ack Jones led the Transport and General
Workers Union in the 1970s, when it was Britain’s biggest
trade union. He was one of the architects of the ‘Social
a radical plan to improve the lot of Britain’s working
people through a Labour Government commitment to the social
wage and price control in exchange for wage restraint on
the part of union members. It nearly worked. But the Callaghan
government reneged on its side of the bargain, albeit shaken
by some sectionalist interests in the trade unions fighting
to maintain wage differentials.
Jack Jones went on to lead Britain’s pensioners and
become President of the National Pensioners Convention campaigning
and speaking in Britain and internationally for decent pensions
for growing numbers of retired working people. He maintained
a fierce work regime almost up to his 90th birthday and even
now still goes to his office at the TGWU headquarters in
Smith Square every day.
We spoke shortly after his return from Cardiff where, as
president of the British International Brigade he presided
over a gathering of veterans and supporters remembering the
achievements and lessons of the struggle of Rubublican Spain
in the civil war against the fascists. He is now one of only
a dozen surviving British combatants in that struggle.
Speaking about the failure of the Blair government to shift
wealth and power towards working people he bemoans the failure
of activists to keep up the fight in the Labour Party and
constantly points the finger at the labour movement asking ‘Where’s
the pressure?’. A reminder that it is not just leaders
who let us down but the rank and file who let it happen.
I reminded him that it’s not so easy these days, however,
to make an impact in the Labour Party with the leadership
exercising an iron grip on the party; with a centralised
command and control structure; a conference stage managed
to meet the requirements of media and business sponsors,
and a hollowed out membership whose voice is not listened
to. When delegates voted overwhelmingly for renationalisation
of the railways the leadership made no effort to disguise
its contempt of the rank and file saying the vote would be
But it was pensions we had met to talk about. What did he
think of the Adair Turner Independent Pension Commission
Report which said 12 million British people were not saving
enough for their retirement and that cuts of up to 30% or
more in retirement income were likely over the next 30 years.
“Unequivocally this makes the case for a stronger
basic pension. It means a greater contribution from the national
Exchequer, from employers and employed people. It’s
a national obligation. The state has to recognise that an
effective national pension for all is the only way forward.
Germany with pensions at over 50 % and Sweden with pensions
at 76% of national income show the way. Britain has the least
generous state pension system in the western world. Many
have pointed out this is partly due to a large private pension
sector. But this is now in crisis. Only a stronger state
earnings related pension adequate enough to live on without
means testing can solve the problem.
“Yes, we have an ageing population and declining birth
rate but raising the retirement age, as some have suggested
is not the answer. Particularly for working class people
who have given forty years of work in heavy industry. Older
people should be able to enjoy retirement. We should be retiring
earlier rather than later…why should people have to
work beyond 60. It’s a very dangerous idea. Some people
seem to accept the idea of working longer for a few extra
bob. But we all need the opportunity to enjoy leisure. It’s
available to the rich, why not the rest of us? Society should
be constructed so that people can enjoy their life. The nature
of employment and production has changed so much that all
essential tasks can be performed. The real task is organising
and preparing for leisure opportunities, a leisure society.
New Labour have not thought through their pension policy.
We also need a lot more pressure from older employed people
The Tories know all too well they’re not going to
get elected so they can make all sorts of promises to give
a £7 bonus, to link pensions to earnings. But remember
it was Michael Howard and Mrs Thatcher’s government
that increased pensioner poverty in this country for many
years until Labour was returned.”
He acknowledge means tested pension credit had helped but
returned to the idea of a price or earnings related, whichever
is higher, state pension.
“Pension credit worries me. We need universal pension
paid through taxation, not means testing.”
With that a fellow trade unionist, the third of the evening,
came over and offered to buy us a drink. Jack Jones is still
a name to be reckoned with. But will Gordon listen?
Jack Jones was in
conversation with Mike Davis