The Rise of Militant

Chapter Seven


In Britain, the Labour Party conference in October 1972, reflecting the huge shift towards the left in the trade unions and the Labour Party, passed a Militant resolution. 

By 3.5 million votes to less than 2.5 million, the conference voted for a programme which included the demand for ‘an enabling bill to secure the public ownership of the major monopolies’. The conference called on the executive to 

“formulate a socialist plan of production based on public ownership, with minimum compensation, of the commanding heights of the economy”. “This is an answer to those who argue for a slow, gradual, almost imperceptible progress towards nationalisation.” (1)

The conference was moved when Pat Wall declared: “No power on earth can stop the organised labour movement!” He concluded by calling for Labour to win the workers to a programme of taking power by taking over the 350 monopolies which controlled 85 per cent of the economy.

Ray Apps seconded the resolution. He was to become almost a permanent fixture at Labour Party conferences, so much so that when the purge of Militant took place in the 1980s, The Times happily concluded that the conference had become an “Apps-free zone”. 

Ray pointed to the ‘excellent reforms’ in Labour’s programme but observed that “they cannot be carried out”. At this conference, Patrick Craven, a well-known Militant supporter, received 51,000 votes in the election for the NEC, which reflected the support of between 45 to 50 local parties.

The week before the conference Militant recorded the significant growth in its support: “From a four-page monthly to an eight-page weekly in 13 months.” Commenting on the progress which had been made it stated:

The first eight-page Militant is out! This is the greatest achievement of our paper in its eight-years’ life. In just 13 months it has been transformed from a monthly four-page paper, with excellent articles, but poorly produced and drab looking, to a magnificently produced weekly eight-page paper. Politically we believe that Militant has always carried the best reports and clearest analysis of events in the labour movement and the world. The great handicap has been space. (2)

The Times had “looked hopefully towards 1972 as an improvement over the previous year”. They commented that 1971 “was not a good year for Conservatives”.

1972 was even worse. The miners had shattered the government’s eight per cent wage norm, winning an increase of 22 per cent. In the miners’ strike 65,000 miners out of 280,000 were involved in pickets. In answer to this, Tory Home Secretary Carr promised to set up “mobile squads” of police to counter the actions of the workers. The Heath government did not quite manage to do this but Thatcher, who followed him, learnt the lessons of the 1972 and 1974 miners’ strikes and prepared the police in a paramilitary fashion to crush the miners next time they went on strike.

Indicating the power of the labour movement, even Vic Feather, the general secretary of the TUC in 1972, had declared: “No-one can do anything to the unions that the unions don’t want done.”

Militant pointed out that

the relationship of forces between the capitalist class and the working class is overwhelmingly favourable to the latter. But they are bound and gagged by their own leadership. (3)

Even after these tumultuous events, the general council of the TUC were still engaged in talks with the government!

From out of the sewer – the NF

Militant warned that the path was not going to be smooth so long as capitalism remained. In December 1972, the National Front, the latest version of a fascist organisation in Britain, polled 12 per cent of the vote in the Uxbridge by-election.

Northern Ireland is sufficient proof of the fact that lodged in every capitalist society are the psychopaths, sadists and maniacs who could make up the shock battalions of fascism under the ‘right conditions’. (4)

Militant did not fall for the nonsense peddled by some, that the National Front and its leader, Webster, were on the eve of taking power. Only after a series of defeats of the working class, and after a base had been created amongst the ruined middle class and a section of the declassed workers, could fascism pose a big threat. Even then, it would not take the classical form of Hitler or Mussolini as had been the case pre-war. In the modern epoch, fascism would only act as an auxiliary to a military-police dictatorship.

Indicating the big changes which had taken place in Britain, Militant’s last issue of 1972 carried a table of strikes from 1963 to 1972. In 1963, 1,755,000 days had been lost in strike action. This had risen to almost 11 million by 1970. But, in the year 1972 this had doubled to over 22 million days lost in strike action. This was just one indication of the convulsive mood. It was no accident that it was precisely in this period when the working class was moving into action that Militant had made such decisive strides forward both in the expansion of the press and in the number of supporters who filled out our ranks. But, if anything, 1973 was to exceed in scope and importance even the events of the previous year.

Then, as now, with the rise of unemployment and the worsening of social conditions, the fascists and neo-fascists also began to gain some support. We reported:

In the 1970 election, the ‘Yorkshire Campaign Against Immigration’ as it then was, recorded votes of over 20 per cent in several wards. Significantly, at a time of growing militancy, this vote fell sharply in 1971.

Yorkshire was one of the areas where racism was on the rise. Militant, dealing with the conditions in Bradford, stated:

It is obvious that in these circumstances, pious appeals to brotherhood and racial harmony from the well-heeled do-gooders are worse than useless… It is not Race Relations Boards that are required, but positive action by the labour movement. (5)

Calling for workers to mobilise against the danger of racism in the area, Militant declared:

Many Labour leaders think if they ignore the issue it will go away. Other local leaders pander to racial prejudice thinking that will prevent ‘racial extremists’ from gaining support. No greater or more fatal mistake can be made. The movement must be mobilised now, locally and nationally. It must be geared to an anti-Tory, anti-capitalist campaign. (6)

As a result of the pressure of Militant supporters within the labour movement, and particularly the Labour Party Young Socialists, the national executive of the Labour Party sanctioned a national demonstration in Bradford, which took place in May 1974. This was the first national mobilisation of any section of the official labour movement against racism.

Growth of the LPYS

The Labour Party Young Socialists, as a result of the general radicalisation of working-class youth and the consistent work of the Marxists, grew by leaps and bounds during the period of 1972-73. This was shown at the 1973 conference of the LPYS in Skegness where over a thousand delegates and visitors attended.

Militant reported:

The democracy of this conference is a shining example to the labour movement. The minority of the National Committee [non-Marxists and anti-Militants in general] submitted their own documents to the conference for discussion. Differences were dealt with in a comradely way by the majority of delegates. Young Socialists must fight for similar rights for minorities in the trade union and Labour Party conferences. (7)

At the Skegness conference, there was tremendous enthusiasm for the ideas of Marxism underlined by the biggest ever Militant public meeting held at an LPYS conference up to then. All the fringe meetings were well attended, as was the week-long rally which followed the conference. Militant, however, still only had 397 organised supporters by March 1973 despite its growing influence. By July of the same year it had grown to 464.

It was not just at conferences of their own organisation that the weight of the LPYS was felt. The representative of the LPYS on the NEC of the Labour Party, Peter Doyle, was a key member of the Left who succeeded in getting the NEC to adopt a programme for the public ownership of 25 of Britain’s top companies. The day after the NEC, Harold Wilson threatened that the shadow cabinet would veto its inclusion in the next election manifesto.

Militant commented:

Is national conference the supreme policy-making body of the Labour Party, or is it just a rally to cheer the politicians at the top? The NEC should be inundated with resolutions of support to strengthen its hand in defending party democracy.

At the same time we must ask why the NEC has not insisted on the full implementation of the Shipley resolution? Which 25 companies, and why only them? Is it the intention to nationalise their assets or as originally proposed only for a state holding company to buy a 51 per cent share in them… If public ownership is the best system, then it applies to the entire economy. We do not want to take over every barbers’ or fish and chip shop, but the giant monopolies that dominate the economy, numbering some 250-300. (8)

Interestingly, Militant quoted in the same issue the comments of Denis Healey:

We are all agreed with the need for a massive extension of public ownership… establishing comprehensive planning control over the hundred or so largest companies in Britain… and to extend public ownership in the profitable manufacturing industries. (9)

Roy Hattersley, the leading right winger, also “argued in favour of nationalising North Sea gas and oil, development land and rented property.”

This decision to propose the nationalisation of the 25 companies was carried with the decisive vote of Peter Doyle, LPYS representative on the NEC. This indicated the crucial role which the LPYS, and through them the Marxists, played in shaping the policy and the direction of the labour movement at this stage (and later, as Militant supporters, Nick Bradley, Tony Saunois, Laurence Coates, Steve Morgan, Frances Curran, Linda Douglas and Hannah Sell did over the next 15 years).

1973 seemed to demonstrate an almost unstoppable movement towards the Left within the labour movement.

In June of that year, Militant again reported on the progress of the Clay Cross struggle. John Dunn, a Clay Cross LPYS member and a future Clay Cross councillor, reported:

Had other authorities built houses at the same rate as Clay Cross, we would have had the figure of one and a half million new houses being built every year. The complete municipalisation of all rented property is rapidly seeing the end of all landlords capitalising on second-rate property… No child in Clay Cross has missed his or her free school milk since ‘milk-snatcher Thatcher’ tried to take it away. (10)

Meanwhile, the Clay Cross councillors were being dragged before the law courts for refusing to implement the Housing Finance Act. The effective leader of the struggle, councillor David Skinner, appeared before the High Court on Monday 9 July, when judgement was reserved for two weeks. Writing in Militant, he declared:

Our opposition was based on being honest with ourselves and the people who put us there and because, even in local government, it is possible to assist in changing society. To hear most councillors talk one would imagine they are incapable of organising resistance to the impositions of the central government. If all the Labour councils followed the example of Clay Cross it would be impossible to carry out the Housing Finance Act.

He went on:

By not implementing the Act we have saved the working-class ratepayers £70,000. We do not look after only the tenants but the council employees as well. The unions claimed a one-third increase in wages which we have granted. (11)

Later they were surcharged and banned from office.

Workers’ participation or control?

At the same time, Militant devoted considerable space to dealing with the key political and theoretical questions which had been raised in the ranks of the workers’ organisations. Because of the tendency towards sit-ins, big strikes and the question of ownership of industry being raised in the course of this movement, the question of workers’ control and workers’ management featured very highly on the agenda of the labour movement. Mixed up with this were the ideas of workers’ participation pushed by employers’ representatives and also by sections of the trade union leadership.

On workers’ ‘participation’ Militant pointed out:

If union officials were to rub shoulders more often with the capitalists on joint committees, swig their whiskey, etc, then they may be more disposed to take a ‘responsible’ attitude towards redundancies, rises in prices while wages are held down, and all the other crimes of capitalism. This is the fond hope of Heath and his crew. When stripped of all the fancy language, this is the real essence of ‘participation’ as envisaged by the capitalists and their hirelings.

Amongst leftward moving workers, however, there was a keen interest in workers’ control. There was confusion over the demands for workers’ control and management which was reinforced by some on the left. Militant explained:

Both demands apply to different stages of the class struggle. Workers’ control is only possible on a mass scale in the period which immediately precedes or just after the socialist revolution… Workers’ control means that the workers exercise control over the capitalists, checking the outgoings and ingoings, having access to all the books and accounts of the capitalists… Workers’ management, on the other hand, comes from above and is exercised by the workers’ state, that is, the centralised soviets representing the workers as a whole. (12)

Some right-wing Labour leaders at the time sought to discredit the ideas of workers’ control and management by denouncing them as ‘syndicalism’. Militant argued that:

The ideas of the syndicalists, that after the socialist revolution each industry will be managed and controlled by the workers in that industry, is completely utopian. Its implementation would lead to the complete breakdown of the economy and society, with one industry pitted against another. It would be impossible to implement a national plan, without which industry, science and technique could not develop. (13)

The lessons of Chile

The Chilean events dominated the British and the world labour movement from September onwards. It was a major item of discussion at the October 1973 Labour Party conference. Jack Jones remarked at a fringe meeting, with Tony Benn sitting alongside him, that he could perceive of a situation where a Labour government, led by Benn, could come to power and be faced with the same kind of conspiracy as Allende faced in Chile.

However, the dominating theme of the conference was a discussion around the radical programme adopted by the national executive of the Labour Party.

The pronounced shift towards the left was reflected in the documents of Labour’s NEC. In 1972 and 1973 intense discussion took place which was supposed to outline a programme for the following ten years during which, it was assumed by the Labour leadership, they would be in power. The final document, Labour’s Programme 1973, was one of the most radical left, documents ever accepted by the Labour Party.

It outlined far-reaching reforms to be introduced by a future Labour government. It made some references to partial nationalisation of the 25 biggest manufacturing companies. This represented a huge step forward in the thinking of the labour movement. Militant, while welcoming this proposal, nevertheless argued that it was still inadequate, given the crisis which faced British capitalism.

The programme summed up, in the main, the prevailing views of left reformism which dominated the Labour Party and to some extent the trade unions. Militant pointed out that to nationalise 25 profitable industries represented a fundamental attack on the very foundations of capitalism. The British ruling class would not roll over and play dead like a playful cat.

Moreover, the conference was debating these ideas precisely one month after the overthrow of the Allende government which had attempted to implement a similar programme. Allende had nationalised, under the pressure of the masses, which intensified after the failed coup of June 1973, 40 per cent of industry. 

But because he did not go the whole way and take over the ‘commanding heights of the economy’, Allende did not meet the demands of the masses but nevertheless irritated the ruling class. With their power undermined, but still largely intact, they were given time to prepare their bloody settling of accounts with the working class. Militant called for the taking over of the 250 monopolies, the banks and insurance companies, with compensation on the basis of proven need.

A sometimes passionate discussion took place at the 1973 Labour Party conference around these ideas. The conference reflected a dramatic shift towards the left of the politically conscious section of the working class.

The 1973 programme was accepted. Militant described it as “the most impressive programme since 1945”. It was true, that compared to the Shipley resolution which was adopted in 1972, Labour’s programme was not as radical. Moreover, a similar resolution to the Shipley one, moved this time by Brighton, Kemptown and Walton Constituency Labour Parties (composite 34) won only 291,000 votes, with 5.6 million votes against.

At this conference the clear socialist message of Militant found a ready response from delegates. But at the 1973 conference, enormous pressure was exerted by the leadership on the delegates, with appeals to unite on the eve of an expected election. The big unions in particular were mobilised to cast their block votes against the democratic decisions of their own conferences.

At the same time, the whole leadership, including those who stood on the right, such as Peter Shore and Denis Healey, supported the NEC’s left stance. Yet despite all the pressures, some 250 constituency parties voted for a clear Marxist programme.

Nationalise 25 or 200?

Crucial in defeating composite resolution 34 was the intervention of the leading left spokesman. Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers’ Union said of our programme: “We don’t think the objectives outlined there could be achieved by the next Labour government.” More significantly, Tony Benn, while acknowleging that it was “firmly based upon the ideas of Clause IV”, said that it “confuses strategy with tactics” and that the party is “not ready for composite 34”.

Benn was the ablest and most sincere left spokesperson. But his arguments also revealed the limits of his perspectives, programme and also his understanding of the situation which faced the labour movement. He stood first of all for the takeover of the 25 companies and then ‘step by step’ moving towards taking over the majority of at least the big companies. His arguments flew in the face both of the experiences of the Chilean workers and the whole history of the British labour movement. We argued that

no lasting reform can be achieved by the next Labour government unless it begins by first taking over the ‘commanding heights’ – the banks, the land and the 250 giant monopolies – into its hands, and that this can only be done by mobilising the movement in support of emergency legislation. (14)

Benn received loud applause at the conference for the statement: “If we do not control or own them (the monopolies), they will control and own us.” This was a direct reflection of the pressure of the Marxists, gathered around the Militant, on the leading lefts within the labour movement. Yet Benn and the other lefts did not draw all the conclusions from their own statements. Nevertheless, an indication of the mood of the conference was shown in the left rhetoric of those to the right of Benn, the Tribunite left.


The present Tribune leadership would undoubtedly cringe in embarrassment when confronted with their statements of 1973. Tribune greeted the conference with the exultant headline: “We’ve kept the red flag flying here.” Michael Foot characterised the 1973 programme as “the finest socialist programme that I have ever seen in my lifetime.” He was to sing a different tune in the 1980s.

As significant were the votes for Militant Ray Apps and close ally David Skinner, who received 81,000 and 144,000 votes respectively in the elections for the Constituency section of the NEC. 150 people attended the Militant conference meeting and over 1,000 copies of Militant were sold. The Times summed up the conference thus:

The doctrines of class conflict and state ownership are Marxist doctrines, and so long as both are preached at their conference, the Labour Party must not complain at being described as under the influence of Marxist ideas. (15)

For once, this was a truthful account of what had transpired at the conference and what was also taking place in constituency parties and trade union branches.

A month after the conference, however, Labour suffered a defeat in the Glasgow Govan by-election and also recorded low votes in a number of other seats. The ruling class were exultant and blamed Labour’s programme for these setbacks. In reality, the opposite was the case. The programme adopted by the conference was never used to organise a bold campaign which clearly set Labour apart from all other parties. This was particularly evident in Govan where at least the Scottish National Party, as Militant reported “grasped that there was a basis for a radical sounding campaign.” The SNP demanded the setting up of a Scottish Parliament with control over industry. Their slogan “Poor British or Rich Scots”, clearly related to the discovery and potential revenue from North Sea oil.

1974 Miners’ strike

The Heath government, smarting from the bloody nose which it had received at the hands of the miners in 1972, once more decided to take them on. This was a conscious decision to defeat the British workers by breaking their ‘brigade of guards’. The miners’ work-to-rule, combined with the electrical power workers refusal to work around the clock, ushered in a ‘state of emergency’. Petrol rationing, power cuts and a 13 per cent interest rate were introduced. Through Heath, British capitalism quite clearly believed that this was a fight to the finish.

Echoing the sentiments of the government, The Times declared: “We cannot afford the cost of surrender.” This mouthpiece of big business raised the spectre of an ‘authoritarian solution’ to Britain’s crisis. It implied that to grant the miners’ claims would result in uncontrollable inflation and in this situation

you do not then only have cranks, or shabby men in Hitler moustaches, advocating an authoritarian solution. The most calm and respectable people come to believe that the only remaining choice is to impose a policy of sound money at the point of a bayonet. (16)

Militant declared:

A victory for the miners will be a body blow to the Tories and a triumph for the whole working class. But to win this bitter fight, the whole movement must be mobilised and the campaign extended onto a political plane for the defeat of the Tory government. (17)

The government in effect declared a lock-out for two days every week against the British working class. As 1974 began Militant commented:

Many bosses had jumped the gun, laying off 554,000 workers by last weekend. One to two million totally unemployed is predicted very soon, as the bosses use the emergency as an excuse for sackings; 100,000 in steel alone has been forecast. 15 million workers will be affected with the drastic cut in wages that implies. (18)

Militant demanded: (1) Recall of the TUC conference; (2) Work or full pay; and (3) A one-day general strike. The intimidatory methods of the government did not have the desired effect in splitting the rest of the working class away from the miners. The Evening Standard reported on the views of workers forced out of their jobs in the queue on a London employment exchange: “To a man – and woman – they were behind the miners.” (19)

Nevertheless, the Heath government persisted with its trial of strength, even resorting to openly publicising the training of the army and the police in riot control techniques. The army displayed its prowess at Heathrow Airport. Tanks and other military hardware, allegedly for use in ‘anti-terrorist’ and ‘anti-subversive’ situations, were deployed. This prompted Scottish miners’ leader, Mick McGahey to say that if soldiers were asked to break a miners’ strike then

I will appeal for them to assist and aid the miners. Troops are not all anti-working class… Many of them are miners’ sons – sons of the working class. (20)

This provoked the fury of the ruling class. The London Evening Standard carried the comments of the commanding officer of a British infantry battalion:

Give me the chance to go and pick up Mr Michael McGahey and if it turns out to be my last assignment in the army I should die happy. The kind of remarks he made about appealing to the troops represents a very sinister trend – not because he made them, but because we are too weak-willed a society nowadays to clap him straight inside for incitement to mutiny.

However, the Evening Standard, much more cautiously, summed up the thinking of a section of the ruling class:

How far could the government rely on the army to do whatever was asked of it in a major industrial emergency? If McGahey and his supporters appealed to British soldiers as fellow workers, would there ever be a chance that they could cause a military unit to break ranks?

One Glasgow soldier declared:

I wouldn’t move coal. It’s not my job; if the miners want to strike for more money, good luck to them. (21)

The whole furore around this issue indicated the heightened class tensions which existed in Britain at this stage. Militant pointed out:

Such champions of democracy as the Tories depict themselves today would not think twice at abandoning their democratic veil if they felt it necessary. It would be a fatal mistake to bow down to the army. (22)

Another example of the attempt at intimidation of workers was the arrest, trial and subsequent jailing of two building workers, the Shrewsbury Two; Ricky Tomlinson (who later earned fame by appearing in Brookside, and other TV programmes and films) and Des Warren, (Des was sentenced to three years and released after 30 months; Ricky got two years and was released after 18 months).

General Election

Faced with a rising tide of discontent, however, the Heath government was panicked into calling a general election on the theme of ‘Who rules – Us or the Miners?’ The February 1974 general election shaped up to the be the most important and one of the dirtiest since 1945. The miners’ action had polarised not just society but the labour movement.

In the general election, the whole movement mobilised behind the miners and in support of Labour. This was the first general election in which Militant supporters were able to play a crucial role in a number of key marginal seats, particularly through the intervention of the Labour Party Young Socialists. In the Bristol South-East constituency, held by Tony Benn, the Tories and Liberals were making a determined effort to defeat Labour.

A defeat for Benn would represent a blow against the whole of the Left. This was the reasoning of the strategists of capitalism. The Times had admitted as much: Tony Benn’s “defeat… would check the whole left-wing movement in the Labour Party at a particularly important moment.” In reply to this we countered:

over 400 Labour Party Young Socialists poured into Bristol last weekend to help the South-East Constituency Party fight this crucial marginal seat. They came from all parts of the country, in buses, cars, and minibuses: from South Wales, London, Gloucester, Devon, Birmingham, Coventry, Manchester, Medway towns, Harlow, Nottingham and other places. (23)

This intervention was decisive in holding the seat for Labour. Militant supporters played a crucial role in ensuring a Labour victory. The paper’s opponents also suggested that it was decisive in a number of seats. In view of later charges of “sectarianism” against us, it is important to note that despite the fact that there was no parliamentary candidate clearly supporting Militant or Marxism, we nevertheless threw our full weight into ensuring a Labour victory.

Yet Militant, and particularly the Labour Party Young Socialists, earned nothing but praise, not just from those lefts like Tony Benn who publicly recognised their role, but also from those on the right like Paul Rose, MP for Blackley in Manchester.

At that time, Militant clearly warned that a new Labour government which remained within the framework of capitalism could be frustrated by the serious crisis of British capitalism.