Obituary: Phil Piratin

For five years, from 1945 to 1950, there were two Communist MPs at Westminster - William Gallacher and Phil Piratin. Though they were very different in origin, age and temperament, most Communists felt they made a very good parliamentary double-act.

Gallacher, elected in 1935, was the Clydeside agitator who punched the Chief Constable at the Battle of George Square in Glasgow at the time of the 1919 strike for the 40-hour week. Piratin was the East Ender whose organising abilities brought 100,000 Londoners on to the streets in the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and stopped Mosley's Fascists from marching through Whitechapel.

The two class warriors never aspired to be great Parliamentarians in the conventional sense, but after Piratin was elected in Mile End in 1945 they worked the system effectively as a parliamentary group of two, officially recognised by the Speaker. Years later, in a long interview with Kevin Morgan, biographer of Harry Pollitt, Piratin described how he used to answer questions at meetings about his relations with Gallacher: "It's quite simple: there are two of us and Gallacher is the elder [64 compared with 38], and therefore I automatically moved and he seconded that he should be the leader. He then appointed me as Chief Whip. Comrade Gallacher decides the policy and I make sure he carries it out."

In fact, of course, the policy was that of the Communist Party, to whose executive committee and political committee Piratin was elected after he became an MP. I recall him making forceful contributions to the discussions in both bodies, and because of his position in Parliament and his work in the East End and on Stepney Borough Council, to which he had been elected in 1937 (the first Communist councillor in London), he was always listened to with attention and respect.

In Parliament one of his proudest achievements was the tabling of a Private Member's Bill, on safety in employment, with the support of a number of Labour MPs. In the event it was withdrawn when the Minister of Labour agreed to incorporate some of its points in the Labour government's future programme. A less happy experience was his censure by the Commons Committee of Privileges for a fight with a journalist whom he said had abused him as a Jew and a Communist, though the journalist was also censured.

Even if he had not become an MP Piratin's record would have ensured him a place in the party leadership. Born into an orthodox Jewish family, he began to have doubts about his father's religious beliefs as a schoolboy during the First World War. He was shaken when he saw that the Chief Rabbi of Germany was calling on Jews to fight in the Kaiser's army and the Chief Rabbi of the UK was calling on Jews to fight in the British army. It was abhorrent to think of one Jew fighting another.

The General Strike of 1926 and the hunger marches of the unemployed, combined with wide reading of books on social and political questions borrowed from the Whitechapel Library, further stimulated his interest in politics. He finally joined the Communist Party after the Mosley rally at Olympia on 7 June 1934, when hundreds of anti-Fascists were beaten up by the Blackshirts. "That night," he wrote in his 1951 memoir Our Flag Stays Red, "I was proud of the anti-Fascists, the working class, and particularly the Communist Party. I could have kicked myself for not being a member of a party whose lead I was so proud to follow." Then began a period of ceaseless activity as leader of Stepney's Communists. A major part of his work was helping tenants to organise for repairs and against evictions. The Stepney Tenants' Defence League won significant concessions for tenants, sometimes through threatening legal action, but more often by hitting the landlords where it hurt by rent strikes in which thousands took part.

In the Second World War Piratin volunteered for the Royal Navy, but was refused entry, despite an appeal to the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison. He became an air-raid warden, and was appalled by the conditions in the shelters for working people compared with those for the rich. To draw attention to the scandal he organised an invasion of the luxury shelter at the Savoy Hotel by 70 men, women and children. They demanded refreshments in the form of tea and bread and butter, but were told that the minimum charge for anything at the Savoy was 2s 6d. Eventually the waiters and management were persuaded to serve tea and bread and butter (on silver trays) at the Lyon's teashop price of 2d. The propaganda coup received wide publicity, followed shortly after by the party's challenge to the Government's refusal to open the tubes as shelters. The gates broken down when the air-raid sirens sounded, the Government gave way, the tubes were opened, refreshments and first-aid facilities provided and bunks installed.

Later in the war Piratin became the Communist Party organiser in West Middlesex, playing a big part in increasing production in the arms and aircraft factories there, and greeted by the sentry on the door with "Good morning, Phil" when he went into meetings of the Communist Party group.

In 1950, as the Cold War intensified, both Piratin and Gallacher lost their seats. Piratin then became circulation manager of the Daily Worker, leaving in 1956 to go into business.

He remained in demand as a popular speaker at Communist gatherings, and historians, journalists and television and radio producers frequently interviewed him. After the Communist Party transformed itself into the Democratic Left he became a supporter of the new organisation.


Philip Piratin, politician: born 15 May 1907; member, Step- ney Borough Council 1937- 49; MP (Communist) for Stepney, Mile End 1945-50; twice married (one son; two daughters); died 10 December 1995.

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