1987 General Election

Chapter Thirty-two


THE 1980s have been pictured in some quarters as grim years for the labour movement, with little combativity and preparedness to struggle on the part of the working class, reflected in a diminishing number of strikes. 

In truth the early part of the decade was characterised by the bitterest class conflicts Britain had witnessed since the 1926 general strike. Even during the latter part of the decade, as the Reagan/Thatcher “boom” took hold, the preparedness of working people to struggle was evident. 

However, cowed by the anti-trade union laws and the defeat of the miners and the printers, the national trade union leadership invariably raised the white flag. All these ingredients were present during the battle to save Caterpillar in Scotland in 1987. This was a struggle to save one of the last remaining elements of the manufacturing base of the Scottish economy. 

Faced with closure, the Caterpillar workers at the plant at Tanochside decided to occupy. They became a beacon to workers throughout the redundancy ravaged West of Scotland. A big solidarity movement began to develop, shown particularly with cash donations. Militant recorded the magnificent response of workers to the Caterpillar workers’ action. 

We also outlined a strategy for victory. The stewards’ approach was to “politically pressurize Caterpillar management into reversing its closure”. (1) However, after meeting the Scottish Office the management killed off any prospect of withdrawing their closure.

In a series of articles we pointed out that the argument of the management that closure was due to “overcapacity” was false: “The demand for tractors in the Third World is enormous. A publicly owned factory could sell them at non-profit levels to satisfy the demand.” (2)

The solution,

which all socialists must push for, involves continuing the occupation to build a campaign for the nationalisation of the plant. If Thatcher and the Tories can nationalise Johnson-Matthey Bank for £1 and immediately write off hundreds of millions in debt, how can a profit-making factory and its workforce be sacrificed? (3)

In the months that followed the occupation there were huge demonstrations in support of the workers’ occupation. An estimated 8,000 marched through Uddingston just outside Glasgow. Bystanders cheered the demonstration and the LPYS contingent, as ever the most vocal, received tumultuous applause to shouts and songs; “Fight for jobs – Save the Cat” and “We want nationalisation”. 

The Caterpillar workers’ inspiring action provoked sympathy worldwide, with the first steps taken toward an international Caterpillar workers’ combine committee. A mass demonstration of 5,000 in Glasgow at the end of March was followed by the Caterpillar workers voting by a small majority to continue their action. 

But they had not reckoned with the national Labour and trade union leaders. Disgracefully, Neil Kinnock, who had visited the West of Scotland on 30 January, was unable to fit “into his schedule” a visit to the Caterpillar workers. He had actually been at a Labour Party Scottish Executive meeting and then a “Burns supper” in nearby Motherwell.

But the decisive action in ending the occupation came from the leaders of the engineering union, the AEU. In agreement with the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS), they had forced the Joint Occupation Committee to accept an agreement which gave them very little. As the workers went back they declared: “We’ve been sold down the river Jordan” (Bill Jordan was president of the AEU). (4)

In fact the key role in ending the occupation came from Jimmy Airlie, AEU official and then a member of the Communist Party, who threatened to wrest control of the dispute from the JOC and conduct a secret ballot or mass meeting himself. He threatened the workers that unless they accepted the agreement the union would isolate them and remove all financial support.

The role of the right-wing trade union and Labour leaders in battles such as this, and later on the issue of the poll tax, was to undermine the confidence of a section of the Scottish working class in Labour. It also played into the hands of the nationalists. 

Militant, by taking a principled position, backed up by energetic support for workers in struggle, increasingly took on the role which the Communist Party in the past had done; mobilising class fighters who also have an idea of how workers’ struggles can be successfully concluded.

Herald of Free Enterprise

March 1987 witnessed the sinking of the Herald of Free Enterprise, at Zeebrugge. Adding to Militant’s feelings of outrage over the tragedy – entirely due to the employers’ lust for profits – was the knowledge that Geoff Haney, a Militant supporter had been killed. In honouring Geoff, a “Marxist fighter”, we commented:

We should be in no doubt that the real tragedy lies in the fact that those business magnates of P&O Lines who Geoff fought against were responsible for his and over 130 other deaths. (5)

He had been a National Union of Seamen representative, for which he had been continually victimised. He had been to Chile where he witnessed the horrific conditions facing the workers. He had risked his job to protect three Chilean Socialist Party stowaways who were caught on board the ship and locked in the hold. He wrote an article vividly exposing the harsh barbaric tortures of these youth and the cruelty of the shipping company. In lines that are as relevant now, we commented:

some local seamen have said that “it was a matter of ‘when?’ not ‘why?’”… the boat was top-heavy for profit. The danger of water in the car deck is well known. Why else would notices “Not to be opened at sea”, relating to tank covers, be welded to the car deck floor in full view of all employees? (6)

Towards the election

Faced with an approaching general election the attention of the working class and the labour movement was transferred from the industrial to the political plane. The right-wing NEC of the Labour Party were preparing for the election by dealing further blows at the left and particularly against the youth wing of the Labour Party, the Labour Party Young Socialists. The right proposed a series of measures which they calculated would undermine our influence within the LPYS.

All of this was taking place when it was clear that the election of a Labour government could depend on the 6.2 million 18-25 year-olds. Sixty per cent of these had declared that they would not vote, with only 1.1 million intending to vote Labour. One of the reasons for this was the failure of the Labour leadership to adopt a fighting youth programme, as suggested by the LPYS: grants for young people, full-time education for those over 16 and the demand for a minimum wage. However, the attacks of the right could not prevent another succesful LPYS conference at Easter with more than 2,000 young delegates and visitors pouring into Blackpool.

Ron Todd, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers’ Union, declared at the conference that the unions should not run away from taking on the Tories; weakness only encourages people like Thatcher. The Militant Readers’ Meeting was banned from the Conference Hall, but although it was held four miles away and 1,600 came on buses, it was another successful event as shown by the £7,000 fighting fund collection. The conference had become a magnet for all workers seeking assistance in struggles. Strikers from Caterpillar, Moat House, HFW Plastics, Salford Plastics, Ardbride, Keetons, Derby Trader, Hangers and a large delegation from the civil service dispute, all attended the conference.

Elections – Militant vindicated

Soon after came the test of the local elections and general election. Between May 1986 and May 1987 Kinnock and his advisers were obsessed with the need to “root out” and destroy the Liverpool Militants. But it took the Tory House of Lords, which banned Labour councillors from office, to put control of Liverpool city council temporarily in the hands of a Tory/Liberal junta. Some unions voted not to collaborate with an unelected administration. The Liberal-dominated regime went ahead with the restoration of the Mayor’s office, with Lady Doreen Jones, the wife of Liberal leader, Trevor Jones, receiving the chain of office.

Ribald jokes about “jobs for the family” were widespread in the city. The Marxists christened her “Doreen the Brief”. Despite the claims that the “Militant era was buried” the local government election results showed exactly the opposite. In Liverpool, the “loony left” tag would not stick. The council had consistently concentrated on those issues close to the working class of the city: jobs, local council services, education, and the marvellous house building programme.

The real question in the 7 May election: would Labour, with its Marxist leaders, be vindicated for its historic stand in the city? All commentators, without exception, were convinced that Labour was heading for a resounding defeat but Labour with Militant supporters in a prominent position, threw themselves into the campaign and the result on 7 May was a magnificent victory for Labour. In some respects, it eclipsed Labour’s victories in the previous four years. We reported:

Last Friday the phones of Liverpool socialists were buzzing with calls from throughout Britain: What a result! Congratulations, you’ve given us all a real boost in our area. “Last laugh for Labour”, was the Daily Post headline. (7)

“An amazing bounce back after the disqualification of 47 Labour councillors by the House of Lords,” was the dumbfounded admission of the rabidly anti-socialist Liverpool Echo. (8)  Even Norman Tebbit commented: “Quite extraordinary. It’s going to take quite a lot of thinking about for all of us.” (9)

On a night when Labour lost seats to the Tories in Manchester, Blackburn, Crewe and the Midlands, Labour was spectacularly successful in Liverpool. Election pundit Anthony King, speaking on BBC’s Newsnight, remarked: “Liverpool has declared political UDI.” (10)

The turnout was 50.2 per cent, five per cent up on the previous year and only just below that of 1984, when the elections were held in the middle of the dramatic struggle and on the eve of a famous victory. 

In some wards the turnout was 59 or 60 per cent, something which was unique at that stage to Liverpool council elections. The most spectacular results were in those wards in which well known Militant supporters were candidates. A significant body of workers had consciously differentiated not only between Labour, and the Liberals and Tories, but also between right-wing Labour and those who stood on the left. 

It was not uncommon on the doorstep for Labour councillors to be met with the statement: “I am Labour, but I’m Militant Labour.” Others demanded to know where the Labour candidate stood on the issue of the defence of the debarred Councillors. Many commented that they were reluctant to vote for imposed candidates.

The “Liberal counter-revolution” had lasted only six weeks in Liverpool. That was enough. The right wing of the Labour Party tried to cover up the role of Militant and pretend that it had nothing to do with this splendid victory. But not so the bosses’ press. The Economist commented:

Liverpool produced the most paradoxical result. The Alliance had a lead of 0.1 per cent over Labour, but Labour regained control of the city council by a majority of three seats. The three point rise in Labour’s share of the votes since last year suggest that most of Liverpool’s working-class voters have accepted Militant’s explanation of Liverpool’s financial crisis. 

The continuing collapse of the Tory vote – only 9.5 per cent of Liverpudlians now vote Tory – shows that the government’s version has been rejected by Liverpool’s middle class too. Liverpool’s present bewildered local mood deserves much more attention than it has received. It cannot comfort Mr Kinnock. (11)

Once the 1987 general election had been declared and the battle lines had been drawn Militant supporters threw themselves into the fray together with the rest of the labour movement. There were four Labour parliamentary candidates subscribing to our ideas standing in this election. 

Terry Fields was fighting to hold on to Broadgreen in Liverpool as was Dave Nellist in Coventry South East. Pat Wall was once more standing as the Labour candidate for Bradford North, but this time with a much better chance of success. Alongside of them was John Bryan, selected as Labour candidate in Bermondsey. The Independent’s conclusion was shared by most of the press:

Richard Pine (Liberal candidate for Broadgreen), 34, is virtually certain to defeat Terry Fields, Militant-supported Labour MP at Liverpool Broadgreen. (12)

But they had not taken into account the huge effect of the mighty struggles between 1983 and 1987 on all strata of the population. This was the main factor in the sweeping victory for Labour in Liverpool and indeed the Merseyside area as a whole when the general election took place on 11 June.

It is true that Labour appeared to have an uphill task in Broadgreen where, unlike in 1983, the Alliance partners fought a united campaign. Moreover, the Liberals were starting from a position of holding 13 out of 15 council seats in the constituency. It would require an election campaign on a much higher plane than even in 1983 to guarantee victory for Labour. 

Broadgreen Constituency Labour Party had been suspended for more than 12 months before the election, and its officers were under threat of expulsion, yet there could not have been a greater contrast between the campaign in Broadgreen and Labour’s disastrous national campaign.

The leadership of the Labour Party relied predominantly on the media and photo opportunities. The Broadgreen campaign was a model, both in political content and organisation. In all seats where Militant supporters stood as candidates mass canvassing covered every part of the constituency, with detailed discussions on policy taking place on the doorsteps. 

All four constituencies were canvassed many times before election day. In general there was no “poster war” because the opposition parties were simply crushed by the sheer numbers of Labour posters displayed throughout each of the constituencies (with the exception perhaps of Bermondsey).

A no less impressive campaign was conducted in support of Dave Nellist. In one weekend 344 copies of Militant were sold by door-to-door canvassers in Coventry South East.

In Bradford workers poured in from the whole of Yorkshire and much further afield to support Pat Wall. There was a determination this time to prevent the split in the Labour vote which kept him out of the House of Commons in 1983. During the campaign an eight foot by twelve foot cartoon by Alan Hardman, depicting Thatcher’s demolition of industry in Bradford North, was fixed onto the side of a Labour Party member’s house. 

When Kenneth Baker visited Bradford and tried to do a walkabout, a demonstration of teachers and lecturers from NATFHE (the lecturers’ union), the National Union of Teachers (NUT) and the LPYS forced him to cut it short. He showed his real views of teachers by calling the demonstrators “a rabble”. A council street cleaner working nearby came over to see what the commotion was. When he saw Baker he started waving his fist and shouting “Maggie out”. The Women’s Section held an election rally aimed at Asian women, with an all-female platform; 20 local working-class Asian women and three other local women attended.


In Bermondsey where John Bryan had the most difficult task in overcoming Hughes’s majority he acquitted himself brilliantly in debates with Hughes and at public meetings. As John Bryan became more and more successful the “nice” Liberal Simon Hughes began a red scare campaign. He put out a leaflet condemning Labour’s John Bryan as a “hard and dangerous revolutionary”.

There was no clue as to its source other than the name of Simon Hughes’s election agent at the bottom. This only served to strengthen support for John Bryan as Labour in turn indicted the Liberals for their shameful record and racist policies in Tower Hamlets.

During the election 72 Bengalis were being evicted by Tower Hamlets council. When Hughes was canvassing a council estate in Bermondsey, an area with many black families, local Labour Party and LPYS activists asked him through a megaphone about the racist policies of his counterparts in Tower Hamlets. An impromptu street meeting ensued, in support of John Bryan. Speeches were made to loud applause from the residents. Hughes looked more and more dejected.

John Bryan halved the Liberal majority with a 2.6 per cent swing towards Labour. Even the humiliated Tory candidate congratulated John on a “professional campaign, easily outstripping the other parties”. It was not just “professionalism” which led to such a spirited campaign but the fact that Bermondsey Labour Party, under the influence of our supporters, had rekindled the spirit of real socialism in the minds of the local people. 

The Bermondsey result was in complete contrast to those in the rest of London. Labour lost Walthamstow, where the local Labour council had increased the rates by over 60 per cent (following the national leadership’s strategy). Labour also lost Battersea and Fulham, where a moderate candidate, Nick Raynsford, had received so much praise for winning the by-election the previous year.

Over 200 new members joined Bermondsey Labour Party during the campaign. On the final weekend of the election campaign over 700 took part in a mass canvass. One of the most outstanding successes were the street meetings. Dozens of them were held throughout the constituency. Estates were leafleted beforehand then, at the appointed time, the Young Socialists’ “Battlebus” would pull up in the middle of the estate blasting out Labour’s theme music: Rocky IV.

One indication of the colossal effect of the mass campaigns conducted in constituencies where Militant supporters were the candidates was the reception given to Arthur Scargill in Liverpool and Tony Benn in Coventry South East. A thousand people crammed into one Broadgreen election meeting to hear NUM President Scargill speak on behalf of Terry Fields.

Nine days earlier a similar mass meeting in Broadgreen had taken place addressed by Tony Benn.

700 People had also flocked into a public meeting organised in Coventry South East to hear Benn speak on behalf of Dave Nellist. Dave denounced the “millionaire tendency” and its government and called for a Labour victory. At the end of the meeting a pensioner remarked to a steward, “That’s what all meetings should be like. A thousand meetings like that up and down the country and Labour will romp home, with or without TV.” (13)  But Labour did not “romp home”. The Tories won again.

Responsibility for this defeat lay squarely at the feet of Kinnock and his cohorts. Labour had only increased its share of the vote by a miserly few per cent. Unbelievably, Kinnock’s speech attacking Militant and the heroic Liverpool councillors at the infamous 1985 Labour Party conference set to Brahms and broadcast on television, was perceived as the “master stroke” which would ensure a Labour victory. 

All the capitalist commentators hailed his “brilliant” 1987 election broadcast. Naturally they were quite happy to see Kinnock attacking his own side rather than the Tory enemy. There were of course some bright spots for Labour. Foremost amongst these were the victories of Labour at Liverpool Broadgreen, Coventry South East and Bradford North. Also, as we commented:

John Bryan’s splendid campaign in Bermondsey also gave a glimpse at what Labour could have achieved on the basis of a mass campaign fought on socialist policies. Liberal luminary Simon Hughes, despite using every device from the Liberals’ dirty tricks department, saw his majority halved. (14)

Terry Fields increased his majority by 60 per cent with an almost 13 per cent swing from the Tories to Labour. Massive swings towards Labour were recorded in all the Liverpool seats. It was not an accident that the five Liverpool Labour MPs – although Bob Wareing wavered and opposed them later on – had remained unshakable in defence of their council comrades.

The victories of the left provoked officials at Walworth Road to comment to the press: “It’s been a good night for the nutters.”15

The architects of Labour’s defeat were the leadership of the Labour Party. No real alternative had been spelt out by Labour nationally. Hattersley, the shadow chancellor, had fought on the insane programme of: “Vote for us and we’ll increase your taxes.” Labour’s campaign, designed to win the middle class, had exactly the opposite affect. The skilled workers and home owners were alienated. The number of skilled workers voting Tory increased from 38 per cent in 1983 to 42 per cent in 1987. Labour’s performance nationally was abysmal.

During the election ruthless control was exercised from the top. There was very little canvassing, with few election leaflets and public meetings were ticket-only affairs with audiences that were meticulously vetted by Labour Party officials. A media campaign, little different from those conducted in America by the Democratic Party, was supposed to usher in a Labour victory.

Pat Wall

Soon after entering Parliament Pat Wall, continuing the tradition set by Terry Fields and Dave Nellist, made a fiery maiden speech. He commented on the efforts which the Tories had made in an effort to prevent him from entering Parliament. Indicting the government and British capitalism for the collapse of the former industrial areas of the North he commented:

When I arrived in Bradford 18 years ago, it was at the time of the building of the M62… which was to bring renewed prosperity to industrial areas of Lancashire, west, north and south Yorkshire. Now it runs from redundant Liverpool, through de-industrialised Lancashire and West Yorkshire. It bisects north and south Yorkshire, with the closed steel mills and empty pit villages of two eras of MacGregor. It ends in the port of unemployed Hull, where today there are not even any fishing boats. (16)

Looking to the 1990s Pat Wall went on to state:

I have to tell the good people of East Anglia and the Thames Valley, the majority of whom voted for the Conservative Party in the last two elections, that a further crisis will hit the South more than the rest of the country. 

It will hit the service and financial sectors. The good people of those areas might find that their dreams will turn to ashes tomorrow, like the dreams of Bradford, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and other workers over the past ten years. I believe that we shall not see the death and abolition of socialism. The people in the south-east and the more prosperous areas will learn, like those in Bradford… that socialism is more relevant than ever. (17)

Pat was to make a huge impact, particularly on the working class of Bradford and Yorkshire in general, which was tragically terminated by his untimely death in 1990.

Shortly after he had been elected Pat Wall came under attack, along with other supporters in his own constituency.

But for the Labour leadership socialist principles were going out of the window, as the Labour Party conference in October demonstrated. There was an inquest into Labour’s failure in the general election. The right ascribed their defeat to the fact that the working class, seduced by council house sales and “wider share ownership”, had become welded to Thatcher’s capitalism. 

They were completely silent on the socialist victories in Broadgreen, Coventry South East and Bradford North. Eric Heffer reminded the conference that he was an MP with a 23,000 majority in what had been a Tory seat in 1964. He attacked those like Bryan Gould, who peddled so-called new theories of share ownership and moderation. Former Tory voters, “quite a few of them yuppies”, came straight over to Labour in Liverpool.

We can win the next general election if we do what we did in Liverpool… We built 5,000 houses, sports centre and put 10,000 workers into employment. That’s the way to beat the Tories. (18)

Tom Sawyer denied that there were purges in the party which was met with a groan of disbelief from the conference. Their reactions were understandable given the fact that surcharged Liverpool councillor, Felicity Dowling, lost her appeal against expulsion by five million to 750,000 votes later in the week.

Virtually all the constituencies voted for her, particularly when she challenged Kinnock to “debate our differences in front of the workers of Liverpool and if they vote for my expulsion only then will I accept it”. (19) Afterwards, Eric Heffer went up to embrace her in front of the whole conference. He was followed by delegates lining up to shake her hand.

The bureaucratic officialdom which strengthened its domination of the Labour Party in the mid-1980s, was utterly incapable of attracting significant layers of youth into its ranks. A significant section of youth, particularly because the poll tax resulted in a massive refusal to register, had actually dropped out of the political process, big sections even refusing to vote. By the time of the 1992 general election 45 per cent of 18-25-year-olds did not vote.

Thatcher’s third term – her demise predicted

Militant’s main job in the aftermath of the Tories’ third successive election victory was to present a balanced picture of the future. All the fainthearts were once more either weeping in their beer or ready to slash their wrists. We commented:

In the light of her 106 majority, Thatcher thinks that she now has an unassailable position from which she can continue her crusade against socialism and Marxism and finally extinguish “the enemy within”. But, important as the election is as a barometer of the mood of the working class, it is for Marxism just ‘a moment in history’. (20)

Reality always has two sides, as Karl Marx pointed out. Checked on the parliamentary plane the mass of workers would inevitably seek solutions to their problems outside of Parliament in the period after the election. It tended to be forgotten that Thatcher, just nine months after her 1983 triumph, faced the miners’ strike. In France the Chirac government had not been in power for more than eight months when a movement of millions of students and workers came out onto the streets and routed it. We predicted:

If Thatcher had retired after two terms, she may have been able to bask in the illusion of her ‘success’. Now, like Wellington, she will learn that “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”.

The economic, political and social scenario which was likely to open up in Britain, would make it:

extremely unlikely that she will finish this term. Long before then the Tory Party will be riven with splits and divisions which will make the Westland Affair look like a little local difficulty. She will be forced to go to Dulwich (her private home) before 1992. (21)

Alone amongst non-Marxist as well as ‘Marxist’ journals, Militant correctly predicted the downfall of Thatcher. Moreover it was able to play a crucial role, through the poll tax struggle, in bringing this about.