Obituary: John Horner

Prophetically, perhaps, John Horner was born on 5 November 1911, as for most of his life his reputation was that of a left-wing firebrand, exploding with genuine fury at the exploitation of workers, particularly in the fire service. His famous Fireman's Charter was one of the outstanding trades union successes of the Second World War. Surprisingly, he was also a polymath, fascinated by art, philosophy and English literature who would, in other social circumstances, have almost certainly opted for life as a historian.

His father was an illiterate building labourer but his mother was intelligent and encouraged his education at a local grammar school in Walthamstow, east London. With no chance of the further education he would have enjoyed, he left at 15 to start work as a trainee manager at Harrods. He departed rapidly and joined the Merchant Navy, where he loved the life and by 1932 had achieved his Second Mate's Certificate. The economic depression was reaching its trough. The Merchant Navy was cutting ships and crews. By 1933 he was unemployed. It was then that he joined the London Fire Brigade.

Immediately he was appalled at the working conditions and the attitude of the authorities towards the crews. Working from within the Brigade at first, and with considerable courage in a reactionary atmosphere, he began to press for improved pay, working hours and working practices but his breakthrough came in 1939 when the Auxiliary Fire Service was inaugurated and, for the first time, "amateurs" and even women were expected to work with the professionals. In 1939, as the war started and following a left- wing coup d'etat he became the General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union.

One of his earliest moves was to lead them into an intensive battle to attract AFS members to join, along with the professionals. "The situation was acute," he wrote later. "We cound not afford to allow the AFS to remain unorganised . . . more important, we could not allow some other body, union or otherwise, to organise the AFS."

Under his charismatic lead the membership swelled from 3,000 to 69,000 and by 1941 he had the power he needed to force through essential reforms. Many fire crews were, at times, working up to 110 hours a week and, through poor government foresight, some had been existing in condemned schools, cellars, huts and even sleeping on pavements. In London, the AFS had only one set of uniforms each and at the height of the Blitz, returning to their stations soaked to the skin with water, frequently had to clean their equipment in their underpants while their trousers dried. Horner's pressure forced the Home Office, in desperation, to buy up 25,000 pairs of postmen's trousers for the men until proper supplies were available.

Already, the union had published a pamphlet, Your Right to Compensation, and distributed it throughout the British fire service. In 1941, during the lull which followed the Blitz, Horner launched the famous Fireman's Charter, demanding five main points - a national minimum basic wage of pounds 4 a week, full pay while sick or injured, a 72-hour week (enemy action excluded), a just discipline code and a proper system of promotion.

The launch of the Charter was followed by 400 mass meetings throughout Britain. In April 1941 the National Fire Service was founded, and soon after, the Home Office conceded that firefighters should be treated on the same basis as other servicemen, with full injury pay up to 26 weeks. Not all the points were won, but it was an impressive beginning to an era of increasing success for the FBU.

Despite his reputation, Horner could be co-operative. It was a tribute to his authority and a sign of official acceptance of the rapidly growing FBU power that when plans for nationally organised Home Cover and Task Force units were introduced in 1944 to counter the effects of renewed enemy air attacks on London, the authorities invited him to join them in the preliminary discussions and were relieved to receive his full support.

When the war - and the National Fire Service - ended, Horner once more instigated campaigns for better pay, better safety (including the controversial fight to end the use of hook ladders), shorter hours, better conditions and equipment and better pensions which were to continue until his retirement in 1964.

Always on the extreme left-wing politically and, like many others at that time, inspired by the heroism of the Soviet people during the war, Horner had joined the Communist Party in 1945 although he had been offered a nomination by the Labour Party for the first post-war election. Later, he regretted the move, particularly as the Communist Party strove to dominate the policies of British trade unions. After the Soviets' violent action in suppressing the Hungarian uprising in 1956 he resigned, taking with him all his fellow Communist leaders of the Fire Brigades Union. Soon after this, he found a more satisfying niche in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.

Horner resigned from the FBU in 1964 to become Labour MP for Oldbury and Halesowen for six years, serving as a member of the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries and, following an official visit to the Far East publishing a Report on the Pacific Dependencies. His life as an MP was not as successful as his past years as a trade union leader and after losing his seat in 1970 he settled into early retirement and, in 1974, published his book Studies in Industrial Democracy.

Despite his battles with the London Fire Brigade, he kept his fireman's black silk scarf as a nostalgic souvenir, and remained active in body and mind, gardening and studying local history until he died, suddenly and peacefully in his armchair at home in Ross-on-Wye. He had been a lonely man since the death of his wife Pat after 58 years of happy marriage.

High-profile trade union leaders who come late in life to membership of the House of Commons often come to grief, writes Tam Dalyell. They trip over the procedures, are irritated by the ways of the House, and fail to be as effective as they might otherwise have been. John Horner belied such a generalisation. If he was denied the ministerial office many of his contemporaries thought he deserved it was because Harold Wilson was too nervous of "reds under the bed" to give office to such a prominent ex-Communist.

In fact, Horner evaporated the idea that he was a superficial Communist firebrand in his maiden speech by making the charming joke, "Twenty years ago, Comrade Donaldson." It was the Ways and Means debate when Commander C.E.M. Donaldson, the bulky Canadian Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, was in the chair of the Finance Bill debate. The rest of the speech revealed Horner as the constructive thinker he was.

I remember vividly Horner's being called immediately after the then Leader of the Opposition Sir Alec Douglas-Home had sat down to give the first reaction to James Callaghan's first Budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer on 11 November 1964. Presciently Horner said:

I think the committee realises that, whatever our decisions, we cannot legislate for wages in this country. We cannot, with legislation, cut across the whole fabric of the collective bargaining machinery that has been built up over the last half-century. We can, of course, disrupt it, but we disrupt it at our peril. We live in a democratic society and we must accept that any incomes policy, if it is to survive, must stem from and must develop within the framework of the collective processes of the present-day industrial relationships.

It was trade disputes, prices and incomes and the reaction to the Royal Commission on trade unions and employers ("The Donovan Committee") that Horner's period in the House of Commons was about.

Shortly after losing his seat he told me with a sigh and a twinkle that it would be one of the ifs of history if that old "gnarled intolerant right-winger" Ray Gunter had been allowed to stay in the Ministry of Employment, doing what he knew best, and that Barbara Castle, the brilliant, charming left-wing friend put in his place, had been kept well away from industrial relations: then the history of the first Wilson government would have been totally different. Had ministers understood that the Girling brake strike in the motor industry was not a cause for panic, that themotor industry of the West Midlands would not have been brought to its knees, then Horner believed the Government with Gunter in charge would have legislated straight down the line on the Donovan Committee recommendations, agreed by the General Council of the TUC.

It was not for want of trying. Anyone who looks at Horner's speeches on the second reading of the Prices and Incomes Bill on 13 June 1967 or of 16 July 1968 on the Donovan Committee will see that this highly understanding gentleman had deep insights which some of the Oxford Firsts leading the party lacked. It was a great pity that Horner himself was not brought into the leadership of the Government at the time. Had he been there I believe that the relationship between party and parliamentary party would have been such that victory in 1970 would have been possible.

John Horner, trades union activist and politician: born 5 November 1911; General Secretary, Fire Brigades Union 1939-64; MP (Labour) for Oldbury and Halesowen 1964-70; married 1936 Patricia Palmer (died 1994; two daughters); died Ross-on-Wye, Herefordshire 11 February 1997.

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