7. Workers formulate policies



There were many similar contributions to Bernard’s in this vein. This was a unique feature of Militant and Militant Labour, both on the public plane and in ‘internal’ conferences. When policy and perspectives were being hammered out, the contributions that workers made were crucial in arriving at correct conclusions. A genuine workers’ party is built not just ‘for’ the workers but by them as a class, at least its most politically developed layers. This is usually dismissed by some as a ‘workerist deviation’, supposedly not in the traditions of Lenin and Trotsky. Those who make such criticisms only display their own ignorance of revolutionary history, particularly the building of the Bolshevik party. Lenin based himself on the politically developed layers, insisting that workers’ views and approaches should set the tone in internal debate and in the organisation of the party itself. Of course, this does not mean to say that workers will not sometimes be wrong and policy and orientation may need to be corrected. Nor does it mean that there should be a prejudice against ‘intellectuals’. But they would acquire respect by earning this through the ‘rough work’ in building the party from below.

In this way Militant differed markedly from other left organisations. Firstly, because we were able to win many more workers, both industrial and white collar, then in the way we recognised the value of contributions from workers – some of them ‘worker intellectuals’ – and on the need for them to set the tone. In other left organisations petty-bourgeois intellectuals were to the fore but with no real experience or feel for how the working class thinks and moves. This inevitably leads to them adopting a lecturing tone which puts off workers and leads to political mistakes, some of them serious.

Even those students and intellectuals who played a role within Militant Labour were required to put themselves on the standpoint of the working class, to learn from their struggles, as a precondition for them playing a role in educating workers themselves. Of course, not all were able to meet these testing requirements, with some drifting away over time. Others, however, went on to play a leading role, participating in the struggles of the working class and developing the ideas of Militant and Militant Labour. Superficial bourgeois commentators will no doubt see this as an expression of Marxism’s ‘prejudice’ against those coming from a non-working class background. On the contrary, some of the best leading figures have come from such a background, beginning with Marx and Engels who made huge material sacrifices in order to develop the ideas of scientific socialism while energetically participating in the workers’ movement. It would be totally wrong to debar anybody who was serious about the struggle for socialism but the working class movement has every right to insist on a serious approach from all those who wish to pursue such a struggle. We have nothing in common with those carpetbaggers, careerists, place seekers and toadies who flirt with the labour movement, like Blair and his ilk, before going on to ‘greater things’. This type of corrosive personality infests the ranks of New Labour and will be a factor in the eventual disillusionment of working people with this party, leading to the creation of an alternative.

A feature of all our national gatherings is also an emphasis on the international situation. Without examining world processes in the age of capitalist globalisation, it is impossible to correctly analyse the march of events in Britain. To this end, the international session of our 1996 congress was introduced by Tony Saunois and he pointed to the contradictory processes taking place: a strike  wave in Europe and yet “the barbarism of counter-revolution in the killing fields of Chechnya, and the horrors of Bosnia”. He pointed to the economic situation which had confirmed the prognosis put forward by Militant Labour and the CWI: “Despite three years of relative growth, capitalism has been unable to regenerate itself. Thirty percent of the world’s workforce is either unemployed or underemployed… In the most developed capitalist countries of the OECD… mass unemployment is now a permanent feature… The widening gulf between rich and poor is forcing the class struggle back on the agenda.” Other sessions dealt with the development of our industrial work, youth, women’s issues and the progress of Socialism Today. Over £3,700 was raised for Militant Labour in the fighting fund appeal and over £17,000 was pledged in a special appeal for the donation of a week’s income to fund the general election campaign, in which around 25 seats would be contested.1

Militant Labour did not restrict its campaigns to economic issues. We also highlighted the growing discontent, particularly amongst young people, towards the state and the government’s attack on democratic rights and civil liberties. Faced with a growing revolt the Tory government had introduced the Criminal Justice Act and a whole series of measures resulting in the harassment of young black and Asian people. This was no accident, as these sections are amongst the poorest and most oppressed in society. This was an attempt to prevent them from fighting back.

Militant Labour had helped to initiate the ‘justice demonstrations’ which took place in October 1995. We pointed out that the last time the Tories introduced stop and search laws (the infamous ‘sus’ laws, short for ‘suspected person’) they were forced to withdraw because of an uprising against them. Over 2,000 people, overwhelmingly young, marched in Hackney on 7 October. Many were people who had been victimised by the police – like Donald Douglas whose brother Brian had been the victim of a brutal racist murder by the police in South London the previous May. Also participating in the demonstration was George Silcott, brother of Winston, who was still in prison for his false conviction for the murder of PC Keith Blakelock in the Tottenham riots. After a long imprisonment Winston was acquitted but continued to serve a sentence for another murder conviction.

At the same time, a new and successful campaign aimed at football fans and players alike, Show Racism the Red Card, was launched by members and supporters of Militant Labour. Kevin Miles and others, who have come to national prominence since then in promoting this campaign, were supporters of Militant Labour, in Kevin’s case a former full-timer for Militant. This campaign was closely linked to the YRE. Militant reported that Shaka Hislop, a goalkeeper with Newcastle United, had addressed meetings in schools in support of the campaign. Project worker and YRE member Ged Grebby, also previously a full-time worker for Militant, explained: “We took our initial idea from the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign because we realised the potential for using the high profile of professional footballers to get our anti-racist message across to young people.”2

John Reid, another Militant Labour member, had produced the first edition of his successful book Reclaim the Game, a working class perspective on the football ‘industry’. Then a very effective full-time worker for Militant Labour over a number of years, he later became a London Underground worker and was eventually elected to the Council of Executives of the RMT and as its London Regional secretary. This highlights once more the distinctive working class character of Militant Labour, which differentiated it from other groups on the left. The latter were mostly impervious to working class pastimes, football and sport generally. But Trotsky had emphasised the importance of a working class paper and party being prepared to take up all of the issues affecting working people, including how workers spent the little time they have for leisure, “how they drink whiskey”, etc.

Football, whether you like it or not, is an important aspect of the social life of many working class people. Therefore, it was necessary and correct for us to spearhead a campaign to drive racist ideas out of the sport. Of course, it is utopian to expect that racism will be eliminated merely by a propaganda campaign. Struggles are necessary on social issues – for decent housing, education and social services – which, because of their inadequate provision, help breed racism. For us, a united working class-led campaign is the key starting point in the fight against racism and the far-right. The general climate which was created through campaigns like the YRE and Show Racism the Red Card helped in this struggle. This was shown by the latter’s continued success and topicality, given the controversy in 2012 surrounding alleged racist behaviour on the football field in a number of cases, including Premier League players such as John Terry of Chelsea, which led to fines and match suspensions.

The main campaign around which Militant Labour developed anti-racist work was the YRE, which was international. Laurence Coates played an important role in its work initially. However, other issues affecting young people had also come to the fore since the early 1990s, particularly youth unemployment, the housing crisis and education. Lois Austin, who headed the YRE in Britain, pointed out the changing consciousness of young people: “The reason why young people haven’t joined the traditional organisations is that they think the traditional parties have nothing to offer.” They would be the basis for the new socialist organisation which Militant Labour was proposing to launch: “We’re trying to set up a youth organisation that is really independent. There are generational differences, and young people are more likely to get involved in an organisation that’s representative of them, their friends, their generation,” said Naomi Byron of the YRE.3 When the YRE was set up in 1992, it was envisaged that, sooner or later, it would broaden out into an organisation fighting on a much wider front than just anti-racism.

Lois was later to experience first-hand the brutal heavy handedness of the police when she was kettled during an anti-capitalist demonstration in Central London and prevented from leaving to attend to her recently born child. Consequently, the case, which received prominent coverage in the media when legal action against the police was taken, went through the British legal system right up to the European Court. Also, at the end of 1993, the police attacked a group of YRE members and anti-fascists at Earl’s Court Station who were returning from a protest against the BNP. This, happening a couple of months after the second Welling demonstration, was considered as revenge by the police.

After a period of quite ‘fiery’ discussion and debate, a new youth organisation, Young Socialist Resistance (YSR), was formed. This played an important role over the following period as a forum for young people but also in mobilising for interventions in the student field, amongst young workers and in other demonstrations which took place. Militant had always placed a priority on work amongst young people. One of the consequences of the retreat of the labour movement – dating from the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 and the early 1990s – was the loss to socialist revolutionary politics of a whole generation. There are no easy roads, quick-fire solutions, which can guarantee that an organisation or party can escape from the consequences of a difficult objective situation. There are periods in history when the labour movement and the working class can be thrown back. Conquests gained amid big struggles appear to be under threat. For the revolutionary movement positions gained once have to be won back again and again. This particularly applies to young people. In the past, they gained an understanding of the labour movement, particularly of the trade unions, through the workplace – from the older generation of workers who passed on their knowledge and experiences of previous struggles.

However, with the massive deindustrialisation that followed Thatcher’s scorched earth policies of the 1990s, young people were increasingly excluded from the big industrial workplaces, simply because they did not exist, at least on the same scale as in the past. Therefore young workers were increasingly employed in public sector white collar jobs: teachers, civil servants, etc. Of course, under the hammer blows of the crisis and the attacks of the employers and governments, an increasingly militant trade unionism would manifest itself in these fields. This was bound to rub off on the new young layers of the working class, but it would take time and experience for this to become a strong force. Moreover, many young people were in part-time jobs and unorganised workplaces where trade unionist struggle methods were a foreign land. In consequence, union membership has become older and not renewed by the entry of vital youth forces. This is where it was envisaged YSR could play a key role, promising experience gained in the battle against the Criminal Justice Act, resistance to racism and the BNP, as well as the on-going struggles in industry.

This did not mean that racism was pushed entirely into the background. The campaign continued against the BNP ‘bookshop’ (headquarters) situated in Bexley. A tenacious six-year campaign to close this ‘vipers’ nest’ demanded that it be shut down. This culminated in a local planning inquiry to investigate whether the building was being used as a bookshop, as the BNP claimed, or was in effect their national headquarters. The inquiry ordered the BNP to remove all fortifications from the building within six months. On 23 August 1996 the BNP’s national organiser was back in court for failure to replace the shop front and roller shutter to their premises within the specified time limit. He pleaded guilty and was fined £800. Following this successful court action the bookshop closed, a clear victory for the anti-racist and anti-fascist cause.

The Stephen Lawrence inquiry rumbled on for five years after his murder in 1993, which was followed by a police cover-up. The Lawrence family had mobilised outside the court with a banner naming the racist killers: “Dobson, Neil and Jamie Acourt, Norris and Knight – Did you kill Stephen Lawrence?” An anti-racist activist who had observed the inquiry’s proceedings commented to the Socialist (which succeeded Militant in 1997): “All the five thugs’ evidence was just repeating ‘No, I can’t remember’. When the Lawrence’s lawyer held up a green T-shirt with rips in it and said evidence showed that they came from hiding large knives beneath it, Jamie Acourt just said he ‘couldn’t remember’ how they got there.”4

The police treated the accused with kid gloves but a different approach was adopted by the police towards DuWayne Brooks, who was Stephen Lawrence’s friend and a witness to the stabbing, treating him almost as criminal. On a demonstration in 1993 protesting against the presence of the fascist BNP in Welling, they tried to prosecute him for criminal damage on the grounds, completely wrongly, that they had spotted him on video! This was not to be the last that we heard of Stephen Lawrence’s murder because of the incredible persistence of his family, friends and campaigners to bring the perpetrators of this crime to justice, which eventually succeeded, as we will see later.

We recognised that to extirpate racism, its social causes must be eliminated as well. Therefore Militant Labour decided to launch a campaign against low pay. This was one of the most important issues then, as it is now, facing the trade union movement and working-class people. The years of the Thatcher and Major governments had become notorious for the rich lining their pockets at the expense of the rest. For millions of working people on benefits, just scraping through had become a weekly uphill fight. Therefore the situation demanded a national living minimum wage.

The right-wing Labour and trade union leaders told workers to wait for a Labour government. Labour had earlier committed itself to a minimum wage at the level of half the male median average. Yet as an election loomed, the likelihood of a victory meant that the Labour leaders were jettisoning all concrete promises. We launched a special pamphlet: ‘The Low Pay Scandal – The Fight for the National Minimum Wage’. In the previous period, the weakening of national pay bargaining, which went together with the introduction of local pay, had tended to undermine wages. National agreements had been a safeguard for workers in small, scattered workplaces, the least organised and those, such as care workers, who were reluctant to take industrial action. The strength of the best-organised pulls up the rest. Right-wing union leaders, of course, make speeches against poverty pay but then go on to conclude agreements which perpetuate it, or fail to organise effective industrial action to improve scandalously low pay offers such as that offered to workers in the NHS. Another vital issue that received prominence at this stage, and on which Militant Labour was a pioneer, was domestic violence. We had launched the Campaign Against Domestic Violence (CADV) in 1991 and its second conference with 250 delegates took place in London in November 1995 with Christine Thomas playing a key role. This campaign played a pioneering role in eventually forcing the government to give priority to the issue by taking special measures, particularly in local government. However, domestic violence, sexism and violence against women continued to be important issues which we were compelled to take up again and again. A serious socialist, revolutionary force must always try and see society through the eyes of the most oppressed layers: women and young people, as well as the black and Asian population. Militant Labour sought to achieve this in the campaigns that we conducted on domestic violence, but also on the broader issues of low pay – which particularly affected women workers – and for a living wage.