Jones, by contrast, saw himself as the workers’ tribune, deriving his authority directly from the shop floor. Throughout his career he strove to increase the power and influence of shop stewards.
He seemed wholly, indeed ostentatiously incorruptible, though he later faced allegations of being a KGB agent. He was certainly contemptuous of luxury — to the very end he lived in a council house . Yet it was at once his strength and his weakness that he operated in blinkers.
While he could be genial enough so long as nothing was at stake, his puritanical sense of righteousness tended to exclude any compromise. Jones’s insistence on seeing issues in black and white — for instance, in dividing the world between “those who work” (virtuous) and “those who make money” (evil) — rendered it fatally easy for him to conclude that intransigence was a moral duty.
His hot temper left him impatient of anyone, even fellow unionists, who doubted his good intentions. “I regarded every trade unionist as my brother or sister,” he recalled, “unless” — ominous rider — “they acted in an uncooperative way.”
His own co-operation, by contrast, was sparingly conferred. In 1969, when Harold Wilson and Barbara Castle attempted to subject the unions to legal sanctions, Jones led the opposition against the Labour government. As the debate raged, he organised a strike against the management of Ford, which was bent on introducing penalties for breaking contracts, and on securing “cooling off” periods before strikes.
In Whitehall, Jones helped to ensure that endless sessions of “beer and sandwiches” at No 10 Downing Street failed to assuage union opposition to Labour’s plans. (“The beer was not very cold,” complained one of the miners, “and the sandwiches were so dry they were turned up at the edges.”) In the end, the Labour government had to be content with a “solemn and binding” voluntary agreement with the unions.
This made it easy for the Tories to claim that Harold Wilson lacked the will to deal with Britain’s industrial problems. No one did more than Jack Jones to secure Labour’s defeat in the general election of 1970.
The new prime minister, Edward Heath, had done what he could while in opposition to establish good relations with union leaders. There had even been an evening at his flat in Albany, when he had played The Red Flag — “not very well”, as Jack Jones remembered.
But the men who had resisted Labour’s attempt to tame the unions were hardly going to support a Tory measure of the same kind. Brushing aside union leaders who seemed inclined to trim, Jones led the protest against the Conservatives’ Industrial Relations Bill. Some 120,000 took part in a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square.
Nevertheless the Bill became law, and in 1972 the TGWU was fined ?55,000 by the new Industrial Relations Court after unofficial action in the docks against the container revolution.
Jones had not originally supported this action; nevertheless, in July, after five dockers had been sent to prison, he was able to use the threat of a national dock strike to secure a general inquiry into working conditions in the ports, chaired by himself and Lord Aldington. Their report suggested measures which would guarantee the dockers a job for life, irrespective of whether there was any work for them to do. Heath felt obliged to accept the recommendations.
Meanwhile, the unions had discovered that it was easy enough to circumvent the Industrial Relations Act. It sufficed to add the clause “This is not a legally enforceable agreement” to contracts, or simply to refuse to register under the Act.
Later in 1972, with inflation out of control, Heath abandoned his defence of free wage bargaining, and sought a voluntary agreement with the unions on the control of prices and the restraint of wages.
Vic Feather, the general secretary of the TUC, seemed prepared to accommodate him, but Jack Jones and Hugh Scanlon, president of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers, remained obdurate, however hard Heath tried to win them round.
The prime minister, Jones conceded, was “a very decent man... He was prepared to be patient and listen to our point of view and our arguments, and, within his limits as a Conservative prime minister, I think he did try to respond.” In his memoirs, Union Man (1986), Jones observed that Heath gained more respect from union leaders than Harold Wilson or Jim Callaghan.
Much good it did him. Jones and Scanlon, “the terrible twins”, were all in favour of statutory control of prices; they utterly refused, though, to contemplate any curb on wage bargaining. Rather, they campaigned for frozen rents and higher pensions — one of their successes was the introduction of the ?10 Christmas bonus for pensioners.
In truth, Jones had no intention of accommodating Heath when he knew he could win a better deal from a Labour government. Early in 1972 a committee had been set up to liaise between the TUC and the Labour Party in determining the policy of the next Labour administration. This was the origin of the “Social Contract”, through which the unions would virtually dictate Labour’s domestic policy.
So, although Jones conceded that Stage Three of the statutory incomes policy which Heath introduced at the end of 1973 had been specially designed to help the working man, there was never any question that he would support it. Instead, he helped to drum up TUC support for the miners’ strike which led to the Conservatives’ defeat in the election of February 1974.
Harold Wilson returned to No 10 Downing Street; Jones, however, was running the country. The Industrial Relations Act was repealed; pensions were increased; an Act was passed to improve health and safety at work; the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) was set up; and employment legislation was drafted to reinforce the closed shop and to enhance the rights and privileges of shop stewards.
The polls duly recorded that most Britons considered Jack Jones the most powerful man in the land. At the same time, though, the narrow margin of Labour’s victory in the election of October 1974 suggested that there was developing resistance to the rule of “Emperor Jones” (as Paul Johnson would dub him).
In theory, Labour and the unions were working together for the general good; in practice, the government was legislating at the unions’ behest without gaining any advantage in return. By the beginning of 1975 the going rate for wage increases was about 30 per cent.
Now it was Labour’s turn to be forced into a statutory incomes policy. Of course, Jones disliked this; he had learnt, though, that the destruction of a Labour government hardly served his ends. He proposed, therefore, that income increases should be limited to the same amount for all, a scheme designed to favour the lower paid. After much haggling with the Chancellor, Denis Healey, this sum was fixed at ?6.
By this time, though, Jones was losing control of the Left-wingers in his own union, whose ambitions he had so assiduously fostered. The Labour government, for its part, was showing increasing scepticism about his ability, and his desire, to hold down wage claims.
It was significant that Healey, in his budget of 1976, took care to make his tax concessions for the low-paid dependent on TUC agreement to the next stage of the incomes policy. The decline of Jones’s influence was also evident in his failure to persuade the government to implement workers’ representation in the boardrooms or his plan for a 35-hour week.
Opposition to Jones within the TGWU surfaced in 1977, when his plea for the union’s continued adherence to the Social Contract was decisively rejected. So when he retired as general secretary the next year, having reached the age of 65, his power was already in decline.
The subsequent “Winter of Discontent”, in which striking workers allowed rubbish to pile up in the streets, and the dead to remain unburied, showed how right Jones had been to warn that the undermining of the Social Contract risked bringing Margaret Thatcher to power. Yet he himself had played a decisive part in ushering in 18 years of Tory rule.
James Larkin Jones was born at Garston, south Liverpool, on March 29 1913. His mother had originally been married to a seaman, with whom she had had a daughter and two sons; after he died she went through a hard time fending for her family until she married a docker. She then had two more sons, of whom Jack (as he was always known) was the younger.
Life was tough, and tuberculosis rife, in York Road, where Jack was brought up. From infancy he was steeped in the mythology of unionism; indeed, his second name reflected his father’s friendship with Jim Larkin, the revolutionary Irish trades unionist.
At the local elementary school, Jack was more interested in football than study, though one of his brothers involved him in the Sea Scouts and even persuaded him to take an interest in Sunday School. Jack would reject Christian dogma, though he would later teach in socialist Sunday Schools.
Aged 13 at the time of the General Strike in 1926, he shared in the sense of betrayal when the strike was called off. Shortly afterwards he was apprenticed to a firm making components for Harland & Wolff, the shipbuilders. Paid five shillings a week to work in appalling conditions, he was soon active in the TGWU, his father’s union, becoming a branch delegate at the age of 17. He had been secretary of his Labour Party ward from the age of 15.
After his firm went bankrupt, he followed his father into the docks, where he began a long struggle against the system of casual employment. Another early and enduring campaign was that for safety at work, originally inspired by the sight of injured dockers being taken away on handcarts.
He discovered, though, that “to speak your mind in the union then was like walking on glass”. His puritanical instincts were particularly offended by the TGWU area secretary, Harry Pugh, who wore a bowler hat, sported a flower in his buttonhole, smoked a cigar and found union jobs for his family — just the kind of man, in short, to inspire his opponents with a devotion to grass-roots democracy.
To prepare himself for future responsibilities, Jack read Marx and Engels, and applied himself to Ruskin College correspondence courses on industrial law and workmen’s compensation. In 1934 he took part in the National Hunger March to London. Later, having been elected Labour councillor for Croxteth Ward, he worked with Bessie Braddock on the public assistance committee.
He joined the Territorial Army, and was shocked to discover that some of the officers were Mosleyites. Soon, however, he was involved in military activity of another kind. Life in the docks brought him into contact with foreign sailors, fostering in him a lifelong concern for the struggle of workers in other countries. In 1937 he left for Spain to fight with the International Brigade in the Civil War — and in addition to act as an emissary from Ernest Bevin to Spanish unions.
The reckless courage of the badly armed and ill-trained men with whom he fought made a deep impression on him. He became a commissar in the Major Attlee Company of the British Battalion, responsible for “political and moral education and vigilance”.
Under fire while attacking Hill 481 on the Ebro river, Jones was surprised to receive a copy of the TGWU’s annual report and accounts from Ernest Bevin. Shortly afterwards shrapnel hit him in the right shoulder. The wound took some time to heal, and he returned to Britain.
Back in Liverpool, he raised supplies for the Republican cause, earning the sobriquet “Potato” Jones. That same year, 1938, he married Evelyn Brown (n? Taylor), whose first husband had been killed in Spain. The daughter of a soldier, Evelyn was also an active socialist and trades unionist who would give Jack Jones vital support.
His career took a leap forward in 1939, when he was appointed TGWU district organiser at Coventry. He found union organisation there in a comatose state, for the TGWU boasted only 2,000 members in the city. The outbreak of war, however, gave him an opportunity which he did not intend to miss. (Ernest Bevin had arranged, against Jones’s “strong objections”, for him to be exempted from military service.)
The emergency wartime labour legislation introduced by the government, while restricting the right to strike, offered potential for union activity through the appointment of conciliation officers before whom the workers could make their case. Jones persuaded union activists to seek employment in the factories, and soon built up a network of shop stewards who rapidly increased membership of the TGWU. His efforts took place against the background of 57 German air raids on Coventry, culminating in the great blitz on the night of November 14/15 1940, when some 600 people were killed and much of the town’s centre reduced to rubble.
Jones and his family survived in the cellar of their house, though the rest of the building was destroyed. His baby son slept throughout.
Jones helped see the city through the emergency, without ever relaxing his aim to better working conditions. Though on decent terms with some bosses, such as Sir John Black, the chairman of Standard Motors, he showed no disposition to make matters easy for employers; and when Black offered him the post of labour director at Standard he angrily turned him down. Illegitimis non carborundum became his motto — workshop Latin for “Don’t let the bastards grind you down”.
After the war “the Coventry rate” gave TGWU members the highest wages in the country for shop floor workers. In 1946 an agreement with Standard Motors broke new ground by introducing a five-day week of 42.5 hours; next year this came into force nationally, so that for the first time the working class enjoyed a full weekend — to the deep concern of some moralists. In 1951 another agreement with Standard established two weeks’ paid holiday.
By 1948 Jones had to all intents and purposes created a closed shop at Standard, the first in the engineering industry. The appointments he made frequently flouted the TGWU rule that no communist should hold office in the union, and incurred the wrath of Arthur Deakin, the general secretary, who also disapproved of his elevation of shop stewards.
So when Jones was shortlisted in 1948 for the post of assistant general secretary, he discovered that another candidate had been appointed before he was even interviewed.
By 1955, however, he had built up TGWU membership in Coventry to 40,000. That year he was made secretary for the entire Midlands region, at the head of some 250,000 members. With Frank Cousins becoming general secretary later that year, the union had moved decisively to the Left.
In 1963, after Cousins suffered a heart attack, Jones was appointed assistant general secretary. He moved to London, and helped persuade Cousins to convalesce abroad. From that time Jones was the leading figure in the TGWU; and in 1964, after Cousins was appointed minister of technology, he became acting general secretary.
Even when Cousins returned to the general secretaryship in 1966, Jones remained the dominating force in the union. At the end of 1968, he was elected general secretary by a majority of 520,000 to 28,000.
His power base had been widened in 1964 when he was elected to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee. He also served as the Labour Party’s representative on the economic committee of the TUC.
Yet when Labour attained power in 1964, Jones rapidly made clear his opposition to the attempt of the economic affairs minister George Brown (whose loud-mouthed drunkenness excited his deepest contempt) to introduce a voluntary prices and incomes policy. Jones also contested the Labour government’s policy on the Vietnam War; demanded more effective measures to combat unemployment; and supported Cousins’s efforts to ban the bomb. He lost his seat on the NEC in 1967.
In truth, Jones was never much interested in power outside the union movement, and showed no disposition to accept offers to join the Industrial Reorganisation Corporation, or to become a governor of the BBC.
He was delighted, however, to be elected in 1968 to the general council of the TUC, on which he would serve for the next 10 years. Within the TGWU he still worked unflaggingly to increase membership, which had reached more than two million by the time of his retirement in 1978.
Jack Jones was so eager to lead in every dispute that, by his own admission, he sometimes antagonised his own colleagues. In 1964 his aggressive involvement in a dispute in the docks resulted in the appointment of an inquiry under Lord Devlin which not only recommended substantial wage increases, but also provided the TGWU with ammunition for its campaign to end piecework.
Yet when Devlin’s ideas were applied to end casual labour in 1967, many dockers objected to the new scheme, not least in Liverpool. Jones went to Merseyside, and exploited the situation to obtain better pay and working conditions. TGWU officials inclined to see the bosses’ point of view were apt to lose their jobs.
Jones was shocked when, in 1968, 200 London dockers marched in support of Enoch Powell’s speech (“I see the river Tiber foaming with much blood”) against immigration. All his life he had fought any hint of racism. Equally he was an early protagonist of equal rights for women.
At the Labour Conference of 1977, Jones inveighed against the buying of “grand country houses” by some Labour leaders. He also secured approval for the abolition of the House of Lords. Although this policy did not appear in the party’s manifesto for the general election of 1979, Jones was able to make a personal point when he refused the peerage offered to him on his retirement in 1978.
He did, however, accept an appointment as a Companion of Honour in the same year. When he went to Windsor to be invested, an overtime ban among tanker drivers (members of the TGWU) had caused a delay in the delivery of oil to Windsor Castle. “We had to walk about with our overcoats on to keep warm, thanks to your members,” the Queen told him.
For once in his life, though, Jones was impressed by privilege, noting that the Queen displayed “a remarkable awareness of human problems that I thought would be outside her ken”.
Less happy was his observation, when shown round the treasures of the Castle, that one of the paintings looked a bit amateurish. “That’s mine,” said the Duke of Edinburgh.
Jack Jones was appointed MBE in 1950. But the award he appreciated above all others was the Gold Medal awarded to him by the TUC.
His flinty, selfless integrity never wavered. When the staff of the TGWU collected money for his retirement present, he put every penny towards the establishment of a Retired Members’ Association.
He continued to work hard for pensioners, as vice-president of Age Concern, as president of the Retired Members’ Association, and as chairman of the National Pensioners’ Convention. His campaigning played an important part in the introduction of the Freedom Pass, which allows pensioners to use local public transport without paying.
Jack Jones’s wife died in 1998. They had two sons.