Oral History: Trades Unions – Bala Nair

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Interview transcript: Bala Nair

Date and place of birth: not given

Interviewer: Pat MacDonald

Date of interview: 19 January 2012

Location of interview recording: Durham County Archives


Key words – Cooperative, Karl Marx, Labour Party, New Labour, Miners strike, Cooperative Academies, Party of European Socialists, North-East Durham Cooperative Party.

Notes on transcription

(?) – This indicates that the word proceeding is not said very clearly, or the spelling of the word is open to question. It may appear in conjunction with * and a guess at what the word may be.

*Incoherent* – This is only used when it is impossible to guess what may have been said.

Italics – Used to show where the speaker places special emphasis on a word.



*Preamble setting up*

Pat MacDonald (PM) – And really, what I’m interested to hear is what are the influences and reasons for you getting involved in the Co-op movement, starting from childhood. Tell me about your childhood, where you were, and how you arrived at this place in Crossgate.

Bala Nair (BN) – Ok.

PM – Ok.

BN – Right, I’ll start. I have a strong feeling that because I came to England from India, that I have a different perspective on what is politics in Britain. Err, just because I do not belong to this society. I’m not saying that my perspective is more correct, or less correct, it’s just that it is different. And I think because there is that difference it brings a different colour or flavour to the politics that I have been involved in. I come from a slightly privileged background. I went to what was a British grammar school when my father was a diplomat in Britain, and I did three years in the grammar school before going back to a public school in India, one of the best public schools in India, and I graduated from there. And then I did my university in one of the premier universities in India, in a premier college in a premier university, and I did chemistry. And in India, like in many places, Britain is becoming that way, its not what you know that is important, when you get a job, it is who you know that is important. And having come from privileged family, it was considered automatic that I would, err, get a good job, get married, have kids, settle down and lead a normal life. But I decided I wanted to do it on my own. So….finding a job on your own meant that I was living on virtually poverty level. And I was sharing a sort of flat, a small flat with two other people. And there were many times towards the end of the month where we really didn’t have much food to eat because none of our salaries allowed us to eat properly. Which meant that things like rice and lentils meant a lot to me because those were some of the things that were very, very cheap, very easy to make, and we used to live on that towards the last week, week and a half of our month. But what it brought really starkly clear to me was that, my friends that I lived with, and the people that I was associated with, had to live that life. For the rest of their life. They had no choice. I could pull out of it anytime I wanted. All I had to do was write to my parents and they would send money and I could go back home and live a settled life. But these people that I was associated with on a daily, hourly, weekly basis, had no hope. That was their life. And that is why Bollywood is the way it is, because that is the only bit of happiness they ever got, this fantasy world that they spent three hours in with a song and a dance and everything. For me, there was a luxury. I could get out of it whenever I wanted to. Which is what I did, I asked my parents for some money, and I came to Britain to complete my postgraduate. I’m a graduate of the Royal Institute of Chemistry, and I got a Masters degree in analytical chemistry and I joined a company, and I came to Britain in 1966, and in ’68 I started a union in what was British Oxygen (?) in those days, and it never had a union.

PM – Can I interrupt you, and I don’t want to do that. Could you go back to India again. What were the political influences?

BN – Oh, ok.

PM – Other than the environmental influences that shaped your opinion.

BN – Ok. Having come from a privileged background it would be very difficult to justify the fact that I am a socialist! *Laughs* Er, but my brother, my elder brother, was a very strong socialist. And, one of the books in his library was, Kapital. And I started reading Kapital, and I suddenly found that the economics was a little bit more than I could understand. I was talking about when I was about fifteen years old. A little bit more than I could understand so I decided to go onto Marx and….*laughs* how the hell can I forget that name? Erm, who was Marx’s associate? Karl Marx and?

PM – Pass. We’ll pick that up later –

BN – I read his book on social theory, and how society, erm, evolved. And that book left a lasting memory of, a scar on my memory, on the way society was, especially when I started seeing the inequality, began to recognise the inequality in Indian society. And then my experience working with my friends when I got my first job, meant that I joined the Communist party. And I was part of the Communist party of India, and I worked in a place, in a state in India called Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh, you look at the current environment of Andhra Pradesh it is one of the places where the Indian government is finding significant problems because of the insurgency of what is known as the (*incomprehensible word) Communist Party in Andhra Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh has always been Communist. But much than that, I come from a street called Kerala. And Kerala has got a unique distinction the first place anywhere in the world which democratically elected a Communist government. And the Communist government kept its way for about, nearly thirty years before a coalition of parties managed to just chuck out the Communist government. So I come fro, politically, from an environment where socialism and Communism was the order of the day, rather than anything else. Which meant that when I started my politics I went into the Communist Party. When I came to Britain I realised that I couldn’t stay in Communist Party unless I wanted to be deported! So obviously I did not start, I transferred my political allegiance to the Communist Party in India to the Communist Party in Britain. I took up my job and I was working In Newcastle. And then, I moved over to Birtley to work for British Oxygen, and that was in 1968, and I decided that, there were no unions in those days, they were a very paternalistic organisation, British Oxygen, company. And I decided that we needed a union because of the conditions, there was a big distinction in the office workers and the technical workers. So I decided to start a union amongst the technical people. And, we joined the GMB union. And in those days the GMB did not have salaried staff section of their union until later on when they had MATSA. So I became a shop steward for the salaried staff of the union. And when I went to the GMB conference I was told I was the first coloured person to represent salaried staff in any of their institutions! The union went from strength to strength. And, err, even though we started it off on the technical side, almost everyone in the office also joined the union. So the union became pretty relevant to, erm, the activities of the management to their staff. But much more than that, we managed very, not easily, but, we definitely managed to a sort of cohesion between the different unions. The engineering people, the welders, the fitters, and the electricians. All of those unions we ended where before any kind of discussions of an individual union took place, in that company, all the shop stewards would talk together. And that meant that, the management knew that it wasn’t just a single union talking about the conditions for that single union’s members. But there’d already been discussions between the other unions within the company itself. Which meant that they couldn’t put one union against another union within the employment. So we managed to get things like, erm, job gradings and all that stuff so that they were common between the technical people and the office people. So we started off with that, and when I left and I went to work on my own, I carried on being a member of the GMB, or MATSA in those days. One of the biggest, when I say that you get a different perspective when you come from a society that is not the society within the country you come to, it is a unique perspective. And what I saw in Britain, ahem, heartened me a lot. But also dismayed me. When I came to Britain, it was so common, things like, day release, education after in your field because you didn’t have the sense to study at school, you had the chance to retrieve some kind of knowledge and improve yourself. And those kind of things I found extremely valuable, especially because, considering the fact, that I took advantage of that to continue my postgraduate studies. And I realised that these kind of things, especially in the ‘70s, was being rapidly eroded. I can very clearly remember the time of Wilson, the times when I got seriously disappointed, the Callaghan years, and the years when the Labour Party seemed to be fighting its own members. And then we came to the crucial time in 1980 when we lost all kind of credibility and Margaret Thatcher took over for fifteen years. And the first years of Margaret Thatcher stick so strongly in my mind, so very strongly in my mind. When I saw the significant erosion of all the values of the generations that had taken generations to build, very slowly, and those bricks were being taken down brick by brick, knocked away like mad. And that led to one of the biggest influences which was the miners strike. The miners strike to me was glorious disappointment. *Laughs* Glorious because the community and everyone came so close together. And there was such a huge linking of people. People of very different backgrounds, thoughts and everything. But there was a very basic morality in it. And morality is common. And, err, I found that fantastic. I found going to the Asda in Stanley, standing in front with a trolley, and the numbers of people that came and just filled the trolley up. And the fact that when I was handing out, err, these bits of food to families that were suffering, not one of them felt a lack of dignity or that they were taking charity. They felt they were a part of our community, taking part of a battle that was essential for the community, and they did not feel ashamed about having to take charity. And that feeling, it was a brilliant feeling. But to counter that was the knowledge, with the absolute knowledge from the day we started that we would lose. However we looked at it, when we realised that there were the miners in Nottingham, places like that, we realised that the battle was essentially lost. But much more than that was the quarrels that we had with the constituency Labour Party. A lot of us, including me, had the most, not bitter, but definitely very, very heated arguments because our constituency had to follow Neil Kinnocks dictates. The miners were being led by lambs and donkeys, etc. And that the miners should have gone back to work. And all of us who still belonged to the working class, realised that was the wrong decision to make. So it was gloriously beautiful because the…the community spirit, and the coming together of human beings because of a morality which is inherently correct. But hugely disappointing because from the day we started, we knew we were going to lose. And we realised that the consequences of that loss. Which meant the serious degradation of rights, the diminishing of the power of unions, the lack of representation of the working class as it should be represented, and a whole variety of these things. And then we come to the period where the biggest disappointment of all, was when the Labour Party got back in again and there was so much hope, especially with the size of the majority that we had. The hope that the Labour Party would do, for the working class, what Margaret Thatcher did for the privileged class, with the same kind of majority she had to the majority that the working class had now achieved. So the disappointments that came over the fifteen years of watching our own leaders diminish our own self. And how new liberalism has such a…such a, how shall I put it, feeling that it is correct, a justification that somehow managed to creep into morality. The morality that I saw in 1984. Not just eroded but seriously coloured, and the thing that I keep on bringing to my mind, as it is where, if you want to say, as an immigrant, is the fact that when I came here in 1966, and I saw the beauty of the welfare state, in spite of all its faults. The absolute beauty of the welfare state. And then, even the Tories, the most radical Tories, would never countenance a cardboard city, people sleeping in shelters, or in doorways, and then I come to the 1980s and the 1990s, and the likes of Neil Kinnock, Callaghan, Tony Blair, and I suddenly realised, and I see it now, that Labour Party politicians are blaming the people who are living in doorways, in shelters, they sit down and say, they are there because they don’t work. Because they don’t do this or they don’t do that. And that is the disappointment that I feel now because when I came to Britain, and Communism was still a relevant philosophy in global politics, with the Soviet Union, etc, and I see myself in 2012, and all of that has so seriously been eroded that it gives me a significant disappointment, what we can do, for instance, let me explain. I still have an Indian passport. Because I am convinced that I belong to this world and not just an Indian. I am proud to be an Indian, but I’m not just an Indian. I’m a human being. And I should have, do work in any part of the world. Just because I’m a human being. So that to me is what socialism is. It is not what we do in our country alone, but everywhere. And socialism is exactly what Karl Marx said, erm, workers of the world unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains. Every other philosopher sat down and told you how your country had to be improved. Even the trade union people, or the people fighting for the society, fought for the societies in their world. Karl Marx was the first one who sat down and said, society is universal. There is no such thing as my society and your society. And so when I came to Britain, at the time when the Soviet Union was strong, etc, I was hoping that my son would see a world which I could only dream of. Exactly as my grandparents never saw the motor car, or an aeroplane, and for them this world would have been outstanding, with its computers, etc. I was hoping that for my son, I would see a person who could lead life the way life should be led.

PM – International.

BN – Yes.

PM – Can I ask you, erm, specifically, if you could try and reflect on when, as well as the involvement in the miners strike, where you were working cooperatively, at what stage did you get involved in the cooperative movement?

BN – I got involved in the cooperative movement about, I joined the Labour Party in 1968, or 1969, I’m not 100% sure which one that was. But I started off in the Cooperative party around, ’72, ’73. Just after I became involved in the International Labour Party, the ILP, with David Connolly, Kath Connolly and those people. And they were involved in the Cooperative movement as well, and I got involved in the Cooperative movement. And the Cooperative movement suggested to me at that time, that it showed a kind of internationalism and democracy that I felt was relevant to a human beings existence. And that is why I got involved in the Cooperative Party. Because I could see, I recognised, that as the Cooperative, politically it did not have the power I could expect from the Labour Party, so I realised that there had to be a dual personality. You had to be an affiliate of something like the Labour Party. Although, to me the Cooperative Party should have been the party on its own, because it has principles which especially in today shows that it has differences from the Labour Party. I would have appreciated that the Cooperative Party could have been a party on its own. But I fully understand that with the political and social climate that we had it would not have been possible. And the affiliation into the Labour Party is all that I could expect. Although, there are certain disappointments. When I go to annual conference, we pick up those disappointments. The fact that, err, we still are treated as a rump of the Labour Party. And we the power that we had was not as, tangible, as we hoped it should be. There is still a significant sticking to the Labour Party line, rather than the Cooperative Party line. And there are some serious problems that I have with….the Cooperatives, even amongst Labour Party people, trying to use Cooperatives instead of public service. And to me that has a problem. So I have a problem even with the Cooperative Party even so far as that is concerned. But the thing about the Cooperative Party, and I’ve noticed that when I go to conference, because we are a smaller party, the voice still can be heard. It isn’t like the Labour Party where we make the motions, act our little bits, as you says, you strut about for an hour and it disappears in the Labour Party, it is very much shown by refounding (?) Labour. Whereas in the Coop there is some accountability. It’s a smaller party, and it has some accountability. And, today I will say that I will be a cooperative party member first, and a Labour Party member second. And the reason I am in the Labour Party is only because the Coop Party has to be an affiliate of the Labour Party. Otherwise the allegiance would be much more towards the Cooperative Party, rather than to the Labour Party.

PM – Tell me what kind of opportunities you think the Cooperative Party have given you?

BN – The Cooperative Party has given me, the main…..erm, I explain. Tony Benn said, democracy is a very, very fragile beast. And unless you nurture it on a daily basis, it dies. It’s always in intensive care. So I make it a point, Hindu philosophy comes into this. In Hindu philosophy we sit down and say, there is no such thing as god or anything, you sit down and do what you’re supposed to do, and it doesn’t matter whether the other people do it or not, that is totally irrelevant, you have to do what you have to do. So I write my letters on a regular basis to the MP and I write my letters to David *stops himself* Ed Milliband. David Cameron. They get letters regularly. My postmen thinks I am one of the most important people that he knows, because I get about two to three letters from the House of Commons coming in every day. The letters might tell me to bugger off. But I still get two or three letters. And the opportunity that the Coop Party has given me is that I’m the secretary of the Durham Northern City Coop Party. And what the Coop Party has done for me, luckily for me, my branch has said to me, erm, I have said to the branch, there are issues that come up on a daily basis, what is our branch going to do about it to make itself heard. And what they’ve said to me is, you’ve been a secretary for fifteen years, now what we say is that when an issue turns up, you can write on our behalf. So although I cannot write on behalf of the Labour Party because I am accountable to the GMC, etc, I write and I make myself heard and I send things and I make petitions and do things on behalf of the Cooperative Party. It has given me a voice which, and because I write as a member of the Cooperative Party, I tend to get a letter back. Because as a member of an organisation they have more respect for than as an individual. Which means that I have a little bit more say for instance, in our…branch, we have three sitting MPS. Graeme Morris from Easington. He’s a member of our branch. Roberta Woods is a member of our branch, and Kevin Jones is a member of our branch. And I’m able to write and start making waves at all three CLPs. Because of the letters I am writing constantly on behalf of the Cooperative Party. And if I was not a member of the Cooperative Party, I would be just another crank writing in. But I use the Cooperative Party. And the Cooperative Party has given me and in that way the party, because when we go into the GMC meeting, I belong to the Northern Durham Labour Party, and when I go to the North Durham Labour Party GMC as a delegate, the first thing they say is, oh, here’s the Cooperative Party in again. And it has given me that power. It has given me a voice, and it has given me a voice which is recognised. Which is listened to, rather than just another voice which is part of the babble. And that is what the Cooperative Party has given me. And I use it fully. There is absolutely no doubt about the fact. And another thing, let’s take it this way. Err, we are now, were not, err. The North Durham City Cooperative party is a member of the PES. The Cooperative Party as such cannot be a member, I’m an activist for the PES.

PM – Could you explain the PES?

BN – The PES is the Party of European Socialists. About, ten, eleven years ago, Left of centre socialist parties in Europe started to come together to discuss certain policies that the European Parliament was taking to try and put in a coherent, cohesive force to politics in parliament. But because of vested national interests, etc, it did not seem to be all that powerful, until a person called Paul Rasmussen (?) took over as president about ten years ago. And he has made significant changes to it. And very recently over the last two years, the Party of European Socialists has become a very strong cohesive force in European Parliament politics. And, what the Durham Northern City Coop party did was to write to the Party of European Socialists….and ask if the North-East and Cumbria region Cooperative Party could be their active partner in this region. We could not become members because the Cooperative Party are not members of the Party of European Socialists. The Labour Party is. So once more the Cooperative Party has given me power in allowing much more international socialism to affect the North-East. Because we are now part of the Party of European Socialists and now that the Cooperative Party has applied for and received membership of the Party of European Socialists we are now members in our own rights, as opposed to being members via the Labour Party. But what the Cooperative party have done for me is that I have wrote to the PES as a member of the Cooperative party which is an affiliate of the Labour Party. But is as a Cooperative Party member that I wrote, I did not write to the PES to sit down and say I would like to start up an activity, become active over here on behalf of the Labour Party, who are already members. I asked for it on behalf of the Cooperative party because as I said before, politically, the Cooperative Party has more relevance to me than the Labour Party. And I am a member of the Labour Party and I understand the association of the Cooperative Party to the Labour Party because of expediency rather than principle, and I appreciate that. Which is why I wrote to the PES on behalf of the Cooperative Party. Not as a member of the Labour Party. I could just as easily started up an activity branch in the North-East as part of the Labour Party. But that was not sufficient for us. It had to be through the Cooperative Party because as I explained before, the Cooperative Party has greater relevance, politically, for me, than the Labour Party had. Especially seeing the Labour Party evolve since Tony Blair and New Liberalism. So, to me, the Cooperative Party is the core of my beliefs. And that’s why most of the activity that I do is as a member of the Cooperative Party, not as a member of the Labour Party.

PM – So has that developed your contacts with the PES? (? This sentence is a little muffled).

BN – With the PES now, last year, I was sent by the regional party to, well, my fares were subsidised by the regional party to go to the conference…..That has meant, because we are recognised, along with the other activists within Britain, they have asked us to start up, or suggest a proposal for a project. Now, at the next regional meeting, I’m going to suggest start up a seminar on the effects of, err, of the new Liberal austerity, especially manifested in places like Greece, and Italy and Spain, and especially Portugal. How it is affecting people like us, and how it will continue to affect people like us. And that kind of seminar so that socialist policies are going to be….err, shown in the North-East where I’m afraid politics, especially since the loss of the manufacturing industries with trade unionism, etc, going down the drain, politics is not a significant, not a significant interest in the North-East now. And I’m hoping that we will start doing that. And the PES, my contact through the Cooperative Party in the PES has helped that. To bring the North-East. For instance, PES was making up videos of deprivation in Britain caused by the austerity programme. And they were making videos in London and Liverpool. So I wrote to the PES and I said, I fully understood why you have made….videos of London and Liverpool because you see them as traditional areas where you have deprivation. But I said, as a socialist party, have you ever thought about making videos like that in the North-East? Where in places like Teesside, Middlesbrough, Newcastle which has got a huge civil service, erm, err. Durham. Have you ever thought about doing that. And they wrote back and they said that listening to what I had to say, they were considering making a video here, and Peter Smith was involved in that. They were asking for advice on who to meet, etc. The thing fell through, but the fact that they were ready to listen and understand that we have problems in the North-East, not just problems politically or socially, but human problems in the North-East. And that has been allowed through my contact in the Cooperative Party. Now when we make this seminar, which I’m hoping we will be able to involve the PES who will send speakers, the Northern region of the Cooperative Party, and the local branches, and the local branches have to be involved in that, otherwise without the politicisation of local branches there is no politics. And the local branches have to be involved in that, not just by sitting down and saying the region will look after it, or meet in the party council and make a decision, which the region will take up, but it has to be an active dialogue between the local parties and the region to make the seminar a success. And without that involvement, of the local Cooperative parties, it will be a bureaucratic exercise, where you might find intellectuals attending the seminar without the people attending the seminar. So, what I’m hoping is that if we do get the seminar and we have it reasonably central, like in Gillsland (?) that the local parties of the North-East and Cumbrian region will be involved in that and in the politicisation not just of the branches, but through the branches, the local communities will also be involved with politicisation. And understanding the social relationship of regional deprivation, the international social relationship of individual, regional imbalances. And I don’t think, you know, we’re all aware of North-South divide, etc. But these are all intellectual differences, intellectual definitions. There is still not, accepting when we had manufacturing, trade unions and we started getting similar salaries and we started to get equalisation of salaries through unions, the actual people don’t understand the effect that decisions taken very far off, you know. I still don’t think they understand the fact that when a butterfly flaps its wings in Chile, you get a Tsunami in Japan! *Laughs* You see. And that is the thing that has to be emphasised consistently. And that is why, I said that my perspective, coming from a different country, allows me to understand….the deprivation in an individual society is not just through the faults of that society, or the individuals involved in that society. It is very much as Karl Marx said, an international phenomenon. And that international phenomenon is common with me because I have moved from one society to another society. A society where I saw things that I thought were normal, I moved to another society where the things I saw were normal were not all that normal. But other things that were abnormal to me in that society in that society were normal in this society. And the international, sort of definition of all these things comes to me. Now the only way that I can say that will be extended is when I see the way the young people travel, especially the backpacking. When you backpack you’re not going as a tourist. You are backpacking. You live the life of the other people. And that is my only hope is that they will come back and see society on an international scale, as I have, rather than as an individual scale where people have gone out to Spain on a holiday, had bacon and eggs in Spain, beer in Spain. John Smiths on tap. And come back to Britain because Spain is a sunny Blackpool. Whereas the backpackers have seen those societies as societies. Not as holiday resorts, and I hope that they come back and show that over here.

PM – Changing society. Can I take you, erm, our experience of, err, the general experience of the Coop movement representing itself, and the physical presence of Coop societies in the North-East as we know it. And also the increase of small Cooperatives. What experience have you had working with actual Cooperatives? Have you had any experience?

BN – No. I cannot say that I have had any experience of working with Cooperatives. The only experience I have is shopping in the Coop! And the disappointment that the Coops did not, erm, challenge the really big supermarkets, and the experience in Chester Le Street where they shut their shops and gave it up to another supermarket. Not that the shops they shut were used for something else, but, they shut for other supermarkets. The only experience that I have as far as Cooperatives are concerned is with education. Err, when I had long discussions with, erm, the people who set up Cooperative schools. Err, I have absolutely no problem, as a matter of fact I love, we had the discussions with Melvin, who is the director of the Cooperative schools. When I had the discussions with him, and by the way the discussions were held through the North-East Durham City Coop Party when they were setting up academies over here, and we went to see Melvin about two years before they thought of setting up academies over here, because we were discussing Cooperative academies, and the North Durham and City Cooperative went, met him, and said to him very clearly that we do not believe that Cooperatives should take the place of public service. And although Coop schools were laudable as principles, that Coop academies were not the answer to comprehensive education. And that Melvin was making a serious mistake in…..pushing and making Cooperative schools a success. So although the Cooperatives, as Cooperatives are correct. There is a context in which they are correct. And there contexts in which just because they are a laudable principle, it is a mistake. And there we have, and I am once again, using the power of my, of my, sort of, membership of the Cooperative Party, when we spoke to Melvin, it was as the North Durham Cooperative party. There was no other way that I would get my voice heard. But when four or five of us from the North Durham Cooperative Party went to see Melvin, Melvin was ready to listen to is because we were of the Cooperative Party. If I was the Labour Party, maybe he would not have allowed us to come and see him. So once again it was the power of the Cooperative Party that I was using, and there we had to show our disagreement. With a principle, however laudable that principle is, in the right context. And that is also the argument that we had –

(Interview recording ends here *mid-sentence* at 42:59)