THE BIGGEST ‘bombshell’ in Britain in 1976 was the resignation in March of Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
He had been besieged both within his government and in the labour movement. His departure represented the ‘end of an era’. All Wilson’s high hopes of a new ‘white-hot technological revolution’ had been dashed by the crisis of British capitalism.
Under Wilson, the power of capital was not broken. In fact, the opposite process had developed with big business compelling the government to do its bidding. Wilson’s own memoirs recorded an infamous meeting with the governor of the Bank of England in 1965.
The latter demanded prescription charges for medicines and cuts in social services to protect the pound. Wilson asked the governor what would happen if he told the electorate that he was being blackmailed into deviating from the programme of his party by the moneylenders. The governor replied that he would win an election by a landslide. But Wilson did not go to the people with the story. He accepted the policies of the Governor and of the capitalists.
Ex-Prime Minister Heath commented that Wilson’s greatest achievement was “in handling and holding the party together”. In other words, Wilson had been the best bet for preventing a split in which the left would have undoubtedly emerged as a majority in the Labour Party. Wilson’s replacement, Callaghan, was seen partly as a continuation of the Wilson regime, but also expressed a further edging towards the right.
His election was certainly seen by big business as being more in favour of them. Subsequent events were to demonstrate that this was indeed the case. All the journals of big business were urging right-wing stalwarts like Denis Healey and Roy Jenkins to be kept at their posts.
But this only served to inflame the ranks of the movement. Militant reported that
Newham North-East and Hammersmith North Constituency Labour Parties have recently exercised, strictly according to Labour Party constitutional rules, their democratic right to decide not to reselect their present MPs. These decisions have provoked a torrent of abuse from the bosses’ press and television, which of course thoroughly approve of Prentice’s and Tomney’s right-wing views. Using the old ‘reds-under-the-beds’ tactics, the media howl about ‘the danger to democracy’. (1)
In truth Militant supporters, while present in both parties, were not decisive in the moves against these MPs. Nevertheless, as the best organised grouping on the left, our supporters were identified as the main opponents of the right-wing Members of Parliament who believed that they had a ‘freehold’ on their job.
The attempt to insulate the Parliamentary Labour Party from the pressure of the rank and file of the movement was not accidental. A remorseless campaign to force through further cuts was undertaken by big business. In the run up to the 1976 Labour Party conference, it reached a crescendo and the issue of cuts exploded during the conference itself. Militant summed up the conference
as one of the most important for decades. It marks a watershed in the development of the labour movement and in the life expectancy of the Labour government itself. An atmosphere of crisis permeated the Winter Gardens and the ghost of Ramsay MacDonald haunted the corridors of the Imperial Hotel. (2)
The IMF’s Pound of Flesh
The pound sunk by nine per cent in the first few days of the conference. Chancellor Healey prepared to leave the conference and fly to the International Monetary Fund but turned back at Heathrow Airport. An infamous deal was then struck involving massive government cuts in exchange for an IMF loan. This generated enormous discontent at the conference.
There were open clashes between left and right, and violent altercations between members of the NEC which were leaked to the press. There was great disenchantment with the right within the trade unions. There were also heated discussions in union delegations, sometimes boiling over into angry shouting matches. Rumour and counter-rumour circulated the hall.
The £2,300 million cut in government expenditure came on top of previous cuts. This prompted The Guardian to comment:
A further round of heavy spending coming on previous cuts which all too clearly have failed to deliver dividends in retaining confidence will make it impossible for Mr Jones, leader of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, and Mr Foot (Employment Minister) to hold the line. (3)
Indeed the IMF-imposed cuts threatened the Social Contract, but it would take time (more than a year) for this to be reflected in decisive action against this agreement between the Labour government and the trade unions. The conference was also characterised by a frontal attack by the new Prime Minister, Callaghan, on ‘the Marxists in the movement and supporters of Militant, in particular’.(4)
At that stage Michael Foot made it clear that he would not support a witch-hunt. “There is room in our party for many different shades of opinion.’ At the Tribune meeting that night, Eric Heffer directly countered Callaghan by saying that this was ‘no time to return to the witch-hunts of the past”.
The refusal of Michael Foot and other ‘lefts’ in the 1980s to follow their own advice to the labour movement in 1976 resulted in divisions which played directly into the hands of the Tories. At that time, however, the left adopted a radical stance. At a meeting in October organised by Cambridge Labour Party and attended by 500 people, Michael Meacher, under-secretary of State for Trade, declared:
For too long we have played down the advocacy of socialism… We are at the end of the capitalist road… The economy has moved from one crisis to another. We have tried different remedies… we now have the lowest strike record in Europe, still no solution… we have the lowest unit costs in Europe, still no solution. It’s reckoned with even three million unemployed that there will no solution of the economic problems. It’s not the fault of the working class, it’s the fault of the system. [applause] (5)
This speech was then followed by Michael Foot who immediately poured cold water on Meacher’s contribution by declaring that “Michael was dealing with long-term objectives.” Instead he came out for vague policies which would allow the labour movement to ‘save our country’. A constant theme of the Labour leaders was that any move towards more radical socialist ideas would shipwreck the Labour government and allow the Tories to return to power. In reality, the opposite was the case. Right-wing policies were undermining support for Labour. At the same time a ferocious battle was taking place on the factory floor.
One of the most notable was the epic battle at Grunwick’s. This factory in Willesden, north-west London, processed films and employed largely Asian women workers. The wages paid were an absolute scandal, with some workers receiving £28 (taking home £21) for a 40-hour week. On 23 August 1976, 200 process workers walked out. The management recruited scab labour to replace them from the huge pool of desperate, out-of-work, youngsters in the area. Strikers commented:
This management is more suited to the eighteenth century than the twentieth century. They treat the workers like children, with no rights as human beings… If you want to go to the toilet you must raise your hand and wait until the manager gives permission. It’s like being back at school! Many of the older Asian women are shy about doing this, so they suffer in silence.6
Gradually, as the knowledge of the strikers’ case spread, the labour movement mobilised in defence of the Grunwick workers. In November the strike took a dramatic turn. We reported:
In two separate incidents, police arrested nine pickets outside the factory. They included two strikers, five members of Brent East Labour Party GMC, and councillor Cyril Shore, chairman of Brent East Party.7
Such was the mood for solidarity that the national executive committee of the postal workers’ union decided to instruct all its members not to handle Grunwick’s mail. How far removed are such actions from the present timid approach of trade union leaders.
True, solidarity action is made more difficult by the panoply of anti-trade union laws which the Tories have introduced in the last 15 years. But the trade unions were created by breaking such laws. Only in this way, through struggle and solidarity action, was the right to strike won. Such was the magnetic appeal of the Grunwick Asian women strikers that even members of the Parliamentary Labour Party went onto the picket line. Shirley Williams, presently occupying the Liberal Democrat benches in the House of Lords, to her everlasting embarrassment later on, appeared on the picket line with other APEX-sponsored right-wing Labour MPs.
Grunwick’s was important because it indicated the change in approach of the ruling class since the miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1974. The police began in almost military fashion to deploy their forces against pickets, which comprised all sections of the labour movement including miners. Mounted and riot police were used for the first time and with a certain amount of success. This was because of the failure of the whole Labour and trade union movement to mobilise behind the Grunwick pickets.
This change in approach was also reflected within the Tory Party and particularly at its conference in October 1976. All the right-wing creatures came out of the woodwork. The conference pledged cuts in taxes by reducing ‘government spending’. Militant pointed out that
hospitals, schools, old peoples’ homes and welfare will be starved of cash. But wasteful spending on defence will be increased. (8)
It was also pointed out that
a Thatcher government would be even worse than the hated Heath government which was kicked out by the trade unions amid the economic chaos of the three-day week… The Tories want the state to interfere with the unions – outlawing ‘flying pickets’, breaking the unity of closed shops and imposing their own rules on unions elections as a condition of unions being ‘certified’ by the government, similar to the ‘registration’ under the notorious Industrial Relations Act. (9)
Militant outlined in advance exactly the programme upon which Thatcher was to be elected in 1979 and explained how she and her Cabinet were likely to act once in power.
Instead of facing up to this threat, Labour’s right wing stubbornly pursued its vendetta against the left, particularly against Militant, which risked further divisions. If anything, 1976 witnessed a heightening of the campaign with Sir Harold Wilson and James Callaghan in the vanguard. The fact that an ex-Labour Prime Minister and his replacement were forced to take time out from ‘affairs of State’ to attack Militant emphasised in the minds of the media the ‘danger’ which loomed.
The campaign came to a head in October 1976 in and around the Labour Party conference and its aftermath. The confirmation of Andy Bevan, a well-known Militant supporter, as the Labour Party’s Youth Officer, was one of the catalysts for this campaign. He was elected, on the casting vote of Ron Hayward, Labour’s General Secretary, at a meeting where the procedures had been scrupulously and democratically adhered to. The Daily Express screeched: “Just five men have Labour on the Trot… Express dossier of the unknowns behind the Red challenge to Jim.”10 The five were Nick Bradley, Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, Roger Silverman and Andy Bevan. Nor was this campaign restricted to the gutter press. The Times carried three lengthy articles and an editorial in early December purporting to alert the labour movement to the ‘danger’ of Militant, which it, The Times, had ‘exposed’ as wanting to ‘establish a group of MPs’! (11)
A letter to The Times from the satirist, the late Peter Cook, was a small antidote to the press poison directed against Militant. He wrote: “I am shocked to learn that by the devious strategy of working hard within the rules, ‘extremists’ are able to have some influence on the Labour Party. It is against our nature to reward industry and enthusiasm. Sir Harold, as usual, is right. Let us change the rules at once.” (12)
An indication of just how the issue of Andy Bevan had become a touchstone for the right was indicated by the statements of Callaghan in the run-up to the Labour Party conference. Under a front-page banner headline, ‘Red Andy Ultimatum’, the Daily Express reported that Callaghan was ready to veto a plan for the state financing of parties if Andy Bevan’s appointment was to go ahead. By dangling this financial carrot the leadership hoped to bounce the Labour Party conference into rejecting his appointment. But it failed in its objective. (13)
At the NEC meeting before the conference Labour Party Chairman Bryan Stanley reported the recommendation of the Organisation Sub-Committee that Andy Bevan be appointed. Tony Benn pointed out later: “Not a single member of the NEC queried the recommendation… and it was accepted without a vote.”
In a private session at the conference an attempt was made by right-wing officials to have this decision cancelled. But after a speech by general secretary, Ron Hayward, on behalf of the NEC this was defeated.
Sensing that Militant represented something more serious and durable than the picture of it painted by the tabloids, ‘quality’ journals of capitalism, like The Observer, began to examine what Militant actually stood for. Another Observer journalist, Michael Davie, came to the Militant premises in Hackney to interview me. For the first time space was given over for an explanation of Militant ideas:
“No country constitutes a genuinely democratic workers’ state,” Mr Taaffe said. He spoke of the ‘monstrous police apparatus’ in Russia, and the dictatorships of China and Cuba. Why would not the same thing happen here, if everything was taken over by the state? “Because Britain has a long democratic tradition, and there is no possibility of a socialist society being attained here without the working class, and the middle class, being convinced of the necessity of the change.” I left Mr Taaffe thinking that Militant and Andy Bevan between them have got Transport House over a barrel. (14)
But at the Yorkshire Regional Labour Party conference also held in December, both Wilson and Callaghan blamed the growing party divide on ‘bedsit infiltrators’. Militant pointed out that: “James Callaghan considers (Militant) similar to ‘fascism’”. (15)
The right were attacking not so-called ‘infiltrators’ but “the changing mood within the local parties who were demanding a break with the policies that reduced the working class and its living standards.” Right-wing Labour MP, Frank Tomney, faced with deselection by his party, sent a letter to The Times in which he attacked Ron Hayward, party general secretary, for taking no action against ‘extremists’. He demanded the reintroduction of a list of banned organisations. The Labour Party Young Socialists was singled out for attack. But as Militant pointed out:
Where else in the labour movement is it possible for the minority view to have rights of producing separate documents to a conference against the majority? This is a procedure introduced by the Marxists who form the majority of the youth wing of the party. (16)
The combined assault of the capitalist press, led by The Times, and the right-wing Parliamentary Labour Party had been whipped up by the appointment of Andy Bevan as Labour’s Youth Officer. The right foamed at the mouth at the idea that a Marxist could be democratically selected for such a position.
Following the Labour Party conference the right even organised for party agents and their union, the National Union of Labour Organisers (NULO), to refuse to work with Bevan. They were joined by the majority of the National Organisation of Labour Students. And yet the Annual General Meeting of the Tribune Group of MPs, meeting in the House of Commons on 29 November, voted to support the appointment of Andy Bevan.
Callaghan, in an unprecedented move, sent a letter to the national executive committee demanding the cancellation of Andy Bevan’s appointment, already made, as National Youth Officer. But such was the support both at rank-and-file level and in the NEC that Andy was confirmed in his position. Over time, the opposition of the Labour organisers and agents evaporated. This did not prevent a campaign of constant harassment of the LPYS or Andy Bevan. Further undemocratic procedures were also employed in the student wing of the movement. But one beneficial effect of the attack on Militant and Andy Bevan was the re-examination of Marxist ideas in the labour movement. Tony Benn was one of those in The Guardian (13 December) who defended the presence of Marxism in the labour movement.
Our 1976 Balance Sheet
1976 was a tumultuous year, with the expansion of Militant to a 12-page paper, the appointment of Andy Bevan as the National Youth Officer, and the repulsion of witch-hunting attempts against Militant led by the very summits of the Labour Party. As important, the organised supporters of Militant had reached 1,000 by May 1976. This was rightly seen by the leadership and supporters of Militant as a landmark in its development. However, Militant supporters were under no illusion that the witch-hunt would be easily called off. Benn had completed his defence of Andy Bevan by stating
In my judgement, Andy Bevan has much to offer the Labour Party as its National Youth Officer, at a time when we need to bring young people in to assist our stalwarts. Andy Bevan’s speeches about socialism have also, in my presence, drawn a response from older members of the party, who recognise in what he said the authentic voice of a political faith they had not heard advocated with such moral force since their own youth, many years ago, at Socialist Sunday Schools and at street corner meetings. (17)
Notwithstanding this defence, the ruling class did not let up. Through the medium of The Times, further efforts were made to pressurise Labour into taking action against the ‘Marxists/Trotskyists’. But in the teeth of opposition from the right and also some alleged ‘lefts’, the national executive committee of the Labour Party decided on 19 January 1977 to finally appoint Andy Bevan as National Youth Officer which they declared was ‘irrevocable’. But as Militant reported:
After one of the longest discussions ever held at the national executive committee of the Labour Party, on a motion moved by Michael Foot, it was agreed to set up a sub-committee to consider allegations concerning so-called ‘Trotskyist infiltration’ in the Labour Party. (18)
Foot’s motion replaced an earlier one by Tom Bradley and John Cartwright, MPs, both of whom were subsequently to desert Labour for the Social Democrats. On the basis of this resolution, the Underhill Report investigating Militant was published. On the NEC, Nick Bradley, the LPYS representative, pointed out to Michael Foot that the same kind of attacks now being made on Militant had been made “against Bevan in the fifties, as pointed out in Foot’s own biography of Bevan. Jim Callaghan supported Bevan’s expulsion then.”
What was even more galling for the left was that Prentice, who was advocating a new party and a coalition with the Tories, was not being investigated by the NEC. Callaghan at one stage in the NEC meeting claimed that there was proof of a conspiracy to destroy the Labour Party and, pointing at Nick Bradley, said that Militant supporters were personally rude and offensive, and acted so towards women members in his own constituency.
Tony Benn refuted this declaring: “His experience of Militant supporters was totally different from that of Callaghan. He had been politically criticised by Militant, but he did not mind debate.” But this did not halt the campaign. Shirley Williams said in a speech in Derbyshire that “there was no room for ‘Trotskyists’ in the Labour Party.” (19) But Williams’s approach was at least an attempt to be political. Militant devoted a series of articles to the issue of ‘Marxism and democracy’ which refuted the attempt to put Militant Trotskyists into some kind of authoritarian camp along with Stalinism and Fascism.
Going on the offensive Militant declared that: “The democratic credentials of the right are suspect.” An article in February referred to “the CIA-funded right”. In particular, Denis Healey collaborated in organisations which were backed by the CIA. (20)
This charge, which Militant again repeated when the five members of the Militant Editorial Board were dragged before the NEC in 1983, in Healey’s presence, was never effectively answered by him. And yet despite the clamour for action to be taken against Militant, once Underhill had completed his report, the National Executive Committee decided to take no action. Instead, it decided in June to “circulate to Constituency Labour Parties the contents of the report of the special committee which examined the document Entrism.”
Militant in Action
Meanwhile, the growth in Militant’s support was reflected in a number of ways. In February, the first significant television programme dealt with Militant, ITV’s World in Action, with an estimated audience of 15 million people. Despite the obvious distortions, which were to become a hallmark of the media coverage, Militant invited the cameras into an editorial meeting and carried interviews with myself, political editor, Ted Grant, and leading supporter Pat Wall.
A ludicrous attempt to distort and discredit Militant was made by a university professor, Gavin Kennedy – a leading member of the Scottish National Party! An SNP parliamentary candidate and renegade from the Labour Party, Kennedy resorted to McCarthyite smear tactics. The programme also showed shop stewards selling 100 copies of Militant to car workers in the Rover Solihull plant in Birmingham.
At this time, the Labour Party Young Socialists were to the fore in organising a successful national assembly against unemployment in London in February. 1,450 delegates from trade unions, shop stewards’ committees, Labour Parties and Young Socialist branches as well as unemployed workers, filled the Seymour Hall in London.
This was followed up by another successful annual conference of the Labour Party Young Socialists in Blackpool over the Easter holiday. The hallmark of this 16th conference was the evident democratic character of the proceedings which were not present in any other part of the labour movement. The Marxists were clearly in a majority and submitted their own documents and resolutions.
But there was also a ‘minority document’, representing the views of ‘Clause Four’. Equal time was given to their representative, John Mordecai, to argue Clause Four’s case. Recognising the radical character of the delegates he stated: “The labour movement has to get away from the sterile social democratic compromise with capitalism”, but then went on to attack Militant’s ideas. (22)
Significantly Arthur Scargill also addressed one of the fringe meetings organised by the LPYS’s journal Left. He stated: “The people who do not agree with Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution do not rightly belong in the Labour Party.” Opposing hints of a compromise with the capitalist parties, he also stated: “A Labour government should not consider any form of alliance with ‘the traditional class enemy’.” Arthur Scargill was referring to the deal, the so-called ‘Lib-Lab Pact’, which the Labour cabinet had made with the Liberal Party in March. This statement received loud applause from the well-attended meeting. (23)
The infamous pact was, in effect, a disguised coalition with the junior party of big business. Steel, the Liberal leader, had told his supporters that by experimenting with ‘coalition politics’ the Liberals had put themselves in a position to gain more seats in the general election and then the Liberals “would be in a position to talk of a coalition with either major party.” This perspective for the Liberals was not borne out in its entirety. However, the Liberals were able to act as a brake on a Labour government moving to the left under the pressure of the Labour and trade union rank and file.
The ruling class was satisfied with the arrangement because an outright coalition held out the danger of a ‘lurch to the left’ within the Labour Party. The difference between the situation which led to MacDonald’s ‘National Government’ in 1931 and the 1970s was the existence of a conscious Marxist left, in the form of Militant, within the Labour Party. In the event of a split in the Labour Party – inevitable if a coalition was formed – the left as a whole would gain and within this Militant’s strength would increase enormously.
Even at that stage, with Militant having no more than 1,200 organised supporters, it was already a factor in the calculations of the ruling class. It is for this reason that they pursued, for over a decade or more, a relentless campaign to evict the Marxists and the left in general from the party.