A Party of Our Own (Part III) – ‘Militant’s Revenge’

January 26, 2013 6:01 pm

If ever there was a turning point in British postwar history, it was the Miners’ Strike of 1984-85.

When the strike ended in defeat for the National Union of Miners (NUM), the full force of Thatcherite monetarist policies could be more thoroughly unrolled. Without the defeat of the NUM, the strongest and traditionally most combatant of the trade unions, Thatcher’s programme of ending the era of political consensus could never have happened.

strike

But it wasn’t just the deliberate policies of the Tory government putting in place a carefully prepared trap for the NUM to step into that brought about this historic defeat. It was also a question of leadership of the labour movement that indirectly facilitated the defeat and subsequent assaults on ordinary working class families.

Since the NUM played a leading role in the bringing down of the Tory government under Edward Heath in 1974, the Tories around Thatcher knew they would have to take on the miners to be able to push their programme through. Nicholas Ridley MP produced the ‘Ridley Plan’ in 1978 before they even came to power:

  • build up coal stocks
  • centralise the police forces
  • introduce legislation against the use of ‘flying pickets’ and ‘secondary action’
  • organise alternative forces to transport coal

In short, when the Tories came to power, they intended to employ the full forces of the state against the miners and other militant workers.

Tory onslaught

The parlous state of the Labour Party’s internal strife between left and right following its defeat in 1979, and again in 1983, meant no viable opposition to the Tory onslaught was available. Thatcher’s government had already introduced savage cuts in industry that pushed unemployment to three million by 1981-82. Yet Labour was too embroiled in an internal civil war to be able to work effectively.

Michael Foot’s ineffective leadership only fuelled more division as the (mainly middle class) right-wing blamed the (mainly working class) unions and the Left for bringing down their Labour government. The Left countered this, blaming the Right for their betrayal once in government by introducing the ‘Social Contract’ that held down wages and for reneging on election promises to ‘redress the balance in favour of working families’.

The Falklands War of 1982 also helped Thatcher present herself as a ‘strong, decisive leader’, throwing into grim relief the dithering figure of Michael Foot.

Falklands

With the advent of Neil Kinnock as Labour’s new leader at the end of 1983, he set about the historic task that was expected of him – to bring Labour to the political centre ground, to turn away from ‘socialism’ towards a ‘more humane’ form of capitalism.  The Right in Labour had seized power but used the ‘soft left’ Kinnock as their front who was going to change the party forever.

Within a few months of becoming leader, the Miners’ Strike began in March, 1984.

Militancy can pay

Kinnock, himself representing a Welsh mining area, could not bring himself to come out in full support of the miners, not if he was supposed to be changing the Labour Party that was accused by the Tories of being ‘in hock’ to the union paymasters. NUM leader Arthur Scargill provided him the perfect excuse not to support the strike. Scargill would not call a ballot.

Another headache for the Kinnock leadership was the majority won in Liverpool City Council elections where the Militant Tendency were influential. Their electoral pledges included a much-needed house-building programme and the creation of over more than 6,000 jobs. The Militant socialists were determined to carry out those pledges. They had campaigned vigorously for the government to return £60 million that had been cut in the Rate Support Grant. It was a campaign that brought 50,000 onto the streets in support and a city-wide strike. When the money was returned, the Labour council set about fulfilling their promises. It was proof that Thatcher could be beaten and that militancy can pay.

The government was not prepared to take on Liverpool Council, that was also beginning to form a united front with 24 other councils against further cuts. Thatcher could not afford to have a ‘war on two fronts’ with both the miners and the Labour councils.

The NUM were defeated by March, 1985. The miners were isolated, as the rest of the trade union leaders would not come to their aid for fear of having trade union funds confiscated by the Tories’ anti-union legislation. Kinnock’s ‘dented shield’ policy had begun to soften the resistance of many trade unions – his ‘sit tight and wait for Labour’ permeated through the tops of the trade union movement. Kinnock was more concerned with capturing the votes of ‘Middle England’ and needed Labour to appear ‘respectable and responsible’.

Once the miners strike ended in defeat, attention turned to the Labour councils, particularly Liverpool. One by one, those Labour council leaders who favoured a parliamentary career above the people they represented, began to cave in. The likes of Margaret Hodge (Islington), Ken Livingstone (GLC) and David Blunkett (Sheffield) went on to become Labour MPs, even cabinet members. But Liverpool and Lambeth held out to the end when, finally, the individual councillors would be surcharged, fined and thrown out of office by the unelected House of Lords.

‘Grotesque chaos’

For his part, Kinnock opened season on the Left in Liverpool by arranging a concerted witch hunt against Militant members to eradicate any trace of Marxism in the party.

All Kinnock succeeded in doing was compounding the mistrust workers had for him, since his behaviour during the miners’ strike and now turning on his own party.

Kinnock’s infamous ‘grotesque chaos’ speech at the 1985 party conference, where he vilified the Liverpool councillors, drew far more support from Labour’s enemies in parliament and in the press than it did within the Labour Party. Expulsions were to drag on for years but didn’t gain Kinnock’s ‘New Realist’ Labour scarcely any extra votes at either elections of 1987 or 1992.

What made it worse, from Kinnock’s perspective, despite the expulsions, and the vilification of Militant in the capitalist media,  Labour won the 1987 local elections in Liverpool with an increased vote, putting other members of Militant back in office. The council’s policies of house-building and creating jobs were  popular.

Thatcher’s 1987 general election victory, her defeat of the NUM, and the collapse of the Labour council rebellion against cuts emboldened her government to introduce the Tory ‘flagship’ policy to further undermine local councils. The poll tax was to be introduced whereby, instead of property rates to fund local government, each person over eighteen years old would be expected to pay a charge. It was a tax that would transfer wealth from the poor to the rich. A dustbin-man would pay the same as a Duke!

Thatcher forced to resign

Thatcher’s arrogance in her recent victories bolstered her confidence to introduce the poll tax in one fell swoop, despite warnings from those around her. Labour had given no firm lead in opposition and only staged a few demonstrations but advised people to ‘not break the law, pay it and vote Labour.’

But what brought a better response was for the Militant Tendency’s campaign of mass non-payment.

Socialists, those both in the Labour Party and those expelled, provided the organisational backbone of the non-payment campaign. They were at the forefront, the most vocal, who offered the best methods of how to take the campaign forward and they were among those who were eventually jailed for non-payment.

They were also rewarded by Labour, those who were still members, with expulsion. Nevertheless, by November, 1990 – due to the massive unpopularity of Thatcher and her poll tax – Militant’s campaign prompted those around her to force her to resign. The ‘Iron Lady’ was turned to ‘iron filings’ and she left Downing Street in tears. Her successor, John Major, set a timetable of abolition of the poll tax.

‘Thatcherism’ still alive

As for Militant, they were victims of their own success. Had they kept quiet and hidden amongst the shadows of the Labour Party, it’s likely that a mass campaign may have dissipated without their leadership. By leading boldly from the front, they revealed their presence and membership of Militant and more members were thrown out of Labour as Kinnock continued with his reforms to make Labour ‘more electable’.

After eleven years of destroying much of our public sector, of diminishing the living standards and working conditions of millions of working class and middle class people, after selling off much of our public utilities to private companies (many of them donors to the Tory Party) and creating a low-wage economy, Thatcher was gone.

But ‘Thatcherism’ was still very much alive.

thatcher

For all his bluster and hype; for all his flourish and jokes in parliament; for all his talk of ‘New Realism’ and his cutting loose of principles and beliefs, Neil Kinnock failed again in 1992 to unseat the Tory Party, even a very divided and seriously weakened Tory Party.

As Thatcher had changed the face of the economy, Kinnock had signalled the end of the ‘old’ Labour Party as we knew it. His successors learned no lessons from his defeats. Instead, they continued to move the party further and further to the right until the very word ‘socialism’ would hardly get a mention anymore.

Neil Kinnock got his reward. He gained lucrative employment in Brussels as a EU Commissioner. Now he lives as Lord Kinnock… for his ‘services to the public’.

Next: A Party of Our Own – ‘a socialist alternative’ (the fourth and final part of the series) 

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