Kinnock, Militant and ‘The Speech of his Life’

It was the speech that put Labour back on the long and often rocky road to government, but why did Neil Kinnock feel the need to take on the Militant Tendency back in 1985?

The Road to Bournemouth

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The development of Militant as a political force is traced back to 1964, with the founding of the newspaper – The Militant. The ‘entryist’ group emerged from the Revolutionary Socialist League and its goal was to infiltrate the Labour party in order to bring about their radical political agenda. By 1975 Labour looked to deal with the issue of ‘entryism’ into the party in the Underhill Report – but the NEC voted against publishing the report and decided to take no further action.

After Labour’s defeat in 1979, Militant felt emboldened by the new changes in the party structure that had given greater power to the activist base. Early on in his premiership, Michael Foot had looked to examine Militant behaviour, but was met with resistance, particularly from Tony Benn. Then the most popular politician with the grassroots, Benn argued “Im not going to support the thought police” and “I shall fight like a tiger to prevent expulsions and proscriptions” from the party. Benn believed that all factions of the left should unite together, to take on Thatcherism.

Militant influence continued to grow and by 1981, they had six parliamentary candidates and many local councillors. Concern began to grow about the emergence of a party within a party. In December 1981, Benn had a heated NEC discussion with Foot, who planned for an inquiry into their activity. When the NEC agreed to the Haywood and Hughes inquiry, Militant reacted strongly; “This decision flies in the face of the express views of the rank and file… Marxism has always been a part of the Labour party and will remain to do so.”

The Haywood-Hughes report showed that Militant was more than just a newspaper, and argued that it had its own agenda, policy platform and publishing house – which was in direct conflict with that of the Labour leadership. The proposal was for a ‘Register of Non-Affiliated Groups’ so that Militant would have to apply and then be approved by the NEC. When they applied to be affiliated, the application was rejected and their editorial board, including Peter Taffe were expelled from the party.

A City on the Brink

Liverpool remained a stronghold for the group. In the 1980s, Liverpool had been rocked by the rapid loss of jobs, as the docks closed and its manufacturing sector shrank. In 1981, Margaret Thatcher was urged to consider abandoning the city, to a fate of ‘managed decline’ following a heated summer of violence in Toxteth. The political climate was toxic, and the Labour establishment were powerless to arrest the rising unemployment within the city.

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After successful local election results in 1983, Militant held key positions on the Liverpool city council, and Derek Hatton, the deputy leader, quickly became the box office star. The council immediately cancelled the 1,200 redundancies that had been planned by the previous Liberal led council – who had left Hatton with a ‘sabotage’ budget. The new administration froze council rents and committed to a mass a house-building programme in the inner city, in addition to raising the council staff’s minimum wage to £100 a week and cutting the working week from 39 to 35 hours without a loss of pay.

The Liverpool council intended to run a budget deficit and hope that the government would step in to bail them out. Initially, this tactic had some success and the government offered an extra £30m in grants to help balance the budget. But by 1984, The Rates Act imposed a cap on the amount of tax local councils could raise on property – which would dramatically affect their budgets.  Patrick Jenkin, the environment minister, promised to resign if he could not get the measure through. He announced a hit list of eighteen councils who were currently over spending – sixteen of which were Labour controlled. The climate was ripe for defiance, as the left had been emboldened by the early strength of the miners strike.

The GLC, controlled by Ken Livingstone and John McDonnell mounted the biggest campaign against the rates. In Lambeth, the new restrictions would have meant £13 million in cuts, and in the immediate aftermath of the Brixton riots, would have heaped more pressure on the already stretched services.  This coincided with a much tougher approach from the government, who were adamant that the councils must reduce spending.

As the year progressed the miners went back to work and one by one the councils buckled under the pressure. The GLC split, as Livingstone opposed McDonnell, and accused him of manipulating the figures. The tension was laid bare in a memo McDonnell sent to Livingstone in October 1984, in which he argued that: ‘The whole point of our administration is that we are a challenge to the central capitalist state … We will undermine the confidence shown in us by hundreds of thousands of socialists throughout the country if we are seen to be capitulating to a Thatcherite government.’ Only Lambeth and Liverpool kept up the fight.

Neil Kinnock was caught between supporting the ‘extra-parliamentary’ action, and being accused of betraying the dissenters on the left. The media began to build a narrative of a ‘loony left’ that was trying to subvert the national government. In one example in 1985 the media focused on the comments of Bernie Grant, a local councillor who went on to become one of Labour’s first MPs, who was perceived as congratulating the Tottenham rioters on ‘giving the police a bloody good hiding’.

In Liverpool, Derek Hatton was told that he would need to cut services or lose jobs. He decided to call the governments bluff, setting him on a collision course with Kinnock. As Hatton was met with resistance, the council made one last attempt to force a compromise. After a mass strike failed to gain the necessary support from the trade unions, Liverpool city council issued their 31,000 council workers with redundancy notices.

The council argued that this was a simple political tactic, to bounce the government into giving them the extra money, and that no redundancies would actually take place. But the recipients of the letters did not appreciate being used as a political tool. To add to the spectacle, the council had to give the notices out in person. When council workers refused to do the job, taxis were hired to ‘scuttle’ round the city instead.

Two Tribes

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The clash came to a head at the 1985 conference in Bournemouth. Throughout the summer, it had been Neil Kinnock and Arthur Scargill, who had been at loggerheads over the Labour response to the miners’ strike.  Scargill was pushing for the party to reimburse all the miners losses as a result of the strike action, as well as any money that had been lost by local councils. Tony Benn had drafted a private members bill, which called for a free pardon of miners convicted of violence, which enraged Kinnock.

In the less quoted opening passages, Kinnock had said:

“Comrades, this week in which our conference meets is the 333rd week of Mrs Thatcher’s government. In this average week in Tory Britain 6,000 people will lose their jobs, 225 businesses will go bankrupt, £400million will be spent on paying the bills of unemployment, 6,000 more people will be driven by poverty into supplementary benefit; and in this week in the world at large over 10,000m dollars will be spent on armaments and less than 1,000m dollars million will be spent on official aid; and in this week over 300,000 children will die in the Third World.”

He then built up to an attack on the Militant Tendency;

Fourthly, I shall tell you again what you know.  Because you are from the people, because you are of the people, because you live with the same realities as everybody else lives with, implausible promises don’t win victories.  I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises.  You start with far-fetched resolutions.  They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, mis-placed, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.

As Kinnock spoke, Hatton shouted “Liar!” from the back of the hall, prompting the Labour leader to address him directly:

“I’m telling you, and you’ll listen – you can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.”

Eric Heffer walked off the stage in disgust, apparently with tears in his eyes.  Immediately after, the Labour establishment rallied behind Kinnock. Healey called it a speech that “will change the centre of gravity within the movement” while Barbara Castle exerted that it was the best leaders speech she had heard in 25 years.

In her memoir Fighting All The Way, Castle went one further, claiming that it was “the most courageous and effective speech i have ever heard a politician make.

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