Obituary: Bert Ramelson (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

Baruch Rahmilevich Mendelson (Bert Ramelson), industrial organiser; born Ukraine 22 March 1910; Secretary, Leeds, Communist Party of Great Britain 1946-53, Secretary, Yorkshire 1953-65, National Industrial Organiser 1965-77; editor, English section, and member, editorial board, World Marxist Review 1977-90; married 1939 Marion Jessop (died 1967), 1970 Joan Smith; died London 13 April 1994.

BERT RAMELSON was no 'red under the bed' during the turbulent years of British industrial strife. He was a Communist and proud of it and was the industrial organiser of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1965 to 1977. He had a quick sense of humour and once pointed out to an irritating journalist: 'At least we reds are in our own beds.'

Mick Costello, who succeeded Ramelson in 1977, said yesterday: 'Bert was a master strategist and union leaders consulted him for many years after he retired.' Costello, who is now a successful businessman dealing with the former Soviet Union, added: 'Bert was the Left tactician behind opposition to incomes policies and trade-union legislation. He was a really nice man and will be missed by the labour and trade-union movement.'

He was born into a Jewish family called Mendelson in Ukraine in 1910, and his first name was Baruch. He always told friends that his real surname was Rahmilevich but did not explain why he changed it to Ramelson or why he did not retain Mendelson. His father, Jacob, was a fur trader who emigrated to Canada in 1921. Ramelson won a scholarship to Alberta University where he took a First in law, but after only a year in practice as a barrister he went off to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He was proud to have fought in that conflict with the Canadian battalion of the International Brigades and was a tank commander in the Royal Tank Corps during the Second World War. Captured by the Germans after the fall of Tobruk in 1941, he escaped from a POW camp and later fought with the partisans in Italy.

After demobilisation Ramelson settled in Britain and became acting full-time secretary to the Leeds branch of the Communist Party from 1946 to 1953. He eventually became district secretary in Yorkshire, where he fought the right wing of the National Union of Mineworkers and befriended young militants.

Close friends say Ramelson was the mastermind behind the 'politicisation' of the Yorkshire miners and it was his 10-year programme and strategy which caused the Yorkshire area of the NUM to become a hot-bed of militancy. He knew that Yorkshire was the biggest coalfield in Britain and calculated, correctly, that once the Yorkshire fell behind 'progressive Communist policies' then the rest of the British coalfield would not be far behind.

He was one of the six left-wing personalities branded by the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, during the 1966 seafarers' strike as a 'tightly knit group of politically motivated men'. Ramelson laughed this accusation off as 'one of Harold's James Bond fantasies'. But as the party's industrial organiser in the Sixties he organised support for the seamen and opposition to all anti-union laws.

Ramelson was always at the centre of controversy and denied being 'an agitator' during the building workers' strike and the postal workers' pay dispute in the early 1970s. However, Tom Jackson, the former postal workers' leader, had accused Ramelson of trying to prolong the dispute when his members could ill-afford to stay out. Mike Hicks, general secretary of the Communist Party of Britain, said: 'Bert spearheaded a successful campaign in defence of the trade unions and the living standards of working people in the Seventies. His belief in the effectiveness of mass industrial action stands as an example to all engaged in struggle.'

Ken Gill, an ex-Communist and former General Secretary of the trade union Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF), described Ramelson as 'a giant among Communists whose influence did not diminish'. During his dozen years as industrial organiser of 'The Party', as it became known, Ramelson fought tirelessly to give it a significant say in the Labour movement. He always believed that the party should have its key base at workshop level with communist organisation. He detested ultra-leftists and anarchists and was famous for being a 'hard man with humour'.

He warned that Labour's prices and incomes policy in the Seventies was 'class collaboration' and pointed out that unpaid wages were lost forever while a temporary freeze on dividends merely deferred profits paid to shareholders. This straight class position was the basis of successful campaigns for the rejection of income restrictions promoted by Labour and Tory governments. He ridiculed the thinking behind Barbara Castle's In Place of Strife and his drive and ideas led to the formation in 1966 of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions, whose first campaign led to the defeat of Castle's proposals for regulation of industrial action. He always opposed what he called 'rank-and-filism' and advocated workplace pressure aimed at winning official action via their recognised unions.

He wrote many pamphlets and while his sentences were long his titles were short and to the point. One such was Social Contract Cure or Con-trick? Other pamphlets included: The Case for an Alternative Policy (1977) and Consensus for Socialism (1987). Many who wondered why he talked loudly were unaware that he was hard of hearing, an affliction which he frequently used to his mischievous advantage. He was sharp in debate and did not weaken his views while under attack. Colleagues said you could have a shouting match with him and still remain firm friends afterwards. Kevin Halpin, chairman of the Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions said: 'Bert will be remembered as a great Communist leader.'

He always disliked the right wing of the Labour Party and once threatened to stand against Hugh Gaitskell in Leeds South. But when he put himself forward at the by-election after Gaitskell's death in 1963 he received only 600 votes. Labour chiefs were also upset when he claimed that his party's policies were eventually adopted by Labour.

He married twice and had one stepson and two stepdaughters. His second wife, Marion, was the author of Petticoat Rebellion, a pioneering work about women's rights.

(Photograph omitted)