The Socialist Opposition Grows

Chapter Twelve


WILSON’S GOVERNMENT lurched even further to the right following the Common Market referendum. 

This brought it more and more into conflict with the ordinary members of the Labour Party but also with an increasing section of the Parliamentary Labour Party. In the pages of Militant, Eddie Loyden, MP for Liverpool Garston, wrote an open letter to Harold Wilson:

We are returning to the conditions of the 1930s. In the Merseyside development area we have an unemployment rate of 10.6 per cent – twice the national average. This is the result of a system based on anarchy and greed when small groups of wealthy people control vital sectors of the economy and can take decisions affecting the lives of millions of workers. We call for the adoption of radical socialist policies by the Labour government. (1)

The same demands were echoed at the 1975 Labour Party conference. Militant reported confidently “Marxist policy gaining support”. This was because of the harsh experience of the British working class against the background of a devastating world recession. Some famous giants of British industry were threatening to go to the wall. 

Faced with the collapse of car giant Chrysler, the Labour government rushed in to give this multinational a ‘present’ of £162.5 million for the upcoming Christmas holiday. For the workers, Christmas meant 8,000 of them went down the road. At the same time, cuts were being proposed in the railways which provoked massive demonstrations of rail workers; on one demonstration in London in December more than 350 copies of the Militant were sold.

Symptomatic of the period was the fact that the year closed with another significant demonstration organised by the LPYS in Liverpool.

As 3,000 marched through the city it was greeted enthusiastically by passers-by on the streets. At the end of the demonstration, a meeting was organised in St. George’s Hall addressed by Eric Heffer MP who argued for public ownership to save jobs. He demanded that: ‘Those wanting to split the labour movement (backed by the Tory press) must be told that we will not allow it to be split, but will unite everyone fighting for socialist policies.’ Representing Militant, I supported Eric’s statement and went on to declare that

the Labour Party Young Socialists and Labour Party members who support Militant had been accused of ‘infiltration’, including comrades who had given years, even decades, to the party. But the real infiltrators were the Liberals and Tories masquerading under the name of socialists. (2)

1975 represented a further increase, both in influence and numbers, for the ideas of Militant. The organised supporters of Militant increased substantially in 1975 from 517 at the beginning of the year to 775 at the end. This force, still relatively small in numbers but extremely influential, with a much wider layer of general supporters, was the subject of a consistent onslaught from Labour’s right-wing. These attacks really began in earnest in 1975 on a national scale.

The Underhill Report

Foremost in the campaign against Militant was Labour’s National Agent Reg Underhill. In November 1975 he had submitted the first outline of what became the infamous ‘Underhill Report’ to Labour’s national executive claiming to deal with the origins, policies and activities of Militant. This followed the Observer’s assault on Militant in July, which was now followed by ‘revelations’:

The Young Socialists and their delegate on the national executive Mr Nick Bradley are closely associated with [Militant]; their members write for and sell its newspaper… they [the YS] are unanimous in opposing not only Mr Prentice, but also the whole Parliamentary establishment. Paradoxically, their paper Left, edited by Mr Bob Labi, is financed by Transport House. (3)

The linking of Militant with the fate of Prentice and other ‘threatened’ MPs revealed the real purpose of the witch-hunt.

The Newham North-East Party voted by 29 votes to 19 to invite Prentice to retire as MP at the next General Election. Other MPs, like Frank Tomney in Hammersmith, were facing the same kind of challenge .

The right of the PLP invoked the doctrine of the ‘divine right of MPs’, conjuring up at the same time the ‘Militant spectre’. Its ‘evil hand’ seemed to be everywhere.

Saner voices were heard emanating even from the Parliamentary Labour Party. Paul Rose MP, who had sent a letter to Militant thanking its supporters for their help in the 1974 General Election campaign, wrote in the Daily Telegraph, of all places, arguing that it would be wrong

to regard them [Militant] as sinister and alien… one cannot criticise the ‘Militant’ group any more than the Christian Socialists, Owenites, Co-operatives, Fabians and other so-called moderates who still overwhelmingly control the heartland of the party’s territory. (4)

Underhill down but not out

However, Reg Underhill and his supporters were not at all convinced by Rose’s arguments. At the NEC Organisation Sub-Committee Underhill called for action to be taken. He was answered by left MPs Ian Mikardo and Eric Heffer. Mikardo declared that there were

good articles in their paper – good material in Militant. Reg’s evidence says that they are pretty small in numbers. With 30 full-time organisers to only have 800 members is not very good. (5)

Eric Heffer declared:

My party (Walton) in the past was run by the Deane group (who pioneered Marxist work in Liverpool before the establishment of Militant) but that was nothing to get upset about… What is wrong with selling Tribune or Militant in preference to Labour Weekly… don’t react to pressure from outside for a witch-hunt… don’t push youngsters into a corner. (6)

Underhill interjected, saying that “all the denials under the sun were made by the Socialist Labour League when they controlled the Young Socialists.” Eric Heffer angrily hit back: “They were a bunch of gangsters. Militant are totally different.” (7) The sub-committee decided not to proceed with Underhill’s enquiries. Mikardo’s support for Militant and the YS was welcome but extremely tentative.

Within the Labour Party, in industry, and within the Labour government, serious clashes took place between different wings of the movement. In the first issue of Militant of 1976 a report of the recent National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS) conference showed the lengths to which the right-wing Labour officialdom were prepared to go in order to eliminate Militant’s influence.

From now on, every manoeuvre, intrigue, and every kind of rule-bending were to be employed to ensure that NOLS did not go the way of the Labour Party Young Socialists, and fall under the decisive influence of the Marxists. Naturally, Militant’s opponents did not see it in this way. We opened its columns to them to explain their opposition to the paper’s analysis of the conference. 

Mike Gapes, the newly-elected chair of NOLS, took the opportunity to attack Militant in our columns. He claimed that the conference had in effect 

adopted left-wing policies on a variety of issues but so far no report of these political decisions has appeared in Militant and it has been implied that socialist and Marxist idea were rejected by the conference. This is untrue. (8)

Militant – Forum for Debate

He was answered to by Glenys Bithell in the same issue. She pointed out that

the leaders of the NOLS ‘Broad Left’ [identified with Gapes and his supporters] never once raised the simple, effective ‘left’ demand for nationalisation of Chrysler.

She also pointed out:

Militant supporters in NOLS have gone clearly on record with protests of what they feel are the lowest of manoeuvres against them at the NOLS conference – and comrade Gapes will convince no one that such manoeuvres did not take place by arguing such an issue on the basis of the number of votes involved. (9)

Gapes, a bitter opponent of Militant, subsequently became an official at Labour Party headquarters and later a Labour MP. But the fact that he could accept an invitation to debate the issue in the pages of Militant demonstrated the general mood of thrashing out differences in discussion that existed, at least on the left, at that stage. 

Militant attempted to deal in a firm but scrupulous manner with the arguments of our opponents. The paper was prepared to give space in its columns to any serious opponent or group who opposed its ideas. The same licence was not always extended to Militant supporters by our rivals.

At the same time, Militant and its supporters were not treated as pariahs but as a vital and important component of the left. Tony Benn freely spoke to and outlined in writing his ideas in the pages of Militant. In a long interview, in which was asked what Benn thought about Militant, he replied:

I read the Militant every week. I think the left press plays a very significant part among the relatively small number of active people within the party. Labour Weekly, Tribune, Militant and a number of local left papers provide some analysis… I think that an awful lot of people who are not directly associated with the Militant tendency, and I’m not associated with Militant tendency directly, would feel what is written is worthy of attention by the movement. (10)

Emlyn Williams, leader of the South Wales miners, went further than Tony Benn:

I like the Militant. I like it very much. It is refreshing. It reminds me of the way we raised things when we were young. It puts a very coherent case on all aspects of the labour movement. There are one or two articles I may not like but that is obviously something to be discussed in the movement itself. (11)

Significantly, when NUPE organised a lobby of Parliament against Labour’s cuts in public spending, the general secretary of NUPE (now merged into UNISON), Alan Fisher wrote a front-page article for Militant, under the headline: ‘End Capitalist Cuts Now!’ He pointed out that

throughout the country, NUPE members are faced with the possibility of heavy cuts in spending by their employers. The effect of these cutbacks is to threaten the closure of hospitals, old people’s homes and even ambulance stations… Only the socialist solutions outlined by my union and other sections of the labour movement can provide a lasting solution to the problems of homelessness, poverty and deprivation…(12)

Along with an extension of public ownership to cover the major monopolies, which are increasingly dominating the economy, we could start to build a socialist society that has been our movement’s historic goal… We do not want to see this government rejected like previous Labour governments on the scrap heap of unfulfilled promises. There is time to change course. (13)

These leading figures in the movement were prepared to write for, speak to and defend Militant at a time when the right were demanding that the paper and its supporters be driven out of the party. They recognised that the exclusion of Militant from the labour movement, particularly from the Labour Party, would considerably weaken the left as a whole. They did not agree with all of Militant’s ideas, but recognised the enormous contribution made by its supporters at every level of the labour movement.

It was not at all accidental that Militant grew at this stage. The rightward drift of the Labour government was indicated by Harold Wilson at the beginning of the year when he predicted that there was going to be some ‘pretty bleak months ahead’ and it was going to be ‘a hard 1976’.

African Revolution

While the Portuguese revolution was passing through a difficult phase, the effects of that revolution had been directly reflected in Africa. The collapse of the Caetano regime had in turn pushed forward the revolution in Portugal’s former colonies of Angola and Mozambique. This in turn had given an enormous impetus to the movement in Zimbabwe, forcing British imperialism to come to terms with Mugabe and Nkomo.

These victories, and the granting of independence to the former Rhodesia, inspired the new generation in South Africa who organised the Soweto uprising in 1976. Militant gave full coverage to the inspirational events of June and particularly the Soweto uprising. South African Marxists writing in Militant pointed to the emerging power of black South African workers:

Still the key to developments in South Africa, if not the whole continent, is the increasingly organised black working class. The industrialisation programme of the capitalists themselves has created the black industrial workers, with their numerical strength, their concentration in the enormous rundown townships that surround the big cities, and therefore all the preconditions for the adoption of socialist ideas. (14)

This was at a time when the exiled ANC leadership scorned the idea that the organised workers were the backbone of the liberation struggle.

This perspective was to be fully borne out with the decisive emergence of the black South African workers and the creation of the mighty Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) in the 1980s. South Africa was to be a constant theme in the analysis and the demands of Militant in subsequent years.