Obituary: Reg Birch

Reginald Birch, trade unionist and political activist: born London 7 June 1914; divisional organiser, AEU 1960-66; member, Executive Council AUEW 1966-79; Chairman, Communist Party of Britain (Marxist-

Leninist) 1968-94; member, TUC General Council 1975-79; member, Energy Commission 1977-79; died 1 June 1994.

Reg Birch was a pint-sized revolutionary but never a 'red under the bed'. He was a trouble-making, extreme left-wing intellectual trade-union leader and proud of it, rising to fame but no glory in the Sixties and Seventies when industrial unrest was fashionable. He was a former Communist who became the first and last Maoist member of the General Council of the Trades Union Congress. In a world where genuine characters are a fast-dwindling breed, the former engineering union national officer Birch will be remembered with affection and a smile from everyone who encountered him.

Birch was an extraordinary, slightly built little man, with a wounding sense of humour and an outstanding ability to talk in riddles, particularly when sober. Only he seemed to know what he was talking about, but this minor detail did not deter the avid listener. Whenever trade-union leaders gather, stories about Birch abound, and now that he has gone those yarns will no doubt be stretched beyond credulity. Fortunately for the raconteur, however, the truth about Birch is so interesting that fiction and embellishment are superfluous.

On a visit to Shanghai in 1979, the year Birch retired, a Chinese building worker asked me: 'Do you know Reg Birch of the engineering union in England? We are told he is your next Prime Minister after your revolution.' Had this anecdote been told by anyone else I simply would not have believed it.

Birch was one of the most enigmatic trade-union leaders of his generation and because of his extreme left views he was never going to be hailed as one of the greatest union chiefs to grace the British labour movement. He embarrassed the Left of the labour movement as well as the Left of his own union, making even the Marxist engineering union president Hugh Scanlon - a former media bogeyman - appear right- wing.

Birch was a key figure in many of the main industrial disputes 20 years ago but never sought the headlines himself as he was not the union's President. Scanlon was paid to take the flak and the few interviews Birch gave were deliberately incomprehensible as well as, one suspects, deliberately incoherent. For example, after crisis talks with British Leyland management he said live on television that he had concluded satisfactory talks with the 'curator of the British Museum'. When I had the audacity to point out that his statement conflicted with the facts and that he was being unnecessarily offensive he replied: 'I am never rude unintentionally.'

For a revolutionary he was remarkably quiet and shy but admitted that he looked forward to the revolutiion, which he said would be 'ugly, protracted and bloody'. He disliked democracy which involved the use of ballot-boxes, saying it made workers 'lazy'.

Employers said they liked him and appeared to enjoy his company. The former British Leyland industrial relations chief Sir Pat Lowry said Birch was one of the most unusual but effective trade- union leaders he had encountered. He figured in key disputes in the car industry, particularly the long Ford strike in 1971, airport maintenance strikes and Fleet Street strikes which shut the press on a regular basis. Newspaper shutdowns kept him amused because he could meet the journalists knowing they could not write a word. His attempts, backed by the hard Left of his union, to win the union's presidency always failed miserably, but he loved the thrill of the chase. Because of his pro- Chinese sympathies he was expelled from the Communist Party but he sorted out that problem by starting his own party called the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). At its inception, in 1968, he addressed around 75 members and at his party's peak in the Seventies observers reckoned he could hold his annual general meeting in a telephone kiosk at Clapham Common.

The son of a builder, Reginald Birch was one of five children and was raised in Kilburn, north-west London. His father, 'who worked for posh artists', died when he was 14. His father had persuaded him to study English literature and it was this background which gave him the poetic turn of phrase and the mastery of the grand riposte. He attended a local elementary school, St Augustine's, leaving to become an apprentice toolmaker in 1929. By 1938, influenced by events in Manchuria and Spain, he became a Communist and conducted many collections for the victims of the Fascist regime in Spain.

During his working life as a toolmaker with a variety of north London firms he became active in the Amalgamated Engineering Union (now AEEU) and worked feverishly for every noble cause. His powers of oratory ensured that he became a natural leader, however small in stature. Like many militants of that era he found himself regularly out of work and blacklisted by employers. He was even jailed at the Old Bailey for organising a strike during the war and, after yet another dismissal, thousands of factory workers demonstrated for his reinstatement. In 1956 he joined the Communist Party's national executive and four years later his activism guaranteed his election to the union's powerful post of north London division organiser. He was elected to the AEU's national executive in 1966.

His first of many unsuccessful assaults on the presidency of his union was against the Catholic moderate Sir William Carron and he gradually drifted away from his Communist allegiance on the grounds that the party was little more than a 'bunch of social democrats'. He never disguised his affection for the Chinese brand of socialism and made frequent visits to Peking and Tirana, the Albanian capital, where he spent many a happy holiday en route to China.

Falling out with the Communists back home was not a career- enhancing move and he was expelled around 1966. This proved a fatal blow to his union aspirations. When Carron retired, the Communist old guard snubbed him and chose Hugh Scanlon, who had quit the Communist Party years earlier over the Hungarian invasion. The Communists, however, utilised Birch's talents to the full and could always be sure of his turning unofficial wildcat action into official action.

In 1975 he was elected to the TUC's ruling body, the General Council, an event which excited the media because of his political leanings. Birch's reaction: 'Oh Jesus, what an effing bore.' He soon handed a colleague a postage stamp and said: 'On the back of that I have written the names of all the TUC general secretaries who impress me.'

In his spare time he enjoyed classical music, swimming and growing herbs and ran a small bookshop, specialising in Chinese books and left-wing ideology. He said of himself: 'I have been called a Trotskyite, a Leninist and every bleeding name you can think of, mate, but I am just a bloody worker.'

No obituary of Reg Birch would be complete without a true story which has now passed into trade- union folklore.

During Ford pay talks the employers offered only one concession: improved death benefits but no improvement on wages. After a while Birch started tapping slowly on the table and began moaning quietly. A concerned Ford executive said: 'Mr Birch, whatever is the matter? Are you all right?' Birch ignored him and continued wailing, this time more loudly, Birch suddenly shouted: 'Is anybody there? Is anybody there?' By now the Ford boss was becoming exasperated and said: 'Really, Mr Birch, have you taken leave of your senses?' Birch replied: 'I am in touch with my dead members on the other side. They want to know if your kind offer is retrospective.'

(Photograph omitted)

PROMOTED VIDEO
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

COO / Chief Operating Officer

£80 - 100k + Bonus: Guru Careers: A COO / Chief Operating Officer is needed to...

HR Manager - Kent - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager / Training Manager (L&D /...

HR Manager - Edgware, London - £45,000

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - Edgware, Lon...

HR Manager - London - £40,000 + bonus

£32000 - £40000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: HR Manager (Generalist) -Old...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments