Two decades is a short time in politics

Posted on February 14, 2011 at 10:13 am,

I’ve been attending the Coventry Against the Cuts campaign meetings for a while, and one thing that’s been something of a feature of most meetings is the sniping between the Labour Party types and the Socialist Party types. After the most recent meeting, I went to the pub with the Socialists and, following conversation there, I’ve realised why the disagreements between them often seem to be emotionally charged. The reason is, essentially, that the relationship between these two groups is exactly the same as it was two decades ago.

The story starts when the New-Labour dominated Labour Party expelled the Militant Tendency (a Marxist faction within the party). One of Coventry’s MPs at the time – Dave Nellist – was a Militant member, and a large chunk of the party campaigned to help him get re-elected as an MP. In the event, Nellist lost by a small margin and his supporters were expelled from the Labour Party. However, some of the reasons why they were expelled were somewhat on the petty side – one member was told that being at a rally where Nellist was likely to be was sufficient grounds for expulsion. The ex-Militant people subsequently formed the Socialist Party.

It’s quite clear that the animosity between the two – which is clearly far deeper than simple disagreements about policy – has continued to the current day. The local election battle for St Michaels Ward, where the Socialists consistently hold somewhere between one and three seats, is always intense, heated, and allegedly dirty – which you wouldn’t expect if the two parties viewed each other as being broadly on the same side.

Labour, for the most part, seem stuck in the mindset that the only way to defeat Tory policies (including the current big issue of cuts) is to elect a Labour council/government, and that that should be the aim of left-wingers. They are also solidly New Labour in their political outlook. The Socialists consider Labour to be collaborating with Tory policies such as PFI schemes and the cuts (tomorrow, Labour are expected to vote through a council budget which does almost nothing to mitigate local government cuts). In short they think that Labour have sold out.

The moral of the story is that, whilst the “a week is a long time in politics” cliché is sometimes true, politics often moves at a glacial pace. Labour and the Socialists in Coventry are still fighting the same political battles with each other (and with the Tories) that they were fighting two decades ago, and there’s no prospect of that changing unless the political scene in Coventry suffers a significant shake-up.

Note: if you are a member of either local party and think I’ve misrepresented things, please correct me in the comments. This post is simply the impression I’ve picked up from observation over the last couple of years where I’ve actually been involved in local politics, and isn’t intended to denigrate anybody on either side.

7 Comments

  1. Dave Toulson
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Just a couple of quick points,
    -Firstly Militant were expelled from the party in 1991, 3 years prior to Blair’s adding the New to Labour. Militant were first targeted by Kinnock in his famous 1985 conference speech in 1985 after the mess they made in Liverpool
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWLN7rIby9s
    -Our comrades in Militant are forever talking about Liverpool council as a Militant success story. What they don’t talk about is the failure of the Militant to make real long lasting positive changes for the people of Liverpool. For all there grandstanding and outright intimidation of voters, Militant lost out in subsequent elections. As a sidebar you should ask Comrade Nellist why he didn’t attend Terry Fields funeral, many of his former comrades are pretty angry about that.
    -Nellist did lose by a small margin, but he also came third behind the Tory candidate in 92
    -The fact is that Militant Tendency, in their 10 years in St. Michael’s Ward have done nothing of value, for the people of the ward. Since the election of Jim O’Boyle in 2007, St. Michaels has become cleaner, safer and more dynamic than ever before. Whilst the lightweight Lenin’s and tinpot Trotsky’s of Militant dream of the Revolution, the Labour campaign group spent this week informing St. Michaels residents of a consultation on Gosford Green.

    In many senses you are quite right, the fissure between ourselves in Labour and Militant Tendency are long rooted and quite bitter. What i would say though is that we represent the true face of Democratic Socialism in Britain, whilst Militant at its heart is Stalinist and deeply sectarian. In fact i would go as far as to say that Militant in Coventry is little more than a cult of personality around the personage of Nellist. As somebody who has also attended these Coventry Against the Cuts meetings, i have for my part, often been dismayed by the willingness of Nellist to try and split the movement. Which is something the the General Secretary of Unite, Len McClusky, has expressly condemned
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/dec/19/unions-students-strike-fight-cuts

    I will make the case for Labour in Coventry. Firstly i implore you to contrast the councils budget with the Conservative councillors shadow budget. This Labour Council, despite centrally imposed hardships is still comitted to public service.

    As a party member i assure you that it is with a heavy heart that i see our Labour Council have to implement cuts. However there is no alternative. To set an illegal budget would be foolish for two reasons; firstly this will be playing into Tory hands, Eric Pickles made a name for himself breaking Labour Local authorities, if Coventry set an illegal budget then we would see the powers of our elected representatives destroyed in favour of undemocratic Tory administrators who impose much greater cuts upon us. More importantly though is that we cannot play politics with peoples jobs and services. Like in Liverpool before and echoed in the WATCH debaccle today, Militant are happy to play with peoples lives and their essential services in order that they can present themselves as righteous martyrs for the labour movement.

    The problem is one of putting the cart before the horse. Militant think that their Politics comes before people, that the people need Militant. The fact of the matter is that politicians need people. Labour works with people, listening to their needs, not simply parroting iron clad credos of the 1960s, but seeking to settle the needs of the people in the here and now.

    In conjunction with the Unions, who Nellist is also quick to criticise when it suits him, Coventry’s Labour members are going to work hard to bring jobs to Coventry. Meanwhile Dave Nellist will continue to throw stones almost blindly, with little or no responsibility as his mandate on the council decreases ever more.
    Yours Fraternally
    Dave Toulson
    Labour Party Member

  2. Stephen Gray
    Posted February 19, 2011 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for putting the Labour Party perspective on this one.

    In response the “New Labour project” is generally agreed to have begun with Kinnock’s reforms, and I think it’s fair to apply the label to that era, even if it wasn’t coined for a few years after Militant began to be targeted.

    As somebody who’s on neither side in this particular partisan battle, I’ve got the impression that both sides are culpable for it, and the damage done as a result. There still seems to be an attitude in the Labour Party that you are the only alternative to the Tories, when there are other left-wing parties, and when elections aren’t the only way to achieve change. That attitude makes it harder for the rest of us to work with you, even where there isn’t the bad history that exists between you and the Socialists.

    Also it’s worth point out that, when you’re accused of being half-hearted in opposing the cuts, the fact that your national party still supports the principle of cuts makes that mud more likely to stick. Especially when you are repeating the position that the cuts are too deep and too quick (as opposed to being unnecessary and ideological – as both I and my party believe) in the leaflets you’re delivering locally.

    Also, I appreciate the dilemma you’re in with regards to council budgets, and I appreciate you clarifying your party’s position.

    Overall, I’m just not convinced that the split in question (and the way it has surfaced in the local anti-cuts campaign) is primarily due to the actions of the Socialists/former Militant Tendency. From the outside, it looks like six of one and half a dozen of the other.

    Yours,
    Stephen Gray

  3. Posted March 14, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Dear Stephen,
    I was interested in your piece. I’m afraid I think you’ve got the key issue wrong.
    I don’t think it is deliberate, though you do refer to ‘sniping’ which is written as a condemnation. I’m hoping that isn’t because you started with a pre-conceived narrative of ‘look at these 2 terrible warring groups. What naughty boys, arguing for years and getting nowhere’ which can then be tut-tutted by you and allows you to draw the “moral of the story” that “Labour and the Socialists in Coventry are still fighting the same political battles with each other.. that they were fighting two decades ago, and there’s no prospect of that changing unless the political scene in Coventry suffers a significant shake-up”. Presumably meaning: support your Green Party.

    I was however, appalled by Labour’s Dave Toulson, who gets it horribly wrong. But like New Labour spin, it is deliberate. He makes a series of wild allegations about the 1980’s Liverpool council which I’ll touch on later, but first Stephen, your more serious point about the division between Socialists and Labour.

    Is it the same old argument? You say we ‘are still fighting the same battles’ and “the relationship between these two groups is exactly the same as it was two decades ago. It’s quite clear that the animosity between the two – which is clearly far deeper than simple disagreements about policy – has continued to the current day.”

    But the truth is different. Take just one event. Two weeks ago the funeral of former Labour city councillor Joan Ward took place. A quick look at Joan’s last 20 years suggests that your conclusion is inaccurate.
    In 1991, Joan was one of 2 or 3 people who gave ‘evidence’ to Kinnocks’ witch-hunters to help expel Dave Nellist and then to have to close Coventry South East Labour Party because of its massive opposition to that.
    Joan, like many others at the time, would probably ‘have sold their soul’ to get rid of Thatcher’s Tories with all the damage they were doing to working people, so desperate were they to see a change.

    But here’s the flaw in your script that the same people have been at war for 2 decades. Because within 6 years Joan was voting for and helping Dave’s election as a Socialist councillor in St Michaels Ward.
    Clearly we are not at war with the same people! Why would she and fellow councillor/husband Charlie Ward do that? Because they were furious at the lack of change, with New Labour pursuing Tory policies, policies which Dave Toulson defends. So it’s not Stephens ‘old warriors fighting it out’. Others who helped in Dave’s expulsion also give the socialists support now.

    Of course there’s some truth in ‘the old battles’ picture. If class exploitation, and rule by a tiny ruling class continues (I assume none of us doubt that?) then so will many of the arguments around what to do about it. The debate in the Labour Party was around whether you changed the system or tried to reform it bit by bit.

    But after 1991/2 the argument has moved on. New Labour don’t even try to reform capitalism bit by bit, but have wholeheartedly bought into the market/neo liberal economic order. Hence they were found guilty of encouraging the bankers in their destruction of the economy and public services.
    Labour says it too would make huge cuts – making working people, youth and pensioners pay for the billionaires crisis rather than take over the banks.

    Others of Joan’s generation opposed Socialist Party politics, but today many of them find themselves closer to our politics than a Labour Party they find unrecognisable. The scorn with which a number of former Labour councillors hold the current council for its utter failure to resist Tory cuts (their words, not ours) is far fiercer than anything you hear from us. Don’t ask us, ask them!
    So the argument is not between the same old people, but with an entirely different Labour Party that accepts the market and the needs of the wealthiest over the needs of the people.
    There is a party that calls itself Labour that still gets many working peoples votes, but that’s from past memories rather than current record. There is no party fighting for the interests of working people. No wonder so many working people feel no-one speaks for them, that ‘they’re all the same’. How else would you explain socialist victories in St Michaels?

    I should add one final point on ‘animosity between the two -which is clearly far deeper than simple disagreements about policy’. I don’t recognise this. Of course, older Labour Party members must speak for themselves, but few, if any, of us have poor relations with each other. We know each other well and understand these were political issues.

    Now, Dave Toulsons’ ridiculous remarks. Too young to know about the events here or in Liverpool he repeats lies from the book of Neil Kinnock like a 7 year old prince who so wishes he’d been part of the glorious war against the socialists that he runs around the palace waving his plastic sword in the air.
    In swashing his buckle, with his childish insults of ‘lightweight Lenins and tinpot Trotskys’, he merely reveals Labours’ nervousness over their failure to resist Tory government cuts, by attacking the 1980’s Liverpool Council that successfully defied Thatcher.

    Nervous because as peoples’ anger over cuts grows they know there will be growing demands for action to defeat government and council cuts, action Labour don’t seem prepared to take. Dave hopes he will still pass through the heavenly gates if he assures us it is ‘with a heavy heart that I see our Labour Council have to implement cuts’.
    There would have been an argument in the old Labour Party about how to fight the cuts. But the argument is different now. He claims that there is no way to fight back, but that’s a smoke screen, the real issue is Labour don’t oppose all the cuts. The system demands cuts, Labour now supports the system and as we know, Labour planned to make huge cuts too.
    All that’s different is Dave Toulson-type Labour hope the Tories will take all the flak for cuts and Labour will get their places at the political trough back. Now to use Dave’s words, that really is playing ‘politics with peoples’ jobs and services’.

    Liverpool Council. That’s why Labour wants to throw sand in peoples eyes about Liverpool Council. Dave says they failed ‘to make long lasting positive changes for the people of Liverpool.’ Oh, the arrogance of a young man who knows little of it.
    I could ask the current Liverpool Labour council how voting for £millions of cuts is going to make a long lasting improvement, but I’ll just ask whether the 1980’s council’s new sports centres, new schools and parks, slum clearance and building over 5000 good quality homes isn’t a long lasting improvement? Done at a time when hardly another council home was being built in the entire country, and the inaction of all governments over the last 25 years has left an appalling housing shortage.

    Again, don’t take our word for it. Forgive the length but let’s take 3 recommendations from opponents of Militant, now Socialist Party. First, the ‘Times’ from 1984, on ‘does fighting back work’?
    Its editorial headlined ‘DANEGELD IN LIVERPOOL’ said: “today in Liverpool municipal militancy has been vindicated… a third rate provincial politician, has made the government give way. (they) threatened a course of disruptive action. Their reward is the abrogation of financial targets which 400 other local authorities have been told were immutable…in order to buy off Militant”. Clearly, like Dave Toulson, Thatchers’ mouthpiece was not happy with Liverpool Councils’ victory, but they didn’t deny it happened!

    Now Lord Underhill, himself the organiser of Labours’ witch-hunt against Militant. “As president of the Association of Metropolitan Authorities….I went to see the effect of Liverpool’s regeneration strategy. The 5 year plan is to get rid of outdated and substandard housing, the crumbling tenements and soulless system built tower blocks. Already 3,800 separate homes with their own private gardens and nearby street parking … improved street layouts with tree lined residential roads are planned. We saw the start of the 10 acre park at Everton and the initial development of other local parks. There are to be seven support centres, three have just been opened. The scheme will provide work for 12,000 with side effects producing further 1000’s of jobs. Without commenting on the rating system, how much is being saved to the treasury by this employment?”

    Final quote from last autumn: Simon Jenkins of the Times. ‘The most distinctive feature of the militant Left’s rule of Liverpool in the Eighties was its impact on urban renewal. Responding to the local public, the council smashed most of the hated towers to the ground and left neighbourhood groups to plan their replacements. The result was no more decks, stairwells and broken lifts set in windy parks, as dictated by professional architects. Instead people decided to revert to terrace houses, like those taken from them in the Sixties. It was an object lesson in democracy.’ An ‘object lesson in democracy’! That hardly fits Dave’s ‘Stalinist’ description of us.

    If that’s what our opponents think, it doesn’t need me to explain why so many local people (and Labour Party members around the country) strongly supported Liverpool’s socialist council, or to explain why New Labour today still fears the Liverpool events.

    Huge support for Liverpool Council. While Dave disgracefully talks of ‘outright intimidation of voters’ (we ought because of his ignorance of events to give him the chance to retract that remark to save him the need to consult his lawyers) but enough to say that the Militant-led council won spectacular election successes, including the biggest Labour vote in post war history (in a city with a much reduced population). Their vote rose from 46,488 in 1978 to 54,780 in 1982, 77,000 in ‘83 and a landslide 90,187 in ‘84. There must have been a mighty intimidation regime to force Scousers, not known for their timidity, to vote like that!

    The attraction of socialist policies was admitted by former Liberal council leader Sir Trevor Jones, “The Labour Party has raised the political consciousness of the people. That is why we had such a high vote.” Tom Sawyer Labour’s national organiser said: “I defy anyone to tell me how you can go to Liverpool and defeat Militant by argument”(!) Trevor Jones further admitted he was: “astonished by results in Liverpool. the only way to end militants rule in Liverpool is to abolish the Labour Party in this City”. Which, of course, Neil Kinnock did for them!

    And before Dave offers a defence along the lines of ‘that was votes for Labour’ the Liverpool Echo said after another huge win for the Council in 1986: “However experts may analyse the votes there was not a shadow of a doubt that… results were a success for Militant….no scouser could be under any illusion that a vote for Labour was a vote for Militant”
    In the 1987 Liverpool won the biggest swing to Labour, while Neil Kinnock took Labour to another defeat. Anthony King said: “Liverpool has declared political UDI” Lord Tebbitt commented: “Quite extraordinary. It’s going to take quite a lot of thinking about for all of us”
    Given the choice it was quite clear what kind of ‘Labour’ working people preferred.

    One more issue. Dave says: “The fact is that Militant Tendency, in their 10 years in St. Michael’s Ward have done nothing of value, for the people of the ward. Since the election of Jim O’Boyle in 2007, St. Michaels has become cleaner, safer and more dynamic than ever before.” Ever?! And cleaner? Dave obviously doesn’t live round here!

    To suggest that St Michaels became California upon Jimmy O’Boyle’s election is an insult to anyone’s intelligence. The previously neglected St Michaels Ward (it’s previous Labour councillors were disciplined for non-attendance at council meetings and defected to the Tories…) has elected socialists since 1998, and we’ll stand our record up against anyone’s.
    From the series of public protests we organised that led to winning £millions for Far Gosford St, to the parking scheme, funds for festivals and defending public access to the fields in the Charterhouse area, to new parks, preventing demolitions and trying to save the Cov & Warwicks hospital in Hillfields. From being the only ones to oppose a PFI hospital, or Labour’s privatisation of council housing or closure of Post Offices we have stood up for people. It was our councillors who from day one opposed the Labour councils’ plans to build a monster incinerator at Whitley.

    In conclusion, what is true about ‘lasting improvements’, be it in St Michaels, Liverpool or anywhere, is they are always in jeopardy as long as the profit system dominates our lives. Look how the markets, here and across the globe, demand the taking back of every post war improvement in ordinary working peoples conditions, be it swimming pools, libraries, our health service or pensions.
    Those reforms were being undermined by the previous Labour administration and now with glee by the Tory-Lib Dem toffs. It is sad that Labour who once stood to resist and change all that, now goes along with it. (Dave. How many Labour MP’s opposed the huge pensions cuts proposed by the government last week?)

    Dave’s attacks are a poor attempt to excuse their failures and to try to keep some of their voters.
    The ‘moral of my tale’? If you want to fight back; if you really want to ’shake up the political scene in Coventry’ and beyond, then join the socialists.
    We don’t just ‘mouth’, and we don’t just argue as ‘warring factions’ or for the sake of it, but in order to be able to do something about it as we did in Liverpool and in leading the downfall of the Poll Tax, or even getting Far Gosford Street done up.

    Best wishes, Dave Griffiths,
    St Michaels Ward Socialist Party,

  4. Roy
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    I would very much concur with Dave Griffiths account of the history of the Militant/Socialist Party rather then an apologist of New Labour – who were in power for 13 years and are responsible for many of the neolibaralist policies continuing under the CONDEM Government.

    If I could takes these point up;

    ‘The story starts when the New-Labour dominated Labour Party expelled the Militant Tendency (a Marxist faction within the party).’

    By far, most local parties were on the left and the left was growing within the Trade Unions – Some of the old right could not stomach being held to account as MP’s to the people who did all the hard work and got them elected and so tried to kill the Labour Party by forming the SDP – without resigning their seats – the whole point of the exercise – these people largely rejoined when Blair became leader.

    The others right MP’s decided the best way forward was to try to forget Thatcher crimes and instead to turn the Labour Party in on itself by witch hunting the left to save their own skins – If the Labour Party could not be ‘reformed’ it was no skin of their noses if it was destroyed as long as they kept their careers going – Jack Straw was one of the first to latch onto this concept as was Blair himself in left wing Sedgefield who got selected as a PCC to everyones suprised except those who signed up all new delegates for the contest.

    In steps Kinnock who with the support of a number of right wing trade unions eventually as we know did most of the expelling and closing down of local parties – into the sterile empty organisation it is still largely today as Dace Griffiths put it ‘There is a party that calls itself Labour that still gets many working peoples votes, but that’s from past memories’ And also the reason you find so many ex Labour Party members in the Green Party!

  5. Stephen Gray
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your comments. What I posted is basically the impressions of somebody who’s relatively new to the local political scene, and reflects how it comes across to somebody who’s had no involvement in the history of the conflict between the two parties. Many of the comments that have been made (from both sides) in the debate give the impression that there’s more to this divide than mere policy isses – even if that wasn’t the intention of the people making those comments. Perhaps I’ve misinterpreted things.

    I also wasn’t intending to suggest that there wasn’t anybody who crossed between the two camps, or that all of the players stayed the same throughout. Even when it’s at its most tribalist, politics usually has some people switching teams occasionally.

    And I agree with both you and Roy that Labour is no longer a party of the left (although it still has many left-wingers at the grassroots level) and it’s left to parties like the Socialists and the Greens to put genuine left-wing ideas forward, and to try to shake up the system so that those ideas have a chance of becoming policy.

  6. Winston Smith
    Posted March 14, 2011 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    I agree completely with Dave Griffiths’ comment. For me, the worst part of Dave Toulson’s comment was the blatant lie that Dave Nellist did not attend Terry Fields’ funeral. They were really close friends, and shared a parliamentary office for 9 years. Terry stayed with the SP after Militant was expelled from Labour, and was close with Dave until his death. The accusation that he did not attend his funeral is both hurtful and cheap.

  7. Andrew Smith
    Posted April 15, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink

    The real split between Militant and Labour is because Militant are Marxists who aim to bring about a revolution. That this is incompatible with the aims of the Labour Party (whether you call it “Old”, “New” or anything else) which, like all mainstream political parties, sees public service (and I mean public service, not simply elected office) as an end in itself, should not be a shock.

    Trying to define the divide in terms of the details of policy, particularly council policy, or in terms of the ongoing fall-out from the Militant infiltration in the 80s, or in terms of ideological positions within the Labour Party seems pretty pointless when the reasons for political engagement are so fundamentally different.

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