Socialist Party / Militant
Veterans of struggles in the 1980s were emboldened by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to shift Labour decisively to the left. By mid-2016 there were two Labour parties – the members’ party led by Corbyn, and the parliamentary party that included the 80 percent of Labour MPs who had declared they have no confidence in Corbyn. Corbyn is a magnet for Trotskyist groups proscribed by Labour –including the Socialist Party, formerly the Militant Tendency, and the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty, previously Socialist Organiser.
From 1983 to 1987 Liverpool City Council was led by supporters of Militant (predecessor of the Socialist), who at the time were members of the Labour Party. When faced with cuts from central government, they refused to pass them on. Instead, with the slogan “better to break the law than break the poor” they made huge advances for working class people in Liverpool. At the same time they led a mass campaign which successfully demanded funding back from Thatcher’s government. respected Labour historian Kenneth O. Morgan, in his biography of Michael Foot, described Militant in these terms: “This tiny group, whose guru was Ted Grant, originally of the Revolutionary Socialist League in Liverpool in 1955, had the aim of capturing the Labour Party for the cause of revolutionary socialism.” This is the nub of the issue: the difference between a belief in an extra-parliamentary route to a different society, and seeking a majority in Parliament to bring about social change.
In his book Militant, published in 1984, Michael Crick traced the origins of the organisation back to the 1930s, when the Revolutionary Socialist League was politically active in the Labour League of Youth. In 1937, it became known as the Militant Labour League. Indeed, Grant himself had arrived in the UK from South Africa in the mid-1930s and had initially joined the Militant Labour League.
MI5 monitored Militant’s infiltration of Labour in the 1970s. MI5 claimed to have identified 75 per cent of Militant’s membership by monitoring letters and telephone calls, eavesdropping, and through agent penetration. It listed 43 constituencies where Trotskyists were most active and nine where the Labour MP was most at risk.
The Labour Government had lost its parliamentary majority by early 1976, and was grappling with deep economic problems in addition to its own parliamentary survival. Reg Underhill, Labour’s national agent, repeatedly tried to expel Militant in the late 1970s but the move was rejected by Labour’s Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). But by February 1983, the NEC took the decision to expel the known editorial board of Militant: Peter Taafe, Ted Grant, Lynne Walsh, Clare Doyle and Keith Dickinson.
Already dominant in the Liverpool District Labour Party, when Labour won a majority on the city council in 1983, Militant extended its influence onto the council itself. In the mid-1980s, Liverpool's Labour city council, led by Militant (now the Socialist Party), forced a public debate on the £270 million slashed from their budget by the Tories between 1979 and 1983. A determined campaign by the council, with active mass support from the population and important sections of the unions, forced Margaret Thatcher to back down temporarily. The council secured 10,000 jobs, built homes and increased public services. Eventually the Labour Party right-wing succeeded in betraying their members in Liverpool and the councillors were undemocratically removed by the Tories.
The battle between the Labour Party and its Militant faction was one of the biggest political controversies in British politics in the 1980s. The Militant grouping had grown out of the Revolutionary Socialist League and was widely categorised as Trotskyist. From the mid-1970s its critics claimed it pursued an "entryist" policy of attempting to gain key positions within the Labour Party in an effort to promote its policies - including widespread nationalisation and a large programme of public works. Its most notable success was in Liverpool where the local Labour Party - dominated by Militant members - took control of the city council in 1983. Despite being only deputy leader, former firefighter Derek Hatton was seen as effectively in charge.
Since 1979 the conditions and rights of working people appear to have been crushed by the Thatcher juggernaut. In reality, the working class has put up ferocious opposition to the Tory government. This reached its height in the titanic year-long miners' strike of 1984-5 and in the stand of the Liverpool City Council between 1983-7.
Both in the ascendant phase from 1983-5 and in the period of partial retreat in 1986-7, the right wing of the labour movement were time and again wrong-footed by the Liverpool labour movement. The premature political obituaries both of the Liverpool working class, and particularly of Militant and its supporters, were written and rewritten many times. But time and again the strategists of the right wing of the labour movement were out-maneuvered. Gradually it was borne in on them that they were confronting something different from what they had faced in the past. This is what accounts for the venom which was unleashed against the leaders of the Liverpool workers, which outdid in its class spite even that deployed against the miners' leadership during their epic struggle.
With spending higher than income, the Liverpool council was unable to pay staff wages by November 1985, and Militant members decided to issue redundancy notices to every council worker, as a threat to the national government to increase the budget. Militant displayed a tactical ineptness along with other idiocies, such as the issuing of redundancy notices to 30,000 Liverpool city council workers resulting in mass anti-Militant protests by these workers in defence of their jobs. The illegal budget resulted in the barring from office and surcharge of 47 Labour councillors to the tune of £348,000. The Thatcher government set Militant one trap after another which it blindly blundered into.
On 27 November 1985, the Liverpool District Labour Party was suspended, and a nine-member committee was set up to investigate allegations of malpractice and intimidation. In October 1986, all the expulsions were upheld by the party conference. While a small number of Militant members remained MPs, Kinnock had succeeded in completing Foot’s work on removing the Militant influence in the Labour Party.
Speaking at the 1985 Labour party conference, Kinnock condemned the “grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”. Kinnock’s purging of Militant, which culminated in a strongly worded conference speech in 1985 in which he berated the Militant deputy leader of Liverpool council, Derek Hatton, is regarded by many in Labour as a key moment in restoring the party’s electability, though it was another 12 years before it won a general election. After Tony Blair’s election in 1997, Militant Labour changed its name to the Socialist party of England and Wales.
Peter Taaffe, the veteran leader of Militant, expected to be readmitted to Labour if Jeremy Corbyn won the September 2016 leadership election. But Labour’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, said his party was at risk of being taken over by hard-left “Trotsky entryists”, who were “twisting the arms” of young members, sparking a furious response from backers of Jeremy Corbyn. Corbyn’s campaign team accused Watson of “peddling baseless conspiracy theories,” after the MP for West Bromwich East used an interview 09 AAugust 2016 with the Guardian to claim that “Trots” were infiltrating Labour. Watson said many members of the grassroots Momentum movement, set up to support Corbyn’s leadership, were being manipulated by seasoned hard-left operators. Watson said " that’s how Trotsky entryists operate. Sooner or later, that always ends up in disaster. It always ends up destroying the institutions that are vulnerable, unless you deal with it.”
Socialist Party on 9 August 2016 stated " a group of 40, or even 20 or 30, MPs who consistently campaigned against austerity and defended workers in struggle, would do far more to strengthen the fightback against the Tories than 232 'Labour' MPs, a majority who vote for austerity, privatisation and war. A re-founded anti-austerity Labour Party could quickly make electoral gains. One YouGov opinion poll estimated that a Corbyn-led Labour Party following a right split would receive 21% of the vote, while if the right successfully kept the Labour name, Corbyn's party would receive 14% of the vote. Either scenario would give a solid electoral base which could rapidly be built on. Let's remember that Greek party Syriza, initially on an anti-austerity platform, went from under 5% to winning a general election in just a few years, while Podemos in Spain has gone from not existing to vying for power in an even shorter time."
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