Part Two of a continuing series of articles tracing the history of the anti-poll tax campaign. By 1988, following a third election victory, Thatcher’s government was determined to fund local government contributions with a personal tax. It was to be a massive transference of wealth from the poor to the rich – but would the Labour Party provide the lead to the fight back? CHRIS ROBINSON looks at how divisions in the ‘people’s party’ would suggest otherwise.
A Paler Shade of Red
“Lions led by donkeys” – Eric Hammond, EETPU
Shock treatment, in the form of a third consecutive general election defeat, provided the excuse for the Labour Party leadership to move even more openly to the right.
The Tories’ 1987 victory convinced the heads of the Labour Party, and many of the leaders of the labour movement, that Thatcher’s policies were ‘irreversible’. The best they would be able to offer would be themselves as ‘better managers’ of capitalism with a more ‘human face’.
The rotten Soviet economy, for long held up as a model by the former leftwing reformists – minus its lack of political democracy – was exposed by Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to reform the USSR’s system with his campaign of ‘openness’ (Glasnost) and ‘reconstruction’ (Perestroika). The world could now see what decades of Stalinist corruption had done to turn the world’s first workers democracy into a quagmire of oppression and stagnation, as so often argued in the writings of Leon Trotsky.
This was held up by the likes of Thatcher, and her close associate US President Ronald Reagan, as final proof of the failure of ‘socialism’ that was to usher in an era of capitalist ‘triumphalism’ as the only way to run society – even before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Eastern European Stalinism.
In Britain, the so-called leaders of the working class had reaped the rewards of prolonged political careers. They enjoyed the high incomes and perks of their positions at the summit of the labour movement. Accordingly, their political and personal lifestyles ran parallel to those of the ruling class.
Their outlook bore little or no resemblance to the majority of the working class people they were supposed to represent. They paid lip service to ‘social justice’, ‘fairness’ and ‘social democracy’. But the Kinnock project of ‘New Realism’ was little more than abject surrender to the capitalist onslaught of monetarist mayhem that had been wreaking havoc since 1976, even under the previous Labour government!
With cruel irony, just as the Kinnockites decided to further accommodate capitalism, two trillion dollars worth of shares were wiped out across the globe in October, 1987.
Despite its name, the Labour Party was never a socialist party, that is, one that served the interests of the working class that would organise society based on need not on greed. There were socialists in the party but throughout its history, Labour has been dominated by people who accepted that the only problem with capitalism was how it was managed. At best, Labour provided a home to a host of middle class interlopers who could not find a viable career in the fading fortunes of the old Liberal Party.
The mainstay of the Labour Party has always been the trade unions of the working class. Therefore, for much of its history, the Labour Party constitution called for the redistribution of wealth and for the public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, a nightmare scenario for any self-respecting Tory. However, Labour leaders in power had yet to put much of this into practice – red maybe, in opposition, but decidedly pink on the point of power.
Even the most reformist Labour government of 1945, under Clement Attlee, had to be pushed into power by the masses radicalized by the war against fascism and the promised reforms after victory. Reforms devised by Liberals like Beveridge and Keynes. Attlee, but for the pressure from the Bevanite left, would have been content to remain in the shadow of Churchill in a coalition government, had he not been forced to call for elections. Nevertheless, such reforms did benefit the working class – the national health service (NHS), the welfare state, free secondary education, nationalisation, a house-building programme, near full employment, all bankrolled by the mighty American dollar. The strategists of US capital did not want to see Western Europe go the same way as the east that had fallen under the influence of Stalinist Russia.
This was the beginning of a prolonged, unprecedented boom, combined with ruthless exploitation of the former colonial countries whose raw materials, oil and foodstuffs, were plundered at the lowest prices.
American imperialism kept a close eye on left-wing influences at home and abroad to protect American capitalism and its allies’ interests. Where revolution struck, especially in those former colonies, American troops, often under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), would intervene. Where there were labour movements, American money would be used to aid so-called ‘agents of influence’ to set up front organisations that infiltrated labour parties, trade unions, left-wing journals, youth, culture or religious organisations in order to combat socialist ideas.
But even the historic post-war boom had its limits, as ever, capitalism followed the cycle of boom and bust as growth began to slow. Industry can only produce so much goods but it needs its workers to be able to buy back its products, otherwise overproduction means profits begin to suffer so the capitalists cut their losses, cut production, lay off workers and attack conditions and services.
And not even the American economy could fight a war in Vietnam and fund its increasing social welfare and education programmes.
To maintain profits for capitalist shareholders, cuts had to be made. According to the US economic guru, Milton Friedman, to fight inflation – the amount of money in circulation – the supply of money had to be controlled. This meant cutting back state investment, government services, industry, in other words, attack the jobs and living standards of the working class. In Britain, this meant rolling back the achievements of the 1945 Labour government.
The attacks on the working class by the 1970-74 Tory Heath government had only served to inflame and radicalize the organised labour movement to a near revolutionary pitch that almost brought about a general strike, a partial shutdown of the country and a turn to the left by the rank and file.
The return of another Wilson government in 1974, once again, placed the labour movement into a ‘safe pair of hands’. But having been burned once by a Wilson government, with an attempt to introduce union-busting legislation in 1969 with Barbara Castle’s ‘In Place of Strife’, workers remained on their guard.
With the quadrupling of oil prices in 1973, introduced by OPEC in response to western support of Israel in the Yom Kippur War, the slow economic downturn suddenly had the rug further pulled from under it. By the mid-1970s, a full blown recession hit home.
The Labour leadership’s answer was to impose pay freezes and cuts in return for an IMF loan. Despite union leaders’ attempts to hold the line, by 1977, workers in the car industry first demanded and won pay rises that left the government policy in tatters. Workers refused any longer to pay for the bosses’ recession. A series of strike actions and overtime bans, particularly amongst the low-paid public service workers during the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’ of 1978-79, brought a rigorous spotlight on the government who had betrayed them.
“You can’t write a manifesto for a party in opposition and expect it to have any relationship to what it does in government,” said Callaghan, before he replaced Harold Wilson as premier shortly after the 1974 Labour election victory over Edward Heath. Clearly, the workers did not get the leaders they deserved. Political fallout from the ‘Winter of Discontent’ was to deepen divisions between left and right in the labour movement for years to come. It was to be the tipping point for the battle for the heart and soul of the Labour Party in the 1980s. It was a battle that would end in a victory, however temporarily, however Pyrrhic, for a junta of right-wing social democratic politicians and their shadows in the bureaucracy of the labour movement as a whole. Opposing them were the grass root rank and file and socialist organisations epitomised by politicians like Tony Benn MP, trade union leaders like Arthur Scargill of the NUM, and organisations like the Militant Tendency.
The aftermath of the 1979 election defeat led Labour to implode, causing years of civil war between left and right.
The left, swiftly gathering around Tony Benn, rounded on the former Labour government. They cited the capitalist policies that led to downright betrayal of its 1974 election manifesto that had promised change in favour of working class families, that had pledged to ‘squeeze the rich until the pips squeak’.
Unfortunately, the only squeaks heard were those accompanying the rush to raise the begging bowl to the IMF, in 1976, in return for pay restrictions of the so-called ‘Social Contract’.
The right wingers, like Callaghan and especially his Chancellor Denis Healey, blamed the workers who had attacked their own government and who had let in Thatcherism reaction.
“The workers voted against the consequences of their own irresponsibility,” said Healey, later. Like others in the defeated Labour government, he would not accept his own ‘irresponsibility’ that had turned Labour voters off and provoked them to defend themselves against monetarism policies and attacks on living and working conditions.
Tony Benn was criticised by his colleagues in cabinet for suggesting they work closer with the trade union movement, to bring them closer to the government. He had suggested that this was preferable to imposing the £4 billion worth of cuts the IMF had demanded.
Rank and file
Accordingly, in opposition after defeat in 1979, Benn opened a party debate for constitutional reform, to democratise the party. He refused to join the opposition front bench so he could be free to campaign for such changes. His main concerns were the relationships between a Labour government, the party, the National Executive Committee (NEC) and the party conference.
From the rank and file of the party itself, reforms were called for in the election of the leader by conference or electoral college rather than solely by the Labour MPs.
Also there was a demand to reform the way MPs were to be re-selected, making them more accountable to party members, so no sitting MP could take his or her membership of parliament for granted, as some kind of job for life or personal fiefdom.
For the right-wing, of course, this was completely outrageous. Any such reforms would loosen their grip on control of the Labour Party. The heads of the unions opposed it as did prominent right-wing MPs such as Healey, Roy Hattersley, William Rodgers, David Owen, Shirley Williams, Roy Jenkins and Roy Mason.
However, the ‘Campaign for Labour Party Democracy’ (CLPD) won the vote to put these proposals for democratisation on the party conference agenda. Mandatory re-selection of MPs was voted in at the 1979 party conference, and electoral college for the selection of the party leadership was voted through at the 1980 conference. The democratisation of the Labour Party was underway. The right-wing was momentarily on the defensive.
The left’s victories on two out of three of their proposals for party democracy led to, first, Callaghan’s resignation in favour of stepping aside for a better placed successor to hold the line against the left before the rule changes came into effect. In the event, his preferred successor, Denis Healey, lost out to Michael Foot who was elected leader by the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) with Healey gaining the deputy leadership thus harnessing together, in theory, left and right. However, as far as the new constitutional changes were concerned, both had been against them and in favour of the status quo.
The first test of democracy would come as soon as the new rules came into force. The special party conference of January, 1981 saw the shop workers’ union USDAW’s proposal for the electoral college for leadership elections win through – 40% for the unions and 30% each for the party and the PLP – to the satisfaction of the left gathered around Tony Benn and the ’Rank and File Mobilising Committee’, much to the disgust of the right-wing and the group of four – or ‘Gang of Four’ as they were to be dubbed – right-wing MPs who were to split from the party to form the SDP. The principles who broke with Labour were the aforementioned David Owen, Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams and William Rodgers.
Despite exhortations from other right wingers, like Roy Hattersley, for them to stay and fight the left, the SDP was launched shortly after the January conference. While Hattersley and leader Michael Foot did their best to persuade defectors to stay, the likes of Denis Healey demanded the expulsion of the Militant Tendency and the witch hunt of the left, criticising the ‘Rank and File Mobilising Committee’.
With the official launch of the SDP in March of 1981, Benn declared his candidacy for the deputy leadership a few days later.
Those right wingers that had remained in Labour looked to a coalition with the centre to begin a fight back against the left.
The right-wing press and media resurrected their portrayal of Benn as a ‘loony left’ bogeyman, as usual. Nevertheless, Benn’s group conducted an admirable campaign amongst the party. His rival Healey had to rely heavily on a small, albeit strong, influential group of trade union barons. But some union votes held up well for Benn. In the end, especially due to abstention by self-professed leftwing MPs such as Joe Ashton, Jeff Rook but particularly Michael Foot’s loyal supporter, Neil Kinnock, Benn lost to Healey by 0.8%. Months after the vote, nine MPs who had voted for Healey defected to the SDP, including Tom McNally, George Cunningham and David Ginsberg. They had only stayed in the party long enough to keep out the left.
Despite an agreement not to challenge Foot for the leadership for the time being, tensions between the left and right never really went away. All this against a background of the 1981-82 recession with unemployment reaching three million. There were riots in Manchester, Liverpool and Brixton, and in 1982, the Falklands War helped buoy Thatcher’s first term on a wave of stage-managed jingoism.
The advent of a new Cold War, spearheaded by US President Reagan, and events like the revolutionary Solidarity movement in Poland, highlighted the loathsome totalitarian nature of Stalinism. Thatcher skilfully exploited the stagnation in the USSR to further attack the post-war consensus that had brought many benefits to ordinary working class people. Thatcher, and those around her, threw into sharp relief, for ideological purposes, the traditional policies of internationalism and unilateral disarmament that compromised much of the Labour Party’s policies in the eyes of the powerful capitalist media.
The expulsions begin
In reply, all the Labour Party leadership did was retreat and attack the left.
On February 23, 1983, five members of the Militant newspaper editorial board – Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe, Clare Doyle, Keith Dickinson, and Lynn Walsh – were expelled. It was at the time of a by-election in Bermondsey, a strong Labour seat, whose leftwing candidate, Peter Tatchell, was beaten by the Liberal Simon Hughes. Tatchell was disowned by the Labour leadership who appeared to baulk at the fact he was an openly gay man. A bigoted independent Labour candidate helped split the vote. These were the symptoms that led to Thatcher’s second election victory in June, 1983 – civil war in the Labour Party, further hindered by the SDP defections, the so-called ‘Falklands Factor’, the disillusionment and abstention of Labour voters.
Thatcher’s fortunes revived and further emboldened her after her victory. The election of the ‘dream ticket’ of Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, ostensibly to heal the rift between right and left in Labour, was to prove its opposite and offer little threat to the Tories.
Only the combativeness of the working class would be able to do that.
All the leadership of Kinnock and Hattersley was to provide was defeatism and betrayal as they were to bend their knee to capitalism in their bid to strip away every vestige of socialism that remained in the Labour Party.
Thatcher and the Tories continued their attacks on those strongholds of ‘municipal socialism’, the local authorities. They prepared themselves to take on and break the heavy brigade of the British trade union movement, the powerful, militant NUM, in a titanic fight to the finish.
And the antics of the Labour leaders, the ‘dream ticket’ of Kinnock and Hattersley, proved to prolong the nightmare of Thatcherism for workers and their families for many years to come.
NEXT: Part Three – GET MILITANT