Part Three

Making Our Mark

[Section 2]

The Neath by-election

After the acquittal, which was a great victory for the RCP, we won over the leader of the apprentices, Bill Davy and a number of young strikers. As soon as this battle had finished, another opportunity opened up for us. This was in a totally new area for us: the parliamentary front. South Wales remained a weak area for Trotskyism. Then, out of the blue, a by-election was called in the small mining town of Neath in South Wales as a result of the death of the Labour MP. In early 1945, after considering things fully, we took the decision to put up a candidate. The election was in a Labour stronghold that had an enormous majority, and allowed us to build upon the support we had achieved in South Wales for the Defence Committee from various miners' lodges. There was talk of an independent Communist candidate, but this did not materialise. So, we decided to use this opportunity to outline our programme and establish a base for the RCP in this important industrial area where the CP was still very strong. We had a few ILPers who were sympathetic to us in the area, but we didn't have a single member before we started the campaign.

It was a foregone conclusion that Labour would win the Neath seat. However, as there was an electoral truce, the Tories obviously wouldn't oppose a Labour candidate. So we decided to put up a candidate, standing on a programme to end to the Coalition and explaining the revolutionary alternative. Given the sluggish way things worked in the by-election process, it allowed us a few months of energetic revolutionary campaigning within the Neath constituency. All the comrades who could take their holidays arranged to take them during the campaign. Comrades came from all over the country and we waged a tremendously successful campaign. It kicked off with a meeting, addressed by Jock Haston, our candidate, at the Miners' Welfare Hall in Gwaun-cae-Gurwen. We began with small meetings, ten or fifteen people, gradually building up towards the end of the campaign with meetings of a hundred, two hundred and three hundred throughout the constituency. Miners, tin-plate workers, steelworkers, transport workers and others came to hear what we had to say. We began to get a mass audience for our ideas.

To answer the attacks of the Stalinists, who raised the question of so-called "Trotsky-fascism", we challenged them to a public debate, but at first, this challenge fell on deaf ears. We conducted an energetic electoral campaign, which had nothing in common with the kind of ultra-leftism and opportunism which is always the hallmark of the sects when they engage in electoral politics. Lenin explained long ago that ultra-leftism and opportunism are head and tail of the same coin. The sects are totally incapable of approaching the labour movement, or speaking the language of the rank and file workers. They appear as something totally alien to the labour movement. But this was not at all the case with the RCP that had its finger on the pulse of the working class and knew how to present its ideas in a way that ordinary Labour workers could appreciate.

Our campaign was waged openly as an anti-war campaign. While explaining that we were opposed to Hitler and the Nazis, we put forward a class position, that we had no confidence in the British ruling class to wage the war. We also explained that the German workers were not our enemies and that it was the duty of the working class of all countries to struggle for socialism. We argued for Labour to break the Coalition government with the Tories, and for Labour to fight for power on a socialist programme to transform the situation nationally and internationally. It was an entirely internationalist case, and it connected with the mood of the workers in this solid Labour constituency. So solid was the Labour majority that they used to say that in an election in those parts they did not count the votes - they weighed them! Yet so successful was our election campaign in Neath that the Labour candidate actually started to panic. He became alarmed because, with no real campaign by the Labour Party, his own meetings were a fiasco - three men and a dog - while our meetings were the best attended in the whole campaign.

The Communist Party, of course, was foaming at the mouth. We were influencing their supporters and threatening their position in the area. True to form, they were putting forward their slanders about the Trotskyists being agents of fascism, agents of the Nazis, stooges of Hitler and all the rest of it. They constantly raised the slogan: "A Vote for Haston is a Vote for Hitler!" Of course, it had no effect at all. They only succeeded in damaging and discrediting themselves in the course of the campaign. In their delirium, they even denounced the Labour candidate, DJ Williams, who had previously been an NCLC organiser, as a "counter-revolutionary Trotskyist"! In reality, Williams was a fairly left semi-pacifist type. The Welsh Nationalists were also standing. But they also failed to get the high attendance at meetings that we were getting.

We hired an office in the centre of Neath, a building with a shop front in the middle of the town. We had to put in a load of bed bunks so that the visiting comrades could have somewhere to sleep. There were all sorts of rumours going round the area, spread by right wingers, about these bed bunks... and strange Trotskyist agitators coming into the town from all over the country. During the campaign, we made contact with members and ex-members of the Communist Party, as well as members of the ILP. We even managed to draw a layer of ILP members around us, which we recruited and, as a consequence, formed a branch of the RCP in Neath. In the Amman Valley, in the mining village of Gwaun-cae-Gurwen, and in one or two of the other areas, we probably won about thirty new comrades in the course of that campaign. These were mostly young people, ready to fight for our ideas against all the odds.

In G-C-G, we recruited half a dozen miners, with Johnny Crown Jones as the local branch secretary. He and his three brothers, all miners, joined the organisation. He was a fine self-taught writer, and contributed often to the Socialist Appeal. Years later he recalled what it was like in the Trotskyist movement at the time: "Selling the Socialist Appeal at the pit head always ended in a punch-up with the Stalinists, who were very strong in this area. But we were tough lads", remarked Johnny.

After a gap of more than twenty years, one of those miners, Olwyn Hughes, rejoined the tendency in South Wales. He attended a Workers Educational Association class in Ammanford where Alan Woods was speaking, and introduced himself by saying "Do you know Ted Grant?" When he came back after all those years he made some very interesting remarks about the tendency. It was like coming home, after a long absence. He was absolutely delighted when we managed to contact him, thus retying the knot of history. He said that the ideas, perspectives and approach were the same as he had heard when he first joined the RCP in 1945. And that is perfectly true. The tendency has been consistent and true to itself always - right up to the present day.

The same was true of Olwyn Hughes himself, who remained true to the ideas of Trotskyism and the tendency until his death a few years ago. This was testament to the theoretical training of worker comrades in the RCP. We always understood the importance of theoretical education and of the importance of raising the political level of the workers who are drawn into the tendency. An avid reader and self-taught man, this Welsh miner never forgot the education that was given him. Thus, despite being formally separated from the tendency for many years, he was soon able to regain his bearings, to involve himself in our ranks and play an important role in attempting to re-establish a branch in the Amman Valley.

The Neath by-election campaign was pursued with great vigour and was getting a significant response. The main election leaflet distributed everywhere appealed to Working men and women of Neath. It outlined the nature of the war, the reactionary foreign policy pursued by Churchill, and called for the Socialist United States of Europe. It ended with a rallying call:

"In this election you can play your part; you can give a lead to the workers in the rest of the country by rejecting the policy of class collaboration and voting for class independence and class struggle.

"Down with capitalism and its bloody wars and unemployment!

"Free the colonial people from imperialist domination and brutality!

"For the unity of the workers of Britain with the workers of the world against the capitalists!

"Down with the Churchill Government!

"End the Coalition!

"For a Communist Britain as part of a Communist Europe and a Communist World!"

The Communist Party poison about "Trotsky-fascism" fell completely flat with the workers. A leading miner in the West Wales area was a man called Trevor James. He was a fine public speaker and a committed class fighter. He was the miners' agent and a member of the Labour Party, and an anti-Stalinist into the bargain. He later confirmed that although he was a member of the Labour Party, he was very sympathetic to the RCP. In fact, he was the possible independent communist candidate that was originally mooted, but he declined. He recalled that the Labour candidate complained to him: "You never attend our meetings. You are always attending meetings of the RCP. What is the matter Trevor?" He replied, "Well, they're putting forward the socialist case. You are putting forward nothing like it." This really indicated the mood of Labour workers in the area, at least the active elements in the Labour Party and the unions. It was this mood that we were connecting with. This was not only due to our approach, which was important, but our programme which was connecting with their aspirations for a better life, and the need for a fundamental change in society. Consequently, we were selling on average some 2,000 copies of Socialist Appeal every fortnight within the constituency.

The only argument that these active people in the unions and in the Labour Parry could come up with for refusing to vote for the RCP was, "Well, we agree with you, but you should be in the Labour Party. Your candidate should be our candidate. Haston should be the candidate of the Labour Party. We should have the same socialist ideas. They should be the ideas of the Labour Party." Generally these people were very sympathetic, even though we were standing against the Labour Party. They said quite openly that they were delighted that we came to Neath. "You have put forward a full socialist campaign, which has served to revive all the socialist aspirations of the area, not only this area, but as far as Merthyr, Swansea and other areas."

We sold over 7,500 copies of a special election issue of the Socialist Appeal, putting our full case in relation to the war, in relation to Germany, in relation to the Coalition, and so on. Every point was dealt with fully. It would be certainly worthwhile reproducing those issues of Socialist Appeal to show the way, the flexible way, the non-sectarian way we approached the working class and the Labour movement, even in an election campaign of that sort.

As a result of the campaign, we managed to establish a firm base in the West Wales area. The campaign also had repercussions nationally. The Communist Party was on the defensive and we challenged them repeatedly to debate on all the questions they raised. Of course, they were not keen about this, fearing a political roasting in front of the workers. Nevertheless, there was a crisis of confidence within their own ranks and pressure was mounting for them to do something about it. On the last day before the election, we organised an eve of poll meeting in the Gwyn Hall, where we were expecting a meeting of 800 or even a thousand. At the very last minute, the Communist Party finally took up our challenge. They would have to go through with a public debate if they were to maintain any credibility at all. We learned afterwards that the Wales CP had phoned King Street to get Pollitt, Campbell or Gallacher or some other leader to come down to debate. But again, Campbell replied, "You can handle the situation. There is no need for us to come down." In reality, they didn't want to get a public belting.

So under those last minute conditions, the CP was forced to accept the challenge. When the time came, the Town Hall was absolutely jam-packed. There may have been two thousand workers trying to get in. They had come from all around to hear this debate. In the end, given the limits of the Gwyn Hall, many were turned away at the doors. The debate took place between the CP organiser, Alun Morgan and Jock Haston. The debate ranged over a whole series of questions from the Moscow trials, the question of fascism, the nature of the war, and, of course, our whole programme for the working class. Although I wasn't speaking, I was there to assist Jock at the top table with bundles of quotes from the Communist publications, Lenin and Marx, ready to hand them to him, as they arose in the debate. "I can just remember Ted on the end of the table", recalls Frank Ward, "diving down every time the CP put the point over, and kept coming out with some selected counter-quotation..."[5] By the end of the night, the overwhelming majority of workers in the audience undoubtedly supported us as against the position that was put forward by the Communist Party.

"We challenged them to a debate, and we spoke to the leader of the Communist Party in the area, and we slaughtered their Line on the public platform", stated Haston. "They were standing on the windows, there was an overflow meeting of a couple of hundred, and outside were even more trying to get in. It was quite an unusual thing at that stage, and we debated with him and we absolutely shattered him."[6]

While the Labour candidate was panicking, we ourselves realised that Labour would win overwhelmingly. Paradoxically, this was the result of our campaign. We had stirred up political interest for the election. If it wasn't for our campaign, there would probably have been a very low turnout. But as a consequence of our activity in the area there was a great political interest, which served to give the Labour Party a record vote of over 30,000. That the workers were sympathetic to the ideas we put forward was evident from the turnouts at our public meetings, but we recognised in advance that the result of this heightened interest in socialism would be that the vote for the Labour Party would be very high. Nevertheless, we polled a respectable 1,781 votes. If one bears in mind that these votes were cast for a revolutionary internationalist programme during the war, this was a tremendous achievement. Moreover, this was in an area where we didn't have a single member before the campaign. The electoral field is also a very difficult arena for a small revolutionary tendency. However, out of this work we established branches of the RCP in Neath, G-C-G, Pontypridd and also strengthened our position elsewhere. It was a great step forward for us.

Our whole approach and activity was in complete contrast compared to the sterile approach of the earlier Trotskyist groups. We had different methods and a different approach, a non-sectarian approach to the working class in the area. Under the prevailing conditions, we were really pleased with the result as well as the recruits we made. It was really astonishing given the fact that polling day took place a few days after Victory in Europe was announced. One would have thought that this would have provoked an enormous patriotic outburst. But this wasn't the case. Of course, the war continued in Japan, but the main brunt of the war in Europe was over. Germany was defeated. A general election was in the offing. So it was an astonishing achievement and a success for our sober internationalist attitude, and our revolutionary military policy. Above all, it was our programme of the working class taking power into its hands that contributed to our achievement. Victory in Europe didn't have the effect of swamping us, as might have been expected. The Welsh Nationalists got about five or six thousand votes, so in comparison, and under those conditions, we had done very well indeed. We had engaged in mass work and managed to connect Trotskyism with a whole layer of advanced workers.

In the Organisation Report in the Socialist Appeal (mid-August 1945), we read:

"During the Neath campaign the Party distributed over 100,000 leaflets. We put up 8,000 posters and sold 15,000 copies of the Socialist Appeal and some hundreds of assorted pamphlets. 70 indoor public meetings were held, the two outstanding ones attracting 750 and 1,500 workers respectively.

"From having practically no base in Wales at the Fusion Conference we now have three proletarian branches composed almost entirely of miners and steel workers.

"The name of the Party has proved to be one of our best assets. The workers who were turning to Communism sensed that there was something wrong with the Stalinist version of 'communism' and we were able to demonstrate their role with the Stalinists on the defensive throughout."

It concluded, "the result 1,781 votes for the Trotskyist programme in face of V Day, the chauvinism of the mass organisations, the first incursion into the territory by the Party - was a very fine vote."

[To be continued]

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Notes

[5] Quoted in War and the International, p.139.

[6] Jock Haston interview, op. cit.