Stalin's granny

Joan Maynard: passionate socialist

Kristine Mason O'Connor <em>Politico's, 356pp, £25</em>


To Joan Maynard, the world consisted of two sorts of people. "'E's a loovely comrade," she would say, or "'E's a right-wing bastard." I never heard her speak of anyone who did not fall into one of those categories. She was not a woman of Third Ways.

The labour movement reciprocated her certainty. The left saw her as brave, warm, generous, honest and dedicated, which she was; and infallible, which she was not. The right saw her as sectarian, which she was, and manipulative, which she was not. Perhaps inevitably, Maynard has found a biographer to whom she was always in the right, and one who therefore loses sight of many of the real lessons of her career.

For most of her adult life, Maynard was a leading activist in the National Union of Agricultural Workers. Outside that union she is best known for her work during her decade as an MP, starting in 1974, when she was 53. Yet she never wanted to be an MP. She would have traded it willingly for the presidency of the trade union she loved. She took her Westminster seat almost as a consolation prize after being manoeuvred out of her post as union vice-president and narrowly beaten for the presidency. Joan, and her union opponents, were of that old school of trade unionists who believed that politicians are grubby chaps who have their occasional uses, a bit like journalists; but that the real business of the working class is done in the unions.

Her socialist opinions were grounded in humanity, warmth and kindness. She could weep, genuinely and unashamedly, at human suffering and poverty, and she hated the system that created it more than she was capable of hating any human being - even "a right-wing bastard". If this led her to the cold, calculating sectarianism of the Bennites in the 1980s, it also led her to her greatest triumph, which was helping to hold the Labour government to its promise to abolish the tied-cottage system. It is largely thanks to Maynard that the sight of poor families standing by the road with their few sticks of furniture, contemplating homelessness and penury, has been absent from the countryside over the past 20 years or so.

Kristine Mason O'Connor rightly gives Maynard credit for this, but unjustly withholds credit from others. Without Gavin Strang, then a junior minister at the Department of Agriculture, the reform might never have reached the statute book. Strang, one of the few ministers who understood rural concerns, went on to shadow agriculture in Labour's wasteland years until the 1997 election victory, when the job was snatched from him, because his face did not fit in new Labour circles.

Some of Joan's old opponents from the farmworkers' union deserve better than they get in this book - in particular John Hose, who defeated her for president. O'Connor offers us one anecdote of Hose: late at night, at a union conference, he returned to the hotel with four union colleagues and several crates of beer, as the hotel bar had run dry. Maynard apparently remarked that he should spend less time on beer and more on union business. This was grossly unfair. Hose put in more union work in the day than most people put into a week, and amply earned the copious quantities of beer he liked to drink at the end of it.

Her friends fare better. When Mason O'Connor affectionately quotes Maynard's closest friend, Jack Brocklebank, I can hear his voice again: "Now, Joan, don't go too far ahead of the troops, like."

Mason O'Connor wastes scorn on those who dubbed Maynard "Stalin's granny". Silly though this nickname was, it does illustrate her mixture of motherliness and rigid politics. But this biographer can see only one blemish in her subject: she was not a feminist, because she thought people were divided by class, not sex. Good biographers generally like their subject, but they should not be blind to their faults. You do not need to put Joan on a pedestal to remember her, as I do, with respect and affection. She was a loovely comrade.