The very first article I published as a politics lecturer, over a decade ago, was a reinterpretation of Michael Foot’s handling of the Militant Tendency. In recent weeks, the Militant Tendency has, once again, been the subject of a great deal of media attention. Having a background as a Labour historian at this time has its advantages: it enables me to take a longer-term perspective on events, if nothing else. It also means that friends and comrades do put a lot of questions to me, and the two most common queries I have had, particularly from those who do not remember the party battles of the 1980s, are, quite simply, “What was the Militant Tendency?” and “What happened back then?”
Highly respected Labour historian Kenneth O. Morgan, in his biography of Michael Foot, described Militant in these terms: “This tiny group, whose guru was Ted Grant, originally of the Revolutionary Socialist League in Liverpool in 1955, had the aim of capturing the Labour Party for the cause of revolutionary socialism.” This is the nub of the issue: the difference between a belief in an extra-parliamentary route to a different society, and seeking a majority in Parliament to bring about social change.
In his book Militant, first published in 1984, Michael Crick traced the origins of the organisation back to the 1930s, when the Revolutionary Socialist League was politically active in the Labour League of Youth. In 1937, it became known as the Militant Labour League. Indeed, Grant himself had arrived in the UK from South Africa in the mid-1930s and had initially joined the Militant Labour League.
But it was in 1964 that Militant started to assume real significance, with the founding of the newspaper – The Militant. Peter Taafe was its editor. Militant then managed to secure the “Young Socialists” position on Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC). The alleged “entryism” of Militant led Labour’s NEC to commission Reg Underhill, the national agent, to produce a report on Militant’s activities by November 1975. There was, however, little appetite to take action. The Labour Government had lost its parliamentary majority by early 1976, and was grappling with deep economic problems in addition to its own parliamentary survival. The NEC voted 16-12 not to publish the report and take no further action, though Underhill was later to publish his thoughts and worries about Militant anyway, in the form of The Entryist Activities of the Militant Tendency, just before his retirement in 1981.
By this point, Michael Foot was party leader. In general, Foot had not been a supporter of enquiries into dissident activity. But he saw key differences between Militant’s modus operandi and that of other Labour figures of the past: “There was no secret conspiracy with Stafford Cripps or Aneurin Bevan…”. On 9 December 1981, Foot managed to secure – by a knife-edge 10-9 vote on the NEC’s Organisation Sub-Committee – a further investigation into Militant by General Secretary Ron Hayward and National Agent David Hughes. By the early 1980s, Militant had an estimated 5,000 members. Militant were also seeking to put its members forward as parliamentary candidates: for example, Pat Wall was selected for Bradford North in February 1982 after the deselection of the sitting MP.
Once the further investigation was complete, Hayward and Hughes reported in July 1982, stating that Militant’s entryist activities were confirmed. The proposal was for a “Register of Non-Affiliated Groups” so that Militant would have to apply and be approved by the NEC. Militant indeed applied, and was turned down in December 1982. Thus, in February 1983, the NEC took the decision to expel the known editorial board of Militant: Peter Taafe, Ted Grant, Lynne Walsh, Clare Doyle and Keith Dickinson.
This move proved to be a precursor to the action taken by Foot’s successor as party leader, Neil Kinnock. Liverpool was a key Militant base. Already dominant in the Liverpool District Labour Party, when Labour won a majority on the city council in 1983, Militant extended its influence onto the council itself, where the deputy leader was Militant’s Derek Hatton. The Council’s strategy was to defy central government, to spend big, and run a deficit budget. Meanwhile, the Tory government was seeking to control local government spending through rate-capping. The ultimate purpose was to put pressure on the government’s ability to govern. Initially, this seemed to work: in July 1984, the Conservative Government blinked first to avoid a confrontation, and offered an extra £30m in government grants to balance the budget. But in 1985 things became much worse. It appeared that the Council would be bankrupt by the end of the year, so, in September 1985, redundancy notices had, by law, to be sent out to all staff. Local trade union leaders refused to deliver the notices, and the Council was left having to use a fleet of taxis instead.
As this had happened just before the 1985 party conference in Bournemouth, Kinnock seized the moment, and made a powerful conference 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.”
An attempt to find a compromise – with a Labour local government team sent to Liverpool – failed, with Liverpool City Council rejecting the various measures put forward to shore up the council finances on 21 November 1985.
Six days later, on 27 November, the Liverpool District Labour Party was suspended, and a nine-member committee was set up to investigate allegations of malpractice and intimidation. Nothing was ever easy in this situation, and the committee produced two reports in February 1986, a Majority Report recommending expulsions and a Minority Report stating that the local party would be damaged by expulsions.
Kinnock backed the Majority Report, and several months followed, of disciplinary hearings, a High Court challenge and demonstrations outside party HQ. But, the expulsions were made, including that of Derek Hatton, and, in October 1986, all the expulsions were upheld by the party conference. Whilst a small number of Militant members remained MPs, Kinnock had succeeded in completing Foot’s work on removing the Militant influence in the Labour Party.
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.