The Militant Tendency and the 1970’s and 80’s

In the second of three articles on the role of the far left within politics, broadcaster and author Martin Plaut explores the rise of the Militant Tendency faction in the 1970's and 1980's.

The rise of the Militant Tendency in the 1970’s and 80’s, and the fight against it, is probably etched on the memories of everyone who experienced it. It can be traced back to four key issues.

  1. The far left was in at the formation of the Labour Party in 1900, until the Social Democratic Federation left. Some Marxists established their own parties – like the Communist Party of Great Britain and its successors. Others accepted Leon Trotsky’s analysis of 1934 that parties of the far left would only succeed by entering and taking over mass based social democratic parties. This was termed ‘entryism’. The origins of Militant go back to the 1950’s and one such Trotskyist group – the Revolutionary Socialist League.
  2. Disillusionment among Labour members about the achievements of Labour leaders. Labour governments under Wilson (1964 – ’70, 74 – 76) and Callaghan (1976 – ‘79) had won power, but had always kept the far left at bay. Ordinary members felt they had little say in the direction of the party. The leader was selected solely by the Parliamentary Party and the resolutions passed at party conference were often ignored, as irrelevant or impractical.
  3. The economic crisis of the 1970’s and ‘80’s saw one industry after another collapse. British Leyland finally closed in ’86, despite years of state aid. The miners strikes of 1969, ’72 and ’84-85, left many wondering if capitalism really was on its last legs.
  4. The long tenure of the Tories under Margaret Thatcher (1979 – ’90) made it seem there was no parliamentary road to socialism.

Just how a tiny far-left group capitalised on these to pose a threat to Labour can be read in Nick Thomas-Symonds’s article – A history of Militant entryism in the Labour Party. []

Militant’s progress was at first tolerated by Labour leader Michael Foot, but in the end, he realised they had to be resisted. By then Militant and their allies had a strong hold on the party. Two Militant MPs were elected: Terry Fields and Dave Nellist. Militant also took over the Labour Party Young Socialists, which helped them recruit members. It was only with the greatest difficulty that Foot persuaded the National Executive to investigate Militant in 9 December 1981.

in February 1983, the NEC expelled the known members of the “editorial board” of Militant – in reality their central committee. These included Ted Grant. The group still had a tight grip on Liverpool. The Militant controlled Council tried to defy central government, to run a deficit budget irrespective of Tory government constraints. By September 1985 the Council was going bankrupt and redundancy notices were sent to all staff.

This gave Neil Kinnock (Labour leader 1983 – ’92) the chance he needed. At the 1985 conference he made a speech attacking Militant.

 “I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.  They start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that: outdated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs.  And you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour Council – a Labour Council – hiring taxis, to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices, to its own workers.”

The tide had turned. In October 1986 Kinnock persuaded the party to expel Militant.

As Thomas-Symonds’ argues: “In doing so, Kinnock was giving a stark reminder of the choice made by the Labour leaders after the First World War. The 1918 Labour Party Constitution, drafted only months after the Russian Revolution, made clear the Labour Party’s governing purpose: ‘to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.’  It was parliamentary socialism, not revolutionary socialism.”

How did Militant do it?

Militant was a true party-within-a-party, with its own members, meetings and rigid discipline. It ran summer camps at which ideology and tactics were discussed. This allowed their members (some 5,000 in the early ‘80’s) to control party meetings. Part of the strategy involved what are termed “transitional demands.” These are issues that are beyond the achievement of any elected MP or Councillor, and are used to discredit them in the eyes of ordinary members.

This gives a flavour of how control was achieved.

“First, make the meetings boring. Flood the branches and constituency meetings with procedural requests, the minutes of the last meeting and process.

This turns off the faint-hearted. Those with better things to do - attend to their family, careers or community groups - simply no longer turn up.

Part two: make the event adversarial. Uncomradely questions to sitting councillors and the MP, challenging the chair's method and motive, defining the politics of the speaker before they have defined their own - all these things to become the norm. 

This behaviour basically reduces the attendance of the remaining sensible types. Then the meeting [is] ours to control.

Now for the piece de resistance. Once the troublesome moderates - organised or otherwise - are out of the way, motions and debates on policy and political positions will commence. Each will pass almost by acclaim. 

No need for speeches against. If there is, allow it to be taken by the pantomime villain from the rump of "Labour right" attending membership. 

From here on it will be easy and the minutes often reflect the result of debates as "unanimous". 

Subsequent speeches at Labour gatherings - Labour party conference and the like - will then be narrated with how much support they got at constituency Labour party level.” 

This 1981 documentary is worth watching.

Martin Plaut is a South African/British journalist and historian, who worked for the BBC World Service for 27 years. He is currently Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies.

He tweets at @martinplaut

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