“I’ll Tell You What Happens With Impossible Promises”: When Kinnock Faced Down Militant

As the Labour Party return to Liverpool – the scene of their pitched battles of the 1980s – Militant have been praised for their work fighting the Tories. In 1985 however, it was Neil Kinnock’s speech that put Labour back on the long road to government. 

The Road to Bournemouth

The battle between the Labour Party and the Militant faction was arguably their biggest – and most destructive – of the 1980s.

The path to Neil Kinnock’s Bournemouth speech began twenty years earlier, when – in 1964 – the Militant Tendency launched their newspaper The Militant. Developing as a group from the Revolutionary Socialist League, it pursued an “entryist” policy to gain key positions within the Labour Party.

As Labour were turfed out of office in 1979, moderate MPs came under increasing pressure to adopt a more radical Marxist agenda.The nature of the divide was illustrated at Labour’s 1980 conference, where delegates met to decide the new electoral college for electing a leader. Terry Fields – a key Militant organiser – told the delegates:

“We need coordinated action by the whole of our class to get the Tories out, and the democracy that is being pumped out in the capitalist press is their democracy, not ours. We will found a new democracy when we have created a socialist state in this country… To the weak-hearted, the traitors and cowards I say: ‘Get out of our movement. There is no place for you. Cross the House of Commons.”

Yet by the time of Michael Foot’s election as leader in 1981, the party was under increasing pressure to expel the Militant members. Tony Benn disagreed: “Im not going to support the thought police…I shall fight like a tiger to prevent expulsions and proscriptions” from the party. Benn – who cited the chartists and the diggers as his political inspirations – wanted all factions of the left to unite together to defeat Thatcherism. He defended “good socialists” within the group.

Benn hoped to bring the left with him in his fight with Thatcher.

Throughout 1981, Militant’s influence grew, to the point where they had six parliamentary candidates. With deselection rules in place, Militant increasingly called for votes of no confidence in their constituency MPs. Bradford North proved to be a running sore for the party, after the Labour NEC objected to the selection of Militant’s Pat Wall as a parliamentary candidate to replace the sitting moderate MP Ben Ford. With further rows looming, Foot managed to secure an investigation into Militant – to be conducted by General Secretary Ron Hayward and agent David Hughes. 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 claimed that Militant was more than just a newspaper, and had its own agenda, policy platform and publishing house; a so-called party within a party. Their proposal was for a ‘Register of Non-Affiliated Groups’ – meaning Militant would have to apply to join Labour and then be approved by the NEC. When they applied for affiliation the application was rejected. Their editorial board – including Peter Taffe – were immediately expelled from the Labour Party.  The internal battled did little to stem the flow of defections to the SDP. It bubbled under the surface as Labour were annihilated in the 1983 General Election.

A City on the Brink

The events took on greater ferocity in the city of Liverpool, where Militant endured its greatest success. In the 1980s, Liverpool was hit by a rapid loss of jobs in quick succession as the docks closed and the manufacturing industry retracted. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was urged to abandon the city to a fate of ‘managed decline’, following a heated summer of violence in Toxteth. The political climate was equally toxic, with councils powerless to arrest the rising unemployment. To add to the city’s woes, the City Council was expected to implement severe budget cuts to local services.

For The Many: Militant Poster from the 1980s

After successful set of local election results in 1983, Militant secured the key positions on the Liverpool City Council. Derek Hatton, the Deputy Leader, quickly emerged as the box office star. Upon taking control of the council, 1,200 redundancies were immediately cancelled. The new administration froze council rents, committed to a mass house-building programme and raised council staff’s minimum wage to £100 a week. It then cut the working week from 39 to 35 hours without a loss of pay.

Running a budget deficit –  in the hope that the government would step in to bail them out – the move was the first step in a showdown with Thatcher. Initially, the tactic had some success as the government offered the council an extra £30m in grants to balance the budget. Thatcher understood however, that the real battle lay ahead. A year later, the Rates Act was introduced, which imposed a cap on the amount of tax local councils could raise on property. In an attempt to ‘rein in’ the ‘loony left’ councils, the Environment Minister Patrick Jenkin 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.

The Greater London Council (GLC) – influenced by Ken Livingstone and chair of finance John McDonnell – mounted the biggest campaign to the new rates. In Lambeth – for instance – the new restrictions would have led to a further £13 million of cuts. In the immediate aftermath of the Brixton riots, preventive services would have been “cut to the bone”. Yet the mid 1980s represented a high-point for the left. Demoralised by the slow defeat of the Miners Strike, rebel councils buckled under the pressure to set a budget. Under pressure, the GLC split.

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.”

For the new Labour leader Neil Kinnock, Militant’s ‘antics’ undermined his task of putting the party back on the road to government. The media built a narrative of a ‘loony left’ that was trying to subvert democracy. They did not need much ammunition, with figures such as Bernie Grant – a local councillor who went on to become one of Labour’s first black MPs – congratulating the Tottenham rioters on “giving the police a bloody good hiding”. It was Liverpool in particular became the scourge of the right-wing press.

It came to ahead in 1984 when Derek Hatton was told that he would need to cut services or lose jobs to make the budget balance. 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. Arguing that it was a simple political tactic – which was reaffirmed this week by Len McCluskey on Talking Politics – to bounce the government into giving them the extra money, Militant claimed that no redundancies would actually take place. Adding to the spectacle, the council were forced to give the notices out in person. When workers refused to do the job, taxis were hired to ‘scuttle’ round the city instead.

Two Tribes

Seize The Day: Kinnock used Militant to define his leadership

All roads led to the 1985 conference in Bournemouth. At the conference a year earlier, Kinnock had been out gunned by Arthur Scargill – who was at the height of his powers as leader of the NUM during the miners strike. By 1985 however, Scargill was on the outer. Scargill was pushing Labour to reimburse all of the miners losses from the strike, in addition to money that had been lost by local councils. To add to Kinnock’s woes, Tony Benn drafted a private members bill, which called for a free pardon to any miner that had been convicted of violence during the strike. Opening the party up to ridicule from the press, Benn’s ‘reckless’ approach to the law enraged Kinnock.

The press called on Kinnock to challenge his left flank. The opinion polls showed that Labour was tied in third place with the Tories on 30pts, with the Alliance 2pts ahead of both. As he rose to his address the audience in Bournemouth, Kinnock outlined the ‘state of the nation’:

“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 his attack on the Militant Tendency:

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…a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round a city, handing out redundancy notices to its own workers!

The TV cameras panned to Derek Hatton – who could be seen shouting “Liar!” from the back of the hall. Prompting Kinnock 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.”

In a side swipe at Tony Benn

It seems to me lately that some of our number become like latter-day public school-boys. It seems it matters not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game. We cannot take that inspiration from Rudyard Kipling. Those game players get isolated, hammered, blocked off. They might try to blame others – workers, trade unions, some other leadership, the people of the city – for not showing sufficient revolutionary consciousness, always somebody else, and then they claim a rampant victory. Whose victory? Not victory for the people, not victory for them.  I see the casualties; we all see the casualties.

Immediately hailed as Labour’s most important speech since Gaitskell’s ‘fight, fight and fight again’, it proved to be the spark that put Labour back on course to government. Denis 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 at conference. When the election came two years later, Hugh Hudson immortalised the speech in  ‘Kinnock: The Movie’.

As we approach another party conference in Liverpool, Derek Hatton has announced his intention to return to the Labour Party, Len McCluskey has claimed Kinnock “told lies” in his Militant speech and Jon Lansman believes Tony Blair was in the wrong party. You’d be forgiven for thinking that the same battles are about to be fought all of again.



One thought on ““I’ll Tell You What Happens With Impossible Promises”: When Kinnock Faced Down Militant

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  1. The GLC didn’t “split” under pressure. It was abolished by the Local Government Act 1985 because it posed a threat to the Tory government’s agenda.

    But Kinnock’s speech was indeed a game changer. Where would we be today without the Labour landslide victory of 1987?


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