On Our Way To Wembly

Chapter Fifty-Three


IN THE the May elections in England Militant had done exceptionally well in a number of areas where it stood for the first time. 

In East Hull, for instance, Keith Ellis gained 771 votes in the county council elections – 34 per cent of the votes cast. He stood as a sitting councillor, having been expelled from the Labour group for voting against a cuts package of £25 million. 

Nevertheless, this was a tremendous result and followed a very successful campaign of street meetings, house meetings and leaflets on all the important issues affecting workers. His 34 per cent of the vote contrasted favourably with the 44 per cent for the victorious Labour candidate. 

Labour had received a real fright with all the three constituency parties in Hull putting in time to try and counter the support we were getting. Even East Hull MP John Prescott was brought in. 

In Bulwell, in Nottingham, Gary Freeman, standing for Militant Labour, got 656 votes, 22.2 per cent of the total. The local Labour organiser had declared that Gary Freeman “doesn’t stand a chance”. However, in the course of the election he was forced to change his tune. 

The local press had presented everyone’s manifesto but that of Militant Labour. Even the Greens were allowed their own say on policy and were tipped as an organisation with local roots “who may do well”. The campaign for Gary Freeman mobilised workers who had been politically apathetic in the past. Thousands of leaflets were distributed, 1,575 copies of Militant were sold and four very successful public meetings were held. Crucially, 21 people agreed to pay subs and become members. This laid the basis for a new branch in the Bulwell area.

In Coventry the Tories got a hammering in the Longford by-election. The “party of government” got only five per cent more of the vote than Militant Labour. Rob Windsor, Militant Labour’s candidate, received 423 votes, eleven per cent of the vote. [a]

In the North East, in the Hardwick ward of Cleveland county council, Patrick Graham received 341 votes, 24.9 per cent of the vote. One Labour councillor accepted that “Militant Labour won the youth because we no longer campaign or do anything.” (1)

Militant Labour 

The struggle of the Timex workers was one of the centre-pieces of the June national rally called to launch, on an all-Britain scale, Militant Labour as an independent socialist organisation. 1,200 workers, youth, black and Asian workers and working women were mobilised at the Wembley Conference Centre to get the organisation off to a flying start. An impressive array of speakers was assembled, among whom was Sandra Walker, a Timex striker, who got two standing ovations during her contribution. She declared:

Women are at the forefront of this struggle and have changed from lambs to lions… 

We need national trade union support. If our forefathers had listened to talk about legality we’d have no trade unions and no Labour Party. There are lots of Timex disputes about. Unity is strength, it’s about time we showed that unity and that strength. (2)

I said:

Labour’s leaders practice me-tooism. The Tories decide their policies in the morning, Labour follows in the afternoon. 

But Militant Labour is still fighting. Who can compare with us? How many obituaries and funeral dirges have been said over the bones of Militant and then weeks later, as if by magic, we ‘re-emerge’ as the Sunday Times claimed recently! 

Siren voices accuse us of splitting the movement. I was a Labour Party member for 23 years until I was expelled in 1983. We were tolerated when we were small but not now. 

We are fighting for socialism. In Britain this will not be the one-party prison state of Stalinism but a planned economy based on the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky. Militant Labour’s best days are ahead of us. Join our fight. (3)

Tommy Sheridan welcomed the launching of Militant Labour throughout Britain:

We are taking politics out of the smoke-filled rooms and onto the streets of Britain… 

Scottish Militant Labour’s electoral success has proven that radical socialism can grab attention. Elections are an important means to communicate ideas but never a substitute for the class struggle – the everyday struggle in the lives of working-class people. (4)

There were youth speakers, like Lois Austin from Youth Against Racism in Europe, and international speakers, such as Sam, a member of the ANC from South Africa. Raymond De Bord was warmly welcomed as a speaker from the JCR (Revolutionary Communist Youth of France). He declared:

We are a small organisation but we are building an important position amongst French youth. 

After the YRE demo on 24 October (in Brussels), we set about forming a YRE in France. 

We met Militant Labour for the first time around the YRE demo and we hope for even closer contact. A victory for Militant Labour in Britain is a victory for socialism in France. (5)

The JCR subsequently joined the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI), the international organisation of which Militant Labour is the British component, and have grown in influence and numbers as a result of its intervention in the workers’ and youth resurgence which has taken place in France.

One of the best receptions of the day was for Julie Donovan who graphically described the conditions of working-class women:

Depression has nothing to do with personality but with conditions. 

Social Security pay £25 a week less than the government admits is needed for adequate nourishment to stop ill health and sleeplessness. 

The Tories blame single parents for society’s problems and squeezes them with the Child Support Act (CSA). We’re no longer putting up with it. Women are getting organised. 

Fighting alongside DSS trade unionists who have to operate the CSA, we can make it unworkable. Three years ago domestic violence, which hits one in three women, was considered an individual issue and not for the trade unions. 

Now five unions have taken up CADV’s demands. The government wants to turn the clock back but women are getting organised. (6)

Other speakers included Tony Mulhearn, Dave Nellist, Janet Gibson, George Silcott, brother of the jailed Winston Silcott and Larlan Davis from the M25 campaign.

Fighting Fund Appeal

The appreciation of the speeches was shown in the impressive fighting fund appeal which raised £33,800. There was a gasp throughout the conference centre as the first donation was made.

 Alec Thraves, who made the financial appeal, had asked if anyone could give a donation of £5,000 – but the first cheque was for £10,000 from a Bristol worker. International visitors also gave impressive sums, £70 from two visitors from Vancouver, £20 from a visitor from Michigan and a £500 pledge from a European visitor.

Militant’s ability to generate financial resources assumed legendary, if not mythical proportions in the eyes of our opponents. Michael Crick quotes an “ex-member” about her experiences of attending Militant events.

“if your pockets aren’t empty… somebody’s bound to tip you upside-down to make sure your coffers are bare when you leave. I know people who used to hide their last 30p so they could get home on the bus”. (The March of Militant p143).

We did not believe in squeezing our supporters, who were largely workers with limited means, until “the pips squeaked”. But Militant’s ideas did inspire a great spirit of self sacrifice, without which it is not possible to change history. 

This spirit however needed to be organised. Clare Doyle, as National Treasurer, pioneered the financial methods which became the hallmark of Militant. Nick Wrack ably stepped into her shoes and in 1994 became the editor of Militant. 

When he moved on, Judy Beishon, a tireless and tenacious member of Militant’s financial team over many years, became the National Treasurer of Militant Labour, a position which she still holds today.

For Marxists ideas are primary. But good ideas are nothing unless the means of demonstrating those ideas are acquired. A serious attitude towards ideas and a meticulous approach to organisation, particularly to collecting money, was one of the reasons for Militant’s success.

No wonder an observer at the rally, from the Green Party of Australia, could subsequently write:

The atmosphere was of angry indignation at capitalism – a sentiment sadly lacking at many other left conferences – and a committment to action… 

although the SWP claims 8,000 members… its impact on British politics is negligible. Militant, with its base in working-class communities, has earned a national prominence for its hands-on approach to politics. )7_

Even the New Statesman, not exactly to the fore in praise of Militant in the past, conceded that the rally was extremely impressive,

… there was an energy and enthusiasm at the rally… A clear demand from at least two speakers was for an end to the era of “grey men in grey suits”, prompting the one grey man in a grey suit on the platform to remove his jacket. 

The speeches inclined towards the inspirational… On the way home, I chatted to a fresh-faced young man, who had clearly enjoyed himself. 

He thought the beginning with the laser show and the music was really good. I remarked on the dual message of using the theme tune… “I didn’t know it was from Jaws,” he said. (8)

But perhaps the best testament to the success of the rally was the Timex strikers’ report back to their mates of their impressions: 

“Every speaker was excellent, a very enjoyable and worthwhile event.” (9)

Timex management had, however, declared that the factory would close by Christmas in an attempt to blackmail 150 trained workers back to work on reduced wages. 

This plan was rejected by 341 votes to two. It showed that the struggle was now a fight to the finish between Timex management and the workers. However, strikers were encouraged by the forced resignation of Peter Hall. 

But they were still outraged at the prospect of the closure of the factory. When the mass picket on 19 June closed the Timex factory, even the security guards on the site had to find another way in.

At the rally at the factory gates Tommy Sheridan received huge support when he spoke of the need for a 24-hour strike across Scotland. Referring to the threat to remove machinery he declared:

As far as I’m concerned the machinery and techniques in that factory belong to the people and we should do everything necessary to ensure that the machinery stays there and is not taken abroad to some other multinational. (10) 

10,000 people assembled for the march.

At a successful Scottish Militant Labour meeting after the rally SML was thanked by a member of the strike committee for the provision of stewards and for the picket line coverage during the 21-week long dispute. 

These sentiments were not shared by the Sunday Times or Scotland on Sunday. A barrage of media abuse had been unleashed against the unions, the workers themselves and SML. The ‘quality press’ described the struggle over Timex as one between “dinosaurs”. The Sunday Times in an editorial screamed that the factory had been, “destroyed by dinosaurs”. (11) 

Scotland on Sunday’s cartoon was of two dinosaurs, one Militant and the other of management, fighting it out with the Timex factory in between. “Who is to blame they ask, Peter Hall, Tommy Sheridan or John Kydd junior, the sacked AEEU convenor at Timex?” (12) The women at Timex were described as the “witches of Dundee”. However, the Sunday Times also indicated the fears of the bosses:

Timex might be of itself a minor Scottish affair but that’s what they said about the poll tax and look what happened to that. Heaven help us if Timex becomes a platform for a rejuvenated crusade against government union legislation. (13)

We asked John Kydd junior for an honest assesment of SML’s role in the dispute:

“The role of SML in the Timex dispute enhanced the class emphasis of the dispute. Their solidarity, support and encouragement helped to bolster the morale of the pickets at every stage of the dispute. 

Their direct action approach made sure of national recognition and raised the dispute to greater heights. Those who condemed the support of SML failed to recognise the class nature of the dispute and by their actions aided and abetted the Engineering Employers Federation and the company. (14)

More trouble for Major

The only thing which was sustaining Major’s government in power was the lack of any real challenge from the Labour front bench. 

The Tories were floundering but Labour’s support in the polls had actually dropped by two per cent as general disillusionment with politics had set in. We commented: “The weakest government in living memory couldn’t possibly withstand sustained, organised opposition.” (15)

Throughout 1993 and most of 1994 the crucial factor sustaining Major in power was the weakness of Labour’s front bench allied to a completely impotent union leadership. 

The roots of this were primarily ideological; the right-wing Labour leaders had gone over to pro-market policies and their differences with the Tory front bench were primarily presentational, or shadings of disagreement. 

And this at a time of the most devastating recession in Britain for 60 years. It was one of the reasons why Militant Labour again decided to stand in a by-election in Lambeth for the Oval ward on 22 July. 

The concern which this provoked in the ranks of right-wing Labour was shown by the fact that Scotland Yard’s Company Fraud section had arrested Militant Labour councillor Anne Hollifield for voting and presenting a budget during the council’s 12 hour marathon budget meeting earlier in the year. This was because she had not paid her poll tax. 

She was said to have contravened section 106 of the Local Government Finance Act, which forbids councillors with poll tax arrears from voting on matters concerning council tax. The real crime of Anne Hollifield was that she had led the anti-poll tax movement in Lambeth and since becoming a councillor in 1990 had pledged not to pay her poll tax in solidarity with the poorest people in the borough.

 The election campaign once more went into parts of Lambeth which no other party was able or prepared to go. One incident summed up the effect of the campaign: “Buy that woman a double scotch”, (16) shouted three former Liberal voters at Lynne Kelly. 

She had just single handedly converted them to Militant Labour on their way to the polling station. The Tory agent on election night had declared out loud: “Well at least the Militant won’t come third; what a relief.” (17) But as Steve Nally commented:

Some relief! Minutes later the blood drains from his face as he realises that in the second Lambeth by-election running we have beaten the Tories. (18)

246 had voted for Militant Labour and hundreds more were enthused and inspired by the campaign. 550 copies of Militant were sold and £250 raised for the fighting fund, new members had been won and 40 had indicated by signing cards that they wanted to join Militant Labour. 

The effect of the campaign was felt after the result when on the following Saturday an older black worker held up the traffic on Brixton Road as he jumped out of his car and vigorously shook Steve Nally’s hands. When Steve told him the result he said: “Well done young man, you tell your people they’re on their way.” (19)