Militant in Transition

Chapter Thirty-Five


WITH THE attacks on the LPYS by the right and its consequent decline, Militant supporters had to supplement work in the YS with building up the Youth Trade Union Rights Campaign (YTURC). 

While launching further attacks on the Labour Party Young Socialists the right-wing national executive committee confidentially conceded, “YTURC is picking up the ground very successfully.” The Sunday Times commented: 

“Labour is losing its musical battle for the soul of the party’s youth and Militant is holding its own.” (1)

The conclusion of the right was to attack YTURC and further undermine the rights of the LPYS! Yet the YTURC national conference in April 1988 had attracted 1,000 young workers, students and trainees, the biggest gathering of working-class youth in Britain at that time. Once more the Militant meeting was packed out, despite all attempts to undermine our support by the right.

Benn challenges Kinnock

So unbridled were the right in their attacks on the left, and so open were they in abandoning the socialist ideas of the movement, that Tony Benn decided to challenge Kinnock for the leadership of the Labour Party and Eric Heffer stood for the deputy leadership. The capitalist press were squarely behind Kinnock in his attempt to create a sanitised, tame, Labour Party. The job completed they were then as equally ruthless in denigrating Kinnock himself.

John Prescott, who also entered the election fray stated: “I have no time for fainthearts who would seek to deny the Labour Party’s trade union link and see it as a political liability.” (2) We urged Benn and Heffer to “run a mass active campaign of meetings at every union conference and big rallies in each city.” (3)

The problem was that their troops were rather thin on the ground. The “trendy left” had deserted in droves to the right. Other workers, disheartened at the lurch to the right of the Labour leadership were abandoning the Labour Party or, in many cases, passing over to us. The 1988 leadership challenge of Benn and Heffer was in reality the last spasm of an organised left within the Labour Party. In the next five years and beyond the left were to be than no more than a faint echo of the powerful force it had been in the early 1980s, as workers looked outside of the Labour Party and increasingly to organisations like Militant for answers to their problems. The party conference made clear to all that the Labour leadership had concluded that electoral success lay in falling on their knees before “the market”.

What conclusion to draw?

Militant was slow to draw all the necessary conclusions from these developments. It still defended, and did so for a number of years, the perspective of mass movements feeding into the Labour Party and transforming it. However, the experience of mass struggles outside the Labour Party, above all in the poll tax, were to convince the majority of Militant’s supporters and leaders that the old tactic of concentrating most of its forces in the Labour Party had been overtaken by events.


In Pollok a truly mass campaign in favour of non-payment had been led by the anti-poll tax unions with Militant supporters like Tommy Sheridan in the vanguard. Their efforts were rewarded with vicious attacks by the local MP. Yet, they had been instrumental in recruiting 128 new members to the Labour Party in one week. Instead of congratulating Militant supporters the Pollok MP, James Dunnochie, publicly attacked Tommy Sheridan and called for the party’s National Constitutional Committee to investigate Militant’s activities in the constituency.

Labour Party members responded with a meeting on 7 August in the Pollok ward with more than 100 local people in attendance. The meeting pledged that they would fight to the finish to “keep the socialist banner flying in the area.” The meeting passed a resolution criticising the enquiry call and censured the local MP. This meeting then decided to support Tommy Sheridan in a challenge to the sitting MP during the next re-selection process. The ward party also put out 5,000 leaflets answering the attacks of the MP and printing extracts of his secret letter to Labour’s NEC for all to see. The hard core of the right wing on Strathclyde regional council then made it clear they were going for mass expulsions of Militant supporters and anti-poll tax activists in Glasgow. They drew up a list of 20 in Pollok and ten in Cathcart, singling out anti-poll tax leader Tommy Sheridan for disciplinary action.

Earlier in the year a member of the press corps in London had been told “off the record” by a senior Labour Party official in Walworth Road that, “Yes there is going to be a mass witch-hunt in Glasgow.” (4)

But nothing could stop the head of steam that was building up behind the anti-poll tax struggle. The Scottish TUC (STUC) were compelled to call a demonstration on 10 September but no call was made for effective action. Campbell Christie, general secretary of the STUC did, however, declare: “People in Scotland will stand with us and say no.” (5)

But when the question was asked what would happen when the bills arrived in the following April his reply was: “Let’s get to April and then decide what to do.” The STUC’s “broad-based” strategy – involving all classes and all parties – completely failed. Moreover, the possibility for any effective campaign by Labour or the STUC was killed off at the Scottish conference in April 1989. The debate was stormy and impassioned. Speakers were cheered and booed and constituency delegates overwhelmingly showed they favoured mass non-payment of the tax. Dewar, the party spokesman, while ostensibly attacking the Scottish National Party in effect attacked Militant for advocating non-payment.

Notwithstanding this, and with the support of the block votes of union leaders, opposition to non-payment was carried.

Where now?

The decision at this conference undoubtedly had a demoralising affect on many workers and initially on some of those who were in the forefront of the campaign. How was it possible to conduct a successful campaign against the government in the teeth of the open resistance of the Labour Party in Scotland and the mere acquiescence of the STUC? During the Liverpool struggle such was the pressure from below that the Labour leadership, including the right, were compelled to either give verbal support or remain silent at the height of the movement.

Special meetings of Militant supporters were therefore necessary to explain that there were more powerful forces at work in the poll tax battle than Thatcher, or union general secretaries wielding block votes. The poll tax represented such an assault on the living standards of the working class that resistance was inevitable. Even without our involvement and the anti-poll tax unions there would just be too many people, particularly the poor, who could not and would not pay. The question was whether the resistance to the poll tax would be scattered and inchoate or be given an organised expression.

From the outset, we were confident that in Scotland more than a million could be persuaded and organised to resist and refuse to pay the poll tax. This was perceived by opponents as utopian and an indication that we were “out of touch”. On the contrary, it was the summits of the labour movement as well as the Thatcher government who were incapable of envisaging the forces that would be conjured up by the poll tax and the campaign of mass resistance which we would help to organise.

As the year drew to an end the second conference of the Strathclyde Anti-Poll Tax Federation was held. It agreed to hold a big “poll tax non-payment” demonstration on Saturday 18 March and called on workers and youth throughout Scotland and the rest of Britain to come to Glasgow on that day in a mass show of defiance.

Mahmoud Masarwa

Internationally, Mahmoud Masarwa, a Palestinian socialist and trade union activist, and also a prominent co-thinker of Militant in the Middle East had been arrested by the brutal Israeli security forces. Arrested in July 1988, without charges, he was denied access to a lawyer or visits from his family. Defence Minister Yitzhak Rabin (now the Israeli prime minister) had personally intervened to deny Mahmoud the right to be represented by his lawyer. Mahmoud was framed and after a beating was forced to “confess” his alleged “crimes”. In the months and years that followed Militant conducted an international campaign for his release. Dave Nellist and Paddy Hill (of the Birmingham Six) attended his trials and appeals. This persecution of Mahmoud was itself a testimony to the growth of support for Militant and its ideas on a world scale.