Continuing with his series on the historic ‘Anti-Poll Tax Campaign’ that brought down Margaret Thatcher, CHRIS ROBINSON looks at how the political left were on the defensive in the face of the 1980s Tory government onslaught to end the post-war social consensus. With the Labour Party moving to the right, only the combative National Union of Mineworkers and the Marxists of the Militant Tendency were prepared to lead a fight back.
‘We must consider Militant’ – James Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister, 1976-79
Margaret Thatcher was a brilliant political leader and representative of her own class. The ruling capitalist class could not have wished for a more stridently militant monetarist figurehead at the forefront of the ideological campaign to ‘roll back the frontiers of socialism’ – as she herself put it in her statement of intent.
While in opposition, Thatcher and the group gathered around her in the tops of the Tory Party, set out their intentions on how they were going to implement their reactionary capitalist counter-revolution that would undo the benefits of the 1945 Labour government reforms that were seen by them as all that was wrong with post-war British society. Once in power, by May, 1979 they began to bring their plans to fruition.
Sadly, for millions of working class people, their official ‘leaders’ in the Labour Party were found wanting when put to the test in withstanding the monetarist onslaught. For, though the working class provided the backbone to the trade unions, without an effective militant socialist leadership, they were an army without a general staff.
Class struggle – whether in the ‘Winter of Discontent’, the tumultuous miners’ strike, or in the anti-poll tax campaign – not only depended on the strength, commitment and combativeness of the rank and file, but also on leaders. Crucially, it was a question of leadership.
At the 1985 Labour Party conference following the defeat of the miners, it was said by Arthur Scargill’s main critic – Eric Hammond, leader of the electricians’ union the EETPU – that the miners had been ‘lions led by donkeys’. This from a man who, during that same year, had been secretly preparing a no-strike deal with the Murdoch press which gave the green light to summarily dismiss more than five thousand print workers at Wapping in 1986. But another trade union leader (Ron Todd, TGWU) retorted sharply against him and other rightwing union leaders, and the Kinnock leadership of the Labour Party: “I’m an animal lover, and I’d rather be a donkey than a jackal”.
But the Kinnockites were determined to turn the Labour Party towards the right, away from any socialist policies and toward a craven agenda that would accommodate capitalism.
The stagnation of Stalinism, particularly in the USSR, to which traditionally, Labour policies had looked as an example of a command economy (though not for its totalitarian element) helped turn the heads of the ‘soft lefts’, like Kinnock, towards the ideas of the rightwing that favoured the mixed economy or ‘capitalism with a human face’. This, following the two election defeats of 1979 and 1983, was to point the way forward to the Labour document of 1987 ‘New Realism’ which was to amount to a complete repudiation of democratic socialism. Kinnock and the ‘New Realists’ intended to carry out a series of witch hunts in order to make the party ‘respectable’ with the rightwing media. With such a tactic against the left, Kinnock was to fall into a two-pronged trap. On the one hand, he would turn his back on any aspects of union militancy and, on the other, Labour councils in the frontline of Tory attacks would be left isolated. Kinnock, and those around him, would be found wanting as so-called leaders. They believed it to be the only way to court the middle class and gain votes by clutching at a handful of pale pink Tory policies.
Thatcher and the Tories had the measure of Kinnock. If they were to carry out their plans for further anti-trade union legislation to create a low-waged, de-skilled workforce, to cut back heavily in social services and create a pool of cheap labour from unemployment, then they would have to break the strength of the trade union movement. This the Tories had been prepared for even before the 1979 election, when they were still in opposition. Thatcher and her cronies knew that the Kinnockites posed no real threat. The real enemy to her government – the real opposition – would be the socialist left, in the form of the NUM and the Militant Tendency if they could pull the massive clout of the trade union membership behind them.
‘The enemy within’
The most traditionally militant and combative of the unions was the NUM and, in 1978, Nicholas Ridley, one of Thatcher’s staunchest supporters, had compiled the ‘Ridley Report’ that laid down tactics that would undermine the effects of a national miners’ strike that might bring the running of the country to a standstill. It had been the miners that had played the lead role in bringing down the Heath government in 1973-74 and had even forced Thatcher herself to backtrack in 1981 when her government had considered a move on the mining industry. But she was considerably weaker then, surrounded as she was by mainly a cabinet of Tory ‘wets’.
The Ridley Report recommendations were to be followed to the letter: build huge stockpiles of coal; provide anti-union legislation against the use of secondary picketing; provide for fleets of private road haulage firms to break solidarity action by transport workers; reorganise police forces to a centralised command; introduce riot training with shield formations and ‘snatch squads’ tried and tested in Northern Ireland; draft in soldiers in unmarked police uniforms; end social security benefits for the families of striking workers.
With the full support of the media, Thatcher created for herself a homegrown bogeyman, a General Galtieri figure in Arthur Scargill – ‘the enemy within’. Only the willingness of Kinnock and the Labour leaders to stand on the sidelines with arms folded, for fear of scaring away the middle class voters, prevented victory for the miners.
The Labour leaders only surfaced to condemn ‘picket line violence’ and to call repeatedly for a miners’ ballot. The TUC followed the same Kinnockite line – ‘sit tight, don’t break the law and wait for a Labour government’, the ‘dented shield’ policy.
The defeat of the strongest union in an historic, year long strike that polarised society along class lines, meant that Labour had taken the lead in the polls as support among the working class grew. When workers are defeated on the industrial plane, they often turn to the political plane. Nevertheless, Kinnock refused to heed the call for a full mobilisation of the labour movement and squandered his lead.
Alongside the battle with the miners, the Tories had foolishly opened a second front with local authorities, against their better judgement, by attempting to impose savage cuts in services by slashing rate support grants, hoping to force councils to increase their domestic rates. The central government imposed a rate-capping system aimed at those councils with high urban populations, amongst the poorest with high unemployment, bad housing, usually represented by Labour.
A number of Labour councils agreed to group together to fight rate-capping, among them the GLC, Sheffield, Lambeth and Liverpool.
Notable amongst these was the Militant-led Liverpool Labour council.
Initially, the councils agreed to refuse to set a rate at all in defiance of the government, hoping this would force the Tories to increase central funding. Although Liverpool councillors opposed this tactic – because if money ran out people would suffer – they complied in order to maintain a solid front. Liverpool councillors preferred to set an affordable rate with no increase in order to keep services running. It was when the councils’ bluff was called by the Tories and the threat of surcharges, bankruptcy and disqualification from office beckoned, and that possible parliamentary careers would possibly go down the plughole, that the GLC (led by Ken Livingstone) and Sheffield (led by David Blunkett) began to cave in. Only Lambeth held out to the end with Liverpool, who then set an affordable rate to carry on the fight in isolation.
Liverpool set the rates at 9%, with no increases, and refused to cut jobs and services, exactly as they had promised in their election manifesto. The councillors thought this was the better tactic to also maintain support of its workers and tenants to keep up the demands for the return of the millions of pounds stolen by the Tories by the cuts in the rate support grants. They also made appeals to the labour movement as a whole. Such a fighting stance had, in 1984, won them huge concessions in receiving enough central funding that enabled them to put their house-building programme into action, building more homes than any other local authority, creating thousands of jobs. The Tories, fearful of a war on two fronts developing as the miners’ strike took hold, gave in.
But, with the defeat of the miners’ strike by March, 1985, full attention was turned on Liverpool and its socialist councillors.
Egged on by the media and the Tories, Kinnock stepped up his attacks on the left, especially on the Liverpool council, and began a long, drawn out witch hunt against Militant supporters. He was lauded by the press for his infamous ‘grotesque chaos’ speech against Militant, the left and the Liverpool council at the 1985 Bournemouth Labour Party conference. The witch hunt and so-called ‘internal investigations’ dragged on for over a year with suspensions of local party branches and expulsions of party members which led to the surcharging of 47 Liverpool councillors such as Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn and other party members like Richard Venton and Terry Harrison. Once removed from the protection of the Labour Party, it took the unelected House of Lords to surcharge and remove elected members of both Liverpool and Lambeth councils.
However, Kinnock’s conniving in carrying out the bidding of the ruling class did not reward him at the ballot box. Despite the witch hunt and slander, despite the policy reviews and the slick presidential media campaign, Labour lost the 1987 general election.
Thousands of working class Labour supporters never forgave Kinnock for turning his back both on the miners and the councillors who defied Thatcher.
Meanwhile, at her third victorious post-election conference that same year, bolstered by her triumph and by her taskforce’s conclusions on reforming local government funding, Thatcher launched her flagship policy – the poll tax.
The Rise of Militant
In the mid-1930s, after a period of political activity in his homeland, a young South African socialist met with Trotsky’s son, Leon Sedov, along with others in Paris, on his way to settle in Britain. Once in Britain, he became involved with the trade union movement and took part in the famous ‘Battle of Cable Street’ in the East End of London against Mosley’s Blackshirt fascists in 1936.
Ted Grant went on to help build the Workers International League which developed later into the Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP) that worked closely with unions during the war. This was enough to bring him and others to the attention of the British secret services. By 1949, the RCP was to split, but Grant and a few comrades carried on teaching the works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky at small meetings, and continued to publish a number of booklets and pamphlets to keep alive the thread of socialism, orienting themselves towards the labour movement.
The immediate post-war period tended to marginalize some leftwing groups as the mainstream of politics, at that time, had taken a huge swing to the left carrying the major working class parties in Britain and Europe into either government or coalition governments. These reformist workers’ parties began to turn back reforms as cracks began to appear in the post-war boom and the political consensus between the classes began to break down. This was to prove fertile ground to recruit more workers to the ideas of socialism.
Britain was not immune to the tidal wave of revolution in Europe, torn apart by the war against fascism and memories of the ravages of laissez-faire capitalism in the 1930s. That able spokesman of the capitalist class, Winston Churchill, had dangled the promise of social reforms towards the end of the war with the Beveridge Report as a way to spur on the final war effort. His class were mindful of the fact that workers had no intention of returning to the conditions they had experienced in the interwar years – the unemployment and terrible slum conditions of the Depression, the hunger marches, the hated Means Test. Even in wartime, in 1944, more than 400,000 workers had resorted to strike action as victory was in sight. Questions had been repeatedly raised by workers about ‘what were we fighting for?’ Already the labour movement, its rank and file, including those workers in the armed services, recognised that the coalition government that had served its purpose during a national emergency and was winning the war with a planned economy, began to look to a reformed planned economy to ‘win the peace’, provide full employment, better health care, housing and education.
By the mid-1950s, active Trotskyists like Ted Grant, had joined the mass party of the working class, the Labour Party – as had many people of different persuasions from ex-Communists to former Liberals. In 1955, Grant was selected as a Labour candidate for Liverpool Walton, but was blocked by a regional party official. All the time, within the ‘broad church’ of the Labour Party, Grant continued to produce works of theory in the form of pamphlets and socialist newspapers, such as ‘Rally’, aimed at workers and youth. By 1964, the ‘Militant’ newspaper was launched following an influx of support gained from work through the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS), particularly during the apprentices’ strikes of the early 1960s. Notables such as Peter Taaffe, Tony Mulhearn and Terry Harrison were recruited around this time. Trotsky’s tactic of ‘entryism’ – entering the mass organisations of the working class – was beginning to pay dividends in the building of an influential socialist tendency within Labour and the unions.
Throughout the growing militancy of the 1960s and afterwards, Militant supporters gained ground with positions within many unions and within the LPYS. Militant supporters were involved in most of the major political struggles. In Liverpool, Coventry, London and Glasgow. Militant began to build a base in the labour movement. The struggles against the Heath government’s Housing Finance Act in the early 1970s produced a new layer of working class activists as communities across the country organised rent strikes where the likes of Derek Hatton cut his first campaigning teeth. Many more were recruited through other class struggles both in the community, in workplaces and in student politics such as Alan Woods, Felicity Dowling, Rob Sewell and Cathy Wilson.
By 1974, Nick Bradley, of the LYPS and a Militant Supporter, was elected onto the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC) and it was a Militant supporter from Wavertree, Liverpool whose motion at the TUC conference in 1978 signalled the beginning of the so-called ‘Winter of Discontent’. As early as 1974, a Labour committee was already set up to ‘examine the Militant Tendency’ as an entryist organisation, but such leftwing MPs as Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and Frank Allaun were against proscription while others were in favour of a witch hunt. Nick Bradley, present at the meeting, suggested instead an investigation into the activities of the CIA in the Labour Party and the labour movement, referring to a banned Sunday Times article that exposed US secret services infiltration.
Further proof of Marxist ideas taking firmer root in the labour movement was again noted in 1977 when, at a meeting of the NEC, Tom Bradley MP put forward the resolution on Militant that ‘we note with concern a number of newspaper reports of ‘entrist’ (sic) activities and instruct the National Agent (Reg Underhill MP) to update his paper on the subject by the next NEC’.
This was opposed by Heffer, Benn, Allaun , Joan Lestor but supported by Michael Foot and Shirley Williams. Tom Bradley won his proposal by 10 – 9 votes to form a special committee to ‘look at the Militant Tendency’. The committee was to accept the material compiled in the subsequent ‘Underhill Report’ at the meeting in May, 1977. Tony Benn noted that the secret services had often raided the Militant offices and handed information in ‘brown envelopes’ to the press in order to sew discord. However, the NEC accepted the report by 17 – 1. The lone voice was Nick Bradley who once again called for an investigation into CIA activities and their links with rightwing Labour organisations such as the ‘Social Democratic Alliance’ and the ‘Campaign for a Labour Victory’.
Stories in the press (Sunday Times) claimed that Militant had funds of up to £180,000 in December, 1978 at the height of the ‘Winter of Discontent’. At the Labour Party Commission of Inquiry in February, 1980 there was an atmosphere of pending internal struggle as the tops of the former Labour government sought to find a scapegoat for their own failed policies that had allowed the Thatcherites to take power. The former prime minister, James Callaghan proposed a special two day conference the following spring to look at the ‘composition of the NEC, the women’s section and local authority representation’. He added: “By the way, we must consider Militant, particularly as the executive (NEC) is not publishing the Underhill Report on ‘entryism’.”
Benn replied: “I’m against that because there are nine tendencies within the party, including the Social Democratic Alliance. We just don’t want to look at them all.” Benn was implicitly defending the rights of socialists to organise themselves within the Labour Party’s federalist structure, just as the rightwing social democratic elements were organised.
In his diaries, Tony Benn records how Terry Duffy, the unelected chair of the NEC moved in by Callaghan due to the illness of the elected chair, John Boyd, attempted to step up a witch hunt against Militant: “We can’t sweep it under the table. The (leadership of the electricians’ union) AUEW are worried about Militant,” said Duffy. Later that year, Clive Jenkins, leader of the union ASTMS, claimed his union was investigating Militant, a sure sign of how deep in the labour movement Militant supporters had penetrated workers with socialist ideas. Their base was never as strong in the early 1980s as in Liverpool.
Since the apprentices’ strikes of the early 1960s followed by bus strikes, rent strikes and other industrial battles, the Liverpool class struggle was led by the militancy of the local Labour Party and the trades council, strongly influenced by Militant supporters. By 1983, Militant-led Labour councillors took power in Liverpool City Council against a background of attacks on the working class under the Thatcherite regime whose monetarist programme had cut taxes for the wealthy while increasing indirect taxes and seemed intent on cutting jobs and services pushing unemployment up to three million, the highest since the dark days of the 1930s. Thatcher herself was the most unpopular prime minister on record.
Elected on a socialist programme of building houses, clearing slums, creating jobs, improving resources and working together with the local labour movement, Liverpool Labour meant to fight for more resources from central government which led directly to the rate capping battle. Militant had built up a firm base in the trade unions and Labour Party and had an increasingly wide influence on the left. The 1983 general election saw two Militant-supporting Labour MPs elected (Dave Nellist in Coventry and Terry Fields in Liverpool Broadgreen) and a third in Bradford (Pat Wall) in 1987. Each of them stood as ‘workers’ MPs on a workers’ wage’.
As a scapegoat against the left generally, the Labour rightwing made their move – expelling the Militant Editorial Board in 1983 prior to the general election, amongst them Ted Grant. Their expulsion didn’t win Labour any extra votes. By the time the rate capping battle was underway, and well into 1985, prompted by the Tories and the press, Kinnock opened his long-running ‘enquiry’ into Militant. Once expelled from the party, the House of Lords surcharged and disqualified all the elected Labour councillors of Liverpool and Lambeth for daring to fight the Tories and implement the programmes for which they were elected.
Despite the expulsions, and the suspension of the Liverpool local party, despite all the vilification in the national media, Labour was re-elected in the local elections in 1987 with such an increase in votes that, had it been repeated at national level in the general election, the Labour Party would have been swept to power, toppling Thatcher.
But it was to take the mass campaign of civil disobedience against the poll tax, led by Militant, indeed said to be ‘Militant’s Revenge’, that was to end, not only the hated poll tax, but Thatcher’s leadership. It was a task in which Kinnock, Hattersley and the rest of the ‘leaders’ of the Labour Party and TUC failed miserably.
NEXT: Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay (IV): Revolution Down Below