AJ Cook (1885-1931) was the son of a soldier born in the Somerset village of Wookey in 1885. He went on to become the best known miners’ leader and a key component of the National Minority Movement (NMM) around the General Strike of 1926.
In the early 1900s Cook made the journey across the Bristol Channel to Merthyr Tydfil in South Wales to become a miner.
He was an active member of the Independent Labour Party (ILP) and the Baptist Church. Industrially he became a leading figure in the miners’ “Cambrian Combine” strike of 1910.
While at the Central Labour College, a school funded by trade unions to educate left wing union activists, he became familiar with the ideas of the Miners’ Unofficial Reform Committee Movement.
This organisation produced a pamphlet, The Miners’ Next Step, in 1912 which argued that the left needed to organise from below to gain control of the leadership of the union. Over the next ten years that is exactly what Cook did.
Even at this stage he was described as being a brilliant and dynamic speaker. By 1919 he was miners’ agent (a paid union official) in the Rhondda.
In many ways it was the organisation and early success of the Miners’ Minority Movement (MMM) that inspired the NMM. The growth of a militant current among miners can be seen against the background of The Miners’ Next Step, the First World War and the Russian Revolution.
When Frank Hodges, the secretary of the Miners’ Federation, became lord of the admirality in the first Labour government of 1924, the Minority Movement was able to force him to resign his union office.
The South Wales Miners’ Federation nominated AJ Cook to replace him, and he beat a Yorkshire miner for the post by 217,664 votes to 202,297. Cook was then 39 years old.
On learning of his election, TUC general secretary Fred Bramley exploded that Cook was a “raving Communist”. We can understand Bramley’s reaction by reference to a speech that Cook made to Holborn Labour Party in June 1924. He declared, “I believe in strikes. They are the only weapon.”
Cook remained a member of the ILP throughout this period, with the exception of a brief period after the foundation of the Communist Party (CP). He left the CP in a dispute over tactics in the miners’ lockout of 1921.
Some argue that he left because, while he respected the CP’s industrial work, as a militant union leader he did not like the discipline of the party’s political leadership.
Paul Foot, however, suggested that while Cook was recognised as someone very much in the orbit of the CP, he would have been unlikely to be elected as miners’ leader while still a member.
Cook was a highly effective miners’ leader from 1924 and his high profile in the MMM worked together with this. The MMM was particularly strong in areas where the CP also had significant organisation, such as South Wales and Scotland. By August 1925 the MMM had 200 groups.
This influence was made to count industrially. The influence of the MMM on miners’ wage negotiations in 1924 was clear, and the NMM agitated successfully for a new “triple alliance” of the miners, engineers and transport workers to a government offensive against wages and conditions. This situation led to the 1926 General Strike — again Cook was central to the fight.
After the defeat of the miners in December 1926 Cook began to question some of his previous positions. However, as the TUC launched an offensive against the NMM, Cook stuck by it.
But when the CP in 1929 proposed breakaway “red” unions, Cook disagreed and grew apart from the party. He died in 1931 aged 47.
AJ Cook was without doubt one of the finest leaders the British labour movement has yet seen. But would he have done better if he had remained a member of the CP?
In abstract, and certainly after 1926 until the CP adopted the “class against class” separate unions policy, probably yes.
Cook, like the early CP leaders themselves, was the product of the militant working class movement around the First World War. It is more useful to understand his strengths than to ponder what might have been.
The last word should go to Arthur Horner, a leading South Wales Communist and mining militant. He argued that Cook represented “a time for new ideas — an agitator, a man with a sense of adventure”.