Militant’s modus operandi

Keep ‘cybernat’ politics at bay

At 242 pages, Michael Crick’s book on Labour in the 1980s and how the far left dominated its politics, The March of Militant, is one of the shortest on this period of the party’s history. But I would argue it is one of the most important. Crick chronicles how this small sect left Labour further from power and its voters prey to the worst instincts of Margaret Thatcher. ‘Militant is more than a well organised and far-left Labour party pressure group’, he argues. ‘Its philosophy descends directly from Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and virtually nobody else.’

It is now top of my rereading pile as the party repeats history and its terrible consequences for working-class Britain. Why? Because not only does Crick retell the stories of Militant Tendency at its best/worst (delete as appropriate), he has a unique understanding of its modus operandi.

He chronicles the three-part process used to turn local parties in its favour. First, make the meetings boring. Flood the branches and constituency meet-ups 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 members of parliament, challenging the chair’s method and motive, defining the politics of the speaker before they have defined their own – all these things become the norm. A then Labour councillor and former Labour researcher from this time recalled to me being asked if they were ‘a supporter of the “anti-working class” Labour government’ when doing their general committee report during the 1980s. This behaviour basically reduced the attendance of the remaining sensible types. Then the meeting was Militant’s – or its local equivalent – to control.

Now for the pièce de resistance. Once the troublesome moderates – organised or otherwise – were out of the way, motions and debates on policy and political positions commenced. Each was passed almost by acclaim. No need for speeches against. If there was, it was to be taken by the pantomime villain from the rump of ‘Labour right’ attending membership. From here on it was easy and the minutes often reflect the result of debates as ‘unanimous’. Subsequent speeches at Labour gatherings – Labour party conference and the like – were narrated with how much support they got at constituency Labour party level.

In this leadership election we have seen this process on speed. The party has quickly become an unpleasant place for longstanding members, especially those loyal to the old order. We have let ‘cybernat’ politics into the Labour party and they police the internet for dissent from the new order. Not much difference is seen between supporters of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband. Each is some sort of Tory-lite sellout that must be cleansed from our system, or apologised for.

Militant was helped along the way by the apolitical and Buggins’-turn culture in local parties across country, particularly Liverpool. The Braddocks ran the city – husband (Jack, leader of the council) and wife (Bessie, MP for Liverpool Exchange) team ran the CLP as a fiefdom dominated by councillors and their family members. Crick recounts how newcomers, ‘were often told [Liverpool Labour] was “full up” at a time when membership in Liverpool was among the lowest in the country.’ The party in Merseyside was ‘intentionally kept poor to keep out the “wrong” sort of candidate’. This in turn led to ‘providing an ideal opportunity for Militant’. In this regard not a lot has changed: we have all been to these terrible meetings.

Moderates wanting to save Labour can do three things to hold back those who do not want meetings to be plural places. First, keep the meetings fun, lively and relevant – it is the only way to stop the boredom setting in. Second, invite a diverse set of speakers and welcome difference of opinion. And third, stamp out bullying and intimidation early. In the words of the Australian chief of army David Morrison speaking on ‘unacceptable behaviour’: The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.

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Richard Angell is director of Progress

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Comments: 10...

  1. On September 26, 2015 at 9:58 am Verity responded with... #

    Militant never attracted non party members like Corbyn does. The analogy of militant with Corbyn is a poor one.

  2. On September 26, 2015 at 12:26 pm Abernsmate responded with... #

    Militant were expelled from the Labour Party for having their own organisation within the Labour Party, for having their own publication with an ‘editorial board’ and ‘supporters’, and for organising caucuses and running slates. From an organisational perspective, very similar to Progress.

  3. On September 26, 2015 at 12:30 pm Mehmet responded with... #

    And if you want to see grim, adversarial, mean-spirited, bullying politics, come to Progress-led Haringey where party members are never allowed to question anything or express their own opinions. The party leadership packs rooms, manipulates votes, punishes critics, withdraws the whip, blacklists promising leaders, suspends union reps and chooses the dullest councillors to pack the cabinet. They have cut Children’s Centres and provision for autistic residents and given the money they have saved to middle class vanity projects. They have just awarded themselves a 6.6% pay increase too. So don’t lecture the left about bullying and corruption. Progress are an entryist organisation that would shock Militant.

  4. On September 26, 2015 at 9:44 pm David Lindsay responded with... #

    If Corbyn was a Militant, or anything remotely resembling one, then why was he not expelled? Two MPs were.

  5. On September 27, 2015 at 5:04 am Ray McHale responded with... #

    In the scramble to maintain your relevance Progress really can’t help itself. If in doubt fling allegations around. The point about Liverpool Council – with its minority of Militant supporting councillors – but solidarity as a Labour Group – was that it won elections in Liverpool, probably doubling the Labour vote over a few short years (regaining control of the council), and electing a Militant supporting MP in a notionally Tory seat in 1983 – when Labour were wiped out nationally. It built massive support amongst the local population – and not by discouraging involvement in the Party. When Councillors were removed due to surcharging and expulsion by Kinnock the Liberals and Tories regained control with a couple of years – and held it through-out the Blair / Brown years. Crick has probably never been to a Labour Party meeting in his life. As an LPYS member I went to meetings every week and campaigned in between. The notion that people were bored into not attending is rubbish. In the 80s my local Labour Party Branch had over 100 members – but 75% drifted away during the Blair era – disillusioned and dis-enfranchised. So now you claim the Party has been taken over by aggressive “cybernats”, and left wing infiltrators? So how come Jeremy won practically 50% of the votes of full members? The truth is members – all members – have been marginalised into fund raising, door knocking donkeys – by your project to seize control of the Party and to prevent any debate at meetings or conferences. But you made the mistake of allowing ordinary Party members the democratic right to elect a leader, and allowing a candidate onto the ballot paper who reflected the views of the majority of Party members – rather than the clique of MPs put in place by the Party machine. The result has not only be a revolution against your well-financed project, but a massive return of former members, and new young people in their floods. The membership has had one chance – and it has taken it – to grab back what you have prised from their fingers over 20 years. Party meetings are now packed – still with the same long serving officers and councillors, but also with a huge layer on new young people and people returning to the fold. And debate thrives. The notion that there was some organised campaign of abuse or intimidation is, as you well know, complete nonsense – but its the same narrative you used in the 80s. Support for Jeremy is a tidal wave – something all the hateful Tory press articles (many penned by Blairites and former Blairites), all the threats of disaster, all the assertions of electoral oblivion – couldn’t hold back. So write your snide little articles to undermine the new leadership – and the Party itself – , pocket your cheque from Lord Sainsbury, and we will let history be the judge. The right-wing have nowhere to go outside the Party – except oblivion. So do what Mr Mandelson tells you – shut up, and quietly plan your anti-democratic coup. We will see if you have the courage to risk your careers when the time comes.

    • On October 14, 2015 at 2:12 pm MrsBurgin responded with... #

      Ray, if this is how you speak to people at Labour party meetings – including threatening people’s jobs – then you absolutely prove Richard’s point.

      • On October 14, 2015 at 3:01 pm Ray McHale responded with... #

        So you think it is OK to write articles accusing those that you disagree with of bullying and driving people out through boredom – in the most generalised terms. If people want to make allegations – and harp back to 30 year old claims to back them up – then expect a response. Perhaps I should have said: “Oh that really isn’t very nice of you Richard, I am sorry those of you who have been making a nice living from Blairite control of the party, and the complete lack of democracy – are finding it difficult to come to terms with the democratic outcome of the leadership elections. Perhaps you can do what Mr Danczuk is doing and look to get paid lots of money to write for the Daily Mail attacking the new Party leadership.” There is nothing I have said there I wouldn’t feel comfortable saying at a Party meeting. Sorry you will have to explain how I am threatening anyone’s jobs.

  6. On September 27, 2015 at 10:44 pm BKendler responded with... #

    I find the tone of the article and the responses appalling. I did not vote for Jeremy but he won democratically so he is the Leader and that’s the end of the matter. As for Militant in Liverpool. That was a terrible period for the Party and we failed to help working people under attack from Thatcher. It took the bravery and courage of Neil Kinnock to deal with the Militant problem. If they come back then the Leader will have to throw them out again. The Labour Party, if you read its history, is not a Marxist movement and if you look at the track record of Marxist regimes around the world we do not want it to become Marxist now. The Labour Party has clear constitutional values of mutual respect so, I would suggest to all CLP chairs ANY member, whether they’re right, left, confused would silence any of them if they show disrespect to any other CLP Member.

  7. On September 28, 2015 at 12:20 am Alex Ross-Shaw responded with... #

    The article doesn’t mention Corbyn for a reason, as Progress make clear in other articles (repeatedly) they accept Corbyn himself is open and more pluralistic. Not everyone who has joined the party lately is of the same mind however. All this nonsense about Progress being an entryist organisation is embarrassing drivel – half the Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet of the last ten years have been prominent members and directors.

  8. On October 2, 2015 at 7:49 pm Alan Ji responded with... #

    I’ve never read Crick’s book; I don’t need to as I was one of the people who walked out of the Labour students Conference in January 1974. I think he interviewed several people I’ve known since my teens. “Militant” were removed from Labour students by 1976. “Militant”, now SPEW, is overtly trotskyist and Leninist.

    I think the author has glossed over some key differences between then and now. In the 1940s there was only one Trotskyist sect in the UK; Gerry Healy, Tony Cliff and Ted Grant were all members. They entered the Labour Party together. Healy’s SSL / WRP were expelled for hooliganism in the early 1960s. Cliff’s IS / SWP walked out. Grant’s RSL / SPEW were tiny when they began publishing a four-page monthly.

    You won’t find any trotskyist sects infiltrating Labour at the moment though you’d be wise to look out for them. I haven’t noticed any bad behaviour by anyone in recent meetings, only on-line. The people misbehaving on line may not be Labour members.

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