Enter Militant Stage Left

Chapter Ten


ORIGINALLY PERCEIVED as someone who would take on the working class, Heath had been knocked off course by the ferocious resistance to his policies by workers between 1970 and 1974. 

The battles of UCS, the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974, the defeat of the Tories in the 1974 general election, all signified the colossal potential power of the organised working class and labour movement. Thatcher’s rise to the leadership of the Tory Party, backed by her zealous ‘guru’, Sir Keith Joseph, signified the adoption of the club in place of the velvet glove by the capitalist backers of the Tory Party.

But in 1975 the labour movement was compelled to pay more attention to their own right-wing Tory ‘infiltrators’. Arch-rightwing Labour MP Reg Prentice in March criticised the trade unions for allegedly ‘welching’ on the ‘social contract’. It was not the first time, as seen earlier, that Prentice had sided with the enemies of the labour movement. 

At the height of the confrontation with the Tories in 1972 Prentice spoke out against the Pentonville Five. He had also refused to meet a delegation from the West Ham trades council, in his local area, who were lobbying for the release of the Shrewsbury pickets.

Prentice was not the only one. Roy Jenkins and Shirley Williams were a right-wing wedge within the Cabinet against any attempt to bow to working-class pressure. They had come out full-square in defence of the Common Market, which alienated them from the leftward moving workers within the labour movement.

Prentice’s continuous attacks on the trade unions brought him more and more into conflict with his Constituency Labour Party in Newham North East. This led to pressure for his replacement as an MP, which was theoretically allowed under Labour Party rules and in which we played a big role. 

The merest hint of opposition to Prentice, however, elicited the unprecedented move of 181 MPs, including 13 cabinet ministers, ‘backing Prentice’. Ultimately, Prentice defected to the Tories and became a Tory minister. 

A newly formed ‘Social Democratic Alliance’ came into being, allegedly to fight the ‘drift to the left’. At the same time, every single left-wing delegate to the Newham North-East Constituency Labour Party was harassed by the press.

Militant declared: “If Newham North-East Labour Party sticks to its guns it will have the overwhelming support of the party rank and file. It will mark a big step forward in the struggle to make Labour MPs accountable to the organisations of the labour movement.” (1)

Beloff attacks Militant

The same voices defending Prentice were increasingly raised against Militant and others on the left, demanding our exclusion from the Labour Party. This campaign led to a major article splashed across the front page of the Observer on 31 August, the first of many press attacks on Militant.

 The author of the article was Nora Beloff. The headline over Beloff’s hatchet job read: “Trot conspirators inside Labour Party.” This ‘in depth’ analysis was riddled with inaccuracies: Militant was referred to as a ‘fortnightly’ when it was in fact weekly. Ted Grant, who was referred to by Beloff as the “spiritual leader”, Nick Bradley, LPYS representative on Labour’s National Executive Committee, and myself, were given a special mention. 

It was clear that Beloff’s ‘bombshell’ had been prepared in collusion with the Labour right. One indication of this was that Beloff featured an alleged threat to James Callaghan in his Cardiff South-East Constituency Labour Party. 

This was supposed to be orchestrated by Militant supporter Andrew Price, “lecturer at Rumney Technical College, who is the prime mover against Mr Callaghan.” Beloff accused Militant of being a “party within a party”, of having secret sources of funds, of propounding all kinds of ‘extremist’ policies and of having dubious and sinister connections. We replied in Militant:

It is significant that all these attacks, particularly that of the Observer, do not deal with the ideas of Militant, openly expressed, which have a great tradition in the labour movement and are the continuation of the ideas of the pioneers of the labour movement and of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. (2)

Beloff’s broadside was not just an assault on Militant but was also calculated to create an atmosphere of hysteria which could lay the basis for an attack on the left as a whole. It was also in expectation of the possible measures to be taken at the coming Labour Party conference, one month after these attacks. But while attempting to rally the left against the attacks of the right, Militant never in any way hid its political differences with others.

Debate with Tribune

The major left trend within the movement at that stage gathered around the journal Tribune. Many articles in Militant were devoted to arguing against the deficiencies in Tribune’s programme in a comradely fashion. In May an article took up ‘Tribune and the struggle for socialism’. We pointed out that the recent elections, which had been fought on the most radical programme since 1945, was largely inspired by the Tribunite left. 

The latter had also grown substantially within the Parliamentary Labour Party. One-quarter of the PLP, 83 MPs, counted themselves as part of the Tribune group. Moreover, left trade union leaders such as Lawrence Daly of the miners’ union, Hugh Scanlon, of the engineering union, Jack Jones of the TGWU and others, adhered to the ideas of Tribune. Only within the PLP did the right actually have a majority.

Of course Marxists, alongside others on the left, would fight for every improvement in the conditions of workers, would seek to defend and raise living standards. But they also had a duty to point to the real state of affairs in Britain, to explain that all these reforms were temporary so long as capitalism existed. Even The Times carried articles in 1975 pointing out that the “era of full employment is over”.

In truth, serious capitalist commentators were more accurate in diagnosing the situation than some of the leading left reformist leaders. Tony Benn represented the most left trend within what was a very broad Tribune grouping. In the issue of Tribune following the October 1974 election victory, the statement of Tony Benn was approvingly quoted: “We said at our last conference that the crisis we would inherit should be the occasion for making changes, not the excuse for postponing it.” (3)

Yet Jack Jones in the very same issue of Tribune argued for ‘patience’. Labour could not proceed quickly to solve all the problems, he argued. Tribune’s criticism of the right amounted to a charge of a lack of ‘courage’ or ‘intellect’. Militant, on the other hand, pointed out that

so long as Denis Healey and the Labour cabinet as a whole have opted for working within the framework of capitalism, so must they bow to the remorseless demands of the system. Profits come from the unpaid labour of the working class. In the final analysis, there is only way to increase the profits of the capitalists, by cutting the share of the wealth, created by the labour of the working class, which goes to them. (4)

It was pointed out that

we will support all steps towards the left within the labour movement. But we also criticise the flabbiness of the Tribune tendency, the inconsistencies in its programme, the lack of any clear perspective for future developments and their empirical reaction to events. 

It is not excluded, and indeed it is likely, that the Tribune or a section of it, under the hammer blows of events, could embrace some of the ideas presently advanced by Militant. But the experience of the prewar ‘lefts’ like John Strachey or the ILP [Independent Labour Party], much further to the left than the present Tribune tendency, demonstrates that mere verbal radicalism is not sufficient. (5)

Around this time in 1975, a meeting took place between Militant representatives and a delegation from the Tribune Group of Labour MPs. It became quite clear that while the MPs were worried at the drift to the right of the Labour government their opposition would not go beyond mere verbal posturing. That is why the Tribune group of MPs’ invitation to Constituency Labour Parties, trade unions, co-ops and individuals to discuss a special statement with a view to organising a campaign never really got off the ground.

Common Market Referendum

The ferocious campaign around the Common Market referendum widened and deepened the splits at all levels of the labour movement. Through the initiative of the Labour Party Young Socialists, together with other independent socialists, an internationalist and class campaign was conducted by the Marxists during the 1975 referendum campaign.

This culminated on 31 May, as Militant reported, with “2,000 working class internationalists who marched through the centre of London last Saturday calling for an ongoing campaign to build a socialist Europe.” (6) The Young Socialists and many Constituency Labour Parties were represented. Speaking at the Trafalgar Square rally which followed the demonstration were Nick Bradley, the National Executive representative of the LPYS, Eddie Loyden, Labour MP for Garston, and myself.

The ‘Noes’ were heavily defeated by two to one in the referendum. Those supporting and propping up capitalism were ecstatic. The result was greeted by the capitalist press as a “new D-Day” and predictably as a “rout of the left”. 

The right wing in collaboration with the majority of the Tory and Liberal parties had won largely on the basis of a scare campaign that Britain would face “economic catastrophe” if it was locked out of the Common Market. 

On the other hand, the anti-market camp, particularly the labour Left, did not even make the slightest hint of a class or socialist approach in opposition to the Common Market. Even worse, some of the left actually linked up with the nationalist right in opposition to ‘European unity’. The main apologists for this alliance between Labour anti-marketeers, dissident Tories, Liberals and nationalists was the British ‘Communist Party’.

Militant’s criticism, in advance, of the programme of the left was entirely borne out. Nevertheless, the results of the referendum emboldened the capitalists to exert even greater pressure on the Labour government for savage cuts in living standards. 

An open campaign was launched to replace the government with a ‘national government’, if the Labour leaders proved unwilling or unable to meet the demands of the bosses. Jo Grimond MP, a senior parliamentary leader of the Liberal Party, made a vicious attack on the trade unions:

One danger needs no introduction. It lies with the bosses of some trade unions. Of course they can be regarded as doing no more than their job. No doubt the medieval barons made the same claim. (7)

He denounced this ‘barbarism’ and pressed for “a coalition… to form around a determined group of men and women who will use the resources which the government still has to hand.”8 Wilson, bowing to the pressure of big business, removed Tony Benn as industry minister, and consigned him to the equivalent of a ‘Siberian power station’, the Energy Department. Militant launched a counter-campaign, summed up in a front page headline: “No retreat – stop coalition conspiracy.” (9)

Another Ramsay Macdonald?

At the same time Tribune MP Stan Thorne revealed that some right-wing Labour MPs had been involved in secret talks with Liberals and Tories on the issue of splitting Labour and forming a new coalition government, as MacDonald had done in 1931. Under pressure, Tribune stated that they were against the adoption of ‘coalitionist’ policies by the Labour government. They declared that they would campaign, “within and outside”, parliament, against any retreat of the Labour government on its manifesto commitments.

However, the strategists of capital were not prepared to sanction a coalition government at this stage. On the one side, they feared pushing the labour movement even further towards the left, a process which would inevitably lead to the growth of Marxism. 

On the other hand, why go for an open coalition when a right-wing dominated Labour government was carrying out coalitionist policies, the programme of the capitalists themselves? This is what the ‘social contract’ represented. Militant pointed out that against a background of rising inflation – some reports said that prices could increase by 53 pence in the pound by the end of 1975:

[the proposal of the TUC for a] ten per cent ‘rise’ is a cut! Either ten per cent across the board, or a flat rate increase (about £6). The proposals of the government and the TUC mean a savage cut in working peoples’ living standards. (10)

However, the social contract was sold to the unions by the leadership by conjuring up the spectre of a return of rampant Toryism to power. The social contract would hold for a period of years but it broke down in the most dramatic circumstances, with the Marxists playing a decisive role.