6. Militant Labour campaigns




Because Militant Labour attempted to continue the socialist traditions upon which the labour movement was built, we experienced some success electorally – for instance, in the European elections in Glasgow in 1994 where we received 7.6% of the vote. An indication of our continued presence as a factor in the working class and the labour movement was that hardly a single social movement took place without the involvement of our organisation, often with our comrades playing a leading role. Internationally, we still forged ahead with the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), discussing with groups in Africa, including Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), the Philippines and many other areas of the world with a view to collaborating in the building of worldwide struggles of the working class. This contrasted sharply with the capitulation of the trade union and labour leaders internationally.

One of the key issues on which we concentrated our youth work was in campaigns against racism and fascism, which assumed some importance in the struggle directed at the British National Party (BNP), in which Youth against Racism in Europe (YRE) played an important role. The BNP’s headquarters were in Welling, South London, where a mass demonstration had taken place on 16 October 1993. This demo was viciously attacked by the police and 41 marchers were hospitalised as a result of indiscriminate attacks by police officers. Lois Austin, YRE spokesperson, pointed out that the police had been drafted in to protect the fascists at a cost of nearly £1 million. They used indiscriminate violence, as they later admitted. We pointed out: “An internal Metropolitan Police document has just revealed that flawed police tactics caused the riot… This isn’t the first time the truth about police tactics has emerged after the event. During the miners’ strike at the Battle of Orgreave, police claimed that pickets had attacked them. But after the strike ended, the police were forced to admit they instigated the violence. Again, during the anti-poll tax demonstration at Trafalgar Square, police blamed the marchers for the riot.”1 This is reminiscent of other clashes between demonstrators and police – and the tactics used by the latter – where protection has been given to far-right organisations like the BNP then and, following them, the English Defence League.

Militant Labour sharply differentiated its position from ultra-left organisations in our approach towards the police, or the ranks of the army for that matter. We never adopted blanket opposition to the rank and file of the police or other forces of the state. We have never hesitated to criticise and condemn them when they were used as a battering ram against workers in struggle or against anti-racist demonstrators, as was the case in Welling. At the same time, we are not averse to appealing to the police – supposedly part of the ‘citizenry’ – to desist from violent actions against those exercising their legitimate democratic right to organise, strike and demonstrate. This becomes particularly important in periods of heightened social tension when the police themselves can come under attack from the government and can therefore be susceptible to pressure from the labour movement.

The ‘revelations’ by former police officer Peter Francis that undercover officers had infiltrated socialist and campaigning organisations to gain information on their activities came to light in 2010. The police had tried to smear the Stephen Lawrence Campaign and its struggle for justice. Francis himself joined Militant Labour in the first half of the 1990s and was active in the YRE. Hannah Sell and Lois Austin were granted ‘core participant’ status in the Pitchford Inquiry into undercover policing because of this, as was Dave Nellist for suspected infiltration while he was an MP.

In Greece police protesting in 2012 against the austerity measures being applied to them, demonstrated in the streets of Athens and clashed violently with the riot police! In this situation, to refuse to fraternise and appeal to the police – because of their past actions against working class people, which we never forget and will criticise – is self-defeating. In Britain the police also came into semi-opposition to the government because of cut-backs. These led to wage restraint while prices rose and the reduction of at least 5,000 police jobs, resulting in intensified pressure on the existing workforce. We demand in such situations the right for the police to be members of a trade union with the right to strike. There have been many occasions when they have actually exercised this right: in 1911 and 1919 in Liverpool and London. Moreover, James Connolly and James Larkin, the great Irish socialist leaders, collaborated with radical elements in the Belfast police and assisted them in the formation of police unions, which led to the police actually coming out on strike.

We also adopted a similar approach towards the army, particularly towards rank and file soldiers, who can be profoundly affected by developments within society. We witnessed this in the Portuguese revolution of 1974 with left-wing radicalisation leading to the formation of the Armed Forces Movement (MFA). Incredibly, this organisation came out for socialism and even for the establishment of a workers’ state! Nor have the traditions of the revolution been completely wiped out over 40 years later. This was revealed in demonstrations in Portugal in 2012 and 2014 when different governments attempted to implement vicious austerity and sections of the army demonstrated together with workers.

There was a steady drift away of lefts from the Labour Party – sometimes through expulsions – as Blair consolidated his grip in the run-up to the general election of 1997. Ian Page was a Militant supporter who had represented the Pepys ward on Lewisham Council for Labour since 1990. He had consistently voted against  the Labour council’s attacks on its own workforce. In June 1995 he was barred from attending the ruling Labour group and then expelled from the party. His crime? Standing up for the working class and for socialism! Ian had criticised the council for cutting the pay and conditions for its direct workers’ team and complacently implementing Tory cuts. He commented: “The manifesto I was elected on… didn’t include implementing £70 a week wage cuts and the loss of a week’s holiday for workers.”2 He subsequently stood as a Militant Labour candidate and was elected as a councillor for many years. Alongside Chris Flood, another elected local councillor of the Socialist Party, they heroically championed the workers of Lewisham.

Three months earlier in the by-election in the Weavers ward of Tower Hamlets, Militant Labour’s candidate Hugo Pierre received a creditable 3.7% of the vote in “political conditions unlike anywhere else in Britain”.3 Hugo stood on a programme against the Labour council’s cuts and a £5 a week rent rise. The BNP also stood. We had to weigh up whether or not to stand, as this could have risked the BNP capturing the seat and the unfavourable publicity and effect that would engender. However, we calculated that they had no chance of winning. They were polling 20% in neighbouring wards but this time their vote fell below that. Nonetheless, many people who seriously considered supporting Militant Labour voted Labour to make certain the far-right was defeated. This was, in fact, the main appeal of Labour’s leaflets as polling day approached. As well as running in the election campaign, Tower Hamlets Militant Labour members worked with Bengali youth to set up the YRE ‘whistle alarm system’ to deal with the BNP presence. The main national black British newspaper, The Voice, commented: “The BNP are being chased out from the Weavers ward in Tower Hamlets… At the sound of the whistle people band together… It is working, as people are responding to the ‘distress call’… Already BNP campaigners have twice been driven away.”4

In Hillingdon in West London Julia Leonard, who was a councillor, announced her decision to leave the Labour Party after 19 years and join Militant Labour. In her statement to the press Julia stressed that it was New Labour that had changed radically not her own beliefs. In Cardiff, Wales Militant Labour achieved 10% of the vote in a council by-election in the Ely ward, beating the Tories, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru. We saw this local work – digging roots in working class communities – as a vital step towards building a national presence. It is not just in industrial struggles, vital though they are, that a party earns respect from working people. There are the million and one social struggles in which the members of Militant established reputations as amongst the best working class fighters.

Typical of this period was the community action in Waltham Forest where Louise Thompson, chair of the local tenants’ federation, played a key role. One day a bailiff appeared on her doorstep. He said he had a warrant for her arrest for not paying the poll tax. Louise refused to open the door and got straight on to other Militant Labour members. Within minutes the landing of their floor in the tower block was full and the bailiff looked decidedly less cocky by the minute! Doors were locked and it was explained to neighbours what was going on. Word spread and it seemed that the whole block was outside Louise’s front door! The bailiff was heard to complain that he couldn’t wait to get back to his own turf where it was a lot less hassle! It turned out that he only had a court summons to serve and was just trying to put the frighteners on Louise. He had picked on the wrong woman and party!

A series of local struggles – largely unreported by the media – took place at this stage. These often included a slow but clear war of attrition by the capitalists – misnamed ‘developers’ – to destroy hard-won facilities. These had been built up in the more favourable conditions of the post-war economic upswing. Now, in the lopsided boom from the 1980s into the 1990s, there were attempts to take away these conditions, falsely described as ‘modernisation’. Typical was the situation in Southampton, in the past seen as a relatively prosperous southern town. Years later in 2012 a struggle developed over the closure of a swimming pool by the Labour council which  was resisted by the local community. They were supported and encouraged by two courageous Labour councillors, who were subsequently banned from the Labour group and expelled. Yet in 1995 Nick Chaffey, who worked full-time for us in Southampton, reported: “Here facilities have gone, one by one, leaving the city resembling a black hole, in particular for young people.” He went on to quote Chris from Weston in the city: “With a population of over 200,000 and the hottest summer for over 200 years, Southampton has no swimming pool.”5 After the protests at the vandalising of the city, a swimming pool was actually built. Now that pool has been snatched back and closed by a combination of a crisis-ridden capitalist system and those Labour councillors who adapt to it instead of fighting for the interests of working people.

Militant Labour announced that it was putting up 40 candidates in elections in England and Wales on 4 May 1995. This was in addition to the 30 already standing for Scottish Militant Labour in Scotland’s unitary elections on 4 April. Apart from the very successful campaign of Dave Nellist (mentioned below) we did well, considering the proximity of a general election and the overwhelming desire to get rid of the Tories. Militant Labour received an average of 9% in the seats we contested, coming second to Labour in nine seats and third in 16. In Sheffield Park Ward, we won 21.5% of the vote. The candidate was Ken Douglas, later an editor for our paper and now the National Treasurer of the Socialist Party. More significantly, we were “inundated with new members,”6 reported Hannah Sell, from the Executive Committee of Militant Labour and later Deputy General Secretary of the Socialist Party.

One of the areas in which we concentrated was, of course, Coventry where Dave Nellist was the former Labour MP. The news that Dave was once more prepared to stand, this time in the 1995 local elections but now as a Militant Labour candidate, caused consternation in our opponents’ ranks. An article in the Coventry Evening Telegraph was headlined: ‘Labour Haunted by the Ghost of Nellist’. According to the article: “‘News that the much-threatened attack by hard-left Militants at next year’s city council election is now certain to take place’ is provoking panic amongst Labour right wingers. ‘The fear haunting Labour can be summed up in two words – Dave Nellist.’” It continued: “‘It would be a brave person who would bet against his chances of election. Nellist… comes from the Rottweiler school of debaters’ and ‘would have a field day with some of our more comatose councillors’.” It seemed that the right-wing Labour establishment was asking potential councillors a “novel question at selection meetings. ‘What would you do if Militant was to stand against you?’” The reporter stated: “That is the question from hell… Much anger continues to simmer… about the way Nellist was expelled from the Labour Party… Over 11,000 people voted for him when he stood as an independent candidate at the 1992 general election… One thing is certain. If Dave Nellist becomes Councillor Nellist, Coventry’s dreary council chamber will be transformed.”7

By the time of the elections in 1996 Dave’s campaign clearly had Labour on the run. They were fighting to gain control in numerous wards but only in Dave’s were six Labour MPs and MEPs out campaigning against him on the night before the election. In the event, he came close to victory with 1,420 votes (42%) to Labour’s 1,617.

Over 220 people attended Militant Labour’s very successful weekend school held at the University of London in July 1995. All the sessions were well attended and provoked lively discussion. These annual schools – designed to educate the new generation, most entering the struggle for the first time – became a regular feature of our work over the next two decades, culminating in the highly successful ‘Socialism’ weekends that take place today. The timing was also significant because our new monthly magazine, Socialism Today, was launched the same month, edited by Lynn Walsh and Clive Heemskerk. Its predecessor, Militant International Review, was first published in autumn 1969 and played a vital role in theoretically arming the supporters of Militant in the period when reformist ideas dominated the labour and trade union movement. In 1969, as we detailed in the first volume of our history (The Rise of Militant), our membership was small. But Socialism Today set itself a greater task in a sense: producing a monthly journal outlining the policies and the analysis of Militant Labour, but in greater detail and probing more deeply than is possible within the confines of a weekly paper.

Militant Labour members were undoubtedly disappointed at the failure of the first attempt to establish a broad left party through the SLP, but it did not lead to pessimistic conclusions that ‘nothing could be done’ until there was a change in the situation. On the contrary, at the Militant Labour congress in Morecambe in January 1996 there was an air of confidence for the battles to come. Over 250 delegates and visitors from Britain were joined by an official delegation from the striking Liverpool dockers’ port stewards committee as well as international visitors from Spain, Ireland, Australia and Belgium. Representatives of the CWI attended. Also present were fraternal delegates, including representatives of the USFI and from the Workers’ International League (LIT). The presence of the latter two organisations – both from a Trotskyist tradition – reflected the recent establishment of relations between them and the CWI. Unfortunately, no common agreement was reached in the subsequent discussions on how to face up to the challenge presented to Marxism by the ‘post-Stalinism’ situation.

The main congress discussion centred on likely developments in Britain in the forthcoming period, which I introduced. I firstly emphasised the important international developments, which formed the background of British perspectives. There had been strikes in France and Belgium indicating important new developments. They showed the willingness of workers to fight back. In Britain this was shown by the titanic struggle of the Liverpool dockers and Hillingdon Hospital cleaners as well as thousands of postal workers who had been out on strike. There was an accumulated rage and discontent in society which made it extremely unlikely that the Tories could win the general election, despite the Labour leaders’ unwillingness to conduct a real campaign to drive out the Tories by offering a socialist alternative. The massive split which had developed in Tory ranks over the EU would be accentuated by an election defeat. I concluded that it was the role of a revolutionary party to feel the movement of history and to use this to win the new generation to the idea of socialist change, which was possible in Britain and throughout the world.

An indication of the roots Militant Labour had been able to sink amongst working people was shown by developments in Scotland and in the vote for Roger Bannister in the Unison election for general secretary. Liverpool dock shop stewards Billy Jenkins and Rob Ritchie received ovations when they spoke to the congress: “On every continent workers are facing the same kind of attacks.” They pointed to the international support from as far afield as Australia: “It was the first time two trade unionists have ever been sent out to Australia willingly.” On behalf of the 500 striking dockworkers they thanked Militant Labour for the tremendous support the party had given them. Elaine Brunskill from the North-East related how, when the multinational Siemens had announced the prospect of creating 1,800 new jobs in the area, within three hours the local Job Centre had 4,000 enquiries!

The late Bernard Roome, a member of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) illustrated the brutal regime in the workplace. He recounted that one worker had an accident at work and endured five hours on the operating table. The next day he was visited by his boss. He hadn’t come to wish him well but to fill in a form and to assess whether the worker should be disciplined. Zero hours contracts were being introduced, a harbinger of developments over the last 20 years. Bernard pointed out that BT was one of the most profitable companies and yet was demanding more and more from its workforce. However they were fighting back: “You could not judge the mood in the workplace just on the number of disputes. What about the number of strike ballots, which often bring victory without having to strike?” He went on: “In BT presently there are 30 ballots due to take place.”8