Militant Faces a Breakaway

Chapter Forty-Four


THE MONTH of April 1991 proved to be a decisive one in the evolution of Militant. The national leadership unanimously decided to support the setting up of an independent organisation in Scotland to take account of the extremely favourable situation which had developed for us there. 

In view of the fact that a minority, led by Ted Grant and Rob Sewell, subsequently used this decision as the main reason to split away from Militant, it is important to record that both Ted Grant and Rob Sewell voted in favour of this decision.

At a meeting of the executive committee of the National Editorial Board held on the 10 April 1991 those present were Mike Waddington, Brian Ingham, Ted Grant, Rob Sewell, Jeremy Birch, Nick Wrack, Lynn Walsh, Peter Taaffe, Keith Dickinson, and Frances Curran. The minute dealing with this question reads:

Peter Taaffe reported that in the discussion with the Scottish comrades, it had been agreed that there would be a big advantage in us establishing some independent organisation which could appeal to the thousands who had been pulled around us during the campaign against the Poll Tax. 

After some discussion, it was agreed that this be put to the National Editorial Board meeting in view of the urgency and the changes taking place in the Poll Tax campaign at the moment. The name and launching details would have to be worked out with them, but generally, we should first get the approval of the National Editorial Board.

Not one member of the Executive Committee voted against the proposal. At the National Editorial Board meeting which took place on the same day Ted Grant enthusiastically endorsed the proposal despite the opposition from other NEB members. Indeed, Rob Sewell, lacking a sense of proportion, broadcast his view that a “revolutionary party” should be immediately launched not just in Scotland but throughout the whole of Britain! 

Militant took this decision against the background of the ending of the poll tax.

During the course of the Editorial Board meeting and in my discussions with the comrades from Scotland it emerged that without some kind of independent organisation those who were close to us through the poll tax campaign would not be drawn into the ranks our ranks. 

There was a real danger that a whole layer who were entirely sympathetic to our strategic aims, programme and our organisation could be siphoned off to the Scottish National Party. 

Therefore, the common position which arose from this consultation was to make the recommendation to the Executive Committee for a radical departure, particularly in Scotland, from the way in which Militant had traditionally organised. 

It was as a result of this meeting that the proposal at the Executive Committee was made to the full National Editorial Board.

At the full National Editorial Board meeting on 10 April, the minute dealing with this reads: 

“Independent candidates: the discussion was on whether or not Militant would support independent Broad Left candidates in Liverpool standing against the official Labour Party. Peter Taaffe introduced the discussion. Contributions from Helen Redwood, Ronnie Stevenson, Richard Venton, Alan McCombes, Ted Grant, Ray Apps, Peter Jarvis, Dave Cotterill, Tommy Sheridan and Bill Mullins. Peter Taaffe replied.

The report and proposals of the Executive Committee were agreed with one abstention (Ray Apps) and no votes against. At the subequent Executive Committee under the title of NEB Review, the minute reads:

Rob Sewell introduced the discussion, referring to the historic decision over the work in Liverpool and Scotland;… we should aim to produce special material on the turn in Scotland, for discussion at the June National Editorial Board. It was agreed that the Executive Committee should meet the Scottish NEB members before then.

It was also quite clear that two of the most prominent opponents of what subsequently came to be known as the “Scottish Turn” of Militant, that is Ted Grant and Rob Sewell, enthusiastically spoke in favour of this proposal and voted for it. 

If they subsequently changed their minds it was not for principled political reasons, as they sought to argue, but because Ted Grant in particular and Alan Woods had come into collision on largely secondary organisational, personal questions, with myself and those in the majority in Militant. 

They did attempt to foster the legend that this decision on the Scottish Turn was “rushed through the NEB and through the EC of Militant.” If this was the case how was it that two experienced and allegedly “wily” operators such as Ted Grant and Rob Sewell could be rushed into taking such an important decision which subsequently they claimed was a departure from “40 years of work”? 

The truth of the matter is that this decision was so readily agreed to by the national leadership of Militant, and following them the great majority of the ranks, because it flowed from the objective situation confronting us.

The background

For months and years before this decision, from many quarters the question had been posed that, given the complete emptying out of the Labour Party, should not we take the step of launching an independent organisation? It was clear that such an initiative would find an echo amongst the advanced workers in Britain, repelled by the increasingly right-wing Labour and trade union leadership.

Our decision to support unofficial local Labour candidates in Liverpool was itself an anticipation of the decision to set up Scottish Militant Labour later on. We explained why this decision was taken:

The right-wing clique who have hijacked Liverpool council have dramatically stepped up their attacks on council workers. Right-wing Labour councillors Frank Anderson and Frances Kidd (both GMB-sponsored) have threatened to send in private contractors to remove rubbish “If our binmen won’t do it, we’ll find people who will”… Selective strike action has begun… involving 310 NALGO members and 170 GMB Branch 5 workers. More are set to join the action. (1)

Kilfoyle was supporting the sacking of workers. The election in May resulted in a stunning defeat for “official” Labour. 

Wherever right-wing Labour candidates stood the official Labour vote collapsed. Mass abstentions and increased votes for the Liberals prevented Labour winning marginal seats. Yet these seats had massive Labour majorities when the Liverpool party fought on a socialist programme in the 1980s. 

In the final days before the polls the official Labour Party placed big adverts in the local press to appeal to Labour voters. The Liverpool Echo editorial urged support for Rimmer, the new Labour leader of the council. Neil Kinnock sent a personal message. All this lost votes for the “moderates”. 

The five Broad Left candidates supported by Militant triumphed against official Labour, completely vindicating the stand of the Militant national and local leadership in supporting the decision to stand independently.

Walton by-election

This was followed by the Walton by-election in which Lesley Mahmood was the candidate of “Real Labour”. Militant entirely supported the decision of the advanced workers in the Walton constituency and throughout Liverpool to support a candidate standing in the best left traditions, a hallmark of this constituency. Walton had always been a bulwark of Marxism on Merseyside. The seat had been held by Eric Heffer who had been steadfast in his support of the Liverpool city council and of the heroic 49.

Eric died in May 1991 and his popularity was demonstrated by the thousand people who attended his funeral. The churchyard was lined with banners from the trade unions, anti-poll tax unions and Liverpool’s suspended and surcharged councillors. 

The streets outside were lined with local people to say farewell to a working-class hero. Tony Benn spoke at the service and said that the press had tried to portray Eric Heffer as an old time socialist, a voice of the past: “But this is quite untrue. Eric was the voice of the future of socialist ideas.” (2)

However, Neil Kinnock was moving mountains to impose a yes-man on the Walton Labour Party, in the form of Peter Kilfoyle. Kinnock had never forgiven Eric Heffer for his stand at the 1985 Labour Party conference and had not even turned up at his funeral. 

This was despite the fact that Eric had held high office in the party and fought for socialism all his life. The revulsion felt at the prospect of Kilfoyle stepping into Eric Heffer’s shoes provoked his widow Doris into declaring, in an interview with The Observer, that Kilfoyle’s selection “could be seen as disloyal to Eric’s memory” and that “he is not the candidate that Eric would have wanted.” 

Kilfoyle was selected as a replacement for Eric Heffer only because the right resorted to massive organisational manoeuvres during the selection procedure. Complaints of a stitch-up from candidates, scrutineers, door stewards, branch secretaries and other party members were completely ignored by the national executive committee of the Labour Party as they proceeded to endorse Kilfoyle.

In the light of this, the Broad Left convened a meeting on 9 June where a decision was taken for Lesley Mahmood to stand as the candidate of “Real Labour”. Militant endorsed this decision, with only Ted Grant, Rob Sewell on the NEB and a handful of others in Militant’s ranks, opposing the decision.

This was, however, the signal for Fleet Street’s hired liars to descend on Liverpool to regurgitate all the vicious anti-Militant propaganda of the past. Lesley Mahmood, her agent Mike Morris, and Militant were called, “Fascist thugs… more like Hitler’s Brownshirts… barbarians… The Beast is Militant, the political mutant that has rampaged through Liverpool for a decade.” (3)

Killroy-Silk in The Express called Militant: “A tin of maggots, the stench of which will be around for a long time.” (4)

A magnificent campaign was conducted by the supporters of Lesley Mahmood, but the desperation of working people to see the end of the Tory government meant that while thousands agreed with and sympathised with the arguments and the programme of Lesley Mahmood, the majority, many holding their noses, voted Labour.

 Lesley Mahmood received 2,613 votes and beat the Tory candidate, a commendable achievement in the circumstances. Of course, Kinnock, Kilfoyle and Labour’s right were triumphant. However, they had managed to reduce Eric Heffer’s majority of 23,000 to 7,000!

Alastair Campbell, at that stage a Sunday Mirror columnist, and now chief press spokesman for Tony Blair, demonstrated his “neutrality”: “M stands for Mahmood, Militant and maggots”. He had urged the people of Walton to vote “Kilfoyle to help kill off the maggots”. (5)

Of course, in subsequent comments by Campbell and his like there was no mention of the fact that in the Walton by-election there was a 13 per cent swing against the official Labour candidate, Kilfoyle. The Liberal vote had risen by 11 per cent. However, in the welter of anti-Militant propaganda even Kilfoyle was compelled to admit that the right would have difficulties in defeating Militant in Liverpool, “militancy… is part and parcel of the beliefs people have in this city.” (6)

Lesley Mahmood

The stand of Lesley Mahmood was entirely justified given all the circumstances in which this by-election had taken place. Superficial commentators, once more wrote off Militant, dismissing the votes of 2,613 for socialism as “irrelevant”. Surprisingly, praise and a more sober assessment of Lesley Mahmood’s performance came from a source, usually prone to criticise Militant. Paul Foot wrote in Socialist Worker:

I read everywhere that Lesley Mahmood was ‘humiliated’ in the Walton by-election, but I can write from long experience of humiliations at by-elections. 

In March 1977 I stood for the newly formed Socialist Workers Party in the by-election in the ‘safe’ Labour seat of Stechford, Birmingham. The Tories took the seat, which caused quite a stir. My vote caused no stir at all. I got 377 votes. 

That was substantially worst than the 550 votes which Jimmy McCallum notched up for the SWP at the Walsall by-election. Spurred on, perhaps, by these triumphs, the SWP put up three more candidates for parliament in the ensuing months: at Grimsby, Ashfield (Notts) and Glasgow, Garscadden. 

I won’t print the exact figures for each constituency for fear of humiliating comrades – but I can say that the total votes for all five candidates was less than the 2,600 which Lesley Mahmood won at Walton… 

I think that that’s a good vote in the circumstances. It’s a reasonable base on which to continue the fight for jobs in Liverpool. (7)

The verdict on Lesley Mahmood’s campaign could not be measured merely by the number of votes for her. The campaign had reached to all parts of the constituency and all sections of the Walton community. It had taken the case for socialism to workers and evoked an enthusiastic response.

In Dublin

In Ireland at this time, Militant supporter Joe Higgins, standing as an Independent Labour candidate, scored a spectacular victory in the Dublin county council elections on 27 June. 

In Mulhuddart, one of three “new” towns on the outskirts of Dublin, he topped the poll with 1,281 votes. The next candidate was 400 votes behind. Joe, like Lesley Mahmood, had been expelled from the Labour Party after being democratically selected by his local party.

 These developments provoked the ire of Labour’s “traditionalists”. They also led to the most serious internal debate and discussion for 30 years in the ranks of Militant. 

The argument of Ted Grant and his supporters was that the decision to stand candidates “independently” in Liverpool or Dublin, and setting up an independent organisation in Scotland threatened “40 years work”.

A “threat to 40 years work”?

They summed up in a lengthy document submitted for discussion within the ranks of Militant. [These documents will be available on shortly.] They argued “Our work in the mass organisations of the British working class was of a long term character”, and should be continued. (7) It was our view that Ted Grant and Co. failed to consider the changes that had taken place in the outlook of significant sections of the working class towards what we had always considered to be the “traditional organisations” of the working class.

The 1980s had seen important changes take place within the working class. 

A certain stratification had developed both economically and politically. Those with jobs had in general managed to keep their heads above water, on the basis of overtime, pay rises in excess of the cost of living, etc. 

At the same time, a vast army of poor had resulted from Thatcher’s ruinous policies. This layer was made up of unemployed, impoverished workers on low wages, the homeless, a big section of alienated youth, and black and Asian workers, etc. 

They were not only alienated from capitalism but looked with distaste on the official leaders of the labour movement who had moved increasingly towards the right. 

The bonds between the mass of the working class and its “traditional” organisation, the Labour Party, had been considerably loosened. 

Within the Labour Party there was no scope to project socialist ideas or, equally important, to intervene in movements on behalf of the working class, like the poll tax. Advocacy of “non-payment” of the poll tax was itself sufficient reason for expulsion from the party.

The minority led by Ted Grant had argued that

in the 1950s, the internal regime was marked by witch-hunts against the Bevanite left, bans and proscriptions, the repeated closure of the Labour Youth organisation. (8)

But the majority showed that the Labour Party of the 1990s was far to the right of that of the 1950s. 

While attacks had been made on the left in this period the right had never succeeded in completely destroying the left within the constituencies. Indeed, in the period from 1952 to 1956 the Bevanite left dominated the majority of the Constituency Labour Party seats on Labour’s national executive committee. 

In 1956, the left actually won all the seats in this section and in 1957 Aneurin Bevan won the party treasurer’s seat with the support of a number of trade unions, including the National Union of Mineworkers, the Shopworkers, the Railwaymen, the Electricians and the National Union of Public Employees etc. 

The right moreover had failed to expel Bevan in 1955 because of the resistance from below.

The period of the 1950s was entirely different to that which confronted Marxism in the 1990s. First, through Kinnock, then under Smith and now with Blair, the Labour Party’s internal democracy, particularly of the local parties, has been well-nigh destroyed. Peter Hain, in Labour Party News in October 1990, described the Labour Party as being dominated by “middle-aged males, working in a professional occupation, in the public sector of the economy.”

The membership of the party was increasingly aged; its average being 46-years old. The youth have deserted the Labour Party in droves, attracted to more radical causes such as the anti-poll tax movement, the anti-racist movement, and the more recent struggle against the Criminal Justice Bill. The ‘respectable’ Labour leadership of Kinnock, Smith or Blair ran a mile from these issues, particularly when it came to action. Ted Grant and co, on the other hand, argued that

with the most likely approach of a Labour government[!], our task is not to turn away from the Labour Party, but on the contrary, to begin to strengthen our Labour Party work in preparation for the battles that will take place in the unions and be reflected in the Party. 

This in no way means to bury ourselves in the Labour Party. That would be a fundamental mistake. But we must urgently correct the drift of comrades out of the party in failing to renew their cards. Why do the work of the right wing and expel ourselves? (9)

This did not match up to the real position.

Labour Party losing members

Not Militant supporters, but thousands of workers were voting with their feet and leaving the Labour Party throughout the 1990s. The election of Blair to the party leadership moreover, has only served to accentuate this process. 

On the electoral plane of course the only viable alternative in the main for workers who want to get rid of the Tories is to vote for Labour. But many will do so “holding their noses”, because of their implacable opposition to the policies of the Labour right. On the other hand, there is a significant layer of workers and youth looking for a new radical, socialist and revolutionary alternative. 

A survey in 1993 commissioned by Red Pepper showed that there were three to four million people who consider themselves socialists and “to the left” of the Labour Party.

One of the purposes of setting up Scottish Militant Labour (and Militant Labour at a later stage), was to tap into this socialist, radical mood. Irrespective of time, place or circumstance the task, said Ted Grant was for Marxists to merely sit in the Labour Party waiting for support to materialise when “objective” conditions had sufficiently matured. 

Anything which threatened ownership of a “precious” Labour Party card was seen as a “sectarian deviation”. On this and other issues, Ted Grant and his supporters were prepared to split and break away from the most successful Trotskyist organisation since the collapse of the Left Opposition.

A full and democratic debate unfolded within the ranks of Militant in which the views of the majority were overwhelmingly endorsed. At a special Militant conference in November 1991 the views of the minority received only seven per cent of the votes.

Defeated on this and other issues, the minority withdrew all financial support from Militant, started to collect funds to set up their own press and publishing facilities, and a separate organisation.

Terry Fields goes to jail

Both Terry Fields and Dave Nellist had behaved in an exemplary fashion in Parliament. They had been to the fore in the poll tax non-payment campaign. Eventually they were faced with the choice, which many others before them and after had confronted, of either succumbing, paying the poll tax or, on an important issue of principle, standing with those who could not and would not pay.

The majority of Militant supporters entirely endorsed the stand of Terry Fields and also of Dave Nellist at a later stage. This was done in the knowledge that Terry’s jailing, which took place in July, would be seized on by Kinnock as an excuse to remove him as a Labour MP and drive him out of the Labour Party. Kinnock scandalously declared:

The Labour Party does not and never will support breaking the law. Mr Fields has chosen to break the law and he must take the consequences. He is on his own. (10_

In making this statement Kinnock not only distanced himself from Terry Fields but from the history of the labour movement which is one of defying unjust laws. Four years previously at a party conference Kinnock had presented Labour’s merit award to a 102-year-old Suffragette who “was jailed for a day for breaking into the House of Lords”.

At that conference this heroic “gesture” received “applause and cheers”. Now Kinnock was pouring scorn on the heads of those like Terry Fields who were standing up for their class. We asked: What about the Chartists and the Tolpuddle Martyrs, or the dockers who went to jail in defiance of Heath’s anti-Union acts in the early 1970s? “Would Kinnock have told them they were on their own?” (11)

He would have found it difficult in 1972 as millions of rank-and-file trade unionists were on the side of the dockers and were threatening a general strike. The day after Terry Fields was jailed the Daily Mail wrote:

The campaign against paying was inspired by Militant and became a popular, national drive which contributed to killing the tax and its replacement by the new council tax. (12)

Kinnock’s stab-in-the-back for Terry Fields was one of the most shameful incidents in Kinnock’s time as party leader. Terry Fields received huge support from all over the country for his stand. One worker from the Old Swan area of Liverpool wrote to him: “We are not members or supporters of Militant but we would vote for you as a principled and caring man.” (13)

Another worker from Tuebrook declared bluntly:

History will prove the Kinnock gang wrong and traitors, and the few with principles and integrity like yourselves and Eric Heffer and Tony Benn will be remembered with affection and respect long after the other gang have faded into obscurity. (14)

Over 1,000 marched to a “Free Terry Fields” rally outside Walton jail. Arthur Scargill was the main speaker. Terry was freed in September after serving 60 days. But less than two weeks after his release he faced another “trial” set up by Labour’s national executive committee, which interrogated him on 25 September in the first steps to remove him as a Labour MP. 

On that same day the national executive committee of the Labour Party took a similar step against Dave Nellist. Their suspension from party membership on the eve of the Labour Party conference was a step towards expulsion and a gagging measure to prevent them from appealing to the conference and using it as a platform to oppose the policies of the leadership.

NEC moves against Terry and Dave

The ‘evidence’ against Terry Fields was that he had made a call for Labour to “nationalise the commanding heights of the economy”. However, the real reason for Kinnock’s rushed measures against the two was blurted out by Ray Powell, the right-wing Labour whip, who stated that the: “prospect of the two MPs holding the balance of power if Labour is elected with a small majority, filled the leadership with dread.” (15)

The national executive committee wanted Dave Nellist to repudiate Militant as the price of remaining in the Labour Party. This he refused to do. At the Labour Party conference in October, 350 trade unionists and socialists led by Dave Nellist and Terry Fields marched against the witch-hunt. At the end of the demonstration a successful meeting was held in a local school with raptuous receptions for both Dave and Terry. Tony Benn declared:

We need a Marxist current in the Labour Party. Karl Marx was no more responsible for what was happening in Russia than Jesus Christ was for the Spanish Inquisition. (16)

Dennis Skinner, anticipating general secretary Larry Whitty’s speech the next day, said Terry Fields had been attacked for not supporting Peter Kilfoyle in Walton! But what about the 130 MPs who did not go to Walton? he asked. Skinner also pointed out that at the NEC which took action against Dave Nellist, Clare Short had “harassed Dave” demanding, “we want an answer, yes or no,” when they wanted him to renege on his ideas. 

Before the year was out Terry Fields had been expelled from the Labour Party, the first Labour MP for 50 years to be axed in this way by the party leaders. We commented: “This won’t win one extra Labour vote. On the contrary, it will disappoint thousands.” (17)

Backbencher of the Year

The decision to expel was delayed in the case of Dave Nellist partly because the leadership were embarassed because he had been awarded the “Backbencher of the Year” prize by the Spectator magazine. 

Dave Nellist paid a rare visit to the Savoy Hotel in London to collect his prize. 

Only a few days later, as he pointed out at the reception at the Savoy, he faced a hearing at the Labour Party in which the charge was been made that he was guilty of “a sustained course of conduct bringing the party into disrepute.” (18)

At the Spectator lunch Dave said:

There are probably quite a few back home who thought I’d done that today coming to this place and sitting down with all you bloated capitalists! (19)