The Fight against the Witchhunt

Chapter thirty


IN BRITAIN political martyrs were being created by the actions of the right wing of the Labour Party who were continuing a relentless campaign against the leaders of the Liverpool council struggle.

The right wing of the Labour Party prepared to expel them from the party, while the District Auditor prepared the ground to drive them from office. The months of December 1985 and January 1986 was the time of the “Great Slander”, as the attacks on Liverpool reached a peak. The Liverpool struggle, like the miners’ strike, illuminated the gross bias of the capitalist-controlled media in the modern epoch.

Every single leader of Militant at local and national level was singled out in a campaign of unprecedented personal vilification. The TV programme World in Action was perhaps the worst example, with a vicious character assassination of Derek Hatton undertaken by so-called “investigative journalists”. 

Any attempt by Derek Hatton to reply on the programme to the accusations made were either edited out or he was shouted down. Even the Sunday Times, not noted for its sympathies with Militant, admitted: “This was not an interview, this was an interrogation.” (1)

The unprecedented media barrage was grist to the mill of the right wing. They dropped any pretence of fairness or that an unbiased approach would be adopted. This was summed up by Tom Sawyer, who, speaking at the national executive committee of the Labour Party in February, 1986 said, “I defy anyone to tell me how you can go to Liverpool and defeat Militant by argument.” (2)

It was clear that brutal organisational measures, a mass purge, was on the agenda irrespective of any outcome of the inquiry. Kinnock, demonstrating clear personal spite – fatal for any political leader – was carried away by his ‘war’ against Militant.

One of his aides said on Granada Television, “Kinnock hates Militant more than he hates the Tories.” (3)

The NEC inquiry was to drag on for almost a year and was to bedevil and split the labour movement throughout this period. The capitalist media had a field day in creating the impression of a Labour Party divided and riddled with “loony lefts” and “crooks”. The dispiriting, not to say demoralising, effect of these developments on the labour movement was expressed in the Tynebridge parliamentary by-election on 5 December 1985. Labour won but with a turnout of only 38 per cent.

The Times demanded a far wider purge. Its editorial comment singled out Diane Abbott and Bernie Grant for expulsion. We correctly warned that “the attempt to purge the Labour Party of Marxism could cause Labour to lose the next general election.” (4)

While the NEC Turnock enquiry was taking place Militant supporters did not sit on their hands waiting for the blow to fall. On the contrary, an enormous fight back campaign was launched throughout the country. This kicked off with an enthusiastic meeting of 800 people who poured into the Manchester Free Trade Hall to hear Derek Hatton and myself, together with John Tocher, Broad Left candidate for the AUEW presidential elections.

This was followed by meetings of more than 1,000 in London, 1,300 in Glasgow, 1,300 in Edinburgh, 1,000 in Newcastle and one of the biggest meetings of the labour movement in Sheffield, of 700. Even in Neil Kinnock’s constituency of Islwyn, 500 workers turned out to greet enthusiastically the speeches of Derek Hatton and myself at a meeting in a local school hall. The mean minded local right-wing supporters of Kinnock on the local council took their revenge later by prosecuting me, as editor of the Militant, for posters which had been put up advertising the rally, for which we were fined £400.

These meetings were attended by more than 50,000 workers and comprised the biggest meetings since the miners’ strike, in some areas the biggest for 40 years.

These events prepaired Militant to face up to the witch-hunt that was under way in Liverpool. Despite the fact that at least 100 Constituency Labour Parties, four District Labour Parties, 65 trade union organisations, 15 Women’s Sections, over 100 branch Labour Parties, 107 LPYS branches and nine Labour Clubs had passed resolutions against the witch-hunt and the Liverpool enquiry, the right wing and the “soft left” were hell-bent on expelling the Liverpool Militants. 

After 60 hours of questioning 120 Labour Party members, tens of thousands of pounds wasted on wages, hotel bills, fares, including air flights to Liverpool and Scotland, the investigation team did not produce a single shred of evidence to back up the dirty allegations of “physical abuse” or “literal corruption” made against Liverpool Militant supporters. Moreover, the inquiry team where sharply divided. Two members, Audrey Wise and Margaret Beckett, rejected the witch-hunting measures of the right-wing majority and produced a minority report.

The report of the majority repeated some allegations, but in a roundabout, vague and nit-picking way. Tucked away in it was the admission:

The investigation team do not take seriously all allegations of Militant activities in Liverpool… However, there are undoubtedly a large number of supporters of the broad line taken by the Militant in Liverpool, and others who are prepared to go along with most of the policies, particularly whilst Militant has appeared to be the only credible focus of left-wing activity within the party in Merseyside. (5)

The majority report concluded that 16 party members be re-invited to answer questions, with the clear implication that expulsions would follow. The DLP was suspended and two full-time officers were appointed to police the party. In place of the DLP was appointed a “Temporary Co-ordinating Committee”. 

In place of the democracy of the DLP, with massive attendances of 700 or more, deliberate steps were taken to restrict attendances. So much for the argument that Militant and the left supported the idea of “small unrepresentative caucuses” and that the right wing of the party stand for “mass involvement”. 

Indeed, the subsequent history of the Labour Party from 1986 onwards demonstrates irrefutably that while the right wing would like a “mass” paper membership, like the devil fearing holy water, they are opposed to the mass involvement of ordinary members in the running and control of the party.

The minority report of Beckett and Wise, while making a number of proposals about the reorganisation and efficient running of the DLP, completely opposed the main recommendations of the majority. It warned of the “terrible dangers” of expulsions based on unprovable assertions. The right-wing majority on the NEC however were impervious to such warnings. The capitalists, through their press and media, had made it clear that the litmus test for Labour’s “fitness to govern” was the expulsion of Militant and the neutering of the left.

At this time George Robertson MP, leading light of the right-wing Solidarity group, had called for an investigation into Tony Benn because of his opposition to NATO. The Labour Party’s head of information, Peter Mandelson, even approached the BBC’s Question Time programme to try and get Tony Benn taken off the panel in the week when the expulsion issue was coming up at the NEC. (6)

1,000 lobby NEC

On the morning of 26 February, the day when the NEC was to meet to consider the DLP enquiry reports more than 1,000 workers, Militants and non-Militants, gathered in a massive display of opposition to the NEC outside the Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road.

Someone blundered: Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn were waiting in a room at the front of the building. Not ones to miss an opportunity, they opened the window and waved to the crowds – a scene transmitted by all television channels.

At the NEC Eric Heffer spoke for virtually all Labour Party members at that time in Liverpool when he said to Kinnock: “I shall never forgive you for what you’ve done to my party and Liverpool.” (7)

The right wing throughout the enquiry had promised a proper opportunity for any “defendant” to challenge any spiteful smears and allegations made against him. One of the charges against Derek Hatton was that he was a “full-time or part-time worker for the Militant Tendency”. Yet everybody knew that he worked for Knowsley Borough Council.

It was quite clear that the show trial being prepared by the right-wing majority on the NEC would not conform to natural justice.

While at the same time conducting a massive campaign within the ranks of the movement in opposition to expulsions the “Liverpool 12”, the most prominent “defendants” decided to seek an injunction in the High Court to prevent the NEC from proceeding. Those charged had not been allowed to see the evidence, they would not be allowed witnesses in their defence and moreover the nine members of the enquiry team would not be able to vote impartially at the NEC meeting because it was they that had drawn up the charges against the accused.

Just 24 hours before the NEC were due to meet, a High Court Judge had likened the NEC proceedings as similar to those of a “supergrass” system. This judgement threw the leadership into turmoil. A sensible leadership would have cancelled the proceedings in order to ponder the implications of the judgement. Not so Kinnock and the right-wing majority of the NEC. 

Kinnock’s attempt to proceed resulted in the most open, public and visible split in the NEC of the Labour Party ever seen. Frances Curran, Tony Benn, Eric Heffer, Eric Clarke, Jo Richardson, Joan Maynard and Dennis Skinner dramatically walked out of the meeting making it inquorate. The left members of the NEC who had walked out of this “Star Chamber” received the same kind of vilification which the Liverpool Militants had been subjected to over months and years.

The Financial Times gave a hint at why Militant had been successful:

Tireless dedication and hard work for the party and potential voters was a principal means through which Militant deservedly accrued a moral basis for its power in Liverpool. Will the less politically zealous be able to find the same energy? Constitutional battles still have to be fought at a practical level. (7)

The NEC in effect was forced to drop the majority report and completely changed tack. They would no longer be relying on the majority report as evidence. They also altered the charges in pursuing the 12 members of the Liverpool labour movement. The evidence that the NEC would now use consisted of advertisements and leaflets for Militant meetings, and press reports of these meetings and rallies. The pretence of the 12 being expelled for “malpractices” in the running of the DLP, “intimidation” and “reprehensible trade union nomination rights” was exposed. The main criteria for carrying through expulsions was that people like Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn had spoken at “Militant meetings”.

And yet it had been revealed that Kinnock himself had spoken on a platform at a meeting organised by Militant supporters at Swansea University in October 1980! At that meeting attended by 150 people Neil Kinnock had even given £5 to the Militant Fighting Fund.

In a witch-hunting atmosphere the NEC met on the 21 May to consider for the tenth time the first of the cases, that of Tony Mulhearn. Despite his effective rebuttal of all the charges he was duly expelled at 1 o’clock in the morning. The next day Ian Lowes was expelled.

In an attempt to create a smoke screen of ‘fairness’ they dropped the charges against Harry Smith. On going into the NEC he introduced the “friend” he was allowed to have with him: “This is George Knibb: it’s a pen name.” A Liverpool Militant with a sense of humour! This impression was reinforced when Larry Whitty said to Harry, “I suppose you know everyone here?” Harry replied: “Yes, I watch Spitting Image!” Afterwards the right tried to give the impression that Harry Smith had given “assurances” to the meeting, but when he left the NEC he made it absolutely clear that he would continue to support Militant and appear at Militant meetings in exactly the same way as before. (8)

The majority report had cost the NEC in total £100,000, £35,000 per expulsion. Derek Hatton was finally expelled in his absence (while on council business) in late June. Back in Liverpool the party refused to accept the expulsions. Tony Mulhearn’s constituency Garston voted by 46 votes to two not to recognise, “this insane action of the right-wing dominated NEC.”

Pat Wall wins again

Pat Wall had been selected once more as the parliamentary candidate for Bradford North by the June NEC and he was endorsed when expulsions of other Militant supporters were taking place. This contradiction arose from the fact that we still enjoyed colossal support amongst the ranks of the Labour Party and the unions. 

The right wing were prepared to go against the views of the members of their own party in the case of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn because of the ferocious pressure exerted by Thatcher, the Tories and their media. But in the case of Pat Wall his popularity was so widespread, built up over years of campaigning for Labour, a marvellous speaker at Labour Party conferences, that an attempt to block his nomination or even expel him would have provoked an even greater uproar than in other cases. 

Even these considerations were to be swept aside later on when Terry Fields and Dave Nellist were drummed out of the party despite their immense popularity. Pat Wall did not live to see these events. Having been selected in 1986 and elected in 1987, he would have met the same fate as Dave and Terry in 1991-1992.

An example of the great popularity of leading Militant spokespeople was shown at the Durham Miners gala in July. Derek Hatton had been invited to march with the Wearmouth Lodge, despite the fact that he had suffered a broken leg playing football. He hobbled on crutches at the head of their contingent. A local paper reported:

Derek Hatton, expelled from the Labour Party for supporting the Militant Tendency, got one of the biggest cheers of the day at the Durham Miners’ Gala yesterday. When he marched past the guests standing on the balcony of the Royal County Hotel, Neil Kinnock prominent amongst them, he waved his crutches, and shouted, “You won’t get rid of me that easy, lad.” He was applauded not just by the crowd but by almost all the guests on the balcony. Neil Kinnock looked acutely embarrassed and retreated into the Hotel.10

Militant appeared to be everywhere. Even the sports pages unearthed “Militant activity”, this time in relation to cricket. The Daily Telegraph wrote:

About 100 anti-apartheid protesters chanted slogans and waved banners as England drew their match with Trinidad yesterday… the demonstration [was] against the England side, which includes five players who have been to South Africa… Among the protesters outside the Queen’s Park Oval in Port of Spain was a Militant Tendency supporter, Mr Mark Sarll, 22, an unemployed graduate from Chatham, Kent. “I wanted to show my support for the anti-Apartheid movement here”, he said. (11)

Liverpool local elections

An even more powerful demonstration of Militant’s popularity was shown in the May local elections in Liverpool. We declared:

The election results last week were a disaster for the Tories and a triumph for Labour. But they were also a vindication of Militant and its supporters. (12)

We quoted an editorial in the Liverpool Echo:

However experts may analyse the votes, there is not a shadow of doubt that Liverpool’s Town Hall election results were a success for Militant… Nowhere else were the local issues more sharply defined and more important than in Liverpool… No Scouser could have been under any illusion that a vote for Labour in this city yesterday was a vote for Militant. (13)

The Tories ended the election with only seven seats on the council. But the election also represented a bitter defeat for the Liberals. Of the seven seats the Liberals gained, only one was taken from Labour, in Dingle Ward. Even there Labour only lost by 31 votes with a Communist Party candidate taking 44 votes.

Militant commented:

After the defeat of the council’s budget campaign in November last year, with the impending disqualification of 48 Labour councillors, the threatened expulsion of leading party members and two years of unparalleled vilification, Labour’s vote is little short of marvellous… In Speke, Felicity Dowling, one of those threatened with expulsion, romped home with a majority of 1,800, “Everyone knew exactly who I was and what I stood for”, she commented, “I’ve been identified by the party leadership as undesirable, and 71 per cent disagreed.” (14)

Other councillors identified with Militant also did spectacularly well. Moreover, in other parts of the country Militant supporters were elected to a number of councils. Particularly encouraging were the results in Glasgow, where the victor in the Pollokshields/Shawlands ward was Margaret Dick, “self-confessed Militant supporter”. In Musselburgh, in Edinburgh, Militant supporter, Keith Simpson, was elected to the Lothian Regional Council. In Brighton a Militant supporter was elected to the council as were supporters in North Tyne, the Wirral, Coventry and London.

The right must have been extremely disappointed, as the Labour Party Young Socialists Conference at Easter once more demonstrated the high morale and fighting spirit of our supporters.

The highlight of the conference was the Saturday night “Labour Unity” Rally. As Derek Hatton and other speakers entered the room the audience rose to its feet as one, clapping, whistling and roaring its welcome. When Derek Hatton rose, he was unable to speak for several minutes due to the deafening applause. He challenged Neil Kinnock to a public debate with the time, venue and chair of Kinnock’s choice:

Then the rank and file can decide what they want. Intimidation has become a new word for democracy. If the right win a vote, it’s democracy, if they lose it’s intimidation. (15)

Although Militant, as a consequence of the spread of the witch-hunt, was prevented from holding its traditional readers’ meeting, visitors and delegates still contributed a magnificent £5,341 to the fighting fund in the course of the weekend.

Notwithstanding all of this support Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn, Ian Lowes, Tony Aitman, Richie Venton, Cheryl Varly, Roger Bannister and Terry Harrison were expelled. They were allowed to appeal to the 1986 Labour Party Conference in Blackpool.

They demanded the NEC should allow the media, particularly television and radio, to carry the debate live. When the eight arrived at the conference on the morning of 28 September, they repeated their request. This was refused by the NEC. Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn then led a walk-out of the eight from the Conference Hall. They were met by the world’s press, mingling with many Liverpool Militant supporters cheering them to the echo.

Derek Hatton’s statement was carried in all the papers and on the television that evening:

We are not prepared to give credibility to a farce. We’re not prepared to see a British labour movement that is more akin to Stalinist Russia. (16)

The union block votes were mobilised to crush the Liverpool Militants; but 263 constituencies, nearly half of the total, plus the bakers’ and the furniture workers’ unions still voted against expulsions. The capitalist press the next day outdid themselves in the vitriol directed against the Liverpool Militants. Having exhausted all suitable adjectives to describe Militant supporters – maggots, corrupt, termites, intimidators – the Daily Mirror editor decided that Militant supporters must come from outer space! Its headline read “Defeat of the Aliens”. (17)

In Liverpool, however, the Labour Group still continued to recognise Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn as members. This enraged Kinnock who threatened a wider purge if the expulsions were not accepted. After some discussion and debate and with great reluctance it was agreed amongst Militant supporters to recommend to the broad labour movement that Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn should not attend Labour Party meetings. This was done in order to prevent the closure of Labour Parties and other expulsions of comrades.

Repression against the Liverpool Militants through the Labour Party’s national executive committee enquiry went hand in hand with an open assault by the forces of the capitalist state. We have detailed (in Chapter 21 of Liverpool – a City that Dared to Fight) the spiteful and systematic pursuit of the Liverpool councillors for defending the working class and hard-won rights and services of the city. On 8 September the District Auditor McMahon imposed a £106,000 surcharge against the Liverpool councillors, dismissed them from office, and banned them from holding any office for five years. On the same day, the Lambeth councillors received a surcharge of £126,947 from the Metropolitan District Auditor, Skinner.

The legal appeals of the councillors, although ably presented, were nevertheless turned down by the capitalist courts. The High Court’s decision to uphold the District Auditor’s surcharge and disqualification of the councillors was met with complete silence by the leadership of the Labour Party. We commented on the attitude of the Labour leaders:

While the Tories are using the courts to crucify councillors, Kinnock is mis-using the Labour Party’s constitution to do the same. On the same day that this judgement was made, a Tory minister announced the diversion of £500 million from the cash starved inner cities to the Tory shires. What were the Labour Party and trade union leaders doing? The general secretary of the Labour Party was busy cooking up charges to expel some of these councillors from the Labour Party. (18)

One of the most outstanding aspects of the Liverpool struggle was that following the fining and banning, ordinary workers rallied in support of the councillors with bucket collections in the city centre. Cash also flowed in from trade unions and Labour Parties all over the country in a massive collection to pay the fine. Upwards of £600,000 pounds was collected over a period to pay off the fines of the Liverpool councillors. The campaign to raise money was largely undertaken by Militant supporters, who collected mainly from workers.