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Labour v the Militant tendency (as seen on TV, not for the faint-hearted)

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 were 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 traveled 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

This article first appeared at All that is Solid


  1. Jon Lansman says:

    I found this truly horrible to watch, what with Taffe and Mulhearn lying about the real nature of Militant’s organisation, taunting others for breaking their mandates when their supporters never respected their mandates, but also John Spelllar looking like an extra from the set of Spooks and sounding like the hard-right ruthless professional apparatchik that he was (and of course still is), and all in a hall packed with Militant supporters.

    Militant loved their moment in the limelight but they didn’t deserve it. They had contributed nothing but obstruction and sectarianism to the advances the left made in that period, and they burnt out much of that generation of young activists.

    We opposed the witch-hunt not because we liked them but because we knew that it was really aimed at the Left mainstream and so it proved.

    1. James Martin says:

      The strength of Militant, unlike nearly all of the left before and since (with the exception of the original CPGB) is that they were predominately a working class organisation. I was in Liverpool in the 80s/90s, and a member of the DLP and Broad Left. We had 1,000 plus people regularly attending big DLP/BL meetings at one time (of which prob around 400-odd were Militant comrades). And they were the best and most active sections of the working class, and predominately shop stewards from all the unions. And what was achieved? New parks, sports centres and thousands of good quality new council homes with affordable rents. And then there was the principled sacrifices. The wonderful and much missed Terry Fields who never took more than a firefighters wage as an MP and never left his own council house being sent to Walton prison in the battle to end the Poll Tax. 47 councillors bankrupted and blacklisted for refusing to implement cuts.

      Yes, they made mistakes. Yes, they could be sectarian. But judged on what for a short time the ability to influence their results were a damn sight better than most of the soft left at the time who failed to connect to the working class in a serious way.

      The tragedy was the majority failed to see changed circumstances for what they were and willingly and mistakenly walked out of the Party to indulge in sect-building. The result of that is that the majority of both Militant and non-Militant activists left politics (I doubt more than a 10th of the thousands who attended the Liverpool Broad Left are still active) and so places like Liverpool have been suffering the consequences ever since.

  2. John Griffin says:

    I was a member in Nottingham during that period and Militant cost us the opposition to the fauxTory Kinnockites and ultimately BLiar, as those lefties that fought Militant were used, then sidelined, as the BLiar machine developed. When I first saw BLiar at a meeting, one of the local oldboys asked what the ToryBoy was doing there.

  3. Barry Ewart says:

    Depressing to watch and I think I may have been at that Conference. It bought back many memories and perhaps the clip should have had a subtitle,’Don’t worry working people, this has absolutely nothing to do with you!’ As someone on the independent left I felt, ‘A Plague on both of your houses!’ A horrible and safe ‘Right’who just wanted a few crumbs for working people and who were to probably later to spawn the SDP coup of New Labour, and a sectarian dishonest group who had read one book (Trotsky) and who it could be argued were bourgeois socialists – top down with an elite central committee and with a ready made programme with all the answers and all we had to do was to follow their leadership! I remember Militant in my city as they bit by bit tried to get their resolutions through branches and recruit (I turned them down, coming from a poor family I was wary about rushing into the arms of groups with all the answers and although young I thought they would be a bit of a straight jacket and although niaive at times I was trying to be an independent socialist thinker) and before you knew it you had quite a bit of their programme as policy around the city. I also remember a young nurse at a Regional Labour Conference making a passionate speech on the NHS and she had the audience in the palm of her hand but then finished by rolling off Militants key demands to an audible groan from the audience! Militant also tried to make you feel guilty, you weren’t on the left if you didn’t support them. But in the end I would argue Militant failed because they were fundamentally dishonest – they were a party in a party and they were practising entry-ism. I think in the end many on the independent left were just sick of them and were happy to passively see them wither away. But I was to personally discover broader reading such as the excellent Paulo Freire and Paul Frolich’s biography of Rosa Luxemburg and Rosa hit the nail on the head for me suggesting that the best thing we can all bring to the table is independent critical thinking. Perhaps the failings of the early socialist leaders from Lenin (would be Leader Trotsky) to Mass Murder Stalin to Mao et al is that they were bourgeois socialists – they took power for themselves when genuine socialist leaders would have been facilitators – keeping the power with the mass of working people. As a democratic socialist I would argue we should be campaigning for a grassroots, bottom up, participatory, peaceful, democratic socialism and should be ambitious for and with working people as I argue in my posts here. Yours in solidarity!

  4. Syzygy says:

    This took me back to a 1982 joint Women’s Section meeting, organised with local CLPs and held in Brighton Kemptown. It was easy to tell who were the Militant supporters because they disapproved so much of my taking my extremely small (sleeping) baby to the meeting.

    Sisterly, it was not. As you write Jon:

    ‘(Militant) had contributed nothing but obstruction and sectarianism to the advances the left made in that period..’

    Nevertheless, I opposed the Militant witch-hunt because it was clearly intended to neutralise the left mainstream … and what a mess, the then successful rightwing have left for politics in 2015.

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