First published in 1984, ‘Militant’ was widely praised as a masterpiece of investigative journalism. In the updated version, Michael Crick of Channel 4 news, explores the origins, organisation and aims of the sinister Militant Tendency which appeared on the political landscape in the 1980s.
Militant, until its mass expulsion from Labour in 1988, was a secret, 8,000 strong Trotskyite organisation which embedded itself into the party. For Crick, Militant had its power base on Merseyside, but also had a notable presence on Tyneside. In Newcastle by 1982 it had its own regional HQ in the well- furnished attic of the Star Hotel, Westgate Road: its activities marked by the whirring of printing presses, photocopying machines and the clacking of typewriters. It even had its own library!
Using a range of primary and secondary sources Crick revealed that Militant was a party within a party with its own hierarchial structure, membership and policy programme. It was an unaccountable clique which met secretly and had an army of paid full-time workers who far outnumbered the party they claimed to support. Militant was by 1985 a revolutionary body that pretended to be a weekly left-wing socialist paper was ‘’in effect a secret political party and had probably more full-time workers than the Labour Party itself’’. Even the American Embassy and MI5 subscribed to it!
In 1983 Militant got control of Liverpool City Council with the dapper perma-tanned Derek Hatton as deputy leader – in effect the real leader over the moderate John Hamilton, whose own office was ‘bugged’ by Militant. Militant also managed to get two of its MPs elected both in Coventry and Liverpool Broadgreen under a Labour Party ticket.
Militant was headed up by the dour, puritanical Trotskyite Ted Grant, 75, who had a fondness for ‘jelly babies and gobstoppers’ according to Crick whilst delivering tedious sessions on ‘Transitional demands’ in some coastal retreats including Holy Island. Despite his age and Leninist convictions, grant was able to pull together a highly disciplined organisation made up of 500 ‘activists’, each recruited with a religious intensity.
The first job was to sell the dry weekly Militant paper. On selling 100 papers a week to factory workers, recruits would be then initiated into the ‘’sacred Marxist texts’. Having undergone the intensive 18 month indoctrination programme, they would become ‘leading comrades’ – waged organisers with a chilling remit to carry out political education courses for the gullible.
As Crick points out, Militant was a self-conscious, workerist, proletarian body with a monopoly over Labour’s youth wing, the Young Socialists. No sex, no booze was the order of the day. Men sported short hair; jackets and ties with a propensity for early bedtimes, soccer and a game of tug of war at dawn for leisure. With its commitment to nationalise the top 200 firms and banks, Militant’s leadership had no time for trendy left-wing causes such as gender or gay issues – which it dubbed as a ‘bourgeois deviation’ or a ‘’symptom of capitalism’’ which would vanish with the coming of socialism.
For Crick, Militant was Britain’s fourth largest party. In 1984 Labour’s leader Kinnock tried to reform Labour – having suffered its worst election defeat since 1918. In his impassioned speech at Labour’s 1985 conference he took on the ‘sectarians’. In a gutsy piece in the Newcastle Journal many of us expressed our full support for Kinnock over his tough stance over Militant’s subversive activities both on Tyneside and elsewhere. The remedy was radical surgery – a purge of those people who belonged to Militant.
Hundreds were expelled in 1987, including Militant’s regional leaders such as Dave Cottrell of Militant Central and the Tendency’s chief PR man Derek Hatton.
Hatton, when up against Labour’s soft-left Dominated NEC, claimed that Militant was merely a paper. Militant’s real agenda was far more sinister than defending jobs and services. It was a sect not unlike the Moonies. If this wasn’t true, why didn’t the cash given to Militant from the jobless and mentally unwell not go into cash-strapped local Labour Parties to support more full-time agents?
Hatton and fellow councillors Tony Mulhearn, now of the extreme-left Socialist Party, and Felicity Dowling (Left Unity) derided Labour’s policies on unemployment, the economy and welfare as narrow and simplistic. Mainstream party members were intimidated, and branded as class traitors or ‘right-wing ‘and treated with contempt.
Militant arrogantly clung to the belief that they were the sole custodians of an absolute socialist truth. The fact that their ideology of Marxist-Leninism and their practice of democratic centralism was rejected by Labour’s Conference in 1918 cut little ice with Militant’s rigid autocratic leadership.
Militant had little in common with democratic socialism, social democracy or, for that matter, working people and their families. If a significant section of the working class wouldn’t vote for socialism in the 1983 general election, how could you expect it to die for it on the barricades.
Had Militant seized control of the Party and, in the unlikely event of it being elected, the UK would have been transformed into a totalitarian state. With the collapse of the iron curtain, history has shown that ordinary people in the main live better in liberal-democracies than in so-called socialist republics.
It’s clear that Militant was a sinister organisation. Special Branch had been monitoring its activities well into the seventies. During this turbulent period in British politics many felt that Militant was a major threat to both parliamentary democracy and national security with its aim to create an unaccountable corporate state.
Although by 1990, with the expulsion of 1,000’entryists, the Tendency still kept a power base in the newly formed Anti-Poll Tax Federation led by the enigmatic Tommy Sheridan which was involved in riots in London.
By 1992 most of its activists either abandoned the revolutionary road to socialism by settling down or starting careers. Some did quite well out of capitalism, including ‘Degsy’, who became a PR executive and radio chat show host – now running an enterprising green ‘BiketoWork’ scheme in Liverpool.
With the insurgence of far left activity inside Labour, Crick’s book is timely, informative and relevant in making sense of political extremism today. Whilst Militant was finally expelled in 1991, its legacy was long-lasting, causing huge damaging rifts within the party. For Labour, it closed the door to Downing Street for almost a generation.