Bring Me the Heads of Hatton and Mulhearn
I defy anyone to tell me how you can go to Liverpool and defeat Militant by argument. (Tom Sawyer, speaking at the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in February 1986)
Labour is being crucified by demonologies of its own making; having set up the targets for its enemies to attack, it can hardly complain when they score a bulls eye… the Party leader has built a whole political platform of dissociating himself from and demonising ‘extremists’ for a whole year, Labour’s enemy number one was not Mrs Thatcher, not even Dr Owen (still less Mr MacGregor), but Mr Hatton. (Raphael Samuel, Guardian, 20 April 1987)
Merseyside, next to the coalfields, had been the main arena of big class battles since Thatcher’s re-election in 1983.
Unlike the Labour Party in many other areas, in Liverpool the party was overwhelmingly working class in composition. The scope and intensity of the struggle with the Tory government had enormously radicalised the rank and file which inevitably brought them into collision, not just with the right-wing national leaders of the Labour Party, but with those in the area as well.
In other parts of the country, with the collapse of the Bennite left, the battle to de-select right-wing Labour MPs had subsided but in Merseyside (apart from Liverpool where by 1983 all five Labour MPs were considered to be on the left) it intensified after 1983.
Frank Field in Birkenhead and Robert Kilroy-Silk in Knowsley North, typified those smooth, polished self-seekers who had rushed to become Labour MPs in the 9160s and 1970s. They were a kind of political ‘yuppie’ before that term had been invented. Kilroy-Silk had even given a famous interview when he first entered Parliament frankly confessing his ambition to become Prime Minister!
A thin veneer of ‘leftism’, for both were members of the Tribune Group, masked only for a very temporary period their hostility to the socialist aspirations of the working class and the labour movement. Indeed, Frank Field was at the same time a member of the right-wing Solidarity Group!
Both were terrified of the reselection procedures. Soon after the 1983 election, Frank Field, (according to the Guardian, 25 June 1984), ‘signalled in the plainest possible way his willingness to force a by-election if he was not reselected to remain his party’s official candidate in the Birkenhead constituency’.
He said: ‘I am confident of being reselected, but my advice to colleagues deselected is that they should fight a by-election as the Labour Party candidate if all local party members are denied a say in who should be their candidate.’
In other words, he was prepared to accept the democracy of the Labour Party so long as it fitted in with his personal ambition. Once the membership demanded a candidate more in tune with their thinking, Frank Field and his like were prepared to ‘do a Bermondsey’.
There, Bob Mellish, the right-wing Labour MP, had resigned his seat at the most inopportune moment for Labour in 1983. In the by-election, all Labour’s enemies combined with massive press support in a filthy campaign against Peter Tatchell, which resulted in victory for the Liberal, Simon Hughes.
Birkenhead Reselection Battle
In Birkenhead, Frank Field was threatening similar action safe in the knowledge that the might of the press would support him.
Indeed, the Echo (20 February 1985) reported: ‘some Liberals have suggested that Mr Field should be given a clear run if he is deselected by his local party to increase his chances of beating Labour – and of joining the Alliance later’.
Moreover, Frank Field was an open advocate of the so-called ‘Rainbow coalition’ – a deal between the Alliance and Labour. Yet the national leadership of the Labour Party, let alone Labour’s headquarters at Walworth Road, never once publicly rebuked Field for his repeated attempts to blackmail his local party with his threat to force a by-election.
Throughout, the reselection battle was punctuated with threats and action against the left. In June 1986 the right wing in Birkenhead were successful in getting the party to accept ad motion to ban sales of Militant at ‘Labour meetings and events’. This in no way affected the sales of Militant, however, because it continued to be sold at the entrance of all labour meetings. The left candidate opposing Frank Field was Cathy Wilson, a Marxist. She had an uphill struggle, having only moved back to the area in thee previous month and was beaten by 53 votes to 21. Nevertheless, she had conducted an inspiring campaign.
The reselection meeting itself underlined the shift to the right of the trendy left within the Labour Party. Many of them, no doubt with a ‘heavy heart’, voted for Frank Field in preference to Cathy Wilson. Some of them were so-called ‘radical feminists’, who in their hostility for Marxism, voted for a male MP who had supported the reactionary anti-abortion Powell Bill.
Frank Field, like many others, only went into the 1987 General Election as the Labour candidate because of the shift to the right of the ‘trendy left’, who in their class outlook were now little different to Field himself. Like Nineteenth century Liberals, such people wish to help, to ‘do service’, to alleviate the terrible conditions of working people. But they do not see the working class as the main agency of social change, they wish to raise up ‘the poor working class’. Yet once the working class moves beyond the safe parliamentary channels which they prescribe, they jump back in fright. They recoil from Marxism, which expresses in an unequivocal fashion the will of the working class to change society.
The British working class, once it becomes conscious of its own power, and understands that the building of a new society is the only way out, will force its leadership to rigorously account for itself. The socialist transformation of society will be the greatest struggle in the whole of human history. It will leave no room for half-heartedness, middle-class equivocation, or backsliding. It will require a leadership theoretically and organisationally firm. The Liverpool experience had demonstrated that only Marxism was prepared to go to the end.
The political amorphousness, not to say organisational looseness, of the ‘soft left’, never mind the right, will render them completely unequipped for such a test. Consciously or unconsciously, in Liverpool they saw the outline of the ruthless struggle between labour and capital that will unfold on a national scale in Britain in the next decade. The harshness of the conflict could not but help reinforce their sense of helplessness in the face of this struggle. Such people tend to ascribe the ruthless and bitterness of the fight however, not to the mutually antagonistic class forces which confront one another, but to the ‘intolerance’ and ‘lack of sensitivity’ of the Marxists.
Invariably, the ‘soft left’ find themselves wither suspended in mid-air, or on the wrong side of the barricades. Hence their bitter and venomous hostility towards the Liverpool struggle and particularly its leadership.
To be sure, there was nothing new or unique in the Labour leadership attacking the left. Herbert Morrison savaged George Lansbury and the Poplar councillors as their modern counterparts have sought to do to Liverpool. However, Morrison’s strictures against Poplar were largely kept within the labour movement and behind closed doors and were mild in comparison to the modern case of Liverpool. Even the attacks on the Clay Cross councillors in the early 1970s were a mere slap on the wrist compared to the savagery unleashed by the right wing and the ex-left against Liverpool council.
The opposition to Liverpool was buttressed by the feeling that Militant supporters were poised to replace known right wingers as representatives of the labour movement in Parliament in the area. Already the majority of Labour MPs in Liverpool stood far to the left of the great bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party. With the exception of Bob Wareing, they were to stand four square behind the council right up to its ejection from office by the High Court.
Kilroy Must Go!
The challenge to Robert Kilroy-Silk in Knowsley North, with Tony Mulhearn as the nominee of the ‘Broad Left’ in the constituency, gave this struggle for reselection national prominence.
The disbandment of the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) and the steps being taken towards the expulsion of Tony Mulhearn implicit in the setting up of an inquiry, was Kinnock’s method of attempting to save the skin of Kilroy-Silk who would have been incapable of beating off the challenge of Tony Mulhearn through democratic debate.
A barrage of biased media reports flooded the press as Kilroy-Silk tried to avoid going through the selection process. In his book hard Labour published a year later, after he had stabbed the Labour Party in the back by leaving to become a television commentator, Kilroy-Silk shows his real character. He boasts of how at the 1985 Labour Party Conferencehe hit an unnamed delegate who he described as a ‘Militant supporter’.
Both before and after he left the Labour Party, Kilroy-Silk sought to ‘prove’ that Militant had engaged in ‘intimidation, chicanery, lying and cheating’ etc. The only evidence he ever provided was that Derek Hatton and Militant supporters glared at him at the 1985 Labour Party Conference! What he does provide in his book, however, is more than enough ammunition which indicts him precisely on the charges he levels against his opponents on the left. Thus Eric Heffer is described as ‘that bastard’.
In relation to the incident at the 1985 conference, he wrote:
‘There was no way I could back down, so I hit him first. Just a left. He went down backwards so fast that unfortunately, he put an elbow through the window. I pulled him back by the throat, about to hit him again… I was irritated.’
Imagine the headlines if a Militant supporter had resorted to similar action! Yet those very same Fleet Street organs have a very polite ‘tut tut!’ when the story surfaced.
Right-wing Labour MP Joe Ashton said when Kilroy-Silk seemed reluctant to broadcast the facts: ‘You put a Militant through a window… That will do you no harm. Dou you a power of good, that. Want me to tell the press?’
Don Concannon, soon to defect from Labour with Kilroy-Silk, said: ‘Well done. Don’t stand any bloody nonsense. Hit the buggers.’
Kilroy-Silk had never actually been selected for Knowsley North but, as the MP for the neighbouring ormskirk constituency, he had been inspired by the Labour Party NEC when constituency boundaries were redrawn in 1983.
When Kilroy-Silk was threatened with deselection, Frank Field floated the idea of him standing as an ‘independent’ against Labour if deselected. He revealed that 50 MPs would ‘canvass for Kilroy-Silk’ in this situation.
At the same time, Neil Kinnock described Kilroy-Silk as ‘by any standards a first-rate MP’. Like a rejected suitor however, Kinnock denounced him when he defected a few months later. But for the time being Kilroy-Silk melodramatically resigned his front bench position in the House of Commons to ‘concentrate on defeating the militants’. His determination however was soon to crumble when a lucrative contract as a television presenter was dangled before him!
Within days of Kinnock’s attack on Liverpool council at the 1985 conference, the right wing began to exert remorseless pressure for expulsions in Liverpool. The press was screaming for blood:
Kick out the extremists, Kinnock… it is no use Neil Kinnock giving the extremists the odd tongue-wagging on television. He must do something. Specifically, he must tell the National Executive to renounce every revolutionary, every far out leftist. So that they are sent packing, bag and baggage, from the party they have disgraced. And he must make sure they are excluded forevermore.
This concern of the rabid right wing Daily Express (31 October 1985) for the internal health and future of the Labour Party was most touching. The pressure of the capitalist press was reflected by the right-wing leadership of the AUEW who write to the NEC, demanding that action should be taken against Derek Hatton and the ‘Liverpool Militants‘.
But Kinnock, seeing at this stage the danger of a split in the party, resisted the pressure for immediate expulsions. He said on ITN television news that: ‘a general purge would be utterly impracticable, as well as illiberal’. Pressed on the point by his interviewer, Kinnock said: ‘The very simple reason why Derek Hatton is still in the Labour Party is that he wants to be in the Labour Party.’ The bourgeois press was having none of this, and was determined to maintain the pressure.
The mechanics of the witch-hunt, and particularly the role of bourgeois journalism, were revealed in a remarkable exchange between Kinnock and Anthony Bevins. The Times journalist declared (8 March, 1985):
Mr Neil Kinnock said last night that there was no evidence that Liverpool’s leading local politicians, such as Mr Derek Hatton and Mr Tony Mulhearn, were members of the Trotskyist organisation ‘Militant Tendency’ and he challenged The Times to provide proof under which they could be expelled from the party.
Kinnock told Bevins:
If you would put your considerable talents and those of your newspaper at the disposal of the Labour Party in order to provide us with satisfactory proof of individuals’ membership of an organisation, then we will consider that evidence and take action upon it.
The right wing have always dismissed Militant’s suggestion that the witch-hunt began with Thatcher and was orchestrated by the capitalist media. Yet here we have a leader of the Labour Party, a party that is committed to challenge capitalist society, beseeching bourgeois journalists employed by the most ruthless capitalist organ in Britain to supply information for use against members of his own party! The bourgeois have set out to split and confuse the labour movement and Kinnock has been their unconscious tool in this process. He has fallen for every snare which has been set for him by the media.
The cynical calculation behind the witch-hunt was that if Labour was to draw a clear line of demarcation between itself and the ‘extremists’, this would mollify the millionaire press. This in turn would guarantee Labour ‘fair treatment’ in the media. But, as the Marxists continually argued, for the Labour leadership to give their little finger would only lead the bourgeois to demand everything.
The lurch towards the right at the top of the movement had not reconciled the strategists of capital to the prospect of a new Labour government. They understood that despite a few expulsions, the forces of Marxism remained intact. Moreover, they were terrified that a new Labour government, given the inevitable retreats it would make, would give an enormous boost to the left and particularly to the ideas of Marxism.
The right-wing socialist governments in Greece, Spain, France and recently in Australia had carried out a draconian programme of counter-reforms. This in turn resulted in opposition currents within the socialist parties. In Britain a powerful Marxist force would have acted as a catalyst which at a certain stage would result in a mass left wing opposition to the right wing. They were therefore not prepared to hand over control to the Labour leadership at this stage.
Thatcher summed up the long-term ‘strategy’ of the ruling class when she declared that it was her ambition to ‘eliminate socialism’ in Britain. She looked towards the Labour Party becoming the British equivalent of the American Democratic Party. Indeed, she rebuked the SDP leaders for not staying in the Labour Party to accomplish this task!
The purpose of the witch-hunt was to make the Labour Party once and for all ‘safe for capitalism’. In a most astonishing fashion Kinnock was attentive to the latest whims of the editorial writers in the bourgeois press. He danced to their tune between 1983 and 1987. Nowhere was this more graphically revealed than in the persecution and prosecution of the witch-hunt against the Liverpool Militants.
Inquiry Into the DLP
In November 1985, the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, after prompting by the TGWU General Secretary Ron Todd, and the GMBATU General Secretary David Basnett, set up a Committee of Inquiry into the Liverpool District Labour party. This was decided by 18 votes to 9.
None of those who voted against the inquiry were included in the inquiry team. At the same meeting, shamefaced at their role, the soft left backed the right wing on the NEC to end the practice of automatically recording who voted for or against a resolution. In future, a recorded vote would only be made if agreed by a majority vote!
The press and media spoke of the imminent demise of Militant. Norman Tebbit said: ‘I wish Neil Kinnock luck in purging the extremists from Liverpool’s District Party.’ Only Sid Tierney, normally on the right wing of the NEC, expressed hesitations about a purge at this time. He referred to the 1950s, when there were interminable hearings and appeals and when the Labour Party regional staff spent all their time keeping dossiers on and ‘policing’ their own members and warned that a return to those days would lose the next election. Despite these warnings however, when it came to the vote he proceeded to vote with the majority for an inquiry!
There is nothing particularly new in the current witch-hunt against the Liverpool militants. The same ingredients were there in the war of the right-wing Braddock apparatus against the left, and the followers of Aneurin Bevan in the 1950s. Bessie Braddock fell foul of her predominantly left-wing Liverpool Exchange constituency party. Even her election agent Kenneth Counsell opposed her. Naturally in her joint biography with John Braddock, The Braddocks, she claimed that this was not because of differences on policy but was a carefully constructed ‘left wing’ plot: ‘Counsell brought Bevan supporters into the constituency and arranged for them to be elected to the management committee.’ Shades here of Militant’s later alleged ‘bed-sit infiltrators’!
Braddock confessed that she was isolated from the constituency party and a motion was passed calling on her to resign at the next election. The regional Labour Party officer Reg Wallis stepped in and declared that the motion was ‘unconstitutional’ but the party proceeded to pass a vote of no confidence in Braddock. This in turn prompted Labour’s National Executive Committee to set up an inquiry and in October 1955 the NEC, predictably, came out in favour of Braddock.
Labour’s officialdom was deployed to ensure that she received the necessary support at a specially convened meeting on 27 March 1955. Exactly the opposite process is unfolding in Liverpool today with the full resources of the North West Regional Labour Party, bolstered by many full-time trade-union officials being deployed by Neil Kinnock’s ‘political policeman’ Peter Kilfoyle in an attempt to remove Terry Fields as Labour’s MP for Broadgreen.
In the Braddock case, at a specially convened meeting in 1955 Exchange Party members: ‘decided by 40 votes to 39 not to adopt me as a parliamentary candidate for the forthcoming election’.
The NEC then decided on a new inquiry. To the chants of ‘Heil Hitler’ Reg Wallis announced to the management committee that the NEC had imposed Braddock as the candidate of the party. The meeting carried a resolution of protest by 37 votes to 26. Such defiance was intolerable for the right wing and: ‘ultimately the committee was disbanded and reformed without the communist and Trotskyist elements’. Notwithstanding this as Bessie Braddock ruefully comments: ‘Unfortunately, we found no way of removing them (the communists and Trotskyist) from the Liverpool Labour Party or the trades council.’ Is there not a lesson here for Neil Kinnock and his Liverpool ciphers!
Organisational measures cannot suppress ideas, particularly those which are confirmed by the march of events. Bessie Braddock was obsessed with the ‘spectre’ of Trotskyism to the end.
The very last sentence of her biography warns: ‘The purpose of this book is to bring home to the rank and file how wide the influence is and to warn them that unless positive steps are taken by workers themselves, ultimately these communists and Trotskyists will triumph. Democracy will be dead.’
Her peculiar notion of defending ‘democracy’ was to cut a swathe through the democracy of the labour movement, yet this did not prevent the later emergence in the city of a far more powerful Marxist force than the one she had confronted in the 1950s and 1960s. Similarly, the attempted repression of the Liverpool Militants today will not fare any better in the long run given the stormy epoch which has been ushered in by the 1987 Wall Street and world wide stock market crash.
Kinnock was carried away by his war against Militant. One of his aides said on Granada Television: ‘Kinnock hates Militant more than he hates the Tories.’ In prosecuting this war against the Liverpool Marxists Kinnock was prepared to ignore the interests of millions of workers who were looking to a Labour government for their salvation. On Channel 4 on the night that the inquiry was announced, Kinnock indicated that he hoped that it would be all over by January 1986. He predicted that the future for Militant in Liverpool would be: ‘very bleak and very short term. We are saying: Militant is on the way out and democratic socialism is very much on the way in.’
The inquiry was to drag on for almost a year and was to bedevil and split the labour movement throughout this period. The media had a field day in creating the impression of a Labour Party being divided and riddled with ‘loony lefts’ and crooks’. Every enemy of Labour welcomed the inquiry.
David Steel, ever solicitous for Labour’s health, arrogantly declaimed that ‘expelling Militants was not enough’. Jeff Tinnion, leader of Liverpool Against Militant (LAM) was ecstatic: ‘I am absolutely delighted. The revolution stops here. We are very pleased Neil Kinnock took our advice to be strong.’ With the headline ‘The Enemies Within’, the Daily Mail (28 November) congratulated Kinnock:
At last, yesterday, with a boldness born of desperation, he started to hurl something other than words against the Militant citadel in Merseyside… has he the stomach or the support on the NEC for a thorough-going purge of the Militants? Will he try to break their hols, for instance, not only on Merseyside, but also on the Young Socialists? Will he expel from the Parliamentary Labour Party the two MPs who support Militant.
The Daily Mirror expatiated ‘Expelling the poison’. It went on: ‘Militant Is a conspiracy, deceitful and secretive. It lies, it manipulates, it manoeuvres, it twists.’ Uncharacteristically attempting to give a political basis to its charges, the Daily Mirror declared: ‘Trotsky’s theories were undemocratic and unworkable. His disciples’ policies are the same.
As the citizens of Liverpool have now found out to their cost.’ Unfortunately for Maxwell the ‘citizens of Liverpool’ continued to give their support to the Militant ‘conspiracy’. The Daily Mail (28 November) featured Roy Hattersley’s much quoted comments: ‘We know that there has been intimidation. We know that there has been political corruption. We know that there has been literal corruption – particularly in terms of employment practices.’ Hattersley’s words will never be forgiven!
Under this barrage the leaders of the Liverpool labour movement remained firm. Tony Mulhearn declared: ‘Liverpool labour party’s democratic processed were second to none.’ He described the NEC’s decision as an attempt by the right wing to drive a wedge into the party: ‘It is absolutely incredible. Rather than calling for an inquiry, they should have been striking a medal to pin on the chest of every single Liverpool labour Party delegate because of the magnificent campaign it has fought.’ Like Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, the press had adopted the motto: ‘I’ll be judge, I’ll be jury, said cunning old Fury. I’ll try the whole cause and condemn you to death.’ The inquiry itself was to observe another maxim of Carroll: ‘Sentence first – verdict afterwards.’
On ‘Mafias, Safe Houses and Crooks’
A verbal lynching took place in the press with a conscious attempt to stampede the inquiry into a quick decision.
The Sunday Express (1 December) proclaimed: ‘Kinnock purge on crooks’. This created the impression that an inquiry was being conducted not into members of the Labour Party, but into some kind of ‘mafia’ that controlled the city. The Daily Telegraph declared: ‘Labour seeks “safe house” for Militant inquiry.’ This tale was obviously inspired by right-wing Labour Party officials.
The Sunday Times confidently predicted: ‘evidence against Militant may go to police’. The Mail on Sunday went further: ‘Grass on Hatton. A senior Kinnock aide said they would even take down evidence themselves and send it to the Director of Public Prosecutions.’ Each of the tabloids attempted to outdo each other in the zealousness of their attack on Militant supporters.
Kilroy-Silk was mobilised by the Sunday Mirror. Without a shred of evidence, he wrote: ‘They refuse to acknowledge – let alone tolerate – a different point of view to that of their own warped ideology.
In my own constituency they falsify the minutes of meetings and refuse to correct them when challenged.’ He had the neck to assert, with his record of hitting opponents in the labour movement through plate glass windows, that when Militant‘s arguments failed: ‘Members may be asked to “step outside”. Intimidation of Labour Party members by Militant has now become everyday practice on Merseyside.’ His coup de main was: ‘This is not the Labour Party. It is more reminiscent of Oswald Mosely’s Nazis in the thirties. And if thuggery is not enough, there is always patronage.’
The atmosphere of a witch-hunt surrounding the inquiry was created by this press campaign, yet the inquiry had supposedly been set up not to investigate the activities of Militant supporters, but to examine the workings of the District Labour Party. It was of course, in reality, merely a cover for an assault on what the bourgeois and their echoes in the labour movement considered to be a Militant stronghold.
The Daily Telegraph revealed the real purpose of the inquiry on 2 December: ‘Mr Kinnock seems adamant that Mr Hatton and Mr Mulhearn in particular should be expelled from Labour in the interests of the party’s image to the electorate at large.’ The baying and the howling of the press reached such a pitch that the Labour Party General Secretary Larry Whitty was forced to step in and disavow the more lurid claims of ‘safe houses’ in Liverpool as ‘melodramatic’.
The Labour movement in Liverpool reacted angrily to the inquiry and the atmosphere of ‘intimidation’ of Militant whipped up by the media. The inquiry was also condemned by Labour party wards, regions and constituencies up and down the country. Hampstead Labour Party for instance condemned the NEC’s action, and demanded that NEC Member Tony Clarke of the Union of Communication Workers, and a delegate to the Hampstead party should not aid the witch-hunt in the party.
The Greater London Labour Party Executive committee, representing the biggest region in the country, passed a motion condemning the inquiry by 19 votes to 13. Symbolically Frances Morrell, of the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC) and former adviser to Tony Benn, voted against. This was in anticipation of her further shift to the right which would culminate in the Inner London Education Authority, under her stewardship, beginning a retreat which would result in cuts in education in London.
The bitterness of those councillors in Liverpool who were not Militant supporters, was expressed in a letter to the Guardian by Dominic Brady, Chair of the Education Committee. He declared:
I am not a member of the Militant Tendency, most people are now aware that the vast majority of the members of the Labour group are not members of Militant.
But on behalf of all other non-Militant members of the Labour group, I will say this to Neil Kinnock: If he continues to use the media to attack life-long socialists, if he continues to attempt to destroy Liverpool Labour Party and its achievements, he will end any possibility of a Labour government. And if he continues to consider expulsions of our comrades in the Labour group, he will do so over our dead bodies.
The offensive against Liverpool also began to unfold on the union front. The Daily Express (2 December), obviously on the basis of information from the summits of the unions themselves, reported: ‘Unions join in all-out war on the militants.’ From this report it became clear that in the TGWU, GMBATU and the CPSA, the right wing were beginning to organise to combat the growing influence of Militant.
The internecine warfare within the labour movement was a gift to the ruling class. It presented the image of a split and divided labour movement in the teeth of the Tory offensive. The dispiriting, not to say demoralising, effect of these developments on the labour movement was expressed in the Tynebridge parliamentary by-election on 5 December 1985.
Incredibly, Anthony Bevins in The Times declared: ‘Labour last night won Tynebridge with an increased share of the vote, an achievement which is bound to bolster Mr Neil Kinnock as he launches his struggle with the party’s Militants‘ To be sure, Labour had won by a majority of 6575, but far more significant was the turnout of only 38 per cent in this inner city seat. Thus two-thirds of the population had not felt motivated to vote.
Undaunted, the media, fed by a series of ‘shock-horror revelations’, timed another barrage to coincide with the opening of the inquiry on 9 December. Two successive issues of the Daily Express detailed what it called a ‘dossier of dishonour’. The first melodramatically proclaimed ‘Ousted – by a huddle of men beneath a street lamp.’ The other one was entitled ‘Hatton’s inferno’.
Mixed in with all the old, and in Liverpool, discredited charges, were some new features. Thus the Labour council was accused of discriminating against Labour councillor Paul Orr, one of the ‘scabby five’ who had abandoned the fight against cuts. He claimed that he had applied four times to the Housing Department for a ‘priority certificate’ for his disabled wife. In fact, his application had been processed in the normal fashion and in effect he was asking for was ‘special treatment’, and in particular the right to jump the queue – something that the Daily Express and the Daily Mirror had denounced Militant supporters for allegedly doing in the past.
Another spicy ingredient was the heartrending tale of Liberal councillors Pam and John Bradley. The Daily Express (11 December) claimed:
At first they clashed verbally with Militant councillors who told them they would be put against the wall and ‘shot’ come the revolution. Death threats began to arrive with the morning post. Then came attacks on their cars. John’s royal blue Jaguar was daubed with black paint, which cost £450 to repair. Pam’s red TR7 was attacked with paint a few nights later. Windows in their shops and their home were smashed repeatedly.
Again not a shred of evidence was produced. Yet at the same time the Daily Express in an editorial declared:
As we revealed today, the Merseyside police are about to submit to the Director of Public Prosecutions a file containing details of alleged corruption and intimidation within the Militant controlled Liverpool City Council. The Labour Party team believe they can wrap up their inquiry in a mere two days. We hope they are right. In any event, they are most welcome to supplement their own finding with ours. Anything to help. Clearing the ‘maggots’ out of the Liverpool Labour Party is not just an internal Labour Party matter. It concerns the political public health of the whole country.
Joining in, the Daily Mirror (9 December) declared:
Militant is a political menace – a dangerous, revolutionary conspiracy burrowing away inside the Labour Party… They include corruption, the misuse of public funds and providing jobs for those who are supporters at the expense of those who aren’t.
It then went on to reveal why this mud was thrown at Liverpool City Council and Militant:
That is a long way fromMilitant’s public face of pure, clean-living socialists, working nobly for the poor and oppressed. These allegations do not apply to one or two leading Militants. The charges are widespread. They point the finger at the whole Militant organisation.
This Tower of Babel of lies and misinformation was a deliberate smear campaign against the Militant. The bourgeois understood that Militant represented a new force in British society. Its demand for MPs and union officials to be paid no more than the average wage of a skilled worker had found a big echo within the labour movement. The bourgeois were therefore concerned to link Militant with allegations of ‘corruption’ and politicians ‘on the make’.
Despite the avalanche of innuendo and of outright falsifications, not one single charge was ever brought by the police, and none of those raised by Labour’s ‘internal police’ through the inquiry was upheld. Every single accusation was refuted. But this did not stop every opponent of the labour movement rushing forward to ‘help’ labour and the inquiry. Thus, a particularly virulent representative of the Liberal Party, Rex Makin, a solicitor, arrived at the Labour Party’s inquiry with a ‘dossier’ of complaints against the Liverpool Labour Party. Even the Morning Star joined in, reporting allegations without comment.
Tony Benn correctly forecast that: ‘What the NEC’s action has put at stake is not just the future of the Liverpool District Labour Party, but the future of the Labour Party itself.’ Thus The Times demanded a far wider purge.
Its editorial singled out Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant for expulsion, referring to the democratic governing bodies of local Labour Parties as: ‘the ideological cabals passing themselves off as General Management Committees’. Sure enough, the right wing soon moved to begin expulsion proceedings against Birmingham Sparkbrook members who supported black sections in the party. Militant correctly warned that ‘the attempt to purge the Labour Party of Marxism could cause Labour to lose the next general election’.
A rally organised by the officers of the Liverpool District Labour Party and the Labour group to protest against the actions of the NEC was attended by 700 Labour Party members. Why then did the District Labour Party, under the pressure of Militant supporters, decide to participate in the inquiry? It was not without opposition, and quite forceful opposition, not just from the left within Liverpool, but also from some Militant supporters.
An Independent DLP?
Militant is usually pictured in the press as grey and monolithic. Like all organised political groupings within the Labour Party, Militant is ‘organised’, in so far as Militant supporters meet together and with other left wingers to discuss and to debate the way forward for the labour movement.
There have been occasions when Militant supporters have been at variance with one another, have disagreed, sometimes quite sharply, on key tactical questions. Indeed at each decisive turn in the last three years, there have been different views amongst Militant supporters as to what would be the correct course of action. There were for instance differences over how the Liverpool labour movement should respond to the inquiry by the Labour Party National Executive Committee.
Some, including Derek Hatton, believed that the colossal authority enjoyed by the DLP would have enabled it to have defied the disbandment edict of the National Executive Committee. They argued that thousands of workers would have rallied to the DLP despite any ‘expulsions’ of leading DLP figures or delegates to this body.
The majority of active workers in the Labour Party, a significant section of active trade unionists as well as other leading figures in the movement, would have supported the DLP. Any rival organisation that would have been established by the NEC, at least in the first instance, would have been a very feeble affair. This would have enabled the DLP and the Labour group to have continued virtually undivided in its task of defending the city against the Tory onslaught.
The DLP would have been temporarily ‘isolated’ from the Labour Party’s official organisation at national level. There have been times in the past when precisely such a development has taken place. Thus when Stafford Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party with Aneurin Bevan in 1939 for campaigning for a ‘Popular Front’, he took with him the Bristol Labour Party. The rival ‘official’ Labour Party in the area was a stillborn affair. The Bristol Labour Party was taken back into the Labour fold when Stafford Cripps, along with Aneurin Bevan, was allowed to rejoin the Labour Party.
The contrary view was advanced by leading local and national Militant figures. They argued that it was an unquestionable fact that the DLP would have rallied a significant layer of workers to its banner, possible numbering 10,000. But an act of defiance of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, particularly given the swing towards the right on the NEC, albeit of a temporary character, would allow the right wing to separate some of the best left fighters from the Labour Party nationally.
An ‘independent’ DLP would undoubtedly meet with initial success, they argues, in the short term, but would have undermined the long-term struggle to transform the Labour Party in a leftward direction. Through the trade unions, the Labour Party possesses a big reservoir of support.
Six million workers are affiliated to the Labour Party through the political levy. Superficial commentators, both of the capitalist class and the ultra-left fringe outside of the labour Party, usually dismiss this as being a mere relic of the past political allegiances of workers to the labour Party.
However, when the Tories attempted to break the link through enforced political fund ballots, the results not only astonished them, but also the leadership of the movement and the assorted critics of the political levy. Every single union with a political fund recorded majorities, sometimes of a quite spectacular nature, in favour of retaining the levy. Some trade unions that did not even have a political fund adopted them as a result of the Tories’ attempt to break the link between the unions and the Labour Party.
The mass of the working class, so the Militant Editorial Board argued, while passively supporting the Labour Party, had not yet actively moved into its ranks. They argued that for one worker who supported an ‘independent’ DLP, there would be another five, ten and perhaps 100 at a later stage who would move into the official Labour Party.
These workers would be denied contact with the best fighters who would have constituted themselves into an ‘independent’ DLP. This left wing, particularly with the tremendously rich experiences of the last three and a half years, could be a vital yeast for the rise of an even more spectacular mass movement in Liverpool in the future.
Therefore, despite the heavy blows of the expulsion of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, together with other Militant supporters, it was necessary, argued the Militant Editorial Board, to accept the expulsions under protest. It was this view that won the majority support amongst Militant supporters in Liverpool. However, the discussion was conducted, as with all issues which Militant confronts, in a comradely and serious fashion. It was done in such a way that all workers could learn and the labour movement as a whole could clarify these issues.
The issues were thrashed out amongst Militant supporters and between Militant supporters and sections of the Broad Left. To imagine that it is possible to impose the views of a ‘narrow, dogmatic sect’ onto the Liverpool Labour Party, which historically has pulsated with so much life, is to fail to understand just how the working-class movement functions. Many times, Militant has adopted a position, only for this to be modified and sharpened in the course of discussions and debates with others on the left through the various Broad Left organisations in the Labour Party and the unions.
Right wing Labour Party spokespersons will no doubt take this as confirming their contention that Militant is ‘organised’ and therefore, as they would claim, in violation of the party’s constitution. Before the introduction of the ‘Register of unaffiliated groups’ in 1982, the leaders of the right declared hand on heart that unlike Militant they were not organised. Since the Register was introduced, however, it has been decreed that organisations within the Party are acceptable – provided they are not too organised. This is sanctimonious hypocrisy!
In reality the misnamed Solidarity group and the LCC, which both have members and subscriptions, and the Tribune Group, have always been ‘organised’ as Militant and its supporters. The real complaint of the right is that Militant is more successful in ‘organising’ to get support for its ideas. The right wing in reality do not complain that Militant organises, but that it has been far more successful in gaining support among working people. While using organisational pretexts for disciplinary measures against Militant supporters, the right wing’s real objection is to the ideas which are key to Militant’s success.
It is incredible just how much time and energy the NEC was prepared to devote to the attack on the Liverpool District Labour Party. But the venom of the bourgeois press and the right wing of the Labour Party was directed as much towards the control exercised by ordinary Labour Party members over their leadership as against Militant.
The annual Municipal Policy Conferences of the District Labour Party made binding decisions. The DLP delegates in effect elected the leader and deputy leader of the Labour group, as well as the chairperson of the main council committees. The Economist bemoaned the fact that the DLP ‘through its discipline can set the policy line’ but the right winger never understood that the ‘discipline’ exerted by the DLP was entirely based on political authority, gained through earning the respect of its members.
While supporting Kinnock, The Economist pointed out that:
Mr Kinnock’s logic is bound to take him farther, into a proscription of all those who adhere to something like Militant policies. And if he really wants to do what no Labour leader has ever managed – rid his party of its Marxist wing – he will have little time before the general election to fight the Tories or the Alliance.
No wonder the bourgeois were prepared to give massive publicity throughout the inquiry to every bit of gossip and tittle-tattle of Liverpool’s opponents.
On the very first day of the inquiry, the Sun reported: ‘Shock 150 page blast at Militant‘. This dossier had been drawn up by Jane Kennedy and the NUPE leadership in Liverpool probably with the connivance of the union leadership at national level. Jane Kennedy was more than eager to detail the alleged ‘crimes’ of the Liverpool District Labour Party in the safety of the inquiry’s private sessions.
When the leaders of the District Labour Party appeared at the inquiry, they were given an assurance that they would be allowed to question their accusers and the ‘evidence’. When this was revealed to Jane Kennedy by reporters, she was alarmed and threatened to withdraw the ‘dossier’. The inquiry was a show trial.
Stalin himself would have been proud of the way that Charles Turnock, Tom Sawyer and others proceeded. Michael Crick reveals in The March of Militant, that they secretly visited Irene Buxton in Scotland. There was no opportunity for Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn or any Militant supporter to question the evidence of Irene Buxton. Nor was it the whole inquiry team who visited her but only those on the right wing, Turnock, Sawyer and Whitty.
The methods of the inquiry were even worse than those used by the Diplock Courts in Northern Ireland. This infamous court system prevented the accused from actually seeing the accusers. However, at least the accused were allowed to hear the evidence and to question it. This was not permitted in the Liverpool investigation where the norms of natural justice appeared to be non-existent.
Militant Answers Back
Militant supporters did not take this lying down.
Tony Mulhearn wrote to Labour Weekly refuting all the charges levelled against the District Labour Party. Not one of the vociferous critics of the council was prepared to go into the columns of Labour Weekly and answer the very detailed statement which he made. Once the real case of the council was explained in detail to workers there was overwhelming support.
Thus Ian Williams of the LCC failed to get even his own railway union branch to back the NEV inquiry. He was quite at home amongst the literati who were supposed to read the New Statesman, the Guardian and Tribune, which he regularly wrote for, but he was utterly rejected by workers in Liverpool. Shortly afterwards he was removed by his union branch as a delegate to the body the NEC set up to replace the DLP – the Temporary Coordinating Committee (TCC).
Jack Straw, prominent critic of Liverpool, saw his own Oval Ward in the Vauxhall Labour Party pass a resolution which dissociated itself from his comments. It declared: ‘Jack Straw’s time and energy would be better spent attacking the real enemy – the Tory government and their policies of mass poverty.’
Where the inquiry and the subsequent expulsions received support, it was not genuine conviction on the part of ordinary Labour Party members. At best it was ‘reluctant acquiescence’, the ‘price’ argues the leadership, of achieving a new Labour government.
Every day of the inquiry saw more speculation – ‘inspired leaks’ from right-wingers, as to what the inquiry was likely to find. On 19 December, the Echo, in an ‘exclusive’ predicted that the inquiry would recommend to:
i) ban the District Labour Party dictating day-to-day Labour decisions,
ii) Stop the DLP from vetting council candidates, leaving the job to local wards and constituencies,
iii) limit the number of DLP trade-union delegates – which dominate the Liverpool DLP – to a certain number from each constituency,
iv) ban Liverpool-style aggregate meetings open to all party members, not just delegates.
At this time the NEC expelled, by only 14 votes to 13, Militant supporter and Sheffield City Councillor Paul Green, this time with the opposition of David Blunkett, who felt the breath of his local labour movement hot on his neck.
Also two constituencies in St Helens, which were in opposition to MPs John Evans and Gerry Bermingham, were suspended. The clear intention was to guarantee the sitting MP the candidature for the next election and the method the NEC was prepared to use was to suspend uncooperative parties one after another.
The Sun predicted, as the New Year approached: ‘Hatton heading for heave-ho!’ Just to demonstrate the impeccable ‘democratic’ credentials of the AUEW, a public meeting planned with Derek Hatton speaking in the Coventry AUEW hall was banned by the national leadership of the union. This did not prevent a very successful meeting from taking place at another venue.
By now, the witch-hunting atmosphere was beginning to unnerve some of those on the left who had previously supported Kinnock. On 2 January 1986 even David Blunkett warned that he could not expect the support of the ‘soft left of the Labour Party if he embarks on a purge of the Militant Tendency after the current inquiry into the Liverpool District Party’. He said:
One thing clearly upsets the electorate more than believing that there are a minority of well-organised, well-disciplined Trotskyite operators within the Labour Party. That is quite simply that the Labour Party is grievously divided and presents itself as a shambolic and feuding morass.
However, he was not to heed his own advice once the inquiry had met. Even the Tribune, rattled by the spate of revelations surrounding the inquiry declared: ‘Why not shut up and wait for the evidence.’ But it indicated precisely how it would react when the necessary ‘evidence’, no matter how shallow, was forthcoming: ‘But the left naïvely call for “no expulsions.” If the inquiry into Liverpool comes up with hard evidence of practices unacceptable in a democratic party, then disciplinary action must be taken against those found guilty.’
The inquiry did not come up with the necessary ‘hard evidence’ but, contrary to its previous record under the editorship of Michael Foot, and Chris Mullin, Tribune now supported expulsions. This put is outside the real left in the labour movement. It has since vegetated as the home of the ‘soft left’ who have formed a kind of ‘league of abandoned hopes’ and become the new right wing. With all the deficiencies which a left reformist journal like Tribune possessed in the past, its current political line is a million miles removed from those who gathered around the journal in its heyday.
The great majority of the rank and file of the Labour Party, who consider themselves on the left, recognised the witch-hunt for what it was. One letter appearing in Labour Weeklu from a former Labour Party local government officer, summed this up:
The dubious merits of this foray must be questionable when leading party figures are calling their Liverpool colleagues maggots and psychiatric cases, indulging in lofty sentiments about restoring the good name of local government and unbelievably accusing Liverpool of confronting the government…
If the appointment of political sympathisers to posts and a lack of vigour and skill in equal opportunities policies, for example, is to be a reason for an NEC inquiry, there will be no shortage of Labour authorities to be visited.
Where was the NEC inquiry when a Labour authority had a discrimination notice served on it by the Commission for Racial Equality for its housing allocation policies, when even Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Education singled out a labour authority for the poorness of its educational provision, when Labour authorities were charging the very poorest old and disabled on social security for home helps and an authority was banning a gay festival as ‘a threat to public order’.
Labour workers had to pinch themselves to remember that the insane witch-hunt was taking place against a background of massive splits in the Tory government. A rupture split had occurred over the collapse of the Westlands helicopter company which was to cost Michael Heseltine and Leon Brittan their Cabinet positions.
This and many other opportunities for Labour to savage the government both inside and outside the House of Commons were to go begging because of the colossal expenditure of energy of the Labour Party leaders on the Liverpool District Labour Party inquiry.