THE MAIN issue confronting us in early 1992 was the general election. Tommy Sheridan would fight the election from his prison cell. In a letter from prison he declared:
I’m standing in Glasgow Pollok to offer a radical and principled alternative to the run-and-hide Labour candidate and the empty rhetoric of the Nationalists. (1)
Dave Nellist had also declared his candidature for Coventry South East on a fighting socialist ticket.
Within four days of the campaign beginning 1,000 window posters went up in the streets of Dave’s constituency. In the key Willenhall ward the imposed Labour candidate had only four posters compared to 400 for Nellist.
Even the Coventry Evening Telegraph was forced to admit, through gritted teeth that “at least he truly believes in what he proposes”. (2) The imposed official Labour candidate, Jim Cunningham, had to rely on outside support as local Labour Party members as well as hundreds from outside flooded into the Nellist campaign.
The Terry Fields campaign, on the other hand, combined traditional campaigning on the door step with the latest word in high tech. Hundreds of copies of a video of Terry and local supporters explaining why they were voting for him was another “first” for a political campaign in Britain.
Most of Militant’s coverage concentrated on the campaigns of Sheridan, Nellist and Fields. Tommy Sheridan’s campaign was unique. Quite apart from the mass meetings within the constituency, there were regular press conferences held inside the prison. These were held in Edinburgh Saughton prison where “prisoner 2/92” held audience with the Scottish and world press. Ronnie Stevenson described the scene:
Tommy was led in, dressed in the regulation prison uniform of blue serge trousers and a stripped shirt.
Although a far cry from a room in the City Halls in Glasgow, it was good for those of us from outside to see Tommy again and we greeted him in solidarity. It was an emotional moment.
We managed to attract more than twice as many journalists as there had been at the press conference of Tory Scottish Secretary of State, Ian Lang, earlier in the day…
Tommy finished with a straightforward message. It’s simple truth was ringing round the conference room of Saughton prison as we left: “We are not for compromise. Our manifesto is unashamedly for socialism. It is a manifesto to change the way our class lives. Prison walls cannot alter that reality.” (3)
A detailed account of the incredible campaign conducted is to be found in Tommy Sheridan’s excellent book, A Time to Rage.
Equally impressive was the campaign in Broadgreen. The support for Terry Fields was visible, particularly when Liberal leader Paddy Ashdown decided to make a visit in support of his candidate, Rosemary Cooper. He “dropped in” at the St Oswalds Garden flats in Old Swan, one of the most run-down tenement blocks in Liverpool. He was confronted with an estate awash with “Vote Terry Fields” posters. The only local representative to take up the conditions of the tenants, which were abominable, was Terry. Women from the tenants’ association shouted at Rosemary Cooper: “What are you doing here? After our vote, are you, Love? or have you come back to vote for more rent rises and redundancies?”4
Dave Nellist also evoked tremendous sympathy and loyalty from the workers in his constituency, typified by the comment of one woman who pressed £5 into his hand while he was out canvassing:
I’m so proud of what Dave has done for this town. If Labour MPs are coming here, tell them to stay away or go to somewhere else where Labour needs a hand in beating the Tories. (5)
A less publicised, but nevertheless important aspect of the 1992 elections for us, was the candidature of Peter Hadden.
He stood for the Labour and Trade Union Group in Belfast South. He campaigned on a programme for class unity between Catholic and Protestant workers against the capitalist common enemy. One Protestant worker stated, “Labour? No problem. You’ve got me. I lost four friends. I’m voting Labour this time”. (6)
As demanding as the campaign was in Britain, it could not compare to the situation in Northern Ireland where it was extremely dangerous just to stand in elections, never mind to go out canvassing. Peter Hadden and his family narrowly escaped injury from a terrorist bomb during the campaign. In the middle of the night Peter, his partner and their two week-old child were given ten minutes to get out of the house when a bomb was planted in a nearby RUC police station.
None of the candidates, standing either as independent socialist alternatives to Labour or under the banner of Militant won seats in this general election.
Nevertheless, they reached more workers with the genuine ideas of socialism and Marxism than had been possible under the label of the Labour Party.
The colossal efforts for the re-election of Terry Fields in Broadgreen was the centre- piece of an hour long Cutting Edge programme on Channel Four following the election. Entitled Comrades, it allowed ordinary supporters, as well as Terry Fields himself, to explain what motivated them and how they related to the struggles to solve the problems of ordinary working people. The programme had a considerable effect, in both attracting new supporters and reviving lapsed supporters.
According to Butler and Kavanagh’s authoritative report on the 1992 general election, Tommy Sheridan achieved the finest result of any independent candidate, other than a sitting independent MP, since 1945.
The morning after the election, Ken Livingstone attacked the Labour leadership’s “tax disaster”. Everyone can be wise after the event. But apart from Militant, the left was silent during the election. Above all, Labour massively failed to mobilise the youth, amongst whom were included the most dispossessed, angry and bitter.
Neil Kinnock had declared during the election “our policies are extremely prudent”. The result was that 44 per cent of those between 18 and 35 years old did not vote in the 1992 General Election. Many were not registered, because of the poll tax, and others consciously decided not to vote.
Dave Nellist had come tantalisingly close to victory in Coventry South East.
The imposed Labour candidate had received 11,902 votes, the Tory 10,591 and Dave Nellist 10,551.
Trailing way behind were the Liberal Democrats with 3,318 and National Front with 173. Dave Nellist and his supporters knew that if the election was seen as close nationally then people would be more inclined to vote for Cunningham, the imposed Labour candidate.
There was a desperation to get rid of the Tories. Cunningham’s victory was not an endorsement of his policies. He was hardly seen during the election. Many people who voted Cunningham were subsequently bitterly disappointed that they had lost a socialist MP and Labour was still in opposition.
One worker phoned Dave Nellist and apologised to Dave: “If he’d known his support, and that the Tories would win nationally, he’d have voted for Dave. Many loyal Labour voters now feel like this.” (7)
In fact when it was clear that Labour had lost the election nationally, disappointment turned to disgust and anger in Coventry South-East as many realised that they had lost a brilliant MP, while next door the Tories had held the marginal Coventry South-West.
Local Labour Party members were furious that scores of party members had been drafted in to South-East to fight Dave Nellist and not the Tories: “Three officials had the time to photograph our tellers on polling day but no time to get out votes in South-West seat.” On election night the remark was heard from Labour Party members, more than once: “I’ll rip up this card and have one of your Militant ones.” (8)
Despite the result, Militant supporters were encouraged by what had been achieved in the election campaign. Opponents had claimed that Dave Nellist would get no more than 1,000 votes. There was even a conscious campaign to hide the Labour candidate from the media and debate. Cynically using electoral law to deny Dave Nellist a voice they made no local attacks on him that would have given him a right to reply. Instead Labour managers used a series of outside bigwigs to attack him. Dave Nellist was allegedly a “splitter” and “a thug”.
The Guardian reported that “the bitter truth, though, is that Labour’s national strategists would not worry that much even if [the Tory] won. It would be a price worth paying.” (9)
And yet the morale in the imposed Labour camp sunk lower and lower during the campaign. Their professional poster team for Labour was in a local cafe one day when Dave Nellist entered. They were so taken aback at the greetings to him and his popularity that they commented on it and had their photos taken with him. Workers changed the habit of a lifetime by not voting Labour. 10,551 voted for Dave Nellist despite the fear of letting in the Tory candidate. Politics professor Anthony King had said in the aftermath of the Tory victory:
Thatcher’s impact on voters’ views about most subjects was minimal. Her success was with the nation’s elite. Even Labour now espouses, if somewhat grudgingly, free markets and private enterprise. The British may hanker after something called socialism. It is no longer on offer. (10)
He was wrong; it was on offer in Coventry South-East and Liverpool Broadgreen, as well as in Glasgow Pollok.
The 5,952 votes for Terry Fields in Broadgreen was as remarkable as that for Dave Nellist.
No other candidate was the subject of such naked class hatred and vile abuse as Terry Fields. Far more than the numbers who actually voted for Terry Fields agreed with him on the need for socialism and also that he was the best candidate.
But the powerful desire to get rid of the Tories, particularly in a Liverpool blitzed by economic recession, was the most prominent feeling in the minds of workers. Even then many hesitated before reluctantly voting for the official Labour candidate.
Tellers remarked that many ballot papers showed a cross for Terry scribbled out and replaced with a cross for the right-wing official Labour candidate Jane Kennedy. But there was much regret once the results became known. They had ditched “one of their own”, a fighting socialist MP, and yet a Labour government had not materialised.
When, on the Saturday following the election, Terry Fields and Broadgreen Socialist Labour took to the streets to thank people for their support, “many couldn’t look Terry in the eye. In three months you probably won’t find anyone except for ex-Liberals who’ll admit to having voted for Kennedy. The rule-or-ruin policy of Labour’s right wing has brought about a total disaster.” (11)
In order to unseat Terry Fields, the right diverted canvassers from Alton’s Liberal Democrat held marginal in Mossley Hill. Alton kept his seat. Throughout Liverpool, the Labour vote was down in absolute terms. Some of this was due to the fall in the electoral register but Labour’s right-wing policies had disenchanted whole layers of the working class. Tommy Sheridan was jubilant. From his prison cell he declared:
It’s an incredible result – we have made history. I’m overjoyed despite being a candidate who’s locked up 60 miles away from my constituency.
The political ‘experts’ in Scotland said we wouldn’t get over 2,000 votes. We were labelled the fringe party by Labour from the start. But we have won second place, beating the Tories, beating the Nationalists and achieved 6,200 votes for radical socialist policies.
The SNP has been routed in Pollok, marginalised in the housing schemes, even though Pollok was identified as the SNP’s second target seat after neighbouring Govan… We declare after this result that SML is born. (12)
Not since the legendary Red Clydesiders’ veteran Willie Gallacher stood for the Communist Party in the mining stronghold of West Fife, more then 30 years before, had any candidate standing against Labour on a left-wing socialist programme received over 6,000 votes in a general election in Scotland.
Moreover, this vote was achieved despite the exclusion from the electoral register in Pollok as a result of the poll tax of over 5,000 potential SML voters. There had been dire warnings by some, standing on the sidelines, that SML would be dismissed by voters as an irrelevant sect completely out of touch with the popular mood.
Yet the vote for Tommy Sheridan was 60 times larger than the 106 votes for the Communist Party of Great Britain in Glasgow Central and almost 90 times larger than the 73 votes for the Revolutionary Communist Party in Glasgow Hillhead.
Even the media were forced to recognise the scale of SML’s achievement as the “biggest shock in Scotland”. ITN the day after the election reported:
A stunning 6,287… knocking the Conservatives into third place… not a bad result for a candidate who conducted his campaign from cell block H.13
The 1992 general election, the fourth Tory victory in a row, was seen as a severe defeat for the working class and labour movement. Young comrades, supporters of Militant, as well as hundreds and thousands of Labour workers throughout the country, were in tears as it dawned on them that the Tories had squeezed back in.
We asked how was it possible, in the teeth of the worst economic recession for 60 years, that the Tories had crept back in? The Labour right, as always, deflected responsibility from themselves onto the shoulders of ordinary working people. The arguments of the capitalist ideologists, that there had been a fundamental shift towards the right in Britain, became their theme tune. Martin Jacques, ex-editor of Marxism Today, reflected this
We have now entered a world where the Conservative Party has become the permanent party of government, just like the Liberal Democrats in Japan and the Christian Democrats in Italy. (14)
Within a year the Liberal Democrats in Japan and the Christian Democrats in Italy lay fractured and virtually broken under a mountain of corruption scandals. The Christian Democrats disappeared. The Tory Party have followed in their footsteps, split from top to bottom and facing electoral annihilation. Virtually alone, even on the left, Militant kept its head, explaining that the election, as important as it was, reflected merely one stage in the consciousness of society and working class, which under the impact of events could change rapidly.
The Tories had a 21-seat majority but this was no crushing victory. They got less than 42 per cent of the votes and if just 2,477 Tory voters, spread evenly across their 11 most marginal seats, had voted against them, John Major would have failed to get an overall majority.
Labour’s vote went from 28 per cent in 1983 and 31 per cent in 1987 to 34 per cent in 1992. Every part of England and Wales saw a swing to Labour, from 2.5 per cent in the South East to six per cent in the North and Yorkshire/Humberside. But it had become clear in the last few days of the election campaign that Tory waverers who had been thinking of voting for the Liberal Democrats or abstaining, drifted back to the fold.
The Tories had successfully whipped up the fear that unless these people voted Tory, Labour could get in. The turnout rose to 77.7 per cent (from 73.2 per cent in 1987) and the Liberal share of the vote dropped from 22.5 per cent to 19 per cent. That was enough to give the Tories the extra votes that clinched their victory.
Labour squandered poll tax lead
Nevertheless, this did not sufficiently explain how Labour could have failed to defeat a government which had been so unpopular 18 months before that they were 25 per cent behind Labour in the opinion polls.
This, of course, was in the middle of the historic battle against the poll tax. At its height 18 million people were not paying this tax. Seven million more had refused to pay the tax than had actually voted for Labour in the election. Five years before Labour had also achieved a similar lead in the middle of the miner’s strike. But each time this lead evaporated.
If the Labour leadership had backed these struggles instead of being embarrassed by them, and moreover expelling those who led this battle, then the attitude of the non-payers may have been different.
They actually said it would lose votes to defy the government. They therefore capitulated to the Tories – and still lost! We had consistently warned that the opinion polls, right up to polling day itself, reflected more of an anti-Tory mood, than a positive move to Labour.
In order to guarantee victory, Labour had to offer a positive alternative, and yet unbelievably the leadership made the same blunder as in 1987, giving the impression that they were likely to increase taxes on sections of the middle class and upper layers of skilled workers. In fact 48 per cent of skilled workers and young voters interviewed on an exit poll reckoned they would be worse off under Labour.
One Birmingham car worker, commenting to Militant on the day after the election, pointed out:
it was very hard to convince people to vote Labour particularly where I work at Leyland Daf. They’re fairly well-paid car workers and tax was an issue with them. They thought: “If we vote Kinnock our taxes are going to go straight back up, we’re going to be out of pocket”. The thing is, Labour’s tax plans would not have affected them because they did not earn enough, but it still came across as a issue that might, and it lost votes. (15)
The Labour leaders presented themselves as the alternative board of directors capable of running British Capitalism PLC. Voters, however, plumped for the real party of capitalism. Robert Harris of the Sunday Times remarked: “When the point of decision is reached they [the voters] will decide that a capitalist economy is best run by a capitalist party.” (16)
The “race card” also played a part. This was highlighted by the Sun’s “nightmare on Kinnock Street” which asserted that “Labour’s luke-warm stance on immigration will weaken European resistance to the threat of massive immigration.” (17)
BNP vote in General Election
The vote for the BNP in Tower Hamlets was a warning of the underlying danger of a growth in racism. Edmonds, the BNP candidate in Bethnal Green and Stepney, received 1,310 votes.
Tyndall, the BNP leader, got 1,100 in Bow and Poplar. Both the Tories and the Liberals were to blame for the BNP’s strong showing. The Liberal candidate in Bethnal Green took the opportunity of a trip to Bangladesh to say that there was no room in Tower Hamlets for their countrymen.
The Tory candidate put out a leaflet in the election calling for compulsory fingerprinting of Muslims. Both fostered the racism which the BNP fed off. This vote and subsequent actions of the BNP, together with the growth of racism and fascism in Europe, were to lead to huge confrontations the following year.
Militant was to play a prominent role in combating this.
In the wake of the electoral debacle Kinnock was compelled to resign. The feelings of many were summed up by Militant supporter Andrew Price:
Socialists should always look forwards rather than backwards.
But as I sat and watched Neil Kinnock’s resignation speech I thought back over my 25 years of political activity in South Wales and what I had seen of Kinnock.
Back to the 1960s and the earnest young man desperately trying to make a name for himself as an aspiring MP.
Back to his election to Parliament in 1970 and his eloquent speech denouncing capitalism, advocating real socialism condemning the timidity of the Labour leadership…
We asked him to speak at meetings organised by Militant and he said how delighted he would be to share a platform with those who were making such a positive contribution to the labour movement. Back to 1980 when he and I shared a platform at Cardiff University Labour Club.
A trade unionist asked us about how a Labour government would confront the capitalist state… I replied by arguing for the abolition of the monarchy and the House of Lords. Kinnock’s response was to stand up and tell a dirty joke about the Duke of York…
…as I watched him on 13 April denounce the attacks of the Tory press I remembered 1985, the year that so many of us (including myself) were expelled from the Labour Party and how those same tabloids cheered Kinnock loudly then. No, I did not join Peter Mandelson in shedding a tear at Kinnock’s resignation.
Yet another careerist has entered the annals of Labour Party history… Kinnock may have succeeded in temporarily separating us from the Labour Party. But we will find a way of getting the message of real socialism to the people who really matter in Britain. (18)
Scotland: Jailhouse shock! – Tommy wins
Scotland was to be the testing ground for Militant’s independent turn.
The formation of Scottish Militant Labour was an attempt to provide a socialist alternative to the free market policies of the Labour and SNP’s leaderships.
In the general election the SNP had made a significant advance, with a 50 per cent increase in the share of the vote compared to 1987, although it was not as successful as the SNP leaders expected. The desire to see the back of the Tories meant a final rallying behind Labour.
Nevertheless, the SNP had made gains among the working class and particularly amongst the 18-24-year-olds, 35 per cent of whom had voted for the SNP, as had 33 per cent of the unemployed. In Glasgow the SNP vote had risen by 38,000 while Labour’s had fallen by 50,000 – a 20 per cent slump compared to 1987.
While inscribing on its banner the legitimate national demands of the Scottish people, Scottish Militant Labour sought to inoculate the working class, particularly in the heartlands of the West of Scotland, against the virus of capitalist nationalism which seeks to divide one worker against another. It set it sights on the youth and the working class. We predicted that this new Tory government:
won’t be a government of stability or tranquillity… A period of intense struggle will begin to open up. Militant will be to the fore in all these battles, in the trade unions and through community organisations. (19)
A few weeks after the general election came the local government elections. The results of those elections, particularly in Scotland, showed that all the political obituaries for Militant were once again premature. Across Britain, Labour council seats toppled on 7 May.
The victory of the Tories in the general election and the dismal record of right-wing Labour councils resulted in thousands of traditional Labour voters staying at home. However, in Glasgow the picture was different. There, as we reported: “The red flame of socialism was burning brightly as the votes were announced.” (20)
The main story in every Scottish newspaper the next day was the stunning success of Scottish Militant Labour candidates. The Glasgow Herald reported: “There was a deep sense of hurt and outrage among Labour councillors in Glasgow as the full impact of Militant successes sunk in.” (21)
The Daily Record led its front page with “Jailhouse shock! – Labour takes a tanking – poll tax rebel Sheridan is in.” (22) The Scotsman said: “Sheridan takes Pollok in dramatic victory”, describing it as “the night Scottish Militant showed it could no longer be ignored in Glasgow.” (23)
Even the Scottish edition of the Sunday Times proclaimed: “Why Labour lost in Sheridan country.” It went on: “Sheridan’s campaign was about poverty… He has given hope for the first time… The people of this estate have found a champion and a leader in Sheridan.” (24)
Tommy Sheridan and SML made history with a councillor being elected from his prison cell for the first time in Scottish history. The result was that SML now had a group of four councillors in the city, just one less than the Tories and one more then the SNP and Liberals combined.
Moreover, only a slender 46-vote defeat in one ward prevented SML having to toss a coin with the Tories to become the official opposition. The mood of desperation after the general election had now been visibly transformed to one of confidence and even elation, especially in Pollok. One woman told the Sunday Times: “Tommy understands about damp houses and dole money. He lives in similar conditions to us and he’ll do something about it.” (25)
SML shattered the views of the sceptics, some of whom had recently departed from our ranks, who claimed that the launch of an independent socialist organisation in Scotland would “fail to cause a ripple on the Clyde”. Highlighting the remarkable success of SML was the knowledge that even the Communist Party, once a sizeable force in Glasgow, had never succeeded in gaining council seats in the city.
On 7 May two Communist candidates – both well known local figures – received just 81 and 99 votes. In contrast to this the seven SML members polled an average of almost 900 votes. Their total vote was greater then the total vote for Scotland’s 77 Green Party candidates! More to the point, the SNP was left licking its wounds in Glasgow as a result of the intervention of SML.
In Scotland as a whole the SNP won 24 per cent of the vote, pushing the Tories back into third place. At the last local elections in 1988 the SNP vote had lagged behind Labour by 21 per cent. On 7 May however, Labour’s lead over the SNP was ten per cent, but in every single seat where SML stood there was a significant slump in the SNP vote.
In six out of seven seats, the SNP was defeated by Militant candidates.
SML in Scotland and Militant in the rest of Britain intended to be a lever for such a movement.
In Liverpool, for the first time in years, local elections followed national trends. Five years previously, the Labour Party, standing in the traditions of the 49 surcharged councillors, had produced record turnouts and record Labour votes.
Even as late as 1990 Labour polled 91,801 votes, yet by 1992 just 36,677 voted for official Labour. This was the consequence of expelling Militant and ditching socialist policies. The Liberals had a made a comeback, regaining ten seats as a result of the disastrous policies of the right.
In 1992 the Broad Left and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) had fought in 12 and eight seats respectively. In these seats they had won 17.7 per cent of all votes cast, although only one candidate was victorious, in Everton, where Broad Left councillor George Knibb was returned.
Overall in the 20 seats they contested the Left had taken 30 per cent of the total Labour vote. In the Valley ward, Broad Left candidate, Sylvia Sharpey-Schaefer beat official Labour but was pipped by the Liberals.
In Netherley, Lesley Mahmood, with 29 per cent of the vote, came second to official Labour. A hung council now existed with Labour having 40 seats, the Liberals 38, and the Left holding 18. The Tories only had two seats. The purge had gone so far that the Liverpool Labour Party relied upon a handful of activists, in some cases on telephone canvassing.