Popular Politics Project
Interview transcript: Val Duncan
Date and place of birth: 1953, Leicester
Interviewer: Vicki Gilbert
Date of interview: September 2011
Location of interview recording: Tyne and Wear Archives
VG: Hi, Val. Would you like to just tell us a little bit about yourself?
VD: My name’s Val Duncan, born Val Reynolds in 1953 in Leicester, where I was…my parents were…because my father was working down there and they’d just moved down there from…my father came from Newcastle and my mother was from Scotland, a place called Montrose near…in Aberdeenshire.
VG: And what did your dad work at?
VD: My father was a building inspector. He had worked…after he came out of the army, he was demobbed from the army, he went into the Ordnance Survey but it wasn’t the sort of career that was conducive to family life because he was moving around all the time, so he decided to go into building inspecting, which he did in fact stay in for all of his career. Went to work for local government and various district councils, ending up in the one where I spent most of my childhood and grew up, which was Leamington and Warwick.
VG: And did your dad have a.. did he get educated on the job or did he have some formal education? What level of education did he….?
VD: No, he was educated on the job. After he left school at 14 – 13, 14 – he went into shipping offices in the north-east and you basically worked your way up from being post-boy through various things. But he was an intelligent chap and he was also the union rep for NALGO for the area, when I was quite young, which I remember. I don’t know how he got involved or at what point he started but I know that he used to go out doing various things, which I used to go with him, but I never really knew what I was going with… I just used to go along as a three, four, five, six years old… either stuffing leaflets in doors or going to meetings and sitting in the corner with my crayons or whatever.
VG: And was that involvement in the main party as well or was that mainly union work?
VD: It was mainly union work but he was in the Labour Party at that point. His relationship with the Labour Party was a bit ‘hitty-missy’. He always voted Labour and he always supported Labour but he wasn’t always a member of the Labour Party.
VG: Can you remember him being critical of the Labour Party at the time, or… ?
VD: No, no, I don’t really remember… I mean, we’re talking Wilson era, when Wilson came to the leadership of the Labour Party. I remember him being quite critical of the Conservatives and the… Leamington and Warwick was Anthony Eden’s seat and it was very clique-y, and my father had found in building inspecting both up in the north-east, in Hexham area where he’d been at one point and various things, that it was like a bit of an old boys’ club. And my father’s family, generally speaking, were, shall we say, Labour Party-ish. My uncle had gone off with the International Brigade and been killed. And one of my uncles had joined the Conservative Party, but other than that, the rest of them were all what I’d call middle of the road Labour Party, generally.
VG: Can I just ask you, how old was your dad when his brother went off to the civil war in Spain?
VD: My father would have been about eighteen, ‘cos his brother was eighteen years older than him. ‘Cos my father was the youngest son and he was the eldest son, so there was thirty-six years…you know, Harry was thirty-six, thirty-seven when he was killed, and my father was eighteen, nineteen, that sort of difference. But that’s been documented by Lewis Mates in his book… the north-east…. National….the interview with my father. Anyway, so that was my father. My mother wasn’t political in the political party sense. My mother was more of a feminist in the equal opportunities sense, fighting for women to be able to do anything that women felt they wanted to do. So that’s where the influence came from her. It wasn’t, I say, party political. She didn’t join any political party as far as I ever remember.
VG: Did she join any women’s groups?
VD: No, I don’t remember her being in women’s groups either, but she just, she just led by example I think. Always saying, you know… She’d been deprived of a university education because her parents couldn’t afford to send her to university although she was clever enough. Her two sisters had not been interested and she was the bright one, and she… so she could have gone to university from the point of view of ability, but she couldn’t go because there just wasn’t the opportunity.
VG: Did she go to grammar school, or… ?
VD: Yes, well, she went to an academy because it was in Scotland, academies being a different thing up there from the current academies! And she went into nursing, she decided to go into nursing which is what she… she took a career in nursing and then she did teaching and then she did, later on in her life, do a couple of degrees and got all her qualifications that she hadn’t been able to get when she was younger. That’s where her influence came from.
VG: And what about her family? Were they….?
VG: And what about your dad’s family?
VD: My father’s family came from Durham originally and they, my father’s mother came from farming stock, and my father’s father came from pit villages. And his father was a blacksmith in a colliery and if you go back through history, then, my father’s uncles and so on, they worked in the pits and generally that, you know, that area… Although two of his uncles who were in the First World War, when they came back, one of them started a little cigarette kiosk, and used to sell, you know, cigarettes and newspapers and whatever you did and so on, because he was deafened or was partially deaf in the First World War. And one of them lost the bottom of a… half a leg, so both…. Two of the five sons of the family, my father’s father’s family, were, shall we say, casualties of the First World War. So they didn’t go back down the pits. They did something else.
VG: And what about your dad? Did he go into the army at all?
VD: Yes, he went into the army in 1939 and he didn’t come out until 1946. He fought in the desert. He was in Libya and all round the Middle East, he was the Desert Rats. He went, as I say, he went in ’39 and he didn’t come out until forty… Well, by the time he was demobbed and back home it was ’46. Came back through Italy and Sicily and all the rest of it.
VG: And what date were you born?
VD: ‘53. ‘Cos my parents didn’t meet until after the war.
VG: And how did they meet?
VD: At a dance. My father was waiting to go to the cinema, it started raining, so he decided to go into a dance-hall instead and so he was just standing in the foyer when somebody said, ‘Would you have a light?’ And that was my mother, who was, both of them smoked in those days, but they, my father gave up fairly soon after that. Mother continued smoking, she liked smoking, but she did eventually give up. But you always say, you know, when you think of these coincidences, one thing leads to another and there you are. That was in Edinburgh.
VG: And so where did they settle down then? Where was your dad working at the time?
VD: Well, they moved to Leicester because he got a job with Leicester County Council or District Council, I’m not sure, one of the councils in Leicestershire, and that’s where they moved down. Well, they got married, then they moved down to Leicestershire and that’s where they set up home.
VG: And did they know anybody there at that time or…. ?
VD: They won’t have done, no, there was no family there or anything, so they just sort of… My mother made, met people when I was born, you know, the sort of ante-natal and people like that, that was the friends that she had that I remember, were other women with young children about the same age as me. Until she… and she went back to work as a casualty sister at night at the hospital, for the evening shift.
VG: How old were you?
VD: I was about three, four, because my father used to come in from work, you know, put me to bed and then she would go off and do this evening shift, whatever it was in the accident and emergency, casualty department, in Leicester Royal Infirmary. ’Til they moved to Leamington when I was about six.
VG: And you must have spent quite a lot of time, then, with your dad. Your dad must have been quite a big influence on you
VD: I did. He was a very big influence on me.
VG: So did he tell you stories at night? He was the one who put you to bed at night.
VD: My mother used to put me to bed but my father was the one who told me the stories. Yes, my mother, I think, got the short end of the stick in a way, because she was always the one who had to do the discipline and the sorting out and the organisation, and my father would come wandering in from work and then be the nice parent, if you know what I mean.
VG: And how did your mum handle it then, how did she, if she did a night shift, how did she manage to sleep?
VD: Well, it was an evening shift and she came home about midnight, so she presumably then went to bed. I don’t remember, to be perfectly frank I don’t remember anything about that. You just accept it as a child. She only did it, as I say, until I was about six or seven. Then she decided to train to be a teacher, ‘cos she decided the hours would be better for… if she was going to be working, so she went to teacher training while I was, let’s say, at the junior school, and she started just as I started at the grammar school, she started teaching. So that was background.
VG: So when you were, you were a young child, she was there, until you were about three, she was there always…
VD: She was always there during the….
VG: And did you go to a nursery school or a play group?
VD: No, I didn’t do anything until I went to school.
VG: So she spent a lot of time, then, with you during the day, your mum, didn’t she?
VD: Yes, with these pals that she had who had other children, you know. I always seem to remember having friends round and other young children that were much the age that I was, you know, so… I don’t really remember much about it other than that. I was desperate to go to school, I know that.
VG: Were they pleasurable times for you as a young child, then, did you enjoy your childhood?
VD: I think I had a very happy childhood in a general sense, yes.
VG: So did your mum take you out and about, did you see….? Did you go on outings with your mum?
VD: No, I don’t think we did. I don’t think people did very much in those days.
VG: Did she have any form of transport or…?
VD: No, we didn’t. My father had a bike and eventually we got a little car, but I was always travel sick and I didn’t like travelling and my mother didn’t drive at that point. She learnt to drive later on, when I was in my… well, I must have been about eleven, twelve, or something like that, that sort of age.
VG: So what can you remember about your early education? About going to primary school?
VD: Only that school was a bit of a let-down because I thought that school was going to be really interesting and then it was… they wanted me to play with crayons and sand and things and I was a bit beyond that, ‘cos I think I’d been – well, not spoilt, spoilt isn’t the right word when you…. I think when you’re with adults a lot and you’re an only child. You tend to be developed in a different way, perhaps, than you might be if you were playing with children all the time. And I thought school was going to be interesting and challenging and I found it a bit tedious.
VG: What about teachers? Do you remember, did any teachers have any particular effect on you when you were at school?
VD: Not at that point.
VG: What about when you went on to grammar school?
VD: Yes, when I went on to grammar school, teachers had a tremendous influence in the sense that there were teachers that encouraged you, which meant that I liked the subjects, and there were teachers that were lousy teachers, which meant that I didn’t like the subjects. Or I decided I wasn’t any good at the subjects and therefore I wasn’t going to be able to do them which, when I look back, is awful, it’s a sad reflection that a teacher can have so much influence that you decide at the age of, I don’t know, ten or eleven or something, that you’re never going to be able to draw or you’re never going to be able to do something or whatever, you know.
VG: So the school that you went to – was that a mixed school or single sex?
VD: No, it was a girls’ college… ladies’ college.
VG: Did it have any links with a boys’ school at all?
VD: There was an equivalent boys’ school but until we got to the sixth form we weren’t encouraged to either mix or have anything to do with each other. So it was very much a… it was very much of its type, in the sense that the woman who was the headmistress went on to move… she moved from Leamington College for Girls to Cheltenham Ladies’ College. So, as the headmistress of that, so you get the feeling of… all those elderly spinsters that were teaching because, presumably, they’d lost their chance of husbands in the First World War or whatever, and they’d gone into teaching as a career.
VG: So there were no male teachers?
VD: There were a couple but they weren’t very… they weren’t very good models….
VG: What about?
VD: I don’t think any red-blooded man could have taken the atmosphere! But that’s looking back from the great distance…
VG: Before we just finish this section, how about after school? You obviously would have done your homework and sort of, but were there… did you belong to any… did you have outside activities or <?> activities at that time?
VD: No, not organised. Oh yes, I went to Guides and Brownies and I went to various other things, but it wasn’t anything to do with school. The school was between three and four miles away from where I lived. I used to cycle.
VG: And so did you take yourself to those clubs or did your mum take you to them?
VD: They were mostly local, so mostly I went by myself, but my father used to drop me off or pick me up if need be.
VG: And what about playing? Did you play when you were younger, did you play outside with other children?
VD: Yes. We lived in a cul de sac and we spent our whole time playing in the street. Whenever the weather was fine a group of children would appear and it seemed to me to be…. looking…. well, even at the time, but looking back particularly, very inclusive. It didn’t matter what age you were, really it didn’t matter what sex you were, you know, you just all arrived and you either played football or skipping or tennis, or… And they actually built a playground not that far away, with some swings and things like that, and we used to go down there, you know. And you think to yourself, we just used to get on with it, a great group of us. We didn’t ever think to say to somebody, ‘You can’t join’ or have nothing to do with it, but everybody was just… If you were there you were there and you formed into teams and we played whatever – cops and robbers or tree-climbing, or bike-racing, or whatever.
VG: So you had a lot of freedom that you could go away from home…?
VD: As long as I turned up for meals, yes, as long as I turned up for my meals.
VG: We should stop there, Val, ‘cos you’ve talked a while, just to give you a rest and then carry on.
VG: Right then, I just wondered if you would like to perhaps reflect on your school life and maybe, when you got to seventeen, eighteen and in the sixth form, aqnd think about what were the things that started to form ideas in your head. Had you started to form any views of society and stuff like that at that stage or did that come later?
VD: Definitely had thought about equality and opportunity and that sort of nthing earlier. Because at school, in my latter years at school, which was an all-girls school, so from the point of view we were encouraged to do anything we wanted to and be anything we wanted to be, you know. We didn’t have the influence of boys around the place. Then I was political wit a small ‘p’ and probably socialist in the sense that I believed in everybody being equal and all the opportunity and… I was always standing up for the underdog. When I look back, I think to myself, you know, there is always the one that… the hangdog one that I was always trying to have some campaign about or whatever. My campaign for us not to have to wear school uniform for one day a week and then after we won that campaign in the sixth form – it was a Wednesday morning we didn’t have to wear school uniform – I then actually changed my mind and thought we were better when we were wearing uniform. But I didn’t remember saying that, ‘cos I thought, ‘I’ve done all this campaigning about it’, but then it became a bit like a fashion parade, do you know, people trying to outdo each other. And I thought, ‘Perhaps this wasn’t such a good idea after all.’
VG: Was there any sort of political – not political with a big ‘p’ – but were there teachers in school that led debates or…?
VD: Not in a… that sort of way. We did debating as a subject, you know, where we were given a subject and it didn’t matter whether you agreed with it or not, you know, whether it be fox hunting or whatever it was, you were told to argue the case. So we did that and we did balloon debates and all that sort of thing. It was that sort of a school. But when I went to university I joined the more left-wing group at university – which, now I look back, was quite right-wing. Because Margaret Thatcher was Education person and she presented the prizes at our school’s prize-giving when I was in the sixth form and we had a boycott so I didn’t go, which my mother was very upset about, ‘cos I didn’t go and get my prizes. But at the same time, I think she… also, I think my mother was on the governors at the time… can’t remember…. But anyway, she agreed with me in principle, my mother that is, that Margaret Thatcher was out of touch and all the rest of it. So it was that sort of thing was going on but I wasn’t overtly political, I wasn’t out campaigning. I went on all the marches for improved grants and reduced fees and all the rest of it. I mean, this was just, we weren’t even talking about tuition fees like they are now, we were just talking about improving the grants and getting more people into university, ‘cos I got involved with all those campaigns when I was at university.
VG: What about when you were at school? Did your mum and dad do any <street?> work?
VD: My father did, for the Labour Party. My mother didn’t.
VG: And what about reading? Had you started to read philosophical books or novels that would have developed your ideas?
VD: No. I had a Russian phase – decided to read all the Russian Solzhenitsyn-type books, you know, the gulags and the this, that and the other, so I had a phase of that. My father was very pro-Russia from the war, he’d always been very pro-Russian, ever since he’s been in the war and seen what they’d been through. And therefore he was always, as I say, he was always very [pro-Russian. Even though Stalin ands the things that came afterwards, I mean you can’t, nobody could justify any of those things, but anyway….
VG: So Solzhenitsyn would have been a kind of undermining of the heroism of the Stalin regime in a sense.
VD: Well yes, because he was against the gulags and the repression and the way free speech was stifled and well, all the rest of it. But anyway, that was the sort of thing I was reading… I wasn’t… but I didn’t… I was too busy just getting on with life in the general sense. I was involved in all sorts of things but not in a co-ordinated organised fashion. You know, I was a student who just turned up at various demos and suchlike and so on. I wasn’t a member of any campaigning group as such.
VG: Can I just go back to you’re a levels ‘cos I don’t think you said what A levels you actually studied.
VD: Oh – maths, physics, chemistry and general studies. Because I did engineering at university I actually had to work quite hard, because it’s one of those syllabuses where you’ve got to do a lot of hours in the syllabus because you’ve got to do a lot of experiments and things like that. You don’t get a lot of free time. You’re not like your English Literature students who seem to swan around reading and getting involved in all these campaigns and things. The Engineering Faculty, as it was when I was there, they… we seemed to spend most of our time actually studying, we didn’t get involved in a lot of extra-curricular stuff.
VG: I forgot to ask you which university you went to.
VD: Sheffield. Oh, anyway, so that… when I came out of university I then got married and that was another diversion, if you like, from political activity – buying a house, getting married and all those sort of things, so I didn’t really do anything.
VG: Was that in Sheffield as well?
VD: No, we moved to St Albans ‘cos I got a job in Hatfield and my first husband got a job working for the GLC.
VG: So what was your first job?
VD: Engineering graduate down at de Havilland’s, down near… in Hatfield. Working on the production line, sorting out the prototypes for the… what became the one four six airplane.
VG: Was that a military airplane or a civil one?
VD: No, I said I wasn’t going to work on… I wouldn’t work on…. When I look back, I said I wouldn’t work on a military airplane, I wanted to work on civil airplanes. It was a bit of a moot point but… especially when I consider where I actually ended up, which many years later I actually ended up working on all defence projects, because everything got amalgamated into one and you ended up, you couldn’t not be working on defence projects if you were working on stuff with BAE Systems and all the rest of it.
VG: So what kind of engineering course had you done?
VG: And did you find it stressful, being a woman in that situation? Were you the only woman?
VD: There were three of us out of 83. One of them hated it and dropped it as soon as she finished and went into teaching and the other two of us did quite well… very well. Got the best degrees and so on. I don’t know what happened to the other woman, I never kept in touch with her. I wasn’t that friendly with her.
VG: Do you want to stop there?
VD: We can stop and have a think…. But my formal political activities started when I started work, when I joined the trade union movement because that structured what I was doing rather than just being someone who had all these vague ideas. I started getting involved in campaigns and suchlike, and of course, once…
VG: Can I ask how you got involved in the union?
VD: I got involved in the union because discovered, when I started work, that the three graduates from three different universities… and I had the best degree and was being paid the least because was a woman. And I discovered that when the Equal Pay Act came in and they called me in and they said, ‘We’re going to be paying you x-amount more a week because you’re now going to be on equal pay.’ And I didn’t know I wasn’t on equal pay and I was so angry that I went and joined the… went and found out which union – which I should have known anyway. I mean, when I look back, I think to myself, well, why wasn’t I already in the union? But obviously I’d missed out. The induction course couldn’t have been very good ‘cos, you know, they should have introduced you and said which unions you could be involved in and all the rest of it, but they obviously didn’t with me. Anyway, so I joined what was TASS in those days.
VG: So how long after you started working did the… I think it was in 1976, wasn’t it, the Equal Pay Act?
VD: 75, 76.
VG: So how long after you’d started working there did they call you in?
VD: Well, I started in 74, working, and it wasn’t long because I joined the union in 75 and then after that, once I started, once I joined the union I started going to meetings – being again, the only woman in the union branch. I got sent off to all sorts of women’s conferences and that was where I really started getting involved. And I started doing all sorts of things and ended up sitting on national committees and all the rest of it for the union.
VG: Did that have an effect on your family life… in your relationship? Was your husband supportive of what you were doing?
VD: In theory, yes – in practice, no. He always said… he always used to say, ‘Go out and earn as much as you like and do all these things’, but he didn’t actually really want me to. When I look back… because for example, if I said that I was going to a union meeting, he would say , ‘Oh well, I’ll go to the social club’, and he’d go off to the social club, so that by the time I’d got home… he got home at night there was always going to be somebody in, with the lights on and the curtains closed and the tea ready, regardless of what time I‘d been doing anything to.
VG: So you mean you got the tea ready.
VD: Yes. See what I mean? ‘I support you, you can do whatever you like, but don’t inconvenience me.’ When I… I mean, that’s a bit unfair, that’s a sweeping generalisation, he was very supportive in some respects. And he used to discuss things with me, he was very good at discussing things that I was involved in with me and he had a very… he was a very, very bright chap, I mean, he had a very sharp mind and he would pick out flaws in arguments and throw them at me and… so it would help me think things through, sort things out, so from that point of view he was very good.
VG: So did you have quite similar philosophies, then?
VD: We did at one point, but he became a small businessman and then he became an asset-stripper and then he became… he went into various other things, so he went off on a different – a completely different – direction after we split up.
VG: Do you want to stop now?
VG: So you were telling me that in 1984 you’d moved to a new job.
VD: Yes. In 1984 I went to Marconi Avionics, up from Lucas Aerospace, on the same industrial estate.
VG: And what was your role there?
VD: I ran the production unit and it was a big department, it was on two sites. I had 104 people working for me.
VG: And what were Lucas aerospace making?
VD: It was the air-borne early warning system, the one that the government cancelled, the one that got made redundant. But it was… it was fun. Enjoyed that job, it was complicated, it was interesting – challenging, I think is the phrase.
VG: Had you ever managed that number of people before?
VD: No, no, it was all… it was one of the better jobs that I had. On the whole I’ve quite enjoyed my career, although I sometimes wonder and look back and think, ‘Should I have done something different?’ You know, been a landscape gardener or…
VG: Why? Because you felt you haven’t used your creativity?
VD: Well, because like so many women – I don’t know, men as well – at the time I was coming out of school, it was, ‘Do you want to be a nurse, do you want to be a this, do you want to do that?’ It didn’t seem to… nobody seemed to offer any alternatives that might be considered to be slightly more interesting or different, you know. ‘Go to university, do a degree, and then feed yourself into the sausage machine’ – ‘Get a job’ – in inverted commas – and from then on you’re almost on the treadmill and you just end up where it takes you.
VG: Did your parents have any influence on what job you chose, do you think, or what career path…
VD: My father laughed when I said I wanted to be an engineer, which irritated me to the point where I thought, ‘I‘ll show you!’ A bit like when I went to an evening class to do something like make-up and manicures or something – just one of those silly little things – once, when I was in St Albans. He said, ‘It’s nice to see you doing a womanly thing for once.’ So you see, my father was supposedly – well, he was – a this and a that and the other, but he still had all the prejudices of his era because he’d been brought up in a… you know….
VG: That was the culture of the time – you would never… you can’t escape the culture.
VD: No, no.
VG: And what about your mum? Was she supportive?
VD: Oh yes. Take on the world deal… do whatever you want to do…. Show ‘em. Anyway, so I went there, went to Marconi, and again, wasn’t involved in union work on the site – although I used to… because I was the manager of these people, they used to have to come and negotiate with me. And they used to have the most dismal reps, ‘cos it was always the chap who didn’t want to have to do it. And there was one… I mean, he was such a nice chap, you know, a sort of polite chap that put his head round the door and said, ‘Do you mind if I bother you?’ That was his opening stance and then he would sit down and start, ‘We’ve got a bit of a problem here, there and everywhere, and this, that and the other’ – and he’d be apologising for the fact that they’d got a problem that he was bringing to you. And then I would try and suggest to him that maybe a way of approaching it might be…. You know, it was all the wrong way round. But I was still involved in various… all the usual things.
VG: Right. Well, you were saying how you managed 120 people and the union negotiation wasn’t that wonderful.
VD: Yes, the reps I used to deal with from… mainly from ASTMS… now it was MSF, but they were ex-ASTMS reps, and it was always the person that didn’t want to do it and wasn’t very good at it, ‘cos it was ‘buggins turn’ and so on. And I used to have to try and buoy them up and suggest to them what they might ask for in their negotiations. I mean, it was all the wrong way round – but it used to make me laugh.
VG: So how many people worked in the whole of that…. Where that firm was based?
VD: It was about 1,000 of us over two sites.
VG: And were most people unionised at that time?
VD: Shop-floor certainly was. They were the AUEW. And the offices were – the design offices were, and some of the other offices were, but there was patches that weren’t. GEC didn’t encourage trade unions – which is not to say that that should make a difference, but it wasn’t like British Aerospace where they had a sort of hierarchy of trade unions involved, well set down committees and things like that. GEC was very anti, it was very anti. But I still did all my women’s stuff, still raced around the countryside doing… organising women’s conferences. And at that point – about 87, 88, 89 – with the Labour Party, it was about getting women into Parliament, that was one of the big things, trying to get women short-listed for winnable parliamentary seats.
VG: Did you think of standing?
VD: No, I didn’t.
VG: Did anyone suggest it to you?
VD: No, they didn’t. Probably because although I was in the Labour Party and although I did get involved in Labour Party politics up to a point, I’ve never been a… you know… it was one of the things I kept… I managed to keep a low profile in, somehow. I’m not sure how I managed to do that, to be perfectly frank, but there was always… there was a big ‘hoo-ha’ about the chap who wanted to stand as the candidate for Milton Keynes South-East, which was the winnable… they thought it was the winnable seat. He was leader of the council. They said they wanted a woman and oh, it was… So they offered him the other Milton Keynes seat, which he didn’t think was winnable, so they turned it down. And it does happen that in 97 – not 92, but in 97, with the Tony Blair landslide – it did in fact go to his best friend, who won it by forty-seven, a majority of forty-seven. But anyway, so there was… party politics were coming into these things, but we arranged meetings with people like… we had people like Glenda Jackson and MEPs – there was one or two very good women MEPs – coming and talking to us about their work and what they were doing. So we started to go more political – party political – into the mainstream rather than campaigning on issues, like pay or equal pay or whatever. And that kept us quiet and busy for a while. Until eventually, of course, we got our Tony Blaire government – sat up all night and watched on the television.
VG: As Portillo went.
VD: Yes – ‘Where were you when Portillo went? Did you see the Portillo moment?’
VG: What about the work situation, then? The bosses must have known you were a union woman – did they?
VD: They must have done. They didn’t ever really say much to me about it. When I look back, I was very naïve about what they probably knew about me. They probably
Knew a lot more about me than I ever thought they did. ‘Cos I tended to take the attitude, as long as I wasn’t upsetting their apple-cart, just quietly getting on with doing what I thought was a good job and also doing my union work outside, you know, not using their time or premises or anything like that. Only officially in the….
(The session is interrupted by someone entering the room)
VG: So what you were telling me is that, although you were active in the union outside the workplace, you weren’t involved in joint shop stewards’ groupings and things like that inside the workplace?
VG: So you weren’t really a threat of any kind to the management in that sense?
VD: Well, I didn’t see myself as a threat of any kind. But I suspect, as I say, that I was being naïve about that and I was being watched much more carefully than I thought.
VG: Well, that was a period of – as is now – that there were well-known blacklists of people and people weren’t getting jobs… in the AUEW….
VD: Yes, people I actually knew were on blacklists.
VG: So were they actually getting work, or were they out of work because of it?
VD: I’m not sure. I just know that there were blacklists around and there was various things. I mean, within one of our groups… ‘cos we were undergoing yet another reorganisation into Amicus… then the people that had been on the left in TASS… Of course, TASS was very left, so if you were on the left in TASS, you were basically in the Communist… more or less in the Communist Party or very left-wing Labour … Then they were being purged first of all by MSF to some extent, not because of the politics, the personality or whether it was just a downright power struggle, but whatever it was, there was a lot of inter-union….
VD: Yes. Jockeying for position and general nastiness. People accusing other people of fraud and expense things. Oh, there was all sorts of things. It was not a nice time in the union. So it was better… I found it better, personally, to get on with campaigning for the things I was interested in, you know, outside of the union and outside of the workplace and just get one with it. I dealt with the workplace as best I could, as I say.
VG: So did you have a position in your union branch, then?
VD: < ? >
VG: Did you go to meetings?
VD: Yes, I went to meetings, always went to meetings. I’ve always been a very….
VG: Assiduous, is that the right word?
VG: So had it… it had flicked over to become Amicus at that time, had it?
VD: It was in two bits. There was, you know one of these unions that was going to be the something or other section and this, that and the other. And I became… because Amicus, they had a…well, MSF as it was to start with…..had a new North Thames region. I became the secretary of the region, the union region.
VG: So you had quite a significant position, then? From management’s point of view, they would have known that you had quite a significant position in the union.
VD: Mmm… So I….
VG: And would that have involved negotiations at the senior level inside the union or was that all done by the executive?
VD: No, it was all done by the executive, but it involved lots of campaigns. We covered a large area – Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, all round Oxford, all the way down to London.
VG: And so did you have to move around yourself? Did you go round to branches in the area?
VD: Yes, yes. And, well, just generally try to ‘gee’ people up to do things, to be frank.
VG: So you would have gone to a branch meeting and you would have had a position on that agenda, then, to speak as regional branch secretary, giving a report on what was going on.
VD: Yes, whatever campaigns were running and whatever. I mean, the blood transfusion service that they tried to close, and there was a fight for that, and there was, you know, all the… You name it, there was something going on all the time. ‘Course, there was a lot of redundancies, ‘cos there was a lot of car factories closing.
VG: Was this before Labour came to power?
VD: It was all that sort of time, all around the late 80s, early 90s, and then through the 90s, ‘cos even when Labour came to power it didn’t all become sweetness and light.
VG: So how did you feel, then, when Labour came to power? Did you have expectations?
VD: Yes – I’m naïve, oh, naïve… you see I’ve always been naïve when I look back, and I think, ‘Why didn’t you learn more from things that happened before?’ But I always thought, ‘Oh, it’ll be different this time, it’ll be better this time.’ I mean, even people that I knew that weren’t particularly keen Labour supporters were all enthusiastic about this bright shiny new government and Tony Blair and all the rest of it. You know, it was going to be a special time, yes. Anyway, so that was… Then in about 1998, 1999, the chap who was President of our region got voted onto the executive of the union, which meant that there was a position, so I took over as the President of the region, and I wasn’t as good a President as I had been a Secretary. I was never as good at the front as I was as the one who was organising the bullets at the back. But…so that’s what I ended up doing up until the time I left to move up to the north-east in 2000.
VG: And so how was that role.. what did that role as chair of the region mean, then?
VD: It just meant you chaired the regional council and you were supposed to go out to the branches and talk to them and do pep talks, and go round the reps and go round groups of reps, and all that sort of thing.
VG: How did you do that? How did you fit that in with your work?
VD: Badly, which is one of the reasons… the chap who’d done it before had been a convenor at one of the car plants and he got a lot of time off to do these kinds of things, but of course I didn’t, so if anything I did… I had to take holiday or finish work early on one day and, you know, make up the hours another day and all that sort of stuff, so it wasn’t a very satisfactory… but we all knew it was part.. when I say part-time I mean temporary, because this organisation was… Amicus was being reorganised and it wasn’t going to go on. ‘Cos our region was being reorganised out. There were two regions in Amicus that… there were two regions in MSF who always voted against the executive and ours was one of them. It was a thorn in their side and the… Occasionally there were about six or eight people on the executive that tended to vote against the executive and the other thirty-six voted for the executive, and they were gradually <whishering?> us out. And when they reorganised after the Amicus amalgamation or whatever you want to call it, restructuring, then they were going to get rid of our region, so it was always going to be a temporary post. So I was a stop-gap.
VG: And was that aggro with your region, was it for political reasons?
VD: Yes, it was political. We were left-wing.
VG: Because you were to the left?
VG: Was that the communist left or a mixed grouping of left?
VD: Mixed group, definitely. A lot of Labour Party. I mean, Barbara’s husband, who died quite a long time before this, he and two of his pals were members of the Communist Party and the other two used to intimidate me. Not intentionally, it was just their attitude, they were so hard. And Mike was such a nice person, such a friendly, helpfulk, pleasant person. And Barbara was in the Labour Party and various other people were in the Labour Party as well, so it was quite a cross-over.
VG: Did any of the so-called Trotskyist groupings, Leninist groupings, have any influence at that time – or not in your union?
VD: Not in our bit of our union. There was in London, the London region, they had all sorts of fallings out about… different groups… they fell out amongst themselves. We didn’t fall out amongst ourselves, we fell out with the executive of the union… but …. Regularly. But the London region, they could manage to divide and rule.
VG: Without any help….
VD: Without any help, yes. When I look back, I mean I don’t remember who was in what exactly, but I used to smile then about all the little factions of the, I don’t know, the RCP and the WP, and this, that and the other, and the, you know, the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, as in ‘Life of Brian’, all wearing different headbands but supposedly fighting for the same cause.
VG: It must have been a very stressful time, though, if you weren’t a convenor, you weren’t getting time off.
VD: It was, it was very stressful, because Bill having been made redundant.
VG: What date was he made redundant?
VD: 94 – 1993.
VG: And how old was Bill?
VD: <Fifty?> Not a good age to be made redundant. The union fought that one and did get him some extra compensation. One of my friends in the union went down to Rochester and let it be known that there were certain things under the rugs that perhaps people wouldn’t want brought out into the open in a tribunal, or whatever.
VG: And was it because his job had gone or area of work had gone?
VD: The job… an area of work had gone and they redistributed the management, but they redistributed the management into the faces that fit management.
VG: And so did Bill get another job after that?
VD: No. So he was at home, with Paul, and I was at work full-time and trying to do this union activity, and then Paul moved on.
(End of track)