Archive article from The Socialist Issue 446
The Socialist Party's history
The Militant Tendency
The following is the transcript of an interview with Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party, and one of the founders of The Militant, conducted by Shaun Ley for the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘The Party’s Over’ at the end of 2005 and broadcast in February 2006.
Only a fragment of Peter Taaffe’s comments were broadcast.
We subsequently received enquiries from a number of people who expressed an interest in reading or hearing the whole interview, in which Peter explained the role of Militant (forerunner of the Socialist Party), particularly in the events in Liverpool in the 1980s, our attitude to the Labour Party, then and now, and other issues.
Shaun Ley: Peter Taaffe, I suppose the first thing to ask you is why Militant was founded as a newspaper?
Peter Taaffe: There was a need in the early 1960s, we believed, to have a newspaper that reflected a distinctive socialist and Marxist voice but which was one not existing on the margins but within the main working class party.
Peter Taaffe. Photo Marc Vallée
At that stage, we thought, the Labour Party was this.
It had the support of ordinary working people, at least at its base, and particularly amongst young people.
These are always the most radical and open to the ideas of change and so on.
It was this layer of the Labour Party that we concentrated on and had the greatest success.
We were very small in the beginning. The paper was produced once a month; we had eight pages to begin with and then we had to retreat within a couple of issues to a four-page paper.
This paper did reflect the kind of radicalisation taking place at that stage.
And how were you distributing the paper?
We produced the paper once a month.
I was the editor and also the business manager, the circulation manager and also half a dozen other jobs.
We were not very big; we produced the paper with no more than 40 committed supporters in Britain.
At our height we had almost 10,000 people supporting it and we became a weekly paper.
We thought about producing the paper two or three times a week.
So we distributed it through our supporters, a very small voice of Marxism at that stage.
And I suppose it was an image that people became increasingly familiar with at meetings, at demonstrations, outside other events, students’ meeting places at universities. The Militant paper seller became an almost iconic figure of that period?
Yes, and this was reflected in TV programmes. There was the well-known example of a TV programme in Nottingham.
They were making a fictional programme about some industrial event and one of our comrades at the time saw this taking place, thought it was a genuine, went up and tried to sell copies of the newspaper to the actors involved in this particular drama.
We were everywhere, even though we were quite small at that stage.
What was the thinking behind launching a paper rather than say, actually having a political organisation of your own at that stage?
But we were a political organisation. We never denied this. We were organised as a distinct trend like others inside the Labour Party; like the social democrats, the left-wing Tribune and other newspapers.
The criticism of us was, not really that we were organised but that we were well organised and we were successful.
The newspaper was the expression of our particular viewpoint; we had a distinct Marxist position.
We engaged in debate and discussion, I think that we conducted ourselves in a very friendly fashion, a very fraternal way and we managed to win people over on the basis of the force of our arguments rather than by our numbers.
So the newspaper was the voice of a particular group of people within the Labour Party, primarily, although not exclusively, within the Labour Party.
Why was Liverpool so important in the development of Militant?
Well, I am from that area. I come from a working-class background.
It was an area of a high degree of poverty, and still is unfortunately.
It is also a seaport with a very radical tradition. It has a distinct character.
Marxism and Trotskyism, the Communist Party always had a strong base there.
It was an area of low-paid workers, not a majority of really very high-paid like other areas. Manchester, for instance, in the north-west, was more high-paid.
There was also a militant tradition, and I came into that tradition, first in my case, in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and then in the Labour Party.
In the Labour Party I discovered radical, socialist, Marxist ideas and in the course of discussion and debate I accepted those ideas.
So Liverpool was always a centre in the beginning although it was not exclusively in Liverpool. Militant was founded as a national newspaper but I had to move from Liverpool to London to become the first full-time editor of the paper. Militant had an influence nationally and it began to grow, within the constituency labour parties and the trade unions, and it was because of the objective situation in Merseyside, the destruction of industry – it suffered terribly under Tory governments – it didn’t share in the prosperity of other parts of Britain.
Therefore, our ideas found a ready audience.
Was it also something about the Labour Party in Liverpool at that period, particularly in the fifties and sixties?
It was partly that.
The argument was that Militant was only successful – this is an argument used by the right wing then and now – because there were moribund run-down parties.
Therefore we were ‘parachuted in’, Militant supporters were parachuted in. This is a gross distortion of the truth.
We didn’t parachute in anywhere, we were a product of the specific conditions in Liverpool and we had to fight against quite powerful trends within the Labour Party such as the Braddocks in the 1950s who represented what we would call right-wing social democracy.
It’s ironical that the people who switched the Labour Party to the right, the Blairites, fought allegedly against ‘bed-sit infiltrators’ so-called and ‘small unrepresentative caucuses’, have ended up in a party that is moribund, that is empty of members. This is a caricature of the vibrant Labour Party that existed in the past when Militant had such support.
Would you say though that the Braddock period in Liverpool, that quite centralised and strongly controlled party, some people called Tammany Hall-type politics, made Liverpool a better opportunity for you?
No, I don’t think it was either better or worse because we had successes in Scotland, in Nottingham at that stage and in London.
The very right-wing character of the Labour Party was a factor.
Remember, however, that some of these right-wing characters had previously had a base in the Communist Party, like the Braddocks; they were from a ‘socialist tradition’, and therefore were very skilful in drawing on radical arguments in order to counter our position.
If Liverpool was a kind of down-at-heel, rundown party, open to infiltration, why is it that when Militant was at its height the District Labour Party had an attendance of 700 people? This was because of the ideas of the council, of Militant, of the resistance to the Tories.
This became the talking point in the pubs, became part of popular culture alongside football and so on.
We connected not just with a particular internal situation inside the Labour Party but with the broad mass of people who were radicalised by their objective circumstances.
We wouldn’t have had the same effect, by the way, in the 1950s because in the 1950s there was an economic boom from which Liverpool actually gained.
This strengthened the right-wing and the left was very small.
We only began to get an echo when British capitalism began to break down and this in turn affected the lives and the conditions of the people in Merseyside.
There are people who say that period in the early eighties when you were such a dominant force in Liverpool politics, as you say, 700 people turning up to meetings of the District Labour Party not only reflected the fact that you were running the city council but also the claim that if you wanted to get a job in the public sector in Liverpool, you had to be a Militant member.
That’s just not true.
Just examine what happened and no doubt others who will participate in this discussion will underline this.
We created two thousand jobs through the council, we built five thousand houses, sports centres and so on.
We had no more than maybe one thousand two hundred members in Liverpool.
They already had jobs, outside of the council mainly, so the idea that it was a replacement of a right-wing Tammany Hall with a left-wing Tammany Hall just does not hold up.
The people who make that charge can never give you the specific examples of Militant supporters who got jobs.
In fact, I would oppose that method as a matter of principle.
We represented a new brand of politics, incorruptible, not prepared to take jobs on that basis, at the expense of working people.
Why is it that Terry Fields, who was a Labour MP, who was a Militant supporter, lived on the average wage of a skilled worker when he was an MP? He lived the same life style as he did when he was a member of the Fire Brigades Union.
We’re not out to gain advantage, personal, pecuniary, financial advantage at the expense of working people.
Right-wingers in the past always used to say they believed in the emancipation of the working class, one by one, beginning with themselves! Our attitude was that we would advance with our class, the working class.
Our job was to make them conscious of their power and in the course of that mobilise them in order to change their conditions.
So that is a tale which is just made up by people who want to slander the Militant; it is not based on an objective analysis of what happened at that time.
What was the Trotskyist philosophy? Why the belief that you should operate within the Labour Party? What was the thinking behind that?
Well, not all Trotskyists would go along with that.
We think that Leon Trotsky was a great historical figure who stood for socialism but also stood for democracy against a one-party totalitarian regime.
That itself is an achievement.
But we believed, our distinct difference, unlike now, is that the Labour Party was the main party of the working class.
When working people moved into action they would do so through the Labour Party.
It had a pro-capitalist leadership, which hardly differed from the time that it was first created, but at its base were the trade unions and it represented ordinary working people.
And if you were going to be effective then, and that’s still our argument (not in relation to the Labour Party however) you must connect the ideas of socialism and Marxism to the life experience of ordinary working class people.
We participated first as a minority and we argued for our point of view.
We won majority support; although I would remind you we never had a majority of councillors on the Liverpool City Council.
This was achieved by the force of our arguments and ideas rather than the numerical representation of Militant supporters.
So we had this distinct view, we differed with ultra-left groups who thought they could just go to working-class people and proclaim the need for socialism and Marxism and win them in that way.
We were always interested in winning people on the political ground which working-class people occupied and in the course of debate and discussion winning them to our ideas.
And we were very successful in that respect.
So that meant joining Constituency Labour Parties and working inside that environment?
Yes it did, for some, but I was in the Labour Party before I was a Trotskyist.
I was a member of the Labour Party for 22 years before they discovered that we were a malign influence inside the Labour Party and I was expelled at the Labour Party conference along with four other members of the Militant Editorial Board in 1983.
But we won people who were in the Labour Party but also we won people to the Labour Party, to the Labour Party Young Socialists, through the mass campaigns on Merseyside, in Liverpool and so on.
In that way we built the Labour Party but we also, in the course of that, built the influence of the ideas of Militant.
There were a lot of people who regarded that as sinister.
Why is it sinister when you openly proclaim what your views are? We never hid where we stood, we openly organised.
The people who make that claim are those who were ineffective.
We were organised and we were better organised than our opponents and we were openly organised.
And when we were elected, we were elected with majority support.
When we were defeated, we accepted that and worked for the common position of the majority in the Labour Party.
We were expelled for our ideas not for organisation, not because we were allegedly sinister.
The sinister ones are those, our right-wing opponents, who’ve ended up destroying the Labour Party as a distinct working-class party.
There’s no mass voice for working-class people in Britain today.
Neil Kinnock’s argument seemed to be it wasn’t so much what you believed, it was the way you operated.
You say you were upfront about it but there was a reluctance to acknowledge at that stage you were an organisation.
Some people said you were just selling a newspaper.
We were always open, in programmes like this on television – I went on television a lot then – we were asked whether we organised.
We weren’t a distinct separate political party but we were organised. We never hid that.
Neil Kinnock, ex post facto, tries to justify his position because when he was on the left he defended the right of socialists and Marxists to be in the Labour Party.
After all, they were part of the Labour Party from its foundation and, by the way, they were organised.
The Social Democratic Federation, originally, was part of the foundation of the Labour Party but then split away, unfortunately.
The Independent Labour Party maintained a separate existence right up to 1932 when they split away from the Labour Party.
The Tribunites were accused of being a party within a party. Aneurin Bevan was up for expulsion.
They weren’t attacked because of that; they were attacked because of their ideas.
Kinnock travelled towards the right, became the standard bearer of the right with ‘left’ credentials, he represented right-wing reaction within the Labour Party.
We said to him at the time, you’ll start with the expulsion of Liverpool Militants, but you’ll end up by destroying the Labour Party as a distinct working-class organisation.
And that, unfortunately, is the situation. All that Blair has done is to build on the heritage of Kinnock and of John Smith.
The Labour Party is now irredeemable from the point of view of working-class people and socialists in particular.
But it is in government and you’re not.
Yes but we never have had the perspective of being in government at any price.
That actually undermines the point in relation to our alleged ‘sinister thirst for power’.
The idea that anybody wants power for the sake of power is very empty and is very shallow.
Of course, we want the working class to have power but not personal power for ourselves. Many times, as young people, we were offered the prospect of becoming Labour MPs.
Neil Kinnock even said on the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party, after one telling intervention at a National Executive Committee meeting by Tony Saunois (representing the Labour Party Young Socialists), "We think you could become a future Labour prime minister." But he and we stuck to firm socialist and Marxist principles.
We weren’t interested in power or in the privileges which go with this.
Kinnock has ended up as a millionaire, I’m still a very badly paid representative of my party, as general secretary, a member of the National Union of Journalists and so on, but I wouldn’t have it any differently.
They are in government but they’re not in power. The real power in Britain is controlled by the multinationals, the transnationals.
We saw how far the Labour Party had gone in the exchange in the House of Commons when Howard gave his last speech, when he quoted from what Blair had said: ‘I’ve destroyed my party’s core beliefs and they’ve tolerated it because we’re in power.’ But they’re in power to do what? To help working people, to change the balance of power in favour of working people? On the contrary.
There has never been a greater polarisation between rich and poor.
It’s a disgrace to even designate this government as a Labour government.
It’s a Tory government and the broad mass of the people actually understand that.
We’re interested in power in order to change things from the point of view of working people not for personal power.
What about the other criticism that was made by people in the Labour Party at the time that what made Militant different was that you did not accept the parliamentary system of government? Therefore, because you were in the Labour Party which was campaigning inside a parliamentary system and signed up to that parliamentary system, that meant you were trying to undermine what Labour was trying to do.
We defend the right to strike, freedom of assembly, the right to vote, all the democratic rights of working people.
The people who make that accusation against us are actually undemocratic and undermine democracy.
This government is maintaining the Tories’ anti-union laws, which are dictatorial.
It gives power to capital over workers.
It allows the Irish Ferries to import scab labour to drive down the living standards of working people and when solidarity action is posed you can’t do it, allegedly because of the anti-union laws.
We fight for a socialist government; we stand for parliament as a separate party.
We stand for councils; we have four councillors at the present time.
[Since the interview, we have increased our numbers to seven councillors.] We have 23 of our members on the national executive committees of trade unions.
We are a significant force. We haven’t gone away. We are making progress at the present time.
We believe it is necessary for the labour movement to stand for parliament, to fight for a majority for power.
But we’ve also said that the capitalists in Britain, as in Chile in 1974 – or in Spain in 1936 – could resort to force to overthrow a democratically elected government.
Now in that situation what would we do? What would Labour do? What would the leaders of the labour movement do? Hopefully, they would fight to defend democratic rights. We would do the same.
So the idea that we want to subvert democracy is false.
We defend democracy; we want to expand democracy, even ‘economic democracy’.
At the moment, a handful of people control what we would call the productive forces: science, the organisation of labour and of technique.
What went wrong for you in the 1980s then because you reached this point where, by one description, you were the fifth largest political movement in the UK, you had resources, you had members, you had people buying the paper, you were perhaps not the biggest political group on Liverpool City Council but you were effectively directing the policy. Why was that not sustained do you think?
For the reason that the left internationally has not been able to sustain itself.
Up to the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, we had almost 10,000 members and supporters.
But history took a different turn to what we expected.
The collapse of the Berlin Wall and, following it, the collapse of Stalinism, which we never supported, led to the collapse of the planned economies of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. This allowed the ruling class internationally, including in Britain, to conduct a campaign against the ideas of socialism and for neo-liberalism.
The Wall Street Journal had a famous headline after the collapse of the Berlin Wall which said: ‘We’ve won’.
In other words, for 20 years the credo of the capitalists has been, "There is no alternative." This was Mrs Thatcher’s mantra in Britain and on an international scale.
This weakened the working class. Not only did Militant go back but all socialist organisations went back.
Labour moved to the right, as did the trade union leaders.
All kinds of alternatives and quack theories were tried – "Let’s try this or that" – but after two decades that process is coming to an end.
But hadn’t it happened earlier in Britain? I mean, your influence effectively peaked about 1986.
We were expelled, remember, from the Labour Party, that is myself and the four members of the Militant Editorial Board, in 1983.
Some then said, "That’s the end of the Militant. We will cut off the head and the body will die." But it didn’t. We actually grew.
We had three people who became Labour MPs: Terry Fields, Pat Wall and Dave Nellist.
We grew amongst the Labour Party Young Socialists.
We had the miners’ strike of 84-85 when we won hundreds of miners to Militant and we represented a real power.
The defeat of the miners’ strike had an effect in disillusioning working-class people.
Liverpool City Council was isolated and the right-wing nationally came for the Liverpool City Councillors.
We made a mistake in 1986-87 when we allowed them to expel the leading Militants without taking counter-measures.
We should have carried on with the Liverpool Labour Party. This would have met with success in council elections and so on. But we decided we would have to retreat.
I was in a minority view in Militant at that stage; I said we should fight in this way.
But we retreated and thought that, well, events would change the Labour Party. But the combination of the expulsions and the turn to the right internationally undermined this perspective.
If you had ten Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotskys in certain historical periods you cannot advance.
I could give many examples when Marxism was reduced to a handful, as in Russia between 1907 and 1911. But that didn’t stop Lenin and Trotsky later on from becoming the majority and carrying through the greatest overturn in history.
‘Militant’ has never gone away. We’ve changed our name to the Socialist Party because ‘militant’ became used by the press to signify militant islamicists, "wild men with a knife between their teeth", and all that sort of thing.
So we decided in the new changed situation that we needed to call our party the Socialist Party.
And we’ve been very successful with a new generation who’ve been radicalised by a re-creation of the conditions which existed when we rose to our significant influence.
Was it a strategic mistake to decide to make workers redundant?
It was wrong, it was an error, to announce the redundancy notices. But Liverpool City Council didn’t make a single person redundant in Liverpool.
To argue otherwise is absolutely false.
It was disloyal, as Kinnock did, to make this the centrepiece of his infamous speech in 1985, repeated endlessly afterwards, that the redundancy notices led to workers being sacked, "sending round notices throughout Merseyside sacking workers".
The national leadership of Militant disagreed with the redundancy notice tactic. But it was too late. It had been announced.
But the important thing to see is that nobody in Liverpool believed that the council would actually carry through redundancies.
It was a tactic to gain time to get more finance.
I think it was a mistaken tactic.
The majority of our people think it was a mistake but there was no redundancies carried through.
Compare that to the real redundancies that are being carried through or have been carried out by Labour councils through privatisation and other measures the length and breadth of Britain.
We hear nothing about that.
This is a selective view of history.
I would challenge anybody to give us examples of where the Liverpool City Council, under the leadership of Militant, carried through those redundancies.
We created jobs, we created sports centres, we had a policy which enhanced the position of the black population, and the young people in particular, gave them jobs, gave them a stake, if you like, in society.
This is unlike councils today who are actually worsening the conditions of working people in their areas.
But didn’t it effectively create the environment, as you say, merely the announcement of those redundancy notices, that allowed the Labour Party to move against you, the Labour leadership to move against you, in perhaps a way it couldn’t have done before?
The Labour leadership was under pressure from the capitalists and the Tories from 1976 up to 1986 and beyond in trying to have us removed from the Labour Party.
This was even before the Labour government came to power.
The Tories carried out a consistent policy, saying socialists and Marxists should be removed from Labour.
Sir Keith Joseph, the guru of Thatcher, made the famous statement that the aim of the Tories was to create another capitalist party in Britain.
They have succeeded, through Blair, in doing this.
So they tried throughout ten years but they couldn’t succeed because the socialist rank and file of the party valued our participation in the party and valued what we had to say.
But the change in the conditions in the 1980s meant that some on the left moved to the right and adopted the attitude of Pontius Pilate.
When the right-wing came for Militant, we said, "You come for Militant in the morning, then they [the right wing] will come for the rest of the left in the afternoon and the Labour Party will end up being destroyed".
Check what we said at that time.
Unfortunately, we were proved correct.
You are bound to make tactical errors in the course of a mass movement.
The redundancy notice dispute shows that the national leadership of Militant did not control every aspect of what went on in Liverpool.
That was a decision that was taken in Liverpool without our knowledge.
When we heard about it, we said it was a mistake.
It did give an excuse to Kinnock but he was looking for any excuse.
It has since been revealed that Charles Clarke, Kinnock, John Reid, all the people who have moved the Labour Party to the right, to the capitalist party it is today, they met on Wigan or Runcorn station, and they plotted.
They were looking for an excuse.
Kinnock famously said, "I’ve got the excuse" now to do what has already been pre-planned beforehand.
If it wouldn’t have been the redundancy notices it would have been some other trumped-up charge about alleged corruption, which never took place under the influence of Militant.
It could have been alleged violence, which never took place by any of the leading Militants in Merseyside.
We abhor any attempt to settle political arguments by violence inside the movement.
I want to stress that even Kinnock’s infamous speech would not have succeeded if the miners’ strike hadn’t been defeated, if Liverpool council hadn’t been fined and there hadn’t been a change in the relationship of forces in society which was reflected inside the Labour Party at that stage.
There was stuff that was giving you bad publicity from Liverpool though, wasn’t there, if you like, damaging the Militant brand? For example, I suppose, the publicity for Derek Hatton, who became a bit of a celebrity figure, his private life, what he was saying was talked a lot about, there was talk of a static security force in Liverpool that was supposedly protecting him and protecting meetings, and those kind of things generated the headlines that damaged Militant’s image.
Well, the headlines were generated anyway by the very fact that we represented a challenge to the power elite, if you like, the capitalist establishment and their echoes within the Labour Party.
So, the very fact that we were challenging the establishment was itself an excuse to find any number of reasons to attack us.
The publicity, the adverse publicity, which took place from 1983 and before, to 1986, did not have the slightest effect.
What people do in their private life is up to them.
The question of the static security force, the question of jobs for the boys and girls, all of that was nonsense.
We even had the Liberals producing leaflets in the council elections saying, in an area were there was a high degree of Roman Catholics, saying the ‘Holy Father’ is opposed to Labour.
They distributed leaflets in their thousands.
It didn’t have the slightest effect.
Why? Because we were creating ‘facts’ on the ground: parks, five thousand houses with gardens back and front, with sports centres, we were giving jobs.
We had a regime which existed there that had a connection with working class people.
So all this hostile propaganda had no effect.
Why is it that, while of all this publicity was being used, Labour had the highest numerical support in council elections, when Militant was in control, of any previous Labour council and certainly one ever since? Go to Liverpool today and see that it is not controlled by Labour but by right-wing Liberal Democrats.
Labour is discredited and why is that?
You don’t think it has anything to do with Militant?
When we left, when we were kicked out of the Labour Party, Labour was on an electoral high in Liverpool.
The Labour Party is reduced now to a rump.
The Labour Party is empty of active workers. Check the figures on the number of people who voted for Labour at that stage… The Labour Party today is a caricature of the fighting vibrant Labour Party of the 1980s.
It is empty of workers, it is discredited.
It is not a fighting organisation for working people in Liverpool.
In fact, that’s one of the reasons why we don’t work in the Labour Party.
We are attempting to create the basis for a new mass workers’ party and we are collaborating with people in the trade unions, we are calling a conference in the new year as an alternative, an electoral and a fighting alternative because the Labour Party cannot be changed.
That’s the fundamental difference between now and when we were in the Labour Party in the early 1960s.
So you have accepted now that you can’t have a future within the Labour Party as it exists?
As the Labour Party exists now, it is a capitalist party which is no different to the other capitalist parties, the Liberals and the Tories. New Labour is competing for the so-called centre ground, which is a very narrow ground.
This means the marginalisation of millions of former Labour supporters.
They are looking for an alternative.
We are attempting to fill the gap with workers and young people.
But for every five or ten we can reach there is a hundred, there is a thousand out there who would come to something more substantial and, if you like, more attractive as a force.
We are hoping to create the conditions like the Labour Party when it was first founded in the early 1900s when it was created by a coalition of trends – of Marxists, of socialists, of non-Marxists, of trade unionists, of the co-operative movement – all coming together to form what was the political expression for the working class.
Our job is to fight for socialist and Marxist and socialist ideas.
But at the same time we must help to create the conditions for this broader party because either under Blair or Brown or Peter Hain or any of the other brands of soap powder, capitalist soap powder, that are on offer, none of them are capable of satisfying the political demands of the working class.
What would you say is the legacy of Militant?
A very powerful legacy.
If you place your faith in working-class people, in their ability to fight and struggle – and we always said our job is to make working class people confident in their ability to change society, through the trade unions, in the day-to-day struggle against capitalism – then you will eventually be rewarded.
Militant’s legacy shows what is possible when you do that and connect it with the idea of a socialist transformation of society.
Reforms are not achieved, changes in people’s conditions are not secured, by a pro-capitalist leadership.
Show me somebody who supports this system and who also says they are an effective trade unionist and I would say that most are frauds.
They are not prepared to really challenge the power.
It is only if you have a vision of a different society that you are able to stand up to the bosses, to oppose the capitalists and offer real leadership. That’s why we have growing support in the trade unions.
Militant showed the way in Liverpool.
In the poll tax we organised the power of a mass movement.
We organised the struggle against the poll tax.
We organised the anti-poll tax national federation.
We had 34 comrades jailed, including an MP, Terry Fields.
We weren’t there for the privileges of power, we were there to show an example and we mobilised 18 million people to defeat Margaret Thatcher.
Ted Grant thought that was a mistake.
Well, that’s news to me.
If he does…
Well no, at the time he spoke up back in 1991.
He said that wasn’t the appropriate approach for you to adopt because it was different from the way you had gone in the past, of actually operating in the Labour Party.
You shouldn’t be supporting particular causes and campaigns; you should operate within the mass of the party.
No, no I don’t think that was his position.
His position was that he supported the struggle against the poll tax; he was with me on the big anti-poll tax demonstration…
Didn’t he say that Terry Fields should pay his bill?
Well that was a different question.
He said for tactical reasons Dave Nellist and Terry Fields should be prepared to pay in order to withdraw from the line of fire.
My argument and the argument of the majority, was if you’ve asked working people to stand up and not pay their poll tax, if you’re asking people to go the lengths of defying it and go to jail, how can you differentiate with the MPs? His was a dishonest position as far as we were concerned.
To say that the MPs should step back was rejected and overwhelmingly the majority of Militant supported our point of view.
In fact, we would not have the support that we have today or that we had at that time if we would have backed away from that struggle.
We led a struggle that not only defeated the poll tax but defeated Thatcher – read her biography – and this laid the basis for bringing down Thatcher.
I described this in our book in detail, The Rise of Militant.
We are very proud of that.
You see, it is the force of example, the tradition which the next generation will take up. What are the traditions of the people who expelled us? What is the example of Neil Kinnock? A place seeker, somebody who is prepared to crawl on his stomach before capital, who lives the life of a millionaire.
Where are the people who expelled us today? They will be hardly remembered.
But the immortal 47 councillors who struggled have established a fighting tradition.
It is very powerful in the hearts of working people and that tradition will be rediscovered by the generation that moves into action in the next period.
You still think the revolution will come?
Well, what do you mean by revolution?
The overthrow of capitalism.
Well yes, a change in society, established through winning a majority in elections, backed up by a mass movement to prevent the capitalists from overthrowing a socialist government and fighting, not to take over every small shop, every betting shop or every street corner shop – in any case, they are disappearing because of the rise of the supermarkets – and so on, or every small factory, but to nationalise a handful of monopolies, transnationals now, that control 80 to 85% of the economy.
I’ve got absolutely no doubt that working-class people will come to the conclusion that that is the only alternative and a democratic socialist plan of production will be developed, not like the caricature of socialism that existed in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe or, to some extent, the vestiges of this that exists in China today.
We are opposed to a one-party, totalitarian regime; we have always made that clear.
We are in favour of socialism and democracy.
The reason I say that this is likely to develop is that capitalism is already breaking down, even before a serious economic crisis.
Neo-liberalism means a race to the bottom.
It means a lowering of wages.
If I wasn’t here, if Militant wasn’t here, working-class people would resist through their trade union organisations and in the course of that struggle they would also draw the conclusion, as they are, that they need a general alternative. Apart from an industrial struggle, they need a political alternative, we need to change society.
It is not an accident that Karl Marx, on Radio 4, in this year, was the ‘man of the twentieth century’.
Why? Because the new generation are rediscovering his ideas and are looking out for people like us who are the continuation not just of the ideas of Militant but of the tradition of socialism and Marxism that goes back to Marx and even before Marx, to the Chartists and the great Gracchus Babeuf in the French Revolution.
We are part of a long historical tradition that is progressive.
Capitalism is outmoded.
It can last for a period unless there is an alternative but I’ve got no doubt about it that working class people will come to see the need for a change, and if I’m not there, at least those young people within our movement, they will be there, alongside the working class, fighting for that change and they will be an important part of that process of change.
Can you remember the Kinnock speech; did you see that as it happened? Obviously, you weren’t at the Labour Party conference…
Oh, you were at the Labour Party conference!
Yes, I was sitting in the gallery and, moreover, we’d had prior notice of the speech because as a journalist, as you know, you usually get the printed speech beforehand As far as I recall that particular section was only added afterwards.
So I was sitting in the gallery as Kinnock was making his speech.
I saw the pandemonium on the floor.
At one stage, it looked as if the delegates were going to overturn him.
I saw Derek Hatton’s reaction, Tony Mulhearn’s and so on.
And we had a huge meeting that night.
We had 700 people and the world’s press were gathered to hear what our response was to that attack.
So I was there. In the same week, not only did Kinnock put the knife into Militant and the Liverpool City Council, which he has never been forgiven for, but he disgracefully denigrated the miners as well.
There were miners and there were women from the mining communities who were weeping at that conference in response to Kinnock’s attacks.
The Labour MP Bob Parry made his famous statement, "This man is a Ramsay MacDonald". However, Kinnock never got the chance of being Ramsay MacDonald, of betraying in that way because he never became prime minister.
But he did a job for his capitalist paymasters, for the ruling class.
You say it wasn’t in the speech.
Did it come as a shock that he was mentioning Liverpool in that way, in that speech?
We had an inkling but we were all taken aback and surprised that it was made in such a venomous fashion.
He tried to picture Liverpool City Council as being the authors of destroying people’s lives instead of changing people’s lives, of sacking people.
Even though he has been challenged, he has never given one example of where Liverpool City Council, under the influence of Militant, carried through a single redundancy.
And yet he is a member of a party today, Lord Kinnock now, which presides over ruthless cuts.
Note on the transcript:
Some minor changes and deletions have been made to the original in order to make the interview readable.
However, these are minimal and restricted to elementary and unnecessary phrases, as well as repetition of some points.
Nothing has been added or deleted to change the views of Peter Taaffe and the substance of his replies to Shaun Ley’s questions.