Militant Surges

Chapter Nineteen


IN THE early 1980s growing class polarisation and the consequent tendency for the bosses to bolster their repressive apparatus raised the issue of the capitalist state and how the labour movement should approach this issue. 

Militant dealt fully with this in a series of articles. It had long been the hallmark of self-appointed ‘Trotskyist’, organisations – usually consisting of a handful of ‘commentators’ – to accuse Militant of abandoning the Marxist position on this question.

In order to clear up confusion about the real ideas of Militant the editors set out to explain the basic Marxist approach towards the state and how to apply this to the contemporary situation in Britain and the world. 

In the words of Engels, the state in the final analysis consists of armed bodies of men and their material appendages, prisons, etc. Some on the left argue that this concept no longer applies to the modern state. 

Yet all the key positions in the civil service, the police and, in particular, the army are in the hands of people who have been specially selected by education, outlook, and conditions of life to loyally serve the capitalists. 

Militant gave detailed figures showing that the officer caste were in the main drawn from the public schools and belonged to the ‘AB’ socio-economic group, the ‘top 12 per cent’ in society. There was an intertwining between the tops of the state, the civil service, the army, the police and the government. Indeed

the monopolies have more and more fused with the state machine in the post-war period. This is perhaps shown most vividly in the movement between the tops of the civil service and the boardrooms of the monopolies. (1)

Many examples were given, among others by Barbara Castle, who detailed how she became in effect the puppet of top civil servants who “control every single ten minutes of a Minister’s day and night… Ministers can’t even choose who drafts their replies to letters.” 

Tony Benn has also given an example of how, when he was Energy Minister during a strike at the Windscale Nuclear Plant, civil servants informed him that unless troops were used to move nitrogen across a picket line “a critical nuclear explosion would take place”. It was subsequently discovered that these warnings were totally unfounded.

Using the example of Chile, Militant warned that the British capitalists would emulate Pinochet if they faced a similar situation. The beefing up of the police, the use of Special Patrol Groups, particularly in industrial disputes, the use of the SAS in Ireland, the widespread use of snooping and telephone tapping by the secret service; all indicated the pro-capitalist role of the state. It was not ‘neutral’ between the capitalists and the labour movement.

At the same time, it was necessary to register the big changes that had taken place in the state and its relationship with society. In Holland for instance, trade union rights had been granted to soldiers. The same rights should be demanded for British squaddies. 

Moreover, the army, as the events of Iran had demonstrated, always reflects the social balance in society as a whole, in the final analysis. France 1968 showed that a movement of the working class could attract the ordinary soldiers. Any attempt to use the troops in Britain in the early 1980s against the working class would have split it from top to bottom.

To merely repeat the fundamental and basic ideas of Marxism on the state is not sufficient to convince working-class people. At least a minimum amount of skill in presenting these ideas and relating them to the present understanding of working people is required. 

Having enjoyed democratic rights perhaps longer than any other equivalent working class there are bound to be strong democratic ‘illusions’, for instance, in Parliament. Militant owes its success partly to its ability to explain Marxist ideas on the state in such a way that, firstly, workers will listen to, then on the basis of arguments and experience, accept these ideas.

However, Militant has been careful not to foster, as others have done, illusions in the capitalist state. It cannot be peacefully ‘reformed’ out of existence:

It would be fatal to pretend, as the Communist Party leaders and the reformist left of the Labour Party do, that ‘the democratisation of the state’ will be sufficient in itself to guarantee the British working class and the Labour government against the fate which befell their Chilean brothers and sisters. 

This would above all be the case when attempts are made to ‘democratise’ their state. The capitalists would take this as a signal – particularly if the army is touched – to prepare to crush the labour movement. 

Does this then mean that the state must remain untouched by the labour movement, as the right wing of the Labour Party maintain? On the contrary, measures to make the state more accountable to the labour movement must be stepped up. But the limits of such measures must also be understood by the labour movement. The capitalists will never permit their state to be ‘gradually’ taken away from them. (2)

Experience has shown that only a decisive change in society can eliminate the danger of reaction and allow the ‘democratisation of the state machine’ to be carried through to a conclusion with the establishment of a new state controlled and managed by working people.

These lines in no way contradicted the contention of Militant, for instance in France 1968 or in Chile at a certain stage, that theoretically a ‘peaceful or relatively peaceful’ transformation of society could take place. But the precondition for this would be the organisation of the full power of the Labour movement, consciously organised and prepared, which would only be fully possible on the basis of a far-sighted Marxist leadership and mass party. Measures of a halfway character do not satisfy the working class, yet irritate the ruling class and give it time to prepare to take back any gains which the working class have achieved.

Benn for Deputy

Britain was not isolated from the political ferment affecting other countries at this time. It took the form in Britain largely of the continuing struggle between right and left within the labour movement. Dramatically, this was taken a stage further in April 1981 when Tony Benn announced that he had decided to stand for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party. 

The capitalist press and television went berserk. Not just the right but erstwhile left wingers, like Judith Hart MP and Alex Kitson of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, urged Benn to step down in the interests of ‘party unity’. Benn replied by stating that what good was it fighting for democratic rights, including the electoral college for elections for the leadership and deputy leadership of the party, if those rights were not to be exercised. He declared that:

It was in the interest of ‘party unity’ that we were asked to support the five per cent pay policy, the IMF cuts, a ‘Yes’ vote to keep Britain in the Common Market, and other departures from the 1974 Labour Party manifesto. (3)

The rest of 1981 was dominated by this issue. The mass of ordinary workers in the constituencies and in the trade unions lined up behind Tony Benn. In an editorial we declared:

Despite our criticisms of the deficiency of his programme, a victory for Tony Benn in the deputy leadership election would represent an enormous step forward. It would give a further push to the campaign to fully democratise the labour movement and for the adoption of a socialist programme. (4)

The idea that left policies were in some way alienating workers was confounded by the May 1981 local election results. Labour won control of 14 councils and the Tories lost overall control of another eight. All six metropolitan counties, together with the Greater London Council, were now under Labour control. Millions of voters wanted the Tories out. Militant pressed for the Labour leaders to campaign to force a general election. 

However, the right were more concerned to concentrate their fire against the left. There was clearly a rising tide of discontent and an urge for action by the organised labour movement. The ‘People’s March for Jobs’ culminated in a huge demonstration in London. Some of the organisers of the ‘People’s March’, particularly the Communist Party, attempted to make it ‘non-political’, anti-Thatcher but not clearly anti-Tory, let alone anti-capitalist! 

Yet at the rally in Trafalgar Square the speeches of Tony Benn, Arthur Scargill and Dennis Skinner calling for bold socialist action were received enthusiastically. Militant, despite harassment from stewards under the influence of the Communist Party, made a very successful intervention in this demonstration.

Militant Women

As Militant developed so did our influence amongst women, particularly working-class women. More and more women joined our ranks, which in turn helped to transform the approach of the paper and its supporters. 

From its inception Militant had always featured women’s issues but as it developed roots amongst women and began to work seriously in this field, our approach and programme became more precise. Many women Militant supporters contributed to this. Margaret Creear, who became Militant’s Women’s Organiser, undoubtedly made an important contribution in ensuring that Militant was not only to the fore on women’s issues but took a pioneering position on many key questions affecting the lives of women. 

For instance, at Brights in Rochdale, a campaign was successfully waged to keep the 120-place nursery open. Support was given to the previously most downtrodden workers in the ‘sweatshop revolt’ that erupted in the aftermath of the Grunwick’s dispute. 

Militant was involved in immigration issues, most famously in the successful campaign in support of Anwar Ditta, who had been refused permission to bring her children to Rochdale. All of these aspects brought new Labour Party Women’s Sections and Councils into activity, with Militant women in the leadership.

This was reflected in a growing profile at the Women’s Conference where we were an important factor in the move to the left. Forty delegates attended the Militant meeting with over £100 raised for the fighting fund. A special Militant pamphlet Women and the Fight for Socialism was enthusiastically received, with 166 copies being sold.

Meanwhile, in the midst of increased class polarisation in society, upheavals in the labour movement, and an increasingly besieged Tory Government the ruling class sought to divert attention with the July Royal Wedding. 

Di and Charles were the ‘social cement’ which would bind the nation together. Militant did not just concentrate on contrasting the obscene display of wealth of the Royals with the increasingly desperate poverty of millions of other young couples in working-class areas. It also pointed to the possible future role of the monarchy in conditions of sharp, class polarisation.

The monarchy has the power to dissolve parliament, to appoint and even to dismiss the prime minister. In the event of a left Labour government coming to power, the monarchy could be deployed as it had been in Australia, through the governor general, to dismiss Gough Whitlam’s Labour government. However, events have moved on since the ‘royal bliss’ of 1981. 

The monarchy is now, at best, a flawed weapon. The shenanigans of the royals and their obscene wealth in the face of the deepening poverty of millions has undermined the popularity of the monarchy, even in the South and the Midlands where it was always strongest. It is now an open question as to whether Charles can be used as a symbol of the ‘nation’ with enough authority to dismiss a government that the capitalists considered dangerous. Militant has consistently called for the complete abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords.

The prospect of a government coming to power pledged to do this seemed, however, to have been dimmed somewhat by the outcome of the Labour Party conference of 1981. Tony Benn lost to Denis Healey, the standard bearer of the right, by 0.8% in the election for the deputy leadership. 

Healey secured his victory with the votes of MPs who had deliberately stayed in the party to defeat Benn, prior to deserting to the Social Democrats. However, the greatest rank-and-file anger was directed at former lefts, like Kinnock and former members of the parliamentary Tribune group, who either abstained or voted for other candidates, thus ensuring a Healey victory. Yet this decision did nothing to dissuade the right, boosted by support from the capitalists, from splitting from the Labour Party. 

They wanted to inflict as much damage as possible before deserting. Following the party conference demands grew from the right for action to be taken against Militant. Yet the right was not strong enough to prevent Constituency Labour Parties in Brighton, Bradford, Coventry and Liverpool from selecting parliamentary candidates who agreed with many of the ideas of Militant. Moreover, the national executive committee of the Labour Party was compelled to ratify these decisions, such was the enthusiasm and increased activity which their selections had generated.

In Brighton, for instance, Rod Fitch told a packed rally of 350 people:

Today we are seeing the rebirth of the Labour Party away from just the election machine of the past, into a campaigning socialist party, that will fight for working people. (5)

‘Youth Opportunities Programme’

Militant supporters were to the fore in seeking to organise the youth against the attempt of the Tory government to put them through the misnamed ‘Youth Opportunities Programme’ (YOPs), a cover for creating slave-like conditions for young people. Militant supporters in the LPYS were instrumental in setting up the ‘YOP Trainees Union Rights Campaign’. 

A founding conference was called in November 1981 with over 300 YOP workers, trade unionists and Young Socialists attending. It was the Marxist5, particularly in the Labour Party Young Socialists, who were instrumental throughout the 1980s in organising the resistance of the youth, firstly against YOPs and then against the Youth Training Scheme. 

Thousands, even tens of thousands, of young people were touched by the ideas of Marxism in the course of this campaign. Many joined the trade unions, some joined the Labour Party, and some joined Militant itself.

But, irrespective of Militant’s contribution to the overall strength of the labour movement, the right were hell-bent, in the aftermath of the defeat of Tony Benn at the October conference, to proceed to a witch-hunt. The fact also that the government was beefing up its policies and personnel in order to deal with the working class was an entirely secondary issue to them. 

In September Thatcher had sacked her so-called ‘wet’ Cabinet Ministers. Tebbit had replaced Prior as Employment Minister, heralding an intensified attack upon the trade union movement. Tebbit casually commented on the Today programme that he had found that attacks on the trade unions were “attractive” (6). This marked the beginning of a serious assault on trade union rights. Eleven separate anti-union measures were to follow in the next decade.

But they could have been prevented and the government stopped in its tracks, there and then, if the labour movement would have been fully mobilised on a left programme.


One symptom of the situation of the radical mood at this stage was the massive turn out of a quarter of a million marchers at the CND demonstration in October 1981. Consisting mainly of young people, the demonstrators cheered Tony Benn most loudly. 

Yet it was Benn who was coming in for vilification from the right as being ‘out of touch’. Undoubtedly tens of thousands of workers and youth were alienated from the labour movement by the attacks of the right on the left, egged on by the capitalist and their press.

There were soothing words from the Labour leadership for the SDP traitors and threats of expulsion against Militant. In December 1981 the organisational sub-committee of the national executive committee used its majority, on the casting vote of Michael Foot, to instigate yet another investigation into Militant. At the same time, it was decided not to endorse Peter Tatchell as parliamentary candidate for Bermondsey, but this was subsequently overturned.

Tony Benn correctly explained that what the right were proposing was a cleaning up of the Party – to make it fit for the SDP defectors to rejoin. This was at a time when workers were crying out for unity against the common enemy as shown by the massive anti-unemployment demonstrations which the Labour Party continued to organise in different parts of the country. 

At the 20,000 strong demonstration in Birmingham, Tony Benn received a long ovation, with whole sections of the crowd chanting his name. Similarly YS speaker, Laurence Coates, who followed Denis Healey was cheered when he called for action against the Tories, beginning with a 24-hour general strike. The mood, however, changed when Healey began to speak. 

Healey made provocative statements, attacking the decisions on extending party democracy of the previous two years. This was despite the fact that there had been an ‘unwritten agreement’ amongst the leadership not to mention the internal situation in the party. 

This provoked outrage from ordinary workers who booed Healey. Naturally it was Militant supporters who were blamed by the Sunday Mirror: “Uproar broke out when about 50 Militant supporters of Tony Benn tried to storm the platform in a ‘Gag Healey’ mood.” (7)

This was totally untrue, as Militant made clear: “Militant and the Labour Party Young Socialists make it clear that it is not the method of Marxism to barrack the speaker to the point where they cannot carry on.” (8)

Originally Michael Foot had totally underestimated the electoral potential for the SDP, backed up as it was by the resources and the publicity machine of big business. Foot had proclaimed that the SDP would not “win a single seat” in Parliament. Militant on the contrary, while opposing the policies of the SDP, warned that unless they were

effectively countered by Labour, the SDP, with the backing of big business and the media, could win 30 or 40 or more seats in the next general election, thus blocking the return of a majority Labour government. (9)

The SDP did not gain this number of seats but attracted enough votes to split the anti-Tory camp and allow Thatcher to return to power in 1983. However, in panicky flight before the success of the SDP, Foot had swung to the opposite extreme, accepting Healey’s idea that the SDP could win a 100 seats unless Labour watered down its policies. Callaghan joined in an article in the Daily Mirror demanded that Militant should be expelled from the party. He also called for the ‘disaffiliation’ of the Labour Party Young Socialist and a new system for reselecting MPs. (10)

Militant Parliamentary candidates

While the witch-hunt was developing, the mood of Labour’s rank-and-file was such that the right could not prevent the selection of parliamentary candidates who agreed with many of the ideas of Militant. In February Terry Fields was selected as prospective parliamentary candidate for Liverpool Kirkdale. 

After a reorganisation of electoral boundaries he was selected for the new seat of Broadgreen. A hue and cry then began by Labour’s opponents to block the endorsement of Marxist candidates. The Liberals’ prospective candidate for Kirkdale demanded that Michael Foot refuse to endorse Terry Fields, allegedly because “he would frighten off businessmen coming to Merseyside”. (11)

But the selection of Terry generated enormous enthusiasm, leading to increased members for the party and the Young Socialists. Shortly afterwards Derek Hatton was selected as the parliamentary candidate for Wavertree. At this stage four Militant supporters had been selected as parliamentary candidates in Merseyside; Terry Fields in Kirkdale, Tony Mulhearn in Toxteth, Terry Harrison in Edgehill, as well as Derek Hatton. 

Alongside of these in the city were also other left candidates; Eddie Loyden in Garston and Bob Wareing, who at this time stood on the left, in West Derby. Together with Eric Heffer and Bob Parry, both prominent left members of the Tribune group, Labour on Merseyside had an almost 100 per cent left Labour ticket for the next general election.

In February, both Pat Wall and Terry Fields were endorsed as candidates by the organisational sub-committee of the National Executive Committee. This did not stop the frenzied attempts of the right to drive Militant out of the Labour Party.

The mood of the right was reflected in the report of a secret ‘Solidarity’ meeting in London. Solidarity was the Labour right’s own organisation. It was declared: “the Militant Tendency can no longer be allowed to parasite on the party… the Labour Party was a broad church, but that there is no room for atheists”. 

Roy Hattersley made it clear at this meeting that it was not just Militant but other left groups who were being targeted by the right. He demanded that the NEC “institute a thorough enquiry into the various anti-democratic and de-stabilising groups that are damaging the party.” Reflecting how out of touch they were from the mood of the ordinary party members a Solidarity briefing paper described the policy of “no cuts, no rent or rate increases” as “the politics of Never-Never Land”. 

They declared “Labour councils would not be able to protect all services and all jobs.” While they were preparing to drive Militant from the party, Solidarity spokesmen such as David Norman of the POEU declared that, if the SDP traitors approach the Labour Party: “we should welcome them back”. (12)

Clearly here was a an organised right wing ‘party within a party’. Yet the right on Labour’s NEC did not even think of proposing an enquiry as had been done with Militant. dsÿÿ¼The gutter level of the right was shown by the statement of a prominent right-winger, Gerald Kaufman:

It’s very boring being in the Labour Party at present, attending General Management Committees where routine resolutions are put forward. I appreciate that we don’t want to be bored and would prefer going to the theatre, opera, football, strip shows (some groans), but you’ll have to forego these for a time to gain the price of tolerance; you have to sit it out at these terrible meetings to the end. (13)

Meanwhile, Militant was heavily involved in the urgent issue of trying to save the youth from mass unemployment and the government’s slave labour schemes. On 25 February 1982 thousands of youth were mobilised in the highly successful YOPs lobby of Parliament. So successful was it that Tebbit railed that Tony Benn, in supporting it, was “encouraging wild expectations… among young people”. Benn’s rejoinder was “what is your wild expectations, a job – is that a wild expectation?” (14)

A magnificent 3,000 strong rally and meeting in the Festival Hall was held after the lobby. The meeting was addressed by Tony Benn, myself, Dennis Skinner and Shareen Blackhall, who had been on the TUC’s recent “March for Jobs”.

Pat Wall and Civil War

It was because Militant attempted to sink roots in the working class and were not just sitting in Labour committee rooms that the ferocity against it by the capitalist press was so great. No opportunity was lost to vilify and distort our ideas. One of the most blatant examples was the campaign whipped up over a speech by Pat Wall in March. The Sunday Times, portrayed Pat Wall as being hell bent on “civil war” and “bloodshed”. (15)

Ironically, in a debate against the SWP, Pat Wall repeated over and over again, his belief that it was theoretically possible that “a peaceful transition to a socialist Britain” could take place if the full power of the Labour and trade union movement were used. He also warned against the possibility of violence and ‘civil war’ being organised by the capitalists once their wealth and power was threatened. In an editorial statement on the dirty methods of the press, we declared:

at the meeting Pat explained that the Militant was in favour of a peaceful transformation of society. 

No supporter of Militant would ever advocate or encourage ‘bloodshed’ or ‘civil war’, as the press tried to suggest. 

On the contrary, Pat was explaining that if there was any threat to a peaceful transformation of society, that threat would come from the capitalist class itself… The leader of the Tory Party in 1912 actually supported a mutiny of officers based in Ireland who opposed the policies of the majority of Parliament… Mussolini, Hitler and Franco were at one time praised and supported by leading figures in the Tory Party. 

More recently, Ian Gilmour, supposedly a ‘liberal’ in that party, wrote that “Conservatives do not worship democracy… For them majority rule is a device… for Conservatives, therefore, democracy is a means to an end and not an end in itself.” (16)

The harassment of Pat Wall and his family following this speech indicated the lengths to which the press were prepared to go in order to pillory Militant and its supporters.

Pat Wall’s wife, Pauline, was forced at her own home to stick up the National Union of Journalists ‘Code of Professional Conduct’, in an unsuccessful attempt to prick the consciences of the Fleet Street hounds who persecuted her, Pat and their family. An example of the methods used is shown by the following questions which were put to her by journalists:

What do you feel about being married to a violent man?… Does he cuff the children?… Are you disgusted with him?… Why does your husband advocate violence?… Why is he calling for blood on the streets? (17)

The press even approached Pat Wall’s employers asking them what they thought of his political opinions. Anonymous letters were sent to them suggesting that Pat should be sacked. But the press attack did not work. Pat Wall remained as the parliamentary candidate for Bradford North. He was defeated in the 1983 general election, because votes were siphoned off by Ben Ford the previous MP and defector to the SDP. Labour’s right distanced themselves from Pat Wall and his campaign. In 1987 Pat was revenged for this defeat with his triumphal election to Parliament.

The Labour leadership, who were bending the knee to the press campaign against Militant, were incapable of mobilising the labour movement to defeat the threat posed by the defection of the SDP traitors. This was shown in the Hillhead by-election which took place in March 1982. Labour lost this seat to SDP leader Jenkins. 

More important was the massive defection of previous Tory voters, with the Tory vote dropping by 14.5 per cent. This was in a seat that Labour had held since 1919. In a series of by-elections – Crosby, Warrington and now Hillhead – SDP support had grown. Within 24 hours of the vote the right, led by Healey and Hattersley, predictably attempted to unload responsibility for Labour’s failure on the shoulders of the left, and in particular of Militant supporters.

In reality, support for the SDP was a vote against the policies of the Labour government of 1974-79 led by the right. The irony of the situation was that the SDP leaders were the very authors of those policies which they were now capitalising on as a ‘new’ party. Moreover, the right-wing Labour leaders remaining in the Labour Party were prevented from effectively attacking their former political bedfellows because they shared the same outlook and approach. While preparing a purge of the left they held out the hand of friendship to Owen and Jenkins, offering an unofficial coalition, if the SDP held the balance of power after the next election.

Anti-union laws

While Labour was ‘a house divided against itself’ the Tories took the opportunity to introduce a brutal attack on the trade unions. When Tebbit introduced his infamous 1981-82 anti-union Act, Militant declared:

If Tebbit’s proposals ever become law the trade unions will be dragged into a legal morass. The trade unions would face the possibility of bankruptcy and individual trade unionists will face the threat of imprisonment.18

Tebbit spoke of the need to ‘neuter’ the unions through this legislation. He proposed that the Tory judges should decide whether or not industrial action was ‘lawful’. At the same time, union funds could be taken by companies for compensation for losses incurred through ‘illegal’ industrial action. 

Moreover, industrial action was to be declared illegal unless it was ‘wholly or mainly’ concerned with a British trade dispute and the term ‘trade dispute’ was further narrowly defined to mean only disputes between workers and their immediate employers. There were also proposals for attacks on the closed shop and the ground was prepared to make it easier for victimisation of strikers to take place. Militant pointed out that “unions have the power to smash it [Tebbit’s proposals]”. We were at one with the statement of Arthur Scargill, newly re-elected as president of the National Union of Miners, who declared:

Legislation is introduced by Parliament, but we should remember the law on advances of our freedoms and liberties are due to men and women who, when their conscience has compelled them, have been prepared to defy the law… 

If legislation is introduced which erodes our basic freedom and democracy or threatens our right to combine, we should oppose it with the same vigour and determination of our forefathers. I believe it will be necessary to use all measures, including industrial action, to defy Tebbit’s law and defend our movement. (19)

The failure of the right-wing leadership of the general council of the TUC to heed this advice meant that the British workers paid a heavy price over the next decade. Decisive action at the stage when this legislation was introduced would have shattered the government, as it did in 1972, ten years earlier. Weakness invites aggression. Prevarication, hesitation and outright cowardice, the hallmarks of the right of the trade unions, were to embolden the Tories.