Remembering Joan Maynard: a voice for rural socialism.


“She led campaigns for public ownership of the land, opposition to the use of chemicals within farming, the abolition of the outdated tied cottage system & was a staunch supporter of animal rights.”

By Logan Williams

If Joan Maynard is remembered for anything in contemporary Britain, it is for her leading role in the passage of the Rent (Agricultural) Act as the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside which effectively ended the practice of tied cottages in the agricultural industries; a nineteenth century practice where agricultural workers lived in houses owned by their employer, which was believed to make up the living arrangements of just over fifty percent of workers within the sector in the 1970’s.

Joan burst onto the national Labour party stage in 1958 where she attended the party’s Annual Conference as the delegate for the rural Thirsk and Malton constituency in Yorkshire. During this conference, Joan moved a motion to include the nationalisation of Land as a key policy for the Party’s next manifesto as opposed to the tame agricultural policy proposals put forward by James Callaghan. This motion declared that ‘socialism cannot be achieved as long as private ownership of the land remains’ and instructed the NEC ‘to explicitly accept the nationalisation of land as party policy, without which many agricultural problems have no solution’. It was her support for this motion and its demands for support for policies produced by her union the National Union of Agricultural Workers (NUAW); now part of Unite the union, and the cause of socialism within her lifetime that would mark Joan and her life.

‘Deep political faith and commitment’

Joan first joined the Labour Party in 1946 enthused by the General Election victory of 1945, despite her later dismay at the lack of support for transformative policy changes by senior members of Attlee’s government, stating that she felt that the Labour government “could have really done anything if we’d had the confidence in ordinary people and been straight and honest with them, and determined to help them to change society”. Upon attending the inaugural meeting of the Thirsk Labour Party, Joan would be swiftly elected its Secretary and, was swiftly recruited into the NUAW by the man who would later fulfil the role of her Mentor within the union, Jack Brocklebank, due to her strong desire to contest the contemporary conservative ruled system of rural Yorkshire society. It was through this association that Joan would begin to undertake Workers Educational Association classes on topics from basic Marxist theory to economics which Joan credits as having taught her all she knew about politics.

As well as the provision of political education classes, the NUAW encouraged Joan to seek election to public office as part of the Union’s political strategy. First as a Public Magistrate and later as both a Rural District and County Councillor within the Conservative heartlands of North Yorkshire. Joan’s election to the bench as a Magistrate reflected the first time a Labour party member had been elected to this position within her community and, as such she was committed to attempting to ‘get the other magistrates to see that the people that were usually there because of the circumstances under which they have been brought up’, Joan’s successful election and characteristically diligent work as a Magistrate saw her local party encourage her to successfully stand for the neighbouring ward of South Kilvington on the Rural District Council which saw her lead a vibrant and openly socialist campaign for election with education as her central policy focus.

Alongside her efforts to cut the ‘blue grass’ of local government in North Yorkshire, Joan became increasingly active within the Left faction within the NUAW forcing major losses to the moderate dominated Executive Committee at the Union’s Biennial Delegates Conference; most significantly through the creation of a Vice-President position elected by the delegates at the Union’s BDC. Joan would later successfully seek election to this position in 1966 with a majority of 16 delegates. Throughout her campaign to be elected to the Vice-Presidency Joan did not seek to hide her socialist politics as demonstrated by her statement within the Union’s Journal: The Land Worker,

‘All the world over people who work on the land are noted for their conservative point of view… The job of our Union is to obtain the best possible conditions for our members under the present capitalist system, but it should also work to remove that system at the earliest possible moment and replace it with a socialist society’.

Within her time as the Vice-President of the NUAW, Joan led the left faction’s criticisms of various key issues. These ranged from the failure on the Union’s behalf to argue within the Labour Party for the abolition of the tied cottage system which saw Joan declare it a ‘sordid sell-out of our membership on this issue’ and, he condemnation of the In Place of Strife White Paper at the TUC Congress in 1969. Which saw Joan concluding to thunderous applause ‘I say to the Prime Minister: it is not productivity that gets you an increase in wages- it is organised might in the kind of society we live in’. Joan would go on to lose the Vice-Presidency not due to a political swing against her positions instead the position of Vice President of the National Union of Agricultural Workers was dissolved due to a lack of funds.

‘Is it good for the Workers?’

Joan was later encouraged by comrades on the Left of the Labour party and movement to consider running for Parliament following a two-year period of being a leading Left member on the Party’s National Executive Committee. Joan was supported by the now Left led Transport and General Workers Union and the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers in her time on the NEC and within her selection battle. Joan: like most representatives of the Labour Left which succeed in gaining a seat in the House of Commons, held a critical view of Parliament and its various mechanisms. She stated upon her election to Parliament that ‘Political power resides in the Commons, but real power, economic powers, still reside in the hands of those who own land, money and what’s left of the commanding heights of our industry’. Joan was ultimately successful in gaining selection in the Sheffield Brightside constituency shortly before the 1974 General Election following the successful deselection of the sitting MP, Eddie Griffiths. The Brightside campaign for the 1974 General Election was fought on national issues; predominately the economy, with Joan arguing that nationalisation was the only way to control prices, falling wages and, the rising rate of inflation.

Throughout her time in Parliament Joan campaigned consistently in support of workers from the steel workers and engineers of Sheffield to the Mineworkers strike of 1984/5 and to the Grunwick pickets which saw her and fellow socialist MP Ian Mikardo crushed against the side of a bus carrying non-union labour into the factory. She began her time in Parliament by conducting a series of meetings with the Shop Stewards and workforces of the numerous steel works and factories within her constituency because in her view ‘they are the people who run the industry every day. They know more about it than anybody else’. Joan would go on to vigorously defend her constituents from an attack by the then Conservative Secretary of State for Industry, Keith Joseph, who argued that the slow collapse of the British steel industry was an example of the ‘British Disease’ of industrial malaise caused by a proneness to engage in industrial action by the workers. She would retort

‘How would honourable members react if one-third of them were made redundant and those who remained had their wages frozen? It is not long ago that honourable members were clamouring for a much greater wage increase that that sought by the steel workers”

Thus, demonstrating Joan’s unwavering dedication both to defending the interests of her constituents and her class.

Despite representing a heavily industrialised constituency Joan Maynard became the voice for British Agricultural workers and their issues in Parliament from completing individual pieces of casework to supporting campaigns aiming to radically transform the sector from the roots up. She led campaigns for public ownership of the land, opposition to the use of chemicals within farming, the abolition of the outdated tied cottage system and, was a staunch supporter of animal rights. The most prominent of all of these campaigns was the aforementioned campaign for the abolition of the tied cottage system. The campaign to apply pressure to the contemporary Labour government for the abolition of the tied cottage system began from Joan’s maiden speech to parliament where she stated ‘Agriculture has a twentieth century approach when it is considering new techniques but an eighteenth-century when it is considering wages. Part of its approach… is to retain tied cottages and low pay’. This pressure would ultimately result in the Labour government including the demand within the Queen’s Speech on 19 November 1975 and, the presentation of the Rent (Agriculture) bill in 1976. Unremarkably this bill came under attack from members of the House of Lords who proposed amendments which removed the security of tenure proposed for tied cottage occupants which would lead Joan to describe the House of Lords as being ‘like the tied cottage system, both are equally archaic and should have been done away with many years ago’.

‘Steadfast in her beliefs: A True Socialist’.

Alongside her commitment to the British working-class movement and to the amplification of rural voices within British politics, Joan would remain firmly placed on the Left of both the Labour party and movement. A key example of Joan’s dedication to the cause of democratic socialism can be found in 1982 when Joan took: alongside other future members of the Campaign group such as Bob Cryer, Dennis Skinner and Martin Flannery, the decision to not re-join the existing Tribune group instead founding the Campaign Group of MPs based around the key supporters of Tony Benn’s unsuccessful deputy leadership campaign. Joan would go on to become a founding member and chair of the Campaign Group of MP’s. Joan stood down from Parliament before the 1987 General Election for personal reasons but would continue to be a strong advocate for rural voices and communities on Sowerby Parish Council. She is remembered by her comrade in arms Tony Benn in his foreword to her biography as having ‘never abandoned her socialism because she learnt it by experience and not by reading some revolutionary texts as a student, whereas, there were those who had done just that who then went into career politics and ended up with a peerage. That is why her life is still so relevant’.

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