Obituary: Clive Jenkins

Terry Pattinson
Wednesday 22 September 1999 23:02

IT WAS typical of Clive Jenkins that he wanted to be known as "General Secretary Emeritus" when he retired. He was an eccentric but charming little man who was the original millionaire "champagne socialist". He always appeared to be involved in a permanent love affair with himself and the word "arrogant" could have been invented specially for him. He confessed to making only one mistake, adding, "I was only wrong about my being wrong."

Jenkins, former leader of the white-collar union Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS), lived the life of a showbiz celebrity rather than that of a hairy-handed son of toil. He once said: "I have never been criticised by anyone I respect." This apparent conceit won him more critics than admirers but his ebullient and engaging persona would have been destroyed if he had displayed excessive modesty. One could not help wondering whether, beneath that brash facade, there really was a shy, modest man trying to get out.

Someone once described him as the Valentino of the Welsh valleys, a man who proved that at least one trade-union leader could sing, dance, drink claret and negotiate almost simultaneously. It was a genuine pity to see him retire at the age of 62, in 1988, because characters, particularly in the TUC hierarchy, are hard to find.

If he had one disconcerting habit it was trying to outsmart everyone else, but that is a common trait afflicting many who are born with a higher intelligence than their fellow men. It could, of course, have been insecurity. His smug image was a highly developed part of his personality which everyone accepted and some even admired. He was a raconteur and wit always at ease with the rich or the poor, the top boss or the trade-union official.

The fact that he became the country's first union millionaire did not embarrass him in the slightest. He frequently booked a table in a humble fish-and-chip shop in the back streets of Blackpool behind the Imperial Hotel during conference weeks. Customers stared in amazement as this famous, pinstripe-suited, rotund union baron sipped expensive, chilled white wine from an ice bucket which he brought into the shop himself and tucked into fish and chips, tea bread and butter while his TUC and Labour Party colleagues visited restaurants and hotels. Insensitive? "I am not embarrassed, why should you be? Sit down and have a glass of wine," was his retort.

Clive the Mouth, as TUC colleagues fondly dubbed him, was born to enjoy the good things in life but like many wealthy socialists of his generation wanted everybody to aspire to similar good fortune. He despised hypocritical trade-union officials who hid their money and possessions from public view and it was little surprise to anyone that he was a friend of the late, disgraced tycoon Robert Maxwell.

He was proud of the year of his birth, 1926, and admitted he was "sentimentally influenced" by the General Strike. He was utterly shameless in his pursuit of left-wing causes while acquiring great wealth along the way at the same time.

In his entertaining autobiography All Against The Collar (1990), he emerges as a man of vision and foresight, who had to work with leaders of the TUC who lacked his talent. He confessed what everyone in the trade-union movement knew about him: that he was a plotter and a fixer, that he loved the food and the fame. Although he did not touch alcohol until the age of 25, he told Vogue magazine that "I went on to have a love affair with claret".

His great achievement, of course, was founding a big white-collar union, now known as Manufacturing, Science, Finance, in 1970, from a moribund association containing a few thousand foremen. Jenkins brilliantly built up ASTMS from a minnow into a large fish with an impressive block vote at Labour conferences. Based on skilled employees in industry, it gave him a base from which to advance their pay and his own political ambitions. Under his leadership, membership grew from 11,000 to more than 650,000 via 26 amalgamations.

During the Seventies it was the fastest-growing union in Britain, helped along by his self-promotion, boundless energy, and craving for publicity. In 1987 he instigated a merger with the Technical and Supervisory Staff, a section of the giant engineering union led by the Communist Ken Gill. He regularly held court with the cream of Fleet Street, hiring rooms for press briefings in Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese tavern and the Wig and Pen club. At his peak he sought too much publicity for himself and his union and many critics thought he devalued his currency as a result. For the average hack, however, he was invaluable as an available "rentaquote".

His love affair with the media, however, was only skin-deep. He, along with the miners' leader Arthur Scargill, was probably the most litigious union leader in Britain and he admitted making a fortune from libel actions. He once told me with that flashing smile: "Say whatever you like about me and I will sue you." He added: "My union fights the case and pays the costs while I pocket the damages."

Tony Benn observed that he ran his union "like an American political machine" but that he was shrewd and very bright, "a left-wing unionist appealing to a right-wing group of people".

The boyo with the lovely Welsh lilt in his voice entertained us in his book with examples of his plots with TUC left-wingers in a fashionable restaurant normally patronised by Tories. Other back-stabbing took place in a smoke-filled room in the Reform Club and one notable victim was the former electricians' leader Frank - later Lord - Chapple, who was removed from key TUC committees "over lobsters". Never known to mince words, he described Chapple as "one of the least attractive persons I have met in our fraternal movement".

Later, when running for the TUC Presidency, he dealt more generously with Chapple's successor, Eric Hammond. "I booked a box at Covent Garden, through being a GLC-nominated governor of Sadler's Wells and invited Hammond and his wife for ballet, champagne and civilised discussion." Other grand gestures included taking guests, on his union's expense account, for lunch at the Ritz near his office in Mayfair.

One of his notable failures, not published in his book, was a plot to oust the former TUC general secretary Norman Willis. The coup rebounded, and Willis was subsequently given a vote of confidence by TUC leaders including the late Communist Mick McGahey. "Red Mick" detested the way Jenkins had used the press in is attempt to get Willis removed from office on the eve of Congress. It was hardly surprising, therefore, when Willis later reviewed Jenkins's book in less than glowing terms.

Jack Jones, the former transport union leader, took Jenkins to task in the latter's old union newspaper. He wrote: "Clive, in respect, could have subscribed to the view, `The working class can kiss my arse, I've got the foreman's job at last.' Maybe the ideals of youth, if he had any, were damaged on the way, but the book is a good read."

One victory Jenkins boasted about was how he persuaded Hugh Cudlipp to throw the power of the Daily Mirror behind David Basnett's campaign for the general secretaryship of the General and Municipal Workers' Union, now the GMU.

His rise to union fame was meteoric. At 14 he left school to work in a metallurgical test house, becoming a furnace shift supervisor at 16 and in charge of a laboratory at 17. His desire to change society persuaded him to read Marx and join a clerical union, the Association of Scientific Workers (AScW). He was appointed assistant Midland divisional officer of the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians (Asset) when he was only 21.

When he landed his first job the kindly works manager paid his fees and twice-a-week train fares to attend Swansea Technical College to study metallurgy. He was a clever youth and became chief chemist at the works. He was always a political animal and spent four years in the Communist Party. His gift for exaggeration could have made us believe that he was personally responsible for the election of Michael Foot as Labour leader, Foot's resignation in 1983, the election of his successor, Neil Kinnock, saving Concorde, scuppering incomes policy, and catapulting ASTMS's forerunner, Asset, to fame.

He was extremely generous to friends and colleagues and worked hard to assist anyone in trouble. When his TUC colleague the late Aslef leader Ray Buckton was seriously ill, he was appalled to discover the inadequacy of Buckton's hospital diet. "Fish and chips?" he commented with horror, "So I sent my driver to Harrods to buy baby food and other soft prepared material." He later arranged with Robert Maxwell to have Buckton removed to an air-conditioned room in another hospital.

Jenkins took credit for securing Norman Tebbit his first radio interview on the BBC's World at One in the early 1970s and admitted it was his biggest mistake. He said: "My regret is that I had no way of foreseeing, when I put his name forward for that broadcast, that this BOAC pilot would become part of the gang which later harassed the Labour Party in the House of Commons and ensured Margaret Thatcher's election. And that was my mistake. I didn't know what he was going to turn into. Of course, I don't think he did either." One could not help thinking, however, that Tebbit would have gone on to manage quite well without him.

Like many left-wingers of his generation he was no stranger to austerity. He was born in Port Talbot, Wales, in 1926 - his family had a small, terraced house with an outside toilet and "no carpet, just coconut matting". (His elder brother, Thomas, became leader of the rail clerks' union Transport Salaried Staffs Association). Until his paternal grandfather died, leaving pounds 40, there was no hot water or bathroom. The family bathed once a week in front of the fire in an old zinc tub, sharing the same water.

Asked if his mother, Miriam, was a strong influence on him he said crisply: "No." His father, David, worked on the Great Western Railway and had free tickets for the family to visit Brighton once a year. He recalled that, when he was just a baby, the family visited Brighton. Because there were no cots in the boarding house, he slept on the floor of his parents' room. "To their horror the next morning there was blood on my face. A rat had a come in during the night and chewed at my right ear. By way of apology the landlady gave them her family bible."

He explained years later that his wealth arose from shrewd manipulation of the property market, collecting antiques and writing 10 books. In 1953, for example, he snapped up a four-storey period town house in St Mark's Crescent, Regent's Park, in London, for little more than pounds 3,000. Thirty- five years later it was worth more than pounds 500,000. His country home, in Mutton Row, Old Harlow, Essex, was an amalgamation of four other cottages knocked together. Bought in 1972 for pounds 5,600 it later went on the market for pounds 295,000. He supplemented his union salary with television appearance fees, after-dinner speeches and lectures. Even his boat was christened The Affluent Society and on his retirement he received a golden handshake said to be worth in excess of pounds 213,000.

He married Moira Hilley in 1963 but they divorced in 1989. After they separated in 1988 he retired and took the title "General Secretary Emeritus". He started a new life the same year in Diamond Island, Tasmania, setting up home with a new partner, Sherie Naidoo, a public relations consultant, saying he wanted to concentrate on ecology and Tasmanian champagne. He later returned to live in Chelsea but maintained his villa in Tasmania.

His first campaign in retirement was to conserve Fairy Penguins, who are in the habit of emerging from the sea and crossing the road in order to enter the rainforest. He succeeded in having road signs erected saying, "Caution! Fairy Penguins crossing", and claimed this had reduced fatalities. He said: "These penguins are the smallest in the world. They are gregarious, charming little creatures."

To listeners he could have been describing himself.

David Clive Jenkins, trade unionist: born Port Talbot, Glamorgan 2 May 1926; General Secretary, Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians (Asset) 1961-68; Joint General Secretary, Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS) 1968-70, General Secretary 1970-88; Member of the General Council of the TUC 1974-89, Chairman 1987-88; Joint General Secretary, Manufacturing, Science, Finance (MSF) 1988-89 (General Secretary Emeritus); married 1963 Moira Hilley (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1989); died Bushey, Hertfordshire 22 September 1999.

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