Lord Murray of Epping Forest

TUC leader who sought consensus

In the 1970s Len Murray was one of the 10 most influential people in Britain. For a decade and a half he stood at the very centre of British public life - first as Assistant General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress during the tumultuous years of Victor Feather and Barbara Castle's White Paper
In Place of Strife, and then for 11 years as General Secretary of the TUC covering the fall of Ted Heath and the three-day week, the difficulties of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government in 1974-79, and the even more difficult period 1979-83 when the TUC gradually discovered what Margaret Thatcher was all about.

Lionel Murray, trade unionist: born Hadley, Shropshire 2 August 1922; OBE 1966; Assistant General Secretary, TUC 1969-73, General Secretary 1973-84; PC 1976; created 1985 Baron Murray of Epping Forest; married 1945 Heather Woolf (two sons, two daughters); died London 20 May 2004.

In the 1970s Len Murray was one of the 10 most influential people in Britain. For a decade and a half he stood at the very centre of British public life - first as Assistant General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress during the tumultuous years of Victor Feather and Barbara Castle's White Paper In Place of Strife, and then for 11 years as General Secretary of the TUC covering the fall of Ted Heath and the three-day week, the difficulties of the Wilson-Callaghan Labour government in 1974-79, and the even more difficult period 1979-83 when the TUC gradually discovered what Margaret Thatcher was all about.

Jack Jones - as leader of the transport workers, and on account of his own powerful personality, a dominant trade-union leader until he retired; and subsequently leader of the old age pensioners' lobby to which Murray lent unstinting support - describes him as

a splendid servant of the Trades Union Congress, most friendly and able. He followed the tradition of Walter Citrine and George Woodcock and had a good relationship with all with whom he came in contact.

It is significant that Jones does not mention Vic Feather in this imperial line of TUC general secretaries, since the truth was that Murray saw the role rather differently from his embattled immediate predecessor, who could be very belligerent.

Ron Todd, later General Secretary of the Transport and General Workers' Union, but successively chairman of the General Purposes Committee and of the International Committee of the TUC, worked intimately with Murray for 20 years:

I went to Australia with him and discovered his detailed knowledge of and concern about labour problems in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He had the respect of both left and right and he did not mince his words. He was straight as a die. He also had the knack of sitting with a problem and deploying a logic with which one could not disagree.

Len Murray was born Lionel Murray in 1920, the son of a farm labourer, and won a place at Wellington Grammar School with entrance to Queen Mary College, London - displaced for the length of the Second World War to Cambridge - to read English. In 1941 he was called up and joined the regiment of his choice, the King's Shropshire Light Infantry. He told me of the enormously tough training that he had had in the Brecon Beacons and the Scottish Highlands, which stood him in good stead when he was landed in Normandy on D-Day. Later sent home with combat exhaustion, he had the opportunity of his convalescence to read voraciously; the study of left-wing literature took him into the Communist Party, feelings of extreme left-wing politics being reinforced by his taking a job as a storeman in a Wolverhampton factory.

Persuaded by his headmaster, he decided to resume his university studies, and was accepted by New College, Oxford, to read Politics, Philosophy and Economics. Years later when I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to Richard Crossman as Minister for Housing in the first Wilson government, Murray, in our first real conversation of many, explained in detail how my political boss had been his tutor and supervisor and had introduced him to Plato. "Whatever any of his exasperated colleagues may think of Dick Crossman as a cabinet minister, he was inspiring and superb as a teacher of Plato and the relevance of classical philosophy to current problems. I owe Dick a lot," he said. Crossman in turn told me that, when Murray was appointed somewhat unexpectedly to be the Assistant General Secretary of the TUC in 1969, "We will find him very careful and a long way from the Utopian Communist that he was when I first taught him. He has a very good mind."

In the 15 years, 1954-69, when he was head of the TUC Economic Department he wrote many of the briefs for George Woodcock, another first class honours man and General Secretary.

Murray was ultra-cautious in all the hullabaloo that surrounded Barbara Castle and the Labour government's efforts to legislate on prices and incomes in 1969. He told me that he thought that the TUC was being asked to shoulder too many tasks by the Wilson-Callaghan government and particularly by Albert Booth, the Secretary of State for Employment, though he had a good working relationship with the latter. I suspect he found Michael Foot, Booth's predecessor, rather too visionary for his taste.

In those years the "Social Contract", the unofficial arrangement between government and the trade unions, was fundamental to a Labour administration which had a slender majority ending up as minus one in 1977. He helped greatly in promoting wage restraint in 1975 and along with Jack Jones championed the cause of a flat-rate increase in wages rather than an increase in percentage terms. He was always good at going to the heart of a problem. "Five per cent of £20,000 a year is rather different from 5 per cent of £7,500 a year!"

Careful not to be linked to Labour with an umbilical cord, in 1976 he did everything possible to help a Labour government confronted by an economic crisis; he understood that any agreements on wages between employers and employees were by their very nature temporary and often unstable. As an Oxford economist he had been taught by Professor John Hicks and his wife Ursula that often agreements depended less on economic logic and more on political relationships.

Murray told me in my capacity as Vice-Chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party, and ipso facto a member of the TUC Labour Party Liaison Committee, that he was unable to persuade Jim Callaghan and his Chancellor Denis Healey that a straitjacketed approach to pay in 1978-79 would be impossible after all that the trade unions had been through. He was entitled to say, "I told you so", when appalling conflict emerged in the Winter of Discontent; he had foreseen the horrendous damage to the credibility not only of the Labour Party but of the trade-union movement that inflexibility by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Denis Healey, and his Prime Minister, Jim Callaghan, was likely to have.

Len Murray was never at ease with the idea that the Trades Union Congress could become the working partner in the running of a democratic state. He was careful to protect the autonomy of trade unions from control by ministers, however well-intentioned. The tensions within the TUC itself over the issue of the Social Contract and relations with the Labour Party caused him considerable agony. But in 1978, the year of the retirement of the TUC heavyweights Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, Murray found that he had to fill their shoes in the TUC. This was very difficult indeed for an official who had never had his own powerbase in a trade union.

In May 1979, with the election of Margaret Thatcher, the TUC were pretty relaxed. Years later, after he had become a member of the House of Lords, and in the week when I had been ejected from the House of Commons for saying that Margaret Thatcher had told a particular lie, Murray offered his sympathy in detail:

I underestimated that lady; I thought she would be persuaded by events to seek a compromise with the TUC, not least because the unemployment figures were going up and up and up. I remembered [Harold] Macmillan's "Events, dear boy, events". I was simply astonished that Thatcher declined to change direction despite industrial conflict and ever more appalling economic conditions.

Laws were passed in 1982 to expose trade-union funds not only to fines but to sequestration in the case of unlawful disputes. The TUC could not be galvanised to defy such a measure, partly because of the fact that, from being lower in the opinion polls than any previous prime minister, Thatcher had seen her popularity transformed by military victory in the Falklands.

After the 1983 general election in which the Labour Party manifesto had been described by Gerald Kaufman as the longest suicide note in history, Murray saw it as his job to be blunt about the changed world to the trade unions. He told the General Council that none of them ought to think that they could be like some alternative government. He incurred a certain unpopularity with trade-union leaders by telling them to their face that they were in danger of failing to understand much rank-and-file opinion in the Thatcher world.

Matters came to a head in the print industry. Murray, who by that time had developed a certain "take-it-or-leave-it" attitude, put his job on the line by declining to accept a widespread view in the trade-union movement that the TUC should endorse the demands of the National Graphical Association for illegal action in their conflict with the Stockport Messenger newspaper and its owner Eddie Shah.

He got no thanks from Margaret Thatcher when the next thing she was to do was to outlaw trade unions at GCHQ, Cheltenham. Murray persuaded his colleagues to negotiate a no-strike agreement for GCHQ employees, but received the proverbial "slap in the belly with a wet fish" for his pains from the Prime Minister. Murray made speeches about "the new realism" and it was snubbed by government ministers.

In March 1984 the miners went on strike, led by Arthur Scargill, whom Murray thought was reckless. Though the TUC as such was kept out of the dispute in its beginnings at the request of Scargill (but not, privately, Mick McGahey), Murray was ever more upset about its consequences and was personally shaken by the outbreaks of violence such as Orgreave. He thought that there was no more that he could do and he took early retirement.

In 1985, nine years after his appointment to the Privy Council, he was made a life peer, taking the title Lord Murray of Epping Forest. Speaking on 29 April 1987 on a motion to take note of the Green Paper on trade unions and their powers, Len Murray spoke nostalgically of the days of a different Tory - Churchill, Butler, Iain MacLeod:

I sometimes wonder what these great leaders of the Conservative Party would have made of the increasingly ideological opposition of the present administration towards industrial relations and trade unions. It seems to me - and I say it with regret - that the passage of this legislation has been marked more by consideration and interests of class than of nation.

Murray believed in consensus for the good of the nation.

Tam Dalyell

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