Forty years since expulsion of Militant Editorial Board

The expulsion of the Militant editorial board (above) began a widespread purge of socialists from Labour, credit: Dave Sinclair (uploaded 01/04/2015)

By 1983 , Militant, the predecessor of the Socialist Party (CWI England & Wales), was growing ever more influential, especially through the Labour Party Young Socialists (LPYS) and on Merseyside, as well as other places. It was then that the British ruling class decided that, if this developed any further, Labour could no longer be trusted by big business if it came to power again. Their shadows in the right-wing of the labour movement, gleefully supported by their friends in the mass media, started procedures for removing Militant’s Marxist ideas from the party.

We spoke to Peter Taaffe, Political Secretary of the Socialist Party,  about the witch-hunt against Militant, how the Militant Tendency was able to develop its influence and help lead mass movements of the working class.

In November 1982, Labour’s National Executive Committee began proceedings for the expulsions. The right wing thought that by expelling a Militant’s leaders on its editorial board – Peter Taaffe, Clare Doyle, Keith Dickenson, Lynn Walsh, and Ted Grant – it could kill the whole movement. All five were longstanding members of the Labour Party – with a collective membership of 121 years!

Peter said: At first, we were tolerated because we were a breath of fresh air to the Labour Party, and the Labour Party took the attitude: let the young people kick over the traces, live and let live. And they thought, “we were all like this when we were young, but then as you grow older you turn into ‘more sensible’ members of the Labour Party”!

You were tolerated so long as you were the hewers of wood and carriers of coal. You were there as dogsbodies of the Labour Party. But once you got a voice, and began to have an effect, and what we were putting forward chimed with workers, that was another matter.  As far as the right wing were concerned, and sometimes the soft left, they cannot tolerate for the Marxist analysis to be right.

Once we moved from general support to actual support, like when we got councillors, or were vying to become parliamentary candidates like Terry Fields in Liverpool Broadgreen, the alarm bells began to ring. As other Militant supporters fought to be council and parliamentary candidates in various parts of the country, we became a serious challenge to the right wing.

As active members we had a policy of winning over the more advanced workers already involved in trade unions and campaigns to Marxist ideas and the class struggle. Regular Labour Party and trade union meetings were a forum for vibrant debates and discussion; arguments from all sides; votes for all kinds of policies fought over.

We were a well-known part of the political life of the city of Liverpool. In many areas our socialist ideas held sway. In other places we were a leading force.  We did this by campaigning and explaining and answering counterarguments, alongside canvassing and leafleting in elections. It was hard work. 

Ultimately, the only way that the right-wing could deal with our ideas was through expulsions. They could not answer our arguments. And that came from what we did in the LPYS, through that the Labour Party, not just in Liverpool but then nationally and internationally. That was how we went about developing our influence. Several years later trade union leader Tom Sawyer, speaking on the NEC of the Labour Party, was to admit: “I defy anyone to tell me how you can go to Liverpool and defeat Militant by argument”.

The LPYS developed in size and influence throughout the 1970s, against the background of industrial unrest and revolutionary movements developing internationally. Militant built its influence in this growing and radicalising youth movement. In 1974, Militant candidate Nick Bradley was elected as the LPYS representative on Labour’s NEC by 143 votes to 18 for his nearest rival.

Peter: The approach towards us was always many sided. Some Labour comrades were very friendly and prepared to collaborate with us because we were young people − believe it or not, I was young at one stage! And we appeared to be very sincere, which we were. And we were friendly.

The witch-hunt started to get into full swing in 1982. Labour’s best performance in the council elections was in Liverpool. In the civil service trade union CPSA (predecessor of PCS), our influence was growing too. The CPSA Broad Left swept the board in the NEC elections, with seven Militant supporters elected, and a Militant supporter elected President too.

As the witch-hunt gathered pace, “there was ferocious resistance amongst the socialist rank and file of the Party. Two hundred Constituency Labour Parties protested to the NEC against the witch-hunt. The regional conferences of the Scottish, West Midlands, London, Southern and South West Labour Parties opposed any witch-hunt. In the North West a motion supporting expulsions was contemptuously dealt with; a delegate moved ‘next business’” (Rise of Militant).

Militant was able to draw on the support of rank-and-file activists. In September 1982, Militant organised a 3,000-strong rally at the Wembley Conference Centre in opposition to threats of expulsions. The conference included 1,622 delegates from Constituency Labour Parties, 412 trade union delegates and almost 1,000 visitors. The right-wing News of the World reported: “By any yardstick yesterday’s rally by supporters of the Militant Tendency was menacingly impressive… Almost as big as the Labour Party itself could muster.”

The ratification of the expulsions of Militant’s editorial board at the 1983 Labour Conference was not a tame affair. Appeals against the expulsions of the five was on the agenda. There was massive media interest, but this session had been designated a closed session. 200 Labour parties had already protested to the NEC against this witch-hunt.

Amusingly, at one NEC meeting, Denis Healey, a leading right-winger, declared that “It was not a witch-hunt – it was a Militant hunt!” Big meetings took place in many areas like South Wales where militant workers were in conflict with parliamentary careerists like Neil Kinnock, once known as a left but who had now moved over decisively to the right.

The five were allowed to speak for only 5 minutes each to appeal against their expulsion. In the end it was ratified with the big block votes of the right-wing trade union bureaucrats. However, 80% of the delegates from constituency Labour parties and a number of other delegates voted against. Leading left MPs like Tony Benn and Eric Heffer expressed their opposition. Militant warned that if the right got away with expelling the five, the ‘soft lefts’ would follow at some point. The expulsions were headline news. Thousands of ordinary workers were aware of what was happening through the television in their front room. Also, at this time Neil Kinnock was elected as the new leader.

But, no way was this the end of the story!  Massive protest meetings were held all over the country. A few months later, at the 1983 general election, two Militant-supporting Labour MPs were elected: Terry Fields in Liverpool Broadgreen, and Dave Nellist in Coventry Southeast. And building on success in the 1982 Liverpool council elections, Labour gained another 12 seats in 1983, winning control of the council, with the city’s Labour Party overwhelmingly under the political influence of Militant.

Peter: We always tried to educate our ranks that there was no shortcut to success. You reap what you sow. You cannot automatically expect workers to support you. You have to convince them by argument and especially by deed.

It was the propaganda of the deed. And that’s what Liverpool represented on a colossal scale. If you could achieve this in one city, that could be multiplied elsewhere. And it would find an enormous echo amongst working people.

That’s one of the reasons why, when we appeared on the scene and became a growing influence, they were more worried about us than about some of the other groups, because from us it was not just propaganda. For us it was not just what you said, it’s what you did. No cuts to jobs or services and no rent or rate rises!

After Labour won control of Liverpool City Council, in its first year in office it reversed plans for 1,000 redundancies made by the previous Liberal administration and instead created 1,000 new jobs. A minority of Labour councillors were supporters of Militant, but it had a decisive influence in the Labour Party in the city. The hundreds-strong Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) played a crucial role both in decisions about what policies the councillors should carry out, and in defence of those singled out for expulsion later.

Peter: The Liverpool District Labour Party had such authority because things were openly debated, there was open discussion. If you disagreed, you said so. And through arguments and counterarguments, there was a clarification and then the movement was united on the basis of that position.

That’s why setting the rates in Liverpool was discussed, not in any little committee, but in the District Labour Party. And therefore, in the course of the discussion, it was seen to be democratic, and it was acted on. And that’s what terrified the right wing and the ruling class.

Here’s people who take seriously what they do. That means when they pass motions and then those motions become policy, that policy is adopted by tens of thousands of workers, not in some little committee. This then led to the massive demonstrations on the streets in Liverpool.

However, we were ultimately defeated, not because we were wrong, but because of the capitulation of others, including former lefts who played a regrettable role. At first many Labour councils declared we would all fight the cuts together. Then people like Ken Livingstone [the left-Labour councillor who was then the leader of the Greater London Council, and was later the first Mayor of London], and others started capitulating to the right. When they were faced with the real fight, remain or retreat, they took the road of retreat. Only Lambeth council held on.

The expulsion of the MEB did not stop Militant building mass support for its ideas in Liverpool. The book ‘Liverpool: a City that Dared to Fight’ details the heroic struggle which took on Thatcher to win £60 million. During its time in office, the council created more than 2,000 jobs, built 5,000 council homes with front and back gardens, seven sports centres, and new parks, as well as better conditions for council workers and other workers locally.

At the peak of the movement, 29 March 1984 saw a city-wide general strike in support of the city council’s stand against Tory cuts. 50,000 workers and youth demonstrated outside the budget-setting meeting. Later, the city’s trade union movement seriously discussed taking all-out strike action in defence of the council against the government attacks – 7,200 workers voted in favour of such action, including the majority of the manual workers.

In 1985, Militant’s 5,000-strong national rally took place at the Royal Albert Hall. But with the Liverpool council isolated, the  Labour Party right wing, backed up by the capitalist press and the courts, attacked the Liverpool councillors – the next batch to be expelled from Labour after the Militant Editorial Board.

By 1988, despite the attacks, the Militant rally was 8,000-strong and took place at Alexandra Palace. Militant would go on to lead the mass struggle against the Poll Tax, when 18 million defied the law and refused to pay. Further expulsions took place, including Militant supporting Labour MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields. The latter went to prison for defying the law refusing to pay the poll tax along with millions of other workers.

The character of the Labour Party has now fundamentally changed, and it no longer has the mass active participation of the working class in its ranks. The witch-hunt against the Militant Editorial Board was only the first step. Since then, along with expulsions that continue today, Tony Blair got rid of Clause IV part 4 from the Labour constitution which called for public ownership and was once printed on every Labour Party membership card.

Peter: Well, of course all this didn’t take place in a vacuum. These events took place against the background of the general economic and social situation, and there was a gradual move towards the right. I think the central point that we’ve got to make, is that it wasn’t easy for the witch-hunters. It wasn’t a walk in the park.

It was really civil war in the Labour Party waged by the right, backed up by the capitalists in a thousand different ways. They urged the right in the Labour Party, if they were going to be acceptable and become the second eleven of capitalism, if you like to use that term, then it had to do its duty by making the Labour Party safe. We can see this process taking place on a huge scale with Starmer closing down local parties and foisting his own candidates on them for elections. And look how he got rid of Corbyn!

This was shown also by the refusal to tolerate even Ken Livingstone in the leadership of the London Labour Party for a time because he might reflect some of the pressures of the rank-and-file activists.

So, this is an ongoing battle. It’s the class struggle that will never stop. We need to continue to build the support of working-class people to challenge the whole capitalist system.

And the thing is with Keir Starmer, it’s quite incredible, his evolution. He’s trying to reinvent himself, together with all the other creatures in the Parliamentary Labour Party. If they’re pushed into power, it’s going to be an incredible situation.

Every traditional party is under the hammer now and will be tested by events. Capitalism’s powerful forces could be reduced to dust in the process. And we, the Socialist Party on the one side, must be prepared for the growth in our support – much bigger growth than most of our members anticipate. In particular the working class and youth will be looking for more and more radical alternatives.

We are ready and will prepare for that. Our experiences in going through the expulsions, the battles we organised in Liverpool and the victory against the poll tax will stand us in good stead to deal with whatever is coming down the line from the bosses in the not-too-distant future.

‘The Rise of Militant’ and ‘Liverpool: A city that dared to fight’

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October 2023