SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

Issue 197 April 2016

Labour’s chief witch-hunter

The Witchfinder General: a political odyssey

By Joyce Gould

Published by Biteback books, 2016, £25

Reviewed by Paul Gerrard

"From a minuscule group with no resources, Militant became the most successful entryist faction within the modern Labour Party. Its rise had no parallel in the history of Trotskyist groups in Britain". Socialist Party members and supporters will take these words from Joyce Gould, former director of operations for the Labour Party, as a compliment. In her autobiography, the now Baroness Gould of Potternewton, revels in the title ‘witchfinder’, as it was on her watch that the Labour Party began the long process of expunging the influence of Marxism in the Labour Party. She prosecuted the Militant editorial board, Labour MPs Dave Nellist and Terry Fields, Tony Mulhearn and other leading Labour councillors in Liverpool, alongside many other socialists. We would use the term witch-hunter, but let that pass.

Born Joyce Manson in 1932 into a community of Lithuanian Jewish refugees in Leeds, Gould grew up in an all-enveloping Labour environment. In 1952 she married Kevin Gould, a Labour councillor who went on to lead Leeds city council in the 1970s. Joyce Gould was assistant regional organiser for the Labour Party from 1969 to 1975, at a time when Yorkshire was notorious for being a fiefdom of the right wing – Hugh Gaitskell and Denis Healy were Leeds MPs.

In 1975 Gould moved to London, promoted to chief women’s officer (1975-85), and then director of organisation from 1985 to 1993. It was this latter period which coincided with huge movements against Margaret Thatcher’s Tory governments – the miners’ strike, Liverpool’s socialist council, the anti-poll tax campaign. But the defeat of the miners’ strike in 1985 and the falling away of working-class activists, opened the way for the beginnings of the transformation of the Labour Party from a bourgeois workers’ party – pro-capitalist at the top, with a working-class base – into a bourgeois party. This necessitated the expulsion of the party’s Marxist wing. In this situation there could be no room for prevarication or hesitation on Gould’s part. Working directly under Labour leader Neil Kinnock, Gould set to work on her witch-hunting task with enthusiasm.

Gould gives a lively account of the battles between left and right. Militant supporters were by no means the only casualties of the witch-hunt unleashed by the right. Peter Tatchell, now best known as a gay rights and human rights activist, but at the time a prominent left-winger, was selected to fight the Bermondsey by-election in 1981. After he publicly supported extra-parliamentary action against the Tories, he was denounced in parliament by Labour leader, Michael Foot, to the delight of the tabloid press, and the by-election, in a safe Labour seat, was lost.

In another by-election, in the Yorkshire seat of Hemsworth in 1991, Ken Capstick, vice-chair of the National Union of Mineworkers in the region and an ally of the union’s leader Arthur Scargill, had been selected by the local Labour Party. He was removed from the candidates’ list and replaced with a right-wing teacher, Derek Enright, whose main claim to fame is singing ‘Yellow Submarine’ in Latin in the House of Commons.

The right-wing did not have it all its own way, though. In the long drawn-out war of attrition on the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) the genuine left around Tony Benn, Eric Heffer and Dennis Skinner attempted – often with success – to slow the witch-hunt’s progress, for example by moving ‘no action’ over the bureaucracy’s proposals, or leaving crucial NEC meetings at critical moments to render them inquorate. Gould’s hatred and contempt for this trio leaps off every page. She claims that Skinner even secretly bugged the room at one NEC to demonstrate that she was not acting impartially. Of course, the genuine left knew that if Militant was expelled and the right was rampant, they would be next for the chop.

The members of the Militant editorial board and Liverpool’s socialist councillors defended themselves with political openness and tactical skill, defending the right of Marxists to organise in the Labour Party, appealing to the rest of the movement and demanding democratic procedure. Even 30 years later, Gould still gnashes her teeth at their resistance, appalled at the demand for breaks, or the right to consult with colleagues and solicitors. Her venom is directed in particular at Tony Mulhearn: "He made phone calls asking for advice, and unbelievably was allowed a break for a fish and chip lunch". Tony, however, comments that "Gould's description of my behaviour during the NEC interrogation reveals the fertility of her imagination" – the interrogation took place in the evening and he doesn’t eat fish and chips!

There is no shortage of slurs against the Militant editorial board. Much to the frustration of Gould and the other apparatchiks "throughout, the Militant board members indulged in bullying (sic) tactics. Their opening remarks were: ‘We are here under protest’, ‘It’s the beginning of trouble for the NEC’, ‘There will be legal challenges’, and ‘There will be protests up and down the country’." To warn of consequences is in no way equivalent to issuing threats. In any case, where did power lay in this situation, with the party with its well-funded apparatus, or the "minuscule group with no resources"?

Gould presents the classic organiser’s mentality, feigning political neutrality and claiming only to be focused on the smooth running of the electoral machine and ‘getting the vote out’. If so, it might be expected that she would give some modicum of credit to Liverpool’s Labour council, which repeatedly won election victories the scale of which were the envy of right-wing councils. Not a bit of it! Instead she bemoans unspecified ‘irregularities’ in the procedures of the District Labour Party, a vibrant body which at its peak numbered 500 delegates at its meetings, and which was engaged in a life-and-death struggle with the Tory government.

Gould left full-time party work in 1993, at a time when Militant had established itself as Militant Labour outside the Labour Party, prior to the launch of the Socialist Party. She clearly believed her work was done and she could retire. She was rewarded by being made a baroness, and became one of Tony Blair’s government whips in the House of Lords. No doubt a career spent spying on and policing socialists is excellent preparation for a post as whip, and it would not be hard to work out where the baroness would side in a conflict between a democratically elected socialist government and the monarchy.

In fairness to her, it is clear that she has always been committed to women’s rights in society and in the Labour Party, and personally challenged much sexist behaviour, including sexual harassment by Labour MPs after she separated from her husband. She claims to have influenced the Callaghan government’s decision to switch from paying family allowance to the father to paying child benefit to the mother, and she has defended the 1967 Abortion Act against Labour backsliders.

Nonetheless, Gould is now one of the ‘great and the good’ and obviously delights in the committees, conferences and dinners. But of the wider struggles of the trade union and Labour movement she has little to say, except to criticise Scargill, Benn and the Militant. And what of Jeremy Corbyn? Gould is guarded in her comments but is clearly no supporter of his. She pointedly quotes Denis Healy’s complaint in the 1980s that "there are far too many people who want to luxuriate complacently in moral righteousness in opposition". She hints darkly at "difficult and rocky days ahead".

This is in many ways a celebrity autobiography, full of gossip, reminiscences and fawning, and therefore of limited interest to socialists. But it does act as a useful and timely reminder of the pitched battles between right and left in the 1980s, and offers insights into the bureaucratic mentality which sees ‘reds under the bed’ everywhere. The power of the apparatchiks in the mould of the baroness is something that Corbyn’s supporters still have to grapple with.

Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page