Last night’s BBC Panorama programme revealed some of the covert blacklisting measures used by some of the biggest construction companies in the UK, at least until relatively recently.
But industrial blacklisting is not new – probably dating back at least to the First World War.
Nor has it been confined to the construction industry. One of the more surprising organisations to attempt to employ it was the John Lewis Partnership, as I found out in documents at the Parliamentary Archives, while I was researching for my forthcoming biography of William Wedgwood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate.
The John Lewis Partnership is generally highly-regarded for its service, partly as a result of the motivation of its workers, who are partners in the business and who receive a share of the profits. They are also widely consulted on issues affecting the running of the business, which operates the John Lewis and Waitrose shops.
On 7 May 1949 the John Lewis Partnership’s house newspaper, the Gazette, carried a report that Colin Thornton-Kemsley, described elsewhere as the Partnership’s Director of Public Relations, who was also a National Liberal MP (effectively a Conservative), had proposed to the Central Management of the John Lewis Partnership that ‘all present Partners and future applicants for membership of the Partnership be required to sign a declaration that they are neither members of the Communist Party, nor in sympathy with the doctrines of that Party.’
There were, in 1949, two democratically-elected Communist MPs in the House of Commons. The John Lewis Partnership would effectively have been saying that someone who was acceptable as an MP, involved in issues of national security and finance, would not be an acceptable person to sell cheese in Waitrose.
The proposal raised some interesting ethical debates. It was democratically discussed within the business, but anyone who might have been blacklisted could have lost their job. This might have applied to someone who voted for one of the democratically-elected Communist MPs, as that voter presumably could have been deemed to be sympathetic to the Communist Party’s doctrines. Looked at another way, workers would have been put under pressure about how they voted, on pain of losing their job if it became known that they voted for certain candidates.
Viscount Stansgate raised the matter in the House of Lords and, from the evidence I have seen, the proposal never seems to have been implemented.
At least, unlike the construction companies, the John Lewis Partnership was open and democratic about its proposal and all partners had an opportunity to express their opinion.
Never knowingly underhand!