Lord Chapple

Electricians' leader who 'made the weather'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"You know, I'm not the only ex-member of the Shoreditch Branch of the Young Communist League to come to this place." This place was the Palace of Westminster and it was days after Frank Chapple had been created a life peer in 1985. The other ex-member was the playwright Ted Willis, ennobled in 1963.

Francis Joseph Chapple, trade unionist: born London 8 August 1921; Assistant General Secretary, ETU (later EETPU) 1953-66, General Secretary 1966-84; Chairman, General Council, TUC 1982-83; created 1985 Baron Chapple; married 1944 Joan Nicholls (died 1994; two sons), 1999 Phyllis Luck; died Maidstone, Kent 19 October 2004.

"You know, I'm not the only ex-member of the Shoreditch Branch of the Young Communist League to come to this place." This place was the Palace of Westminster and it was days after Frank Chapple had been created a life peer in 1985. The other ex-member was the playwright Ted Willis, ennobled in 1963.

We had run into each other in the central lobby of the House of Commons. And, indeed, Chapple's journey from Young Communist, NCO in the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers and active Communist trade-union leader to anti-Communist leader of the Electrical Electronic Telecommunication and Plumbing Union, sometime chairman of the General Council of the TUC, member of the Horserace Totalisator Board and director of Inner City Enterprises was colourful in the extreme, and bruising.

Francis Joseph Chapple was born in 1921, the son of an illiterate shoe repairer and his wife who worked on the family greengrocers' stall in Hoxton market, east London. In his 1984 autobiography Sparks Fly! - never was an autobiography more aptly named - Chapple wrote:

We were lucky kids, my sister Emily and I, that had as Father told us separate bedrooms, a week's holiday at Southend-on-Sea each year. The only holidays most of my school chums had were with family hop-picking in Kent.

He left school to become an unindentured electrician and was drawn into the political whirlpool of the East End by the raging dispute between Oswald Mosley's Fascists and the anti-Fascists. In 1937 he joined the Electrical Trade Union and in 1939, much moved by what some of his peer group had told him about the Spanish Civil War, the Communist Party.

Having worked mostly in the construction industry, in 1939, too, he joined Royal Ordnance, who had responsibility for many of the Thames ship repair yards, which during the Second World War became a hive of activity of CP activists.

At the age of 22 Chapple decided it was his duty, albeit he was in a reserved occupation, to join the forces and he trained at Gosport with REME active units. On account of bad weather it was not until D-Day plus 20 that he arrived in Normandy. He was a very skilled repairer of armoured vehicles but confides in his autobiography that only once did he narrowly escape death:

The daftest thing I did was in Holland where the Germans had opened the dykes creating floodwater. I slept one night under a tank. I could so easily have gone down smothered in the ground as some others did.

Years later I was to tell him that while on my National Service in north Germany with BAOR two of my friends had actually died by doing exactly the same thing. The incident, Chapple told me, had made him feel that he might be living for the rest of his life on borrowed time as he could so easily have been extinguished that night. He also added that he thought that it had moulded his character - that it made him far more cavalier than he might have been, knowing that at any time the end was nigh.

The war had another quite different influence. He was present at the liberation of some of the prison camps and was taken aback by the desperation of East Europeans who did not want in any circumstances to return to the Utopia that Chapple thought had existed in the Soviet Union. When he came back to England in 1947 the Communist Party organised a visit for him to the World Youth Conference in Prague. It was in Prague that he first met Les Cannon, a prominent member of the ETU, with whom he was to have a lifetime's close relationship.

Then came Hungary in 1956. Chapple was appalled by the ETU President, Frank Foulkes, who seemed simply out for a good time and even more appalled by the General Secretary, whom he saw as sinister, Frank Haxell. Haxell chose to surround himself with Communist thugs. Chapple was shaken by the decision of the leadership of the ETU to get rid of Cannon, who was head of the union's college at Esher at the very moment when he thought that the CP should be taking the lessons of Hungary to heart.

Forever an in-fighter, Chapple managed to get himself elected to the ETU's executive council in 1957. He was a thorn in the side of the leadership. As Cannon was fighting a ban imposed on him to hold office in the union, Chapple from the position of his seat on the executive persisted in a series of much-publicised and awkward questions.

The election for the General Secretary in 1959 was the turning point. Chapple used his influence to try to promote reform of the union by giving support to the Roman Catholic anti-Communist Scottish area official, Jock Byrne. Byrne's brother Fergus Byrne I knew well as Provost of Linlithgow and he told me in detail of the dreadful experiences to which his brother had been submitted. It was clear to all and sundry that the Communist old guard had tried to rig the election, many ballots being disallowed. Jock Byrne with Frank Chapple at his side went to the high court to win redress and the case exposed how widespread the CP fraud actually was.

Chapple recalled in Sparks Fly!:

Making the break with the Communist Party was no overnight decision for me, for it betrayed all those youthful hopes and dreams which caused me to join. I have never been indecisive, but I approached that break point hanging on, in part to bring out others with me who shared my concern. It was surprising just how many Communists quietly let me know that they felt the same way. I was in good company as a member of the largest party in the world. Ex-Communists.

In 1963 Chapple won his first national election, by dint of the secret postal ballot, in a turnout that was double the level of the elections two years previously. The new President was his friend Les Cannon and the whole structure of the ETU changed beyond recognition. Cannon established a computer which was to hold proper information about the membership of the union and in particular the set-up of the union's organised staff workers. This made possible a merger with the Plumbers' Trade Union in 1968.

Chapple insisted that management skills should be directed to dealing with the union's finances. An organisation was established called "Trust the Members" which provided backing for Chapple. Elected General Secretary in 1966, he had no difficulty in being re-elected every five years, serving until 1984. And he became an important figure in the trade-union movement.

As a young member of the committee on Shipping and the Docks under the chairmanship of Ian Mikardo and including Peter Shore and Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers' Union, I was witness to Chapple operating at close quarters. He never said anything that was unnecessary or anything he didn't obviously mean. He also had one of the sharpest tongues I have ever encountered. When some 10 years later I was invited to a small lunch by James Callaghan as Foreign Secretary, hoping to have better relations with Europe (the then influential Gaston Thorn, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, was among the guests), I sat next to Chapple and asked him why he had been so wounding when I had said something rather ill-informed on the Mikardo Committee. His reply with a grin was: "You learnt the lesson anyway!" He didn't suffer fools but this made him all the more effective in getting things done.

In 1970 Les Cannon suddenly died. Chapple had a bruising contest with Mark Young, four years later appointed General Secretary of the British Air Line Pilots' Association. He took under his wing a number of subsequently prominent people including Eric Hammond, his successor-to-be, and John Spellar, now Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office. Spellar says:

It was once said about Joseph Chamberlain that he made the weather. Frank Chapple made the weather. He had greater influence on the relationship between the trade-union and the Labour movement than any individual since the war.

Dick Crossman believed Chapple to be the most effective trade-union member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party. But from 1970 onwards his priority was the trade-union movement. He was especially active against the politicians who wanted Prices and Income Board interference in union-agreed productivity deals.

In the early 1980s Chapple lost patience with what he said to me were the lemmings of the modern Labour Party and in particular the notion that trade unions were going to use industrial power for political ends. He signed the Limehouse Declaration in 1981, in which the Gang of Four led by Roy Jenkins set up the SDP. He was to get great help from the SDP MP John Grant, an extremely talented ex- Daily Express journalist, in writing his autobiography.

Accepting that the EETPU would not sever its links with the Labour Party, he did persuade his union colleagues to cease to support the block vote and establish what he thought was the democracy of OMOV (one member one vote).

Frank Chapple was extremely good company. One of his passions was pigeon racing, and the pigeon fanciers were quite a force in my constituency. When as a Member of the European Parliament I had raised the question of French hunters' shooting racing pigeons and the separate issue of Newcastle's Disease (often called Pigeon Diarrhoea), I got a note: "Dear Tam, You've got your priorities right. Yours sincerely, Frank."

Tam Dalyell