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Ray Gunter

Raymond Jones Gunter, (1909-1977), trade unionist and politician, was born at 18 High Street, Llanhilleth, Monmouthshire, on 30 August 1909, the son of Miles Gunter, a fruiterer and later a colliery pumpsman, and his wife, Clara Adeline Jones. After attending Abertillery and Newbridge secondary schools, he became, at the age of fourteen, a booking clerk with the Great Western Railway. When he was sixteen, he joined the Railway Clerks' Association (later the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association) and the Labour Party. He became active in both. On 04 August 1934, at the Methodist church at Newbridge, he married Elsie (d 1971), an elementary school teacher, daughter of James Elkins (a coalminer), with whom he had one son. During the Second World War Gunter enlisted in the Royal Engineers in 1941, and was promoted to staff captain in 1943, overseeing the transport of arms from Iraq to the USSR.
Gunter returned to Britain in 1945 to contest Essex South-East in the general election and, to his surprise, won the seat. He was then narrowly elected for Doncaster in 1950 and equally narrowly defeated in 1951. He unsuccessfully contested Doncaster again in 1955 but eventually found a safe haven in Southwark, for which he sat from 1959 to 1972.
While out of the House of Commons, Gunter became president of the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association in 1956, having previously been its treasurer, and he held the post until 1964. Emphatically anti-Bevanite, he was a member of the national executive committee of the Labour Party from 1955 to 1966 and, as head of the party's organization committee, took a tough line against left-wing critics during the early 1960's. He was a steadying and unifying influence during the clash over unilateral disarmament during and after the 1960 party conference, and for a brief moment he was seen as a future leader of the party. He became opposition spokesman on power in 1960 and then served as shadow minister of labour from 1961 until the 1964 general election. He was also chairman of the Labour Party from 1964 to 1965.
On 17 October 1964 Harold Wilson included Gunter in his new cabinet as minister for labour. Gunter called his new post 'a bed of nails' (Wigham, 'Much more a unionist'). Under any administration of the period, mediating between the employers and workers was an exciting and unenviable task, but in 1964 the Ministry of Labour was expected to construct the coherent and genuine labour market policy that seemed an essential prerequisite to union participation in a voluntary incomes policy. It thus formed a pivot around which the government hoped to turn its social and economic policies.
Gunter's performance as minister of labour was mixed. He piloted through parliament the Redundancy Payments Act and successfully set up the industrial training boards required by the Industrial Training Act of January 1964. However, in both instances the spadework had already been done by the previous Conservative government. His Trade Disputes Act (1965) overturned the Rookes v Barnard judicial decision of 1964 that threatened the unions' legal immunity in respect of strikes.. The achievement which probably gave him greatest satisfaction was paving the way to ending casual dock working by setting up the Devlin Committee.
In other respects, Gunter's achievements were less satisfactory. His creation of the Donovan commission (the royal commission on trade unions and employers' associations) in April 1965 soured his relations with the unions. During the seamen's strike of May 1966 his ministerial status was undermined when the handling of the dispute was taken over by Wilson. The strike helped to precipitate an economic crisis in July 1966, but Gunter in cabinet was unable to resist either the imposition of the pay freeze or the subsequent elongation of statutory control of collective bargaining.
In April 1968 Wilson moved Gunter to the Ministry of Power, Gunter bitterly resented this, not least because he loathed his successor, Barbara Castle, and resented Wilson's expansion of the now renamed Department of Employment and Productivity. Two months later, on 28 June, he resigned from the cabinet. Had he chosen to go in April his motives would have been clear, but as it was they were obscure. For this reason, his resignation is remembered as an example of how not to resign (Kaufman, 168-9). But his comment that he would be forgotten within ten years (Wigham, Much more a unionist) proved correct.
Ray Gunter was a rotund and smilingly self-confident figure, who employed an emotional, rumbustious, and sometimes demagogic oratory in the service of the Labour right. After meeting him in May 1968, Richard Crossman, who 'never trusted him a yard' described him as 'a huge squat bullfrog of a man, with a great Welsh voice and the less attractive qualities of the Welsh as well' (Crossman, Diaries, 3.50) He was pro-European long before this became common in the Labour Party and was a firm believer in co-operation between management and workers. In a sense he was more a trade unionist than a politician, though his white-collar connections disadvantaged him within the TUC general council, where some referred to him dismissively as 'the ticket collector' (Jenkins,7). Within the cabinet he was unpopular among some of his colleagues for leaking information to the press (Castle Diaries, 1964-70, 304). His appointment and dismissal as minister for labour mirror the changing attitude of Wilsons' government to the unions. Gunter campaigned relentlessly against traditions and practices that were dear to many Unionists but that he perceived to be hampering change; in a speech to the Scottish council of labour he remarked, 'I do wish so many of the comrades would stop equating profits with incest or lechery', adding that profitable industry meant further investment and more jobs (Sunday Times, 20 August 1967). For this he was bitterly resented by the left, and when he returned to the back benches he had few political reserves on which to draw. His Europeanism was a major factor in his decision to resign the Labour whip in February 1972, when he insisted 'our country has a new role in Europe, not only on economic grounds' (The Times, 17 February 1972). He also cited his resentment at the dominant role of intellectuals, whom he thought out of touch with the interests of ordinary people, among a Labour leadership lacking the working-class ballast which he, Frank Cousins and George Brown had provided.
Ray Gunter died at his cottage, Y Bwthyn Bach, Launceston Close, Old Town, St. Mary's on the Isles of Scilly on 11 April 1977.
A Blue Plaque in honour of Ray Gunter can be viewed at Llanhilleth railway station.
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Ray Gunter

The above article for local education groups only.

Ray Gunter - National Portrait Gallery



Full page article - Illustrated London News, Saturday 09 October 1965.

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