IN THE aftermath of the 1992 general election Militant prepared the ground, together with others on the Left, for effective resistance to the Tories.
One of the battle lines was in the civil service. Militant enjoyed considerable support, particularly in the CPSA. The 1992 CPSA conference, held in late May, had seen the Left decisively defeat the Right on all the key issues raised at the conference.
The right wing had retained power but they had left Brighton battered, as the conference had overturned and defeated them on every single policy issue. In one vote, on reducing the size of the standing orders committee, their proposals gained the support of only five or six delegates out of 800.
The right wing, described as ‘moderates’, were in effect the voice of the Tories within the union. The pay deal negotiated by the right was overwhelmingly rejected by the conference. The elections were a disappointment for the Left but they did not give a great deal of comfort to the right either.
This was particularly the case in relation to John Macreadie’s defeat in the election for general secretary. His vote (10,561 with 13,649 for Reamsbottom) and those for other Broad Left candidates had shattered the right. The ballot papers sent out had resembled football coupons with over 90 candidates’ names.
Moreover, the postal ballot meant papers were sent to members homes, away from the discussions in the offices. Even then the right wing won by only 3,000 votes and the combined Broad Left and Broad Left 84 vote (who split the vote, polling 3,918) exceeded the right’s vote. We concluded: “There is no natural majority for the right in the CPSA.” (1)
Youth against Racism in Europe
Another key issue on which Militant concentrated its energies was that of racism. Racist attacks had swept through many countries in Europe.
In one year there had been a thousand in Germany alone. In France more than 200 North African men had been killed by racists over the previous decade and in Britain there were racist attacks every day, including murders.
The success of the National Front in France and the Republicans in Germany had sent a wave of horror through the labour movement, above all amongst the youth. In response to this Militant and its co-thinkers in Europe had initiated the Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE) Campaign.
The YRE decided to call for a mass European-wide demonstration against racism in Brussels, hosted by the highly successful anti-fascist organisation Blokbusters. Highlighting the importance which we attached to this campaign, our front-page article declared:
We in the Youth Rights Campaign want to see an end to racism once and for all. To do that, we need to go rid of the system that breeds it – capitalism. (2)
There was a call for a massive turnout on 24 October from all the countries in Europe, in which the YRE had already taken successful initiatives.
24 October 1992 – Brussels
After four months of campaigning a marvellous demonstration of over 40,000 marched through the streets of Brussels. The YRE had assembled the biggest anti-racist, anti-fascist, all-European demonstration ever. At 2pm the demonstrators moved off led by the Blokbusters with stewards, supplied with sticks, linking arms and spreading along the front of the march. We reported:
Despite the pouring rain it was a moment that brought a lump to the throat… The banners told you where they came from – Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Britain, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Norway, Austria, Holland and France…
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Blokbuster placards rolled into view. The unmistakeable clenched fist symbol was everywhere. As the German contingent filed pass, the start of the demonstration was already out of sight a mile up the road. There were stickers, flags and banners everywhere you looked. (3)
The youth of Europe had shown that they would not tolerate the rise of the racists and fascists, and in this fight there was unity behind the banner of the YRE.
The demonstration became front-page news with photos in eight out of eleven Belgium daily newspapers. Massive pictures, many of them in colour, showed thousands of marchers filling the streets of Brussels. News of the demo reached the United States thanks to a short report on ABC television news.
The media could not agree on the turnout. A Belgian TV station said there was 25,000 while the left-wing German daily newspaper TAZ estimated that 45,000 people attended. Confronted by a well-organised, disciplined demonstration, with stewards dressed in the Anti-Poll Tax Federation bibs from Britain, and carrying precautionary sticks the Belgian fascists complained to the government about a display of “paramilitary” force!
The YRE burst onto the scene in this mighty demonstration and was to become even better known in the battles which unfolded in 1993.
Tommy Sheridan released
In Britain the continued incarceration of Tommy Sheridan, as with hundreds of other anti-poll tax protesters, showed the brutal face of British capitalism, once its power is challenged.
After five months in prison he was released to a tumultuous reception in Glasgow in July. He was greeted by a crowd of 700 at Glasgow’s Queen Street Station. The crowd waiting for him was swelled by Post Office workers in their uniforms, oil workers and teachers. Red flags, union banners and SML branch banners mingled together. To a huge roar Tommy declared: “There have been no warrant sales in three years and I re-affirm now there’ll be no warrant sales in Scotland.” (4)
As a pipe band struck up the crowd marched across George Square so that councillor Sheridan could take his place in the City Chambers. An even greater reception took place in the evening with over 500 people gathering to greet his release from prison. Shortly after this the well known left-wing investigative journalist, John Pilger, wrote:
I was cheered by the release the other day of Tommy Sheridan after five months in Edinburgh’s Saughton jail. Sheridan was imprisoned last January for breaching a court order and forcing the cancellation of a poll tax warrant sale.
From his cell, he successfully campaigned for a seat on Glasgow district council. He stood again in the general election as a Scottish Militant Labour in Glasgow Pollok and, for one who was denied the hustings, he didn’t do badly… His greatest victory of course was as leader of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation.
In Scotland more than half the population still have not paid the poll tax. Long ago Tommy Sheridan would have embodied everything that inspired the Labour Party. He is young and… lives among and fights for the working-class community where he grew up…
The term “it makes me so angry” is odd to hear coming from one so young and erudite as Sheridan. It is not difficult to understand his popularity in Glasgow where people talk about their living conditions with anger.
Compare his speaking up for people with Labour’s current waffle about ‘image’ and ‘electable strategies’ and ‘socialism empowering the individual’… The legacies of Labour’s witch-hunt are the very authoritarianism of which Labour accuses Militant and a widespread grassroots belief that socialism itself is now tantamount to ‘entryism’ in the party.
Tommy Sheridan is credited with recruiting some 100 new members to Labour’s branch in Pollok… And yet Labour witch-hunted about 40 people from this branch, including Tommy and a young lad he helped to get off drugs by introducing him to Labour politics…
And in his principled stand, he shames the party that expelled him as do Terry Fields and Dave Nellist. (5)
Pilger’s unfashionable defence of Tommy Sheridan and Militant in the pages of the New Statesman led to him being accused by the “left” Tribune of “being taken in” and “going totally over the top in praise”.
Previously, Tribune had praised Pilger to the skies for his investigative reporting of the war in Cambodia, and the West’s silence over the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge. But when he was prepared to write about genuine struggles of workers in Britain, particularly when they featured Militant members, he was considered suspect by the ex-Lefts around Tribune.
Christine McVicar wins Easterhouse
SML in particular went from strength to strength. In September Christine McVicar won a landslide victory for SML in Easterhouse/Garthamlock capturing twice as many votes as her Labour opponent with the Tories and the SNP well behind.
The Glasgow press could not ignore her victory. The Glasgow Evening Times called it a “shattering, humiliating defeat for Labour”. (6) The Scotsman declared the result “another indication of how much of Labour’s grassroots support in the poorest areas is defecting to Militant.” (7) The Glasgow Herald simply cried: “Labour routed.” (8)
Even SML supporters were stunned but delighted at the scale of the victory. This surpassed even those in the May city council elections. Before the election the seat appeared to be rock solid for Labour.
At the regional council elections two years previously Labour had won 71 per cent of the vote. Now SML had captured 54 per cent, despite the fact it did not have the same base of support as in other areas of Glasgow, especially in Pollok on the opposite side of the city.
Moreover, Labour had fought hard to hold the seat. It had deployed seven MPs, including two shadow cabinet ministers and a posse of councillors in the campaign. Easterhouse typified decades of social deprivation and neglect. Capitalism and its Tory agents were primarily responsible for these conditions.
But Labour, ensconced in the City Chambers for decades, had failed to lead a struggle to change the quite horrific conditions. People in the schemes had a 40 per cent greater chance of dying before the age of 60 than elsewhere in Scotland. More than 70 per cent of children received school clothing grants.
Following Christine McVicar’s victory, Scotland on Sunday carried the headline: “Militant return from dead scares Labour.” They commented: “Militant drove home the message last week that it is electable under its own colours.” (9)
Christine McVicar summed up the significance of the election. “This is a triumph for the red flag over the pink rose, for traditional working-class socialism over the designer yuppies who have hijacked Labour.” (10) Many of the uncommitted agreed with her. A young worker interviewed in Easterhouse by Scottish Television the day after the election said:
Militant are the only people that have done anything for Glasgow. It’s Militants like Tam Sheridan and that lassie McVicar that have stood up and fought for the Scottish people. (11)
Another, a caller to a Radio Clyde phone-in, declared:
I’m not a member or supporter of Militant. But after Thursday I’m a lot more confident that water privatisation will be stopped. If Militant stood in Dunoon I’d vote for them. (12)
A pensioner also stated: “That’s the first time in 40 years of voting that I didn’t vote Labour. But I’m never voting for them again. I’m Militant now.” (13)
The significance of these remarks were not lost on Labour representatives. Ann McGuire, chair of the Labour Party in Scotland, commented on radio: “The problem that Labour has in Scotland is that we’re sandwiched in the middle between the Tories and Militant Labour.” (14)
The election results for SML completely confirmed the reasons for setting up an independent organisation in Scotland.
A certain layering, a differentiation, had taken place within the ranks of the working class. This led to a loosening of the bonds between the mass of workers and Labour, the “traditional organisation” of the British workers. The shift towards the right of the Labour leaders had further weakened these links.
A layer of workers, a majority of the more advanced and combative, began to look towards Militant Labour as the only organisation who could effectively lead a fightback against Tory attacks.
Militant, and Scottish Militant Labour were under no illusion that SML could automatically replace Labour, or that progress would be in a straight line. SML drew its electoral support from two sources. There was an element of a “protest” vote by traditional Labour supporters against the Labour right.
Other votes came from a section of workers who had rejected Labour and were looking for a socialist alternative. Militant fully recognised that at times the mood of workers, which could assume desperate yearning to see the back of the Tories, would lead to a rallying behind Labour, and consequently a weakening in support for SML.
But a core of workers, reflected first in Scotland, had taken a conscious decision to support us. Their support meant that SML could make important breakthroughs on the electoral front, in the most difficult arena for Marxism.
Moreover, this success contrasted favourably with the performance of Left parties in Europe. In most European countries a vote for Left parties of between eight and 20 per cent was seen as respectable. Even the Reformed Communists (RC) in Italy, which had split away from the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), the former Communist Party of Italy, was only able to capture 6.6 per cent of the vote in national elections.
Therefore, the electoral performance of SML was significant and was recognised as such by a growing body of commentators. It succeeded was precisely because it was not primarily an electoral organisation. Elections were an extension of important class battles such as the anti-poll tax movement, the struggle against water privatisation, and later the Criminal Justice Bill.
Inevitably electoral support would wax and wane. There would be occasions when electoral support would decline. British workers will test and retest an organisation before they consider fully embracing it.
However, the dogmatic assertion made by some of Militant’s opponents that the “unique” character of the British labour movement means that workers will cling, through thick and thin, to their “traditional organisations” ignores the profound changes which have taken place in the last decade and a half.
This “uniqueness” has evaporated as the character of the British labour movement has more and more come to resemble that of its European counterparts. The march to the right of the Labour and Socialist leaders is an international phenomena, as is the alienation of big layers, particularly of the youth.
The “bourgeoisification” of the social democratic parties has left a space for the emergence of new left, radical, revolutionary formations. In Britain the ditching of Clause IV, the distancing and possible complete rupture with the unions, the unprecedented apeing of the Tories by the Blair leadership, has already led to the detachment of a significant layer from the Labour Party.
Blair is shifting the Labour Party towards a version of the US Democratic Party. Under Kinnock, followed by Smith, and now Blair, the shift towards the right has gone further than in the past. A complete break with the trade unions and the abandonment of Clause IV can significantly alter the character of the British Labour Party.
The process can go a lot further. At the very least, this will leave a significant space to be occupied by a party which relates the ideas of socialism to the day-to-day problems of ordinary working people. Scottish Militant Labour and Militant Labour in the course of 1992-94 demonstrated the potential for such an organisation, which could develop by leaps and bounds, once a right-wing Labour government comes to power.
At the Labour Party conference in October, Smith allowed the word “socialism” to pass his lips just once in a 50-minute conference speech. Dennis Skinner was voted off the national executive (NEC). Even Bryan Gould, Smith’s opponent for leader and not really on the left of the party, was defeated in the NEC elections.
Tony Benn remained as the lone left on that body. This conference also revealed that the Labour Party had spent £700,000 in expelling 40 people from party membership. Militant held a public meeting addressed by myself and Tommy Sheridan, with 60 people participating. The mood of the conference was flat with no real debate on most issues.
In contrast, and in the same week as the conference, in Brixton and audience of 2,000, mostly young, blacks packed into a public meeting to hear Bobby Seale, co-founder of the US Black Panthers in the 1960s.
This was the biggest indoor public meeting of its kind ever held in Britain. It was hosted by Panther UK, an organisation which Militant supporters had participated in founding. During his speech Bobby Seale referred to Panther UK as “this group of young black revolutionaries”. (15)
Panther UK was an independent black organisation, the launch of which was entirely supported by us. Black Militant Labour members, working in conjunction with others, could relate through this organisation to a significant section of black youth who were alienated from the system, and who were looking towards organised resistance.
This naturally provoked the opposition of the professional “race relations industry” who perceive that all matters relating to ethnic minorities are within their ambit. Woe betide anyone who tries to trespass into their “constituency”, particularly if they approach race from a class standpoint.
Kiranjit Ahluwalia released
The victims or survivers of domestic violence were very appreciative of what the organisers of the CADV were able to do.
The CADV had conducted a long campaign for the freedom of Kiranjit Ahluwalia. Kiranjit, who was freed in early October 1992, just before a national demo of 2,000 organised by the CADV in central London, Kiranjit had suffered a terrible ordeal at the hands of a brutal husband. She had been jailed for killing him. Kiranjit described the unspeakable indignities she had suffered for more than a decade:
In ten years the police never helped me once whilst I was suffering but when my husband was dead they couldn’t wait to pin everything on me to make their case look good.
Commenting on her time in prison she said:
For three and a half years my family suffered more than me. Every evening the woman in the next-door cell used to cry for her children. Women like her shouldn’t be in prison…
I would walk around the exercise yard by myself with my Walkman. Some women came to me. They heard about my case. They said not to worry, that I had done no wrong.
Then one of them pulled down her jumper to show me the white scars she had across her neck, chest and arms. Her husband had thrown acid over her… Women need government money to help us and our children.
Some people say: “Why don’t women leave? Why don’t they tell the man to leave the house?” Well, where can the woman go with her children? The woman is faced with the problem of the children’s school, the problem of changing her job. 16
Pit closure crisis
At the same time, the most serious crisis since the re-election of the Major government erupted in October over Heseltine’s announcement of the mass closure of pits.
An estimated 30,000 miners, if Heseltine had his way, would now swell the dole queues and 70,000 jobs in related industries would be lost. Attacks on the working class had become so common under the Tory government that the initial reaction, amongst miners and even many supporters of Militant in the coalfields, was at first muted.
However, once the scale of the jobs slaughter became clear it ignited a massive public backlash against the government. Black Wednesday in September had been a dark day for the ruling class in Britain. “Black Tuesday”, the day when Heseltine made his announcement, would mean suffering for the miners and their families if the government was allowed to get away with it.
Militant made the call for the immediate occupation of the pits. Even British Coal chief Neil Clarke stated that Heseltine’s proposals were “the economics of the madhouse”. They were a brutal example of the class spite which motivated the government. The Tories had never forgiven the NUM for bringing down their government 18 years before. This was an opportunity to finally humiliate the miners and their families, and in this way further demoralise the working class. We called for
an immediate strike… Pits on the hit list must be occupied so miners can carry out the maintenance needed to keep them alive. Rail and transport workers must pledge that not a ton will move.
Transport workers’ leader Bill Morris is promising support. That must mean boycotting coal. He’s called for an emergency meeting of the TUC general council. That must organise solidarity action. Words are not enough.
This government won’t listen to argument, they want the blood of the mining families and of our class. The only language the Tories understand is action. An alliance of rail, power and public-sector workers must be forged and they must prepare for industrial action. The TUC must call a one-day general strike in support of the miners. (17)
If the labour movement were to stand up to Major now they could force the government to drop the massacre of the mines and even force the whole Tory cabinet out of office through a general election.
In making this call, we pointed to the lessons of history. The year-long struggle of 1984-85 was not lost because the miners had lacked determination but because of the cowardly role of the labour and trade union leaders.
Neil Kinnock saw the strike as a diversion, a lost year for Labour electorally. Yet Labour stood at its highest point in the opinion polls at the end of the strike. Two years later it had lost another general election. The TUC leaders had refused to call sympathetic action, even when the NUM funds were seized for fighting to save its members’ jobs.
The feeling was so great that the miners called, together with the TUC, for a mass demonstration on Sunday 25 October. The lightning change in mood resulting from these events had generated a heightened interest in politics, reflected in the activity of Militant, and its supporters.
At the demonstrations throughout the country papers were literally snatched out of the hands of sellers as workers eagerly sought information on the way forward for the miners and the labour movement as a whole. For the 25 October demonstration our front page called for a 24-hour general strike: “Mass action for the miners!” (18)
Over 100,000 workers marched in a huge display of working-class power. It was noticeable that the miners’ cause had generated support amongst the middle class and many who normally look with disdain on workers’ demonstrations through the streets of London. At the rally in Hyde Park the call from Arthur Scargill for the TUC to organise a day of action evoked massive cheering.
However, the TUC leaders, it was evident, once more wanted to limit the campaign to appeals to the Tories’ “better nature”. The need for action was urgent as the government was proposing the closure of the ten most threatened pits in less than 90 days. If the TUC were not prepared to call for action Militant urged that “the NUM should”. Above all it urged that:
Arthur Scargill should set the date for that day of action and from below other trade union activists would turn it into a successful one-day stoppage. Miners should go to other workers and appeal to them to join it. (19)
We also urged individual groups of miners to take such an initiative from below.
Although the 25 October demonstration was smaller than the 1990 mass march against the poll tax, the presence of union banners and colliery bands which filled the streets of the West End of London signified the emergence of the organised working class for the first time, on such a big scale, since the 1984-85 miners’ strike.
The presence of many middle-class people on the demonstration expressed the fact that small business owners and shopkeepers were drawn behind the labour movement. This invariably happens once the mass of workers move into struggle.
Yet it was with disgust that many listened in Hyde Park to a representative of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. What did the many public-sector workers who marched in support of the miners think of the union leaders standing alongside a CBI boss who believed that their pay should be frozen? These representatives of capitalism received a very rude welcome from workers.
Militant, virtually alone, had said the day after Major’s triumph on 9 April that his was not a strong government but one as weak as the British economy it was trying to uphold. The right-wing Labour and trade union leaders were battening down the hatches for a long haul. In contrast the post-election issue of Militant International Review stated:
Notwithstanding the tame opposition served up by Labour’s front bench, the social earthquakes which are coming can splinter the government. (20)
Just six months later and this government was on its knees. One big push and it could have been flattened – forced out of office, taking its job-destroying policies with it.
But victory could only have been achieved by a worked-out strategy and clear demands for action. While helping the miners in every way possible Militant also argued for a 24-hour general strike. Two mighty demonstrations, on 21 and 25 October, had actually brought the issue of the general strike back onto the agenda.
Bold action was needed if the government was to be forced to retreat. The idea of an all-out general strike was too far ahead of the movement. This idea was once more put forward by some. One such organisation was the Socialist Workers’ Party, whose leader Cliff claimed that if the SWP had been double its claimed 6,000 members it would have had sufficient weight to turn the miners’ demonstrations into a march on Downing Street which would have resulted in the overthrow of the government!
The irresponsible playing with the idea of an all-out general strike has nothing in common with genuine Marxism. In a general strike the working class develops its own local bodies to organise the strike, to decide what essential products – like food and medicines – should continue to be produced and distributed and what essential workers should be allowed to work.
In the 1926 general strike these organisations developed around the trades councils – the councils of action. These grew in power and strength and indeed the strike was gaining even greater momentum when the right-wing trade union leaders called off the strike. In a general strike two alternative centres of power face each other.
The official government authorities, whose instructions are ignored by the mass of the population, and the new workers’ power, which is taking the decisions about what is produced and what moves. In this situation all that is needed is for the workers’ committees to be linked up on a national level and a new potential government power – a democratic workers’ state – would exist to challenge the rule of capital.
An indefinite general strike is an “either/or” situation. It cannot last forever; at some stage exhaustion of the working class would take over unless the workers firmly take power. Either this happens and the working class reorganises society on socialist lines, or capitalism is let off the hook.
A unique opportunity existed in October 1992 to call for a decisive 24-hour industrial action which would have shut British capitalism down and demonstrated the power of the working class. Timing is of the essence in politics. A favourable opportunity must be seized by a far-sighted leadership.
Arthur Scargill had gained greatly in prestige because his warnings about the proposed pit massacre had been vindicated by Heseltine’s announcement. He had also called for a national day of action if the Tories would not budge on their pit closure programme. Even in November when the issue of the ten pits under immediate sentence of closure after the 90-day moratorium was up the urge for action was evident. It all came down to the question of what kind of action.
Our call for the 24-hour general strike had received widespread support. At the same time we also called for the NUM to “name the day” if the TUC continued to prevaricate. The issue of pit occupations also came onto the agenda as a means of harnessing the massive support gathered behind the miners. Militant urged: “Organise for action! Prepare to occupy the pits! NUM – name the day for a one-day general strike!” (21)
As the year drew to a close the issues generated by these slogans were hotly debated amongst miners and workers generally. However, October 1992 must be seen as a great opportunity which was unfortunately lost because of lack of clarity and decisive action.
The miners could have completely shattered the Tory government, possibly leading to its downfall. But the British ruling class, through its institutions and parties, has learnt how to bend with the wind. The government gave way, set up commissions and turned the issue over to a special parliamentary enquiry; they prevaricated until the mood generated by the original pit closures had evaporated and they could then safely close the pits.
3,570 votes for SML
In the midst of these developments Scottish Militant Labour once more stunned opponents by making further headway in Strathclyde regional council by-elections. In the Govan and Barlanark regional by-elections held on the same day in November, we won 3,570 votes – 38 per cent of the total. Labour trailed in second place with 3,217 votes – 34 per cent, followed by the SNP with just 2,415 (26 per cent).
In Barlanark and Queenslie, Willie Griffin on behalf of SML scored a magnificent 1,799 votes to Labour’s 1,279 to take the seat. SML came a creditable third in the more difficult area for SML of Govan and Drumoyne.
The SNP won with 2,076 votes, Labour came second, with 1,939. Our candidate Alan McCombes polled a very creditable 1,771 votes, the Communist Party just 50 votes! The elections meant that two-thirds of the Glasgow Provan constituency, one of the safest Labour seats in Britain was now represented by SML councillors.
Before the election our opponents had argued that its support was restricted to the peripheral housing schemes. But the Govan/Drumoyne result, although Alan McCombes did not win, shattered this myth with almost 2,000 workers’ voting for SML. The Daily Record once more recorded
Labour’s night of misery at the polls. [It went on] Labour were left in a state of shock last night after shattering defeats in two of their Glasgow strongholds. Jubilant Militant dealt the first body-blow when they romped home to victory in Queenslie/Barlanark… SML’s bandwagon rolled on with a stunning win. (22)
The Evening Times editorial commented:
People have lost faith in Labour as champions of the poor. The loss of two Glasgow constituencies… might not be particularly serious but what should worry Labour is that it is the continuation of a trend. If Labour finds defections to Militant spreading to Lanarkshire and the Ayrshire heartlands the party has a big problem on its hands. (23)
The Herald went further:
Increasingly the party locally has acquired the unenviable reputation as a launching pad for career politicians rather than an instrument for improving the lot of the working class. Many Labour councillors slip too easily into the political power games losing sight of the despairing, angry faces that put them there. (24)
The SNP, however, could not take much comfort from having narrowly scraped home in Govan. SNP leader Alex Salmond admitted to the Sunday Times, “Militant is a threat to the SNP as well as to Labour.” (25)
Ken Loach interview
Ken Loach is probably considered to be the most outstanding film director over the last 30 years able to capture many aspects of working class life.
Famous for Cathy Come Home in 1966 and Kes in 1969 as well as Hidden Agenda, he directed a film, at the beginning of 1993 Raining Stones. Riff-Raff, was the story of a building site which, apart from Business As Usual, contained probably the only favourable reference to Liverpool city council during the 1983-87 period ever to appear in a film. Explaining in an interview with Militant why he took a clear political stance, he said:
it’s unavoidable I guess. In the end you can only make films about things that get you wound up and I suppose that’s what I’ve found winds me up.
Explaining why many others avoid any political commentary Loach stated:
film is a commodity, particularly cinema films. In the cinema each film has to show a return and the whole tradition of cinema culture is built about a good night out, about escapism, there isn’t a cinema culture of political engagement.
In television it’s rather different because there is more range of television output. There’s clearly a place for engaged films and documentaries dealing with political subjects.
Asked about Militant, Ken Loach declared,
I’m not in a position to give a detailed analysis because I haven’t read the paper recently. But I absolutely defend the right of Militant and every other left paper to be a contributing part of the labour movement.
The left only flourishes on open argument where one analysis is set against another. That’s how a radical ideology is formed, it has to be argued out and we all have to make separate contributions to that from a basic Marxist position. I think the negative side of that is sectarianism. None of us admit to being sectarian but nonetheless sectarianism exists and that’s a great pity. (26)
John Pilger also gave an interview. Asked why he had come out against expulsions, he said:
“I looked at the way Terry Fields and Dave Nellist were treated. I tried to pick up a representative national picture of how the purge was conducted. And it was clear that in many areas people who have absolutely nothing to do with Militant were being expelled.”
Did that mean it was OK to get rid of us, but not other lefts, our reporter asked:
No not at all, I don’t want that suggested. I believe that people who support Militant follow a tradition of dissent within an organisation and have as much right to their views as anybody.
He compared the Labour leader’s strategy to that of the Daily Mirror’s attempts to fight the Sun by copying it – destroying its own identity while only creating a bad imitation. He also recognised the impressive achievements of Scottish Militant Labour, which he saw as having moved out of “siege politics – merely defending itself from other people’s attacks – and into the community.” (27)
Hands Off our Water
Refusing to rest on their laurels, SML also took the initiative in the campaign to prevent the privatisation of Scottish water.
No issue, not even the poll tax, had aroused such outrage throughout Scotland as this Tory threat. Opinion polls had shown that 90 per cent of the Scottish population were aghast at the Tory plans to sell off to private interests the one commodity which Scotland has in abundance.
However, Scottish television had led with the story, “Tommy says don’t pay.” (28) Scottish Militant Labour had taken the initiative in setting up the, “Hands Off our Water” (HOW) and a founding conference had been held with 160 delegates from all over Scotland.
Representatives of many other parties attended but only Christine McVicar for Scottish Militant Labour put forward a clear campaign involving organised civil disobedience, linked to working-class communities and the trade union movement. She promised SML would not back down when the going got tough and pointed to the electoral success of SML as proof of the popularity of the whole campaign.
The electoral battle was extended beyond Glasgow and the West of Scotland, the main base of SML, with the decision to stand in a by-election in the Blackshade ward in Dundee.
In the three-week campaign SML notched up 300 votes, 35 per cent of the vote in the Ardler housing schemes. Labour mobilised MPs, MEPs, councillors and full-time officials as they were unable to find a candidate, never mind a single activist, from Ardler who would campaign for them.
In four weeks 500 copies of Militant were sold in a ward with a registered electorate of just over 2,000. At one public meeting with 50 attending SML’s candidate, Liz McBain, spoke together with Tommy Sheridan. Seventeen new members were recruited to SML. Labour’s share of the vote was cut from 60 to 45 per cent; the lowest they had ever received in Ardler.
We stand in Lambeth
Seeking to emulate the achievements of their Scottish counterparts, London Militant supporters decided to put up a candidate in the Bishop’s ward by-election in the London Borough of Lambeth.
The candidate was Steve Nally, who achieved national prominence as secretary of the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation. Lambeth is one of the most deprived boroughs in London if not in the whole of Britain.
One in four of its people were unemployed, 50 per cent were dependent on some form of benefit and 75 per cent were living below the European decency threshold. The council, from being one of the beacons in the struggle against the Tory government during the 1980s, had, under right-wing Labour in the nineties passed on Tory cuts to local people.
By 1993 right wing Labour councillors had already cut £9 million off the budget and were proposing another £15 million cut. This would mean at least 1,000 people being made redundant out of a workforce of 7,000, the price of meals-on-wheels going up by 15 per cent, school dinners increasing by ten pence a day, rents put up by £6-£8 a week and six out of eight play centres being closed.
Moreover the two sitting Labour councillors in the ward had said that they would vote for the cuts. Steve Nally was amongst a number of Militant’s members in the area, including Labour councillor Anne Hollifield, who had been expelled from the Labour Party for standing up for working people.
Much debate and soul searching had taken place amongst Militant supporters in London before the decision was taken to stand. There was a natural hesitation to plunge into an electoral struggle in an area where Militant did not have the same roots, as for instance in Liverpool or in Glasgow.
Moreover, Lambeth, like Liverpool, had been the target of vitriolic denunciations of the so-called “looney left” by the Tories and their hirelings in the press. Nevertheless, it was decided to take the plunge and the reward was a successful campaign which established Militant Labour as a powerful force in the area.
As in Scotland, one of the features of the campaign in Bishop’s ward was the involvement of working-class people who had previously remained impervious to the message of the “politicians”.
One of these was Jacquie Lloyd who lived just over the river from the House of Commons but felt as though she lived a million miles removed from MPs who were supposed to be representing her: “I’ve only voted once since I’ve lived here because I’m so disgusted with them.” (29)
Her experience of politicians, both local and national, was of cuts and insults. Typical of many residents of the inner-city areas of London she was able to reel off a catalogue of problems, a gross shortage of teachers in schools, increased rents and poll tax demands.
The £7 rent increase imposed by the council was a real shocker and this had led her to consider voting for the Militant candidate. Naturally, people would ask what difference would one councillor make in the local council chamber. Anne Hollifield, a Labour councillor since 1990, answered:
Well, I’ve been able to do a fair bit. Lambeth people won’t go to jail for not paying their poll tax – I got that through the council. I fought for 18 months and got a hardship committee to look into all poll tax cases. I’ve helped stop the closure of youth and further education services. (30)
Militant Labour election campaigns were unique. There the usual canvassing on the doorstep went alongside action with local people to change their conditions. During the campaign 250 local women council workers lobbied Lambeth council against the threatened closure of nurseries and play centres and the sacking of workers. Julie Donovan reported:
We’d organised a meeting to set up a Childcare Defence Campaign but somebody had rung every nursery and playcentre in Lambeth pretending the meeting had been cancelled. But that sabotage didn’t stop us organising. (31)
Pressure from Militant and others did force the council to retreat on the sacking of six carers.
Militant did not expect to win first time out. However, Steve Nally in a short three-week campaign came from nowhere to beat the Tories into fourth place. He received 336 votes, 12 per cent of those who voted. This was only five votes less than the Liberals had polled in 1990 and now they had won the seat from Labour. It was a disgraceful result from the point of view of Labour.
To lose a seat like this to the Liberals was a condemnation of the right-wing policies of Lambeth council: a rent rise of £6 – £10 per week, £12 million-worth of cuts and the sacking of workers.
Militant in its first electoral test in London had beaten the Tory, the representative of the governing party of Britain and the ruling class.
The votes for Steve Nally did not tell the whole picture. 600 people had bought our paper. Our stall, out every day during the campaign, as well as our barnstorming electoral methods, had aroused enormous interest in the campaign. 41.6 per cent of the ward turned out to vote, far in excess of the 28 per cent who had turned out in a neighbouring by-election just three weeks previously.
Twelve people agreed to join Militant and 20 more filled in cards expressing a interest in our ideas. To a Labour Party, increasingly de-gutted of socialism by the right wing, our electoral methods were from another planet.
The Labour Party increasingly relied on a handful of activists, and a telephone and media campaign. The only time that the Labour Party advanced out onto Lambeth Walk was to tell Militant canvassers: “Ordinary people are just not interested in politics” or to yell “F… off” at two women who made the ‘mistake’ of asking a local Labour councillor what her policies were. (32)
In Scotland, meanwhile, the Timex battle had begun. This developed into one of the epic industrial struggles of the 1990s. The announcement of lay-offs for half of the workforce led to strike action in defence of jobs and conditions. This amounted to a lockout and mass sackings. One woman, who worked at Timex for 15 years, commented to us:
We had a one-day strike for the nurses. During the miners’ strike we collected and made up food parcels for the pit villages. The women did knitting for the miners’ children. (33)
Their support for other workers in struggle in the past was rewarded with huge support from the Scottish working class and labour movement.
Within a month support came from the whole of Britain. The strike had blown away the idea that trade union militancy “no longer applies”. Timex workers were fighting for many others facing de-unionisation and worsening conditions.
In the months that followed, the scenes outside the gates of Timex were of mass opposition, mass pickets of workers from Dundee, throughout Scotland and the whole of Britain. Militant urged the Scottish Trade Union Congress to call an immediate one-day protest strike in Scotland. The STUC had at least taken the intiative of calling an all-Scotland demonstration in Dundee on 20 March.
Derek Hatton cleared
In March the outcome of the two-and-a-half year enquiry, Operation Cheetah, was announced.
Derek Hatton and four other defendants were cleared of conspiracy to defraud Liverpool city council over two car park sites that had lain derelict since Hitler bombed them in 1942. The police admitted: “There was no special reason for beginning Cheetah, just the rumours.” We commented:
This trial had nothing to do with land sales. It was politically inspired, designed to attack Derek Hatton and destroy the reputation of 47 surcharged Liverpool Labour councillors and Militant. (34)
The Tories had never forgiven or forgotten, as with the miners, the humiliating defeat they suffered at the hands of the ‘Militant council’. Their press, their state and their judiciary had pursued a vendetta against Militant and the left and they were assisted in this by Labour’s right wing. Even the Independent pointed out:
Many lawyers, including implacable opponents of Mr Hatton, had written off Operation Cheetah as a disaster before the trial opened up… The evidence was so ambiguous that prosecution was scarcely justified. (35)
In pursuing Derek Hatton they did not just want to totally discredit him but the ideas he represented from 1983-1987. Derek Hatton had separated himself from Militant in 1988 and explained at the time that his business interests meant he could not be seen as a spokesperson for Militant. Yet, if he had been convicted there would have been acres of coverage about Derek Hatton and Militant:
Before the verdict was announced one TV researcher even told Liverpool Militant Lesley Mahmood that they would use all their footage of Derek if he was convicted and if not they would just cover the story. (36)
Right-wing Liverpool Labour MPs Peter Kilfoyle and Jane Kennedy had the effrontery to issue statements condemning the Crown Prosecution Service and demanding to know why the trial even went ahead! The actions of the right wing, particularly Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, who had denounced the councillors as “corrupt”, had paved the way for the police enquiries. Commenting on the results of the enquiry, we said:
The police have now dropped Operation Cheetah. Even they have realised that £20 million is a lot to spend for nothing. This sum is equivalent to that won back by the 47 councillors from the Tory government, which helped to build houses and create jobs.
Had £20 million been given to the council in 1992, 1,000 compulsory redundancies would not have been necessary and the families of those workers would not have been ‘existing’ on the dole. (37)
The results of Operation Cheetah were not only a repudiation of the police but also of those vicious capitalist organs like Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times which had orchestrated the campaign against Derek Hatton and Militant.
They had actually linked alleged land deals with money which was supposed to have gone to Militant. They carried headlines like: “Fraud fills Militant coffers – say police.” (38)
Detective Superintendent Bill Coady, head of the Cheetah enquiry, fed this mood of suspicion by stating: “There is now a strong suggestion that funds from land deals may have helped to finance Militant.” (39)
Militant rebutted every one of these allegations made by the Sunday Times and its reporters. The press, of course, never printed any of this. After the collapse of Operation Cheetah not a word retracting earlier lies appeared in the Sunday Times or in any of Murdoch’s press.