Obituary: Pete Gillard, 1949–2020

The death of our comrade Pete Gillard on 21 April 2020 has prompted an outpouring of tributes on Facebook, Twitter and other social media. Best known as a health campaigner and Unite union activist, Pete was also a life-long revolutionary socialist, active in the United States and the Netherlands as well as Britain. An online memorial event for Pete will be held on Saturday 9 May from 8 pm (BST).

Pete was a mentor and an inspiration to many hundreds of socialists and activists across the left, widely respected even by those he disagreed with. Here Charlie Hore, with help from other comrades, pays tribute to this remarkable, kindly and generous comrade.

Pete Gillard at a rally for Corbyn in 2017. Photo: Gill George

Pete was the only child of a working-class family in Bristol, like many 60s activists the first person in his family to ever go to university. He became a political activist while still a schoolboy, joining first the Labour Party Young Socialists and then the Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party). His student activism started at Durham University, where he joined the International Socialists (IS) in August 1969, the month that British troops went into Northern Ireland.

Leaving Durham before finishing his degree, he moved to Leeds, starting a sociology course at Leeds University in 1972, and threw himself into both student activism and building a very lively and vibrant IS group on campus. I first met him when I started at Leeds in 1974, and remember him as tall, skinny, intense and seemingly tireless.

There was a 30-strong IS group on campus, part of a larger far left with whom we had good working relationships, albeit punctuated by long and often drink-fuelled discussions about our theoretical and organisational differences. One of my first specific memories is of going into the student union coffee bar to find him talking to a member of the Fourth International. Pete finished the point he was making, turned to me and said, ‘We’re doing state capitalism – carry on’, and walked off. I fluffed it, but I learned what I didn’t know – which was the point.

‘Mentor’ is the term that turns up time and again in people’s memories of him. Pete wasn’t a teacher, but an educator, concerned above all to get people to think for themselves and to learn their politics through activity and collective discussion, not as a series of rote lessons. This did occasionally involve throwing people in at the deep end – I turned up once to a union meeting to have him hand me a resolution and ask if I thought it was OK. I read it through carefully and said that it looked fine. ‘Good’, he said, ‘you’re speaking on it in five minutes.’

The student group was an integral part of Leeds IS, and Pete was recognised as one of the district’s leading members, albeit one prone to disagreeing much of the time with the district committee (even when he was a member). But he listened as well as he spoke, and won widespread respect both from established worker militants and the younger workers IS was starting to attract.

In November 1974, the IRA bombed two pubs in Birmingham, killing 21 people, which led to a huge right-wing backlash. IS had previously won Leeds University Union to a position of supporting the struggle against British troops in Ireland. Following the bombings, the right on campus organised an emergency union meeting to overturn the policy, which drew 3,000 students. Pete was the obvious choice to argue our position. He spoke brilliantly, not for one second supporting the bombings, but absolutely hard and clear on the principles of ‘troops out’ and self-determination for Irish people. It was a brave position to take: the meeting and a subsequent TV interview led to him receiving death threats.

1 July 1975. NUS Conference, Scarborough

He was also instrumental in working with the Communist Party and left Labour students to ensure that that we entered and left the meeting together, because of the very real threat of physical attacks.

The left at Leeds University never really recovered from that, but Pete’s reputation was such that he won a seat on the National Union of Students’ Executive the following Easter – ironically, just as he ceased to be a student. He left Leeds without taking his final exams and moved to London.

London, round one

Pete’s flat in London became a home from home for IS members visiting from elsewhere, starting a pattern that persisted throughout his life – if Pete and his partner had a spare sofa or room, it was yours if you needed it. One of his oldest friends recalls inheriting Pete’s first flat in Kentish Town simply because he had been living there for months, though paying no rent! In later years Pete would explain away his generosity as being a well-paid computer specialist, but the truth is that he was every bit as open-handed when he had almost nothing.

His computing career started with the dole forcing him to go on a ‘TOPS’ government training scheme, widely derided as simply a fig leaf to cover growing youth unemployment, but which in Pete’s case turned out to be life-changing. He used the qualification he gained to get a job as a computer programmer at Oxford University Press’s offices in London, where he quickly became a shop steward. Computing was another world then – the first commercial PC was still four years in the future – and management knew absolutely nothing about them, except that they were essential to the business. Pete and other activists quickly grasped the power this gave them, and used this to build a powerful union base.

As one comrade remembers:

One account was that he and another shop steward were at work and playing either backgammon or cards – I can’t remember. But classic ‘taking the piss completely’ stuff. The manager walked into the office on something work related. He looked embarrassed and apologised for interrupting them.

But the more important story was about toilet roll, of all things:

It was the era of hard shiny toilet paper. Not nice. The workers wanted soft and fluffy. The union said ‘We want soft’. Management quickly conceded soft bog roll. Then one union member decided he actually preferred hard. ‘We want BOTH’ the union said. ‘We want soft and hard’. They got both, in every cubicle.

A great story, but not just a funny one. Pete drew two lessons: the first was that what builds unions – and campaigns – is winning; and the second was to listen carefully.

He was much more than a union activist, though. He was a regular at the Grunwick mass pickets in 1976 and 1977, and in August 1977 he played a key role at the mass anti-nazi mobilisation at Lewisham, as one of the ‘flying wedge’ of mainly SWP members who drove themselves through police ranks in order to seriously maul the nazi National Front, who up to then had seemed to be in the ascendancy. He wasn’t in any sense a violent person – ‘gentle’ is a word that recurs often in people’s memories of him – but he knew that violence was sometimes necessary and didn’t shrink from it when it was required.

Right to Work march, September 1976, London to the TUC in Brighton. Photo: Red Saunders

He was also a key member of Camden IS and then SWP (IS became the SWP in early 1977). One comrade remembered him as:

an important mentor at a time when I had just started work in the NHS and in my early days as a union shop steward. He taught us how to organise, how to fight for our rights and those of others.

And his knowledge of student work made him a valuable asset to comrades at North London Poly and Kingsway College.

Thatcher’s election in 1979 intensified the attacks on jobs and living standards which had begun under the Labour government’s ‘social contract’, and his workplace was one of those where management attacks were successful, with a large number of redundancies in 1981, and worsened conditions for those who stayed. Pete got out, moving up the job ladder to become a database expert, which took him to New York in early 1984.

New York

The SWP had a small sister group in the United States, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), with a New York branch of just five members. Much of what they did was simply talking to people and trying to sell papers – Pete excelled at the first, and taught himself to do the second. But they also looked for ways of putting their politics into practice, focusing on ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, a direct-action organisation formed in 1978 to break the official silence about the AIDS pandemic then ravaging gay, African-American and Latin communities.

ACT UP was inventively militant in its tactics, but cautious in its demands, and the ISO concentrated on arguing for demanding a taxpayer-funded national health service on the British model, and strove to make links with health workers who were making similar arguments. Free public healthcare was an exceptionally radical demand in American politics, but Pete’s knowledge of the NHS allowed them to argue this through as a detailed policy proposal rather than simply an abstract propaganda point.

One of the ISO members who was central to the ACT UP work remembered writing leaflets for meetings together with him, and described him as:

a funny, generous and whip smart Brit who played a central role in training a generation of NY reds through the 90s in Marxist politics and polemics

She highlighted his ‘love of the battle and debate’.

Another recalled that:

while Pete relished late night debates after a meeting, he was anything but an armchair Marxist. My most vivid memories of Pete in New York are protesting in the freezing cold following the racist murder in Howard Beach in 1986, marching through a racist mob in Bensonhurst in 1989, speaking up for health care reform at ACT UP meetings, dodging mounted police in a 1991 protest against the Gulf War, challenging a plainclothes cop who showed up at an ISO branch meeting to disrupt his talk.

His apartments in Brooklyn and Queens became once again bases for friends and comrades visiting from Britain, and from other parts of the USA. He was at this point a very highly-paid IT professional, working at the edge of his field, and described by a fellow IT worker as, ‘one of a generation that defined what is today called an enterprise architect.’ At one point, this got him security clearance for working in the Pentagon, a story he delighted in telling to see the shock on friends’ faces.

But he had a healthy disregard for the marketing bullshit so prevalent in his field. He told me that one of the most difficult jobs he ever had was consulting for a monastery in upstate New York. After learning what they did, he told them that their current set-up was perfectly adequate for the work, and they didn’t need his company’s expensive software. They took a lot of persuading, and his employers were less than pleased, but he was happy he had done the right thing.

By the 1990s he was again a dissident within the ISO, concerned that they had got the balance between campaigns and political development wrong, and were burning comrades out. He remained active, but grew increasingly unhappy, and this in addition to his mother’s failing health prompted him to think about moving back to Britain.

Amsterdam and London

Because of his work, this involved a move first to Amsterdam, where he spent several very happy years with the young (in both senses of the word) Dutch Internationale Socialisten, for whom he became a mentor and a link to previous generations of socialists. One remembered that he was ‘fiercely critical and took great pleasure teasing us about all our perceived certainties’, another that he ‘played such an amazing role on so much in a section of the Dutch Marxist left and my introduction to Marxism personally.’ It was a relationship that endured – when he moved back to London, around a dozen Dutch comrades stayed with him every year for the Marxism festival (which often coincided with his birthday).

In 1998 he finally returned to London, and re-joined the SWP in Hackney, a big district with many experienced comrades, and devoted most of his energies to union work. Though his position left him little scope for workplace activism, he nevertheless played a central role in the wider left.

Manufacturing Science and Finance (MSF), as the union was then called, had half a million members, but lacked the large workplaces and high profile of public sector unions, which ‘contributed to the development of a layer of self-reliant activists used to doing their union work without much help or interference from either union officials or the SWP’s industrial department’, as one comrade recalled.

In 2001 MSF merged with the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (AEEU) to form Amicus. Pete played a critical role in encouraging a rapid merger of the left groups in MSF and AEEU to form the Amicus Unity Gazette, and in the election of the AEEU General Secretary which took place just before the merger. The incumbent, Sir Ken Jackson, often described as ‘Tony Blair’s favourite trade unionist’, was involved in organisations with close ties to the CIA and NATO, and was on the board of NIREX, the nuclear waste disposal company. He was beaten by the left candidate, Derek Simpson, by just 406 votes.

Simpson is now remembered for pushing the anti-migrant argument of ‘British Jobs for British Workers’ and the controversy over ‘inappropriate’ payments when he retired. However, at the time he was seen as one of the new ‘awkward squad’ of trade union leaders, and crucially his election marked the end of the Labour right’s control of the union.

Pete’s partner, Gill George, was a health worker in the same union, and was central to a battle to stop the introduction of Agenda for Change, a new pay and conditions system for the NHS which worsened conditions for many workers. She remembers that:

Pete did not just support me in this fight. He made it his fight. It dominated our lives for perhaps 18 months or two years. We were absolute allies. We stood together and we fought together. Pete –as he always did – made a point of understanding the detail… This wasn’t about personal glory for Pete, because he never got any recognition for his work on AFC. It wasn’t primarily to support me either – although he did support me and did it brilliantly. It was about doing what was right.

He was central to building a strong united left in Amicus, and especially in London Region, working on the basis that it was, ‘possible to be hard as nails politically, making no concessions on matters of principle – and to combine that approach with working with others on all the things we held in common’, as Gill described it.

Pete was central building a united left in Amicus in London, and fighting the ‘Agenda for Change’ under New Labour

In 2007, Amicus merged with the Transport and General Workers’ Union (TWGU) to form Unite the Union. Pete got elected to the Standing Orders Committee (SOC) which decides how Policy and Rules conferences run, and ended up chairing the committee, a position he held until he retired. He managed this because, ‘members were elected from different regions and showed up to a meeting to get themselves organised – most had never met before. Pete went round chatting to people…’, as one Unite comrade described it. He used the position to ensure that conferences were run democratically, in line with what delegates wanted, often to the anger of the union’s leaders. He was also at different times secretary of his union branch, and a member of the national disabled members’ committee.

He wasn’t just a trade union activist, though, getting heavily involved with the Socialist Alliance, which he welcomed as a means to working with others on the left and becoming more effective. One comrade from a different tradition remembered that they, ‘argued and argued so many times about politics. He was the most tenacious political opponent while always being very kind and welcoming to me as someone from outside the SWP. A true comrade.’

The little battles were important, too. A printworker recalled that:

in 2009, he was equally generous with his time in helping me frame our strategy as a Union chapel at the Guardian Print Centre when we were under sustained attack from management. I did not necessarily agree with him all the time, but he was a tireless and principled fighter for socialism.

Another comrade told me how, when there was a fight to save her estate from demolition, she organised a Sunday morning petitioning table on the estate. Pete turned up at 10am on the Sunday morning to help but after a bit he suggested that perhaps this wasn’t the best time. ‘It was a wisdom I was to learn from. He wasn’t patronising, he was just right.’

rs21 and Ludlow

In late 2012, the SWP was thrown into its worst crisis since the 1970s, following an attempt by the leadership to cover up rape allegations made against a leading member. The January 2013 SWP conference voted narrowly to accept the leadership’s ‘nothing to see here’ account, but for hundreds of us, that was not acceptable. Pete was central to the process of building an opposition to bring about fundamental change – the first meeting of 2013 being held in Pete and Gill’s house.

After an initial setback in spring 2013, a large number of comrades resigned, but most of us stayed and adopted a ‘win or walk’ strategy – working to win the annual conference in late 2013 to our view, and accepting that we could not stay if we failed. Pete was sceptical of our ability to win, but accepted the strategy. For him, the important thing was to keep people together so that we could found a new organisation based on the politics of socialism from below, which would put women’s liberation at the heart of its politics. In his resignation letter he said:

I’ve had many differences with the SWP line over the years. But on every occasion in the past I have been able to say either that I was wrong or that the organisation has the capacity to correct itself. I no longer believe that… In leaving the SWP, I will play my part in the process of building a new revolutionary socialist organisation, one which builds on the best of the International Socialist tradition.

He was one of the founding members of rs21, proud of his membership of an organisation that saw comradely disagreement as necessary and healthy, and was a member of our Steering Group at the time of his death.

Shortly after rs21 was founded, he and Gill moved to the market town of Ludlow in Shropshire. He had been working, rather incongruously, in the IT department of the Metropolitan Police, where he was once again a workplace rep. He spent his last period of employment suspended because of his union activities, and was made redundant two weeks before he was due to retire. This coincided with Gill being given early retirement on health grounds from the NHS.

Pete Gillard with his partner Gill George

Retirement to the countryside didn’t mean stepping back from the struggle, however: Pete and Gill were among the founders of Shropshire Defend Our NHS, which campaigned relentlessly against NHS cuts and closures (including the closure of one of the county’s two A&E departments, and of hugely valued rural maternity units). The successes of this campaigning work led to Pete’s election onto the national executives of Keep Our NHS Public (KONP) and Health Campaigns Together, the two main national health campaigns.

He also found time to register with the Open University for a history degree (‘third time lucky’ as he said), and even took out a student loan, having established that he wouldn’t have to repay it until he started work… He delighted in trying to use his student card to get a discount in restaurants, usually while he was picking up the bill for most if not all of the table. He and Gill quickly integrated themselves into Ludlow life, building a strong circle of friends – he even had his own glass behind the bar of his local – and once again welcoming comrades and friends to their house, and to the apartment on Madeira that they bought with his pension the year after they moved.

One of the Shropshire campaign’s most important victories was in working as part of a magnificent grassroots campaign to stop closure of Ludlow Community Hospital – the hospital in which he died. Pete was diagnosed in January this year with a rare variant of bladder cancer, for which the recommended treatment was major surgery. He had also suffered for several years from a form of chronic leukaemia, although he refused to allow this to interfere in any way with the life he wanted to lead. Although surgery went well, he developed first sepsis, and then pneumonia. He spent almost a month receiving superb treatment in intensive care, and seemed – finally – to be on the mend. Very sadly, his recovery was short-lived. A matter of days later, his condition sharply deteriorated, and he was transferred to Ludlow Hospital for end of life care. The two things that ultimately led to Pete’s death were pulmonary embolism and Covid-19.

Pete was a man of wonderful contradictions. A student activist for six years whose only qualification came from a government training scheme; a rank-and-file opponent of trade union bureaucracy who collected innumerable committee positions; and a consistent proponent of the need for revolutionary socialist organisation who repeatedly found himself in opposition to the leaderships of the organisations he had committed to.

In person he was incredibly generous and hospitable, argumentative and occasionally cantankerous, a wonderful drinking companion who rarely got drunk, and a great motivator and persuader. He was incapable of passing a bookshop, and would often buy copies of rare socialist books to give away to others. When he was oppositional, it was never for the sake of it or for personal reasons, but because he thought that the group could and should do better – and he was quite often right. Though he liked living well, he was utterly without personal ambition – his job would have allowed him to float off into a very comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, but his commitment to the class he came from remained undimmed. His passion for the NHS focused all of his talents, building diverse alliances of people to defend both the immediate provision of essential services, but also the underlying principle of human need before private greed. Out of all the tributes that have been paid to him, three in particular struck me as expressing how much he gave us.

A comrade who knew him from Leeds in the 1970s said:

There was a heady optimism amongst revolutionaries in the early 1970s. Things were going our way. The world changed – but Pete remained one of a generation of socialists who, fully aware of the dangers and difficulties, always believed socialist revolution to be possible. That required a deep and abiding confidence in a working class capable of being the agency for human emancipation.

A close co-worker since 2000 said

I could only have argued and disagreed and squabbled quite so much with someone who was such a good friend and comrade. He expected nothing else.

The last word must belong to Gill, though:

He became a Marxist when he was 16 years old. He remained a Marxist to the day he died. He had a tremendous knowledge and understanding of socialist theory, and he enjoyed political debate and argument. He never saw politics as an abstract intellectual game though. For Pete, politics was about changing the world for the better; not protesting but always, always seeking to win real gains. This is what drove him for the whole of his adult life.

An online memorial event for Pete will be held on Saturday 9 May from 8 pm (BST).

Pete’s writing for rs21.org.uk includes articles defending free movement, and outlining ways to campaign for the NHS.

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