Les Forster, 1919-2016

Submitted by Matthew on 4 February, 2016 - 11:32 Author: Ann Field

The veteran Glasgow socialist Les Forster died last week, aged 96. Forster was the last survivor of a generation of socialist activists in the West of Scotland who broke with the Communist Party in the early 1950s and struck out to build a non-Stalinist and anti-Stalinist socialist tradition.

That generation — which included Harry McShane and the lesser known (outside of Glasgow) Hugh Savage and Ned Donaldson — was a “bridge” between Glasgow’s “Red Clydeside” political traditions of the 1920s and 1930s and the New Left of the 1950s and 1960s. Born in Maryhill in the north of Glasgow in 1920, Forster was first attracted to socialist politics by the city’s then regular open-air anarchist meetings. He was also politicised through his contact with Guy Aldred (Glasgow’s most prominent anarchist), Helen Crawfurd (a leader of the wartime Glasgow rent strike) and Harry McShane (a full-time organiser for the Communist Party).

Forster went on to join the Communist Party, which at that time represented the dominant left-wing political force in the West of Scotland. In 1951 he was one of the leaders of the Merrylee Housing campaign against plans by the “Progressive” (Tory) controlled City Council to sell off newly built council housing in Merrylee on Glasgow’s south side. 5,000 workers staged a half-day strike and a lobby of the City Council to protest against the plans.

Forster argued that the next stage in the campaign should be: joint campaigning by trade unions and tenants associations; an all-out strike to shut down the building site (the houses had not yet been completed); further solidarity strikes; demonstrations in front of the home of the Council housing convenor. Sixty years before Unite the Union “invented” community organising, Forster was already doing it. The plans to sell off the Merrylee housing were subsequently scrapped by the new Labour-controlled council. But within a matter of months, Forster and other strike leaders had been sacked. And there was no campaign by local trade union officials to win their reinstatement. The following year Forster, McShane, Savage and Donaldson all resigned from the Communist Party, having become disenchanted with the party’s internal regime of bureaucratic control. For a time they worked with Eric Heffer (who subsequently became a leading left-wing Labour MP in Liverpool) and collaborated in the publication of Revolt, a short-lived and essentially syndicalist journalist.

Gerry Healy (leader of what later became the Workers Revolutionary Party) travelled to Glasgow to recruit Forster and his ex-CP political comrades into his organisation. But Healy’s own party regime was seen — rightly — by Forster as no better than the Communist Party’s. Tony Cliff (leader of what is now the Socialist Workers Party) made the same trip to Glasgow for the same purpose, only to meet the same response from Forster for similar reasons. Forster’s involvement in the Communist Party had made him suspicious of taking out membership of any socialist organisation. Forster’s subsequent political development focused very much on local grassroots campaigning in the trade unions and local communities, reflecting a preoccupation with local Clydeside issues rather than “bigger” national politics and organisation. Thus, the focus of his autobiography (Rocking the Boat) is very much on rank-and-file campaigning, on the need for militancy rather than parliamentarianism, and on denunciations of the role of the labour movement bureaucracy.

Forster’s political evolution after his break with the Communist Party was one which had been shaped by his previous experiences. Forster counterposed direct action to involvement in or with the Labour Party. In the Merrylee campaign the Labour Party line had been — not unreasonably — that the way to stop the privatisation of the council housing was to elect a Labour-controlled city council. Forster also took a similar approach to work in the trade unions, based on the lack of support which he had been given by the union bureaucracy on the occasion of his victimisation. Ironically, although Cliff failed to recruit Forster himself, others who shared Forster’s outlook on the Labour Party and the trade unions subsequently proved to be a fertile recruitment ground in Glasgow for what is now the Socialist Workers Party.

In later years Forster was active in the “Workers’ City” campaign of the 1990s, in opposition to the Labour-controlled city council’s attempts to rebrand Glasgow as the new mecca for the middle classes, and in contributing to local labour movement history. Apart from his own autobiography, he wrote a history of the 1911 Clydebank Singer strike, a history of the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR), an introduction to a pamphlet written by McShane, and, with Hugh Savage, a biography of the nineteenth-century socialist pioneer Willie Nairn. As an obituary of Hugh Savage put it: “They published the biography themselves, having wearied of the gutless biographies produced about labour heroes by academic researchers.”

Forster was not just out-of-step with the routines and bureaucratic structures of the “official” labour movement. He was, in his own way, positively hostile to them. And that makes him more worthy of remembrance than those for whom “socialism” equates with a well-paid career rather than a programme for working-class emancipation.