Conrad Landin uncovers the lengths to which Thatcher’s government went to meddle in the affairs of the CPSA and John Macreadie’s leadership election
WHEN the Civil and Public Services Association (CPSA) published its official history in 1980, it was titled From Humble Petition to Militant Action.
To get to grips with why Margaret Thatcher’s government was so keen to interfere in an internal union election, it’s vital to understand how this bunch of white-collar civil servants became a force to be reckoned with.
After all, by the mid-1980s this question was occupying both Civil Service chiefs and the union’s “moderate” faction — who feared they were losing control of the CPSA to militant leftwingers.
Secret files from the time — newly released to the National Archives — reveal that in 1987, the senior civil servant Peter Kemp met with union leaders to discuss the growing menace of the Militant tendency.
The unnamed union leaders, as it happens, said the Civil Service was to blame. Whitehall “hired such people, who then became members of the unions,” Mr Kemp reported back to Downing Street private secretary David Norgrove.
Kemp, however, thought this couldn’t be the “full explanation” of how a man like John Macreadie could be elected as CPSA general secretary in 1987, and then — after his election was annulled by the courts — be voted in as deputy leader.
“Aside from those who may have joined in order to make trouble, some of those who are proving difficult are people who joined as clerical officers with degrees, not good degrees, but degrees nonetheless,” Norgrove reported Kemp as saying.
“They then become increasingly frustrated and are not managed well enough to prevent this. They feel that the government is hostile to the Civil Service and react accordingly. It is not otherwise possible to explain the election of someone like Macreadie on an avowedly Militant ticket.”
The 1980s were a time of successive Civil Service pay disputes. Government files depict conflict between members of the Cabinet over the issue and extensive discussion of how strikes could be undermined.
The decade was also when a number of union activists in prominent positions today came to the fore. These include Janice Godrich, the current president of the CPSA’s successor union the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and John McInally, the current vice-president. Both were friends and supporters of Macreadie, and active in the CPSA’s broad left faction.
Seeing the files for the first time this month, McInally says the union officials secretly briefing the government on the Militant threat were likely to have included Kate Losinska and Marion Chambers — rightwingers who both held the presidency of the union.
The PCS left credits Chambers with having thwarted Macreadie’s election to the top job in 1986.
“It’s very interesting that they blame the government for essentially having employed Trotskyists,” McInally tells the Star.
“It’s a facile argument, not only demonstrating contempt for their own activists but also showing a real lack of analysis.
“The government doesn’t get it right, but Peter Kemp’s comments are actually closer to the truth. Members were radicalised by the nature of the attacks on the Civil Service, not because there were Trotskyists in the Civil Service.”
Thatcher’s keen interest in the inner workings of the CPSA seemingly began in 1981 — the year of the first major Civil Service strike.
Files reveal that in November that year, the PM asked her industrial relations adviser John Veruker to “check the background” to a newspaper story about the possibility of Macreadie being elected CPSA leader.
Veruker prepared a short briefing, and said Downing Street should be “very careful indeed about being seen, however indirectly, to influence the voting.”
A “perception of government
involvement,” he said, could encourage union members “to vote for Macreadie simply to express disapproval of the government.”
In the event, the election was won by moderate candidate Graham Branstatter. But when he stood down five years later, Macreadie once again contested the leadership — and won by a whisker.
It was then that the file titled CPSA Elections was reopened, with a full briefing prepared for Thatcher by Cabinet secretary Robert Armstrong.
This fascinating paper details an “established procedure” apparently prepared by senior civil servants to block any union official who “is, or has recently been, a member of a communist or fascist organisation, or of a subversive group … whose aims are to undermine or overthrow Parliamentary democracy … by political, industrial or violent means.”
In a memo to Thatcher’s office, Armstrong said the procedure could also be used if a member was “sympathetic to or associated with members or sympathisers of such organisations or groups” or “susceptible to pressure from such organisations or groups.”
In relation to Macreadie, Armstrong said, the case for taking this course of action “is likely to be strong.” But he warned that if the government acted while an internal union probe was still ongoing, it would run the risk of “appearing to interfere with the internal affairs of the union.”
In a note attached to Armstrong’s memo, Thatcher’s principal private secretary Nigel Wicks said: “[In] my view, the danger of having an avowed Militant supporter in charge of the major Civil Service union argues in favour of action earlier rather than later.
“The principle needs to be established — subversives (if it can be proved that Mr Macreadie is a subversive) cannot be tolerated in such jobs.”
When Macreadie was subsequently elected deputy general secretary, John Ellis used an interview in the Sun newspaper to name him one of the “dirty half-dozen” of union officials mounting a “rearguard action” against him.
Ally McInally recalls that Macreadie did indeed face barriers to certain government buildings and departments — including the Ministry of Defence — when occupying the number two job.
“The Tories were trying to isolate the union, and appeal to members over the head of the union,” he says.
The Cabinet Office does not comment on the activities of previous governments, but said there was no longer any procedure in place to deny negotiating rights to communists.
In December the Star revealed that Thatcher’s government had actively sought to ensure the strikebreaking Union of Democratic Mineworkers (UDM) was protected in the closure of pits. “We have to keep the UDM satisfied,” Thatcher scribbled on one briefing note. “We (and the country) owe a lot to their members.”
Her reign is in the history books as a period of fierce confrontation between government and unions. But with the emergence of these documents from the time, the level of Thatcher’s own interference and involvement in internal union affairs can be proven as well as speculated on.
“When you hear Thatcher’s comments about the ‘enemy within,’ what you forget is that there were people in the labour movement using exactly the same rhetoric,” says McInally.
• Conrad Landin is the Morning Star’s industrial reporter.