THE MOST notable Labour success in the 1982 council elections was in Liverpool.
Here the Labour Party, heavily influenced by Militant, conducted a fighting socialist campaign against the Liberal incumbents. The Tory press and their liberal acolytes pilloried the ‘Militant Tendency’.
A typical example of the red scare tactics was a leaflet put out by the Liberals which proclaimed that Militant wanted to “ban religion in favour of Militant atheism”.
It issued a leaflet with a tear-off slip to be sent to Michael Foot calling on him to disassociate himself from the “policies outlined above” and called for an “urgent decision” on the enquiry into ‘Militant Tendency’. This showed how the campaign of the right wing of the Labour Party for a witch-hunt played into the hands of the capitalist parties.
But in the aftermath of the elections the Liverpool Echo for once came close to the truth: “The city voters clearly rejected the anti-Marxist campaign.”(1)
In many wards there were huge orange hoardings on the gable end of houses spelling out the main Liberal slogan “Marxists Out – Liberals in”. It wasn’t just the Liberals but their allies, the SDP, who took a hammering, earning it the cruel nickname of ‘The Sudden Death Party’.
The outcome of the election was that Labour was the biggest party with 42 seats but the Liberals and the Tories still had between them 57 seats. Some of the right wing argued for Labour to take minority control. However, the left successfully defeated this proposal. The Liberals were left holding on to power, the “poisoned chalice”. Big cuts loomed, including rent increases and the probable loss of 4,000 jobs. The record of the Tories and Liberals in the next 12 months was to prepare the ground for a massive Labour victory in 1983.
Meanwhile, on the industrial front the most notable feature of Militant’s work was the triumph of the left in the CPSA. In fact the 1982 conference was perhaps the most important in the union’s 79-vear existence.
Radical policies were adopted and a fighting leadership was elected to carry them out. Kevin Roddy, a well-known Militant supporter, was elected as president. The Broad Left swept the board in the elections to the national executive committee with a majority of 24 to four, among whom were numbered seven Militant supporters.
The conditions which led to this left victory had been prepared by the complete failure of the right wing. They were weak, vacillating and hesitant. Kevin Roddy was the first left president for over 30 years and when his election was announced a wave of spontaneous enthusiasm swept through the conference hall.
Labour Party affiliation was carried for the first time. Militant had long campaigned for this, despite the witch-hunt taking place in the party.
However, active workers in the labour movement were preoccupied throughout 1982 with the gathering witch-hunt against Militant and the left in general. The press had whipped up the hysteria in the run-up to the National Executive Committee meeting on 23 June. More and more demands were made for the expulsion of Militant supporters from the Labour Party. The arguments of the press were echoed, one after another, by right-wing MPs and trade union leaders.
Terry Duffy the right-wing leader of the engineering union (AUEW) sought to blackmail Labour’s NEC by hinting that he would refuse to pay a promised £2.5 million towards Labour’s election fund. The ostensible reason for this was the adoption of Pat Wall as the Labour candidate for Bradford North.
Duffy was threatening to support Ben Ford the ‘Independent’ Labour candidate. Action was demanded not just against Militant but against others on the left. Roy Hattersley wanted action to be taken against the Labour Co-ordinating Committee (LCC). Sid Weighell suggested that Tony Benn should leave the Labour Party and establish his own party. We commented:
Labour’s right wing clearly see the witch-hunt against Militant as the beginning of a purge against any who dissent. It is a campaign to destroy all the gains won over the past three years on democracy and policy. (2)
But there was ferocious resistance amongst the socialist rank and file of the Party. Two hundred Constituency Labour Parties protested to the NEC against the witch-hunt. The regional conferences of the Scottish, West Midlands, London, Southern and South West Labour Parties opposed any witch-hunt. In the North West a motion supporting expulsions was contemptuously dealt with; a delegate moved “next business”.
Numerous protests took place at labour movement meetings throughout the length and breadth of the country. Wales was an arena of ferocious conflict between Militant, the real left in the vital heartland of South Wales, and the right-wing parliamentary and council careerists.
From this area came some of the finest, most steadfast adherents to Militant and Marxism; the late Muriel Browning, indomitable socialist fighter, shop steward and unwavering in her support for working people in struggle; Andrew Price one of the best socialist orators in the ranks of Militant and steadfast supporter of Marxism, along with key supporters like Alec Thraves, Roy Davies, Dave Reid and many others. It has been for over 30 years one of the bastions of Militant support. In 1982 the South Wales Evening Post reported:
Almost 300 trade unionists and Labour Party members turned up at the ‘Militant’ rally. They heard Mr Peter Taaffe, the editor, outline the programme of Militant and answer Labour’s right-wing allegations of infiltration. (3)
On the other side of Britain, even in an area associated with “champagne socialism”, according to the local newspaper, “Moves against Militant Tendency have been condemned by Hampstead Labour Party.” (4) The East End News carried favourable comments from lan Mikardo, Left MP for Bethnal Green:
Recalling Labour’s national executive committee meeting he says, ‘from 1951 onwards there was never a meeting without some violent attack on the left… Michael’s (Foot) adjective for them was “gruesome”.
The article continued:
Their [Militant’s] policies of a 35-hour week, a £90 minimum wage and the nationalisation of the 200 largest monopolies… may be narrow… but they can hardly be described to fall outside the boundaries of Labour’s own Clause IV part 4, “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. (5)
The annual conferences of UCATT, GMWU, USDAW, the general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union and such bodies as the Glasgow district committee of the AUEW all opposed the witch-hunt.
Militant’s warning that the witch-hunt was linked to the attempt to shift Labour Party policy to the right was borne out by the preamble to the publication of Labour’s Programme for 1982. It read:
“A Labour government could not possibly implement all the policies contained here in its first term of office”.
The Financial Times reported that this had been inserted at the behest of
“the Shadow Cabinet which was concerned that the left might have used the programme to commit a Labour government to introducing impractical policies” (6)
The NEC, as widely expected, went ahead in June with measures which could eventually lead to the expulsion of Militant supporters. This was taking place against the background of a run-up to a general election. But the right was determined to “seize the time”. Denis Healey at the National Executive Committee declared “it’s not a witch-hunt – it’s a Militant hunt”. (7)
The Hayward-Hughes report, named after the chief officers of the NEC who had “investigated” Militant, was passed by 16 votes to ten, and found former leftwingers Neil Kinnock and Joan Lester in the camp of the right. Former left Alex Kitson from the Transport and General Workers’ Union, alongside party leader Michael Foot, also supported the first steps toward a witch-hunt.
Yet Foot had outlined in his biography of Nye Bevan that the very same charge of organising a “party within a party”, was the right’s accusation against Bevan in the 1950s. Kinnock, seeking to justify his support for the right, asserted that Militant was “mobilised dishonesty and organised menace”. (8) We answered:
Is it honest to stand for election to the NEC as a left winger and then vote consistently with the right wing on all major issues? Is it honest to maintain, as Neil Kinnock did, that ideas were not the issue and then to vote for the suppression of the LPYS pamphlet Ideals of October [about the 1917 Russian revolution and its Stalinist degeneration] because its contents were ‘Trotskyist’? (9)
The swing towards the right of former lefts was also indicated in the vote of the Tribune group of Labour MPs, by 23 to 20, to accept the Hayward-Hughes report. The Tribune newspaper itself, at that stage much more critical of the Labour Party leadership, described the parliamentary Tribune group as “dead”.
The contradictory position within the Labour Party was underlined by the fact that while Militant was being witch-hunted the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party was forced to sanction a Labour Party party political broadcast on the problems of Britain’s youth. It featured interviews with LPYS members and brought in a flood of membership applications. Over 600 calls were answered on the night of the broadcast alone. Two-thirds of these were of YS age, proving that, “given the resources to get our message across, the potential for building Labour’s youth movement is boundless”. (10)
The broadcast also underlined the massive support for socialist policies in the ranks of the party. Militants growth in support amongst Black and Asian youth was reflected in the LPYS Black Youth conference which took place in July and attracted 130 to the event organised at County Hall in London. No other organisation in Britain was capable of making such gains amongst Black and Asian youth.
In the Women’s Sections the ideas of Militant also found increasing support. The Labour Party Women’s conference in Newcastle was the biggest in history and over 80 attended our Militant Readers’ meeting.
At the same time, a ferocious battle was developing in industry particularly amongst healthworkers and railworkers. An all-out strike of ASLEF workers had begun in June. The issue of flexible rostering – in effect an attempt to lengthen the working day – was at the heart of British Rail’s attacks on the railworkers. Militant demanded that:
“The TUC pull together all the muscle of the working class to back up health and railworkers with a 24-hour general strike; we can start the real battle and turn BR’s execution threats into the death knell of this Tory government.” (11)
Healthworkers came out in a series of strikes for a desperately needed increase of 12 per cent in pay. On 23 June a one-day strike was declared in the North Last which received enormous support from healthworkers. From 19-21 July, three days of action were organised by healthworkers throughout the country to underline
their claims. This received big support and mass demonstrations also took place. Yet when the movement was at its height the TUC stepped in on “Black Sunday” (20 July) to force ASLEF to terminate their strike. We commented:
It has been reported that the Finance and General Purposes Committee [of the TUC] had, disgracefully, even raised the threat of the expulsion [from the TUC] of ASLEF, [unless the strike was terminated]. (12)
We drew a parallel with what was happening in the Labour Party:
Those TUC leaders who have been the most consistent advocates of a purge of Militant from the Labour Party are the same people who have reneged on the interests of ASLEF members in this strike. Militant supporters are ‘guilty’ of fighting for exactly what ASLEF members and workers need – for a bold and determined leadership in the Labour Party and trade unions. (13)
Off To Wembley
Notwithstanding these important developments Militant was still compelled to devote considerable space and the efforts of its supporters to mobilising against the attempts to carry through expulsions.
The paper decided to call a labour movement conference to be organised in September 1982, this was to demonstrate the strength of feeling against the witch-hunt, prior to the vital Labour Party conference. This conference took place on 11 September at the Wembley Conference Centre. It was without doubt one of the most decisive events in the history of Militant both before and since. It was a powerful demonstration of the roots which Militant had built up in all sections of the working class and labour movement.
Nearly 3,000 delegates and visitors packed out Wembley Conference Centre to express their determined opposition to the proposed register and the threat of expulsions. Tony Saunois, the chair of the event, reported that 1,622 delegates from Constituency Labour Parties, 412 trade union delegates and almost 1,000 visitors were in attendance. The conference had a stunning effect:
The size of the crowd at the packed Wembley Conference Centre surprised Militant’s critics, even on the left, who had said there was not enough support for the group… to fill the place. (Mail on Sunday, 12 September 1982.) (14)
Another right-wing rag, the News of the World, commented:
By any yardstick yesterday’s rally by supporters of the Militant Tendency was menacingly impressive… Almost as big as the Labour Party itself could muster. (15)
Even Labour Weekly, then the official journal of the Labour Party, grudgingly admitted:
The size of the Saturday conference “Fight the Tories not the Socialists”, organised by supporters of Militant, is a worry to those people hoping for easy expulsions of a few prominent Militants from the Labour Party. (16)
This conference received massive TV and press coverage. The statement of myself, speaking in the morning session when I declared “for every one they expel ten will take their place”, was featured in TV and Radio broadcasts.
The conference had been called very quickly by seven Labour parties, with arrangements being made in the summer period of July and August. In view of this the size and mood at the conference was a triumph for the organisers. It was, moreover, a very broad labour movement conference. Les Huckfield won tremendous applause when he said: “We are the Labour Party.” Many non-Militant supporters who took a principled position against the witch-hunt spoke. Bob Wright, assistant general secretary of the AUEW, blamed the right wing for the “Cold War” that was being waged on the party. Ken Livingstone, then leader of the Greater London Council, declared at the conference:
The people fighting to get rid of Militant, were previously fighting alongside those who deserted to the SDP in London. They were to spread their nets as far as Tribune and the GLC to make the Party safe again for traitors. Militant supporters had fought for cheap fares, he said, not those attacking Militant. (17)
Terry O’Neill, President of the Bakers’ Union, declared:
When Pat Wall is the candidate for Bradford North I will go to Bradford and go on the doorsteps to tell people that Pat is a fighter for the working class. (18)
Nevertheless, the right wing were hell bent on introducing the proposed register of “non-affiliated groups” as the first step of the purge. In September the battle lines were drawn between right and left for the upcoming conference in October. The main spokespersons of the right abandoned any pretence that Militant was being attacked for its organisational structure and zeal. It was its politics and ideas which they objected to.
That the register was a device for taking action against Militant was shown by the fact that we had been given until 21 September to register, while everyone else was given until 31 December. Failure to register, party leader Foot made clear, would result in immediate expulsions. At the same time general secretary, Jim Mortimer had written to constituencies saying the register would not apply to “organisations which include both members of the Labour Party and persons who are not members of the Labour Party.” As Militant commented:
This leaves the Labour Party in the ludicrous position of banning groups that consist of long-standing loyal and hard-working party members, yet tolerating party pressure groups that include Tory MPs, businessmen, international tycoons or representatives of the Pentagon. (19)
Labour Party Conference
The Labour Party conference of 1982 was a tumultuous affair. In the conference and outside sharp exchanges took place between the left and the right, both on the issue of the proposed purge and on Party policy.
During the conference itself a special live edition of the TV programme This Week, with 14 Million viewers, saw myself and Tony Mulhearn debate with right-wing Labour MP, Austin Mitchell and prospective parliamentary candidate, John Spellar, before a live audience of delegates and visitors.
At the Tribune fringe meeting Neil Kinnock was given a roasting because of his decision to line up with the right wing. Constantly heckled during the meeting to explain his position on the register, Kinnock kept promising, “I’ll come to that”, but never actually got round to mentioning the register.
Instead, juggling with various definitions of “earnest” and “serious” socialists, he treated the audience to several long quotations from Professor Hobsbawn’s book The Forward March of Labour Halted. This ‘thoughtful’ but pessimistic Communist Party academic was claiming that there was a big swing to the right in the country and therefore the left should beat a retreat and compromise with the right. Joan Maynard, implacable leftwinger, from the chair, declared bluntly:
“There is only one division that matters within the Labour Party, between socialists and non-socialists.”
She went on to answer Kinnock’s charge of “hitlists”, that it was Kinnock himself who had started the hitlists by attacking Tony Bonn for standing in the deputy leadership contest. His abstention had been in reality a vote for Denis Healey. The volume of applause left no doubt of the audience’s support for this devastating answer to Kinnock. (20)
At the conference itself Jim Mortimer read out the list of the alleged policies of Militant, which bore no relationship to the truth. Militant were declared to be in opposition to unilateral nuclear disarmament, against rights for women, “soft” on the gay and lesbian issues, etc. The best answer to this diatribe came in the debate on unilateral disarmament which was opened by Militant supporter, Sue Beckingham, delegate from Bristol South East, moving a resolution which clearly stated that the next Labour Government should “carry out the unilateral disarmament of nuclear weapons”. Sue was cheered when she attacked Callaghan, Healey and other former Cabinet Ministers who had secretly agreed to the updating of Polaris. (21)
Sue Beckingham was one of the most committed and self-sacrificing of Militant supporters almost from its inception. Even while she spoke at this conference she was suffering from cancer that was to prematurely and tragically end her life.
The 1982 conference in terms of the voting on the register marked a shift towards the right.
The right now had a 19 to 10 majority on the national executive committee. Some “soft lefts” who had gone along with the right, like Joan Lester, were actually knocked off the NEC. This reflected the anger of the rank and file over their desertion to the camp of the right. Pat Wall, twice selected as parliamentary candidate for Bradford North, got 103,000 votes, a substantial increase on the figure that he received the previous year.
The register, predictably, was passed by 5.1 million votes to 1.5 million. This did not accurately reflect the mood of the rank and file of either the unions or the Labour Party. Right-wing trade union leaders shamefully and blatantly used the block vote to back up the right-wing purge. But this was at the cost of splits in many union delegations, with some of the biggest unions only voting narrowly in favour of the register.
The miners voted 29 to 20 for the register and the Transport and General Workers’ Union delegation, contrary to its own executive’s position, voted 21 to 13 in favour. Significantly, a number of unions voted against the register and a witch-hunt: NUPE, UCATT, ASLEF, SOGAT 82, the FBU, the Bakers, the Boilermakers, AUEW-TASS, and the Agricultural Workers.
Notwithstanding the acceptance of the register, the mood of the rank-and-file was unmistakably towards the left as the conference debates on policy and programme demonstrated. There was big support for Joan Maynard when she declared during a conference debate: “The Tories don’t talk about class war because they are too busy practising it.” (22)
We Try To Register
Following the conference and despite serious objections to the register, Militant decided to reply to the questions sent to the Editorial Board as a step toward registering. To the question “what are the aims of the group” we declared:
We support the basic socialist aim of the Labour Party embodied in Clause IV, Part 4 of the constitution… We are committed to fighting for the return of a Labour government on the basis of a socialist programme.
We fully support the implementation of Labour’s programme and the radical policies adopted by conference… Militant also believes that the struggle for socialism is international. We support the struggle throughout the capitalist countries for the socialist transformation of society.
We support the struggle of the workers, peasants and all exploited people of the ex-colonial and semi-colonial countries against imperialism and its puppets, but we believe that national and social liberation can only be carried through on the basis of international socialist perspectives.
In the Stalinist states of Russia, Eastern Europe and China which have nationalised, centrally planned economies but are ruled over by totalitarian, one-party dictatorships, we support the struggle for workers’ democracy. (23)
The reply also went on to declare:
We entirely refute the idea that we breach Clause 11(3) of the constitution. We do not have our ‘own programme, principles and policy for distinctive and separate propaganda’.
Militant has always urged support for Labour’s duly selected council and parliamentary candidates regardless of their views within the party. We are urging our supporters in the Birmingham area, for instance, to work for John Spellar, Labour’s candidate in the Northfield by-election on 28 October, regardless of his vociferous support at Conference for witch-hunting measures against Militant…
Our position is in marked contrast to that of groups like Solidarity, Manifesto and other right-wing groups which are opposed to the implementation of Clause IV, part 4, and many key elements of Labour’s current programme. (24)
The reply gave answers to all the questions asked on the issue of how Militant’s organised. In answer to the “charge” that Militant was guilty of the crime of being organised internationally the Editorial Board replied:
As internationalists we have contacts with co-thinkers in many countries. We contribute articles to Marxist journals abroad, and we regularly publish articles by socialists active in other countries.
The right wing of the Labour Party also has international links. But there is a “small” difference between us and the right. Our contacts are within the international labour movement; the right has links with international organisations and journals which are supported and financed by the enemies of the labour movement, like the Labour Committee for Trans-Atlantic Understanding, the European Movement, the Bilderberg Group, the International Institute of Strategic Studies, and other bodies backed directly or indirectly by the CIA or the US Government.
We believe it is high time the Labour Party conducted a thorough investigation into the right’s sinister connections. (25)
As to where Militant receives its funds:
Militant is entirely financed by its own supporters within the Labour Party and the trade unions… Militant supporters are among the most active and energetic in working to build the Labour Party Young Socialists, to increase Labour Party membership, and to develop campaigning activity. Through this activity we help to bring enormous additional funds into the party. Our supporters also take their share of collecting subscriptions, organising jumble sales and socials, and other fund-raising work. (26)
The reply contrasted this activity with that of the right wing:
While the total income and expenses of Labour MPs at Westminster and in the European Parliament must be in the region of £5-£6 million (apart from consultancies, directorships, TV appearances, etc.) they are estimated to be contributing a mere £15,000 to the Labour Party annually.
A modest levy from Labour’s 238 MPs and 17 MEPs would wipe out Labour’s current financial deficit at a stroke! Militant advocates that Labour MPs should be prepared to represent the labour movement and the working class on the average wage of a skilled worker, plus legitimate expenses. All the rest of their salaries and expenses should be donated back to the labour movement. (27)
The reply also took the opportunity to refute Jim Mortimer’s attack on Militant’s alleged policies at the 1982 conference.
You [Mortimer] attacked our ‘mistaken’ views on nuclear disarmament… Yet our recent pamphlet What We Stand For restates our consistent position on this: “Massive cuts in arms spending… support for unilateral nuclear disarmament, but with the recognition that only a socialist change in society in Britain and internationally can eliminate the danger of a nuclear holocaust”…
we were particularly surprised, moreover, that during your speech you asserted that Militant supporters were “the ideological allies of the right wing of the Conservative Party”.
This was on the grounds that we allegedly opposed ‘Detente’, that is discussion between the superpowers on arms reductions. We find this incredible. Who in their right mind could oppose negotiations between the powers to reduce nuclear arsenals?
We support any attempt to reduce the danger of war and cut the grotesque waste of arms spending. However, we do not believe that talks between the powers will ever really eliminate the danger of war, as all the unsuccessful talks and agreements of the last 30 years show…
In your speech you also implied that we were opposed to the struggle of women and blacks. Again, this a complete distortion of our position. In What We Stand For, we call for “Opposition to discrimination on the basis of sex… for equal pay for work of equal value; for a crash programme to build nurseries, schools, etc.”
Militant supporters, moreover, have been prominent in building the Women’s Sections of the Labour Party and in bringing working-class women into activity in the Labour Party and trade unions.
In What We Stand For we also call for ‘Opposition to racism and fascism and all racist immigration laws… we also recognise that only by unifying black and white workers in the struggle for socialist change will racism and fascism be effectively abolished.”
The allegation that we do not support the struggle of blacks is particularly ironic in view of the record of Militant supporters in the Labour Party Young Socialists, a section of the labour movement which has an unparalleled record in fighting against racist and fascist organisations and in campaigning for the demands of black and Asian workers and youth.
There were also allegations that Militant has attacked trade union leaders and Labour ministers as “renegades” and “traitors” to the working class.
We challenge you to substantiate this allegation. Where in all our published material have we used language of this kind in relation to the trade union leadership or past Labour governments?
We have always fought for the return of a Labour government. Militant has consistently repudiated the ultra-left idea that it “makes no difference” whether there is a Labour or Tory government. We supported all previous Labour governments, and welcomed the reforms they introduced.
But we have also repeatedly warned that, on the basis of capitalism, especially today’s diseased British capitalism, it is impossible for Labour governments to secure permanent improvements for the working class. (28)
The National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in November had decided, notwithstanding Militant’s reply, to begin the proceedings for the expulsion of the five members of Militant Editorial Board: Ted Grant, Peter Taaffe, Clare Doyle, Lynn Walsh, and Keith Dickinson. Between them they had a collective membership of the Labour Party of 121 years.
The NEC also decided that those prospective parliamentary candidates who “support the ideas of Militant will be investigated”. This proposal was only carried by 12 votes to 11 and was opposed by Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Tony Bonn, John Evans, Frank Allaun, Laurence Coates, Judith Hart, Jo Richardson, Tom Sawyer, Dennis Skinner and Audrey Wise. We commented: “The purge will not stop at Militant. It will grow to other left groups within the party”. (29)