The Story of Val Duncan’s Political Life.
Vicki Gilbert – 11th Nov 2011
This appreciation was first published in North East History Volume 43, 2012
Val Duncan was born Valerie Reynolds in 1953 in Leicester. Val’s father, Bill, came from a mining family in County Durham and her mother, Enid, from a farming community in Montrose, Scotland. The family lived in the Midlands mainly due to Val’s father’s employment as a Building Inspector for local authorities and Val grew up in Leamington and Warwick because her father wanted to work near the family. Val said she had a very happy and free childhood, remembering going off for days with a gang of friends and only returning home for meals.
Val also grew up with the dual influences of her mother’s feminism and her father’s socialism. However, her mother worked shifts as a nurse resulting in Val spending much time in her father’s company. He was an active trade unionist and was a regional representative for the National Association of Local Government Officers (NALGO), taking his daughter to union meetings from the age of three. Val spoke about his influence often, recalling helping him put leaflets out for the local Labour Party. Her Mum was never overtly political or a member of any political party or women’s group but she had a fierce sense of equal rights and independence which she instilled into her daughter. Val said this was central to her deciding to become an engineer and to go to university to train for that; and even though her Dad was sceptical about her ambition, that only made her more determined. Later, Val observed that her father had been right about the male dominated culture which as a woman, you couldn’t escape.
Val told me she had found school boring at first but later, thanks to teachers who inspired her, she became more integrated and an ‘eager student’. An early sign of the future activist was the campaign she led against Year 11 girls having to wear the school uniform. The campaign was successful but typical of Val, she then saw the other side of the argument i.e. the fashion competition amongst the other pupils. However, she couldn’t express her change of view out of loyalty to her friends. Her politics from that point became underlined with a belief in equality for all and her support for the underdog. At the same time she determined to become an engineer and studied: AL Maths, Physics, Chemistry and General Studies.
Val was offered a place at the University of Sheffield to take a BSc degree in Engineering. Val also became involved in student politics and campaigned against the introduction of higher fees. There were only three women out of 83 students on that course and the women were awarded the best degrees. One of the women went into teaching but Val and her friend found senior jobs in engineering.
Having completed her MA, ‘Women into Science and Engineering’ Val looked for work as an Engineer. 1974 was a key year for Val, she married for the first time, moved to St. Albans and started working at De Havilland’ where she worked on the production line sorting out prototypes for the 416, a civil aeroplane. Later, despite a promise to herself that she would not work on military defence work, she said when everything became amalgamated it was unavoidable if working at BAE systems.
Recalling why she first joined a union, Val discovered that three other male graduates from different universities, who had started work at same time as her, were paid more even though Val had more qualifications and a better degree. She became so angry after the management advised her that due to the ‘Equal Pay Act’ 1976 she could now have equal pay with the same colleagues she had worked alongside for two years. Val’s response was to join TASS (Technical and Supervisory Staff) where she found she was the only woman in that branch and was sent to all sorts of women’s conferences. This was the start of her lifelong union involvement, which included sitting on national Union Committees.
In 1984, Val joined Marconi Avionics, a part of the GEC Consortium, as a Production Line Manager, responsible for 104 workers based on two sites. GEC were unionised with the shop-floor being mainly Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers (AUEW). As a manager Val had to negotiate with trade union representatives, who were mainly members of the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial staffs (ASTMS later called MSF). Val, still an active member of TASS herself, said it used to make her laugh that she had to buoy up and advise the union reps who were supposedly negotiating on behalf of their members with her in a managerial role, as this was the wrong way around.
In these years, Val was still racing around the countryside after work nd always in her own time, organising Regional Women’s Conferences on behalf of the union and working with the Labour Party trying to get more women into Parliament. Surprisingly no-one ever suggested Val might consider standing as a Labour candidate, and she never thought of doing it either.
Val became Secretary of the North Thames Area MSF/AMICUS and then Regional President in 1999. She preferred to organise rather than to front as this was a core part of her personality. Val was greatly respected as an excellent organiser and administrator, as well as a tactical thinker. She went around branches encouraging the Union’s campaigns at the end of late 1980s, early 1990s, as there were lots of redundancies with car factories closing. There was also an internal purge within the union during the merger with ASTMS and there was a lot of jockeying for positions and general nastiness. Val recalled this was not a nice time. Eventually Val’s region, which was left wing, was excluded by restructuring for its continuous voting against the executive. Val came to the conclusion later, that much of the Trade Union leadership had been incorporated and observed that there was more bullying inside the unions than there had been in the work place, from her experience.
Val and her first husband split up after they discovered their views on life were opposed. She reflected on how she discovered his purported support did not extend to sharing house-work or making the tea for her after late nights at union meetings. She later married Bill, who she met at Marconi as a colleague and together they fostered Paul, offering a home-life through his early teenage years. Bill, who was made redundant in 1993, became Paul’s main carer. When Val retired they moved to the north-east, to live near her Mum and Dad at Tynemouth.
As a lifelong Socialist, Val worked in Women’s organisations, anti-war groups and the Labour Party, but mostly in the Trade Union Movement, where she was often the only woman at meetings. She become Regional Secretary for the TASS/MSF in the Milton Keynes area and represented that Region on the union’s National Women’s Committee as well as at the union’s National Conference. Val became Secretary of Tynemouth Branch Labour Party in the late 1990s but after being a lifelong member, she resigned over the Labour Government’ Iraq War. Val went on to found an anti-war group at Whitley Bay with friends, which was possibly the only group to have a Tory, Liberal Democrat and Labour Party member sharing the Chair.
At this time Val also became Secretary of the North East Labour History Society, supported the campaign against privatisation of the local Metro, was a supporter of the Tyne and Wear Left Unity group, helped to form the Socialist choir: ‘Making Waves’, for which she wrote songs, and helped carry through a local school-based project to campaign for greater youth facilities for local teenagers; all this whilst devoting time to her wider family.
Val joined the National Assembly of Women and in 2006 became its National Secretary, remaining in the post until her cancer prevented her from continuing. She enjoyed representing NAW at the Women’s International Democratic Federation in Venezuela in 2007. Val described her work as an engineer, trade union and political activist as fun, complicated, challenging and interesting. However she did reflect about whether she might have been a landscape gardener, and mentioned the lack of early careers advice and feeling she had been caught up in a ‘sausage machine’ treadmill she could not get off.
Val loved line dancing, meeting up socially with her Post Office colleagues, playing the piano, reading, swimming, dancing with her Dad at a local social club but most of all she loved Paul. At Val’s funeral, Paul said he regretted never calling her ‘Mum’, but she regarded him as her son and saw her grandchild two days before she died last November 2011 aged 58.
Val was a wonderful, loyal, kind, gentle, compassionate woman. One never heard a critical word said about her, only positive comments. She will be missed for her balanced and creative political advice as well as her loving personal support. She stoically fought her cancer and will be remembered and loved by the vast number of colleagues, friends and family for the time she shared with us all. Val was a true Sister.