Obituary: Geoffrey Drain
Tuesday 06 April 1993
GEOFFREY DRAIN was general secretary of Nalgo (the National and Local Government Officers' Association) from 1973 to 1983. In the 10 years that he led the largest white-collar union in Britain its membership rose to a peak of 800,000 and was the third largest union in the country with an influence in local and central government that was quite exceptional. Indeed this growth and influence of Nalgo, probably more than any other trade union, reflected the shift of power from the old industrial groupings within the TUC to a new articulateness among salaried and professional workers which in turn began to develop a fresh phenomenon in British trade-unionism - the militant white-collar worker.
But that was not the style of Geoffrey Drain, though he started his political life as an ardent left-winger and in particular a strong supporter of the old Bevanite wing of the Labour Party. In fact, as a one-time Labour councillor in Hampstead and a leading figure in that local party during the late Fifties he tried unsuccessfully to force the expulsion of the late Hugh Gaitskell from the Hampstead party when the Labour leader advocated the toning down of socialist ideology and the abandonment of Clause 4 and nationalisation.
But Drain shifted to the right during the 1960s and the period of the Wilson government, especially after his appointment as deputy general secretary of Nalgo - a post he held from 1958 till 1973, when he was selected for the union's top post. By the time he became general secretary he was the essence of a moderate, statesmanlike trade-union leader ready to set a pattern for responsible trade unionism and co-operation with the Labour government of 1974, when Harold Wilson returned to Downing Street after defeating Ted Heath. By then Drain was a member of the TUC General Council, to which he was elected in 1973. Four years later, in the critical period of James Callaghan's premiership, Geoffrey Drain became a member of the 'Neddy Six', arguably the most powerful grouping of the TUC's inner cabinet at a time when the voice of trade-union leadership echoed so strongly through the corridors of No 10 and No 11 Downing Street.
The Neddy Six, so called because they comprised the six most senior TUC leaders who sat on the National Economic Development Council, were the principal conduit between the Labour government and the trade-union movement. Their membership at that time reads like a trade- union scroll of honour and power: Jack Jones, Hugh Scanlon, David Basnett and Alfred Allen, Len Murray, who was then TUC general secretary and Geoffrey Drain. All but Jones and Drain later became peers.
Geoffrey Drain was one of the Neddy Six at a memorable and historic meeting between the Prime Minister, James Callaghan, and the TUC leaders, on the eve of the 1978 trade-union congress - a meeting which Callaghan held over dinner at his Sussex farm to discuss the timing of the coming general election. Everyone expected that election to take place in the autumn of 1978 rather than the spring of 1979 after a winter of discontent.
Drain was one of the majority of that Neddy Six to warn Callaghan not to wait until 1979, but to go to the country in the autumn because the unions could no longer contain the explosive situation on the wages front. The rest is history.
Geoffrey Drain graduated from Queen Mary College, London, with a law degree and became a barrister, called to the Bar in 1955. After war service in 1946 he was appointed assistant secretary at the Institute of Hospital Administrators (now the Institute of Health Service Administrators). He was already active in Labour politics and in 1950 stood as Labour candidate in Chippenham. After being defeated he turned to local politics and became a leading figure in the Hampstead Labour Party, which at that time included about a third of Labour's leadership within its environs. That marked the beginning of his ideological battle with Hugh Gaitskell - whose policies of moderate socialism Drain was later to adopt.
In appearance Drain was an improbable trade-union leader, never quite fitting the archetypal image created by the caricaturists. He was always immaculately dressed, as befitted the highest-paid trade-union leader at that time; and his legally schooled mind composed speeches delivered in a calm, measured and ever-rational tone. Not for him the great dramatic oratorical gestures across the floor of trade-union conferences; but his counsel was frequently all the more influential because of its tempered thoughtfulness. These characteristics reflected his great loves - cricket, bird-watching and bridge; not forgetting his committed support for Tottenham Hotspur, where he was a season-ticket holder. After his retirement he toured the world following the England cricket team to Australia, the West Indies, India and indeed a few days before he died he had just returned from Sri Lanka. He was a long-standing member of the MCC.
Geoffrey Drain was a JP and Freeman of the City of London and was appointed CBE in 1981. He was a director of the Bank of England from 1978 to 1986 and a director of numerous companies.
His membership of countless committees dealing with health administration, local government, the law - including the Lord Chancellor's Advisory Committee on Legal Aid (1974- 76) - brought him into constant contact with a vast range of authority at all levels.
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