Friday, 20 February 2015

Labour vs The Militant Tendency

The past really is a foreign country. Can you imagine if the BBC or ITV ponied up to Labour Party conference and asked to transmit a live debate between Progress and the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy? It's unthinkable. Yet, in 1982 something similar did happen. At the year's party conference in Blackpool, the right won a majority on the NEC after much arm-twisting and shenanigans - some of which is outlined in John Golding's must-read, The Hammer of the Left. Immediately moves were afoot to curb the influence of the Militant Tendency (today's Socialist Party) who were then ensconced in the party. The NEC resolved to de-fang Militant's party-within-a-party by having them register as an official Labour-supporting organisation and, as a result, see much of their apparatus dissolved (famously, by the mid-80s Militant employed more full-time activists than the party itself).

The debate below which was broadcast in a prime time slot features the eternal general secretary, Peter Taaffe (50 years and counting), and the then soon-to-be deputy leader of Liverpool City Council, Tony Mulhearn. For the right representing the official party line saw Austin Mitchell, who is stepping down in May and has made a name in recent years as a boorish buffoon, and John Spellar who lost his seat in 1983 before getting returned again in 1992. The short film below is probably the only time representatives of both sides sat down and debated each other in a medium that has been captured for posterity. As such it's quite an important piece for labour movement geeks and far left watchers alike, regardless of your view of the issues.

It is interesting how both sides were right. Militant's charge that the right wanted them slung out by hook and by crook was correct, as subsequent rounds of expulsions demonstrated and, much later, memoirs admitted. Likewise, the right's claim that Militant was an undercover revolutionary socialist organisation with all the trappings associated with it was also spot on. 

More significant is how this film shows the distance travelled in politics in the 30-odd years since. TV Eye didn't broadcast the debate because everyone was a little bit funny or strange in the early 80s, or that the general public were just better informed and found such stuff riveting. What it demonstrated was that the labour movement and its internal goings on mattered in a society where its social weight and cultural presence was a good deal greater than today. The Labour right vs Militant debate was covered because at stake was the future direction of our movement, and hence the impact a victory for either side would have on wider society and particular the balance between capital and the state, and labour. It took the hammer blows of the miners' bitter defeat and subsequent wars of attrition against the organised working class to push our movement back to the present point of cultural marginality. Small wonder capital and the mainstream parties obsessively worry about reproducing working class people. The class war policies pursued by Thatcher curtailed its capacity to do so autonomously.

Anyway, enjoy this slice of labour movement history - if enjoy's the right word.

Hat tip @futureandpasts for alerting me to this.


Boffy said...

I was at that Conference attending a rally and fringe meetings. I sold a copy of Socialist Organiser to the late Vincent Hanna, who was the anchor of Newsnight at the time.

Anonymous said...

Never liked Austin Mitchell but that Spellar is repulsive.


John Boadle said...

Fascinating. I remember that time in the LP very well. Labour went on to the expulsions the Right were demanding and proceeded to lose the next three general elections. So that part of their plan didn't turn out too well. However it was also about shifting the party to the right and that bit worked a treat.

John Edwards said...

This was very interesting and I don't remember watching it at the time. I would tend to disagree that the coverage reflected the strength of the labour movement at the time. Labour had just undergone a very damaging split with the SDP and it was this which lost them the next three elections. The influence of Militant in constituency parties was itself evidence of organisational decline within the Labour Party as a whole.

Nevertheless we did think the left was going somewhere. It is a pity there is no footage (as far as I know) of the Debate of the Decade in 1980 between Tony Benn and the Labour left versus Paul Foot, Tariq Ali (and possibly Hilary Wainwright) for the revolutionary left. Thatcher was very unpopular pre-Falkland war and we really did think our time had come.

Making sure the history of these times is reported accurately is very important. After Tony Benn's death I remember Shirley Williams going on Newsnight to claim he was a supporter of Militant, which is quite absurd.

Other events of note around this time include the infamous Bermondsey by-election. Most people now seem to think this was all about homophobia. It wasn't. The target of the campaign against Peter Tatchell was the influence of the Labour left and the Bennite insurgency. The almost forgotten Greenwich by election in about 1986 and the campaign against the left candidate Deirdre Wood was equally significant and nasty