Thirty years since the Walton by-election

In July 1991 Militant, the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Party, stood its first parliamentary candidate independently of the Labour Party, in the Walton by-election that took place following the death of the stalwart left-wing Liverpool MP Eric Heffer. We reprint below edited extracts of an article by CLIVE HEEMSKERK from the Summer 1991 edition (No.46) of the Militant International Review, the forerunner of Socialism Today, placing Walton in the context of the heroic struggle of the 1983-87 Liverpool city council and its aftermath.
The reprinted article shows that not all the far-reaching consequences of the collapse of Stalinism on workers’ consciousness and their organisations were fully anticipated at the time – with the quantitative steps that would lead to the future qualitative transmutation of Labour into a capitalist party mooted but not with definitive conclusions drawn. This process and its culmination has been extensively analysed elsewhere in Socialism Today, a recent example being the special edition (No.239) devoted to the lessons of the Corbyn experience published in June 2020.
Nevertheless the article from 1991 still stands as a real time defence of the Walton campaign – as an example of the tenacious will to act, even in the most difficult circumstances, that is a vital prerequisite for success in the historic struggle for socialism.

From the vantage point of the future, the Walton by-election will come to be seen as a significant turning point in the development of the labour movement in Britain. For the ruling class and the reformist Labour leaders it appears, on the electoral field at least, that Marxism has fallen at the first hurdle. The favourite epithet used to describe the 2,613 votes (6.5%) gained in the campaign was ‘derisory’, followed by variations on the theme that ‘Militant is dead’.

But behind these forced celebrations of Militant’s ‘demise’ lay a nagging fear that the ideas of Marxism championed in the Walton campaign were finding an echo amongst the most combative elements of the working class. As The Guardian recorded, “the explosive mixture of Liverpool Labour politics and the unknown strength of the Broad Left challenge made the contest far more fraught than Labour’s smooth daily press conferences in the interview room of Everton football club suggested. As one Labour aide put it, ‘Walton was a case of walking round a minefield for three weeks and hoping nothing went off’.” (The Guardian, 6 July 1991)

The Labour Party, because of its history based on the trade unions, still has a colossal reservoir of support amongst the working class in Britain. The depth of this loyalty to the Labour Party, despite the role of its leaders, was confirmed by the NOP survey published two days before polling day. This was the opinion poll which gave Peter Kilfoyle, the official Labour candidate, 63%, and the Real Labour candidate Lesley Mahmood 10% (The Independent, 2 July 1991).

The survey also asked voters’ responses to other questions. The state of Liverpool in general was listed as the most important issue in determining how people would vote, followed by the poll tax, unemployment and the NHS. Despite the record of the now firmly right-wing Labour council and the silence of Kilfoyle on what a future Labour government would provide for Liverpool, the mass of working class voters were not convinced at this stage that there was any alternative other than a Labour government to solve their problems.

While taking note of the warnings of the Real Labour campaign, which was in the main received sympathetically on the doorsteps, most workers will need to go through the experience of a Labour government in office carrying out counter-reforms before they reach the conclusion that Real Labour was correct.

Purging the legacy of the 47

So was it wrong for the Broad Left to have stood? What was the situation that had developed in Liverpool? The stand of the 47 Liverpool city councillors from 1983-87, along with the heroic battle of the miners, has entered into the consciousness of the working class as an inspiring example of militant struggle. Precisely for this reason the ruling class have a longstanding aim to denigrate and roll back the achievements of the 47.

They have managed to somewhat muddy the record with a sustained campaign of slander which has had an effect. The NOP opinion poll showed that a majority of Walton voters blamed “the old Militant-led city council” for Liverpool’s “present problems”. What is remarkable, when all the forces of established society including ‘socialist’ playwrights repeat the same lines [like Alan Bleasdale, whose TV series GBH about a fictional ‘hard-left northern council leader’ first aired during the by-election], is that 42%, when given the option in the survey, chose not to ‘blame’ the 47 councillors.

But the media smear campaign could only spice the dish. It could not remove the real achievements of the struggle – the rent freeze, the new homes, nurseries, sports centres, the council jobs, the enhanced position of the council workers’ unions and so on. Those gains have been clung onto tenaciously by the Liverpool working class, reflected in their consistent support for Labour against the national trend. Moreover this was often a discerning vote with left-wing Labour candidates who stood on the platform of the 47 receiving higher votes than right wingers. The gains won by the 47 could only be prised from their grasp by a different agency – the right-wing leaders of the labour movement, locally and nationally.

This task was readily accepted by the Labour right and their supporters amongst the trade union officialdom. They were as afraid of Liverpool’s reputation as the Tory government itself. A persisting ‘model of militancy’ provided a continual contrast with their generally passive acquiescence with the Tories’ programme. The prestige of the councillors and those who continued their tradition would also act as a rallying point in the future when a Labour government carries through attacks on working class living standards. Liverpool had to be dealt with. A combined assault was needed on the gains achieved by the 47 and the internal democracy of the Liverpool Labour Party.

This strategy of the ruling class was revealed in a remarkable interview conducted with the Tory Environment Secretary Michael Heseltine on BBC Radio during the Walton by-election. Disclosing that “the government has come close to sending in commissioners to take over and run council services in Liverpool… several times in the last three years”, Heseltine explains why, on reflection, the Tories had rejected government intervention. He confides that “from the moment we intervened the battle would not be in the Labour Party, between its extreme and moderate wings. The battle would be between the local Labour Party and central government, and [the right-wing Labour leader] Neil Kinnock would throw the whole resources of the Labour Party behind the more extreme elements of the Labour Party in Liverpool (!) saying it was all central government’s fault… the whole of the labour movement would turn on the central government and blame us”. (The Guardian, 17 June 1991)

“The essence of this”, he concluded, “is that the elected authority has got to stand firm. We will give them every support from central government in doing so”. (The Independent, 17 June 1991)

Allowing for the inevitable coded language needed for public consumption, these are still astonishingly frank admissions from a more astute tactician of the ruling class. He tells us that only the ‘moderate wing’ of the Labour Party – the recently re-installed right-wing leader of the council Harry Rimmer, Kilfoyle, Kinnock et al – can conduct ‘the battle’ against the council’s past gains. They would meet a rear-guard action by ‘the extreme wing’ – by which he means the Liverpool working class, above all, the combative council workforce, the Broad Left councillors and the Militant.

If the government intervened on behalf of the ‘moderate wing’, there would be an explosion “in the whole of the labour movement” in support of the Liverpool left which Kinnock would not be able to control. So, while wishing them luck from the side-lines – “every support” – Heseltine leaves the field to his more able colleagues.

That is the essence of Kinnock’s ‘counter­ revolution’ in Liverpool. Only through the good offices of the Labour Party right wing, resting on the loyalty of the working class to their traditional organisations, could the ruling class carry through their programme. Not surprisingly The Financial Times titled their pre­Walton polling day article ‘A Labour Platform for Tory policies’, remarking that the “pragmatic solutions” of Kilfoyle and Rimmer – privatisation, compulsory competitive tendering and housing trusts – “were originally honed in Conservative thinktanks”. (3 July 1991)

Turning points

Nonetheless, was it still correct for the Broad Left to have stood against rival official Labour candidates, firstly in the council elections in May 1991 – in which five out of the six Real Labour councillors who stood held onto their seats – and then in Walton? Had not Militant argued against such a course in 1985 when faced with the suspension of the Liverpool District Labour Party (DLP) and the likelihood of expulsions?

This discussion is recounted in the book Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight, written by Peter Taaffe, Editor of Militant, and Tony Mulhearn, one of the 47 councillors: “Some, including Derek Hatton, believed that the colossal authority enjoyed by the DLP would have enabled it to have defied the disbandment edict of the Labour Party National Executive Committee (NEC). They argued that thousands of workers would have rallied to the DLP despite any ‘expulsions’ of leading DLP figures”.

“The contrary view was advanced by leading local and national Militant figures… An ‘independent’ DLP would undoubtedly meet with initial success, they argued, in the short term, but would have undermined the long-term struggle to transform the Labour Party in a leftward direction. Through the trade unions, the Labour Party possesses a big reservoir of support… The mass of the working class, so the Militant Editorial Board argued, while passively supporting the Labour Party, had not yet actively moved into its ranks. They argued that for one worker who supported an ‘independent’ DLP, there would be another five, ten and perhaps 100 at a later stage who would move into the official Labour Party…”

“Therefore, despite the heavy blows of the expulsion of Derek Hatton and Tony Mulhearn, together with other Militant supporters, it was necessary, argued the Militant Editorial Board, to accept the expulsions under protest”. (pages 352-354)

Developments on the council and in the Liverpool Labour Party have taken a qualitative turn since these lines were written. The ‘counter-revolution’ initially had to proceed with caution. In November 1985 the council, left isolated by the Labour leaders, suffered a partial defeat when it was compelled to take out a loan to cover the budget deficit. On cue the Labour Party NEC then suspended the DLP and set up an inquiry.

But at that stage, the DLP officers could still organise a rally of 700 party members to protest. The first nine Liverpool expulsions were not carried through until mid-1986 and the 47 councillors were not surcharged and finally dismissed from office until 1987. Even then, although the DLP was suspended, the ward and constituency Labour Parties, the Labour Party Young Socialists and the Liverpool Women’s Council all functioned normally. In the May 1987 elections many of the surcharged councillors were replaced by new left-wing councillors. It was in 1987 that Lesley Mahmood was elected onto the council.

Although the overall balance of the new Labour group shifted to the right, they still had to move carefully. Even as late as the March 1990 budget, rents were frozen for the seventh successive year. It was not until the Labour Party NEC suspended 16 Broad Left councillors for voting against implementation of the poll tax in April 1990 that the right felt confident to move. One month later they deposed Keva Coombes as council leader and re-instated the hard line right-winger Harry Rimmer.

An attempt to push through a rent increase in June was defeated by 29 councillors breaking the Labour whip. In July 1990 the 29 were suspended by the NEC who also closed down the Liverpool Women’s Council and the reconstituted DLP. With the 29 suspended the council was being run by a minority rump of right wingers. But now, with open civil war declared, the assault of the right wing gathered pace.

In the run up to the 1991 council elections, the right took firm control of the local government panel and excluded all left candidates. The question was starkly posed: when would a left wing councillor be elected under the ‘official Labour’ banner in Liverpool again? There was no short-term possibility of regaining the position that the left held in 1990, let alone that held from 1983-87. So what were the alternatives that now faced the Liverpool Broad Left?

Flight or fight?

The discussion in 1985 was picked up by the tiny handful of sectarians grouped around the Socialist Organiser newspaper. Under the heading ‘Why Militant is wrong by Peter Taaffe’, they reprinted extracts from Liverpool: A City That Dared to Fight. This grouplet is of no significance in the life of the working class. Nonetheless their arguments in opposition to the decision of the Broad Left to stand against ‘official’ candidates are of interest. They concluded that “things have changed since 1985 when the discussion reported by Taaffe and Mulhearn took place. Every change, both in Britain generally and inside the labour movement, strengthens the arguments against breaking with Labour and speaks to condemn Militant’s little adventure in Walton”.

“The Tories have been in power for five and a half additional years. The left in the Labour Party has declined considerably. Strike figures are the lowest for 50 years… The Walton candidacy is not part of an advancing offensive working class movement. It grows out of defeat and weakness”. Nothing can be done.

This is a recipe for passivity and abstentionism. It expresses only the authors’ complete disorientation and demoralisation in the face of complex and contradictory processes. For completeness they could have added the prolonged nature of the boom, the move to capitalist restoration in Eastern Europe and the USSR, the crushing military victory of US imperialism in the Gulf, and the triumphalism of the capitalist ideologues who proclaim a ‘new world order’!

Reality, however, is far more complex. The march of history has two sides. Alongside counter-revolution marches revolution. The real perspectives for the Labour Party, for Britain, the world economy, the collapse of Stalinism and world relations, must of course be attentively examined. We can only conclude here that these are exacting but turbulent times requiring of all groups and tendencies not only theoretical foresight but an iron will to act. So frightened are our sectarian critics by one side of history, they forget the tiny detail of the magnificent anti-poll tax struggle and the fall of Thatcher, the international standard-bearer of capitalist reaction!

Nonetheless the Militant International Review concedes that the Liverpool candidacies – in the council elections and in Walton – were indeed not part of a generalised ‘advancing working class movement’. But does a retreating army preclude the possibility of mounting limited offensives? Napoleon wrote that ‘retreats always cost more men and materials than the most bloody engagements’. Could not a stand be made at a point of strength, the better to conduct a rear-guard action and prevent a rout? That was the situation facing the Liverpool Broad Left.

It is of course easy for ‘generals’ without an army to sound the retreat – if only they can find a bugler! But the Liverpool Marxists had a responsibility to the advanced minority of workers and youth who had stood firm through the struggles of the last decade. The Liverpool Broad Left is over 400 strong. Behind them are thousands of workers and youth. This is not a ‘London left’ of individual Labour Party ward activists but a predominantly working class left based on the unions. In how many other cities, at this stage, would manual trade union branches organise groups of workers to campaign against official Labour candidates, as happened in May and again in Walton?

The key consideration for Militant supporters at each stage was how best to defend the gains made by the 47 and preserve the morale and combativity of the most advanced Liverpool workers.

For the council workforce it was a life or death struggle. The 1,000 redundancies announced were just a beginning. The most determined trade unionists would be rooted out. A glimpse of this was given when redeployment of the first 20 workers facing compulsory redundancy was discussed. The Guardian, 29 June 1991, reported that 15 would be redeployed but that “alleged connections with Militant has complicated the recruitment” of the others.

The decision to stand in the council elections, vindicated by the results, marked a new stage in the resistance to Kinnock’s ‘counter­revolution’. But it further accelerated the development of the purge. Six wards were suspended. The Liverpool Labour Councillors group was formed and the 25 councillors immediately expelled. The right wing prepared to push through the first 1,000 redundancies and the council workforce prepared themselves to resist.

At this point the left-wing Liverpool Walton MP Eric Heffer died. This sad loss to the labour movement, unexpected in its timing, confronted the Liverpool Marxists with a new situation. The decision to stand was not taken lightly or without serious debate amongst the supporters of Militant and within the Broad Left. But eventually it was felt that to have allowed Kilfoyle a free-run, while not halting the developing assault of the right, would have disarmed and demoralised that advanced minority of Liverpool workers who were coalescing around the Broad Left.

There is no point in disguising the fact that many expected a larger vote – although to have won 11% of the combined Real Labour and official Labour vote would have been considered an achievement for any other force. But a key factor depressing the vote was undoubtedly the defeat on the industrial plane. The NOP survey showed that 32% of all voters disagreed that ‘the council could provide decent services with fewer workers’, in other words, they opposed Kilfoyle’s programme of council cuts and redundancies. Many of these must have been people who had voted Real Labour in the council elections or who had pledged their support to Real Labour canvassers. But, as election day neared, they asked themselves, what are the prospects of a successful campaign by Real Labour to defend the city? If polling day had taken place in the middle of escalating industrial action against cuts and redundancies then the fighting alternative offered by Real Labour might have seemed to have had a real prospect of being achieved.

True, an all-out strike by the council workforce would have raised the spectre of government intervention. Yet 77% of Kilfoyle supporters opposed the suggestion that ‘the government should take over the running of Liverpool’. If it was looking that such strike action had the possibility of successfully winning more resources for the city, how would the vote have polarised then?

But, as the by-election campaign progressed, the redundancies were ratified by a special council meeting and the bins service was privatised. There were implicit threats made that if there was a substantial Real Labour vote, the city would be hit further – by the Tories or an incoming Labour government. With the possibility of a fightback by the council workers receding – against a background of opinion polls ‘confirming’ Real Labour’s supposedly modest support – many Real Labour ‘promises’ just did not go out and vote.

Nonetheless, the Real Labour campaign was received sympathetically. It has strengthened the Liverpool Broad Left and laid the basis of future points of support for the events that will develop under the next Labour government.

National considerations

This was an additional consideration that was also involved in the decision to stand. Lesley Mahmood stood for the election of a Labour government. But her campaign raised in the minds of thousands of workers: what would be the character of the next Labour government? The conclusion that the ruling class have reached in regard to Liverpool – that only the right-wing Labour leaders could carry through the Tories’ programme – is once again being drawn for Britain as a whole. The Financial Times recently reported how Labour’s shadow chancellor John Smith has literally eaten his way through the City board­rooms to establish the right wing’s credentials. “The ‘prawn cocktail’ offensive launched by the shadow chancellor seems to be taking effect”, they wrote. The City viewed with equanimity the prospect of a Labour government because “the party has ruled out a costly ‘dash for growth’, and promises rigorous controls on public spending”. (Financial Times, 3 July 1991)

It was necessary to warn the working class about the role of a future Labour government, even if this incurred the costs of a further round of expulsions. But the decision to support the Broad Left candidacy did not represent a ‘break with Labour’ as our critics imagine. We have not changed our attitude to the traditional organisations of the working class. We have not departed from campaigning for a Labour government.

There are some, like Derek Hatton, whose hatred of Kinnock has led them to the conclusion that there is no difference between a Labour government and a Tory government. That is not the attitude of the vast mass of the working class at this stage nor of the Marxists. We want a Labour government, even a right-wing Labour government. A Labour government would be a government of pressure, resting on the working class.

If Labour comes to power in the general election that will take place within the next twelve months the aspirations of millions of workers will be raised. In the first period of office a Kinnock government could make some concessions, on pensions and child benefit at least. But very rapidly it would move to carry through counter-reforms, attacks on the living standards and conditions of the working class. This has been the broad experience not just of the last Labour government but of all the Labour and ‘socialist’ governments of Australia, New Zealand, France, Spain, Greece, Norway and Sweden even in the conditions of capitalist boom which have prevailed during the last decade.

Although the TUC would inevitably reach an ‘agreement’ with a Labour government to hold down wages for limited concessions, and would therefore co-operate with the bosses to hold back the rank-and-file, unofficial movements would develop from below. One layer after another would be forced into battle to defend their living standards. Under these conditions, there would be a movement of workers to the left, which would find a reflection firstly in the official structures of the trade unions and then in the Labour Party.

Under this pressure, even some right wing and ‘soft’ left trade union leaders could be compelled into taking an oppositional stance towards the measures of a Kinnock government. A new left wing in the Labour Party would this time be a working class left, based on the trade unions, with Militant supporters to the fore. Then the Marxists who have been expelled today would return.

Can Labour be pushed left? And when?

One of the considerations behind the decision of the Broad Left to stand candidates this year was that, unless national developments of this character within the Labour Party relaxed the iron grip which the right wing have established over the Liverpool party apparatus, there would have been no left wing councillors by 1994. Is it possible to work out a timescale for how these broad perspectives for the next Labour government would unfold?

Trotsky insisted that “every historical prognosis is always conditional, and the more concrete the prognosis, the more conditional it is”. It would be complete scholasticism to sit with a calendar in one hand and a directory of future union and Labour Party conferences in the other! A complex interplay of different factors are involved. Not the least important are economic developments. The depth of the recession in the British economy has not yet been fully revealed. The timing and the extent of the recovery, affected by developments in the world economy, cannot be precisely determined in advance.

Moreover, changes in workers’ consciousness are inevitably not immediately reflected in their organisations. The right wing in the Labour Party and trade unions will make every effort to further immunise themselves from the pressure of the rank-and-file.

In the Labour Party further constitutional changes would be forced through to restrict the re-selection of MPs, eliminate the policy­making role of the national conference, and fill out the leading bodies of the party with parliamentary and council representatives. Other measures would also be considered to deal with oppositional currents. The militant building workers’ union, the Building Labourers’ Federation, (BLF) was among the first to stand against the Australian ‘social contract’, the Prices and Incomes Accord between the Labour government and the Australian Congress of Trade Unions (ACTU). Consequently, with the full support of the ACTU, the BLF was deregistered, subjected to systematic repression, and effectively broken. As he presented awards to the Daily Mirror journalists who had tried to frame the National Union of Mineworkers’ leader Arthur Scargill, it was not impossible to imagine a Kinnock-led Labour government acting in the same fashion as his Australian counter-parts!

There will also be important variations in consciousness between different layers of the working class, and between different regions. It was not accidental that the Independent Labour Party (ILP), in the first general election it contested against the Labour Party in 1935, won four seats but all of them in Glasgow. There the ILP had built up substantial working class support and had 40 councillors. They based themselves on the living tradition of the struggles in ‘Red Clydeside’ during and after world war one – “the Petrograd of the British Isles” as the Scottish Marxist, John Maclean, put it – which was ahead of other parts of the labour movement in Britain.

Trotsky, in a discussion with an ILP member after these elections, argued that “a strong militant movement can develop in a strongly bureaucratised trade union organisation, creating a very important minority movement, without being forced out of the trade unions”. Such a development would make it entirely possible “that the left wing, which will develop as the crisis deepens – and particularly now, within the trade unions… will be successful in its fight to stay within the Labour Party”. The key task for Marxists was to penetrate the trade unions, to build support for Marxism amongst the fresh layers of the working class, while preserving at all times an orientation towards the mass party of the working class.

Militant will not be bound by the bureaucratic regime of the Labour leaders from arguing for a socialist programme. If the Tories win the election, which is not excluded because of the failure of Kinnock to inspire working class voters, there will be ructions in the Labour Party and the trade unions but this would not compel workers to move into activity in the party.

Marxism cannot and will not stand still as events unfold. Militant, written off time and again, will come to the head of future battles, as we have in the magnificent movement against the poll tax. And Liverpool, under a Labour or a Tory government, will remain an arena of struggle. As it did at the height of the campaign against the government in 1985, once again Liverpool has provided a glimpse, a faint outline, of the stormy but protracted and contradictory processes out of which the mass forces of Marxism will be forged.