IN SEPTEMBER the campaign of Alan Brown in the Dennistoun by-election was a minor triumph.
SML came from nowhere to get 22 per cent in a three-week campaign. Up to then the majority of the press had written off SML as an organisation of the "underclass", restricted to the peripheral schemes on the outskirts of the major conurbations.
It was a seat where Labour and the SNP expected to squeeze SML out of the picture. Indeed their predictions were for a single figure percentage for SML. Yet SML scored 718 votes, came in third, and once more beat the Tories into fourth position.
Michael Martin, MP for the Springburn constituency, in which Dennistoun was situated, had boasted that his constituency was a: "Militant free-zone." We commented:
Splat the VAT
The key issue featured in this campaign and others was opposition to VAT on fuel which had aroused particular anger from the 700,000 pensioners who were at risk of dying from cold. 249 people had died of hypothermia in 1991, 205 of them pensioners.
In a letter to a Labour MP, one pensioner told how if he was too cold he would "just make a hot water bottle and retire to bed", because "I must work within the limits of what I can afford to pay for my fuel bills." (2)
Such was the opposition that the question was raised within the ranks of Militant of whether it would be possible to lead a campaign for non-payment of VAT along the lines of the poll tax campaign. Recognising the danger, the gas and electricity industries made all kinds of concessions, including temporarily absorbing the cost of VAT; in order to prevent such a movement.
The very threat of a non-payment campaign, given Militant Labour’s record on the poll tax, water privatisation in Scotland etc, was, together with other factors, an important issue which made up the minds of the electricity and gas chiefs to temporarily beat a retreat. Militant expected that in the event of Tory Chancellor Clarke going ahead with the second increase in VAT to 17.5 per cent in 1994 the issue of non-payment could come back onto the agenda. But the Tories were defeated on the second hike in VAT.
In late October SML also had a good result in the Greenock by-election. 284 voted for SML, 31 per cent of the vote. David Landells, the SML candidate, was second only to Labour with 404 votes. The issue of water privatisation as well as opposition to VAT on fuel was an important factor in this result.
The other side of the picture of late 1993 was the victimisation of stewards and workers in industry, highlighted by the sacking of Amanda Lane and Steve Goldfinch, members of the CPSA branch at Bedminster in the Bristol area.
There was enormous sympathy for these two sacked workers given the fact that the Bedminster Job Centre civil servants had acted in solidarity with Arrowsmith printworkers in Bristol who had been locked out for three months at that time.
Steve Goldfinch and Amanda Lane were sacked for taking action in defence of the printworkers. Their sacking was not an isolated event but part of a wider strategy to undermine the trade unions by making workers who were union representatives feel vulnerable. The CPSA at national level, albeit under right-wing control, had been forced to give official backing to a two-day strike call of civil servants in Bristol.
This in turn sent shock waves through management and served as a warning that the trade unions were not prepared to see workers victimised. Nevertheless, as subsequent events demonstrated, decisive action was not forthcoming from the top of the union.
If the union leaders had been prepared to give a lead then there would have been no question of sackings such as those of Amanda Lane and Steve Goldfinch standing. This was the lesson which workers were absorbing as 1993 drew to an end.
IN MEMORY: Janice Glennon
The year, however, had brought the lose of some valued and dear comrades. Janice Glennon died suddenly and tragically on Friday 17 September at the age of 30. Janice had played a key role in the LPYS National Committee at its height in the Eastern region.
She had organised the 1987 LPYS anti-Tory demonstration in which 8,000 people had participated. She had also become vice-chair of the LPYS and had led 100 people to the International Union of Socialist Youth camp in Spain. In Britain she had spoken alongside Peter Taaffe at the 1988 Labour Party conference with a paper bag over her head in order to avoid Labour’s witch-hunters.
When she was expelled one of the main charges against her was that she organised a jumble sale for the Militant fighting fund! The day before she died she was out campaigning against domestic violence in her area.
There was enormous sympathy for her son Sean and partner Steve Glennon who plays an important role in Militant Labour. Over 200 people attended her funeral on 14 October; it was a funeral but also a celebration of her life which had been dedicated to the cause of the labour movement, the working class and of socialism.
Her death was felt so keenly because she was so young and had always expressed the most optimistic face of Militant and Militant Labour. Her memory, Militant Labour members insisted, would endure, above all by building a powerful organisation for socialism in Britain.
Unshakeable faith in a Socialist future
Militant had remained firm in its commitment to socialism and Marxism in the teeth of a huge ideological offensive conducted by the bourgeoisie in the early 1990s.
Many of the older generation discouraged by the difficulties and what appeared to be the postponement of socialist change succumbed either to pessimism or lapsed into inactivity, waiting for "better days".
Such moods are not uncommon when history either takes a more circuitous and complicated route or the class struggle appears to be stalled. Not just revolution itself but the struggle for revolution is a mighty devourer of human energy, both individual and collective.
As Leon Trotsky commented,
While nursing and encouraging the older layers who did such sterling work for the cause of Marxism and Militant in the past, the major task which the leadership of Militant Labour had set itself was to win, steel and educate those new layers of youth and workers who could become the yeast for the rise of a new powerful workers’ and Marxist movement.
From 1989 onwards, first Militant and then Militant Labour had argued that despite the new triumphalism of capitalism it would be incapable of solving the problems of the working class.
This was underlined by the world recession of 1990-92. Nevertheless, this did not appear to coincide with a resurgence of the mass movement of the workers, particularly one with an overtly socialist character.
On the contrary, even where there were movements to overthrow dictatorships, as in Africa, this led invariably to the coming to power of pro-bourgeois regimes, such as in Zambia. In the colonial and semi-colonial world an unprecedented privatisation programme unfolded.
This was an attempt to imitate in the most vulgar and catastrophic fashion the embracing of the market by the advanced countries in the 1980s. Socialism, according to a whole swathe of commentators from the right to the so-called 'left’, was a distant memory. Militant Labour argued the opposite case.
Long before Marx and Engels came onto the scene the working class had created its own organisations in the form of trade unions and even incipient 'parties’, eg the Chartists. Socialism had also developed spontaneously within the ranks of the working class of Germany, Britain and above all France.
The great historic merit of Marx and Engels was to generalise the experience of the working class to develop the ideas of scientific socialism and a clear programme related to the concrete experience of the working class at that stage. A swing of the pendulum back towards class struggle and socialism was inevitable.
1994 was to see the vindication of this prognosis in Europe and on a world scale. Indeed the year began with the Zapatistas’ uprising in Mexico. This was the first movement since the collapse of Stalinism which was overtly socialist. Its spokesmen declared that they wanted a society "like Cuba only better." (4)
This undoubtedly represented a clear demand for a planned economy but perhaps in a confused fashion opposition to the bureaucratic regime.
This, moreover, was in the least developed state in Mexico, in a movement largely in the countryside amongst the indigenous peoples who had been robbed by the rich landlords (caciques)of their land, much of which was held communally. Mexico was a tinderbox which the Chiapas uprising ignited in the course of 1994.
Even in the state of Morelos, the home state of Zapata, brutal police activity had provoked several semi-spontaneous uprisings. Initially the working class had been inspired and moved into action by the example of the Zapatistas. Before the year was out elections had been held which were won by the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party). But the underlying situation remains potentially explosive.
Events in 1994 underlined the character of Militant Labour as a fighting organisation involved in all the major battles of the working class.
This was illustrated in the continuing struggle against racism and fascism in Britain. As soon as the year had opened anti-fascists led by the YRE had mobilised 400 people to march against a gig organised at a "Skrewdriver" (a fascist band) memorial concert in Dagenham, east London.
When the anti-fascists arrived, 150 anti-fascists had reached the venue in Dagenham with a police helicopter circling overhead and 20 vans of riot police in attendance. The anti-fascists marched to the 'Blood and Honour’ venue but as they were on the way the fascists ran out of the pub and scattered. The anti-fascists arrived for a victory rally outside the deserted pub. Twenty local people signed up to join the YRE.
One anti-fascist commented:
Window of opportunity
Organisers informed the police that they had achieved their aims and if the tube stations were opened they would disperse. Surrounded by riot police and miles from anywhere, the anti-racists decided under police supervision to board a train.
Everyone was in a buoyant mood, celebrating the stopping of the Nazi gig. But the police effectively hijacked the train and took the anti-fascists through crowded tube station platforms from east London all the way over to west London without stopping. They eventually stopped the train at Earl’s Court. A correspondent reported:
Most 'passengers’ were joking until the train pulled into Victoria. Once more the police refused to allow demonstrators to get off the train. But when they emerged at Earl’s Court, suddenly, without provocation or warning, the police charged screaming abuse and truncheoning anyone they could.
They truncheoned Lois Austin across the head, who was attempting to shield a younger demonstrator from the police attack. This attempt to intimidate the YRE supporters completely failed and in fact is now the subject of legal action against the police.
The opposition to racism and fascism was also heightened by the victory of the right in the Italian general elections. Militant conceded that in the short term the neo-Nazis could gain: "In Italy in this month’s general election the National Alliance (formerly the fascist MSI) could get significant support in the south." (7)
Part of the explanation for this was the fact that Fini the leader of the MSI had distanced himself from his and his party’s fascist past.
This was the only way that the National Alliance could attract middle-class voters who in the past supported the Christian Democrats. This prediction was borne out in the elections in Italy on 27 March. Led by Forza Italia (Come on Italy) a hodge-podge right-wing coalition had been put together including the Northern League and the neo-fascist National Alliance.
The main reason for the victory of the right was the complete failure of the left parties, particularly the PDS, the former Communist Party, to put forward a viable alternative. Prior to the elections there had been explosive school occupations, massive demonstrations of 500,000 in Rome, a rail strike and even journalists going on strike during the elections.
In the south there had been big demonstrations against the Mafia. The "Progressive Bloc", dominated by the PDS was for the continuation of the policies of the outgoing caretaker government which had been led by Ciampi, (ex-head of the Bank of Italy) and it promised privatisation. Berlusconi never hesitated to engage in the grossest demagogy promising at least a million jobs and a cut in taxes.
From a capitalist point of view this programme was irresponsible. Hence the decision of the Confindustria, the bosses’ union in Italy, to support the Progressive Bloc against Berlusconi. It was not possible, as he was soon to learn, to increase employment as well as cutting taxes.
On the contrary the ruling class of Italy were demanding massive cuts in state expenditure. But the coming to power of the Berlusconi government would inevitably whip up a movement of opposition amongst the working class. Again this prognostication was to be borne out before the year was out.
Militant Labour’s Conference
Meanwhile Militant Labour held its first annual conference as an independent organisation. This was one of the most successful conferences in the history of the organisation. The strike committee of the Timex plant in Dundee greeted the conference:
The most striking feature of the conference was the participation of those heavily involved in the major struggles of the British working class Amanda Lane, sacked for the solidarity support she gave to the locked-out Arrowsmith workers, detailed the battle for her re-instatement. The high point of the conference was, however, the session dealing with youth work and particularly the YRE.
And the conference was the launch for Militant Labour members to stand 32 candidates throughout Britain in the upcoming local elections. This campaign, despite the paucity of resources, was extremely successful. We achieved 18,300 votes.
As a new force, Militant Labour did not expect to make significant electoral inroads. Nevertheless, in many areas, the vote was impressive. We commented:
In Scotland, SML received an average of 23 per cent of the vote in the seats we contested, while the Tories received a mere seven per cent. Unfortunately, two outstanding SML councillors, Willie Griffin and Christine McVicar lost their seats, but as the Glasgow Herald recognised:
In fact, more people voted SML in these seats that in the stunning by-election victories in 1992. This demonstrated that SML had built up in a very short time a solid electoral base upon which to build.
In England and Wales, however, with no electoral experience of this character before, there were some quite exceptional results.
In Sheffield, Ken Douglas, for Militant Labour, got a tremendous 682 votes, while in Waltham Forest in London, Louise Thompson, came from nowhere to achieve 423 votes, two votes behind the Liberals.
Over 400 copies of Militant were sold and five different leaflets, including one in Urdu, were distributed throughout the ward. In Swansea, 300-plus voted for Militant Labour, while 21 per cent voted for Militant Labour in Lambeth.
ilitant supporters were elected not just under the banner of Militant Labour but also as Labour candidates. For instance, in Hillingdon, Wally Kennedy, expelled by Labour at a national level, was elected as a Labour councillor against an imposed candidate. He actually increased his vote from 1,188 to 1,223.
However, one of the most satisfying aspects of the local elections was the defeat of the fascists in Tower Hamlets and the defeat of its lone standard bearer, Derek Beackon.
The sudden death of the Labour leader, John Smith, came as a shock and immediately opened up a new leadership contest. In the emotional outpouring which greeted John Smith’s death, most commentators ignored the fact that he had continued where Kinnock had left off, in attempting to show big business that Labour was better at managing capitalism than the Tories.
His strategy was to rely on the Tories to tear themselves apart and dramatically narrow the gap between the two parties to such a degree that many people could see no real difference. However, the reason why he struck a certain chord with workers was that unlike Kinnock, he did not appear to be constantly at war with his own party. Nevertheless, he was part of Kinnock’s team which wished to abandon socialism and cut the link with the unions.
The Labour Party conference before his death, had seen him linking up with Prescott to dramatically, and significantly, undermine trade union influence at conference, by abandoning the "block vote". The contest for a new leader was temporarily held in abeyance as the European elections loomed.
Militant Labour and Scottish Militant Labour decided to nominate Tommy Sheridan as a candidate for the European elections in Glasgow. In a very hastily organised campaign, with only two weeks in which to get out the vote, he secured a magnificent 12,113 votes, 7.6 per cent of the total votes cast. He beat the Tories, Liberal Democrats, Greens, Socialist Party, Natural Law Party and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Only Labour, with 83,000 and the SNP with 40,000 polled more.
Thus in one of the major cities of Britain, the governing party of the British ruling class received less support than the candidate of an avowedly socialist and Marxist organisation. No wonder that the Daily Record could say:
And this tremendous result had been achieved despite a virtual media blackout of Tommy Sheridan’s campaign. For instance, the Glasgow Evening News carried a half-page profile of the Glasgow Euro seat, alongside photographs of the Labour, SNP, Tory and Liberal candidates.
But there was not a word about Tommy Sheridan or Scottish Militant Labour while the same paper gave greater coverage during the campaign to the Natural Law Party and the International Communist Party. An indication of the affect of SML’s campaign both on Labour and the SNP is shown by their dismal results in Glasgow in comparison to the rest of Scotland. While the Nationalist vote increased across Scotland, their support in Glasgow slumped by over 8,000.
Once more, the critics had been confounded, particularly those who had dogmatically argued that SML could neither cut across the swing towards nationalism or dent the "loyal and solid Labour vote". This achievement of Tommy Sheridan, SML and Militant Labour is all the greater given the fact that not a single door was knocked on by canvassers because of time. It was street and factory meetings as well as literature, which carried the message to the Glasgow working class.
The Glasgow Euro-election campaign coincided with the launch of Tommy Sheridan’s book Time to Rage, co-authored with Joan McAlpine.
This was a very graphic description of the struggle against the poll tax, particularly in Scotland. A very laudatory introduction by John Pilger underlined the impact which both the author, Militant and Scottish Militant Labour has made on the labour movement:
And the message of uncompromising class struggle, of the inevitability of workers moving into action, was soon demonstrated in June as signal workers began a titanic struggle with British Rail.
There had been a massive increase in the workload of signal workers, while their numbers had been halved since 1980. At the same time, they were incensed that Bob Horton, Railtrack chairman, was receiving £120,000 a year for a three-day week, while a signalman’s basic weekly pay was £183.
In an 80 per cent turnout, signal workers voted by four to one for strike action. It was quite clear from the outset of the strike that the government’s hand was behind the intransigence of the Railtrack management.
Like Reagan in the early 1980s with the air traffic controllers, the Tories were seeking to make an example of Railtrack workers as a means of cowering public-sector workers generally.
The signalworkers’ dispute was to have considerable significance for the whole labour movement. The situation had begun to change in Britain compared to Thatcher’s days which resulted in a colossal miscalculation by Major and Railtrack management. Despite the media barrage alleging at each stage that the strike had been broken, it was in fact solid. Uniquely for recent industrial disputes, the press and TV could hardly find any passengers against it.
The government had stored up such opposition that even those affected by the strike seemed to automatically sympathise with Railtrack workers. Moreover, the attempt to unload responsibility for any undermining of safety conditions onto the workers completely rebounded on management.
The overwhelming majority of travellers blamed them and accepted the arguments of Railtrack workers, that the management were risking the lives and safety of passengers. This in turn resulted in the boycott of trains on strike days, even where they were available. Railtrack management itself claimed that only seven per cent of trains were running.
Despite the relative success of this struggle, Militant Labour, whose members had thrown themselves wholeheartedly into supporting the railworkers, both politically and materially, called for decisive action by railworkers. The pretence of Frank Dobson, Labour’s transport spokesman, that the dispute was not "political" cut no ice. Railworkers instinctively understood that it was a political dispute, with the Tories wanting to smash the rail unions and clear the way for private companies to step in.
Militant Labour, particularly its supporters and members in the industry, urged that the union "must be prepared to call all-out strike action of the signalworkers if Railtrack continue to refuse to budge."13 It also called for a joint meeting with ASLEF, the train drivers’ union, to discuss the crucial issue of rail safety and advocated that the drivers be instructed not to work during the strike on the grounds of health and saftety: "A one-day strike of all railworkers should be prepared."
Militant believed that the relationship of class forces were decisively against the government and in favour of railworkers. This was likely to lead not to a defeat, but at worse to "a draw". However, the possibility of a complete victory was not ruled out. After an epic 16-week struggle, the longest dispute in the history of the rail industry, Railtrack workers were victorious. British Rail, backed up by the government, attempted to present the settlement as a victory of the bosses. In fact the total offer was worth £10.8 million - more than twice what the original 5.7 per cent offer made by Railtrack in June was worth. Militant commented:
The lengths to which the ruling class were prepared to go was shown by the cost of the rail strike, £200 million to the rail industry and a minimum of £500 million for the capitalists as a whole. We commented:
The left on the national executive of the RMT sent us a letter congratulating the paper, the members of Militant Labour and supporters for the support they had given to the signal workers during the dispute.
All the indications were that the most likely outcome of any general election would be a Labour victory. However, given the relentless move to the right of the Labour leadership, this was not at all guaranteed. Labour’s leadership contest, more of a "love in" than a real battle of ideas, unfolded immediately the Euro-elections were out of the way.
There was little to choose between Blair, Prescott and Beckett. Most on the left voted for either Prescott or Beckett, largely because they weren’t Blair, the candidate of the capitalist press and the right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party. Blair’s victory signified a further lurch towards the right, which in turn led to increased support for Militant Labour and Scottish Militant Labour amongst disaffected Labour voters. The Glasgow Herald declared in July 1994:
SML’s Harry Brown won 28 per cent of the vote after a ten-day campaign in the Sighthill/Possil ward of Glasgow, in an area where Scottish Militant Labour did not have a branch six weeks previously. Labour won the seat with 997 votes, but the success of SML, not just electorally but also with the addition of 30 new people joining it ranks, was the most decisive feature of this by-election.
Fittingly, in the last months of the first 30 years of Militant, first-hand international accounts were a feature of the paper. I had been invited by Militant’s co-thinkers in the USA and Canada, supporters of Labor Militant, to make a tour in mid-1994. I spoke at meetings and discussed with workers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland and Seattle in the USA; as well as Toronto in the east and Vancouver in the west of Canada.
One indication of the radicalisation which looms in the USA are the developments inside the prisons. Over a million people are incarcerated in US prisons today. One of these was "Jack" convicted for murder involving a dispute over drugs and now on Death Row in one of the USA prisons.
I interviewed this young man who was quite typical of a layer of poor, uneducated, Americans trapped in the spiral of violence, drugs, mass unemployment and a road leading nowhere except to the scrapheap of poverty or jail. At first hand I saw the horrific conditions of prisoners on Death Row. The most striking feature of the discussion with Jack was
He had followed the Youth Against Racism in Europe campaign and had convinced other prisoners of the need for racial solidarity in fighting racism and fascism. In the past a layer of black youth were changed by prison life by the "universities of the revolution".
These prisoners see the barbarous prison system, suffer at the hands of the ruthless authoritarian regime, and have the time to read and explore the causes. This leads them to question the basis of capitalist society, to search for socialist conclusions. This in itself is an annihilating condemnation of American capitalism. Amongst what Marx called the "lumpen proletariat", who normally support reaction, are some like Jack searching for Marxist ideas. He commented:
In fact he had evolved on Death Row to become a very articulate advocate of socialist ideas. In searching for the truth he had read everything of a socialist and "communist" character he could find. This led him to Labor Militant, the journal produced by the US co-thinkers of Militant Labour in Britain. The USA, Leon Trotsky once said:
In August a representative of Militant Labour’s co-thinkers internationally in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) was present at the Zapatista National Liberation Army’s (EZLN) National Convention. Thus in all the important international developments in 1994 Militant Labour or its co-thinkers were present and this was reflected in the pages of Militant, which had an unrivalled international coverage.
Not just comment but action is the hallmark of Militant Labour in the changed conditions of the 1990s. This was exemplified by the magnificent 1,000-strong camp organised in southern Germany in August by Youth Against Racism in Europe.
Young people from 16 countries flocked to attend this event. A total of 800 people attended from Germany alone. This indicated the tremendous success of the YRE in Germany.
Also present were representatives from Holland, Belgium, Sweden, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Britain, the Czech Republic, Poland, Northern Ireland, Southern Ireland, France, Austria, Finland, the Ukraine and Germany. So effective was the camp that the music channel MTV gave extensive coverage, which in turn generated increased inquiries about the YRE and a boost in membership.
In October and November Tommy Sheridan and I did an extensive nationwide tour taking in a number of cities to celebrate our 30th anniversary.
Two things stood out from the very successful, celebratory meetings. Firstly, that the organised labour and trade union movement was at its lowest ebb, with little activity and very low attendances, perhaps the lowest for 20 or even 30 years. On the other hand, Militant Labour had built a strong national organisation with a tremendous potential to grow and develop in the changed situation which is begining to take shape in Britain.
Towards the end of1994 Militant Labour successfully intervened in the struggle against the Criminal Justice Bill. The tide against the government was more pronounced as it was defeated on three key issues, of Post Office privatisation, the RMT dispute, and VAT on fuel. Despite the heroic achievements of Militant Labour over 30 years, even greater opportunities, perhaps the greatest this century, now loom for the forces of Marxism.
But on one condition: that the same intransigence in defence of the basic ideas of Marxism combined with tactical flexibility in slogans and organisation continues to be the hallmark of Militant Labour.