt of gratitude for his struggles. And we owe it to him and to the others like him to learn from their fate.

Against The Tide Column, Socialist Organiser