In 1972 I was appointed clerk of Clay Cross parish council. In that same year the Heath government introduced the Housing Finance Act, which reorganised local government, abolished urban district councils and created a two-tier structure. There were district councils and metropolitan boroughs like Sheffield, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham, while county authorities were retained. Clay Cross parish was more like a town council: it employed, for instance, groundsmen, cemetery workers and staff at local social centres.
The Conservative government of Ted Heath was responsible for major class battles with miners, dockers and building workers and it now sought to take on recalcitrant Labour authorities. Clay Cross had a reputation as a militant council and was determined to resist the Tory attack on council tenants. The Housing Finance Act fixed the level of rents to be charged, requiring Labour authorities to raise rents. But Clay Cross had a very good relationship with its tenants and refused to comply, as did Conisbrough, Lambeth and Liverpool. Some of the councillors were miners - including Dennis Skinner, who was born in the town. His brothers, David and Graham, were also active politically: Graham was the local branch secretary of the National Union of Public Employees and David was a councillor alongside Dennis, until the latter became MP for Bolsover in 1970.
When the council refused to increase rents in line with the Housing Finance Act, a housing commissioner was sent in to take charge of the Clay Cross stock. The district auditor surcharged the 11 Labour councillors £635 each and they were disbarred from office. A ‘second 11’ of Labour councillors were elected in their place and they were also surcharged and disbarred. As a result of the surcharge they were declared bankrupt in 1975.
By the time I became clerk to the new parish council, Clay Cross Urban District Council was no more and most decisions were taken by the new North East Derbyshire District Council. I was a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party and it had been decided that I should join the local Labour Party in line with the ‘deep entry tactic’ also favoured by the Militant Tendency and other Trotskyists. Of course, some of the Labour councillors were supporters of ‘the Militant’ and I would cross swords with them - Militant had adapted to left reformism in the Labour Party while posturing as ‘Trotskyists’.
In opposition to the government’s pay freeze at the time, I recommended that the workforce employed by the parish council should be given a pay increase. I too was duly surcharged by the district auditor. There was no mention of my surcharge by those centrists in the Labour Party who had campaigned against similar treatment for the councillors. In the April 1974 elections Labour lost North East Derbyshire to the Ratepayers Alliance and I was duly dismissed. When I appealed to the local NUPE branch for support, there was no effort to organise the membership for strike action. Instead a claim for wrongful dismissal was submitted to the industrial tribunal office in Sheffield. A barrister called Steve Cohen represented me on behalf of the union’s solicitors at the tribunal. Despite the excellent case he made I inevitably lost.
During this period I was blacklisted by Aims of Industry and the Economic League, two Tory front organisations that warned employers of trade union militants and so-called ‘troublemakers’ like myself. This was confirmed to me by a journalist at The Observer who had seen my name on the blacklist. I was also witch-hunted in the centre pages of The Daily Telegraph and I remained unemployed for five years.
The lesson for me was that centrism, as represented by Militant, provided no answers to the concerted Tory attack. Instead of attempting to mobilise the working class through strikes and occupations to defend myself and those 22 Labour councillors, it preferred to go before the capitalist courts.
Weekly Worker website letter, 9 August 2012
See: David Skinner & Julia Langdon, The Story of Clay Cross