Militant at High Tide

Chapter Thirty-One


IN EARLY May Militant reported from Wapping:

Last Saturday, in some of the worst scenes of violence ever seen in this country, the police unleashed a vicious attack on print workers, women and children. Demands were immediately raised to stop Fleet Street. SOGAT London Machine Branch members agreed there and then to push for this… Now should be the time to widen the action and advance to victory. (1)

The trade union leaders, in confining the dispute to News International, were isolating the strike and limiting the strike’s effectiveness. The boycott campaign of Murdoch’s papers was not enough. As the News International bosses felt that they were getting the upper hand, punitive action was taken against those who were in the front line of defending the print workers.

There were numerous arrests on the picket line, including many of our supporters. But the police went beyond the picket line:

On 13 August two police officers arrived at the home of Peter Jarvis, London NGA member and Militant supporter, and arrested him and his baby daughter, who he was minding at the time. Peter was held in custody for ten hours. This was an act of gross political victimisation. (2)

Peter had been named in an injunction by TNT, the firm used by Murdoch for his scabbing operations, alongside five other print union members. This restrained them from “encouraging”, “participating in” or in any way “facilitating” any unlawful gathering outside the TNT premises. 

There was a very quick and effective campaign to get Peter released because there was not the slightest shred of evidence that he had been responsible for actions in any way unlawful. The police attempted to put Peter in a line-up where he would stand out like a sore thumb: 

“I was in an old pair of jeans and an old sweater. All the others had neat trousers and white shirts.” (3)

As a result of mass pressure he was released by the police. The role of Militant supporters was shown in incidents like this. By the beginning of 1987 the Wapping battle had been going on for a year. If anything, the tempo had been stepped up, particularly on the side of the police, who at the end of January once more mercilessly beat demonstrators.

While this was happening the general council of the TUC had in effect abandoned the printworkers and allowed the scab union, the EETPU, who were in collusion with News International at Wapping, to escape scot free. The NUJ leadership had also been hesitant about taking disciplinary action against the Wapping chapels who had repeatedly crossed the picket lines. 

Because the Fleet Street NUJ members made up the bulk of finances for the unions the NUJ leadership trod carefully. In February the union leaders threw in the towel. The year-long fight put up by 5,500 sacked printers had shown the combativity of the working class. It had also shown the lengths to which the bosses’ state would go to defend their interests. 

More than 120,000 police days were given over to the struggle to defend “law and order”. £14 million had been spent on the policing bill – £4.6 million of it on overtime. There had been 1,462 arrests on the picket line and one death, Michael Delany, aged 19, who had slipped under the wheels of a Murdoch truck on his way home from a party. He was not connected with the dispute.

Murdoch in effect doubled his profits to £2 million a week by the use of scabs. Once more an employer had carefully prepared the ground to take on the unions. He had been bolstered by the anti-trade union laws introduced by his friends in Parliament. The union leaders had been warned early on that a battle loomed. There is no doubt that if decisive action had been taken earlier, the whole strike could have been avoided. We commented:

Murdoch’s forces had been concentrated into Wapping. His weakness was elsewhere. The whole News International empire should have been put under siege. But the threats of sequestration hemmed the union in around the confines of Wapping… 

Militant had constantly urged the use of the one asset the courts couldn’t sequestrate – the solidarity of the print workers. To win a victory the strike had to be extended to the other sections. The most vulnerable were the Fleet Street workers, who should have taken solidarity action. 

The union leaders ran scared, conceding to the demands of other proprietors many of which were similar to Murdoch’s. This has resulted in the loss of over 10,000 jobs in Fleet Street… It should be remembered that two print workers Mike Hicks and Bob Shirfield, are still in jail. (4)

Above all, the general council of the TUC backed up the EETPU collusion with management by refusing to expel them from the TUC.

John Macreadie elected

The growing importance of Militant in industry was underlined by developments in the CPSA. The election of John Macreadie as the new general secretary of the union had sent a frisson of fear through the ranks of the right wing, throughout the trade unions generally as well as in government circles. When the results were announced John Ellis, the right wing candidate, commented: 

“I took a short break because I thought it was the last chance I would get for a holiday for some time. I thought I would be general secretary.” (5)

On the most flimsy pretext, the right wing moved to invalidate the results. John Macreadie, nevertheless, declared on national lunch-time TV: “I’m the new general secretary of the CPSA.” (6)

The right trotted out the usual accusations of “ballot rigging”, despite the fact that John Macreadie had been elected in probably the fairest election in the history of the CPSA. The right then proceeded to move heaven and earth to have his election blocked. We reported: “Right wing hijack CPSA”:

The right wing have decided to overturn the democratic wishes of the membership… The members voted for a new leadership, but the right wing have declared no confidence in the membership. They have hijacked the union, putting in the defeated candidate. (7)

A ferocious campaign by the left then opened up in the unions. Legal action was also taken in an attempt to stop the coup of the right wing against the democratic wishes of the members.

However, with the help of the judiciary, the right frustrated the members’ democratic decision in electing John Macreadie. The courts sanctioned the re-run of the election for the general secretary. All the stops were then pulled out in support of John Ellis, the right’s candidate. He won with 42,000 votes to John MacCreadie’s 31,000.

He was helped into power by the splitting tactics of Broad Left 84, dominated by the Communist Party, who put up its own candidate, Geoff Lewtas, who received 13,000 votes. In the House of Commons a right-wing Tory MP, Peter Bruinvels and two other Tory MPs welcomed “the victory of John Ellis in the ballot”. (8) There was a tremendous sense of disappointment amongst left activists in the union. But rather than undermining Militant support it strengthened it for the battles to come.

Indeed, John Macreadie was soon elected onto the general council of the TUC, the first ever Militant supporter to hold this position. At the TUC Congress in September 1987 he emerged as a significant figure, standing for the fighting traditions of trade unionism and opposing the policies of despair summed up in the “New Realism” of the right-wing general council. 

This aroused the ire of the capitalist press. Even before the TUC Congress had finished the London Evening Standard carried the statement of John Ellis CPSA General Secretary under the headline “Militant hounding me out”. 

He complained that “a campaign of vilification and victimisation” had been taken against him; the union had decided that his Opel Senator car was not his and if he wanted a car he should buy one. The new left-wing controlled National Executive Committee of the union had also linked his pay to that of a Senior Principal Secretary in Whitehall and awarded him a £5 per week pay increase. Moreover, his American Express card, to pay for “official union business” was also withdrawn. He received £26,000 per year while many CPSA members were on as little as a £110 per week after tax. (9)

Albert Hall rocked

The by now traditional Militant rally,

was a magnificent success and a sharp rebuff to those who thought that support for the paper was in decline. But more than anything else it was a triumph for political ideas. (10)

For the first time lasers were used at a mass rally in Britain. There was grudging recognition that Militant was here to stay:

The Tendency determined to show that the past year’s setbacks had left it bloodied but unbowed, joined rock-and-roll effects with political rhetoric in a slick and seamless display. (11)

Even the Daily Telegraph commented: “Militant Tendency demonstrate its defiance with a glossy high-tech rally at the Albert Hall.” (12) The Daily Mail followed suit: 

“It was Militant with lasers, cabaret and amplified music which came to London to prove it was not beaten yet.” (13) 

While the Financial Times commented: 

“Militant organised a defiant, full hearted gathering… it remains very much alive and totally unrepentant.” (14)

The fighting fund collection exceeded even the previous year’s incredible target, reaching a final total of almost £35,000. Surprisingly even arch right-winger Frank Chapple in the Daily Mail commented:

 “The spectacular 5,000-strong Militant Tendency rally in London’s Albert Hall was an impressive show of strength.” (15)

Michael Cassell in the Financial Times reported:

About 5,000 Militant supporters gathered to participate in a rally which, with its dramatic laser light show and video review of 1986, displayed a professionalism and passion that easily challenged Labour’s conference at Blackpool. (16)

This journal, one of the main organs of big business, commented on the speeches:

The cheers were reserved for people such as Mr Tony Mulhearn, for 23 years a Labour Party member until his expulsion by Labour’s national executive committee.

 Mr Mulhearn defiantly holding on to his post as President of Liverpool District Labour Party, recited its achievements in Liverpool, including creating 10,000 jobs in the construction industry and building 4,500 new homes…

Mr Peter Taaffe, Editor of Militant and another expelled party member, stated that: “It was a devastating indictment that, after a seven year-long nightmare’ the Tories stood any chance of re-election. 

If the Labour leadership opened a door to another five years of Thatcherism, it would never be forgiven by the working class.” The undisputed hero of the day, however, was Derek Hatton, who said he still spoke, despite the Labour purge, as deputy leader of Liverpool city council. (17)