THE PROBLEMS for the new Labour leadership were that while they wanted to go to the right, within the working class and amongst the conscious, socialist elements within the labour movement, the trend was still clearly toward the left.
Developments in Liverpool and a series of industrial movements throughout 1983 in which Militant were to the fore, was an unmistakable expression of the mood. Liverpool’s epic battle between 1983 and 1987 is fully documented in our book Liverpool a City That Dared to Fight .
The mass demonstration of more than 20,000 people which marched through Liverpool in November 1983 reflected the powerful militancy which was sweeping the city at this stage. The turnout exceeded all expectations. Unlike other demonstrations, thousands had turned up well in advance. Many had travelled to the demonstration on the city’s buses which were free, the result of an unofficial gesture of support from the bus drivers. At the Pier Head meeting following the demonstration, Tony Mulhearn declared that it was
Tony Benn pointed out that "when the older generation look at the marchers they see the LPYS and they see the Labour Party they joined in the 1920s and 1930s". The council in preparation for the day had produced 10,000 bulletins and the District Labour Party also distributed 180,000 copies of their paper, Not the Liverpool Echo. Derek Hatton called for a city-wide general strike in support of the Council and Eric Heffer, Labour MP for Walton, called for extra-parliamentary action.
This was taking place while the Tory government was preparing brutal measures to crush the organised power of the working class, and in particular the miners.
This warning was underlined by the decision of Eddie Shah the owner of the Stockport Messenger, produced at his Warrington plant, to smash the National Graphical Association (NGA). Under the Tories’ 1982 Employment Act the union faced sequestration for defying a court judgement of a £50,000 fine against the NGA.
The mass picketing and the brutal attacks of the police angered workers who poured in from all parts of the country to support the printers. Regular clashes unfolded between the massed ranks of workers and the beefed up police who were defending Shah, a friend of Thatcher. In a special issue Militant declared:
However, Militant’s call for a 24-hour general strike to be organised by the TUC went unheeded. Arthur Scargill, virtually alone among leading trade union figures, called for decisive action:
He also echoed Militant’s demand for a 24-hour general strike to defend the NGA.
TUC - No action
This strike was the first in a catalogue of major retreats which seriously undermined the powers of resistance of the organised working class through their trade unions. But it could have been a famous victory.
Despite the fact that the Tories, in the usually crude fashion of Norman Tebbit, had made it clear that they were intending to ‘neuter’ the trade unions, the TUC did nothing. Shah received open support from the Newspaper Publishers’ Association, from the right-wing Institute of Directors, from the police and the whole of ‘official’ society. Yet right-wing trade union leaders like Bill Sirs of the Iron and Steel Trades Confederation, and Terry Duffy of the AUEW urged the printers to "remain within the law". This emboldened Shah and the forces of the capitalist state to put the boot in. Vicious scenes were played out on the picket line.
The printers were defeated at Warrington and the vital ingredient in this defeat was the role of the right-wing TUC leadership. We declared:
Militant had argued for an all-out printers’ strike in the teeth of such attacks. The majority of print bosses were afraid of such action, as was shown by the secret approaches of Robert Maxwell to Shah during the dispute. When the possibility of an all-out strike loomed Maxwell, the owner of the Mirror, could only comment: "God help us all". While criticising the right-wing of the general council, Militant also called for the Left to take effective action:
Militant enters the language
Had such advice been heeded then the right’s abdication of leadership over Warrington could have led to a strategy for mobilising a left fightback in preparation for the battles to come. Instead, the government, emboldened, decided to illegalise the trade unions at GCHQ in Cheltenham.
Mass walkouts took place but again the general council of the TUC refused to put forward a fighting and active policy for defeating the government. The press and media coverage of Militant throughout 1984 was intense. "Militant" and "Militant Tendency" became buzz words and were used sometimes indiscriminately to denote any challenge to accepted authority.
In his novel, First Among Equals (published in 1984) even Jeffrey Archer could not resist getting in on the act. Dealing with a "mythical" MP in Edinburgh he writes: "His General Management Committee, which now included five members of Militant Tendency, tabled a motion of no confidence in its member". (6)
The journal of the National Union of Journalists fed the impression that Militant was everywhere:
Even a BBC disc jockey commented:
Militant supporters were found in the most surprising quarters and came in all ages:
Even top Tory Virginia Bottomley’s brother-in-law Henry Bottomley expressed a passing sympathy: "Some people might regard me as a bit to the right. But in fact even though Militant Tendency has some strange ideas I agree with a number of them - at least it would be nice if it were possible." (10)
But one of the surest indications that Militant had ‘arrived’ was shown by a question in a GCE A Level from June 1984: "Consider the role, policies and significance of the following:" amongst the subjects listed was "the Militant Tendency" (11)
Also, during a miners’ lobby of Parliament during the strike the following exchange took place in the Commons:
In these circumstances Militant, with a growing and powerful influence in many trade unions, took the initiative with other lefts in organising the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC).
Some 20 individual ‘Broad Lefts’ organised on a national scale and some on a regional basis came together in a call for a conference to take place on 24 March 1984.
This conference, which attracted more than 2,200 delegates, packed out Sheffield’s Oxendon Centre and was the most successful trade union rank-and-file gathering since the ‘Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions’ organised by the Communist Party in the 1960s and 1970s.
Tony Benn was cheered when he thanked all those "flying canvassers" who had gone to Chesterfield to help to secure his recent by-election victory. He also outlined the attacks on democratic rights by the government and called for the defence of councils such as Liverpool. He said:
Such were the numbers and the enthusiasm that two overflow meetings had to be arranged. Nearly 500 people who turned up hoping for last minute tickets had to be turned away; there was just no room. A section of the conference, mostly drawn from ultra-left groups, declared that the ranks of the movement were "demoralised" and that the working class had swung to the right.
Some even argued that this therefore meant that it was wrong to build a Broad Left movement in such a period. This was answered by many Militant supporters, such as Alistair Tice from NUPE, who explained that certainly trade union membership had fallen, but this was mainly through mass unemployment, unlike in the 1930s when union membership fell by a half through the widespread demoralisation of ordinary workers.
The conference had a powerful effect with workers represented from all areas of the country and from most unions.