AFTER MUCH discussion the Militant Editorial Board reluctantly concluded that it was necessary to take legal action against the right wing to secure our democratic rights.
This naturally was a controversial decision which earned the ire both of the right-wing and of ultra-left groups.
At the outset even within the ranks of Militant there was not universal acceptance of this position. However, through debate and discussion, the overwhelming majority of Militant supporters supported the proposal for legal action suggested by the Editorial Board.
The right-wing labour and trade union leaders were in no position to complain about legal action. They had never hesitated to go the capitalist courts against Militant and its supporters. The left in Britain have on occasions been given no other choice but to take legal action against infringements by the right of the rules of unions.
Militant gave the example of the Boilermakers’ Society, where action had been taken on two occasions. The London Central Branch of the Electricians’ Union was currently challenging its leadership in the courts.
Militant did not believe that this was the main way to fight the witch-hunt. At best it was an auxiliary which could temporarily stay the hand of the right wing and allow time to build up support amongst the ranks to prevent a purge, or at least limit its scope. Michael Foot, party leader, denounced Militant for taking this action.
But in his biography of Aneurin Bevan he shows that when Bevan was faced with a similar situation, expulsion from the Labour Party, he threatened to go to “the highest court in the land”. This was because he considered he was being treated in an unconstitutional manner.
On the day when the Militant Editorial Board was hauled before the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party in December, the case for a temporary injunction to restrain the NEC was heard and rejected by Mr Justice Nourse. The judge did not reject Militant’s arguments but said that the Editorial Board should have gone to court when the Hayward-Hughes report had first been published in August 1982. He also stated that Militant should have gone to court to demand a fair hearing before the party conference at the end of September. The paper’s contention that the Editorial Board had not been given the evidence, or sufficient details of the evidence, was accepted by the judge.
The meeting with the National Executive Committee in December 1982, was both a farce and a travesty of natural justice. The general secretary, Jim Mortimer, unbelievably refused the request to outline the alleged evidence proving that Militant was a separate organisation.
The Editorial Board members and the left at the NEC were astonished to discover that no such statement would be forthcoming. NEC members, in the meeting prior to the Editorial Board entering the room, had been told that they were to be prevented from asking questions. This was confirmed by the Chair, Sam McCluskie, in the Editorial Board’s presence. The Editorial Board protested about the procedure and it was then decided that the NEC would have to re-discuss the question and therefore we withdrew into another room.
When we returned to the meeting of the NEC we were told that Mortimer would then make a statement. This merely amounted to him reading out extracts from his speech to the Labour Party conference and part of a letter which had been sent to Militant’s solicitors five days before.
There was absolutely nothing new in this material. At one stage Dennis Skinner burst out that this was merely a “kangaroo court”, a claim which was substantiated by the proceedings which followed. Skinner withdrew from the meeting after Lynn Walsh asked McCluskie and Mortimer to state what changes they required Militant to make in the alleged structure of the newspaper.
He pointed out that discussions had been held with the previous general secretary, Ron Hayward, and we had agreed to consider changes in how Militant organised. Objections had been made that Militant’s sellers’ rally, organised nationally each year, was restricted to supporters of the Militant. We subsequently gave an undertaking to open these meetings up to the Labour Party rank and file and to the media. But the request for further clarification was met with a stony silence.
Under protest the five Editorial Board members then proceeded to outline their opposition to the claims made in the NEC motion for them to be excluded from the party.
After this we then withdrew, and the five of us were then summoned to face expulsion at the NEC to take place in February. This was another farce and as expected, the right-wing used their majority to carry through the Militant Editorial Board’s expulsion from the Labour Party, in the full glare of massive media publicity.
The right wing took this action, in the knowledge that it was bound to split the Party, on the eve of the vital Bermondsey by-election.
This was widely seen as a test run for the general election. Bermondsey Labour Party together, with 50 or 60 other Labour Party bodies, had approached Cambridge Heath Press, which printed Militant, to print some of their election material.
This became the excuse for a further hue and cry against Militant and the Left. At the same time, the right pursued a policy of distancing themselves from the Labour candidate Peter Tatchell. This, together with the dirty anti-gay publicity against Tatchell, largely through a Liberal whispering campaign, resulted in the defeat of Labour in what was once a solid Labour seat.
During the by-election the press had given their blessing to John O’Grady, the so-called ‘Real Labour’ candidate. When it became clear that he could not beat Peter Tatchell, there was a decisive and orchestrated switch of O’Grady and his supporters towards Simon Hughes, the Liberal candidate.
It was no secret in the corridors of Westminster that the majority of Labour MPs actually wanted a Labour defeat. Responsibility for this defeat clearly lay on the shoulders of the right. Bermondsey had become a ‘rotten Borough’ under the rule of the Labour right, typified by the former MP for the area Bob Mellish. He chaired the London Docklands Development Corporation. This body presided over disasters for the inhabitants in the area. This was one reason for the switch of Labour supporters towards the Liberals. One worker commented:
Some people keep saying it was the press that lost Labour the seat, but there’s more to it than that. We are not stupid here you know, we know what’s going on. You’ve got to see what has happened over the past. I’ve been Labour all my life. I’m almost ashamed to admit to you that I voted for the Liberals. I know that they are not socialist, but something had to be done. Labour’s taken us for granted for too many years. Sixty years they have been in here and look at it! They have let the area run down. (1)
Reinstate the Five!
Following the expulsion of the Editorial Board members a massive counter-campaign was launched in late February and March by supporters of the Militant. In two weeks more than 3,000 workers came to meetings addressed by EB members and more than £3,500 was raised in collections.
The tone of our paper was to emphasise opposition to capitalism and the Tories. Unlike some journals we did not go in for denunciations of our opponents but attempted to explain issues and to win fresh layers of workers, sometimes criticising, in a positive way, the inadequacies of the left leaders. Militant did not close its eyes to the deficiencies of left leaders like Tony Benn, Dennis Skinner or even Arthur Scargill. This undoubtedly irritated these leaders, who are more used to uncritical acclaim from those on the left, rather than constructive criticism.
We also took every opportunity to win support for our ideas. One such example of our approach was a meeting held in March 1983 in the mining area of Newbridge, Gwent, South Wales. Tony Benn addressed a mass meeting of 700, which Militant supporters along with others had prepared for by going out to the pits and the villages to build support. The battle within the Labour Party was not an end in itself but was to prepare a mass force to back up workers in struggle.
In complete contradiction of what they had argued only a month or so before, the Labour right wing did not hesitate to resort to the “capitalist courts” in an attempt to cripple Militant. James White, Labour MP for Glasgow Pollok, took out a libel writ against Militant for reporting on a dispute involving workers in a firm jointly owned by him and his wife. For good measure he also took similar action against the Glasgow Herald.
White’s allies in the trade unions, the right-wing general secretary of APEX, Roy Grantham and side-kick Denis Howells MP, used this incident to demand that Militant be placed on a “proscribed list”. It had “slipped their mind” that this infamous right-wing device for excluding the Left from the Labour Party had been abandoned in 1973!