The ‘Lefts’ Move Right
There is a ruling class and a working class. There are elements within our own movement who have clearly not grasped the significance of events taking place. The witch-hunt is something I thought had gone out of the Labour Party forever. (Arthur Scargill, President of the National Union of Mineworkers, 12 January 1986)
Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and a few others were in a minority amongst the ‘left’ in adopting a principled position towards the witch-hunt at the beginning of 1986.
A sea change had taken place in the approach of the ‘soft left’, including those on the NEC, towards expulsions. This was the decisive factor which allowed Kinnock to pursue his vendetta against Militant. At the time of the expulsion of the Militant Editorial Board, Michael Meacher correctly wrote in Labour Weekly (18 February 1983) that leading witch-hunter John Golding was ‘bleeding the party’s election prospects to death’.
Moreover, in Labour’s magazine, New Socialist (September-October 1982) an editorial denounced the witch-hunt:
The expulsion of leading Militant supporters [is] wrong. The Labour Party always has been a broad collection that includes Marxists amongst its ranks. The Militant Tendency, drawing as it does upon Trotsky’s critique of Stalinism, belongs to this Marxist tradition, and has a legitimate place within the Labour Party.
The charges being levelled against Militant that it is ‘a party within a party’ is one that can be levelled with equal justification against any other groups within the Labour Party on both the left and right…
The very existence of Militant and other groups within the Labour Party is a source of strength rather than a weakness. By working for the adoption of alternative policies and candidates, they assist the democratic functioning of the party.
The LCC ‘Dossier’
An entire epoch seemed to separate the lefts of 1983 from the ‘soft left of 1985-6 and particularly from the Labour Coordinating Committee (LCC).
The ‘evidence’ supplied by the Merseyside LCC, a small band of disoriented petit-bourgeois without real roots in the labour movement in the area, became the principal source of information used by the majority on the DLP inquiry to justify expulsions. The LCC had come a long way from its left phase of 1979-81.
Then it had been attacked by the millionaire press, along with other tendencies on the left, for daring to recommend in a letter to constituencies of the labour Party that they should ask their MPs how they intended to vote in the elections for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. Then they were fawning on Tony Benn. This was the route whereby they hoped to ride to power and influence in the labour movement.
The same press now lionised the LCC, reprinting its alleged ‘evidence’ against Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) ‘malpractices’ at enormous length. The Sun approvingly stated that ‘Militant moles’ were ‘in control’. The LCC’s kindred spirits, Guardian journalists Martin Linton and Alan Dunn, gleefully reported: ‘Militant’s rivals claim exposure of party plot.’
Philip Webster in The Times wrote: ‘Militant Tendency accused of physical attacks on Labour opponents.’ In a later report, Martin Linton went much further: ‘Militant grip on Liverpool gained by usurping power of local parties.’ All of this and two special issues of Tribune, was based on an LCC ‘dossier’ submitted to the inquiry with advance copies sent to the capitalist press. Tribune however, refused Militant’s request for an advance copy. Nor was the DLP Executive given the opportunity of answering the allegations in the report.
Marxism of course has had a long experience of vilification by its capitalist enemies. IT has had to contend with constant attacks from the right wing of the labour movement. But rarely in the history of the British labour movement has a supposedly left-wing organisation stepped into the gutter to the extent that the LCC did in relation to the Liverpool DLP.
Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky also had many occasions to devote thousands of words to refuting the slanders of their opponents. Marx was compelled to devote a whole book, Herr Vogt, replying to a slanderer. The Case of Leon Trotsky is a monumental and lengthy answer to Stalin’s Frame-up trials.
Likewise Militant was compelled to devote considerable time, space and effort to refuting the slanders of the LCC. Like the capitalist press the LCC attempted to bury the magnificent experiences of Liverpool under a heap of slander and misrepresentation. They attempted to build a picture of ‘malpractice and corruption’ maintained through the undemocratic manipulation by Militant of the Labour group and the DLP.
However not one of the allegations of the LCC was ever made directly either to the DLP or to the Executive of the DLP. The small band of LCC supporters waited until a witch-hunt was in full swing before regurgitating what Tony Mulhearn described as ‘almost every lie and distortion spewed out from the Liberals and Tories and faithfully recorded by the press over the past three years’.
Not once before the September 1985 crisis did the LCC raise an alternative political perspective for the struggle of the council. On the contrary, they had gone out of their way to reject the attacks on Militant as a diversion from the struggle against cuts. Needless to say, they were not at all overjoyed at the colossal influence exercised by Militant, but the pressure of the mass movement compelled them to hold back.
It was only after the set-back of September 1985, when all-out strike action was rejected, that the LCC began to stir themselves to become the stalking horse for the right-wing leaders of the labour and trade-union movement. Incapable of winning the argument on political terrain, the LCC took to the road of vilification.
What then were the main charges against the DLP in the LCC’s dossier? Echoing bourgeois hostility to the links of unions with Labour, the LCC incredibly objected to ‘unions having a disproportionate influence’ in the DLP. Paying a back-handed compliment they went on: ‘In effect it [the DLP] acts as a general political Parliament on all aspects of policy, ranging from local and national, to international issues.’ The DLP was accused of the crime of discussing issues such as South Africa, Nicaragua, the struggles of workers in France and Spain etc.! The LCC wished to confine the DLP to deliberations of such issues as the bins and pavements!
These accusations were coupled with criticisms that the DLP did not have ‘properly constituted meetings’ but big aggregates. Speaking about the massive budget settlement, the LCC complained: ‘Some delegates were locked out because the hall was full.’ This was a packed meeting, with over 700 delegates and visitors present. The stewards made every effort to ensure that delegates were admitted. Not one single complaint was received by DLP officers about delegates who were unable to get into this meeting.
The gist of the LCC criticism was that the DLP meetings were ‘too big’ for a handful of frightened petty-bourgeois, lacking confidence in their ideas, and more used to the cosseted atmosphere of the university seminar. To them the massive working-class meetings must have indeed seemed like ‘intimidation’. Throughout the history of the labour and trade-union movement, right-wing leaders have always been organically suspicious of the involvement of the masses in their own organisations. This has applied not just to the full-blown bureaucracy at the top of the labour movement, but also to the incipient bureaucrats such as those who control the LCC.
They accused the DLP of not ‘functioning normally’. They also alleged that the Executive of the DLP treated the DLP ‘in a cavalier manner… even before the suspension, there has been no DLP meetings since September’.
There were in fact only two ordinary business meetings which did not take place prior to the suspension, which was imposed just before the December meeting. These were in October, at the time of the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth, and in November when the budget crisis came to a head. In both cases the meetings had not been held because of the need to deal with these other important events.
They were not ‘ordinary’ months when ‘normal’ business meetings could take place. The financial and political situation changed from day to day, sometimes from hour to hour. The leadership of the DLP had a far from ‘cavalier attitude’ to the rest of the DLP. In fact, between October and December 1985 the DLP Executive met seven times and convened eight aggregate meetings, five public meetings, a national conference, and numerous meetings with the trade unions.
The LCC spoke of the ‘danger’ of DLP aggregates. It stated: ‘It is impossible to scrutinise the actions of the Executive and council leadership particularly when meetings are called at short notice and are presented with complex financial and other information on the night itself.’ But as Militant in its reply asked:
What really is the LCC’s complaint? The Labour group’s general policy was clear – to oppose cuts and fight for this Tory government to provide the necessary resources. The aggregates were called because of events – which often meant rapid changes in the position.
How many other Labour groups consult the widest number of DLP delegates and members on details of policy and tactics, and publicly present the ranks with ‘complex financial and other information?’ If the LCC had their way, DLP delegates would meet behind closed doors, without the scrutiny of rank and file members, and ‘democratically vote to abandon the fight against cuts.
Their accusations regarding ‘intimidation’ at DLP meetings amounted to objecting to the occasional heckling which had been no greater than traditionally experienced at large meetings of the labour movement. Tony Mulhearn commented in relation to this allegation:
Ordinarily, the whinging of an insignificant rump organisation containing a handful of disaffected individuals would not be of any concern to a large democratic vibrant socialist body such as the Liverpool DLP.
Unfortunately though, the jaundiced views of the LCC rump seem to carry more weight than those hundreds of good, honest, working-class Labour Party members.
The crux of the LCC’s conclusions was the paragraph which suggested that:
Any measures taken by the NEC must be capable of gaining the consent of the majority of non-Militant members… At the moment large scale expulsions fail to meet that criteria. However, we recognise the rights of the NEC to take action against individuals on the basis of breaches of the party constitution and rules.
In a nine-page document, the DLP gave a point by point answer to the LCC. The LCC complained that prospective councillors had to swear ‘a loyalty oath’ to the DLP because, like many other DLPs throughout the country, the Liverpool party required prospective councillors to answer three standard questions. The DLP showed in detail that there was no prospective councillor who supported the LCC who had been ‘debarred’ from the panel of candidates.
The criticism of council policy, particularly on ‘nomination rights’ and that of council employees who do not support Militant policies were sent to a ‘leper colony’ were completely refuted. In relation to this charge, the DLP commented:
There are several council employees who have scabbed on trade unionists in the anti-privatisation struggles under the Liberal council and the protest strikes to defend jobs and services. Trade unionists will not work with these individuals. Are the LCC demanding that good trade unionists be forced to work with scabs?
Despite the huge publicity given to the LCC, not one of their charges was later to be upheld in the full hearings of the National Executive Committee meetings! The real purpose of their ‘evidence’ was revealed in their list of organisational changes they required.
Militant pointed out: ‘These add up to a charter for frustrated careerists. If adopted, these proposals would set the labour movement back 30 years to the period of right-wing domination.’ A crucial proposal was: ‘That a new DLP constitution should restrict its powers to making policy guidelines and supervising the Labour group, coordination of city wide local government campaigns, and the municipal panel.’
This was a covert way of advocating the autonomy of the Labour group. It flew in the face of the struggle of the left to bring the ordinary members of the party. What was the ferocious struggle on the issue of reselection of MPs, but an attempt to bring all public representatives of the movement under the control of those people who select and work for them?
The press were hostile to the idea of reselection and in favour of ‘autonomy’ of MPs and Labour Groups. They recognised that this was the only way that the pressure of bourgeois ‘public opinion’ could be exerted to water down and render harmless the socialist aspirations of the labour movement.
The LCC’s proposals went hand in hand with support for Neil Kinnock’s efforts to establish the independence of the parliamentary leadership from the Labour Party as a whole, with the necessary freedom to then go and ditch radical conference policies and override democratic processes.
Without the attack on the Liverpool Militant supporters, and a subsequent witch-hunt against others on the left, the right wing leadership would not have been able to carry through a massive revision in party policy in the period 1985-7. The attack on Liverpool paved the way for the defeat of Labour in the 1987 general election.
Buried in the LCC’s massive dossier of complaints and allegations, there is one paragraph, significantly not quoted in the Tribune extracts, which says it all:
A theory of organisational conspiracy, however, has limited explanatory power. Militant has very deep roots in the Liverpool party, and has gained considerable respect for its commitment and its association with ridding the party of the discredited right-wing machine.
Furthermore, its workerist, bureaucratic but anti-capitalist policies have a great appeal among many party members in the city. Many members see them as left – militant with a little ‘m’ rather than Militant with a big ‘M’. This false image is naturally cultivated carefully by their organisation.
More recently it has been strengthened by alliances made with local authority activists, mainly in the manual unions, for whom their top-down socialism has immediate appeal and material benefits in terms of jibs and conditions.
Leaving aside all the waffle about Militant being an ‘organisation’ and the jibes about ‘workerist’ and ‘bureaucratic’ policies what the LCC are admitting through gritted teeth is that despite all the attacks, Militant had deep support for its ideas amongst the workers of Liverpool.
It did not bother the LCC that in attacking alleged ‘Militant full-timers’ in Liverpool, they singled out a South African student whose position in this country would have been in jeopardy had they been allowed to continue with their slander.
The LCC’s ‘evidence’, together with leaks from the right wing on the inquiry team, led them to open speculation in late January that a list of expulsions had already been drawn up. This was to lead to members of the suspended DLP having to have recourse to the High Court in late January.
In the three months up to January 1986, repeated requests had been made for the DLP to be given assurances that anyone facing disciplinary charges arising out of the inquiry would be given a fair hearing ‘according to the rules of natural justice’. The right-wing dominated NEC refused to give such categorical assurances so the accused had no alternative but to go to the High Court to demand them.
Faced with this application for an injunction, Larry Whitty produced an affidavit giving the necessary assurances. Although the affidavit was not a binding undertaking, the judge commented that if the NEC did not stick to its word, there would be an ‘open and shut case’ for the DLP to return to the court to overturn any action against them.
Some on the left, such as Blunkett, who were afraid now of the consequences of their ill-judged support for the witch-hunt, joined Tony Benn in a campaign against expulsions. A joint statement was drawn up, but the ‘soft left’ insisted that it be toned down to one which would reject the expulsion specifically ‘of socialists… for their political beliefs’.
In other words, an escape clause was still left to justify support for the expulsions on the basis of unsubstantiated organisational charges or claims of ‘violence and intimidation’. It is as well to remember that the Liverpool Militant supporters were eventually expelled not for ‘intimidation, malpractices and violence’ but specifically for speaking on Militant platforms, that is, for their ‘political beliefs’. Having once made a compromise with the right, the soft left were compelled to go the whole hog and support expulsions at a later stage.
While the inquiry was taking place Militant supporters did not sit on their hands waiting for the blow to fall. On the contrary, an enormous fightback campaign was launched throughout the country. This kicked off with an enthusiastic meeting of 800 people who poured into the Manchester Free Trade Hall to hear Derek Hatton and Peter Taaffe, together with John Tocher, Broad Left candidate in the AUEW Presidential elections. This was followed by meetings of more than 1000 in London, 1300 in Glasgow, 1300 in Edinburgh, 1000 in Newcastle and one of the biggest meetings of the labour movement ever in Sheffield, of 700.
Even in Neil Kinnock’s own constituency of Islwyn, 500 Welsh workers turned out to greet enthusiastically the speeches of Derek Hatton and Peter Taaffe at a meeting in a local school hall. The mean-minded local right-wing supporters of Kinnock on the local council took their revenge later by prosecuting Peter Taaffe, as the Editor of the Militant, for posters which had been put up advertising the rally.
This was not the first nor the last example of Kinnock’s highly ‘personalised’ brand of politics whereby individuals were picked out for attack rather than ideas. Undaunted, Militant supporters in the first six months of 1986 organised over a hundred meetings up and down the country opposing the witch-hunt. These meeting were attended by 50,000 or more workers and comprised the biggest meetings since the miners’ strike, in some areas the biggest for 40 years!
Some of the most oppressed and down-trodden layers of the working class, who had not been involved in the organisations of the labour movement before were drawn to the banner of Militant. Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn were attracting the biggest meetings of any figures in the labour movement. This was an indication of the process of transformation which will encompass the whole of the labour movement in the next decade, as Marxism becomes the predominant force within the movement.
The deeper that Militant penetrated the ranks of the working class, the greater the warmth and the ardour for its ideas. The bourgeois could see this, and demanded that Kinnock should not flinch from the ‘necessary task of purging Militant‘. The Daily Express (13 February) summed up their attitude:
Neil Kinnock will shortly face the acid test of his Labour leadership. Within two weeks he will have to decide whether or not to back demands for the expulsion of 20 leading Trotskyists from his party.
Such a wholesale purge of the Liverpool Militants is certain to lead to a bitter left-right clash, and could even cost Mr Kinnock his job, even if the Executive votes for expulsions, Militant is certain to challenge their verdict in the courts – ensuring a bitter and prolonged battle. Last night, two Militant supporters from Ipswich won a court injunction stopping their local party from expelling them.
The bourgeois were egging on Kinnock, conscious of the fact that this would split and divide Labour and play into the hands of the Tories and the Liberal-SDP Alliance. The right wing decided to go ahead with the National Executive Committee meeting to consider the inquiry, despite an impending by-election in Fulham and the pressing political tasks which confronted the labour movement.
The intimidatory tone and manner of the inquiry sessions was a disgrace to the labour movement. Eric Heffer accompanied Derek Hatton during his DLP ‘interview’. He commented:
I along with Derek Hatton as a witness to his interrogation by the inquiry team and I must say that from the behaviour of one person in particular, it would not have been out of place for him to have been wearing jackboots. As a former chair of the Organisation Sub-Committee, I have conducted a number of such inquiry’s in various areas, but I have never seen anything like this person’s behaviour. It was disgusting, nothing but a McCarthyite inquisition. I shall be raising the whole matter at the NEC.
Eric Heffer was referring to the inquiry Chair, Charles Turnock. His objectionable manner was displayed not just towards Derek Hatton. During Richard Venton’s ‘interrogation’ he said: ‘Natural justice is not a thing that you are concerned with at the moment.’
When the victims of their interrogation asked for documentary evidence of allegations, or what the implications of questions were, they were refused an answer and badgered with demands like: ‘Are refusing to answer our question?’ One source of evidence produced by the right wing was an article in Murdoch’s Sunday Times. When the ‘accused’ Richard Venton denounced the lies in this article, Charles Turnock made the absurd suggestion that he should take legal action against Murdoch – the same Murdoch who had just secured the sequestration by the courts of the entire £17 million assets of the print union SOGAT!
NEC member Audrey Wise completely dissociated herself from the tone of the interrogations. At one stage Cathy Wilson, who had challenged Frank Field in the parliamentary selection for Birkenhead, was reduced to tears by the disgraceful behaviour of members of the inquiry team. The bogus character of the proceedings was indicated by the fact that some people named in the written allegations were not called in, including DLP delegates. Yet others, such as Tony Aitman and Lesley Holt, who were called in, had not been DLP delegates for al least the previous six years.
Even before the inquiry had completed its work, the intentions of the right wing were clear. Well informed leaks about expulsions were featured prominently in the Liverpool and national press: ‘About 12 Liverpool Militants face expulsion from the Labour Party following the probe by national chiefs.’ (Echo, 17 February) The Daily Star was in the vanguard: ‘Kinnock to boot out Hatton’.
The ‘quality’ Guardian commented: ‘Labour ready to disband Liverpool party.’ Derek Hatton condemned the inquiry as ‘a kangaroo court’ and accused it of reaching a verdict before hearing any of the evidence. The Morning Star also was convinced: ‘Militant faces expulsions.’
The national and local press began another offensive against the leading Militant supporters on the council as a means of reinforcing the expected ‘expulsion’ decision of the inquiry.
For a whole month, the Echo had conducted a vicious personal campaign against Tony Mulhearn, running lurid headlines: ‘The man who wants to stop you reading your Echo… Town Hall keeps gag on Echo.’ The Echo’s editor, had been incensed by Tony Mulhearn’s stand on two issues. Firstly, because Tony Mulhearn had refused to speak to the Echo as a result of a request by the National Graphical Association (NGA) which was in dispute with the management of the paper. However, what rankled even more with the Echo editor, was the analysis which had been made by the council’s campaign unit, of 37 editorials published between 1 October 1985 and 22 November 1985, in which the Echo had only twice acknowledged that the city deserved more cash than the government was providing! Dropping all pretence of ‘neutrality’ the Echo waded in:
Mr Mulhearn simply wants the bullying, the wheeler dealing and the incompetence which characterises Militant’s handling of the city’s affairs to go unreported. Neil Kinnock calls militants like Mr Mulhearn maggots within the body of the Labour Party. True Labour supporters are about to squash those maggots, perhaps partly because of the Echo’s stand. It cannot happen a day too soon.
They carried a headline a few days later of ‘How you’re whacking Militant‘, which was connected with the sales drive for the Echo.
As the witch-hunt clouds gathered, Eric Heffer wrote to general secretary Larry Whitty:
What concerns me is the serious effect all this is having on the future electoral fortunes of this party. A witch-hunt against Liverpool party members and some MPs will not satisfy the right-wing press. Today’s Daily Telegraph leaders make it absolutely clear.
What can haooen is a civil war within the party, and if that occurs, we shall be handing electoral success to the SDP-Liberal Alliance, not to Labour… I therefore appeal to you as General Secretary to do all you can to steer the party away from this self-destructive course.
Despite the fact that at least 100 Constituency Labour Parties, four District Labour Parties, 65 trade-union organisations, 15 women’s sections, over 100 ward Labour Parties, 107 LPYS branches and 9 Labour Clubs had passed resolutions against the witch-hunt and the inquiry, the right wing and the ‘soft left’ were hell-bent on expelling the Liverpool Militants.
The DLP Inquiry Report
After months of allegations in the press of ‘massive intimidation’ and ‘physical abuse’, not to say Roy Hattersley’s accusations of ‘literal corruption’, not a shred of evidence was produced by the inquiry team to justify these claims.
The inquiry was like the mountain that had laboured and brought forth not a mouse but a flea. After 60 hours of questioning 120 Labour Party members, tens of thousands of pounds wasted on wages, hotel bill fares, including air flights to Liverpool and Scotland, the investigation team did not produce a single shred of evidence to back up the dirty allegations made against Liverpool Militant supporters. Moreover, the inquiry team was sharply divided. Two members, Audrey Wise and Margaret Beckett, rejected the witch-hunting of the right-wing majority and produced a minority report.
The report of the majority repeated some allegations, but in a roundabout, vague and nit-picking way. Tucked in it was the admission that:
the investigation team did not take seriously all allegations made of Militant activities in Liverpool… There are undoubtedly a large number of supporters of the broad line taken by the Militant in Liverpool, and others who are prepared to go along with most of the policies, particularly whilst Militant has appeared to be the only credible focus of left-wing activity within the party in Merseyside.
The report made the record in acknowledging the terrible social problems in Liverpool and the difficulties confronting the city council. Militant (28 February) commented:
Then the report gets down to real business: manufacturing from thin air a series of tissue-thin arguments in order to reach its predetermined conclusion that very serious and deep-rooted problems exist in the party. And yet the inquiry team acknowledged that the rules [of the DLP] differ little from the rules of other District Labour Parties of large conurbations.
But what really concerned the inquiry was the control exercised by the DLP over the Labour group. As to the charge of ‘intimidation’ at DLP meetings, the investigation team were reduced to complaining about ‘indications’ that there were complaints – but only over issues like the right of reply, the time limits of speakers, and the fact that Executive Committee members and officers were having the ‘last word’. Militant replied:
Without a single shred of evidence, without a time, a date, place or person involved, the best the investigation team can come up with is that there was some physical violence on ‘one’ occasion! Indeed, the inquiry team’s report amounted to taking at face value gossip, malicious rumour and tittle-tattle, and elevating this to the level of official allegations.
But the purpose of the inquiry was not to establish the truth about Liverpool. It was an exercise, merely a pretext, to wheel in a new apparatus of expulsions. Although the section on Militant occupies only four pages out of the whole report, this is the key section.
The right wing are terrified that Militant has assumed such widespread influence within the labour movement in Liverpool and the whole charade of the investigation and report boil down to an attack upon the political influence of this newspaper. But the authors of this shameful report are making a big mistake if they imagine they can emasculate a whole city Labour Party and expel some of its best activists without a long and bloody struggle.
The conclusion of the majority report was that 16 party members be re-invited to answer questions, with the clear implication that expulsions would follow. This was merely a case of going through the motions of a trial in order to meet the requirements of ‘natural justice’, in other words, to prevent a successful challenge in the courts.
Other recommendations were that the DLP remain suspended and that two full-time organisers should be appointed to police the party in Liverpool. While the DLP was suspended, a ‘Temporary Coordinating Committee’ was to be established. Unlike the DLP which had wide participation, this new body was to have only two delegates from each constituency, two from each of the larger unions and a few other delegates as well as the full-time Labour Party regional and local officers.
It was also proposed that the ‘all-member’ aggregate meeting should not be held more than once a quarter. Outside speakers were to be banned, so that speakers from the CND, trade unionists in dispute etc. would no longer have a platform at the most important Labour Party body in the Liverpool area.
The report went on to recommend that there should be restrictions on the influence of the DLP over the Labour group. It also suggested that those unions who had a block affiliation to the DLP, particularly the GMBATU and the TGWU should be asked ‘to check rigorously the delegations to both the DLP and the CLPs as against their branch membership and to check the method of appointment, in consultation with the North-West regional office’. A similar check was to be made on the student Labour clubs and the women’s council. There was no suggestion that any such rigorous check be made on right-wing delegations.
The minority Report
The minority report made a number of proposals about the reorganisation and efficient running of the DLP, but completely rejected the idea of unelected full-time agents. The most notable feature of this report was that it pointed to the ‘terrible dangers’ of expulsions based on unprovable assertions and it notes that even many of those interviewees who were critical of the DLP were nevertheless opposed to expulsions. It went on:
If expulsions are contemplated, where doubt exists to the quality of the evidence… we are on a very slippery slope where such proposals might be made on more and more tenuous evidence and thus, in reality, on the grounds not even of real political conviction, though that would be dangerous enough, but even of personal likes and dislikes.
The right-wing majority on the NEC were impervious to such warnings. They also turned a completely deaf ear to the growing opposition of the rank and file to the suicidal path they had chosen. They were listening to the orchestrated campaign of the Fleet Street editorials which, like the Sunday Mirror (23 February 1986), claimed, ‘all that would happen is that even fewer people would vote for the party than the abysmally low total of 8.4 million in 1983’, unless Kinnock expelled Militant supporters.
Like most of the bourgeois press it linked the winning of the next elections to expulsions: ‘To win power at the next general election Labour must gain support of at least a further 3 million voters, most of whom thoroughly dislike extreme left- and right-wing policies.’ In the light of the defeat of Labour in the 1987 General Election, these comments are of some interest to the rank and file of the party.
As always, the Daily Express (24 February) expressed the self-satisfied mood of the capitalist press. John Akass wrote:
It would be hypocritical to deny that I am looking forward to the public humiliation of Liverpool’s weird tendency this week… If the National Executive Committee decides on Wednesday that Liverpool’s Militants should be hanged in public, I will be in the queue for tickets.
Fortunately the right wing on the NEC of the Labour Party were not yet quite ready to go that far! To maintain the outward appearance of ‘fairness’, and to avoid legal action, the right wing were preparing to approve the report but defer expulsions until after ‘a personal hearing’ at a later stage.
Nevertheless, the smell of left-wing blood had the right wing in full cry. George Robertson MP, leading light of the right-wing Solidarity Group, called for an investigation into Tony Benn because of his opposition to NATO. The Labour Party’s head of information, Peter Mandelson, even approached the BBC Question Time programme to try and get Tony Benn taken off the panel in the week when the expulsion issue was coming up at the NEC. The same Mandelson had the gall to give press briefings accusing Militant of being ‘anti-democratic and supporting totalitarianism’.
The February NEC
On the morning of the 26 February, more than 1000 Militant supporters together with other Labour and trade-union activists gathered outside Walworth Road to lobby the National Executive Committee who were meeting to discuss the outcome of the inquiry.
Neil Kinnock chose to march in the front door, heavily flanked by police, in order to demonstrate his ‘determination’ to stand up to Militant. The bourgeois press and media played up to him with headlines about ‘gauntlets of hate’ with the Bournemouth Evening Echo even screaming ‘Militant mob vent rage on Kinnock’. In reality, the lobby was conducted in a very democratic and good-natured fashion.
The attitude of the majority of the NEC was summed up in the immortal words of ex-left winger Tom Sawyer: ‘I defy anyone to tell me how you can go to Liverpool and defeat Militant by argument.’ In other words, it was impossible to defeat the ideas of Marxism in open and democratic discussion and debate.
This clearly demonstrated the real meaning of this ‘trial’ of the Liverpool Militants. There was the spectacle at one stage in the NEC meeting of a resolution moved by David Blunkett, urging ‘tolerance in the party’, being passed with Neil Kinnock supporting it! This was just another example of the blatant hypocrisy of the right-wing majority on the NEC who then proceeded to set in motion steps towards expelling people who they politically disagreed with.
A whiff of reality penetrated the proceedings when Audrey Wise declared that none of the NEC members except the miners’ representatives knew anything about running Labour organisations in the midst of a crisis such as that which Liverpool faced in the budget campaign the previous year.
But the right wing were impervious to such arguments, with Union of Communications Workers representative Tony Clarke, launching into a vitriolic attack on Tony Benn for allegedly repeatedly criticising the party leadership. After seven hours of debate, by 19 votes to 10, the NEC instructed General Secretary Larry Whitty to draw up evidence against the 16 who were then invited to another special NEC meeting on 12 March.
In a display of breathtaking irresponsibility, that evening Neil Kinnock dismissed the damage being done to Labour, boldly declaring: ‘I am not even considering the electoral costs and losses,’ (Financial Times, 27 February). That statement should be engraved on Kinnock’s memory in the aftermath of the defeat of Labour in the 1987 General Election.
The media had a field day in once more presenting the Labour Party as a camp divided against itself. Vinvent Hanna, typical of the cynical opportunists who pass for journalists in the British media, commented on the Newsnight television programme that evening:
The trouble with the Militant issue is that the Labour Party, being what it is, there is a certain amount of dissembling and indeed, some hypocrisy on both sides. The official line from the NEC is that members of the Labour Party aren’t condemned for their political beliefs, but rather for the running of a party within a party, the organisational point. But everyone knows that the right wing and indeed some of the left, hate the Militant precisely because of their Marxist beliefs.
Reflecting the behind-the-scenes gossip after the meeting he also commented: ‘Michael Meacher did not support his leader, and may now lose his shadow cabinet seat.’ Meacher in the NEC meeting indicated that he opposed the decision to enquire into the 16 because Sylvia Sharpey-Schaefer, a nurse who he had met in the past, was on the list. He was to swallow any doubts later on once the expulsions had been narrowed down to the leading Militant supporters in Liverpool. Eric Heffer ripped into the majority of the NEC on Newsnight:
The inquiry was set up into the runnings and workings of the Labour Party, the District Labour Party in Liverpool. The minority report by Audrey Wise and Margaret Beckett certainly had said that there were a number of infringements that could be discussed and in no way come out against individuals or thought that there should be any expulsions and did not raise the question of Militant because they did not distinguish between Militant members and other people… it says that action should be taken against officers for infringements.
There are five officers, two of the officers apparently are alright – there is nothing wrong with them – how can you say that you are going to have three officers in front of you, because they may happen to be in the Militant Tendency and two, who are not. That is not logical and it is not fair and is not natural justice and cannot be natural justice.
At the NEC meeting earlier in the day Heffer had occasion to remind the meeting that although the inquiry team was sent to Liverpool to investigate the local Labour Party, they had not appeared at all interested in the houses or nurseries, which had only been built because the council had fought the Tories. The whoops of delight of the bourgeois journalists were evident in the next day’s papers. But like Oliver Twist they were always demanding ‘more’. The Daily Express said:
Fine. The trouble is that Militant’s influence does not begin and end in Liverpool. It runs virtually country-wide. It extends to Parliament itself where two Militant supporters sit openly on Labour’s benches. When Neill Neil Kinnock and his friends find the guts and inclination to eliminate all that?
The Daily Mail complained about the ‘mild character’ of the witch-hunt. They singled out the Labour Party Young Socialists in particular for the same treatment as was being planned for Militant supporters in Liverpool. The Daily Mirror (26 February) said that the inquiry decision was a ‘vote for votes’.
The rage of the Liverpool working class at the decision of the NEC on 25 February was revealed at a meeting convened the next evening when a resolution condemning the NEC’s decision to begin expulsion proceedings was passed by 400 votes to 4! This completely shattered the idea perpetrated by Kinnock and his supporters that a ‘silent majority’ was waiting to step in and brush Militant aside once the leaders had been dealt with.
The miniscule Liverpool Labour Left welcomed the decision to bring charges against Militant supporters. This earned them the well-merited contempt of the great majority of Labour Party members and their ‘stand’ has not been forgotten by the active workers in the Labour Party in Liverpool. Nor have the vicious comments of the Tribune, which outdid many of the editorials in the capitalist press. Without a shred of evidence, they repeated the legend: ‘What the inquiry does show is that there have been systematic and organised abuses and breaches of the Labour Party’s rules and constitution… Therefore it is essential that the party acts against this conspiracy. Some expulsions are probably inevitable.’
Eric Heffer at the NEC spoke for virtually all Labour Party members in Liverpool when he said to Kinnock: ‘I shall never forgive you for what you’ve done to my party in Liverpool.’ Charles Turnock, after the NEC’s marathon meeting, showed the real intentions of the right wing when he declared that the recommendations in the majority report would ‘lead to the elimination of the Militant Tendency in the city of Liverpool’. He must have had a strange vision because that scenario, despite all the efforts of the right wing, has not and will not materialise in Liverpool.
Every enemy of Labour seized upon the expulsions to discredit the Labour Party. That night on Question Time, Roy Jenkins of the SDP called Militant ‘a cancer in the Labour Party’, adding however that ten or 16 expulsions was an ‘absolutely hopeless way to deal with it. This stung Tony Benn into denouncing Jenkins: ‘You left the [Labour] Party – that is the cancerous growth – not personally. But I think that people who betrayed those who gave them power are the real threat.’
Jenkins’ Alliance partner, David Steel, also demanded more: ‘Equally, in the Labour Party, getting rid of a dozen or so Militants Liverpool isn’t going to change the nature of the Labour Party. Again we have seen speeches from some leading figures recently which indicate that there is a desperate wish to move onto our ground.’ A few days later Tory Chairman Norman Tebbit attacked Neil Kinnock for not being tough enough on the left.
The desperate search to prove that the attack on Militant was ‘electorally popular’ was led by Maxwell’s Sunday Mirror. Try as they may, in an opinion poll only 27 per cent of Labour supporters said they were more likely to vote for the party if there was a ‘crackdown on Militants‘. In other words, more than three-quarters of those polled were impervious to the siren song of the bourgeois press that ‘expulsions were good for Labour’s health’. Even this figure of 27 per cent was probably bogus.
The mass of the working class were more interested in the issues of jobs, housing, education, etc., rather than the preoccupation with so-called extremists by the bourgeois press which unfortunately was echoed by the leadership of the movement. The press were virtually unanimous in support of Kinnock’s measures. Even the so-called ‘left’ joined in.
Thus, while formally opposing the witch-hunt, Ken Livingstone could not desist from a side-swipe at Derek Hatton in his column in Tribune (7 March 1986), particularly disgraceful after Livingstone’s own experiences of personal vilification. He described Derek Hatton as having: ‘Possibly one of the most attractive faces since Oswald Mosley.’ However, contrary voices were also heard. Indicating the problems which lay ahead for the right wing, Audrey Wise in a letter to the Guardian (4 March), stated:
Until now, the Liverpool District Labour Party has never been advised or warned that its interpretation of the rule book was in error. To go, without any warning, straight into effective disbandment of the DLP and other disciplinary proceedings seem not to accord with natural justice or common sense… Your description of the incorrect practices is far more lurid than the facts.
For instance, you talk of ‘false accounting of membership’. The District Labour Party did not falsify any membership figures. You do not, of course, speak as supporters of the Labour Party. When elections come, you will not be helping towards a Labour victory. Why should the Labour Party listen to its opponents on how best to conduct its affairs?
But this was precisely what Kinnock was doing in his vendetta against Liverpool. Another letter in Labour Weekly (11 March), indicated the growing consternation at the actions of the NEC:
The way the defendants were proclaimed guilty before the investigation started and the way they were guilty by association because they wee in the Militant Tendency, has all the ingredients of a show trial; I do not know the truth about the Liverpool DLP.
The Party nationally seems to me to want to prove that it stands up against extremists who get bad opinion poll ratings. It wants to occupy the middle ground in politics which is being adequately fielded by the SDP. In other words, the trappings of a judicial farce are used for political expediency.
Undaunted, Larry Whitty proceeded to lay charges against the Liverpool Militants for the forthcoming NEC. For some mysterious and hitherto unexplained reason, four of the original 16 were excluded from the list.
The four were Pauline Dunlop, Sylvia Sharpey-Schaefer, Josie Aitman and Paul Astbury. The 12 was further reduced later when Richard Knights was removed from the list. It seemed a ‘mystery’ the way that the NEC had dawn up the charges against some individuals and yet not against others. Thus DLP secretary Felicity Dowling was one of those on the list, yet John Hamilton, DLP Treasurer, was not included. One Vice-President, Terry Harrison, had to face charges while the other Vice-Resident, Eddie Loyden MP did not.
Contrary to all the promises made at the beginning of the inquiry, legal representation was not to be allowed for the defendants and no ‘live’ evidence would be presented.
Nothing was left of Turnock’s promise that those charged would have the opportunity to challenge any spiteful smears and allegations made against them. One of the charges against Derek Hatton was that he was a ‘full-time or part-time worker for the Militant Tendency’.
Yet everybody knew that he worked for Knowsley Borough Council. All of this was taking place at a time when the Liverpool councillors, together with the Lambeth councillors, were fighting to defeat the District Auditor’s surcharges in the courts.
Fighting for Natural Justice
It was quite clear that the show trial being prepared by the right-wing majority on the NEC would not conform to natural justice. The Liverpool 12 therefore decided to seek an injunction in the High Court to prevent the NEC from proceeding.
The case for seeking the injunction was made on three grounds: they had not been allowed to see the evidence against them; they would not be allowed witnesses in their defence; and that nine members of the inquiry team would not be able to vote impartially because it was they who had drawn up the charges against the accused.
The twelve declared: ‘It is a scandal that we have had to go to court to get a fair hearing. If they were to simply accept the NEC’s procedure without access to the allegations or evidence against them, it would mean accepting the same justice as you would get in a Diplock Court or a Star Chamber.’ Lynn Walsh, writing in Militant, Commented:
The procedure to be faced by the 12 at the NEC meeting on 26 March would be like that of the Star Chamber. Originating in the murky feudal era, the Star Chamber was used by Tudor monarchs as a tribunal to deal with potential rivals.
The court was used by James I and Charles I as a tool of absolute government, and became notorious for its arbitrary procedure and the oppressive punishments inflicted on its victims.
The High Court judge, Vice-Chancellor Sir Nicholas Browne-Wilkinson is in effect agreed with this analysis. He ruled that: ‘It is contrary to the rules of natural justice in a case such as this to find a man guilty of a charge on the basis of evidence not disclosed to him.’ The NEC’s proposed procedure, he went on, was ‘manifestly dangerous’ and unfair.
The entire case against one of the twelve was based on such evidence. Larry Whitty was to have read out a summary of the evidence, informing the NEC that in his opinion it went against the twelve! The judge even likened this procedure to a ‘supergrass’ system.
He further ruled that there would be reasonable suspicion that the nine investigation team members could have prejudged the issue before attending the NEC. Therefore they should not be allowed to sit in the NEC hearing. It was against the principle of natural justice for the same people to be both prosecution and judges.
NEC in Turmoil
This judgement, just 24 hours before the NEC was due to meet, threw the Labour leadership into turmoil. A sensible leadership would have cancelled the proceedings in order to ponder the implications of the judgement.
Not so Kinnock and the right-wing majority on the NEC who later claimed that the judges had in effect upheld the NEC’s right to proceed as long as those who sat on the inquiry team had withdrawn. He had done nothing of the kind and had indeed criticised the NEC for its failure to observe the basic principles of ‘natural jsutice’.
Kinnock’s attempt to proceed resulted in the most open public and visible split in the NEC ever seen. Frances Curran, Tony Benn, Eric Heffer, Eric Clarke, Jo Richardson, Joan Maynard and Dennis Skinner dramatically walked out of the meeting. They did this because Kinnock was insisting on proceeding, despite the judgement of the day before. This made the National Executive Committee inquorate and therefore incapable of proceeding.
The right wing and the bourgeois press foamed at the mouth at this tactical ploy by the left. Yet the right were hoist by their own petard because when the right took a majority of the NEC in 1982, fearing that the left would win votes by delaying key decisions until ‘busy’ right-wing trade-union leaders had left for other business, they increased the quorum from ten to 15.
As the left-wing walked out of the meeting, the right began to hurl insults at them and even David Blunkett screamed, ‘Get out, get out’. That evening on television and radio, Kinnock fulminated: ‘Their protest was pathetic. A deliberate and planned wrecking tactic. It was a case of if they couldn’t win, they would take their ball back home.’ However, in the wake of his defeat it was Neil Kinnock who was threatening to move the goalposts. He promised to change the rules at the next NEC to ensure that there would be a quorum to carry through expulsions.
The immediate trigger for the walk-out involved the case against the first of the accused, Felicity Dowling. The chaos which reigned as a result of the court judgement was such that she and the friend accompanying her were three times called to the NEC room, only to be told to go back as the NEC was not yet ready.
When they were finally admitted, the General Secretary Larry Whitty announced they were dropping the charges related to her working full-time for Militant. He then outlined that they were proceeding with some of the charges but not with others. They were relying only on written evidence and the majority report of the Committee of Inquiry.
Felicity Dowling challenged the use of the report in the light of the judge’s ruling and asked for time to withdraw in order to sort out the carrier bag full of papers in view of the revised list of charges. At this stage one of the left-wing members of the NEC shouted loudly ‘This is a farce’, and the seven left wingers walked out.
The most politically advanced workers in the labour movement looked on them as ‘The Magnificent Seven’. The bourgeois press had other thoughts. The Star urged: ‘As for Eric Heffer, Tony Benn and Co., they should continue walking out – out of the Labour Party.’ The Sun gloated: ‘It must be rare for even a Labour leader to suffer the humiliation inflicted yesterday on Neil Kinnock.’ The Times, hitherto right behind Kinnock in his war against Militant said that ‘Kinnock loses control.’
The attitude of the bourgeois was perhaps best summed up by Marcia Falkender, adviser to Harold Wilson when he was Labour prime minister. Writing in the Mail on Sunday (30 March), the headline of her article was: ‘Neil, you’re still not fit to govern.’ She went on, ‘Just when Labour was beginning to win the match, it was deeply dispiriting to watch Militant mauling Meil Kinnock last week.’
Revealing just how deep was the ;comradely feeling’ of Harold Wilson for the organisations of the labour movement, she repeated a comment of his: ‘I love my cabinet, but I hate my NEC.’ Revealing the open contempt that the more serious bourgeois representatives felt about the Labour leadership she wrote: ‘It is beyond me why Neil, whose party is not short of lawyers turned MPs, could not have arranged the Militant inquiry so the unwanted dozen did not have recourse to the courts. Militant’s lawyers are obviously smarter.’
An exasperated Kinnock urged Militant to ‘quit the party and fight under their own colours’. He had never made a similar request for the potential SDP-Tory elements on the right wing to take that path. But Militant supporters were not about to oblige the right wing by leaving the field free for them to disappoint the hopes of millions of workers without opposition. Militant, the modern expression of the ideas of Marxism, is an integral part of the labour movement.
It began to dawn on the more serious bourgeois commentators that a new force had arisen in British politics. Unlike other groupings, Militant had deep roots not only in Liverpool but throughout the country, and was not going to be dislodged from its rightful position in the mass organisations of the working class by paper resolutions concocted in secret and imposed upon the membership of the Labour Party.
There had of course been many expulsions in the past, when the right wing had complete sway. Following the defeat of the 1926 General strike, there was a purge conducted against Labour Parties then influenced by the Communist Party.
Twenty-seven Constituency Labour Parties were disaffiliated. However, the Communist Party, particularly in its ‘Third Period’, of ultra-left tactics, played into the hands of the right wing by breaking away from the Labour Party. The whole basis of Militant’s opposition to the witch-hunt was to demonstrate not just to the active workers in the Labour Party but to the mass of workers who look towards the Labour Party as ‘their party’, that Militant considered itself a viable wing of the movement.
Lessons of the Spanish Witch-hunt
It is one of the ironies of history that in preparing his blow against Militant, Neil Kinnock had consulted Felipe Gonzalez, leader of the PSOE, the Spanish Socialist Party.
Gonzalez had carried through the expulsion of virtually every supporter of the Spanish Marxist paper Nuevo Claridad. Nevertheless the supporters of this tendency still considered themselves to be the Marxist left wing of the PSOE.
They had not turned away from the mass organisations as so many ultra-left sects had done in the past. While energetically intervening in the workers’ movement, they had linked this to the demand to be accepted back into PSOE. Intransigence on the programme and flexibility in tactics enabled this tendency to play a role completely out of proportion to its numbers in leading the mass movement of students in late 1986 and early 1987.
The movement and the victories of the students burst the dam which had been building up, not just for the eight months since the PSOE government had been re-elected to power, but for a period of ten years. Once the floodgates were opened, the heavy reserves of the working class burst onto the political arena. The victory of the students was used by workers going into struggle in 1987 as a means of extracting wage increases and forcing a retreat on lay-offs and sackings.
This movement of three million students was led by a tendency which was formally outside the Socialist Party. At the height of the school students’ struggle, PSOE Ministers were forced to negotiate with people they had expelled from the party!
Thus even mass expulsions did not prevent the Spanish Marxists from finding a road to those workers influenced by and supporting the PSOE. This will also prove to be the case in Liverpool, notwithstanding any measures to expel Militant supporters from the labour movement.