What Can Labour (Re-)Learn From ‘Marmite’ Union Giant, Frank Chapple?

Hal Hooberman writes a profile on Trade Unionist, Frank Chapple and discusses the lessons that the Labour Party can learn from his political career. 

Despised by some, heralded by others, forgotten by too many, Frank Chapple was a pioneering trade unionist and Labour Party moderniser whose political approach merits our attention.

Born in 1921 into the ‘slum areas’ of east London, Chapple joined the Communist Party in 1939 as he became active in the Electricians Trades Union. A gradual process of disillusionment culminated in his 1957 resignation from the party, going on to expose trenchant Communist corruption within his union, laid before all by the infamous 1961 High Court case, Byrne & Chapple v. Foulkes & Others. Chapple went on to serve as the union’s General Secretary for 18 years, on Labour’s NEC, the TUC General Council, and as TUC President. He urged, at every stage, the movement to listen to the country, not just its most ardent activists. In 1985, Chapple became a life peer, being nominated by none other than Margaret Thatcher, substantiating his own claim to being “an awkward bugger”. Like many, Chapple can not be described as ‘squeaky clean’, but his legacy lives on; the labour movement could do much worse than by revisiting his life and times to remind us of certain political virtues that, too often, we forget.

Chapple understood why political parties exist, to direct the policies of government. He disparaged the “lemming-like will for self-destruction” of those who prized ideological purity over electoral calculations, understanding that it was “the electorate that must be convinced”, not the “tiny band of neurotics” that comprised the movement’s most active. Acutely aware of the disconnect between activists and the masses, Chapple warned his own shop stewards “not to fool themselves into thinking that they represent the membership”, let alone the country. Disheartening, but it mustn’t be forgotten. 

Pragmatism was, for Chapple, central to any labour movement victory. Co-opting the famous ‘Realpolitik’ phrase, “politics is the art of the possible”, Chapple urged a move away from “socialist society pipe dreams”, both electorally and in industrial disputes, to ensure “our criticisms” carry “more weight”. Forgetting this has, always, been to our detriment, as it will continue to be. 

Accepting responsibility for defeat was, for Chapple, part and parcel to democracy. In no uncertain terms, he decries the tendency of “dishonestly” blaming “the media for brainwashing” voters and “the presentation” of policies for electoral drubbings. In forcefully arguing this, Chapple recalls “an East European ex-Communist” who said that if “communist leaders feel their policies to be unpopular with the public - they simply changed the public”, we don’t have this ‘luxury’, instead we must “change the policy”. As we have learnt, such unconditional self-exoneration only helps our opponents. 

As a trade unionist, Chapple prized everyday, material concerns over abstract utopianism. For Chapple, the labour movement was the “central bulwark in the defence of working people”, not as a means to “demolishing capitalism” or realising a utopian fantasy. The labour movement exists to improve people’s lives in the here and now, we are doing the country a disservice if we waste time disputing finite details of ideological theorem or posturing towards distant abstractions. Although there is a balance to be struck, we need to check our priorities. 

Chapple provides an apt reminder as to whom our opponents really are, citing his four years on Labour’s National Executive as a time when the “Tories scarcely seemed to exist”. Recalling, with regret, that “within weeks” of Wilson’s “triumphant return to 10 Downing Street”, the “far-left critics” began to “crawl out of the woodwork”. As we move forward, Chapple reiterates the importance of remembering just who’s side we are on.

Then, as now, the party was too often accused of, frankly, being patronising, Chapple warns against such infantilisation of the electorate. In citing this damaging trait, Chapple disparages those who “self-righteously” claim an absolutist “monopoly of morality”. Today, the party is too often criticised for repeating this vice, we are seen as high and mighty, dismissive, and pompous. Chapple reminds us of the need to talk to, not at, the people.

Finally, and perhaps most pressingly, Chapple reminds us that defeat has consequences. For him, Labour’s 1983 defeat was more than just a humbling for the party, “it all added up to more unemployment and fresh attacks on trade union organisation”. The consequences of defeat, our defeat, should remind us of our responsibility, to the country, to maximise our chances of winning a General Election. Our 2019 humiliation has meant that Boris Johnson is the one at the helm during an unprecedented global crisis, that we face a cliff-edge Brexit, and that those we exist to serve will go on being forgotten. Defeat has consequences. 

History does, it seems, repeat itself. It would be a mistake to ignore the lessons that Frank Chapple teaches us. The labour movement is bigger than just its most ardent activists; we have a responsibility to ensure that the party is in the best position it can be to win, to form a government that will alleviate the hardship of millions. Chapple’s life serves as an apt reminder of the labour movement’s power, but it also underlines the responsibilities beholden to it.

Hal Hooberman is an undergraduate student, Young Fabian and member of Somerton and Frome CLP. 

He tweets at @halhooberman

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