Thursday, 23 February 2017

Brenda Procter - A Fighter For Her Class

I was saddened to learn yesterday of the death of my old friend and comrade Brenda Procter, who for more than thirty years had been a prominent member of the Miners' Wives Group, and a series of other mining communities related activities.  She was a real working-class fighter for her class.  I first met Bren in 1981, long before the 1984 strike.  I met Bren as a result of my contact with her next door neighbour Paul Barnett, who later joined the Stoke Socialist organiser group, for a short time.

The Stoke Socialist Organiser group arose in 1979, as a result of the creation of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory.  The SCLV was the project of Workers Action, of which I had been a member since 1974.  It also drew in supporters of Socialist Charter, and won the affiliation of a number of CLP's, branches and PPC's across the country, including one Jeremy Corbyn.  There was one Socialist Charter member in Stoke, at the time, Jim Barrow, a journalist who like me had gone to University after having worked for several years beforehand.  Both of us continued to maintain close contact with the world of work, and with the trades union movement, we had spent much of our time in over the previous years.

In the early days of the Stoke Socialist Organiser group it had rapid success starting off with around 15 members.  But, apart from myself, Jim, and Neil Dawson, all the other members were students, and as Trotsky pointed out, in relation to students, they can be more trouble than they are worth, unless they are part of a large proletarian organisation that can keep them under control.  Their essentially petit-bourgeois, dilettantist approach means that they tend to flit in and out of political activity, and sure enough within about three weeks, 90% of the students flounced out of the group.

I paint this picture, not just to give an impression of the times, but also to make the contrast between this studentist politics and the working-class politics of Bren.  Over the next year, another couple of students came into the group, whilst Jim Barrow also left, as Socialist Charter nationally engaged in work on London Labour Briefing.  The only workers left in the local group were then myself and Neil Dawson.  In the meantime, the group suffered an infiltration by a member of the Sparts, which led to Martin Thomas coming up from London to carry out his expulsion.

Again indicative of this dilletantism, it was after this event that two of the student members told me that they had known that the person concerned was a Spart, because he sold copies of their paper around the Poly, sometimes to them, after Socialist organiser meetings, and after I had left.  Yet neither of these students thought it fitting to have provided this information beforehand!  Over this period, I found myself increasingly frustrated at this kind of behaviour, which left me spending endless amounts of time driving from one end of the city to another for meetings, only to find that these students, including the former Branch organiser, never turned up.  In the end, I had to ask Martin Thomas about the situation, and we agreed to expel the former Branch Organiser.

So, by 1981, the Socialist Organiser Branch was down to just two members, myself and Neil Dawson.  Yet, things were actually turning up in many ways.  It was liberating not to be wasting so much time in pointless journeys, for one thing.  But, also by 1981, the long hard work of the last seven years, in the Labour Party and local Trades Council, had begun to pay off.  Both had turned left, and in the Labour Party branches, the moribund organisations had begun to flower once more.

In 1981, I was elected as Assistant Secretary of Stoke District Labour Party and on to its Executive Committee with a vote that was twice as large as the next highest EC member.  At the time, I was also leading a number of community actions, via the Labour Party Branch, as well as being involved in trying to set up local Rank and File Mobilising Committee Groups and so on, which kept the media full of stories, and kep John Golding busy threatening to have me expelled from the party.

After the meeting, I was approached by the late John McCready, a pottery union militant, who I also subsequently supported (unsuccessfully) for the nomination for the Stoke North PPC (won by Joan Walley).  I'd first met John, back in 1974, when I sat on an ASTMS negotiating team to hammer out a Spheres of Influence Agreement with CATU, the pottery union.  John was on their EC, as was another comrade I already knew, Geoff Bagnall, who had been a member of the IMG with Jason Hill. John had numerous questions, for me, such as "Is it true you support Troops Out of Ireland?"  It was, and in fact, the Labour Committee on Ireland, was only one of a long series of such campaigns that I was involved in at the time.

John was a member of Stoke South CLP, and with him was another Stoke South member Paul Barnett, who lived in The Broadway at Meir.  From that point on, I would visit Paul and his wife Lynn and their four kids every week to talk over the latest paper, and local political events.  I was not alone, I would often run into Steve Martin or John Pickett from the Militant, who were also trying to draw Paul into their orbit.  Paul eventually joined SO, and wrote a few articles covering his area of interest in theatre, particularly reviews of the then current "Boys From The Blackstuff".  As an added bonus for me, Paul also used to service my car.

It was in this context that I first met Bren who would come round from next door.  At the time, Bren was married to Ken.  If I remember correctly, Ken was a biker, or at least 36 years on, I have an image in my mind of him wearing a leather motorbike jacket.  Ken worked at Florence Colliery in Fenton, though his parents owned the local Procter's Coach company.

So, when the 1984 Miners' Strike broke out, I was not at all surprised to see Bren taking a leading role in it, organising the local Miners Wives group, and from the start being regularly on the picket line to turn back anyone even thinking of crossing, and standing four square against the police that tried to keep the pickets down to the then maximum six.

I can't remember if Bren came with me and a number of local miners to Merseyside to collect money after I'd organised a tour there with Lol Duffy, and other comrades in the area, but on almost every occasion when something was going on, Bren was involved in it.  At the end of 1984, I took over was Secretary of the North Staffs Miners Support Committee, set up by the North Staffs Trades Council.  Every week, in that capacity, as well as my capacity as organiser of my Branch LP Miners Levy, I met with Joe Wills, up at the NUM offices in Burslem, and shortly after taking over as Secretary of the Support Committee, I organised with the NUM, a mass picket of Wolstanton Colliery, where Joe had previously worked, and where my comrade the late John Locket was a prominent figure.

One again, Bren was there, bringing a large number of Miners Wives with her, and the picket, which drew in around 300-400 people, also brought in local MP Mark Fisher, from Stoke Central.  In the following weeks, we also organised a number of such mass pickets at the Meaford power station.

Even after the defeat of the strike, working-class morale and organisation did not dissipate quickly.  In 1985, I took over as President of the North Staffs Trades Council, and for the two years I held that position, there were still attendances each month of around 80 delegates.  And, during that time, we drew in a number of speakers from disputes that were going on around the country, notably the Silentnight dispute, where all the workers had been sacked.

We organised a leafleting outside the Co-op furniture store in Hanley, in the not unreasonable belief that the Co-op might itself be amenable to such activity.  Unfortunately, it turned out that the manager of the store was more concerned with the stores sales of Silentnight beds than he was the rights of Silentnight workers.  Bren and a group of Miners Wives turned up to take part in the activity,a nd we split ourselves between the two store entrances.  Myself, and another Trades Council activist, Andy Day, who also worked in the Hanley Peace Centre, took the front doors, and Bren and the others were on the side doors.  Shortly after we had started leafleting, a police van pulled up, and a sergeant got out to tell all of us that if we did not go, by the time he returned, we would be arrested.

After a short discussion, we agreed there was no point all of us risking getting arrested, so just me and Andy remained on the front doors.  Sure enough, when the sergeant returned we got nicked for "Behaviour likely to result in a breach of the peace."  When questioned as to exactly what that behaviour was, we were told that it was handing out leaflets that someone might take offence too, and thereby respond violently!  Not surprisingly, the charges were later dropped.

Bren later entered a relationship with Phil Pender who along with his brother Chris, was a member of my Labour party Branch in Tunstall.  Both Phil and Chris for a brief period joined the Stoke North SO group, which met in the Hole In the Wall pub in the back streets of Tunstall, off America Street, and just up from the Torch.  Both Phil and Brenda, joined Scargill's SLP.

I last saw Bren, I think back in 2011, when I had gone to a meeting of the NSTC, Chaired by Jason, to oppose the new round of austerity that the Tories were inflicting.  I commented in my speech to that meeting that it reminded me in many ways of how things were back in 1974, when I first got involved in political activity.

Brenda Procter was one of those working class heroes whose mettle was forged in the fire of that time.

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