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Pat Wall

When the “Democrats” Ruled the Party

(September 1975)

From Militant, No. 272, 26 September 1975, p. 5.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The rejection of Reg Prentice by Newham North East Constituency Labour Party and the events at the recent Newham ‘support Prentice meeting’, have provoked a hysterical reaction from the millionaire press and Labour’s right wing.

Roy Jenkins and Prentice echo the Tory press in denouncing Marxists in the Labour Party, fittingly in slightly more moderate tones than the vitriolic outbursts of ex-MPs Griffiths and Taverne. Top of the Bill must be reserved for Andrew Faulds who said in one of his most dramatic roles, “reasonable people” are “in despair as the anti-democrats infiltrate.” The old Gaitskillite ‘Campaign for Democratic Socialism’ has been revived in the form of the ‘Social Democratic Alliance’ complete with subscriptions and membership cards, but not of course a ‘party within a party’.

Immediately following his defeat, Reg Prentice called for a return to the Social Democratic tradition which had, he claimed, predominated throughout Labour’s history.

The right wing are attempting to propound a myth that the traditional democracy of the Labour Party is being subverted by militant left wingers and Marxists. The truth, as any activist of even a few years standing knows, is rather different. Over long periods of its history the Labour Party had a tradition of witch-hunting its left wing. With all its faults the Party is more democratic today than at any time in the post war period.

The so-called ‘Social Democrats’ are either dishonest or ignorant of the history of the Party. Perhaps its confirms what many rank and file members have long suspected, that many are Parliamentary careerists with no real roots in the Labour Movement.

Early in 1939 the National Executive Committee expelled Stafford Cripps, followed by Aneurin Bevan, George Strauss, Sir Charles Trevelyan and Labour candidates Edgar Young and Robert Bruce.

The left had been campaigning in favour of a popular front movement including the Communist Party and the Liberals to oppose the National Government; Cripps presented his policies to the NEC and was defeated by 17 votes to 3. He then circulated his manifesto to CLPs and it was for this that he was expelled. While Cripps was technically in breach of the rules, Bevan, Strauss and the others committed no other crime than opposing Cripps’ expulsion and supporting a petition outlining their policies. The most vitriolic speech at Party Conference in favour of upholding the expulsions was made by that great champion of party democracy George (now Lord George) Brown.

Marxists opposed the policy of the Popular Front seeing such policies as a major factor in the defeat of the Spanish working class. However unlike the right wing, Marxists reject expulsion as a means of resolving political differences.

“In the early fifties the right wing, including an organised ‘Catholic Action’ caucus, dominated the Liverpool Labour Group; many represented ‘rotten boroughs’ in the older parts of the city where party membership was almost non-existent. The late John Braddock was both leader and chairman of the Group, deciding who could or could not speak against his policies. Many of his supporters spent more time in the ‘Vernon’ pub across the road than in the meeting. When a vote was near a messenger would cross the road and back they would troop, many ‘half cut’, to shout down, or even physically threaten opposition speakers. It was the re-distribution of ward boundaries and the growing left wing majority in the Trades Council and Borough Labour Party which ended this state of affairs.”

The ‘Manifesto’ group and the ‘Social Democratic Alliance’ may not have been around in 1939, but some of the leading members should recall that Bevan escaped expulsion by the NEC by only two votes in 1953. Did Roy Jenkins, Shirley Williams or Tom Jackson campaign for tolerance for Bevan or for the various Bevanite/Tribunite MPs who have had the whip withdrawn over the years? The crime of these MPs was to vote against the Tories in defiance of Parliamentary Party decisions, a marked contrast to the 69 who voted with the Tories in 1970 and kept the Heath Government in office. More recently three MPs voted with the Tories on the issue of Clay Cross and more disgustingly were those cowards who went ‘missing’ despite a three line whip.

Intolerance and witch-hunting were even more marked in the constituencies. Are we supposed to forget the disbanding of CLPs, the administrating of ‘loyalty oaths’, the monstrous proscription list, the banning of left wing journals and ginger groups not to mention the divorcing of Trade Unionists from the Labour Party by the splitting of joint Trades Councils and Borough Labour Parties?

Some people have suddenly discovered the decline in Party membership which has gone on for years and is only now slowly reversing. It was right wing policies, ‘Butskellism’ and the lack of democracy which drove hundreds of activists from the Party. This process started with the support for American Imperialism in Korea and the massive arms drive that initiated the decline in membership (and incidentally led to the resignation from the Government of Wilson, Freeman and Bevan). The move from reforms to counter-reforms between 1967 and 1970 had the same effect.

At local level the backbone of right wing policies has been the Local Council Labour Groups. The low level of ward membership led to a self-perpetuating re-adoption of councillors. Without effective rank and file control, this in turn, as the Poulson cases have demonstrated, opens the door to corruption amongst a minority. It was the ‘Social Democrats’ and right wing officials who defended these Labour Group leaders over the years. Even today they have said very little, preferring to reserve their denunciations not for crooks, but the Young Socialists.

“Delegates to this year’s Conference representing Labour, or marginal seats will be subject as usual to the attentions of the ‘seat seekers’, clutching seat plans in their hands, moving from one part of the hall to another seeking consideration for future short lists. We all know the type, book shelves full of volumes of past election results, detailed records of boundary changes. One even suspects some monitor the health of more elderly MPs, latter day cowboys, “have selection speech will travel”. I recall a regional official telling me of an MP who took seriously ill at the end of the week. By the following Monday the Regional Office had received about a dozen telegrams and phone calls more or less saying if he dies can I be considered for the seat.”

The removal of Taverne, Milne, Griffiths and other shows that after years of docile acceptance many CLPs are now taking a critical interest in the role of their MPs. It is this fact which has led to the panic and alarm along MPs and in particular the ‘Manifesto’ Group, who are now beginning to demand changes in the selection and re-selection procedures.

In fact, present procedures bend over backwards to protect the sitting member. It takes three meetings, EC, GMC and special GMC to drop an existing MP; at all these meetings a majority must vote against re-adoption. During the procedure the CLP is prevented from making public comment; no such limitations appear to apply to MPs. If the vote goes against the sitting MP he can appeal to both the NEC and the Party Conference; he also has the opportunity to seek nomination to the new short list and possible re-selection.

With all its limitations the procedure is a big advance on the system that applied in the past. In1964 the Liverpool Exchange CLP refused to re-adopt Bessie Braddock. What was the NEC answer? An enquiry into the Constituency, the reinstatement of Mrs. Braddock, threats to disband the CLP and demands for loyalty oaths – is this ‘Social Deomcracy’?

When the ‘social democrats’ ruled CLPs, rights were trampled on by the NEC. Even mildly left wing candidates were refused endorsement, Illtyd Harrington now deputy leader of the GLC was twice selected by a CLP and turned down by the NEC. One could mention several other similar cases. At the same time dozens of lawyers, lecturers and similar types with a minimal history in the movement were endorsed without question. Is this the ‘tradition’ that Prentice wishes to re-instate?

“At the last Annual Conference of the Labour League of Youth in 1953 several emergency resolutions were received protesting at the attempt to expel Aneurin Bevan. Under instructions from Transport House the chairman ruled the resolutions out of order. Conference then moved the chairman out of the chair, at which point the official suspended the Conference. The National Committee, on which I was one of the minority of elected members (most were ‘selected’) retired to discuss the impasse. The National Youth Officer and the NEC representative, an elderly Trade Union officer, stated bluntly they would close the conference if the resolutions were discussed. When I protested and moved acceptance of the resolutions the NEC representative left his chair and attempted to strike me. A frightening moment, he was so red in the face I thought he might have a stroke. As it transpired my motion only received four votes and the delegates rightly withdrew the resolutions under protest.”

Above all it is the treatment of the Labour Youth movement that the right wing stands condemned. The history of the youth organisations has been one of arbitrary restrictions, gross interference by officialdom, lack of democratic rights, and the closing of branches.

In 1955 the post-war Labour League of Youth was disbanded. After an interval Youth Sections were allowed on a Constituency basis, but they were expressly forbidden from having any contact with each other. Following the 1959 electoral defeat the Young Socialists was formed, but this organisation was in turn disbanded in 1964.

The present Labour Party Young Socialists has a more democratic constitution and better relations with the Party. However a considerable degree of harassment still exists. Many regional officials seem more concerned with closing than opening branches. The promised Field Officer has not materialised and now the grant for the Labour Student Chairman has been withdrawn in spite of the fact that the full time work of last years NOLS chairman produced the biggest increase in branches ever.

Let those who have suddenly discovered the lack of membership campaign for an end to harassment of the LPYS, elect the LPYS Field Officer now, restore the sabbatical grant to the NOLS Chairman. Such actions would speed the success of the growing Labour youth movement and at a time of financial crisis would give a high return for a small outlay.

“When we first married, like most working class couples, we had a terrible time searching for rented accommodation at a price we could afford. One day Pauline was told that a member of her Ward Party knew of a house to rent. That member was Sarah McCard a working woman who devoted her life to the Co-operative and Labour Movement. The house had gone, but we stayed to talk, mainly of the past and old struggles of the movement. During the conversation she mentioned that after some years she and her husband found that they could manage to save a few bob each week to supplement their old age pension and how it took them weeks to find a means of investment, as they considered it immoral to earn more than 2½% interest. Now Sarah may have been naïve, she certainly never knew the present rate of inflation, but when I hear members of private London clubs, socialists with two or three houses, many sending their children to private schools, telling us that they speak for the broad mass of working class people and the aspirations of the movement I think of Sarah McCard. I prefer her principles, her devotion, her courage, her working class decency any time.”

The self-styled ‘Social Democrats’ are politically adept at propounding abstract theories of democracy, particularly abroad. The nearer home they get the less certain the case. It is now suggested that Labour voters should have a say in the selection and more importantly in the re-selection of Labour candidates. MPs we are told represent the Labour voters, party activists only themselves.

We have yet to hear of an MP who denounced the selection procedure when adopted or who dislikes activists during elections. To equate the party rank and file to non-active voters is to reduce them to election work horses with perhaps the right to send the odd resolution to regional or national conferences.

Roy Jenkins is reported as saying at the Prentice meeting, that 80% of the British people were at heart conservatives. Electoral results show that around a third of the population, in the main the organised working class movement and their families, support the Labour Party on a class basis. They vote for the Labour Party as the workers party, they vote for Labour candidates as workers’ candidates. In addition sections of the middle class and the unorganised working class are prepared on occasions to vote Labour. While disputing Roy Jenkins figures, he is partly correct, an element of conservatism does exist even among workers, but how is this overcome by pandering to this conservatism, by making the Labour Party indistinguishable from the Tories?

To win the so-called floating element requires a bold lead, a programme that offers a real alternative to booms and slumps, stop and go and that requires the conscious intervention of socialists in the struggles of working people. It means in the words of the American ‘Wobblies’, we must agitate, educate and organise. In workshops and office even today it is small groups, or even single individuals, who actively campaign and recruit Trade Union membership, often putting their own jobs at risk. It is small numbers of activists in the Branches, CLPs and LPYS branches who develop the organisations and recruit the cadres of the Labour Party.

The present crisis requires leadership, but if that leadership is divorced from the control from the rank and file, its policies now and in the past will become divorced from those of the movement. For this reason socialists should support the demands put forward at this Conference and undoubtedly in the future for greater democracy and rank and file control – for the election of the Party leader by Conference. For Conference decisions to be binding on MPs. For the limitation of MPs salaries and for the right of recall at all levels and in all sections of the movement.

At a time of growing attacks on left wing militants and Marxists in the Labour Party, delegates would do well to recall the words of Aneurin Bevan shortly before his expulsion in 1939: “If every organised effort to change Party policy is to be described as an organised attack on the Party itself then the rigidity imposed by Party discipline will soon change into rigor mortis.”

Pat Wall joined the Labour Party during the 1950 election and was the secretary of Liverpool Garston CLP at the age of 16. He has since held office in Toxteth, Harborough and Bingley Labour Parties, as well as being USDAW Shop Steward and Branch Secretary and Bingley UDC Councillor. He is now President of Bradford Trades Council and a member of the Yorkshire Regional Executive of the Labour Party.

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Last updated: 3 December 2015