It was my great pleasure to read and now comment on the three part autobiography of Dave Chapple, someone I have known for over thirty years.
Dave is one of a small band of activists I met during my time as a postal workers' representative (initially in the UCW and then, following the merger with the telecoms union NCU, the CWU) whose record as a fighter for the members is exemplary. He stands alongside the likes of Judy Griffiths, Maria Exall and Phil Waker as trade unionists who in my experience always stood for a fighting union despite the immense pressure to conform.
I knew Dave before I met him through his work with the Somerset Clarion newspaper and then went on to come across him in person at a Socialist Movement Trade Union Committee conference some time in the 1990s, where he spoke as always with eloquence and passion. We kept in touch, and following my election as Area Delivery Representative for the Reading postcode district in 1992 spoke regularly to discuss the issues affecting the industry.
It was in that year that we jointly attended a meeting of the UCW Broad Left (BL) where we tried in vain to influence that body in a genuine left direction. The meeting is memorable for two reasons.
Billy Hayes, who had just been elected as a National Officer, was sitting at the back in silence. When Dave questioned this, the Chair, John Ireland, who was from Billy’s Liverpool branch, stated that if Billy spoke then General Secretary Alan Johnson would discipline Billy for a breach of union rules.
I was to learn later that Johnson had been instrumental in securing Hayes’ election, which is a testament to Johnson’s tactical skills and understanding that Billy posed no real threat.
At the same meeting Ireland spoke strongly in favour of Johnson’s proposal to turn the union's elected editor post into an appointed one! I am sure it was no surprise to either of us that both Hayes and Ireland were later prepared to vote for national agreements that sold out the membership.
In the years that followed both Dave and I concentrated more on industrial struggles than the machinations of the Broad Left, a body that became even more compromised following the merger.
We chatted regularly at conferences and one memorable occasion bumped into each other at Oxford station en route to a demonstration. The comrade I was with, Steve Kazcynski, assured us that he knew which bus to catch, so we followed his lead. As we travelled clearly in the wrong direction, I can still see Dave saying to Steve: "Are you sure we are going the right way?" All was not lost, though. We got back on track, and were able to join the demo, albeit a bit late.
By the early 2000s the CWU BL was pretty much irrelevant to the postal constituency, and left activists in that section of the union organised informally through a network that would eventually win a majority on the executive. In 2002 I became a member of that executive. In 2007, when the leadership spectacularly sold out a national strike, Dave, who after a long fight had become Chair of the Bristol branch, was an enthusiastic supporter of my lone stand against the sell out. Sadly by then the majority of those who had been elected on a left platform had been absorbed into the apparatus of CWU HQ, and the bureaucracy won.
As covered in these memoirs Dave was a fighter for his fellow postal workers at Clevedon office, and later at Bridgwater where he was local representative for many years. Had he not been surrounded by an area composed of reps who did not recognise his qualities he would almost certainly have been the Area Delivery Representative and the members would have definitely benefited.
One of the many great things about these memoirs is they tell us a story of a Dave Chapple a lot of us didn’t know know about: his childhood years, his passion for black music and sport, and his campaign as a socialist standing for Labour in the 1987 General Election (a year when I was a local council candidate in West Reading and a time when Kinnock hadn’t been able to move the party too far to the right).
A former postal worker myself, I found the recollections about life in what is our secret world especially compelling. I sincerely hope another volume covering more recent years in Dave’s life is in the works. In the meantime I won’t give away any more details about these volumes because it would spoil the pleasure of the reader.
Anyone who wants to fight for a better world will enjoy what stands as a record of a man who devoted himself to advancing the cause of working people both here in the UK and internationally.
• See here for a recent article by Dave Chapple on the national Post Office strike of 1971.