Ron Todd

Transport and General Workers' Union leader who became Kinnock's 'bogeyman'

Wednesday 17 July 2013 23:38

Ronald Todd, trade unionist: born London 11 March 1927; staff, Transport and General Workers' Union 1962-92, Regional Officer 1969-76, Regional Secretary 1976-78, National Organiser 1978-85, General Secretary 1985-92; Chairman, International Committee of the TUC 1985-92; married 1945 Josephine Tarrant (died 1996; one son, two daughters); died Romford, Essex 30 April 2005.

"Ron Todd - Transport and General Workers' Union - proposing the motion." How often did the Labour Party Conference and the TUC Annual Congress hear those words rasped out in the TGWU leader's east London accent? Conference paid attention. And rightly so. Ron Todd didn't mince his words. He was as straight as a die.

He was also a man of generosity and kindness. Like a number of other MPs who had huge sections of the British motor industry in their constituencies, I owe him a great deal for advice and help (when I most needed it in relation to the British Leyland plant at Bathgate, then the largest concentration of machine tools under one roof in Europe).

Ron Todd was born in 1927 in Walthamstow, the son of a market stallholder, and schooled at St Patrick's in the borough. After an engineering apprenticeship, he did his National Service with 42 Royal Marine Commando in the Far East. In order to be chosen as a National Service Royal Marine a young man had to be tough, and tough Todd certainly was. But he was also very sensitive, as his later, very respectable, poetry was to prove.

Posted to Hong Kong, he took part in the liberation of British, Australian, New Zealand and some American troops from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps, and then guarded captured Japanese. He told me that it was the experience of the social divisions in Hong Kong which had a deep consequence for him; he began to wonder about his Roman Catholic faith, which he ultimately was to lose, becoming a socialist, but never a Marxist.

On demobilisation in 1947 he returned home and worked in the party for his local MP - the Prime Minister Clem Attlee. It was typical that Attlee should encourage a young worker, whom Major Attlee admired as a marine commando. Todd became a gas fitter in Walthamstow, but then a family and a mortgage tempted him to go to the new Ford plant to work as an engineer. As a matter of course he joined a union, the Transport and General Workers', and almost immediately on account of his natural leadership qualities became a shop steward and soon deputy convener of shop stewards. In the year 1962, he became a full-time T&G officer based at the Edmonton office and responsible for chemical, engineering and metal groups.

So effective was he that the discerning General Secretary of the T&G, Jack Jones, moved Todd to the Stratford office, so that he could take charge of the interests of workers at the Dagenham plant. Recognised as a mighty effective negotiator, who tended to avoid any gratuitous strike action, Todd was made Regional Secretary for London and the South-East and responsible for half a million or more members. He became friendly with Moss Evans, then responsible for the motor industry, and in 1978 to succeed Jones as General Secretary. Evans appointed Todd as National Organiser, at the centre of the T&G high command.

It was as National Organiser that Todd became a household name as the officer in charge of the Ford pay negotiations at the fag end of the Callaghan government in the autumn of 1978. He won a 17 per cent pay rise, so driving a coach and horses through the Government's pay norm of 5 per cent. Jim Callaghan was faced with a Commons vote of confidence in the Government's pay policy. I had been on the Labour Party TUC liaison committee and I realised at first hand that Evans and Todd passionately believed that they were correct to put the interests of their members before the entreaties of Labour ministers. Last year Todd told me that he had no regrets, believing that it is the function of trade unions to negotiate on behalf of their members and that it was Labour ministers by their actions who had destroyed the Labour government, and not the trade unions, in the aftermath of the Winter of Discontent, 1978-79.

Todd had assumed that National Organiser would be his last job and that he would retire at the same moment as Moss Evans. Fate took a different turn. Evans gave up due to ill-health and retired to King's Lynn in Norfolk (where he eventually, having built a local Labour Party from nothing, became Mayor). Evans persuaded his friend to stand for election as General Secretary and Todd beat the front runner George Wright, then Regional Secretary for Wales. There was a hullabaloo. Allegations were made that ballot boxes in east London had been stuffed for him.

It was typical of Todd that in the circumstances he simply refused to take office until another ballot was held - albeit that an inquiry had found that there was no evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing; and, into the bargain, that even if these allegations of wrongdoing were true he would still have won by a comfortable majority. In the event Todd increased his majority over George Wright. The figures were 325,586 to Wright's 248,746 on a turnout of over 40 per cent, which was astonishing for a trade-union vote.

In demanding such a vote he had two objectives in mind - to stymie the Daily Mail and the Daily Express from making the most of allegations of wrongdoing to drag the Transport and General Workers' name into the dirt; and to stop the George Wright faction on his own executive using the allegations against him. His behaviour enhanced his authority.

Nor did he hesitate to take on the leadership of the Labour Party. I remember his speech on a Tribune platform when he beseeched both the modernisers and the "nostalgics", Todd's words for the militants, to understand that neither group could alone cope with Labour's difficulties with the voters. It was not only the Mail and the Express but the Mirror under the ownership of Robert Maxwell who accused Todd of being a dinosaur and nicknamed him "Tyrannosaurus".

Disgustingly the tabloid press sniffed his private life unmercifully. They got nowhere for the very simple reason that there was no scandal to report in his happy marriage to Josephine Tarrant. Todd would laugh at being labelled a dinosaur. "You see, one of my hobbies is being a collector of fossils." Todd was a man of principle: "Without principles you do not have power, you have office." This attitude appealed to many of those who harboured doubts about the "modernisation" of the Labour Party.

One of the memorials to Todd was the establishment of Trade Unionists for Labour. He brought together the warring factions of the AUEW (the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers) and Eric Hammond's EETPU (Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union). TUFL played a crucial part in putting Labour's finances on a proper footing.

As a member of the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in the mid-1980s I know the debt that the party has to Ron Todd. It was Todd who was the force behind setting up a secretariat at Transport House, allowing the party, against the odds, to triumph in the battle over the trade unions' political levy. Without that trade-union money at that time the Labour Party would have been finished, and without Todd, because it was touch and go anyway, there would have been little trade-union money.

Todd had wide political and international interests. He was on the first of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marches to Aldermaston in 1958 and Jack Jones inevitably appointed Todd to move the unilateral nuclear disarmament motion at Labour and TUC annual conferences. Todd was furious when the unilateral policy was cancelled by Neil Kinnock. He simply denied that the policy was a vote loser.

Tony Benn, writing his diaries of the Labour Party Conference at Blackpool in 1988, records the friction between Todd and Kinnock:

Later tonight [4 October] at the Tribune rally, it turned out that Ron Todd had attacked people with Filofaxes, cordless telephones and sharp suits and said that the last dregs of socialism were being drained out of the Labour Party. Ron Todd elects Kinnock on Saturday and is the villain on Tuesday.

Two days later, Benn writes:

Ron Todd is in the news as the man who is challenging Kinnock's modernisation. He's the bogeyman this year. There is a lot of resentment within the T&G, and the party doesn't work unless the T&G supports the leadership, so in that sense it's a bit like 1960, when Frank Cousins opposed Gaitskell.

Todd, a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev, was a strong supporter of good relations with the Russians and went on visits to Moscow and Washington in the mid-1980s to discuss Labour's future defence policy. He was also a major figure in supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. On a number of occasions he went to Lusaka and Harare as well as Pretoria to meet with representatives of the African National Congress. His friend Archbishop Desmond Tutu took him to see the conditions in which black families were living in the outskirts of Johannesburg. This had the same effect as the terrible conditions in Hong Kong had had on him half a century earlier.

In 1992 Todd gave up being General Secretary of the union and was pleased that his successor should be Bill Morris, of West Indian extraction. Like Jack Jones, his mentor, Todd remained very much part of the T&G. Ever a man of principle, he underwent surgery for both his knees and had to wait a long time in great pain, but he declined to use private medicine rather than the National Health Service.

One of my prized slim volumes is a signed copy of his poetry On His Todd; later he added Still on His Todd, Odd Thoughts in Retirement, Odd Thoughts and More Odd Thoughts (and they were all gathered together as A Collection of Odd Thoughts). He was also a collector of Victorian music covers. His mother Emily had been a professional piano player, earning something of a living as a pianist for silent films at the cinema.

His last involvement in politics was in April 2000 when he wrote in Tribune that he was going to vote for Ken Livingstone in the London mayoral election. That article revealed his sadness about the general direction of the Labour government. When The Independent asked me in May 2004 to contribute an obituary of Len Murray, the former TUC leader, I phoned Todd and this most manly of men was in tears.

In my last telephone conversation with him some six months ago he was incandescent with anger over the circumstances in which we went to war against Iraq and outraged at the treatment of prisoners in the Abu Ghraib jail. His passion for what he believed to be right, and human rights, was undimmed.

Tam Dalyell

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