The Limits of Colour-Blind Marxism

Diane Frost & Peter North, Militant Liverpool: A City on the Edge

Liverpool University Press, 218pp, £14.99, ISBN 9781846318634

reviewed by David Renton

For supporters of today’s Socialist Party (previously ‘Militant Labour’, or just ‘Militant’) the Militant-led Labour council of 1983-1987 is one of the proudest moments in the whole history of the British working class. It was a ‘historic event’ on the scale of Chartism or the Paris Commune. It was one of just two occasions when Margaret Thatcher’s government suffered a setback: ‘No other section of the British working class, apart from the miners in 1981, humbled the government in such a fashion.’

An alternative viewpoint was expressed by a 20-year-old Channel Four comedy, GBH, written by the playwright Alan Bleasdale, in which the Militant-run council is led by Robert Lindsay, playing the council’s real-life leader Derek Hatton as unstable, arrogant and womanising, with a twitchy left eye and a spasm in his left shoulder which keeps sending his arm shooting into the air making Nazi salutes. Far from being historic or even merely admirable, in this version of events Militant was a cut-price British fascism germinating within Labour, like the old British fantasy about Mussolini - not competent enough to be truly sinister, instead just silly.

In Militant Liverpool, Diane Frost and Peter North take the novel approach of carefully evaluating Militant’s record, neither as insiders nor as opposed critics. They have interviewed many of the remaining 47 councillors, as well as a range of other voices, from Militant’s opponents in the unions, to figures such as Peter Kilfoyle, the Labour MP who led the local campaign to force Hatton and co out, and Steve Munby and Gideon Ben-Tovim of the Communist Party, who worked closely with Kilfoyle.

Their account is appreciative of a series of practical reforms introduced by the Militant councillors, including the building of leisure centres, nurseries and schools, let alone 5,000 new homes, increased spending on lighting, and the retention in-house of old people’s homes, while navigating a middle course between the views of Militant’s supporters (that confrontation with the government was necessary) and its opponents (that the government came off a clear winner in the struggle, and that Militant mishandled key moments including, crucially, the council’s budget crisis).

A key problem for Militant was that while its politics formally were those of workers’ control, its support among the council workers’ unions NALGO and NUPE was uneven at times, and tepid in particular in autumn 1985 when the council - having set an illegal budget - made all its workers redundant, in a move to try to force the government to increase its funds. It was this spectacular mistake which Neil Kinnock attacked at Labour’s 1985 conference (‘the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council, hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers’) enabling figures such as Kilfoyle to pose as the workers’ friends. From this episode on, Hatton and his allies were always in retreat.

You might have thought that any left-wing council would have worked more closely with the unions than anyone, but relations between Militant and its council workers had been sour for some time, going back to the ‘Sam Bond affair’ in 1984. Part of the context is that Militant had long espoused a variety of Marxism in which the oppression suffered by workers was seen as the only meaningful division in society. Sam Semoff, one of Militant’s left critics, explained the mentality as follows:

‘To give you an example of sexism, we used to have discussions over a woman’s right to choose. From the Militant point of view, it was only about working class women, if you weren’t working class you could afford an abortion so it wasn’t an issue. It was that kind of mentality and of course that carried over very much into racism. You didn’t challenge racism per se, you challenged capitalism. If you did away with capitalism you wouldn’t have a problem with racism…’

The councillors disagreed.

‘Militant had never presented the issue of race or the struggle against racism in the crude fashion portrayed by its opponents. Militant argues there is a special oppression of black people, as with women, in capitalist society. But in the final analysis these problems are rooted in the class nature of society ... By simply posing as a solution to the problems of black people the redistribution of the existing number of jobs from white to black, the trendy left and their allies were advancing a formula for fratricidal strife within the working class.’

We might reinterpret this analysis as follows: yes, black people suffer racism, but in so far as anyone benefits from this, it is only the ruling class. No white worker ‘benefits’ from racism (e.g. by being appointed to a job which might otherwise go to a black worker). Policies to redress for example, the low recruitment of black workers to core jobs with employers such as the council, are flawed because they rely on an unspoken analysis that white workers are ‘privileged’ in relation to black workers. Such ideas, so the argument goes, can only divide and are hostile to any move towards socialism.

Before taking over the council, Militant supporters opposed demands for anti-discrimination policies, the monitoring of recruitment by race and gender, the provision of specialist housing services for members of particular black and minority ethnicities, saying that black people would be more than adequately protected in jobs and housing if only the trade unions took over the management of these services.

On taking over the council, Militant inherited a commitment to establish a Race Relations Unit with a Principal Race Relations Adviser. Having spoken to its head office in London as to how to deal with this appointment, Derek Hatton promoted the candidacy of a black Militant supporter in London, Sam Bond. Hatton did not disclose to the panel that Bond was a Militant supporter. He held back Bond’s covering letter from the short-listing panel. There were already in Liverpool, a number of black community organisations, and there was in particular a Black Caucus in the council. Militant appeared to have lobbied in advance for the selection of their candidate over one put forward by the Black caucus, and both Militant and non-Militant Labour councillors responded warmly to Bond telling the panel that he opposed equality policies, opposed the monitoring of recruitment for racial bias, etc.

Bond’s recruitment let to protests by other workers, and an occupation of Hatton’s office, and began the dynamic of attrition and mutual dislike by which NALGO and NUPE became permanently opposed to the Militant council.

With the advantage of 30 years' hindsight, Hatton at least can admit that the selection of Bond was a mistake, unlike his erstwhile comrades, who maintain that Bond was opposed only by a ‘petit-bourgeois clique’: ‘the “race relations industry", the sects on the fringes of the labour movement, the Churches and latterly all those bourgeois elements who [came] into opposition to the council.’

Reflecting merely on the aggressiveness of this language, it is hard to fight the conclusion that it reflects the weakness of its authors. Militant was wrong about Sam Bond, just as they were to be wrong a year later with their redundancy plan.

The first of these mistakes was not unique to them; others too on the left have erred similarly. The stakes may been unusually high in 1984-5, but Militant was not alone in its inability to join up race and class, and to grasp the constitutive potential of campaigns by (for example) women or black workers to contribute to the creation of class consciousness by their struggles.