Joan Maynard (1921-1998) lived her life through her politics. In the course of her 76 years she was a parish councillor, a rural district councillor, a county councillor, a Justice of the Peace, Vice President of the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW), a member of the Labour Party National Executive and a Member of Parliament.
You could read this CV as the rise and rise of a career politician but Joan was not, she only undertook these jobs in order to further her Socialist principles.
“The first of my guiding principles was that I saw a lot of injustices going on and I felt I couldn’t accept it. That’s one of the things that made me a Socialist. Perhaps it is just in my make up more than anything, the fact that I have always been outspoken and said what I thought, truthfully, about things.”
Joan Maynard Passionate Socialist by Kristine Mason O’Connor is an insightful and well written biography. Written with Joan’s support over four years, it is a vivid illustration of the crucial role that she played in national, international and local politics.
She was an untypical Labour Party member. The daughter of a tenant farmer, she grew up in the beautiful North Yorkshire moors. In her early life she was influenced by her parents, particularly her father with whom she worked on the farm, and shared a love of the land and the value of the labour of farm workers. She left school at 14.
Joan did not just work on the farm at the age of 16 she also ran the Post Office which was on the farm. Paid less because she was a woman, she was fired up by this injustice but was also well aware of the massive inequalities between the farmers – who owned the land – and the families who lived in tied cottages and were under the constant fear of eviction.
Like many people of her generation Joan was inspired by Labour’s victory in tne general election in July 1945. Although she lived in a true blue constituency she saw Labour’s nationalisation programme of industry as central to the achievement of a fairer society. Alongside a small group of comrades she was involved with setting up the new Thirsk Labour Party with Joan as its Secretary.
The job of Secretary is the key role in any organisation, but particularly when trying to recruit to the Labour Party in an area with prospective members scattered across it. But Joan took to it with the energy that she put into all the causes that she supported throughout her life. In the first two years the party had recruited over a hundred members as Joan and her comrades went laboriously from village to village and house to house.
Central to her politics was the Labour Party and her own trade union: the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW). She spent her life working in both these organisations, but was also prepared to make alliances with other organisations – which did not go down well – such as the Communist Party (CP). During the period of the Cold War she felt that the Labour Party was keener on attacking the CP than the Tories. “It’s time we Socialists and Communists got together to talk things over…I have been a member of the Labour Party for 10 years, and I have always been very depressed to find so much time devoted by members of my Party to attacking the Communists.”
When Joan believed in a cause she did not care who she upset: in this biography one whole chapter is given over to her involvement in the campaign for Irish unity. In 1970 she visited the North of Ireland as part of a three woman delegation of the National Assembly of Women. This was the time of the Civil Rights Movement, while the Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson had just sent 30,000 troops to the province.
Like many British politicians and citizens she knew little about what was happening in Ireland and was shocked. “In the streets British tanks were rolling up and down and British troops were dodging from doorway to doorway with guns at the ready. I thought, this only happens in fascist countries”
Joan travelled to both the north and and south Ireland to find out what was going on, to make alliances with the new Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association and build links within and outside the Labour Party to challenge Britain’s occupation of Ireland. Her election in 1972 to the National Executive of the Labour Party gave her a national platform to do this, but it made her a lot of enemies. “This got me into a lot of hot water with the Labour Party, the unions, the Conservative Government and, of course the press.”
Over the years Joan was unrelenting in criticising the worsening situation in the North of Ireland and its effects on the civil rights for people in Ireland and Britain. She was also not worried about taking on her own party over their policy. When the Labour Government brought in the Prevention of Terrorism Act (PTA) in 1974 she urged MPs to vote against it. She said that it “had absolutely nothing to do with preventing terrorism; there were very few people charged under it and even less convicted; it was really about terrorising Irish people in this country and collecting information.” She was proven right. By the 1980s over 80,000 Irish people were being stopped or detained under the PTA : Joan spoke at a press conference organised by the organisation I belonged to (the Irish in Britain Representation Group) in January 1985 to campaign for its abolition.
Her support for justice in Ireland went further then just speaking at meetings she supported those Irish prisoners who were caught up in miscarriages of justice including Birmingham Six, Guildford Four and Judith Ward. Not a popular thing to do in the 1980’s, but she did not dodge the criticisms and in one case met up a constituent whose son was a soldier and had been killed in the North of Ireland and objected to Joan’s stance.
Joan resigned as an MP in 1987. A decade later she witnessed the Blair revolution, but stayed in the Party, even though she believed it had been hijacked by the right wingers. Her core beliefs did not change. “If you’re a Socialist, you’ve got to believe in people’s ability to change society. It’s not leaders who are going to do it, it’s the people. And I think if you don’t believe in that, you can’t say you’re a Socialist.”
I really enjoyed reading this biography. It would be difficult today to find such a committed Socialist in the Labour Party. In fact I cannot think of any person that has Joan’s commitment to changing society and a solid belief in class politics.
Sadly this book is now out of print and it should be republished. You can buy a secondhand copy at Abe Books.