First publish in Progress magazine
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.
Richard Angell is director of Progress