Friday, 15 May 2015

What Next? - Part 5

For Labour (3)

A look at what happened to Labour, under the first Blairite, before Blair, also indicates, why Labour cannot win by going back to the future. In the period ahead of the 1983 election, the attacks of the right of the party intensified, and were given ample airing by the media. One of the first blog posts I ever wrote was partly about my experiences in the early 1980's, of being threatened with expulsion from the party. I could give many more examples of attacks on me, by the local newspaper, at the time. It seemed like almost every other week, John Golding, who was MP for the neighbouring constituency, would be saying he would be investigating my activities, threatening me with expulsion, and if it wasn't him, it was one of the leaders of the Stoke Labour Group.

Yet, in 1983, despite all of that, I demonstrated that a determined response could win. In 1982, I had challenged the sitting councillor in my ward for the Labour nomination. I failed to gain it by one vote, but then committed myself to campaigning relentlessly for her election. Almost every night, and every weekend, for about three months, myself and a few other comrades pounded the streets. We recruited quite a few people, and there were more Labour posters put up, around the area, than there had ever been, by a long margin, and the Labour vote increased substantially.

The following year, I was selected to stand for the neighbouring Burslem Central ward, and adopted the same approach. I had defeated the sitting Labour councillor, to get the nomination, and immediately he left the party and stood as an independent Labour candidate. Other right-wing Labour Party members, including some councillors, put his posters in their windows. A massive media campaign was launched against me, in particular, as a prominent member of Socialist Organiser, though there were two of us standing, in that ward, that year, the other Labour candidate being Jason Hill.

When the election came, in May 1983, the Labour vote in the ward was massive, and the majority for myself and Jason was bigger than any Labour councillor had achieved in many years, or since. But, it showed that the right-wing offensive was intensifying, and that it could only be defeated by a clear stance, and firm commitment. The problem was that a large section of the party was still in the control of the right-wing, and another large part of the party was under the control of a soft-left, which had made common cause with the harder left, but which had no ideological basis upon which to mount its resistance.

I was told, for example, by some party members, at the time, that the main reason some of the soft left members encouraged me to seek nomination, was because I was an outspoken opponent of the austerity of the time, opposing Labour councillors who voted for cuts, and rent and rate rises. It was not to champion such a position that the soft left wanted me to stand, but because they expected that, once elected, I would compromise, and thereby undermine my position. I was even asked not to canvas so hard, because other party members could not match the commitment, although I was later told that the real reason was to minimise my vote share, because the soft left wanted to deselect me the following year!

When, later that year, the issue arose, as the Council proposed to increase council house rents, both myself and Jason stood firm on the platform of “No Cuts, No Rent or Rate Rises”, that we had put forward at our selection meetings, and upon which we had stood. The Branch Labour Party was split, but with a significant number of members of the branch being members of, or formerly attached to, various revolutionary organisations like Socialist Charter or Socialist Action, they could not now themselves change their position. In the end, the motion we put to the branch that the ward councillors should not vote for the rent rise was carried. It was agreed that we would walk out of the meeting before the vote was taken, and a press release would be issued by the branch Press Officer, saying why.

Myself and Jason, implemented that position, but the third councillor, who was part of the soft left, refused to follow the branch decision, and voted for the rent rise. Myself and Jason, were then expelled from the Labour Group, and remained expelled for several months. But, this was symptomatic of the changes that were occurring in the party generally at that time. We had shown that a left-wing programme was not an obstacle to winning, if it was clear and unambiguous, and was fought for with enthusiasm. Others, in councils across the country, showed the same thing. It was a lack of that clearness, and commitment that was the weakness of the General Election campaign a month later, as the right-wing of the party, quite clearly undermined it, whilst the leadership, around Foot, wavered.

After the Tories won the General Election, and Foot stood down, there was a clear question to be answered. It was not just a question about whether the next leader was to be Eric Heffer or Neil Kinnock, but whether the party was to follow the path of principle that Heffer represented, or the path of backsliding and compromise, in the name simply of winning elections, by accommodating, that Kinnock represented. Across the country, it became clear that it was the latter that was dominant. The soft left wanted to keep all of the rhetoric, and continue to talk left, but in practice their entire perspective was geared to keeping their head down, not rocking the boat, settling for Kinnock as vaguely left, and waiting for the next election, in the hope that, if they were not seen as too left-wing, they might win.

It is little different to the perspective of the Blairites now. But, it did not work then, and it will not work now. It fails to take into account the fundamental fact, that the electorate, and therefore, what constitutes “the centre ground”, as Blair calls it, is not some fixed frozen thing, but is highly mobile, and moves in response to material conditions, as well as the impact of political ideas upon it. Thatcher recognised that fact, very clearly, as did Reagan.

Whatever disagreements I had then with the Militant Tendency, the fact is that, Liverpool Council, having been controlled by the Liberals, was won for Labour, by a Militant dominated Liverpool Labour Party in 1982. They did so with an openly left-wing programme, and commitment to take on the Tory government. Part of the reason Labour failed to win the General Election in 1983, is that rather than pursuing an equally clear, unambiguous and determined struggle against the Tories, it had instead begun to fight those within the party who pursued such a course. 

Instead of lining the whole of the party up behind those Labour councils who were taking on the Tories, and whose struggle could and should have been linked up, by the party, with the struggles of all those unions like the steel workers, rail workers (a large banner on an aircraft carrier returning to Portsmouth at the end of the Falklands War read "Call off the Rail Strike Or We'll Call Down An Air Strike", such was Thatcher's ability to whip up nationalist hysteria against "the enemy within"), and miners who were coming under systematic attack from the Tories as part of the Ridley Plan, the party attacked those councillors who were putting up a fight, and distanced itself from workers whose unions were under attack. At the end of 1982, members of Militant began to be expelled from the party. It went along with witchhunts in other areas. Trade union activists at BL in Cowley and Longbridge were sacked, and even within other organisations such as CND, the left came under attack from its leadership.

An indication of the line of march had been given in February of 1983 with the Bermondsey By-Election. Peter Tatchell had been selected as Labour's candidate, but came under immediate attack from the Tories, for an article in London Labour Briefing supporting extra-parliamentary activity. The Labour right seized upon it, and Michael Foot, who may or may not have confused Peter Tatchell with Petter Taafe also attacked him. The by-election campaign must go down as one of the dirtiest and most disgraceful in recent history, with Tatchell facing continual attacks in the press, including vicious homophobic attacks that were supported by the Liberals, and despite their own candidate, Simon Hughes, being himself bi-sexual.

The chances that Labour could ever have won the 1983 General Election, when its leading members attacked Labour councils and councillors, for standing up to the Tories, when it launched witchhunts and expulsions against large numbers of its members, and when it steadfastly refused to support workers, and their unions, when they came under vicious attack from the Tories, were non-existent. At the end of 1983, in the face of these attacks as a member of “Labour Against The Witchhunt”, I organised a local meeting.

I chose the heart of John Golding's kingdom as the place to stage it, in Newcastle Guildhall. Peter Tatchell was just one of the many prominent people of the time, who came to tea at my house, before we went to some meeting or other. On this occasion, Peter was one speaker, along with myself, and a member of Socialist Action who had been expelled as a trade union activist at Cowley. Typical of the sectarian attitude of Militant at the time, they would not take part in something they didn't control. More than 400 people packed into the Guildhall, with others filling the corridors.

Within six months, the miners would be on strike in the most crucial battle of the last 50 years. The potential still existed, in the early years of Thatcher's reign to have taken them on and won, but Labour was going in the wrong direction.

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