Walton by-election, twenty years on: “Withering on the vine”

The Walton by-election, in Liverpool, took place in July 1991, twenty years ago. It arose after the sudden death of Eric Heffer, the left-wing Labour MP for Walton. At the time it created quite a political stir. It was also a key factor in the demise of the Militant, which had boasted it could win the seat, but failed miserably. The whole episode played into the hands of Labour’s right wing that used it to expel Militant from the Labour Party. To understand what happened we need to take a brief look at the background.

“From the vantage point of the future, the Walton by-election will come to be seen as a significant turning point in the development of the labour movement in Britain.” Militant International Review (summer 1991).

A left wing Labour council, deeply influenced by the Militant tendency, had come to power in Liverpool in May 1983. The deputy leader of the council was Militant supporter Derek Hatton, who became effectively the leader of the council. The Labour Party had been elected on a radical manifesto promising jobs and housing. It became so popular that in each election during the life of the council, the Labour Party increased its vote. This fact gives the lie to the argument of the right wing that left wing policies made Labour “unelectable”.

The City Council, however, was facing an emboldened Tory government under Thatcher, which was intent on attacking the working class and slashing the central grant given to councils. The council’s financial position was dire. The Liverpool City Council defiantly answered this by setting a budget that would finance its programme and it waged a mass campaign to demand the extra funds from the government.

Despite demands from the government, the Council was not prepared to make redundancies or increase the rates to pay for Tory cuts or a reduction in its grant. This is the way Labour councils should now be fighting the attempts of the Lib-Dem coalition to force local councils to take upon themselves all the responsibility for vicious cuts in public spending. This inevitably led to a series of clashes with the Tory government, but the council counted on mass support in Liverpool which it mobilized to fight the government and oppose cuts.

This tactic succeeded and the Tory government in the end was forced to grant concessions to Liverpool in the spring of 1984. One of the key reasons at this stage was the miners’ strike and the Tories unwillingness to “fight on two fronts”. However, by the following budget, the council was again in a difficult financial position. To avoid bankruptcy, the leaders of the council overrode the opposition of the Tories and managed to strike a loan deal with French banks.

But by 1985, things were coming to a head as the council set a deficit budget and the councillors were surcharged. If Liverpool had had the wholehearted backing of the Labour Movement, and if its lead had been followed by other Labour councils, the whole situation would have been different. But this was not to be. The right wing Labour leadership, headed by Kinnock and urged on by the baying and howling of the Tory national press, was desperate to discredit Liverpool and expel the Militant Tendency. This led to Kinnock’s infamous 1985 conference speech attacking the City Council.

This prepared the ground for a general assault on Liverpool City council and the expulsion of leading Militant supporters, including Derek Hatton. Despite these attacks, the council remained very popular among working people. The councillors could not be removed democratically, through the ballot box, so the government used the District Auditor and the courts to surcharge, bankrupt and disqualify them.

Patient work

The Militant Tendency was very powerful in Liverpool as a result of decades of patient and consistent work in the Labour Party. Its growing influence throughout the 1970s and 1980s had raised fears not only in Labour’s right wing but also in the ruling class. As a consequence a witch-hunt was launched against the Militant, starting in the late 1970s, resulting in the expulsion of the Editorial Board.

Labour Leader Neil Kinnock wanted to go further and expel all Militant supporters from the Party, including the Militant-supporting Members of Parliament. Walton provided him with the excuse he was looking for. According to Kinnock’s biographer:

“The Walton by-election, occasioned by Heffer’s death, provided Kinnock with an opportunity to purge Labour of its remaining Militant infiltrators … Reckoning it was much easier to fight Militant from without than within, Kinnock was delighted, declaring he was : ‘glad they had come into the open from under their stones.’” (Dr George Drower, Kinnock, p.279)

The shift to the right within the Labour Party had created difficulties for Militant. This was especially the case in Liverpool where the party’s regional organizer, Peter Kilfoyle was leading the attack. A key part of the strategy of Labour’s officialdom was the closure of the District Labour Party, which was a body of hundreds of delegates representing the whole of the Liverpool labour movement and which dictated policy to the Labour councillors.

 With the DLP effectively closed down, all kinds of manoeuvres were used to exclude left candidates in the local elections, especially supporters of the Broad Left. As a result, in the wards where dirty methods were used to block candidates, the left decided to stand those candidates who had been excluded as independent Labour candidates, and these were elected. In these local council elections, workers recognized these candidates as the authentic Labour candidates, as opposed to the imposed official ones.

After the death of Eric Heffer, the left wing MP for Walton, the Party held a selection meeting in June to choose a new candidate. The candidate supported by the Broad Left was Militant supporter Leslie Mahmood. But the meeting was shamefully rigged in order to ensure the selection of the regional organizer, Kilfoyle. This created outrage on the left.

In Liverpool, where Militant dominated the Broad Left, pressure was mounting to stand Leslie as an independent Labour candidate in Walton, as they earlier had done with the councillors. Whatever Militant decided would be decisive. It was clear that a significant part of Militant’s national leadership around Peter Taaffe was frustrated by the right wing shift in the Labour Party and were keen to give Kinnock (and Kilfoyle) a bloody nose.

They were carried away with a false sense of their imagined strength. The fact is that they allowed their judgment to be clouded by subjective considerations and lost all sense of proportion. To quote the words of Peter Taaffe: “But eventually it was felt that to have allowed Kilfoyle a free-run, while not halting the developing assault of the right, would have disarmed and demoralized that advanced minority of Liverpool workers, who were coalescing around the Broad Left”.

What he failed to understand was that there was a qualitatively difference between  supporting independent candidates in local council elections and standing a candidate in opposition to the Labour Party in a national election, especially with a  vicious Tory government in power and general election on the horizon.

Militant’s traditions abandoned

Militant had always understood the importance of the Labour Party as the traditional mass party of the working class. It correctly held in complete contempt the ultra-left groupings on the fringes of the movement. But now the leadership was looking for a short cut and lost its bearings completely. They had allowed the successes of Militant to go to their heads. They argued that to oppose Kilfoyle electorally was a “principled stand”, which could not be avoided.

This was false from start to finish. The decision was of a purely tactical character, not a question of “principle”. And in politics as in war, tactics must always be subordinate to the long term strategy. In reality, the gains achieved by Militant, though substantial, were only the beginning of a long term work to strengthen and build the Marxist wing of the British Labour Movement.

For the sake of an electoral gesture, they were prepared to sacrifice all the long-term work that Militant had successfully carried out in the Party for years. The argument about the mood of the rank and file in Liverpool was equally false. Since when do Marxists allow their strategy and tactics to be determined by the ephemeral moods of the rank and file? It is our duty to patiently explain and convince the activists of the right course of action, not to pander to their prejudices.

Militant had many experienced cadres in Liverpool. If they had done their work properly, they could have convinced the others that it was not correct to put up a candidate against the Labour Party, explaining that the struggle against the right wing must be carried on by other means. But this was not done, in part because of the frustration and impatience of a layer of the comrades in Liverpool, but mainly because Taaffe and his group was in favour of this adventure in Walton and were actively encouraging it.

When it was decided to stand Leslie as a “Real Labour” candidate, articles appeared in the Militant exaggerating the support she had and down-playing that of the Labour Party. It subsequently became evident that all this was part of the “new turn”, which was being decided behind the scenes by Taaffe and his supporters, and which finally led to the destruction of the Militant Tendency. The Walton adventure was later to be replicated in Scotland, and soon to be carried out in Britain and internationally, although at the time this was indignantly denied by its authors.

The Walton debacle

Militant pulled out all the stops for the election campaign. Full timers were drafted in from all over Britain and members were directed to go to help. Some comrades even came from other countries to participate. They were given to understand that we had a good chance of winning the election. But the response of ordinary workers on the doorstep soon convinced them that the real situation was quite different.

The result was a complete debacle. On 7 July, Kilfoyle won Walton with 21,317 votes, while Leslie Mahmood, fighting as “Real Labour”, managed only third place with only 2,613 votes. At a stroke, all the pompous predictions of the Militant leadership were deflated like a punctured tyre.

Anyone can make a mistake. A revolutionary tendency can make a mistake. But if a mistake is made, it is necessary to acknowledge it honestly, discuss it and draw the necessary conclusions. Only in this way can the cadres be educated. But if a leadership is not prepared to admit a mistake out of considerations of prestige, the result is disaster. A mistake that is not recognized, it will be repeated. It will cease to be a mistake and become an organic tendency.

That is what happened with Militant. The Militant newspaper heralded this debacle as a great victory. In a banner headline on its front page it proclaimed: “2,600 votes for Socialism!” This was both foolish and dishonest in the extreme. Dave Cotterill, who was then the leading light of the Militant fulltime apparatus in Liverpool (later expelled by Taaffe) wrote a centre page article justifying the position with all kinds of twists and turns. Originally we were told that if we did not support a candidate against Kilfoyle, we would lose the respect of the best workers in Liverpool, who were involved in a struggle to defend jobs and services. Now we were offered a different story:

“It is also probable”, wrote Cotterill, “that with the two main parties busy stealing each other’s policy ideas, the electorate sees little difference between them. That is exactly why the Broad Left decided to stand.” He went on “It is not a question of setting up a separate party. We are the real Labour Party in Liverpool and we have behind us the active workers.”

This optimistic appraisal was neither borne out by the Walton result nor by any of the subsequent development. In a phrase that could well serve as an epitaph for Militant, Cotterill claimed that the Labour Party would “wither on the vine”, while the “Real Labour Party” would go from strength to strength! That anybody could seriously make such a statement showed to what extent they were out of contact with reality. Incredibly, the majority of the Militant leadership supported this false perspective. They deceived themselves and they deceived others.

From a mistake to a tendency

For the sake of a couple of thousand votes, they were prepared to throw away the results of forty years of patient work in the Labour Party in Liverpool and nationally. They presented Kinnock and the right wing with just the excuse they were looking for. By standing candidates against Labour they had obligingly put their heads on the chopping block. Predictably, the expulsions accelerated and 147 suspected Militant supporters were suspended after the by-election.

Proceedings were then set in motion to expel Militant supporting Labour MPs, Dave Nellist and Terry Fields. By their irresponsible actions in Liverpool, the Militant leaders had thrown them to the wolves. Before the end of the year they too were expelled. Walton Labour Party, once the bastion of the Marxist Tendency in Liverpool, was decimated. Six Party branches (then known as wards) were suspended and 25 councillors expelled. It was a massacre.

The ‘majority’ of Militant’s leaders learned nothing from all this. They stubbornly refused to acknowledge or rectify their mistake. Motivated exclusively by considerations of prestige, they continued and deepened their error:  

“We reaffirm the correctness of our decision to stand in Walton … Any decision by us not to stand would not have been understood by the best workers in the Liverpool area. It would have been seen as a dereliction of duty to our class and would have led to the demoralization of our forces of the left in Liverpool.” (Majority Resolution on Walton)

With astonishing light mindedness the Majority tendency turned what was already a defeat into a complete rout. It was their actions that finally succeeded in demoralizing the comrades and supporters of Militant on Merseyside and everywhere else, as subsequent events showed. In consequence, what had been the most successful Trotskyist tendency since the days of the Russian Left Opposition declined, disintegrated and fell apart.

When the results were announced at Walton in July, Leslie Mahmood made a prediction:

“Real Labour has been going three weeks in Walton. Already Walton Real Labour has more members than the official Labour Party. We will go on; the left will take control of the city council within the next two years.” (Militant, 5/7/91)

These views did not go unchallenged at the time. That part of the Militant leadership led by comrade Ted Grant explained:

“As predicted the ‘Broad Left’ did very little apart from our comrades. Now it will fall apart … it is not the Labour Party which will ‘wither on the vine’, but the artificial Labour Party which is being created in Liverpool.” (Minority resolution presented by Ted Grant and Rob Sewell, July 1991).

Our warnings were swiftly corroborated by events. In the May 1992 local elections, all but one of the 22 Broad Left candidate were wiped out. In the general election, Kilfoyle increased his majority to over 28,000 votes. Terry Fields, who was expelled, stood in Broadgreen constituency, but was pushed into third place. This time Real Labour did not challenge Kilfoyle in Walton for fear of an even lower vote than at the by-election.

The Militant soon changed its name firstly to Militant Labour and then more recently to the Socialist Party. It abandoned its previous methods and perspectives for the mass organizations. It has become the most sectarian and vociferous of the ultra-left groups towards the Labour Party. But all its attempts to set up a “new workers’ party” have ended disastrously. Its latest attempt to defeat Labour in the local elections, under the banner of TUSC, was a complete fiasco..

Within a few years, Militant support on Merseyside, once regarded as the jewel in the crown of the Tendency, completely collapsed. This was followed by collapse in Scotland and elsewhere. Where the right wing failed, they had managed single-handedly to destroy the Tendency. What is the position in Liverpool 20 years after Walton? Here are the recent May local election results:

  • Liverpool County (where Roger Bannister stood) – 78 votes (Labour got 2,330 votes)
  • Liverpool Riverside – 88 votes (Labour: 2,836)
  • Liverpool Princes Park – 104 votes (Labour: 2,263)
  • Liverpool Old Swan – 74 votes (Labour: 2,689)
  • Liverpool Kirkdale – 162 votes (Labour: 3,001)
  • Liverpool Yew Tree – 66 votes (Labour 2,779)

After 20 years, it is crystal clear that the Walton by-election, rather than a “turning point”, was a recipe for total disaster. The above results bear eloquent witness to this fact. But after two decades the advocates of sectarian politics have learned nothing. We urged the leadership at the time “to avoid the sickness of ultra-leftism and impatience.” Ted Grant warned them in advance of their mistakes that would flow from the Walton adventure. But they were not prepared to listen. There are none so blind as they who will not see.

The American philosopher George Santayana once said that whoever does not learn from history will forever be doomed to repeat it. As Marxists,   our task is to learn from history, and not to repeat its mistakes, whether in Walton or elsewhere.

London 19 May, 2011.

Source: Socialist Appeal (Britain)