General Election: Thatcher To Power

Margaret Thatcher and the NHS - Alan Hardman cartoon
Margaret Thatcher and the NHS - Alan Hardman cartoon

Chapter Sixteen


THE MAIN issue in Britain in 1979 was the looming general election. The manifesto which was formulated by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in April was a disastrous retreat. The socialist policies repeatedly demanded by Labour Party conferences were completely excluded from the programme: “The few radical reforms included in the draft manifesto have also been dropped.” (1)

There was no demand for the immediate implementation of a 35-hour week, nor was there any commitment for the abolition of the House of Lords, repeatedly demanded by Labour Party conferences, nor any promise to implement the long-promised wealth tax. It was the programme of the right-dominated Labour government, rather than the left National Executive Committee.

Militant warned what a Tory government would mean for the workers of Britain. Once they were returned to power they would

immediately cut at least another £700 million off public expenditure… Reductions in company tax and top rates of income tax for the rich… Cuts in government hand-outs to industry, particularly state industry, together with other ‘monetarist’ policies – which would result in more decrepit capitalist firms going to the wall – would inevitably mean a dramatic increase in unemployment. (2)

The paper urgently called for “all the resources of the labour movement” to be mobilised to keep out the Tories and ensure the return of a Labour government. And yet, on the eve of the election, the right-wing Manifesto Group declared: “The Labour Party must be the party of a permanent incomes’ policy.” (3)

When the battle lines were drawn, Militant supporters throughout the country threw themselves fully into the battle to defeat the Tory enemy. Flying the flag for Marxism as Labour representatives were three candidates, Tony Mulhearn in Crosby, David White in Croydon Central and Cathy Wilson in the Isle of Wight. None were easy seats to win and predictably Militant’s enemies attacked the campaigns. Surprisingly, this was led by a ‘left’, Pete Wilsman, a member of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. In a letter to Militant, he claimed that Militant had done “very badly” in Croydon. He was answered in articles in the paper pointing out that:

six public meetings were held, including one at which 350 people came to hear Tony Benn at 6pm on a Saturday. Neil Kinnock also spoke at a 100-strong meeting in support of David White. (4)

The meeting on the New Addington estate was a reflection of the enthusiasm locally for the campaign. The election material issued in the constituency also got an excellent response. 1,500 copies of Militant were sold and 150 were recruited to the LPYS. Had Croydon Central been fought on the programme of the right wing, it could have been a disastrous result.

Although Crosby was a safe Tory seat, a very effective campaign was launched and Tony Mulhearn received 15,000 votes, an incredible 26 per cent of the poll.

Blair Peach

In the South-East, excluding London, only seven out of 132 seats were won by Labour. During the election campaign the racists and fascists, with the National Front in the lead, tried to march through Southall, the heart of London’s most concentrated Asian Community. However, they got more than they bargained for.

A total stoppage of work took place in the area in response to the Indian Workers’ Association’s call for a general strike. As the time for the march approached “groups of Asian youth began to collect outside the Town Hall where the NF meeting was scheduled to take place that evening.” (5)

The police resorted to heavy-handed tactics against the anti-fascists as they had done previously. This provoked big skirmishes, with the police becoming ever more violent.

Police charges and the use of riot shields, together with the deployment of the Special Patrol Group, resulted in the tragic killing of Blair Peach by the police. Shamefully, Labour Home Secretary Merlyn Rees, declared that there would be no public enquiry, only an internal police investigation into his death. 

In effect, a police riot in defence of provocative action by the fascists had taken place. Labour Party Young Socialists in Southall and Militant supporters were in the thick of the battle. However, as opposed to other groups, this intervention was through a disciplined and organised contingent. 

In this and in subsequent battles against the racists and fascists what stood out was the organised approach of Militant supporters as opposed to the anarchic actions and ‘improvisation’ of others. Haphazard tactics are completely insufficient when confronting fascists backed by the forces of the capitalist state.

Overall, the 1979 General Election was a disaster for Labour and the working class. Conversely it was a day of jubilation for the rich. On polling day £1,000 million was added to shares and the Stock Exchange closed with the share index at a record high.

The actual vote for Labour was the lowest since 1931. Callaghan attempted to argue that the election was a vote “against last winter”. The real responsibility for the disaster was on his shoulders in pursuing the disastrous five per cent limit on wages and other right-wing policies. 

The consequences of the election internally within the Labour Party would be “in the constituencies, right-wing MPs will be called to account. Re-selection will again become a key issue. The Labour Party will undoubtedly turn further to the left in the next period. Fear of this has already been expressed in the capitalist press.” (6)

In Scotland there had been a solid class vote for Labour, with the SNP losing nine of its eleven seats. In the South, however, particularly in London, the South-East and to some extent in the Midlands, “the Tories clearly succeeded in drawing the votes of politically backward workers, including trade unionists, together with the expected middle class votes – thus gaining a significant number of constituencies.” (7)

Militant predicted that a recoil would take place as workers felt the consequences of the Tory victory. This was demonstrated in the reactions to the first budget in June. There were paltry tax cuts for the average wage earner which would be wiped out by inflation in a few months. At the same time, VAT was increased to 15 per cent and the Tories gave notice of further savage attacks on the living standards of working people. Militant predicted that

the working class will now face a period under the most reactionary Tory Government since the 1930s. Thatcher has made it clear that she and her Tory crew intend to repeat all the anti-working class and anti-trade union attacks of the 1970-74 Heath Government – and worse. (8)


In June 1979, a month after the General Election, there were elections for the European Parliament in which Terry Harrison stood as the Labour candidate for Merseyside. This was the first time that Marxism in Liverpool had an opportunity on the broad electoral front to test its ideas. 

Terry Harrison fought a very spirited campaign in what was in general a very lacklustre event. In contrast to those on the left who opposed the Common Market (now the EU-European Union) on a nationalist basis, Terry Harrison counterposed to this the Socialist United States of Europe. In this election the idea of a Labour representative receiving no more than the average wage of a skilled worker was first raised.

I undertake to receive from my salary the average wage of a skilled worker, and donate the rest back to the labour movement. All my expenses, I believe, should be vetted and questioned by the labour movement. (9)

Such was the hate campaign whipped up against Terry Harrison that at one stage someone fired an air rifle at him from a council tower block while he was canvassing in the Lee Park area of the city. The windscreen of his car was shattered by the shot, narrowly missing him. 

The main purpose of the campaign was not to secure ‘victory’, as welcome as this would have been, but to reach workers with the ideas of socialism and Marxism and to raise the level of political understanding. However, the mass of the workers on Merseyside were totally indifferent to the outcome of the election. 

The national result seemed to be a foregone conclusion, with the Tories and the right wing of the Labour Party, backed up by the media, whipping up the prospect of even greater unemployment and impoverishment if ever Britain came out of the European Union.

In a unique event for an election, in one polling district in Vauxhall Ward not a single vote for any candidate was recorded. However, the defeat of Terry Harrison in this election did not, as our opponents predicted, undermine the support for Marxism amongst the Labour Party rank and file. 

This was shown at the October 1979 Labour Party conference which carried overwhelmingly on a card vote the historic resolution in favour of mandatory reselection. At the same time, conference also passed the proposal for the NEC to have the final say in the party’s election manifesto. 

The most notable feature of the conference was the swing to the left in the trade union delegations. Historically the left within the Labour Party seemed to develop as a reflex from the defeat of a Labour government, at least in the post-1945 period. It was in the aftermath of the defeat of the Wilson Government in 1970 that a large left reformist wing around Tony Benn began to take shape.

 During the government of 1974-79 the left still remained as a force within the party, but it took the defeat of Labour in 1979 for a movement of opposition to the right to develop. Militant supporters played a key role in this process and this was widely recognised, even in some of the most unlikely quarters.

In a television interview Shirley Williams and Jim Callaghan acknowledged the growing support for Militant within the Labour Party. In unusually candid comments Callaghan stated on TV:

We (the Labour Party) have neglected education. We’ve allowed it all to fall into the hands of the Militant group. They do more education than anybody else. (10)

He also went on to a frontal attack on the main demand of Militant for the nationalisation of the 200 top companies:

You’ve got to carry the people of this country with you on a basis that they accept that what you are doing is relevant to their problems. Now we mustn’t go to the point where we put up some nostrums like, what is it, nationalising 200 companies… there are people in the party who want to nationalise 200 companies. If you were to do that, the country would say, ‘This isn’t relevant. No, we don’t understand what this is about.’

Militant commented:

The fact that Callaghan should go out of his way to mention Militant and criticise the call for the nationalisation of 200 major monopolies is eloquent testimony to the widespread support for this demand in Labour’s ranks. If it is so ‘irrelevant’, why is Jim so concerned about it? (11)

At the conference, responsibility for defeat was placed firmly on the shoulders of the right wing, as shown by the opening remarks of Frank Allaun, the party chair. He pointed out that the TUC had almost unanimously rejected the rigid and inflexible five per cent ceiling of one year previously. But the right-wing Labour cabinet had taken no notice and “that is why Mrs Thatcher is in 10 Downing Street.” (12)

Even the party general secretary Ron Hayward lambasted the right in the PLP. At the same time:

he also warned the trade union leaders that they would call for as many enquiries as they liked, but if it was a purge of left-wingers or Marxists that they had in mind, they should bear in mind that these were the Party’s activists and ‘they couldn’t replace them’. (13)

This was an indication of the relationship of forces within the Labour Party. The left were overwhelmingly in the ascendant. The attempt of Callaghan to assert the ‘independence of the parliamentary party’ was firmly repudiated at the conference. Speeches from well-known Marxists and Militant supporters like Pat Wall, Ray Apps, Jeremy Birch, Chris Huxtable, John Byrne, Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn, Terry Pearce, Ian Stowell and Fiona Winders were received with acclamation by the conference.

At this conference the most crucial debate centred around the differences between the Tribune programme, left reformism, and the programme of Marxism. Tony Benn in the major debate on the economy had been compelled to answer our arguments.

He opposed a “massive extension of public ownership and national plan of production”, counterpoising to this a more ‘gradual’ programme to “take over industry”. (14)

Nevertheless, this conference was probably the most left in character since Labour had adopted the ‘socialist clause’, Clause IV, in 1918. The elections to the NEC had resulted in even greater strength for the left. 

One of those elected at this conference was Neil Kinnock, then on the ‘extreme’ left of the party. At the Tribune meeting he had commented that Jim Callaghan had congratulated him on his election to the NEC but had then stated: “You know, Neil, there is only one way to go from here – that’s down.” Kinnock answered: “Well, I said, I’m always willing to learn from someone with experience.” (15)

Press Attacks

These developments provoked the wrath of the capitalist press. The so-called ‘quality’ press fired salvos at Militant. The gutter journals of capitalism sought to identify Militant with ‘terrorism’. In answer to a particularly vicious attack from the News of the World, under the headline “The Truth about Britain’s Red Army” (alongside a story headlined, “a Nude Model’s Brush with Sniper”) (16), Militant was portrayed as sympathising with the IRA and every stripe of terrorist. I replied on behalf of the Editorial Board, stating that the News of the World

clearly gives the impression that Militant supports the IRA. This is what Gordon Leak wrote: “Marxist groups have close links with Russia and the IRA”… We opposed the programme and the methods of the Provisional IRA right from its inception. 

A cursory examination of the pages of our newspaper would show that we have consistently maintained this position… is it not then the height of journalistic irresponsibility, not to say political illiteracy, to give your four-and-a-half million readers the impression that Militant supports terrorists? (17)

A similar smear job was undertaken by the Sunday Express. Neither the Express nor the News of the World published our letters. Militant stated in an article on the Provos’ campaign:

One of the theoretical foundations of Marx was his opposition to the tactic of individual terror… In 1972 the first copy of the Militant Irish Monthly carried a major article headed: “Provisional IRA strategy will not defeat imperialism”… British Imperialism, which is an economic as well as military system, can only be overthrown by the united mass action of the Irish working class. (18)

In lines which stand out in their clarity, particularly when counterposed to the current ‘peace negotiations’, we also stated:

It is perfectly true that the Provos could continue some form of operations for a long period of time… But whether imperialism can quickly defeat the IRA is scarcely the main point. 

For those who support the Provos the real question is not so much whether they can be defeated but whether they can succeed in defeating imperialism. 

The answer is firmly no. Not in 1979, not in 1980, nor – should they continue – until the year 2000 will they succeed in this. The real legacy of these bombings has been to provide the ruling classes, North, South and in Britain with an excuse to step up repression. (19)

There was real fright in the ranks of the ruling class, echoed by the right within the Labour Party, at the prospect of a massive shift toward the Left. In this situation the ideas of Marxism would become a significant pole of attraction.

The tremendous growth and influence of the Labour Party Young Socialists under the influence Marxist ideas was indicated by the 450 youth who gathered at the 1979 Summer Camp. They were addressed by Tony Benn. Labour’s youth had even taken the struggle for socialism to the House of Commons. 

In a debate in a parliamentary committee room, in which the LPYS wiped the floor with the Young Tories, 200 young people, predominantly young workers, assembled in July to hear Tony Saunois, then the Young Socialists’ representative on the NEC of the Labour Party, debate with a boneless wonder from the Tory Party.

Right threaten Breakaway

While still members of the party, Roy Jenkins and his supporters had actually called for the formation of a new ‘centre party’. William Rodgers, prominent leader of the misnamed ‘Campaign for A Labour Victory’, had threatened to split the party. Rodgers had even admitted that if Labour adopted left-wing policies it could win a general election, but went on to complain that such a result would be to place the continuation of capitalism in peril. 

It would, he said: “impose a heavy burden on our parliamentary system and our mixed economy.” This was the clearest statement up to then of the complete abandonment by the right of any idea of changing society in a socialist direction. That is why they directed their fire – and called for purges – against the most steadfast advocates and upholders of the socialist aspirations of the party. 

Rodgers even demanded that the party be returned to right-wing hands “within a year”. The capitalist press, with the Daily Telegraph in the vanguard, urged them to “move fast in order to establish such a party” and split Labour.

We argued that notwithstanding any immediate short term success for such a party, boosted by massive press publicity, “there will be no long-term future for Labour’s right wing”. (20)

Rodgers, the advocate of so-called ‘popular’ policies, had only 176 members in his moribund Constituency Labour Party in Stockton, in North-East England. The statements of Rodgers and Jenkins were merely the opening shots in a battle which was to stretch over the next year and ultimately result in the right splitting away.

Industrial Intervention

On the industrial front the employers, encouraged by Thatcher’s victory, took the offensive against the working class. The year-long bitter battle, which followed the closure of the Western Ship Repairs yard in Birkenhead, was still continuing. Militant supporters, particularly Richie Venton and Richie Knights, played an active and key role in this dispute. 

Militant supporters’ proposals were adopted by the workers’ Action Committee and also by the workers at mass meetings. One such proposal was for a Labour government to nationalise the yard, under workers’ control and management, to protect jobs. Many mass meetings were held and two demonstrations were organised through Birkenhead. 

The right-wing Labour leadership, however, had refused to act over Western’s closure when they were in power. Although the yard was not saved, the role played by Militant supporters in the dispute, and the taking up of Militant’s ideas by the workers in struggle, marked a qualitative development of the intervention of Marxism in industrial disputes on Merseyside.

British Leyland manager, ‘wonder kid’, Michael Edwardes, was trampling on all the hard-won rights and conditions of the workers. Edwardes, as part of the plan to hammer BL workers, had taken the decision to sack Derek Robinson, prominent CP member, convenor of the Longbridge Stewards and Chairman of the BL Stewards Combine Committee. 

This was a step towards destroying workers’ rights throughout the combine. Commenting on this 16 years later, the Financial Times described Robinson’s sacking as “the Cuban missile crisis of Britain’s carmaking industrial relations… his [Robinson’s] ejection put the entire union shop steward movement on the defensive.” Yet the sacking of Robinson provoked a spontaneous walkout involving at least 50,000 workers.

The intention of the right-wing trade union leaders was to destroy the momentum of the strike by calling instead for an ‘inquiry’. This gave the initiative back to the management and ultimately resulted in the isolation of Robinson. This in turn prepared the ground for further blows against the stewards’ organisation. Militant pointed out: “Even former AUEW right-wing supporters have been staggered by the blatant refusal to defend a basic trade union principle: defence of a victimised shop steward.” (21)

Given the evident rise of workers’ anger the question was posed in the pages of Militant, ‘How long will Thatcher last?’ The question of time scale is always the most difficult in politics. We did not always get the timing right but usually correctly indicated the general processes which would lead to certain conclusions. We said:

Such is the situation of British capitalism, that the ruling class will return again and again in an attempt to weaken and hamstring the unions, and drive down the living standards of the working class. But if Thatcher proved to be too stubborn, the ruthless British capitalists and their representatives in the Tory Party will not hesitate to remove her from office. (22)

This prognosis was not immediately borne out. The Falklands War and the shift towards the right within the Labour Party, together with the economic boom of the 1980s, boosted her position. Nevertheless, it was confirmed when Thatcher was toppled in 1990 as the ruling class concluded that the disaster of the poll tax demonstrated that she had passed her ‘shelf life’.

Steel Strike

1980 was to see a heightened polarisation between the classes in industry and a widening of the gulf between left and right within the Labour movement. Steelworkers were the first into battle. An official national strike was called, the first time that official action had been sanctioned since 1926. 

The steel bosses had calculated that given the massive rundown in the industry, with job losses seeming to be accepted with minimum resistance, they could get away with a four per cent increase in wages. They were taken aback when out of 700 branches of the Iron and Steel Trade Confederation (ISTC) only 12 voted against strike action. 

Behind the steel bosses stood the Thatcher government who were looking for every opportunity to take on and crush a decisive section of the working class. But the steelworkers demonstrated magnificent fighting capacities with unprecedented solidarity from other workers. Militant distinguished itself in the strike with detailed accounts from steelworkers. The sales of Militant soared and the more advanced steelworkers began to enter the ranks of the Marxists.

But once more the official right-wing trade union leaders refused to take measures which would make the strike bite. They refused to extend the strike to the private steelmakers. We commented:

After ten weeks on the picket line, the steelworkers determination is unshaken. When the ISTC president, speaking at a Scunthorpe rally, called for “an honourable settlement”, he was met with a spontaneous chorus of “20 per cent and no strings”. (23)

During this strike, and as part of the general debate on economic issues then taking place in the labour movement, the issue of import controls once more surfaced as a key question. Many workers in desperation at the run down of industry were latching on to this seemingly simple panacea. This was reinforced by the rise in unemployment as the recession of 1979-1981 began to bite. More manufacturing industry was lost in Britain than during the slump of 1929-33. On import controls Militant argued:

Aneurin Bevan once described import control as building a wall around chaos. The threat to workers’ jobs comes from the workings of the capitalist system, not from foreign competition… import controls would not give a ‘breathing space’ to reinvest. 

Without the restraint of foreign competition, the British bosses would merely again raise prices of their goods. This would not even save jobs, as the extra twist to inflation would cut into workers’ real living standards, reducing the market even further, and again unemployment would be threatened. (24)

After an epic battle lasting more than 13 weeks the steel strike was settled in April. However, the negotiating committee of the ISTC only accepted it by 41 votes to 27.