The greatest Briton: Jack Jones

If the BBC can do it, so can Personnel Today. We want to know which Briton
you rate as the greatest people manager and leader of all time. Personnel Today
has invited 10 leading figures in the field of management to nominate
individuals they believe are the best, and then convince you they are right. To
vote, visit the voting form where you will also find summaries of all 10
The voting closes on Tuesday 4th March 2003.

This week’s nominee is:

Jack Jones

Stephen Bubb is the chief executive of the Association of Chief Executives
of Voluntary Organisations

Whether you loved or feared Jack Jones, during the 1970s it was impossible
to ignore him. He must be one of the most famous trade union leaders of all
time, bestriding the political and economic scene, to the point where tabloids
used to claim that he, and not the Government, ran the country.

I worked as his speechwriter, and he is a man of integrity and charm. He has
a huge personal commitment to changing the world for the better.

He was general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union (now
known as T&G) – at that time the country’s largest union – for nine years
and made a real difference to political and economic events during that time.

Jones will be best remembered for brokering the pioneering ‘social contract’
between the Government, industry and the unions. The core idea was that unions
and employees needed to work closely with industry and government for the
common good, and for the first time the unions formerly agreed to restrain pay
demands in the interest of the general economy.

But what he is less well remembered for, is the work he did to promote
‘industrial democracy’. He was the driving force behind the establishment of
the Bullock Commission that looked at how to involve employees more closely in
the running of their companies.

The idea of ‘workers on the board’ did not take off – and probably rightly
so – but this groundbreaking thinking was instrumental in developing employees
as stakeholders in organisations.

At the time, the idea that the employees in a company should be involved closely
in decision-making was revolutionary. Jones pursued this notion in the face of
criticism from the extreme left within the union movement, many of whom were
still arguing that you should have nothing to do with the running of

Jones believed in trying to better the lot of fellow working people. The son
of a Liverpool docker, he began his working life in the docks at 14 years of
age, against a background of unemployment and bitter poverty.

He even fought for the International Brigade for seven months in the Spanish
Civil War, but was wounded in the Battle of Ebro in 1938 and returned home.

During the Second World War, Jones became a full-time official for the
T&G in Coventry, helping to keep the city’s munitions industry working
through the German bombing campaign. After the war, he was largely responsible
for organising the workforce of the car industry in the Midlands.

Jones became a great leader and embodied the core elements of successful
leadership – integrity and the ability to lead by example. There was never any
suggestion of personal aggrandisement, or the petty corruption that has
besmirched other union leaders. Humility and radiant goodwill were his

When he spoke about his total belief in the good sense of working people,
and the need for them to decide their own destiny, you knew he believed it. You
also wanted to help him achieve it.

I remember working with Jones when the papers ran the results of a gallop
poll that claimed he was ‘the most powerful man in Britain’. Lesser mortals
might have been flattered or amused. They might have let this go to their
heads, but this just was not the case with Jack. He dismissed it as mere
tittle-tattle and got on with the job. He never let the taunts about being
‘Emperor Jones’ get to him either, because he had an unshakeable belief that
what he was doing was correct.

So when you look for real leadership traits – integrity, determination,
vision and the ability to motivate and inspire – Jones had that all in spades.
Indeed, there has probably never been a trade union or political leader then or
now who had exhibited those traits so well.

If Jones were still on the union scene today, I believe the fire workers
dispute would have been sensibly resolved by now, for example, and in a way
that preserved the dignity of the firefighters, but within the context of the
economic good of the country. He was very much the ‘architect’ of the
arbitration service Acas.

His commitment to industrial democracy is still highly relevant today. No
leader in any sector can afford to run an organisation without the close
involvement of employees.

The days of ‘treat them mean, keep them keen’ are largely over. Indeed,
those companies that have evolved employee suggestion and ownership schemes are
drawing on those very ideas inspired by Jones.

He believed that many of the best ideas come from the office or shop floor,
and if employers had any sense, they would mine them.

Now in his 90th year, retirement has not diminished his energy. When he
stepped down as the T&G general secretary in 1977, he devoted himself to
the pursuit of the rights of older people. And he is still a tireless advocate
for pensioners’ rights, and couldn’t be bought off with a peerage. Jones is the
Greatest Briton.

Jones’s CV

1913 Born in Liverpool

1927 Leaves school and becomes a docker

1938 Fights and wounded in the Spanish Civil War

1940 Becomes a full-time union official

1968 Elected general secretary of the T&G

1977 Steps down from T&G and becomes a campaigner for old

Comments are closed.