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1945 Industry Must Serve

The labour of history

Terry McCarthy is a well known historian, educationist and writer, originally from London but who now lives in St Leonards. HOT’s Sean O’Shea talks with him about his background, involvement in the National Museum of Labour History (NMLH), his charitable work, the EU referendum and the future of the labour movement.

Could you say a bit about your background and how you became interested in politics?

I was brought up in London docklands. I left school at fifteen and went to university when I was twenty eight beginning with Oxford and then Sussex University. I became interested in politics from a very early age. In my teenage years I was an active member of the anti-fascist Yellow Star Movement. I was also a member of CND from the early days and a member of the Young Communist League.

Who were some of the people in the labour movement that have most inspired you?

My heroes were Jack Dash, Henry Fry and Bert Ramelson. Jack was famous for his role in the London dock strikes and a strong advocate of pensioners’ rights. Henry Fry was a member of the Independent Labour Party, but changed to the Communist Party and remained a strong activist and founder of the National Museum of Labour History. Bert Ramelson was Secretary of the Leeds branch of the Communist Party and worked closely with the National Union of Mineworkers.

For a number of years you were director of the National Museum of Labour History (NMLH), Manchester – now known as the People’s History Museum. This facility houses a large collection of archival material related to the history of the struggle of working people for equality and democracy in the UK. Could you say a bit about your work there?

I was a founder member of the National Museum of Labour History which had strong links with the Communist Party. The centre was used as a base for providing education in the history of the labour movement. We also worked closely with the GLC. We organised a travelling exhibition which went the length and breadth of the country. We also supported campaigns such as the miners’ strike and I was personally attacked in the Sunday Times by Andrew Neil about my involvement in the Wapping dispute (1987). I was an active shop stewards’ FOC (Father of Chapel) in the printing industry. A court injunction was brought out against me during the strikes against Industrial Relations Act 1971. I ignored the directive. Clive Jenkins, late General Secretary of ASTMS (the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs), said we were bringing the Labour Museum into disrepute by such activities.

Though the museum was not supported or approved by the establishment, it was opened by Harold Wilson and re-launched by Neil Kinnock. When Harold Wilson resigned he often visited the museum. I got on very well with Wilson. I had done some work for him when his first Labour government wanted to introduce social reform such as decriminalising homosexuality and ending capital punishment. He wanted a group of young people to advocate these reforms to shop stewards and conveners.

Unfortunately with the demise of the GLC, and Labour losing control of Tower Hamlets Council, the collection went to Manchester where the People’s History Museum came into being. This had a totally different political philosophy from the Museum of Labour History. The word ‘Labour’ was dropped from its description and in its statement of aims, the ‘struggle for socialism’ was replaced by the phrase ‘the people’s struggle for democracy’. While the banners and other artefacts were well looked after, they were never intended as just museum pieces. Unfortunately the resource lost its connection with the living movement, and the People’s History Museum became little more than a museum of labour.


What did you do after your time at the NMLH?

On leaving the NMLH I worked with Lord Soper, a prominent Methodist minister, socialist and pacifist, helping the homeless and those suffering from alcohol or drug abuse. I then formed my own charity, working with children with special educational needs. I also worked with John Bird to set up the Big Issue magazine. All this time I was working as an external tutor for several trade union teaching conveners and shop stewards.

I have written several books and articles including An Abridged History of the Trades and Labour Movement and A History of the Labour Party, Myth and Reality. I continue to run Labour movement conferences and related activities and am a member of the Labour Party and Momentum Group Hastings.

Many on the left are understandably pleased with Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, but party divisions remain and there are complaints about Jeremy’s leadership style. What’s your view on these issues?

Since its very earliest days there has been a struggle between the left and right, and what we have to remember is the pendulum has swung very much to the right since the birth of New Labour. Jeremy Corbyn’s political programme would fit nicely into Clement Attlee’s (Leader of the Labour Party 1935 to 1955) political programme in 1945, and then Attlee was considered to be on the centre of the party.

The two men are also similar in personality and leadership style. Attlee was not charismatic but saw himself as a spokesman or chairman for the party and worked hard behind the scenes in committees and holding various factions together. When appropriate he was happy to let others take the lead such as his Health Minister, Aneurin Bevan, who played such an important role in the creation of the National Health Service in 1948. Attlee’s government also carried out their manifesto commitment for nationalisation of basic industries and public utilities.

By 1951 about 20% of the British economy had been taken into public ownership. There were significant material gains for workers in the form of higher wages, reduced working hours, and improvements in working conditions, especially in regards to safety.

Admittedly however this phase of nationalisation failed to provide workers with a greater say or ‘control’ in the actual running of the industries and services in which they worked. So, even if this element were re-adopted as a policy by conference, it would certainly be a challenge to implement.

If people think that Corbyn is having a hard time, it’s worth recalling the treatment of Attlee. For his troubles in building the NHS and nationalising the banks and utilities he was denounced as a being a ‘communist’, accused of trying to ‘bankrupt the country’ and ‘bringing back the Gestapo.’

Many feel that the heart of the Labour Party stopped beating when Clause Four was removed from its constitution in 1995 (its deletion was referred to as a ‘revision’). As a reminder to the reader I quote the original version of the controversial Clause Four drafted by Sidney Webb in November 1917 and adopted by the Labour Party in 1918. Key words are in bold:

To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.

Do you think that this historic definition of an equal, just and democratic society is ever likely to be revived by the Labour Party?

Clause Four, part four is very much relevant to today’s situation and all polls show that the majority are in favour of the nationalisation of railways at least. The nationalisation of ‘all the utilities’ however would be a challenge.

The fact that Corbyn won with such an overwhelming victory shows that if the ground work is done we can put a socialist manifesto to the voters. This however will need patience, hard work and commitment.

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The EU has been described by Yanis Varoufakis, the former Greek finance minister, as a ‘democracy free zone’ which has little respect for the wishes of national electorates – though he still thinks we should vote to remain. Do you think we should vote in or out and why?

I’m old school in the Bennite tradition and would recommend voting out. This would provide us with a better opportunity for creating socialism. Under the EU rules it’s debatable if we would be allowed to re-nationalise the utilities and other services. In my opinion, workers rights, like their wages, are likely to be eroded rather than extended as the EU expands.

The rise of the far right in Europe is also a concern. Consider the possibility of fast tracking Turkey with its record on human rights! Finally the treatment of Greece is not a good omen for socialists. The people of Greece elected a socialist government committed to anti-austerity but their mandate was overruled by the Troika. Like the Irish at the time of the Lisbon treaty referendum, they were asked to go back and vote again until the required response was given. Not a good example of democracy!

The Electoral Reform Society continue to advocate for change to the electoral system to ensure everyone’s vote counts in spite of the poor support for change in the 2011 referendum. What do you think are the chances for change and where is the Labour Party on this issue?

It will be up to conference to progress this issue. Many of the younger members will insist on the further democratisation of the party and electoral system, so the issue is likely to be scaled up the agenda in spite of resistance from some elements within the Labour Party itself.

Marx believed that it was the role of the working class to transform society and achieve full ‘social emancipation’ not just ‘formal political rights’ or improvements to prevailing working conditions – as important as these are. What is your view of what the future holds for the labour movement?

The future is in the hands of the people and, as I said earlier, there will be a need for discipline, commitment and hard work. People will need to be engaged in their own communities and they will also need to learn about the history of the labour movement and about socialism.

It’s worth recalling that the abolition of history was a key step taken by the totalitarian regime in Orwell’s novel, 1984. Unfortunately history has now lost much of its place in the national curriculum and market driven reforms have cut direct funding of the humanities.

Students of economics have protested recently about the lack of reference to the history of economics on their courses. They are fed on a diet of neo-classicism and neo-liberalism with an emphasis on a ‘scientific’ approach and abstract mathematical models. They would like to hear about alternative approaches to economics such as Marxism, Schumpeter, and Keynesianism. It is interesting to note how Keynes, who was a liberal advocating a middle way between Socialism and Capitalism, is now regarded by some as far left!

End Notes:


  • Terry McCarthy’s An Abridged History of the Trades and Labour Movement and A History of the Labour Party, Myth and Reality are in pdf and available to read free on the internet.
  • For more information on rethinking economics see: And for the really keen, Yanis Varoufakis’s analysis and critique of the global economic crisis, The Global Minotaur: America, Europe and the Future of the Global Economy, can be read free at:
  • All pictures/images are reproduced with the permission of Terry McCarthy.


SOS June 2016

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Posted 19:26 Sunday, Jun 5, 2016 In: SOS

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