Militant Labour Launched

Chapter Fifty


AFTER MUCH deliberation and debate within the ranks of Militant, and after weighing up the effects of SML in Scotland, Militant decided to launch, Militant Labour, an independent fighting socialist organisation on an all-Britain scale.

The new organisation made its first appearance at a press conference in the unusual surroundings of the St Ermins Hotel, within shouting distance of the Houses of Parliament. Opening the press launch, campaigns organiser Frances Curran explained the irony of the venue:

“It was in this hotel that right-wing trade union leaders discussed how to expel Militant from the Labour Party.” 

Dave Nellist, Hannah Sell and Tommy Sheridan, and myself as general secretary represented the new organisation. We declared:

The Tory government is besieged by mass opposition from the people of Britain but the only hope held out by the Labour leaders for working people is to wait for a Labour government. We intend to provide a fighting alternative in all the areas where working people are involved in struggle.

We were tolerated when our support was small. But as we became a significant force in the party with the backing of councillors and MPs, the right-wing leadership moved against us. There’s no room for dissent in John Smith’s grey Labour party. After much discussion and a democratic debate in our ranks we have decided that it is necessary to put our programme and our slogans for real action before working people and to urge them to join Militant Labour. (1)

The leaders of the Labour Party had been reduced to the policies of “Me-tooism”. The Tories float a policy; the Labour leaders’ reply is: “Me too”. At a time when 100,000 jobs were threatened in the public sector in the following year, Labour’s chiefs had raised the white flag. Larry Whitty, general secretary of the Labour Party, had instructed local council Labour groups to pass on Tory cuts, including “compulsory redundancies”. Moreover, a secret Labour Party report which had been leaked to the Observer admitted that there were no more than 90,000 individual members of the Labour Party compared to a million in 1952.

Starting with the expulsion of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983, the aim of the Labour right was to cancel out all the gains made in party democracy and socialist commitment during the period 1979-82.

We launched Scottish Militant Labour (SML) just over a year ago and it has achieved spectacular results. We launched SML for a number of reasons. The crisis of British capitalism is expressed in a sharpened form in Scotland and above all in the major urban areas…

 Labour was identified as part of the ‘establishment’ by a large number of workers. This is even recognised by Tom Clarke, Labour’s shadow secretary for Scotland. He recently commented in Tribune: “One of Labour’s problems is that it is seen as the establishment in much of Scotland.” 

By providing a fighting example to working people in struggle, we knew SML would become a powerful force. We were also confident that it would encourage the best socialist workers still in the Labour Party to pressurise their leaders into action. (2)

Indeed this pressure had enabled SML to have a greater effect on the Labour Party in Scotland than when Militant supporters still operated within the party. Recognising the success of SML, Michael Dyer, Professor of Politics at Aberdeen University, commented:

Undoubtedly the most dramatic feature of recent Scottish politics has been the rise of Militant Labour: the only party with reason to be greatly impressed with its own efforts. 

In such places (Dundee) the SNP is losing support to Militant amongst the sub-culture of disaffected and marginalised young unemployed and single parents. With Militant emerging as the dominant party of working-class protest in Glasgow, the character of dissent had become less nationalist and more socialist. (3)

Here was a crushing refutation of those who disparaged our efforts to cut across the influence of the nationalists, particularly in the urban heartlands of the West of Scotland. SML had become the main organising force in the campaign to resist the privatisation of Scottish water and was also preparing for a mass non-payment campaign of water bills if the legislation was pushed through. Under the pressure of SML, the Scottish Labour leadership were compelled to organise a demonstration against water privatisation – the first Labour demonstration for 12 years.

Many areas in the rest of Britain had the same conditions that led to the launch of SML. Social conditions in Birmingham, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff and Swansea as well as many areas in the South were on a par with those in Scotland. English and Welsh councils, dominated by right-wing Labour, were as much a part of “the establishment”, in the eyes of those who suffer at their hands as was the case in Scotland. Militant had a proud record of struggle and sacrifice on behalf of workers.

Struggle, Solidarity, Socialism

On behalf of Militant’s Executive Committee I declared:

We have launched Militant Labour with very simple and clear aims. 

They are to staunchly defend the basic principles of the labour movement: Struggle, solidarity and socialism. Militant Labour will be where all workers are prepared to struggle. 

We will be prepared to organise and provide the necessary leadership. Wherever workers go on strike, we will do everything we can to build wider solidarity action. 

We will forcefully argue the case for socialist planning, for democratic nationalisation of the 150 monopolies which control 80-85 per cent of the British economy with compensation on the basis of proven need.

We intend to carry the battle to all corners of the working class and all parts of the labour movement. The situation of the working class is so urgent, the mood of desperation amongst many working people is so pronounced, that Militant must boldly intervene under our own banner. 

At the same time we support all efforts to fight the rightward lurch of the Labour and trade union leaders. We also support those Labour Party members who strive to transform the party into a fighting organisation for the working class. (4)

But the time was right to offer a clear socialist alternative. If the opportunity presented itself Militant would also offer an electoral alternative as well. Militant Labour pledged to stand in elections not for the sake of council or parliamentary positions, but to use election campaigns as a platform to mobilise the resistance of ordinary working people and to broaden our support.

Jamie Bulger

The killing of Jamie Bulger in Bootle horrified the nation. 

However, quite unscrupulously the Tories and their press used this terrible incident as an opportunity to demand harsher punishment and longer sentences and latched onto the feelings generated to demand “secure units” for young offenders. 

It was quite clear that the Tory press did not have an ounce of genuine concern for the families of the victims. This incident was used as a stick with which to beat the workers of Liverpool. It was also used as a means to persecute single parents and sing the praises of the Tories’ model of the nuclear, two-parent family. 

Militant hit back with accounts from workers on the ground, furious at the latest example of gross bias against the people of Bootle and Merseyside as a whole. 

Above all, Militant Labour led a campaign, ultimately successful, for proper childcare facilities and a creche in the shopping centre where Jamie Bulger was kidnapped.

Guy’s campaign

This was the case, for instance, in the campaign to keep London’s Guy’s Hospital open. 

The infamous Tomlinson Report had argued that London had too many hospital beds and yet 300,000 Londoners were waiting for operations. As one patient was discharged another fills the bed. We declared:

If the Tories think that Londoners will sit back and take this they’re wrong. Bermondsey people put up with the closure of St Olave’s because we knew we had Guy’s in our borough. 

There is no way we’ll allow our only hospital to close. We’ll fight for Guy’s and St Thomas’s too. If Tommy’s closes it’ll mean twice the amount of people trying to use Guy’s. Both hospitals must stay. (5)

A demonstration in Bermondsey was called on 27 February along Long Lane, the site of the battle against the fascists in 1937, when thousands of workers built barricades to stop Mosley’s Blackshirts marching. 

Women flung their eggs and oranges at the fascist scum. As Julie Donovan commented: “That Bermondsey spirit lives on today. The Tories are not on. Guys will stay.” (6)

New stage at Timex

The battle at Timex also moved into a higher gear and on Monday 11 April the biggest ever mass picket at the gates was followed by a 6,000-strong demonstration of workers in support of the sacked workforce. 

From early morning over a thousand had thronged the gates, travelling from all over Scotland, and as far away as London, Sheffield and Newcastle. 

It was also the biggest mobilisation of the police and the conflicts on the picket line saw Scottish Militant Labour (SML) members breaking through the police lines in an attempt to try and bar the buses’ path. But they were contained by the police. Two SML members, amongst others, were arrested. 

Most of Scotland, except Dundee, was on holiday and the STUC leaders had put little effort into building for the demonstration but the turnout was still massive. Significantly thousands of Dundee workers took part, in effect taking industrial action to march to Timex. Some were given time off from work to attend to avoid a walkout. Effectively, a partial one-day local general strike had taken place, without any such call from the STUC leadership. We commented:

For nearly four months a great national drama has unfolded at Timex. If any dispute shows the charged political and industrial situation in Britain, it’s this one… Police, including Special Branch and plainclothes police, are being mobilised throughout Scotland to break the picket line and bus in scabs… It’s all part of the Timex dispute. (7)

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, the trade union officials, with one exception, had tried to dampen down the struggle by threatening to expel pickets from the union and gagging the most outspoken trade union rank-and-file leader, John Kydd. While the attention of Dundee workers was on the Timex dispute and important by-election was called in the city.

Whitfield by-election

SML achieved an excellent 307 votes (21 per cent) in the Whitfield by-election on 29 April. 

Once more the Tories had been reduced to fourth behind the victorious SNP candidate, then Labour and then SML. Sixty-nine people voted for the Tories in the Whitfield ward. Yet in this election the Tories had heralded Whitfield as a triumph of government policy and regeneration. 

It was supposed to be good territory for them because only 35 per cent lived in council housing. SML candidate Harvey Duke explained that low wages, poverty and the threat of water privatisation would mean that a fighting socialist alternative would gain an excellent response in Whitfield. 

The vote was even more significant than previous efforts because not a single member of SML lived in Whitfield. As a result of the campaign a new branch of 15 members was set up. Over a dozen street meetings had been held and the case for socialism taken to workers who had not heard it before. SML had exposed the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) shady deals with the Tories. 

As a result the SNP vote fell from 55 per cent in the previous May’s district elections to 35 per cent this time round. The SNP’s candidate declared: “If SML hadn’t stood we would have won by a landslide.” (8)

The backdrop to this election was the battle at Timex which had entered a decisive stage in May. 

On Monday 17 May the statutory 90-day sacking notice was due to expire and the sacked workers could then be offered jobs back. It was clear that the company management was attempting to break the unity of the strikers by offering some their jobs back but permanently excluding others. 

However, Timex workers had made clear there would be no going back until all sacked employees had their jobs back at the same wages and conditions and the scabs were out of the factory. Militant Labour had called for a one-day stoppage in Dundee for 17 May. The potential undoubtedly existed for shutting down the factories and workplaces and for a mass turnout on the picket line. 

Workers had indicated that they were prepared to turnout and Arthur Scargill had said that he was attending the 17 May mass picket. The leaders of the engineering union (AEEU) and the STUC leaders feared losing control of the dispute. The Timex management had actually stated publicly that they preferred dealing with the national trade union leaders rather than the local strike leaders.

On 17 May a magnificent mass picket, probably one of the biggest if not the biggest that Scotland has witnessed, took place. There were 5,000 people from every corner of Britain who had assembled to demand the reinstatement of 343 strikers sacked by the Timex bosses. 

Despite the largest police operation ever seen in Dundee, production inside the factory had been brought to a virtual halt by the mass picket. Timex management in collaboration with the Tayside police had organised for scab buses to arrive at 6.30 in the morning – an hour and a half early. By then 2,000 demonstrators had assembled at the gates, with hundreds more arriving every few minutes. 

As the police tried to channel the buses into the factory a ferocious conflict broke out with demonstrators at times succeeding in blocking the road. A 20-minute battle took place at one stage with police fighting ferociously to clear a path for the scab buses. 

By the time the buses had broken through thousands of more protesters had arrived. Shaken by the size of the demo and fearful of further eruptions of anger, the police were forced to turn away dozens of delivery vehicles and private cars bringing white-collar staff to the factory. 

Scotland’s Daily Record characterised the picket as “mob demo terror”. (9) But most of the arrests had taken place when the Timex strikers and the mass picket moved in front of the factory gates in an attempt to blockade the buses carrying scabs into the factory. It was the police who fought frantically to clear the road for the buses. SML members were among those arrested during the confrontation.

We asked:

How much public money was spent on this mammoth police operation? 

When vital services in Tayside are being run down for lack of cash, Tayside chief constable Jack Bowman can spend hundreds of thousands of pounds in a single day to protect the profits of Timex… 

Why were two demonstrators charged initially with attempted murder for allegedly blocking one of the back gates of Timex with a mini-bus? Why was this information then released to selected sections of the media, while defence lawyers were kept completely in the dark about the charges? (10)

Why after lurid headlines had appeared in every newspaper in Scotland and across national TV news, were the charges then dropped without explanation?

Despite the mass picket it was clear that only decisive action by the working class as a whole could bring the Timex management to their knees. Arthur Scargill at the rally in a nearby park had declared on 17 May, to rapturous applause, that it was necessary to call a 24-hour general strike to save the mines, reinstate Timex workers and stop privatisation of British Rail.

Following the success of 17 May, Militant called for an escalation of the dispute through a shop stewards’ conference of all Dundee workers which could prepare the way for a 24-hour general strike in the city. One Dundee boss told a shop steward on the 17 May: 

“I can’t let you go to the Timex demo because if I do I can’t guarantee that that lot [meaning the workforce] won’t follow you out.” (11)

If a one-day stoppage was not enough, Militant argued, this could prepare the way for workers across Scotland to pressurise the STUC into calling a Scottish one-day general strike.