Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Ken Gill: Communist, Trade Unionist and Very Funny Caricaturist... 1927-2009

I am very sorry to hear of Ken Gill's death, and I extend my sincere condolences to his family. Ken was an influence upon me in that when I was a teenager in the 1970s I was intrigued to observe that someone who was always portrayed as a 'dangerous red', in fact, when interviewed came across as reasonable, intelligent, and far from the stereotypical image spread by the press of 'reds'.
I only met him briefly on a couple of occasions and these brief introductions gave me the opportunity to tell him that hearing him speak on the TV had made me much more open minded about commmunists and challenged a number of assumptions that I had, like so many others, picked up from the media. I think that I was not the only member of the CPGB who derived a quiet pride that one of the most articulate , intelligent, and human trade unionists of his generation was a comrade.

I happened to check out some of his caricatures online and they really are very funny and wickedly accurate portrayals of personalities from that period.

Expertly edited by John Green and Michal Boncza and beautifully designed by Michal this delightful book offers a small segment of history as seen from the perspective of a leading trade unionist through the medium of caricature.

Hung, drawn and quartered – the caricatures of Ken Gill

The book is distributed by Central Books and can be ordered online, from bookshops or from the publisher: <> . Price £12 plus £2 p&p.

Artery Publications, 11 Dorset Road, London W5 4H

Ken Gill: 1927-2009

John Green and Joe Gill (Morning Star)

Ken Gill was born on August 29 1927 in Melksham, Wiltshire. During the second world war, aged 15, he became an apprentice draughtsman.

Gill was politicised at an early age, having experienced poverty in his childhood during the Great Depression and having lost his older brother Lesley, who was an airman in bomber command, during a raid over Germany.

During the war, his family took as a lodger a Welsh miner and Communist, who convinced the young Gill of the cause of socialism. At the end of the war, he became an election agent for the local Labour candidate in Melksham.

Gill was well known for his ability as a caricaturist, but his artistic talent was not limited to cartoons. As a child, his entry to a Daily Sketch competition of children's art was disqualified because the judges did not believe that a child could produce a work of such maturity.

As a working-class lad at that time, artistic talent was not a path to a creative career but to a seat in a drawing office and he duly "did his time" at a mechanical handling firm.

He continued in this field of engineering when he came to London, using his artistic skills to provide prospective customers with freehand perspective drawings.

In 1949 at the end of his apprenticeship, he moved to London and in 1950 he married Jacqueline Manley (nee Kemellardski), the former wife of Michael Manley, who later became prime minister of Jamaica.

In his early thirties, Gill became a director of a successful engineering firm, proving his skills as a salesman and negotiator.

However, his political commitments and involvement in trade unionism led him in a different direction.

He was elected as a regional official of the Draughtsmen's and Allied Technicians Association (DATA) in 1962 and was posted to Liverpool, with responsibility for Merseyside and Northern Ireland.

A wave of industrial militancy was sweeping both regions at the time, and Gill found himself leading workers in a series of industrial battles.

His success as a persuasive, militant but shrewd union official brought him higher office in 1968, when he was elected as deputy general secretary.

Two years earlier, he married Tess Gill, a civil rights lawyer and leading figure in the British women's movement. They had three children, Joe, Tom and Emma.

In 1974, Gill became general secretary of DATA's successor, the Technical, Administrative and Supervisory Staffs Association (TASS).

Faced with technological change and industrial decline during the 1980s, Gill reinvented TASS during the early part of that decade, taking in a range of unions, such as the Gold and Silver Workers, the Metal Mechanics, the Sheet Metal Workers and the Tobacco Workers Union.

In 1988, Gill and his long-time rival for the leadership of "white-collar" unionism Clive Jenkins - who was Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs general secretary - buried the hatchet and brought their two unions together to create one new union, Manufacturing, Science and Finance (MSF), with each as a joint general secretary.

Jenkins retired first and Gill became general secretary, serving from 1988-92. By the time Gill retired in 1992, it had become a large multi-industry union, eventually joining Amicus.

In 1974 Gill was the first and only Communist to be elected to the TUC general council with over seven million votes. He joined other leftwingers there and led a militant broad left grouping which spearheaded a number of ideological and economic battles during the militant '70s.

He was one of the most prominent members of the so-called "awkward squad" who made the industrial relations work of successive governments such a difficult task.

With the election of a number of leftwingers to the leadership of the big trade unions during the '70s, there was an expansion of "broad left" grass-roots groups, dominated by the Communist Party, particularly in the AEU, ACTT, TASS, ETU and UCATT. These groups worked around rank-and-file papers such as Engineering Voice, Flashlight and the Power Worker.

Gill spearheaded trade union opposition to the Labour government's demand for a social contract at the 1974 TUC and mass demonstrations against Barbara Castle's contentious industrial relations Bill, In Place Of Strife.

He was instrumental in promoting the Communist Party's alternative economic strategy within the trade union movement. This proposed a more radical socialist agenda as the answer to the economic woes and serious attempts were made through the trade unions to make it Labour Party policy.

There were strong fears within the Labour Party that this new militant trade unionism would seriously undermine the party. Prime minister Harold Wilson alluded to leaders like Gill when he spoke of "a tightly knit group of politically motivated men" out to undermine democracy.

In 1985, Cathy Massiter, a former MI5 officer who had resigned from her job the previous year, appeared on a Channel 4 documentary detailing how the security services had phone-tapped the homes of trade unionists, peace campaigners and civil libertarians, including two senior members of the current government - Patricia Hewitt and Harriet Harman, who both happened to be close friends of Tess Gill - despite the fact they had done nothing illegal.

In Gill's case, they burgled his home to plant a bugging device. The allegations were confirmed in Peter Wright's book Spycatcher, when the former intelligence officer boldly wrote that "we bugged and burgled our way across London at the state's behest."

Gill actually raised the issue directly with then home secretary Leon Brittan to little effect.

Despite being among the most prominent Communists in the country, Gill always saw himself first of all as a trade unionist.

The Communist Party at the time still played a powerful role on the industrial stage even though it had declined as a political force.

Gill fought within the TUC for the trade union movement to take more progressive positions internationally, and to support anti-racism and equality within the movement itself.

He and his union were active supporters of the fight against South African apartheid.

On Gill's initiative in 1988, the union paid the deposit for the stadium concert that celebrated Nelson Mandela's 70th birthday while he still languished on Robben Island, placing the issue of apartheid in front of the British people as never before.

This was acknowledged by Mandela when, after being freed and on his first British visit, he chose the union's conference hall to meet and thank ANC exiles and activists.

Gill hardly fitted the cliche image of a Communist. While he could be forceful and committed, he was rarely dogmatic or unnecessarily aggressive. He was tall, with a rugged handsomeness and his soft Wiltshire drawl and ready laughter belied his steely determination. His charm and persuasiveness easily disarmed many of his harshest critics. He was always a popular and well-liked member of the general council even if the colour of his politics weren't.

Gill believed vehemently that the unions were a necessary basis of any radical social change. But he also believed that the Labour Party was central.

"If you cannot win back the (Labour) Party," he said, "then you are certainly not going to be able to start another mass party."

He never relinquished his hobby of cartooning and drew his colleagues during the interminable speeches and discussions at union conferences. They captured the idiosyncrasies of their subjects and they now form a unique archive. The TUC in 2007, on the occasion of his 80th birthday, held an exhibition of his work.

Gill retired as a trade union official in 1992. But this didn't mean withdrawing to a country retreat or taking a seat in the House of Lords. He continued campaigning on radical issues, marching and speaking out against the Iraq war, right up until his illness confined him to his home.

He was particularly keen on promoting solidarity with Cuba. For over a decade, he was chairman of the Cuba Solidarity Campaign in Britain and met Fidel Castro on several occasions.

As chairman of the People's Press Printing Society management committee, he was expelled from the Communist Party of Great Britain for defending the Morning Star against the Eurocommunist leadership of the party.

He was later active in formulating the paper's broader appeal.

After his divorce from Tess Gill, in the '80s, he married Norma Bramley, a politically active teacher with whom he lived happily until the end of his life.

It was Norma who cared for Gill during his long battle with cancer, which he met with good humour to the last


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