Jim Murray 1929 – 1989

There are several sources of Information about Jim Murray:

  • Hilary Wainwright’s obituary of Jim Murray, published in the Guardian. Hilary was based in the North East at the time of the Workers’ Report on Vickers, of which she was co-author, and she also saw the closure of the Elswick works.
  • In this YouTube video which Hilary shot, Jim tours the Vickers Elswick works which are under demolition and recounts the history of the Elswick works and what they meant to Newcastle’s West End.
  • This final piece by Peter Nicklin and John Stirling adds some extra detail which supplements Hilary’s necessarily short newspaper obituary.
  • Some of the information in the Nicklin/Stirling piece was drawn from the chapter on Jim Murray in Andy McSmith’s Faces of Labour (Verso 1996). Well worth reading if you can get hold of it.


Jim Murray: An independent socialist

Hilary Wainwright, Guardian, 23 January 1989

When the management at the Vickers arms factory at Newcastle brought together the best craftsmen on the Tyne, they made a mistake, said Jim Murray, who for twenty years was the shop stewards’ convener. “The highly skilled craftsmen, with all their confidence in their trade, their job and themselves, were going to be very militant. Vickers had created a breeding ground for malcontents.”

In this description of the skilful and stroppy men of Elswick Jim Murray, who has died at the age of 59, was also describing himself. He came to the historic Elswick works after a year or two as an engineer at sea – as was the custom for apprentices on the Tyne – and completing a seven-year apprentice-ship at Clarke Chapman’s in his native Gateshead. For 14-year-old school-leavers like Jim, an engineering apprenticeship was “the Tyneside passport to success.”

Well before his early death Jim Murray was a famous figure on Tyneside, but his success was not conventional. He viewed the climb up the ladder of office with a mixture of cynicism and necessity. He strove for power for himself, for his members, for the northeast, for the Irish, Chileans and other people with whom he felt a bond and for his independent kind of socialism. But he never crawled; and had a barbed contempt for those who did. For years he was a Tyne and Blyth delegate to the powerful national council of the Amalgamated Engineering Union: he was regularly elected to the AEU’s national appeals committee, of which he was at one time chairman. But the syndicalist streak in his politics meant that it was his influence on shop-floor trades-unionism of which he was most proud. As convener at Vickers he was a leader of a movement of shop stewards in engineering companies up and down the Tyne. They supported one another’s struggles, organised against the legislation of Conservative and Labour governments, promoted shop stewards’ combined committees across the multi-plant corporations: and most creatively, in 1973-75, developed and supported the new Industrial policies of the Labour Party — “Workers’ control with management participation” was the slogan promoted by the Tyne shop stewards’ conference, of which Jim was chairman.

As the lay president of the AEU’s district committee he gave these unofficial movements some official clout. He was twice Labour councillor in Gateshead, where he lived with his eight children and where his wife, Pat, has been a councillor for nearly 20 years. He stood twice as Parliamentary candidate, including in 1970 at Louth, where he raised the Labour vote above the national swing against Jeffrey Archer. But he never got the safe Labour seat or national trades-union position that he might have had he got his hair cut, metaphorically and literally.

He was a dissident within the left as well. At the time of the campaign to change the Labour Party’s constitution, his independent cast of mind influenced the course of party history. At the 1979 Labour Party conference the AEU’s delegation held the balance and the delegation was split 34-34, plus Jim Murray. Jim Murray supported the reselection of MPs and “democratic” procedures for drawing up the manifesto. But he believed that, with re-selection, MPs should elect the leader: so he voted against the electoral college. The electoral college. he thought, would give the leader too much power.

He was very much a Geordie and at times shamelessly sexist. But he was full of contradictions. His non-sectarian socialism led him to help manage the Socialist Centre bookshop, Days of Hope, which brought Virago to Tyneside. And he ad-mired women like Ellen Wilkinson and Olive Schreiner as writers and as fighters. Whether he read Virago books I do not know, but his love of reading and other cultural pleasures was another aspect of his dissidence. He would remain in the Cradlewell Arms immersed in Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano if he thought he could skip the committee meeting at the Socialist Centre next door. He would prefer to listen in the Bridge Hotel to the Beggarmen’s Irish fiddlers or the satirical songs of Alex Glasgow if there was nothing vital on the agenda.

He was at home equally in his convener’s cabin at Elswick and the magnificent building of the Literary and Philosophical Society, and had either haven sold Newcastle Scotch Ale he would never have needed to look elsewhere.

In the summer of 1984 the convener’s cabin, along with the rest of Elswick. was swept away by the bulldozer. The long trades-union campaign to defend the works had been Imaginative. The shop stewards had demanded alternative, socially useful, products to the Vickers tanks: Typically, he went in a trades-union delegation to Iran to see for himself the country that for many years was Vickers main customer. He came back disgusted: ‘There are enormous social, problems: 60 per cent infant mortality through lack of water, and here we are sending them tanks. It is a total waste of our craftsmanship.” Jim blamed the failure at the shop stewards’ campaign partly on the state of the Labour movement. ‘The incorporation of our political and industrial leadership into the-capitalist system has left a vacuum.” His achievement was to use the skill and culture of his region and inspire initiatives capable of filling that vacuum.

Jim Murray, born 22 September 1929: died 18 January 1989


Jim Murray, some further information

Peter Nickln and John Stirling

One of four children, Jim Murray’s father died when he was six, leaving his mother to raise and feed them all in a two-room house in Gateshead. Leaving school at a time of high employment he went straight into an engineering job and straight into the Amalgamated Engineering Union.

Encouraged by his mother, he also became active in Gateshead Labour Party and in both the union and the party he quickly saw the rottenness of some of the self-serving union and party officials. In 1949 he witnessed the expulsion of Gateshead’s Labour MP Konni Zilliacus, accused of being a communist “fellow traveller”.

A Labour councillor in Gateshead for nine years he was remembered by Len Edmondson for his excellent work, especially getting Gateshead council to increase its discretionary student grants to the small number of its young people who made it to university.

Learning was key theme throughout his life. As a twelve year old he spent the money he earned in a part-time job on second-hand books from Newcastle’s Grainger market. As convenor at Vickers Elswick he had his own cabin, and when his union role didn’t demand his time, he would consume the books he always had with him.

Between 1961 and 1979 Jim Murray was the shop stewards’ convenor at Vickers Elswick. Vickers was an archetype of British industrial culture at that time: eight grades of canteen and ten grades of toilets, 15,000 unionised workers in 26 separate unions, with 40-50 separate workshops. He became involved in disputes almost every week. Early in his time at Vickers he witnessed the unwillingness of his local MP, Harry Randall, to defy the party machine to defend 400 jobs at the works. This further convinced him of the uselessness of many party and union officials and of the need for independent shop-floor organisation. His intellect, speaking ability and organisational skills could have secured him a place in parliament or at the top of the union, but these he generally eschewed, sticking to his role among the real people, the ones he always represented.

As convenor of the trades unions at Vickers, Jimmy Murray took an active role in two important developments. Firstly, in the growth of union ‘Combine Committees’. Unions were typically organised at individual workplaces and, beyond that, on a local geographical basis but Multinational companies were typically multi-plant, as was Vickers. Convening meetings of shop stewards across workplaces (a ‘Combine’) was therefore crucial to challenging corporate power and Jimmy was actively involved in the Vicker’s initiative. Secondly, the ‘Combines’ in a number of companies took their lead from the well-known Lucas Aerospace campaign and began to challenge how their companies worked and what they produced – especially in the case of armaments. Jimmy’s work with the Vicker’s shop stewards in this area led to a link with the local Trades Union Studies Information Unit (TUSIU) and the production of ‘A Farewell to Arms?’ and culminated in the work published by Huw Beynon and Hilary Wainwright as ‘The Workers’ Report on Vickers’ (Pluto Press 1979).