In the wake of the walk-out from the March 1986 NEC, some serious bourgeois commentators began to recognize, somewhat tardily, the roots of Militant in Britain. David Selbourne, writing in The Times (26 March) commented:
Militant is not just a reflection of scouse Labourism in general; it incorporates a Liverpool tradition of bare-knuckled ardor in defense of the city. If Derek Hatton and company had not existed, someone would have had to invent them. In Liverpool itself, across the entire spectrum of the party’s supporters, the has the capacity not merely to give its (lame) pursuers a good run for their money, but to outlast Kinnock himself in the struggle for political survival. The net consequence of the imbroglio has been to exacerbate party divisions, duck the main issues of Liverpool’s appalling economic privations and hand the city council to the liberals.
Precisely because of the durability of Militant, the latter prediction was not borne out. In a very telling comment, however, David Selbourne also said:
And what is certain is that Militant will not be dislodged from the city – investigations, surcharges, expulsions and disqualifications notwithstanding it will go marching on; across a political and economic landscape ransacked by unemployed and devastated by indefensible central government neglect and revenue losses. One way or another, Militant will survive the huffing and puffing of its critics.
At the same time, from a most unusual quarter, came confirmation of the popularity of Liverpool’s struggle. In a poll in the New Musical Express, under the section, “Most wonderful human being” Derek Hatton was rated way ahead of Neil Kinnock! While the tabloids took great delight at the difficulties for Kinnock and the Labour Party, which the walk-out had revealed, the serious bourgeois commentators sounded a warning note. Michael Jones, Political Editor of the Sunday Times said:
The war Kinnock must never lose… [if] as it could, Labour ended up shackled to Militant because its party constitution cannot cope with secret groups of entryists and the courts makes matters worse, Britain’s body public would be sick indeed. Only those who want Labour’s downfall at any cost will want to see him [Kinnock] beaten.
This warning was to be heeded later on, particularly by the judges who, as the witch-hunt continued, abandoned any semblance of “neutrality” or even-handedness between Militant and the Labour Party NEC.
The Temporary Coordinating Committee
The day after the NEC meeting at which the right wing had hoped to expel the twelve Militant supporters, the Liverpool Labour Party Temporary Coordinating Committee (TCC) held its first meeting. Tony Mulhearn, President of the suspended District Labour Party and one of those facing expulsion, was elected Chair. The meeting praised “the magnificent seven” – the members of the NEC who had walked out of the March meeting in protest – and called for the reconvening of the DLP.
All of the constituency delegates present and many of the trade unionists were absolutely opposed to the witch-hunt. Only four voted to oppose electing officers. Ted Mooney, a Militant supporter, was elected as Treasurer, Phil Rowe from West Derby, another Militant supporter, as Secretary, Tony Hood and Mike Carr (who later turned into a witch-hunter) as Vice-chairpersons. The right wing’s very carefully constructed plan to supplant Militant supporters in the new body was therefore coming apart at the first meeting.
The latest turn provoked the Daily Mail (28 March 1986) to storm: “Second coup puts Militant back into power again.” Eddie Loyden answered:
This makes a nonsense of that the Executive were trying to do. They do not understand the Liverpool situation at all – that is quite plain. And it shows the whole affair to be a sham on the part of the Executive. It was a scatter gun exercise with them shooting off indiscriminately in all directions.
Not just the right but the “left”, particularly David Blunkett, wrote and spoke energetically in support of expulsions of the Liverpool Militants. His attack in the Guardian on the seven who had walked out of the NEC meeting had called forth a shower of letters in opposition to him. Louise Christian, the solicitor who accompanies Felicity Dowling to the NEC, completely shattered the case which Blunkett attempted to make against her client. She pointed out:
Felicity Dowling faced some 39 charges. She had no time to arrange for witnesses to attend which had only been allowed by the NEC the day before. When she speared she was told that her charges had been “rearranged” into groups, and some dropped.
To the embarrassment of the right on the NEC, even legal experts such as Professor JA Griffith, politically opposed to Marxism, were forced to question the fairness of the expulsion procedure. He wrote to the Guardian (25 April 1986):
When, many weeks ago, I first read of the procedure that the NEC was adopting for the investigation, I was, as a lawyer, most surprised. It seemed obviously contrary to the rules of natural justice that members of the NEC should both investigate and then sit in judgment. As details began to emerge of the way the investigation was being conducted, dismay succeeded surprise. So I expected the court to find as it did. What I did not expect was that the NEC would seek to persist, without proper presentation of the charges and without giving the accused the elementary tights associated with such hearings, but if members of the party are to be dismissed, it is absolutely essential that they be given a fair hearing by an unbiased tribunal. The earlier incompetence makes this difficult. Those members of the NEC who protested about the procedures should be regarded as protectors of the constitution, not as its enemies.
But the most devastating reply from Tony Mulhearn in an open letter printed in Militant which Blunkett never answered. He particularly debunked Blunkett’s attack on the “pernicious nominating rights” which had been given to the trade unions. Tony Mulhearn wrote:
He [Blunkett] then, in a confused manner, attacks the “nominating rights” which the trade unions had secured by negotiation. These rights were accepted by all unions at local, regional and national levels, certainly I don’t recall any union objecting to them. If they were abused – and he does not seek to prove it – that is a manner between him and the unions. For my part, if abuse did take place it was never brought to the attention of the DLP. Had the DLP been aware of any abuse it would have made its position clear in no uncertain manner.
A statement was also issued in the name of the Tribune Group of MPs, condemning the walk-out of the seven from the NEC. However, Ian Mikardo in a letter to the Guardianstated that the Group had taken no such decision because, as a Vice-chair of the Group, he had not been consulted on any statement.
Roland Boyes, the Chair of the Tribune Group, Chris Smith, Islington South MP, and Richard Caborn, Sheffield Central MP, had signed the statement. Boyes was unapologetic, saying: “It had been essential to issue a statement immediately while the issue was still urgent, rather than wait till a meeting of the Group could be convened.” This Tribunite, a paragon of “democracy”, issues a statement on such a fundamental question without even going through the procedure of discussing it within his own Group or even with the Vice-chair of the Group!
It was one more sign of the evolution of the Tribune Group towards the right. The Group secretary was Chris Smith who was himself under criticism from within his own constituency party at this time for threatening to go against the party’s wishes. Despite the attacks and the continued threat of expulsion hanging over the head of Liverpool Militant supporters, Derek Hatton received a tumultuous welcome at a “Labour Unity Rally” at the Labour Party Young Socialists’ national conference which met in Bournemouth in early April. At this meeting he was issued a challenge to Neil Kinnock to openly debate with him so that “the rank and file can decide what they want”. He stated: “Intimidation has become a new word for democracy. If the right win a vote, it’s democracy. If they lose it’s intimidation.”
There was no real support for the witch-hunt in Labour’s ranks. However, other sentiments prevailed within bourgeois circles. It was not at all accidental that just at this stage the local government editor of the Liverpool Echo, Peter Phelps, was named as “Journalist of the Year” at the 1985 British Press Awards. He was awarded a prize of £1000 for his coverage of the city’s scene during 1985 “and for his investigations into the Militant Tendency and the city council”. The bourgeois were rewarding one of their own for a systematic campaign of vilification to undermine the influence of Marxism in Liverpool. By rights, Kinnock and Hattersley should have shared in the prize!
Meanwhile, the National Executive Committee, which within a year was attempting to sack staff at the Labour Party Headquarters, spent over £160,000 in circulating every Labour Party branch with a copy of the majority report on Liverpool. By the end of May, the bill for the Labour Party for legal fees, traveling and accommodation expenses, the inquiry itself, publication and circulation of reports, additional NEC meetings etc., had reached well in excess of £100,000. On other words, the Labour Party had been prepared to spend £35,000 per expulsion!
It was not just money but the most valuable commodity of all – time – which was being expended and which could have been more profitably deployed combating the Tory enemy. Nevertheless the Kinnock majority on the NEC proceeded to pursue the witch-hunt. They changed the quorum figure at an NEC meeting in early April in order to ensure that another walk-out could not scupper the vote for expulsions. The sixth meeting of the NEC to discuss the expulsion of Liverpool party members took place during the crisis over the American bombing of Libya, and in the wake of the Thatcher government’s defeat in Parliament on student grants.
Majority Report Dropped
A drastic alteration of the NEC’s expulsion procedure completely vindicated the walk-out of the left-wing members at the previous meeting. The NEC completely changed tack. They altered both the charges and the nature of the evidence on which they were to rely in pursuing the twelve. The NEC would no longer be relying on the majority report of the inquiry team ass evidence. The evidence that the NEC was now relying on consisted of advertisements and leaflets for Militant meetings, and press reports of these meetings and rallies. The pretense that the twelve were being expelled for “malpractices” in the running of the DLP, “intimidation”, and “reprehensible trade-union nomination rights” was exposed. The NEC had also conceded that the twelve would be able to call witnesses on some points.
The Unacceptable Face of Labour
The “unacceptable face” of the Labour Party was shown not by Militant supporters but by the actions of the right’s “appointed official” in Liverpool, Peter Kilfoyle. He walked into the DLP office and ripped a phone from the wall, a sign of desperation and of the brutal methods that the right wing were prepared to employ in the battle against the Marxists. Meanwhile, Militant supporters up for expulsion prepared for the NEC that was to hear their case in late May.
The main criteria for carrying through expulsions was to be that people like Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn had spoken at “Militant meetings”, and yet it had been revealed that Kinnock himself had spoken on a platform at a meeting organized by Militant supporters at Swansea University in October 1980! At that meeting, attended by 150 people, Neil Kinnock had even given £5 to the Militant Fighting Fund. Tom Sawyer, one of the chief witch-hunters, had also spoken at Militant Readers’ Meetings.
The witch-hunt was organically connected with the swing towards the right on policy and program. The party’s “freedom and fairness” campaign involved the replacement of the red flag with gray symbols, the abandonment of renationalization and of the idea of public ownership. Only the demand for unilateral nuclear disarmament remained intact, but with the right continuing its offensive to have this abandoned.
It was in this atmosphere that the NEC met on May 21, to consider for the tenth time the first of the cases, that of Tony Mulhearn. If some on the right had hesitations about driving Tony Mulhearn from the party of which he had been a member for 23 years, his advocacy at this meeting must have hardened their resolve. The hearing took a total of seven hours. Even some on the right grudgingly conceded that he had brilliantly rebutted the charges, although they were still determined to give the bourgeois his head. This they duly did at one o’clock in the morning.
The next day the NEC proceeded to hear the case of Ian Lowes, who again stunned the right wing by refuting in detail every one of the allegations made against him. He was nevertheless expelled for his efforts. In an attempt to create a smokescreen of “fairness” they dropped the charges against Harry Smith. Bu now it was late in the day and Tony Aitman returned to Liverpool having been hanging around for 36 hours waiting for his hearing. After his departure, Tony Aitman – 22 years a party member – was expelled without a hearing.
By now, even the most obtuse right winger realized that the proceedings were likely to drag on and on. The Daily Telegraph reported (26 May 1986): “Mr. Kinnock and his supporters on Labour’s national executive are resigned to a war of attrition lasting well into the summer as they try to complete their disciplinary action against Mr. Derek Hatton and his Liverpool comrades.”
The bourgeois press, of course, applauded Kinnock as a “man of principle”. They were quite happy to see the continuing divisions within the Labour Party. At the same time, the party in Liverpool refused to accept the expulsions. Tony Mulhearn’s constituency, Garston, voted by 36 votes to 2 not to recognize “this insane action of the right-wing dominated NEC”. Moreover, Peter Kilfoyle was thrown out of a Labour group meeting which he had barged into. Nevertheless, the expulsion proceedings dragged into June.
Derek Hatton was finally expelled in his absence (while on council business) in late June. This recalls the experience of the Irish writer, Brendan Behan, when he was expelled from the IRA in the 1950s. They held a court martial and sent him a note saying he had been condemned to death in his absence”! Derek Hatton and the Liverpool labor movement had a similar contempt for the proceedings on the NEC.
Richard Venton 15 years a party member, Terry Harrison 28 years a member and a former leader of the apprentices movement on Merseyside, and Roger Bannister, 15 years a member and a NALGO activist were all expelled at the same meeting. The charges against Carol Darton, a party member for only a few months, were too much even for some of the right wing to swallow, and her case was dropped by 11 votes to 9, Neil Kinnock amongst those seeking to proceed.
At the same time, an offensive was launched by a number of union leaders who perceived Militant as an increasing danger within the union movement. First, the GMBATU General Secretary John Edmonds attacked the “poison of Militant…” This was part of the softening-up process to launch an attack and investigation into the GMBATU No 5 branch in Liverpool which had been the backbone of the council’s campaign.
More surprising perhaps, given his past “left” credentials regarding the battle on reselection, was the vicious campaign of Sam McCluskie. Accepting the hospitality shown by the Liverpool City Council in providing a hall for the Annual General Meeting of his union, the seafarers (NUS), he used the occasion to launch a diatribe against Militant. He condemned the amount of money which Militant allegedly raised for itself, yet as party Treasurer he was responsible for allowing the misuse of party funds on the enquiries and expulsions.
Incredibly, he declared: “You do not achieve democratic socialism in Britain by flouting the laws of the land”, an open criticism of the stand of the Liverpool City Council. Twenty years earlier the NUS leaders had been subjected to slanderous attacks about “conspiracies”. In 1966, Labour prime minister Harold Wilson had attacked the seafarers strike, denouncing it as the work of a “tightly-knit group of politically motivated men”. McCluskie was now using similar language against the Liverpool City Council and those who had defied the law in the interests of working people.
The press hailed the expulsion of Derek Hatton of course. But even Larry Whitty finally recognized that it was foolish to pretend that concentration on “the internal affairs of the party have not been a major diversion from achieving some of our aims” (Guardian 9 June 1986), again an implied criticism of the right wing. In Liverpool itself, there was virtually no support for the witch-hunt. In fact, over 150 people attended a public meeting in Tony Mulhearn’s ward, St Mary’s, giving him a massive backing.
Even the expulsion of Derek Hatton did not satisfy the jackals of Fleet Street. They demanded more. They were up in arms at the endorsement of Pat Wall as parliamentary candidate for Bradford North by the June NEC. Peter Phelps, rewarded so hugely for his attack on Militant, commented (Daily Mail 14 June 1986): “The Labour Party with a long history of expulsions has a habit of turning its rebels into leaders.”
In Liverpool, Militant supporters and the left had to confront difficult tactical questions. The right did not just want expulsions but the closure of constituency parties as well as the DLP. Therefore after taking the opposition to expulsions as far as was possible, Tony Mulhearn convinced the Garston constituency that it was necessary to accept his expulsion “under protest”, rather than be shut down.
When it came to Broadgreen, Terry Fields’ constituency, the right wing were not prepared to accept even a minimal resistance. They used the attendance of Derek Hatton at a meeting of the constituency – he had come to protest at his expulsion – as a pretext for closing down the Constituency Labour Party. Thus in the run-up to a general election, the Labour Party members’ ability to mobilize to re-elect Terry Fields in a marginal seat was sabotaged by the right wing. Cheryl Varley was expelled at the July NEC. Felicity Dowling’s case dragged on until after the Labour Party conference in October 1986 where, as a delegate, she was able to protest against the witch-hunt.
In September the New Statesman carried an article which completely exposed the bogus character of the attacks and the undemocratic methods of the NEC. The author, Quentin McDermott had accompanied Cheryl Varley to the NEC as her “friend”:
The hearing itself was eye-opening. For the expulsion to be credible, the evidence against Ms. Varley should have been thorough and pretty well irrefutable, the voting “fair”. In fact, what evidence there was at best arguable at worst flimsy; the voting – with the notable exception of Michael Meacher who opposed her expulsion – predictably pre-ordained. If anyone was enjoying themselves it was the left wingers, who seized every opportunity to expose the weakness of the evidence as presented. The right seemed faintly embarrassed by the whole affair, while Gwyneth Dunwoody, if she was listening at all gave no evidence of it, as she crocheted throughout, never once, according to my tape, pausing to ask a question. The evidence arrayed against her boiled down to the allegation that she was a “regular” contributor to Mersey Militant, and therefore in Whitty’s words a “significant” supporter of Militant. By “regular”, he meant the author of three articles. Cheryl Varley read out each of them, and challenged anyone on the NEC to point out anything which was distinctively different from Labour policy. No one did.
She detailed how, in her period of office, Liverpool’s FE students had won free nursery provision throughout the FE sector, free meals, free transport, free stationery and books, an increase in the students’ union budgets, an increase in grants – particularly for students with children – and financing for sabbatical officers to be elected in every college in Liverpool. “That might not mean much to some members of this NEC, because some members of this NEC might not have experienced what it’s like to be an unemployed student, trying to get through further education, but it means a lot to the young people of Liverpool”, she said.
At the end of the hearing, Cheryl Varley asked to be allowed to hear the verdict in person from the Executive – not to have it relayed to her, as the others had, by a “messenger boy”. The request was turned down. The messenger turned out to be Larry Whitty, who told her somewhat sheepishly that the case against her had been deemed “proven”.
The Durham Miners’ Gala in July gave a striking example of the opposition to the expulsions by ordinary Labour workers. Derek Hatton had been invited to march with the Wearmouth Lodge. Suffering a broken leg from playing football, he still hobbled on crutches at the head of their contingent. A local paper, the Sunday Sun (13 July 1986) commented: “Derek Hatton, expelled from the Labour Party for supporting the Militant Tendency, got one of the biggest cheers of the day at the Durham Miners’ Gala yesterday.” When he marched past the guests standing on the balcony of the Royal County Hotel, Neil Kinnock prominent amongst them, he waved his crutches and shouted “You won’t get rid of me that easy, lad.” He was applauded not just by the crowd but by almost all the guests on the balcony. Neil Kinnock looked acutely embarrassed and retreated into the hotel.
Throughout the day Derek Hatton was received enthusiastically, with workers congratulating him on the Liverpool struggle and urging him to keep on fighting. At the rally in the gala field, Dennis Skinner won wild applause for denouncing the “childish witch-hunt mentality” within the Labour Party. This enthusiasm for Dennis Skinner contrasted sharply with the lukewarm response for the final speaker, Kinnock. By the time he finished his second sentence, hundreds were streaming away and at least one lodge banner struck up and marched off the field, banner flying proudly.
The Kent miners also supported Liverpool at their gala in the same month. At the same time, throughout Liverpool, meetings were held with enthusiastic support for all those expelled. But just after Derek Hatton’s expulsion there was an incident which demonstrated clearly the mechanics of the witch-hunt, and the link between the attacks by the state on Militant supporters and the actions of the Labour right on the NEC. In late July, the case against Derek Hatton over his expenses claims was dropped by the Director of Public Prosecutions! There were no banner headlines in the press: “Hatton is Innocent!” Yet for the previous 18 months, the press had carried lurid, but completely unfounded, allegations against Derek Hatton. Nor did Hattersley apologize for his disgraceful comments about “corruption”.
It was at this time that Kilroy-Silk decided to quit as an MP. Of course, he made the ritualistic claim (Daily Express 31 July1986) that “Militant made me quit.” As a man of “principle” he could take no more. In reality, his motive for resigning as MP was the little crock of gold waiting for him on becoming a TV interviewer. Not that Militant supporters were unduly worried by his claim. After all, Militant had played a prominent role in the exposure of the right-wing trade-union general secretaries Sid Weighell (NUR) and Alastair Graham (CPSA), both of whom had taken themselves off to greener pastures. Even Kinnock was moved to describe his allegations as “rubbish” (Daily Mail 31 July 1986).
It can be predicted with some certainty that Kilroy-Silk will join a long list of those like Reg Prentice and Neville Sanderson who will end up in the camp of the Tories. His resignation was greeted enthusiastically by the workers in his constituency in Knowsley North. But it panicked the right wing, who now feared a left candidate would be chosen in a highly publicized by-election. In Tribune Hugh MacPherson summed up the feelings of betrayal among those who had been supporting Kilroy-Silk against the left. He quoted Robert Browning’s famous Lost Leader: “Just for a handful of silver he left us, just for a ribbon to wear in his cap.”
August and September witnessed a running battle between the Liverpool labor movement and the agents of the right wing National Executive Committee. At the same time, the right wing began to plot Eric Heffer’s removal from the NEC. They had never forgiven him for his walk-out at the 1985 Labour Party conference and his principled criticism of Kinnock since.
Just before the Labour Party conference, writing in Campaign Group News, Heffer commented:
The Liverpool and Lambeth councilors are in the traditions of the Poplar councilors of 1919-24. Councilors who went to prison fighting for the working class. They fought for the unemployed, the poor and for a real redistribution of wealth. The interesting thing is that in the municipal elections of 1922, Labour’s vote in Poplar was 51.5 percent, but in London as a whole it was an average of 36.4 percent.
Having compelled the constituencies of Garston, Broadgreen and others to accept the expulsion of the eight, Larry Whitty and “strong man” Kilfoyle attempted to force the eviction of Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton from the Labour Group. This was not successful in time for the forthcoming Labour Party conference. Before the conference, Eric Heffer in his new book Labour’s Future, also warned of his fears that “Labour is taking the road to defeat.” (Guardian 24 September 1986). This only fuelled the campaign to remove him from the NEC.
One of those leading the attack was Albert Williams, General Secretary of Heffer’s own union, the building workers (UCATT). He released to the press a letter expressing “his concern” (Daily Telegraph September 25, 1986) about Eric Heffer’s criticisms of the Kinnock leadership. Eric Heffer only received the letter after it had appeared in the press! He also commented that he did not understand UCATT’s attitude as, since his walk-out at the last party conference, he had attended dinners of the UCATT executive and also the union’s biennial conference and had been given no indication of criticism. He declared defiantly: “We are not living in the Soviet Union. We are still free to adopt positions freely arrived at, and if UCATT wants to withdraw my sponsorship that’s a matter for them. I don’t take kindly to threats and won’t be giving any assurances” (Guardian 25 September 1986).
But one effect of the NEC’s intervention was to split the Labour group. This was something that the Tories, the District Auditor, the courts, the Liberals and every opponent of the Liverpool City Council had failed to do in the previous three years. Fourteen councilors, including Leader John Hamilton, broke ranks and met Whitty for what they claimed were talks to “clean the air” (Morning Star 19 September 1986). This, they claimed, was in order not to be “isolated” from the broad labor movement. But in Liverpool their connivance with the right wing represented real isolation from the advanced workers. John Hamilton, who had played a role in the campaign in the previous three years, became an increasingly sad and isolated figure.
Meanwhile, on the eve of the Labour Party conference, Tony Mulhearn declared that despite the likely decision to uphold the expulsion, he and the other expellees would eventually be reinstated back into party membership. He declared:
The Labour Party conference will only be a page in the chapter of our campaign to win reinstatement. Neil Kinnock will have the block vote in favor of expulsion, that is a foregone conclusion – but our campaign will go on. What they (the right) fail to understand is that we are a product of the social and economic conditions that exist in Liverpool. The economic crisis will continue to worsen, as well as unemployment, and the prospects for lower paid workers will become grimmer. We can see a stormy period ahead for British politics which the right wing will be incapable of coping with. There will be a massive shift to the left which in part will open the way to our reinstatement (Guardian 22 September 1986).
On the eve of the Labour Party conference, the right wing suspended the selection process for a successor to Kilroy-Silk. Tony Mulhearn had been removed from the scene. However, another left, Les Huckfield, had the most nominations and was likely to be selected to replace Kilroy-Silk. He had earned the abiding hostility of Kinnock, if for no other reason, because in 1982 he had been one of ten MPs who formed a group called Labour Liaison “82, with the intention of getting Kinnock and Joan Lester voted off the National Executive Committee after they refused to support Tony Benn in the Deputy Leadership contest.
A number of Kinnock’s actions were obviously determined by personal hostility, even hatred, as we have seen in the case of the Liverpool Militant supporters. For a political leader of a mass party to allow himself to be swayed by personal considerations is fatal. Personal spite in politics is the worst and most dangerous quality for a leader. It could the judgment and elevates personal feelings, personal envy, before the interest of the working class.
This was demonstrated again when Kinnock vetoed Sharon Atkin as candidate for the 1987 General Election because of her remarks that “the Labour Party was racist”. She had a previous personal clash with Kinnock on the issue of “black sections”. Atkin’s remarks were mistaken, but a serious leader of a mass workers’ party would have dismissed them as of no consequence whatsoever. Once more Kinnock acted partly through personal antipathy, partly in response to the goading of the press.
Appeal to the Labour Party Conference
The approach of the Labour Party Conference in October 1986 posed a number of difficult tactical questions for the Liverpool Militant supporters. The hearings at the NEC had merely been a show trial. The conference was likely to be an extended version of this. Many of the union block votes had virtually been counted and weighed beforehand.
The right-wing general secretaries had not consulted their rank and file on the issues raised by the Liverpool inquiry. Nor had the case of the Liverpool eight been properly put even to those union conferences which considered the matter. Indeed, some unions, like the TGWU, were to vote for expulsions in contravention of their policy. There was no enthusiasm or support for a witch-hunt at the union conferences in the summer, nor at the Labour Party conference itself. Many rank and file delegates in the conferences “reluctantly acquiesced”, while outside they expressed sympathy and gave money to the Militant Fighting Fund. The right-wing union general secretaries were prepared to use the block vote in order to crush the Liverpool Militants.
For Militant supporters, the vote itself was of little consequence. Far more important was the opportunity to present the case, both to the delegates but also to the mass of the working people who could be following the conference on live television and radio. After all, they had been bombarded throughout the previous 12 months with an avalanche of distorted facts and impressions of what Liverpool Militant supporters stood for and had achieved in the city. Therefore, Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn demanded half an hour each in order to defend their record, in Tony’s case after 23 years’ party membership, before the conference. They also demanded that the NEC should allow the media, particularly the television and the radio, to carry the debate live.
Despite their abhorrence of the capitalist media, Marxists will use any opportunity, no matter how limited, to put their case to the mass of the population. They were confident that the case of the Liverpool Militants would shatter the image which had been created about Liverpool and its leadership.
In the period prior to 1983, Labour had abolished the “closed session” (closed to the media and visitors) at conferences. Their argument had been that a democratic party had nothing to fear by open discussion and debate. The secret session was re-introduced in 1983 in order to carry through the “secret expulsion” of the Militant Editorial Board.
The five members of the Militant Editorial Board availed themselves on that occasion of the five minutes each, which was completely inadequate, to reply at least to some of the slanders to which they had been subjected. These slanders, however, were merely pin pricks compared to the deluge which had fallen on the heads of the Liverpool Militant supporters. It was therefore only fair and reasonable that they be given adequate time and the opportunity to explain their case. The NEC of the Labour Party were terrified and completely dismissed the request.
When the eight arrived at the conference on the morning of September 28, they repeated their request. This was refused by Larry Whitty on behalf of the NEC. Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn then led a sensational walk-out of the eight from the conference hall. They were met by the world’s press, mingling with many Liverpool Militant supporters cheering them to the echo. Derek Hatton’s statement was carried in all the papers and on the television that evening: “We were not prepared to give credibility to a farce. We are not prepared to see a British labor movement that is more akin to Stalinist Russia.” Tony Mulhearn forcefully declared “The National Executive is petrified by the ideas that have won us so much support in Liverpool” (Evening Standard 26 September 1986).
This bold action earned the vitriolic attack of Kinnock, who accused the eight of being “spineless” (Daily star September 30, 1986). This from a leader who used to allow an open, democratic discussion and debate of ideas. Moreover, as he was leaving the conference hall and was being mildly barracked by two Militant supporters, Kinnock reacted furiously. As he got in his car he waved his fist and pointed to one Militant supporter, indicating that he was next for expulsion.
The conference passed a motion overwhelmingly endorsing the expulsions, but the comments of the right wing indicated that they had been cheated of the expected show trial. Instead of the vote being triumphantly featured in the media, it was the dramatic walk-out and the statements of Tony Mulhearn and Derek Hatton which appeared on the television and in the press. Moreover, while the union block votes were mobilized to crush the Liverpool Militants, 263 constituencies, nearly half of the total, still voted against expulsions.
Without much conviction Larry Whitty declared “We have broken the inner ring of Militant control over a large part of the Liverpool Party” (Daily Mail 31 September 1986). Subsequent events, not for the first time, were to confound the right wing’s perspectives. Once more the press went into action: “you are finished,” declared the Daily Star(30 September 1986). “Good riddance”, screamed the Daily Mirror (30 September 1986).
Having exhausted all suitable adjectives to describe Militant supporters – “maggots, corrupt, termites, intimidators” – the Daily Mirror editor decided that Militant supporters must come from outer-space! Its headline read, “Defeat of the aliens” (30 September).
Renegade Kilroy-Silk, who was at the conference launching his book “Hard Labour“, welcomed the expulsions. He had been protected, indeed cosseted, by the Kinnock leadership before he decided to resign as MP. In the vote for the National Executive Committee, Eric Heffer lost his seat, a product of the scheming of the right and the “new right” of the LCC. On the day the NEC results were announced, Militant held one of its most impressive readers’ meetings ever at Labour party conference. Denied access to any of the hotels, sometimes on the most flimsy pretext, the meeting took place in a school far from the conference hall. Nevertheless, more than 500 cheering Labour Party members, youth, older trade unionists and Militant supporters listened to Derek Hatton, Tony Mulhearn, Peter Taaffe and Ted Grant outline the perspectives for the labor movement and the future of Marxism in Britain.
It was not at all the “wake” which the opponents of Marxism hoped for. The expulsions were seen in the proper historical context. Paradoxically they indicated the enormous strength and potential for Marxist ideas within the labor movement. The right wing were incapable of answering these ideas and therefore resorted to organizational measures to suppress them. But the speakers indicated that the political and social situation, no matter who won the next general election, would open up a favorable scenario for the growth of Marxist ideas. Militant supporters, however, would still be the most energetic workers for a Labour government. The return of Labour was seen as the most favorable outcome of an election, both from the point of view of the working class and for Marxism.
Meanwhile, the spotlight on Liverpool was even more intense in the aftermath of the Labour Party conference than before. Party officials Larry Whitty and Joyce Gould walked out of a Labour group meeting in early October because it still continued to recognize Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn. The meeting was lobbied by more than 100 Liverpool Labour Party members. At this meeting, we saw real intimidation; against Militant supporters! Cllr. Harry Smith was entering the Labour group meeting. He was confronted with a “bouncer” on the door. He recounts:
When I got there, I noticed a number of people from the Vauxhall area who had been vocal in attacking the council. I went upstairs with about a dozen other councilors. An ex-Communist Party member was standing by the door. As I went up to the door he put his arm across my chest. I asked him to take it away and to mind his own business. And as I walked into the room he hit me in the chest – I kept my arms by my side and he grabbed my jumper. I was fuming. I went straight up to Larry Whitty and said “who are you, putting these thugs on the door?” Whitty said nothing and just looked up at me.
The stand of the labor group, particularly of non-Militant supporters like Tony Byrne, enraged Neil Kinnock and his entourage. At the NEC meeting later that month, Kinnock proposed that the new National Constitutional Committee should investigate Byrne’s membership. Tony Byrne declared:
I can understand why, from Neil Kinnock’s point of view, Derek Hatton could be seen as the devil. I abhor personality politics on Liverpool or nationally, but Derek has become in Liverpool out Labour programs personified. To allow him and Tony to be crushed is to allow all we stand for to be crushed. If the NEC is determined to be vengeful and is not prepared to find a productive and constructive way forward, then a number of us will stand and say that it is not of out making. If we are so offensive to socialists, then I personally would rather go with Derek and Tony (Guardian 20 October 1986)
However, while welcoming this solidarity, Militant supporters were not prepared to see unnecessary expulsions from the Labour Party. The struggle in Liverpool is part of a long war of attrition against capitalism and its greatest ally – the right within the Labour Party. It was essential that the gains of 1983-7 should be preserved, and particularly that the leading councilors should remain within the Labour Party to continue the battle.
With great reluctance, Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn agreed not to attend Labour Party meetings. Militant supporter Paul Astbury was elected in Derek Hatton’s place as the Deputy leader of the council. support was as strong at the end of the year of witch-hunting as it had been when the battle began. Indeed, it was immeasurably stronger, with the accumulated experience and qualities of leadership retained both by Militant and also by the Liverpool labor movement.
The Knowsley North By-Election
Kinnock’s right wing domination of the Labour Party will be seen merely as a short historical episode. The right wing did not secure the defeat of Marxism or the council in which its ideas had such a sway. IT was the House of Lords and the bourgeois legal system that did the job for Kinnock. When the Kinnock-controlled NEC imposed George Howarth, a rabid right winger ad the candidate for the forthcoming Knowsley North by-election, Les Huckfield and the Knowsley North Executive Committee decided to take court action. Despite his overwhelming case, the courts found against him. The judges had switched tack from an earlier period when injunctions were granted for the left against the right. While the bourgeois wanted to portray the Labour Party as split, they had decided that in the long term to give succor to the left would be more dangerous. The right was the reliable prop of capitalism, which in general must be supported by the bourgeois and its institutions. The judges in a whole series of cases acted accordingly.
Nevertheless, the Knowsley North party still refused to endorse Howarth, and wrongly refused to campaign for him in the forthcoming by-election. Militant supporters, on the other hand, urged the left to concentrate in the elections on defeating the Tory and Liberal candidates. An occasion would be presented at a later stage for the Knowsley party to select a candidate of their choice. To boycott the election, however, would strengthen the hold of the right, and provide a pretext for the right wing on the NEC to begin the process of reorganizing the Knowsley North Labour Party. On October 27, almost a year after the inquiry had been set in motion by the NEC, Felicity Dowling’s case came up. At this meeting, Tony Benn had suggested that on the day of the city “Big Bang”, the day on which Jeffrey Archer was resigning as the Tory Party’s Deputy Chair, and the day of bus deregulation, the NEC should wind up the proceedings and return to the House of Commons to debate the issues really confronting working people. His appeal was rejected by 11 votes to 7.
Felicity Dowling then outlined her work as Secretary of the Liverpool DLP, having given up far higher paid work as a teacher. She detailed her involvement as a councilor in education, the urban regeneration strategy, in organizing support for the miners’ strike, and as a former activist in the National Union of Teachers. Even right wingers were forced to concede that she had made a big contribution to the labor movement in Merseyside. Yet they proceeded to expel her on the spurious grounds of “membership of Militant Tendency”. The evidence amounted to one leaflet signed by numerous Liverpool councilors, acknowledging the support given by Militant to the city council, and a public meeting in Winsford, at which she had spoken in an official capacity as a councilor.
So thin was the evidence of the NEC against her that Neil Kinnock dragged in by the hair the council’s “no-rate” policy. He was taken aback to learn that this policy had originated from Labour councils such as Sheffield, and had initially been opposed by Liverpool. He even suggested that the city council was being run by a “democratic centralist organization” and they wouldn’t let anybody else hold a position of secretary. Dennis Skinner reminded the meeting of the NEC’s “democratic” centralist imposition of George Howarth, as candidate in Knowsley North. On this occasion Michael Meacher voted against expulsion. After 60 wasted hours, therefore, the round of expulsions of Liverpool supporters was complete.
The Knowsley North by-election campaign was a mixture of tragedy and farce. The Liberal candidate, Rosemary Cooper, accused Howarth of “running away from Militant”. Howarth vehemently denied this, saying that he had bashed Militant and would bash as hard, if not harder, than the Liberals. The press used Labour’s divisions to demoralize Labour voters. The Guardian, for instance, while enthusiastically supporting the expulsion of Militant supporters, jibed at the imposition of Howarth on Knowsley North Labour Party.
Faced with a boycott from party members, apart from Militant supporters, the Kinnock leadership substituted the national party machine for an active rank and file. On November 6, Kinnock addressed a famous pre-election rally. As Militant reported on November 14, “Knowsley North’s pre-election rally must rate as the most secret in history. In Liverpool, election rallies have been 1000-plus strong and open to any party member or voter. Getting into the Kinnock rally in Kirkby was like getting out of Colditz.” Labour Party officials, aided by lines of police, turned away local party members. Kilfoyle, Merseyside’s Labour policeman, was on the door pointing out undesirables with the comment, “He is one of the comrades.” One blind man, the local leader of the blind and disabled, was dragged across the road outside by at least six policemen for trying to get near the door.
Yet even in this hand-picked audience there were protests. One interjection from the floor brought down on the head of the heckler the comments of a furious Kinnock: “You may be able to get away with shouting where you come from, but you’ve got the wrong man.” It was Kinnock who’d got the wrong man – it was the local vicar he attacked! After the meeting, according to his biographer, Michael Leapman, “Kinnock drove to the Derby Lodge at Huyton, the smartest hotel in the area, where he and his team from London were staying. He drank at the bar with Straw and some of the key campaign workers.” The next day “he disclosed how, at the Derby Lodge the night before, he had his first disappointing encounter with a Jacuzzi”. Kinnock and his entourage were as remote from the working people of Knowsley North and Liverpool as it was possible to be.
The campaign was conducted by the full-time party machine, with the aide of outside “yuppies”. The character of the “campaign workers’ was typified by an encounter which one of them had with a local fish and chip shop. Jack Straw had bought some mushy peas when one of the “yuppies” decided that he too would have some of “that avocado”! (Independent 18 November 1986)
The outcome of the election was an absolute disaster. Labour held the seat, but with a swing of 14 percent to the Liberals. The turnout fell from 69.5 percent to 57 percent. Labour’s share of the vote went down from 64.5 percent in 1983 to 56 percent. And this was proclaimed as a “triumph” by the right wing! The disaster of the Knowsley North by-election was a precursor for the general election in 1987. It was a fitting epitaph for the right wing’s campaign of expulsions against Militant supporters in Liverpool. The raison d’êtreof the witch-hunt was the prospect of massive electoral success for Labour. Instead, even more than 1983 it had divided Labour, turned the movement in on itself, and given the weapons to the bourgeois parties which they would successfully use against Labour in the run-up to the 1987 General Election. Marxism, however, was not crushed.
Temporarily weakened on the council plane, the support for Militant was being reinforced and extended industrially and above all among youth. No organizational measures are capable of defeating an idea whose time has come. Liverpool has indicated that the time of Marxism has come. The collapse of capitalism and the incapacity of the right wing to solve the problems of the working class provides a fertile soil upon which a mass, powerful Marxist movement will develop in Britain in the next period.