Popular Politics Project: Radical Left Politics in the North East in the 1970s
Interview transcript: Kevin Flynn
Date and place of birth: not given
Interviewer: Peter Brabban
Date of interview: 29 September 2011
Political allegiance or membership of interviewee at time: Workers Revolutionary Party
Geographical area(s) covered: Wallsend, North Tyneside
Present political allegiance: None
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
PB: When did you first get involved in left politics?
KF: The very first experience I had was around October/November 1972. I was working in Swan Hunters shipyard and there was a group of people, some of them were miners, and they were in dispute in 1972. Others were from the Workers Revolutionary Party. What happened, was at lunchtime, going back after our dinner, there was a big crowd, the weather was very bad, and there was an incident with the security men who grabbed one of these people from the WRP who had inadvertently crossed over into the shipyard because the crowds were so big and they were arrested and taken away by the security people and I and some other people went to intervene to see what the situation was and fairly soon got them released. As part of this process I spoke to the man whose name was John Semants who was an organiser for the WRP up from London, anyway I gave him my home address, heh heh, that was probably a mistake, and anyway he got someone, not himself, to come round and see me. At that particular time there had been an action by the National Union of Miners in 1972 and also I was becoming more political myself developing political ideas rather than doing something about it but after that incident I started to speak to people from, well it wasn’t the WRP because at that time it was the Socialist Labour League because it didn’t become the WRP until November 1973. In those days they had what was known as probationary members, you didn’t just join you had to prove yourself before you got in so officially I didn’t become a member until June 1973.
PB: So would you say that your involvement in the WRP came through your involvement in Trades Unionism?
KF: No, I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t, although I did join the GMB in 1971 when I worked at the Wallsend Slipway and retained my membership after I left and then I went to Swans. I stated in February 1972 at the Neptune Shipyard; I was a member of the trade union but I wasn’t active. I actually become politically active before I become active in the trade union. So I came in the opposite direction to most people.
In 1972 I was 23 years of age, I didn’t come from a political family background, I had a friend who I went to school with was with me on that particular day at Swans and he and I began to get involved with the first political faction that I come across, I didn’t shop around, I didn’t look at any other left wing group and decide that the WRP was the best, they were the first ones that interjected into my life and that’s probably why I joined.
PB: Would you like to describe what it was like being a probationary member, what did it entail?
KF: I went to a number of meetings, and they told us about the history and I must admit that I found it very interesting because regardless of being very critical of the WRP and it imploded, it blew apart in October 1985. In hindsight it should have blown itself apart long before in my opinion because it made some ludicrous, barmy positions. But what I did learn from the WRP is what capitalism is all about, what socialism is all about, the role of the trades union bureaucracy, left and right, dialectical and historical materialism, democratic centralism all the things, the dictatorship of the proletariat all of the things that are back all of the way, even with my experience in the WRP only brought me to conclude that they didn’t understand the process and that’s why they become what they become rather than that the process itself being wrong, but that’s a debate for another time. But being a not a full member didn’t appear to me to be not much of a difference, quite frankly. I was still asked to sell the newspaper, I was still asked to take it into me workplace, I was still asked to get involved. I went to the branch meetings and participated and it didn’t really seem to be that much different, it’s just that , and I can tell you stories later on, after the General Election of October 1974 how dramatically the WRP itself changed. Where, from taking a long time to integrate somebody and being very patient and deciding if they are the right person, they went to mass recruitment of anybody they’d been speaking to for ten minutes and who said anything that was half decent, which was bizarre, but that’s what they did to expand.
PB: So for you that early period was a process of political education?
KF: It was a massive education for me, and it was wonderful. I was probably going through a period of my life when I was absorbing things and I was learning things because I finished school at the age of fifteen, went to work from fifteen; never went to college, didn’t have any qualifications just went to work. So learning about things, starting to read political books was an incredible revelation to me and I became like a complete madman who had found something and I had seen the light and had took up my bed and followed. I have a bit of that kind of in me but anyhow it was a marvellous period I felt really excited about it and threw myself into it and really transformed me life very, very quickly
PB: How did it feel selling the paper on the streets and in the workplace?
KF: I remember the very first time I went and done it in the shopping centre in Wallsend, bearing in mind I was 23 years of age and was a well known drinker in the pubs and clubs around Wallsend, When people were coming along, and I knew loads of them, I remember feeling very nervous going there. It was like a gay person and coming out, here I was standing with a left wing newspaper and spreading the word, kind of thing, it was very, very interesting, I was very nervous but I started to feel that this was the direction that I wanted to take myself in, so therefore it was a lot of fun, I enjoyed it and I built up a circulation, and I think I used to take 25 to 30 papers a day because by that time the Workers Press, it later became known as the Newsline , from 1969 it had become a daily newspaper. I was taking about 25 and I was going up Swan’s Wallsend yard where I had 25 regular people who I knew I could give this newspaper. Now I have my doubts about how much they read it or what have you and the same 25 weren’t the same people all the time, there was 15 that remained consistent but I was losing some and I was gaining some. I very quickly got myself known as this left wing fanatic who was very keen to tell the story to people.
PB: Did you feel you were a fanatic?
KF: At the time I just thought that I had learned this thing, it seemed so obvious this socialism, I just needed to tell people and I just thought that if I could become as enthusiastic as this, probably, I thought ;wrongly of course, that they would become as enthusiastic as I did.
PB: Did you get many opportunities to engage with people, talking about Socialism?
KF: All the time, I mean it was, there seemed to be lots of things happening internationally. There had been the fall of the Greek junta and there was a whole host of other things that took place around the same time. There was big strikes, there was all kinds of things going on generally speaking , and as I was saying I was a very young bloke of just 23 or 24 and I sold papers to people who were much older. And we used to sell most nights of the week; Monday to Thursday we used to go around the doors, knocking on doors, so we had other people that we used to deliver these papers to. Sometimes we used to get the papers at half six in the morning and I would deliver some around Wallsend before going into the shipyard for half seven in the morning I was that enthusiastic.
PB: Did you feel any difference when you became a full member of the WRP?
KF: I knew of this provisional thing and I didn’t feel that that there was much difference I wasn’t really pressurised, as such. But once I did sign up then the pressure came on me; I very quickly became the Branch Secretary for North of the Tyne. After the WRP was formed they got some premises above a chip shop in the Shields Road, Byker. It was a place that was locked up most of the time but we had branch meetings there, and there was an area committee that met there and I joined that at a later stage. So I did feel more pressure from June 1973 when I joined the Socialist Labour League as it was known then.
PB: What was the first action you got involved with?
KF: Funny enough, you were asking about the Trades Unions , very quickly, at that time they were very keen for people to get involved in the trades unions, and as it so happened, I was working in Swans and I became a shop steward in September 1973, just after my 24th birthday. I remember feeling that this was very important, you got a notebook and you got a badge and you got a little card saying that you were a lay official of the GMW, and I started going to meetings and I started to come up with lots of ideas and you could see the management thinking ‘where’s this fella come from’. One of the interesting things at the time; there was man called John Steel who was the managing director of Swan Hunters prior to nationalisation. He was the son in law of Sir John Hunter the famous man who owned the yards. Both him and I read the Daily Telegraph on a Friday when it had a big section on the tonnage of ships built around the world and I become quite knowledgeable on the tonnage of ships country by country, and where he (Sir John) was quite used to taking questions from Shop Steward mainly on the latest contract terms and wages, I used to fire these questions about tonnage etc. One day I was going into Central Station and he shouted to me and he came running over “I’ve been wondering how do you know so much about all this stuff”, and you see it was because in the WRP they encouraged you to read the Daily Mirror to get the general feeling about what was going on in the Labour Party and the labour movement and the Daily Telegraph which was the enemies paper and, of course, your own paper. To build up a bit of knowledge. With all the limitations here was a working class bloke, who hadn’t been to college, who hadn’t done much reading, who was now devouring everything he could, reading until his eyes were sore, thinking ideas, opening up things and challenging people all over the place. What a pain the backside I must have been but that’s what I was like.
PB: With you involvement in the WRP did you feel that you were involved in something wider than the workplace, wider than the region?
KF: (0:15:10,0) That’s right, I was very interested in . To give you an explanation, we built a ship at Swan Hunters Wallsend yard and it had to go on sea trials, this is in 1974, it went on these sea trials and it went to Portugal. When it left Tyneside life was standard in Portugal but when it got to the shipyard in Portugal there was a revolution taking place. The really funny thing about this is that the only people who went on sea trials were all the blue eyed right wingers. I would have loved to have been on that ship, floating in to a revolution. The shipyard was under occupation in 1974 and I would have just loved to do that. So I was very interested in what was happening in Vietnam, what was happening in all these different places, you know, the crisis in the Spanish fascist system which collapsed in 1975. I was interested in all that as well as one of the other things that really excited me was in 1973, late on in 1973, and into early 1974, Gerry Healy, who was the leader of the WRP, done a series of lectures in the Memorial Hall, Wallsend. The Memorial Hall was given by Sir John Hunter to the shipyard shop stewards and it’s still that way until this day. Gerry Healy done a series of lectures on dialectical and historical materialism, what used to happen was that 50 to 60 people would go to these lectures on Sunday nights and like trade union meetings we’d all go to the pub afterwards and hoyed bottles of brown ale down and talk about dialectical and historical materialism. So there was the philosophical side, there was the international aspect and there was also the industrial bit, so I really was in me element, I was loving every minute of it.
PB: 50 or 60 people at a meeting was very successful
KF: That’s right and most of these people came all the way through and they were predominantly ordinary working class people with a sprinkling of middle class people. I was influenced to get five or six of them along myself and it was interesting that people didn’t say ‘look this is not for us, we just want to talk about a little bit of industrial action, and a little bit of snubbing our noses up at the establishment ’, no this was people who were seriously interested in both the international and philosophical questions of socialism. So I really had the feeling that we were heading somewhere as a class; that working class people could grasp these interesting, very deep questions of philosophy, economics and politics.
PB: So you felt that progress was being made in creating a working class left wing mass movement?
KF: I really thought that. A bit later in 1975, for instance, Vanessa Redgrave came up to the area and there was a film called ‘The Palestinians’ and we booked a hotel in the centre of Newcastle and we must have had 300 people there and lots of them were Arabs and people from the Middle East and I had no idea that there so many of these people in the North East. They came along and we had a showing of the film, then I made speeches and Vanessa Redgrave made speeches.
PB: So by this time you were up on the podium representing the WRP?
KF: Yes, Yes, I had developed very rapidly, To give an example, I joined in June 1973 and by February 1974 when there was the first of two General Elections, I was the Election Agent and by the second election in October 1974 I was the candidate. So I stood for the WRP in the General Election of October 1974, which was an incredible experience. We only had one candidate in the North East, me. We stood in Wallsend, my home town and we had these big teams of canvassers. I took a month off work, the WRP paid me the equivalent of my shipyard wages, well not the full amount but they paid me an amount of money to keep me going. I just spent the whole time addressing meetings, doing open air things and the big one was that every single morning I would go down to my own shipyard and I used to talk about corruption and I also used to attack the leadership of my own union because they were fairly corrupt, because Andy Cunningham had been put in jail for corruption, and I was demanding enquiries and what have you, and I also talked about job losses because some of this had happened in 1974. I talked about all this and demanded the nationalisation of the shipyards, which happened in 1977, I don’t think that this had much to do with me, but that’s another story. So this particular election, we met outside where I lived, I lived in the 14 storey flats on the Coast Road. Someone come from the Central Committee, and we sat in this big van, there was about 15 of us, and this man from the Central Committee, whose name I can’t remember, he said ‘we’ve just had a political committee meeting and We’ve decided we’re going to have a mass recruitment, we’re going to recruit thousands of people, we’re going to treble the size of the party over the period of this election campaign. So once you’ve got some sort of agreement with a person that they’ll take the newspaper each day, as a trial, or if they say anything that’s worthwhile recruit them’. We recruited in my election campaign, we started off with 12 people and we recruited 600. We had a branch in Wallsend, a branch in Howden, a branch in Longbenton, we had branches everywhere. The 12 of us that started this we went round delivering newspapers to these 600, taking them to meetings and involving them in discussions and within four months we were back to 12 again. The whole idea was bonkers. The idea that you could recruit someone on such a short basis was crazy.
PB: How did people on the doorstep respond to you when you knocked on their door and said you were from the Workers Revolutionary Party?
KF: Again, it was quite easy because at that time I don’t know of any other political organisation that was doing it. The National Front was around, but the National Front wouldn’t have had the confidence to knock on peoples doors and there was no other political group. The Labour Party would things at election time but we would do it all the time. Because I was so enthusiastic I expected people t respond to me well.
PB: So you didn’t get any of the ‘go back to Russia’ type comments?
KF: I got bits of that but I thought that it was fun, I thought that this was an oddball, I didn’t believe that that this was what most people thought. I just thought that my enthusiasm, my conviction and they would respond to it. People were taking the newspaper, the funny thing was that as we went around to collect the money for the papers, this was on a Thursday night and you wondered why people were hiding behind curtains and not wanting to see you. They didn’t want to cancel the paper they’d just hope you’d go away. We must have been a little bit like some kind of religious organisation that was just so full of it that .
PB: (Laughter) Well you have seen the ‘The Life of Brian’?
KF: (laughter) The only thing wrong with the ‘Life of Brian’ was that they didn’t go far enough. It was much worse than they portrayed. (laughter)
PB: So how did you do in the 1974 General Election?
KF (0:25:06,7)Well, it was very interesting, when I stood I got 278 votes and it was one vote less than the National Front, who got 279, now what the National Front done they got this raving lunatic from Walker, a woman who was in her 50s or 60s, a well known bigot. All she done was get 10 names to nominate her, stuck it in and never done any work at all, just allowed the media to say what the National Front were doing; ‘sorting out these lefties and commies and all these other people’. And they got one more vote than us, we done all this canvassing, all this struggling, public meetings and everything else and they did nothing and got one more vote than us.
PB: By the time you get to the late 1970s nationally the focus of a lot of left groups was on confronting the National Front. Do you think that that was a major part of what was happening here in the North east?
KF: Well, I think you’re probably starting to, I think you’re talking about 76 to 78 period when that started to happen. That did come later, because, I think that from 1971 to 1976 it was the industrial that was the big thing. You are starting to see industries coming under threat; coal mines, shipyards, steel works, all this kind of thing. Terms and conditions, international developments, for instance in ship building we got a contract at Swans for Nigeria and what the Nigerian government did was insisted that from the day the contract was signed there were Nigerian technical people finding out how these ships were being built and they were in the shipyards all the time, so what you were finding was that the core countries who were building ships was expanding. On top of that Swan Hunters opened a yard in Malta, they were starting to, companies were starting to expand out. Countries, like Britain, who had had a monopoly over shipbuilding, or who had a big part were starting to climb quite sharply, so all of those kind of defending jobs, defending terms and conditions, those kind of big struggles definitely went on well into the seventies. They did continue in other forms but in the form of really believing that we were going to shake capitalism through industrial action, through international questions and through discussing philosophy and all of this kind of thing, by the time you got into the late seventies people were much more into looking at dangers over there rather than preparing for what we were planning to do. So we started to react to things rather than have our own agenda, I thought.
PB: One of the big issues of the 70s was secondary picketing. Were you involved in any of that?
KF: Oh Yes, we had in swan Hunters in 1975, from July to September was a nine week strike and it was everybody, all the manual workers with the exception of the Boilermakers Society, the rest of the craftsmen wanted parity with the boilermakers, and the general workers, of which I was a part of, wanted better terms and conditions to make up the gap between the skilled workers and the semi skilled and unskilled workers, so we went out for a nine week period and it was unbelievable because it was so hot, it was like it is today Peter, everyday was sunshine and there was lots of picketing , lots of action just to build it up, lots of meetings. They held regular, weekly, mass meetings which were very interesting, because what you had was a group of people who got themselves to the front who wanted to always call it off and also at the front was another group of people who wanted it to go on forever and a day. And, of course, you had the Trade union bureaucracy who always wanted to try and find a compromise to the two. Because, A; they didn’t want to completely back down but neither did they want it to go because they believed it couldn’t be won and it certainly wasn’t won, but it laid the foundations for the next period. It was a great experience to have went through because we had lots of these big, mass meetings, North Shields football ground was were we used to hold them. When they nationalised the industry, I was a senior shop steward, by 1977, for the whole river. When they nationalised the industry in 1977 there was 12,000 workers in Swan Hunters Shipbuilders alone. Then you had the ship repairers with 4 or 5000 there, then there was the marine engineering so you’re talking about large numbers of people so when you had mass meetings you had a football ground. You had North Shields football ground; it’s not there any longer, but I remember some very good meetings down there. With big open parks you had to learn to speak off the back of lorries, which is not easy with all them thousands of people there, many of them at times screaming at you. We also clashed, one of the reasons the bureaucracy was so worried in 75 is that it clashed with the governments wage restrictions, and we were wanting to take it beyond that so we found ourselves in conflict with the government as well the employers and our trade union bureaucrats.
PB: By the mid 70s what’s now getting recognised is the importance of the Shop Stewards movement. As a senior shop steward I am assuming that you would be involved in that. Did you actually have a sense at the time that you were the alternative to the bureaucracy, that you were actually running the show?
KF: With no doubt. Every time we had a dispute we would set up a picket line, and the picket line wasn’t to stop workers . The picket line was there to stop union officials going in to see the management to get the ‘real‘ version of the story before they came to see us ‘the hotheads’. So yes you are very conscious that the union officials were there in order to smooth things over and what we there to do was to say to ordinary members who were relatively passive, ‘you’ve got to stand up on your own two feet’, ‘ you can push the bureaucracy if you stand up to them’, ‘ We the rank and file activists will take the lead’, ‘If you follow us we can challenge we can challenge the bureaucracy, and through challenging our bureaucracy we can push the management further than they want to go, with pushing the management further and further we can push the government further and further and eventually challenge capitalism itself’. We had discussions around those issues in shop stewards cabins.
PB: A lot of the trade union bureaucrats and a lot of the industrialists of the time said that the shop stewards movement was about people pursuing their political agendas, rather than pursuing the welfare of the members. How do you respond to that type of statement?
KF: I would respond by saying that I didn’t see a conflict between the two, and I still don’t. I think that, I’ve always viewed the trades unions as being three factions ; there was the very conservative bureaucrats, the very conservative inactive, passive membership and there was a rank and file that was usually to the left. The rank and file always wanted to drag more of the ordinary members because once those ordinary members felt that they had strength and stopped feeling that the union was people with high ranking positions on large salaries and that they (the ordinary member) were the union and it was them that should determine things . Yes, we were keen on getting rid of capitalism, we were keen on bringing a socialist society forward but we thought, along with that the best way to defend your terms and conditions was to be as militant as you could and that we had no confidence, no trust in governments, in employers or the trade union bureaucracy. They all seemed to be people who wanted to maintain the status quo and we were wanting to completely get rid of the status quo and bring in something that we believed would be ideologically much better.
PB: Do you feel that your political allegiance and your membership of the WRP actually impacted on your career, or your employment?
KF: (laughs) Very much so. After I stood in the general election within six to eight weeks I was sacked by Swan Hunters. And that was a marvellous experience because a trap was set for me by the management, and as a young fool I walked into it. They then suspended me, and I fixed up with a union official to come down and see me after I had been sacked. He came down, he was very indifferent, he went into a meeting about another matter and left me sitting for an hour and he came out and he said, ‘We’ve got a choice, we can either you can accept that you’re sacked and we’ll take your case to an industrial tribunal or you can accept that you’ve to move from the yard you’re in to another yard and not be a shop steward for a period of twelve month’. So I says to him’right’, and this was on a Friday, and he says ‘the senior manager wants to know’, I says that ‘I’ll come and tell him on the Monday’. He says,’I need to know as the negotiator’, I says, ‘I’m not going to give you an answer’. I went away and I spoke to people in the WRP who had more experience than me and they said accept the move. Because anyone who goes to industrial tribunals hardly ever gets their jobs back, even in them days. Although more people did in them days. But it wasn’t, you know. And what I said to the union officials is, ‘what I want you to do is call a strike demanding my reinstatement’, well they refused to do that. So what I did was get transferred to Wallsend Slipway and one year to the day from when I got to Wallsend Slipway I got elected shop steward. I was back in business (laughter). Wallsend Slipway was very interesting because it was a slipway fabrication shed where they built bits of ships which were then taken to be erected in the yards (0:37:56,3) so I become, we only had four shop stewards, two boilermakers and two ancillary workers, and so I become elected to, each union had one position on the senior shop stewards for the whole river, and at that time there was fourteen senior shop stewards, there was six yards and thwe slipway fabrication shed . So when the industry was nationalised on the 1st of July 1977, which was one day before me twenty eighth birthday, I went down to London to meet the Prime Minister, went to Selfridges Hotel , went into Selfridges Hotel and when we went in
PB: was this Harold Wilson that you were meeting?
KF: Let me think , it was 77 so Wilson had gone by then. It was James Callaghan. So we went into the Selfridges Hotel and this man was there, one of them poets you know who announced me name, who I was and you got as much drink as you could, you see, and there was one man from Clellands shipyard, which was a small shipyard on Tyneside, and this man from Clellands was so drunk that he fell on the floor and he had to be carried out. All these shipyard workers from all over the country, from Glasgow and Liverpool couldn’t believe that someone would give you a free bar and you could drink as much as you like. But I was there to keep myself sober, I wouldn’t Say completely sober, but reasonably sober, because I rang in a report to the headquarters of the WRP from Selfridges Hotel before I went to have a bit more drink. This was the nationalisation of the industry so I become a very senior steward by the age of twenty eight. After the victimisation I got back in and then I was involved in all kind of battles right up until I was made redundant in December 1987.
PB: What was your relationship with WRP at that period (1977) because you were saying that you rang through to them? Were you. No, you tell me?
KF: I’ll tell you what happened and this was again you’ll find an interesting story. On the 31st December 1977 the WRP held a conference, in Derbyshire, in the Red House,; the famous Red House that was raided and bullets found and all the rest of it. So on December the 31st they held a conference, now who the hell would hold a conference on New Years Eve, but the WRP did. Half way through this conference the ultimate leader of WRP, Gerry Healy, he said ‘ there’s ten comrades in Britain who are ruining the WRP’ he said, ‘I’m going to interview them, reconvene the conference and parade them in front of you for expulsion’. Lo and behold I was selected as one of these ten. My whole life was dedicated to the WRP, I was giving every penny that I could, I was working flat out, I was the most dedicated hard worker. And they indicated in a meeting, you know the Moscow Trials, at the Moscow trials they got real comrades to admit that they weren’t adequate to lead revolutions and what have you and then what they done was to play on any weaknesses and got them to admit to outrageous things because it would be better for the Soviet Union and better for communism. The WRP did exactly the same and done it to me personally. I was one of these ten, so I was interviewed by him and by others and I admitted that there was certain things I could have done better and what have you and then we was paraded in front of people and was told we’re going to expel them. Then there was another session and we were brought back and it was decided we weren’t going to be expelled at all and he (Gerry Healy) got extra powers to close down anything that Gerry Healy thought needed to be closed down. He had set us ten up in order to get extra powers, exactly as Stalin would have done it and anyone else who was up to that kind of stuff. When I came away some time during the 1st January 1978 I was never the same again toward the WRP. That trust had been killed. It wasn’t until May that I dropped out. I didn’t resign, I just stopped being active and this was after five years of dedicating my life to them. I went through a period , between 78 and 1981 when I was in and around the WRP, and a couple of times I dropped out, I then came back and stood in the General Election again in 1979. So I was the (WRP) candidate in Wallsend in 79 and got round about the same votes as I had four years earlier. But it was with a much better campaign, it was quite a good campaign with a small number of hard working individuals.
PB: That must have been quite difficult for you having gone away from that conference with a bad taste in your mouth.
KF: And it (bad taste) never went away. I finally left the WRP in 82 and although I went back for the discussions after it imploded in 85 and 86. When it imploded in 86, 85 I should say, all the factions I couldn’t identify with any of them. So that was the last time I was formally in a revolutionary party, in 1982.
PB: When you look back now how do you view those years?
KF: Bearing in mind that I didn’t come from a political background and the WRP were the first party I came across, they learned me a lot of things that I still cherish. They took me through some experiences that were just barking mad.
PB: Come on, you have to tell me some of these
KF: There was so many of them. Round about 76 or 77 we went to a conference in the headquarters of the WRP in South London; Clapham, and when we got there Gerry Healy announced that this was an open ended conference that would only finish when the business was complete. So he said that anybody that’s working we can fix up for you to get doctors sick notes because this could go on for weeks; and it did go on for eight days. This conference went on for eight days. Another example, I had in 1977 the WRP organised a march from somewhere in Italy , Naples, Naples, I went to a meeting in Wallsend of the Young Socialists and I got a young lad, who was very enthusiastic and within a week I’d got this lad, who’d never been outside of Wallsend in his life to go to Naples and he marched for a week through Italy, couldn’t speak Italian but went across there. At other times we’d book a coach to go to the Young Socialist conference/rally and we never had enough money, and there was one time I come back on this coach and we got to Central Station and I just jumped off the bus, ran up Pink Lane and left the bus driver, because I couldn’t afford to pay him. Under instructions from the WRP we had to do it. Another example, we had a daily paper, right, we had to build up our orders, the Wallsend branch had maybe 200 copies a day coming, right, we’d have maybe fifteen or twenty that were able so we’d have to try and sell them everyday. It couldn’t be done. So we come up with an idea with scratch cards. We used to go round every Sunday, we would spend every Sunday in the summer, all day long selling scratch cards where people could win money, you see, and we used to raise the money for the papers that hadn’t been sold. So with 200 papers per day and three or four hundred on Saturday and we just couldn’t sell them but the WRP leadership just wouldn’t accept that you couldn’t sell them. ‘That’s down to you, you are lazy, you are not bright, you are stupid, you must go out and do it’, so what we had to do was find ways, and we had these scratch cards and we raised hundreds of pounds and paid the bills of these branches in the North East. The whole thing was barking mad.
PB: You know there was a standing joke among other left groups that the WERP members had the tallest beds in Britain because there was so many papers stuffed underneath?
PB: I only had to do it once a week and I was bloody glad it was just once a week. When you were in the WRP how did you feel about the rest of the left?
KF: Well, the rest of the left. I didn’t know them, I just didn’t know them. The first time I came across the rest of the left, particularly the SWP, was over the 1975 scaffolders strike in Newcastle which went on for about nine month, or so, and it was when they were building Eldon Square, and there was and there was a group of scaffolders who kept this dispute going. I felt that the SWP were always trying to undermine the WRP. Now I’m fairly sure that the WRP were trying to undermine the SWP. So I just seen them as competitors I didn’t really get to know any of them and it wasn’t really until the 80s when I joined the Trades Council that I began to know other leftists and found out that they weren’t all counter revolutionaries, or running dogs of imperialism and all this kind of thing. That they were canny enough lads, you could actually gan for a pint with them, you could have a laugh with them and you got to know their first names and they weren’t these people whose only reason for being in politics was to undermine the Workers Revolutionary Party. My previous experience had been as a Roman Catholic, you see, so I came from ‘the one true religion’, Catholicism, and everybody else was, what you’re told as a catholic is that everybody goes to heaven except for bad Catholics, by being a catholic you have the best chance for life and if you blow it you automatically go to hell. All these protestants they go straight to hell because who expects much of a protestant . And I had the same theory within the WRP (laughter) there’s only one true religion.
PB: We’re back to the Life of Brian aren’t we (laughter)
KF: It was only much later that I said to myself , ‘my god, you were bonkers’. So, on one hand I was a real fighter in the shipyards, I gave years of my life to the WRP, and it was only in the late seventies to early eighties that I came to my senses and started to put it into perspective. But, do I regret doing what I done, the answer I would have to say is no. Because I learned so much which I wouldn’t have got, I couldn’t see where the education was coming from. Now I could have joined the Militant Tendency, or I could have joined the SWP or I could have joined the Communist Party or become a Maoist or something of that nature and got a lot of this. I just didn’t do it, my life worked in that direction and you have to make the best of what you’ve done, you see.
PB: I can fully understand what you’ve been saying, having had similar experiences. Tell me how did you feel about the Labour Party? After all you met a Labour Prime Minister and you must have been aware of them, after all they ran Wallsend?
KF: I’ll tell you an interesting thing, two things, when I first got involved with the WRP my branch secretary was a member of the Labour Party and he took us to meet his MP, and I thought this bloke was very interesting, but then I got to know him and very soon he defected to the ‘what do call them again (PB: you mean the SDP) yeah the SDP, he was the MP for Newcastle East, Mike Thomas they called him. He defected. Then after the raid on the WRP headquarters in 1977 I got to know Ted Garrett very well, who was the MP for Wallsend. And I got to know his agent as well and I liked both of them on a personal level. Because my politics came from the WRP, I just seen the Labour Party was a party whose main function was to keep capitalism going, and therefore there were genuine allies of the capitalist class and ungenuine allies of the working class. It’s how I viewed it. OK, it’s a bit crude but it’s a view I’ve never really deviated much from. Now I can like individual members of parliament, and councillors, and for instance I worked very closely with the Labour group in North Tyneside as a Trades Unionist today bringing together different unions with the Labour group because we have a Tory mayor. Over the years I’ve worked quite closely with members of parliament and councillors and what have you; I’m talking about my latter years I’m not talking about when I was in the WRP. But for me at sixty two I will never join the Labour Party, it will never be a party that I will look to, although I have no problem with dealing with individuals who are in it, I can see why they’re in it; just because the way my life has worked out I will live and die without ever joining the Labour Party.
PB: Do you still see a big divide between the revolutionary approach and the reformist approach?
KF: I do.
PB: Where do you put yourself in there?
KF: I have to say that in the latter years I have started to read a lot more philosophy again; from 2004 until now, I’ve become more of a Marxist than I have ever been in my life and I believe more in the dictatorship of the proletariat than I have ever done. It’s my view that I’m in this business to A, overthrow capitalism, B, become part of the ruling class, and C, make the transition through from capitalism through the lower, medium and higher forms of socialism and on to a communist society. That’s what I want, I don’t expect that to happen but that is my perspective, that’s why I do the things that I do. What I have become aware of is that there is a big difference between having an analysis of where you would want things to go, and be aware of what stage you’re at and how you need to move from where you are to where you would like to be. But that doesn’t get in the way of me doing reforms. For instance, I was on the radio this morning, on Radio Newcastle, speaking as the secretary of the Tyne and wear Public Transport Users Group, I was talking about the problem with buses . What’s happening with buses is the central government is giving less money to local authorities, who can give less money to Nexus, Nexus can give less money to bus operators to subsidise them to keep the unprofitable routes going. I talk about all of those kind of things, I do loads of reformist activity and enjoy it, and work with people. But I also have my own political ideals, although I don’t see any political party which I can join that matches that.
PB: Do you feel that what you were doing in the 1970s as a member of the WRP, I’ll be blunt, how closely aligned to reality was it?
KF: In hindsight they weren’t aligned to reality in any shape or form. What they exaggerated the weaknesses of the ruling class, they exaggerated the strength of the proletariat and they massively exaggerated their own importance and significance, Which was, quite frankly, barmy. But, when I was young and inexperienced and enthusiastic, what they said struck a chord with me, it’s what I wanted and I put a lot of time and energy in my life into it and once I realised the limitations of them, both of their analysis and what they were actually doing, and what their principles and values that they stood for I then came to the conclusion that as a working class person they gave me a great opportunity. The fact that they were people who were so flawed themselves they were leading me down a blind alley; that’s what happens in life. Everybody talks about the Russian revolution, how great it was, but all those people who fought the 1905 revolution and failed, and died, and never got within a mile of any kind of success of the Bolshevik revolution and all that, was their lives a waste of time? No it wasn’t , it was struggle that they engaged in, what they believed in, what they fought for , what they died for, and I put my life into that perspective. What I’ve wanted since I learned about politics, and I have to say, if I was honest most of my life I would have to say that I was a left reformist / centrist, at best, and it’s only been in the last five or six years that I would describe myself anywhere close to Marxism. Of understanding it, of grasping both the theory and practice of Marxism.
PB: I think we’ve pretty well mashed out everything of the period and it just leaves me to say thank you very much Kevin for you time.