In fury at the popularity of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign, right wing politicians and media alike have been referring to ‘infiltration’ of the Labour Party byMilitant supporters. Militant was the predecessor of the Socialist Party – whose supporters in the past were members of the Labour Party. This has not been the case for decades.
In the 1980s and early 1990s some of our members were witch-hunted out of the Labour Party and Militant became a banned organisation. Labour’s structures were changed to try to prevent the influence of socialist ideas.
Militant supporters led the heroic struggle of LiverpoolCity Council, which won millions of pounds of funding back from the Thatcher government and built 5,000 homes, six nursery schools and created more than 6,000 jobs. It was Militant supporters who organised the anti-poll tax movement, through the mass non-payment of 18 million people, which defeated that tax and brought down Thatcher.
In a whole number of other campaigns – from forcing the shutdown of the headquarters of the racist British National Party, to leading a strike of 250,000 school students which defeated the threat to remove benefits from 16 and 17 year olds – Militant worked both within and beyond the structures of the Labour Party to organise fighting working class campaigns.
These re-printed articles look back at some aspects of this history.
What was the Labour Party and how did it change?
Extracts from a Socialist Party pamphlet written in 2001
Historically the Labour Party was a ‘capitalist-workers’ party’. The leaders at the top reflected the outlook and interests of the capitalist class. And the capitalists relied on them to keep the profit system safe for themselves.
But at the bottom of the party, workers were pulling in a different direction.
They had taken the initiative, through trade unions andsocialist organisations, in forming the Labour Party so that they could have their own independent political voice. This had meant breaking with the Liberal Party which, for many years, claimed to be a ‘broad church’ representing both bosses and workers.
In the course of strikes and social struggles, workers discovered that the Liberals always came down on the side of the bosses. They drew the conclusion that they needed an independent party to represent their specific class interests.
The Militant newspaper, now The Socialist
Having set the party up, workers demanded that the Labour leaders implement policies which put their interests first. A constant struggle took place between the two, but workers were always able to make their voices heard and have an influence over the policies and direction of the party.
Until the early 1990s the Socialist Partly (then called Militant) campaigned for socialist ideas inside the Labour Party.
At the same time however, we argued that to achieve socialism it was necessary to have a cohesive party with a clear programme for fundamentally changing society. Workers and young people in
or around a mass capitalist-workers’ party, as the Labour Party was, could, we argued, be won over to the idea of a fundamental transformation of society.
The Labour Party provided a mass forum for debating and comparing the ideas of fundamental socialist change with those of gradual reform of capitalism.
But New Labour sold its soul to the capitalist free market in the 1990s. And it was not alone. Leaders of the Labour, Social Democratic and Communist parties throughout the world abandoned any idea of fighting for fundamental change in the capitalist system or even for reforms in favour of working class people.
Instead they swallowed the dominant ideology, reinforced by the 1990s boom, that there was no alternative to the capitalist market and neo-liberal policies such as privatisation and deregulation. The disintegration and eventual collapse of the Stalinist regimes in the Soviet Union and eastern Europe played a decisive part in this process. Socialism, the capitalists declared, was dead.
Labour ditched the historic Clause Four of its constitution, which committed the Labour Party to the “common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. In its place the party embraced ‘the rigour of competition’, ‘enterprise’ and free market forces. (See below)
Tony Blair’s aim when he became leader was to end socialism as the aim of the Labour Party and, as part of that, to sever the historic ties between Labour and thetrade unions. He wanted to transform the Labour Party from a ‘capitalist-worker’s’ party into an openly capitalist one.
Trade union link
Formally the link between the trade unions and the Labour Party remains in place. But the nature of that relationship has fundamentally changed. In the past workers could make their voices heard through the party structures. They could pass resolutions at the annual party conference and have a decisive influence over policy.
Now Blair’s ‘modernising reforms’ have closed those democratic structures off. Prospective candidates, democratically elected by Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs), have been undemocratically removed by a leadership clique at the top of the party.
The trade union vote at the annual party conference has been reduced from 90% to 49%. More importantly, the power that conference had to democratically decide policy has been removed and replaced by ineffectual ‘policy forums’.
It’s clear that the leadership want to further undermine the links with the unions by abolishing the general management committees to which local unions can send delegates.
- This process of attacking the link between the unions and the Labour Party was taken to a whole new level by Ed Miliband and the Collins Review which, as the Socialist Party commented at the time of its adoption in 2014, meant “the destruction of the last remnants of the trade unions’ organised presence within the Labour Party.”
Clause IV Part 4 (1918)
“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
In 1995 Tony Blair replaced the Labour Party’s 1918 socialist Clause IV Part 4 with a clause IV Part 2A containing a commitment to capitalist market forces:
Clause IV Part 2A (1995)
“A dynamic economy, serving the public interest, in which the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition are joined with the forces of partnership and co-operation to produce the wealth the nation needs and the opportunity for all to work and prosper with a thriving private sector and high-quality public services where those undertakings essential to the common good are either owned by the public or accountable to them.”
The battle inside Labour in the 1980s
Here we re-publish extracts of an article by the late Andrew Price looking back at the witch-hunt of Militant from the Labour Party. The original article (‘The Road to New Labour’) appeared in Socialism Today in 2010 and can be found at www.socialismtoday.org
The 1970s was a decade of class struggle that radicalised growing sections of the working class.
This in turn affected the Labour Party, as Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and party conferences endorsed a number of left-wing policies. The decade ended with the defeat of Callaghan’s right-wing Labour government and the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher whose brutal brand of Toryism was unique in post-war Britain.
During the 1980s, support for Militant grew considerably in both the CLPs and the Labour Party Young Socialists.
Thatcherism accelerated the radicalisation of the working class and the shift to the left. Coupled with this was an organised campaign led by Tony Benn and Eric Heffer to democratise the party and ensure that future Labour governments did not drift into right-wing policies.
These developments were viewed with consternation by the ruling class which, through the mass media, expressed concern at the growth in support for socialism in the party. They urged their shadows in the Labour Party to take action to reverse these trends.
The demand was raised for disciplinary action against Militant supporters, branded as ‘infiltrators’ into the Labour Party.
This was an outright lie. From Labour’s inception, Marxists had been party members. And, as a relatively democratic party, Labour had always allowed like-minded individuals to organise. What irked our opponents was our capacity to be better organised than most.
In 1983 party leader Michael Foot buckled to pressure and initiated the expulsion from the party of the then editorial board of Militant: Peter Taaffe, Ted Grant, Lynn Walsh, Clare Doyle and Keith Dickinson. Foolishly, Foot and others believed that by cutting off the head of Militant its growth in the Labour Party would stop.
Labour fought the 1983 election with its most left-wing manifesto since 1918. It called for the reversal of all Tory cuts, scrapping Britain‘s nuclear weapons, repealing anti-union laws, and the restoration to public ownership of all industries and services privatised by the Tories.
The Labour Party lost the election, with the Tories securing a massive parliamentary majority (albeit losing 685,000 votes). The ruling class and its shadows in the Labour Party argued that Labour’s defeat resulted from a left-wing manifesto with too much emphasis on socialism.
None of the proponents of this view were able to explain the results in Liverpool. Given a big national swing to the Tories, Liverpool, where Labour was clearly identified with the left, recorded a swing to Labour which, if repeated nationally, would have been sufficient to form a Labour government. The same was repeated in 1987 when Labour received 57% – its highest ever share of the vote in the city.
Such details were ignored as Labour was urged by its political enemies to ‘modernise’, including a purge of Marxists from its ranks. This was the key issue in the leadership election following Foot’s resignation in 1983, where Neil Kinnock was elected leader.
Kinnock’s efforts to ‘modernise’ the Labour Party were frustrated by two major developments.
In March 1984, the provocative behaviour of the Tories led to the epic miners’ strike, which lasted until March 1985. At grassroots level most Labour members saw the Tories determined to smash the miners and their union, and expected Kinnock to support them.
But Kinnock regarded the strike as the last thing he wanted given his modernisation agenda. In private, he attacked the strike. In public, he maintained a craven silence.
The other development was the election of a Labour council in Liverpool led by a number of Militant supporters. Liverpool Labour council was determined to lead a fightback on behalf of a city whose people had been brought to their knees by poverty, unemployment and bad housing.
From the outset of the struggle, Kinnock was implacably opposed to the strategy of Liverpool Labour council, and attacked it in a disgraceful speech to Labour Party conference.
This speech was the green light for a mass purge of Marxists from the party. Quietly the word went out: where witch-hunters were in the majority, expel; where not, as in Liverpool, Labour’s National Executive Committee would do the dirty work.
Kinnock turned from purging Militant to purging party policy. Every one of the gains made by the left was removed.
The major problem with Kinnock’s plan to make the Labour Party more ‘electable’ was that it failed to impress the voters. In 1987 Thatcher was returned with a majority only slightly less than the Tories had in 1983.
In the dying years of her premiership, however, Thatcher scored a spectacular own goal with the introduction of the poll tax.
Throughout Britain millions of working people could not, or refused to pay this iniquitous tax. On the ground, Militant supporters responded by organising anti-poll tax unions, giving support to non-payers.
A Sun editorial referred to the advocates of non-payment as ‘Toy Town Trots’. Following their lead, as ever, Kinnock employed the same term in a speech attacking non-payment with far more force than the poll tax itself.
At the height of the non-payment campaign, the Tories dropped Thatcher as leader. Militant – certainly not Kinnock and the Labour Party – deserves the credit for her downfall.