History of British Trotskyism Postcript

By Rob Sewell

[Section 6]

The first witch hunt fails

The crisis of the Wilson-Callaghan Government of 1974-79 enabled the tendency to connect with a wide layer of radicalised workers as never before. The alarm bells were beginning to ring, not only in the bureaucracy of the Labour Party, but in the ruling class. For the first time, Trotskyism in Britain became a serious factor in the calculations of the state. The strategists of capital were alarmed by the sharp leftward turn of the Labour Party and correctly understood that the activities of the Marxists were playing a key role in pushing the Left, stiffening their resolve and urging them to go further.

Of course, this was not the main aim of our work, but a by-product. The left reformists had an ambivalent attitude to the Marxists. We were objectively allies in the struggle with the right wing, but we were also competitors and rivals, who were constantly winning ground at their expense. We were forcing them to go much further than they wished to go. Moreover, it is well known that a confused person always hates someone with clear ideas. They were at best unstable and unreliable allies.

In 1976, the witch-hunt against us began with an "exposure" in a Sunday newspaper, The Observer, by the well-known columnist Nora Beloff. Using material gathered by Reg Underhill, the Labour Party's National Organiser, Beloff attempted to stampede the Labour Party into a witch-hunt. This had all the hallmarks of a premeditated provocation.

Unfortunately for the organisers of the provocation, however, the mood in the Party was not favourable for a witch-hunt. The tendency had won a lot of respect among activists by its tireless work and principled stance on all questions. We never went in for the kind of abuse and hysteria that is the hallmark of the ultra-left groups and cut them off from ordinary working class people. Ted always insisted that we should stick to defending our ideas with "facts, figures and arguments", to "patiently explain" as Lenin used to say.

The "Left" majority on the NEC refused to take action, and by the end of the year, our comrade Andy Bevan, who was chair of the LPYS, was selected - after an outstanding performance in his interview and a blunder by a Party bureaucrat - as the new national Youth Officer of the Labour Party. After an initial red scare and ruckus by the Labour officialsí union, Andy was eventually established in an office in Transport House, the Labour Party HQ. This gave us a tremendous opportunity to utilise our position in the LPYS to full effect, allowing us to take our ideas into wider sections of the Labour movement.

Following the 1977 national fire fighters' strike, the following year's TUC came out in opposition to the government's wages policy. A month later, at the Labour Party conference, our comrade Terry Duffy, a delegate from Wavertree CLP, moved a successful composite also rejecting the government's wages' policy. The coming months saw the biggest movement of low-paid workers in history, in the so-called Winter of Discontent. In 1979, after some prevarication, Callaghan went to the polls and was defeated by the Tory Party under Margaret Thatcher.

The Thatcher Government

Labour's defeat and the election of Thatcher resulted in a massive radicalisation in the mass organisations. The shift to the left was a reflection of the disgust with Labour's pro-capitalist policies, and took the form of the rise of Bennism within the Labour Party. Michael Foot had replaced Callaghan as leader, and in 1981 Tony Benn came within a whisker - less than one percent - of defeating Denis Healey, the right wing candidate, for the deputy leadership.

After this leadership election, a section of the right wing split away to form the SDP. This move further reinforced the leftward shift within the party. It was under these conditions that the Militant tendency grew quite rapidly, with 1,000 active supporters registered by 1980. The rise of Trotskyism within the Labour Party alarmed the ruling class, which had long regarded the party as an invaluable prop of the capitalist system. The ruling class was never likely to accept the loss of control over the Labour Party without a struggle. It was obvious to us that a counter-attack was just a matter of time. The capitalist press launched a new witch-hunt against the tendency, demanding our expulsion from the party.

On a personal note, I joined the tendency in Swansea in late 1966, after attending a summer YS day school where Ted was speaking on the Russian Revolution. I remember vividly a discussion in the kitchen of a comrade, where I was informed that becoming a supporter of Marxism "was a commitment for life." At that time, I believe we had about 70 or 80 comrades nationally. By the time I became full-timer, when Alan left for Spain at the beginning of 1976, we had around 600 comrades. At that time I was elected from Wales onto the National Committee of the LPYS and also onto the tendency's leading body. In early 1982, having successfully built up a powerful position for the tendency in South Wales, I went to work for the CWI, but was soon drafted into a newly formed "anti-witch hunt" department at our London headquarters.

In the fight against the witch-hunt, we organised a successful Labour movement conference of 2,000 delegates at the Wembley Conference Centre in London. Despite the protests and resolutions against the purge, eventually the "soft left" on the NEC capitulated under the pressure of the media campaign. The press was covering the activities of the tendency on a daily basis. Using the Underhill report, filled with a mixture of various documents, tittle-tattle and so-called evidence, the NEC expelled the Militant Editorial Board in 1983. The expulsions came just prior to the by-election in Bermondsey, South London - an apparently unassailable Labour seat which the Party lost to the Liberals.

At the end of 1983, I was appointed National Organiser of the tendency - a position I held until the end of 1991. I headed the Organisation Department responsible for Labour Party work, countering the expulsions, media relations, the MPs, councillors, co-ordination of the full timers, recruitment, organisation of the national rallies and meetings, as well as public campaigns, not least the anti-Poll Tax campaign. It was a huge operation. Massive rallies were held all over the county to protest against the expulsions, which in turn, led to greater and greater support for the tendency. This support also translated itself into the tendency's growth in the trade unions, and development of the Broad Left Organising Committee (BLOC).

The high point

In 1984 at the beginning of the miners' strike, the BLOC had become the largest left force in the trade unions and held a successful conference of more than 2,500 representatives from all the main trade unions. For the first time in history, a Trotskyist, John MacCreadie was elected to the General Council of the Trade Union Congress. During the year-long miners' strike, given our position in the mining areas, we managed to win over 500 miners to the tendency. In 1988, we filled the Alexandra Palace in London with 7,500 supporters. This was the high point of the Militant tendency.

On the political front, two of our comrades, Terry Fields and Dave Nellist were elected to parliament in 1983. These were to be followed in 1987 by Pat Wall, a marvellous comrade who had a great rapport with workers and youth. The Militant leadership of Liverpool City Council from 1983 onwards and its battle with the Tory Government also served to put the tendency firmly on the map. While our councillors in Liverpool were surcharged and banned from office, we had never been defeated at the ballot box. The Militant tendency had become a household name and had grown rapidly in numbers and influence. All those sects who remained outside of the Labour Party and had scoffed at our work in the party were left on the sidelines with their mouths open.

In October 1985, Kinnock, who became leader of the Party after Michael Foot had stepped down, made his infamous speech at the Labour Party conference attacking the Militant-led Liverpool City Council. This was the beginning of a concerted witch-hunt and a showdown with the tendency. "I think Neil's speech was of historic importance", said Denis Healey. Bob Parry, Labour MP for Liverpool Riverside, however claimed: "Kinnock showed today that he is the biggest traitor since Ramsey MacDonald."

But at the end of the day, all these measures failed. Although they made life very difficult for us (what else could you expect the bureaucracy to do?) the results were really quite poor. By the end of the decade they had only succeeded in expelling around 250 comrades out of some 8,000 supporters.

We had created the strongest Trotskyist tendency since the days of the Russian Left Opposition. From counting the pennies, we now had a turnover of over a million pounds a year, a large premises, a big web printing press, capable of printing a daily paper, and, incredibly, around 250 full time workers - which was more than the Labour Party itself. We had roots in many trade unions and Labour Parties, including about 50 councillors and three Marxist MPs. To their utter exasperation, despite their repeated attempts, the Labour leadership had still failed to separate Marxism from the Labour Party.

[To be continued]

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