The recent political collapse of much of the local government left in face of the Tory offensive was not inevitable. Other and better things were possible.
If, after the Tories won the general election of June 1979, Labour councillors had refused to carry through any of the cuts that the Tories were decreeing, and instead had used the council chamber as a platform to rouse and organise the local working class into active opposition and defiance of the class-war Tory government, then there was a good chance that they would have made 8ritain ungovernable. They could have inspired at least sections of the wider Labour and trade union movement to follow Tony Benn's advice and break off all collaboration with the Tories.
If... But was it ever a possibility? Yes, it was possible.
On the 100-year record of Labour in local government, such a role could not reasonably be expected from local councillors. The famous events in Poplar, where a Labour council went to jail to defend local people against a hostile government, took place as long ago as 1921. Clay Cross, in 1972, was the only example of heroic resistance by councillors from recent decades.
But something was new in 1981. The left -including some who called themselves revolutionary socialists-controlled London. Lothian Region, in Scotland, and Sheffield City Council, were also left-wing. The left was, at least in name, a great local government power throughout Britain. More than that, the leaders of the local government left-Knight, Livingstone, Blunkett promised, threatened and swore that they would resist the Tory government, using local government as a series of fortresses against it. They said they would use local government as a base from which to fight to bring that government down.
In fact, despite the promises and rhetoric, the local government left orientated not towards confrontation but sharply away from it. It opted for a policy of councils 'compensating' for Tory cuts by siphoning off additional income from their electorates through rate rises.
This was the opposite of a policy of mobilising the local people around the Labour councils to resist all cuts, whether of services or of disposable income. Ultimately it prepared the ground for the Tories to step in with rate-capping,
The main leaders of the local government left had committed themselves to this rate-rise road in 1979. After that it went from one stop gap to another until the recent political collapse.
The majority of the Labour local government left, as it existed in mid-1979, took that road not without internal differentiation and struggle. The SCLV-the main umbrella organisation of the broad Labour Left, set up on Workers' Action initiative at a 200-strong conference in July 1978, and publishing Socialist Organiser from October 1978-had a clear commitment to class struggle politics. It explicitly opposed Labour in local government passing on central government cuts to working-class people in the form of rate rises.
But immediately after the Tories won the 1979 election a whole range of participants in the SCLV reneged on this 'no rate rise' pledge. At the SO London conference on local government in July 1979 a majority voted for a policy of rate rises and, implicitly, for trying to avoid a confrontation with the government. This triggered a long running dispute on orientation and policy for the serious left which led to the hiving off from the SCLV and SO of London Labour Briefing, Knight, Livingstone, and others.
This was a very important discussion for the left. All the issues were stated, and class struggle, mobilising policies were argued for, by SO more or less clearly-when there was still time for the majority of the local government left to orientate towards a fight with the Tories and away from the role that they have in fact played, that of local administrators of Tory policy.
Here we reproduce some of the main statements in that dispute.
By John O'Mahony
The SCLV/SO platform adopted in July 1978 said 'Freeze rents and rates'. But at a broad London Labour activists' conference called by SO in June 1979, there was sharp debate on rate rises. Report from Workers' Action 23.7.79.
At the conference a division emerged between two perspectives for the labourmovement in the coming period.
On the one side, a perspective of class struggle, which uses the positions of strength already held by the labour movement on local councils and elsewhere to mobilise for a serious fightback against the Tory offensive. On the other side, a perspective which makes preserving positions on councils the priority, by a policy of 'riding the punches' of the Tory government.
This was most crassly expressed by Chartist Mike Davis with the sage motto. 'A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush'.
The division emerged around a resolution from Workers' Action supporters. It was not a stark proposal for an utterly inflexible commitment never under any circumstances to raise rates. Even a revolutionary group of councillors might have no alternative but to comply, to some degree, with the policies of a central government which it could scarcely hope to overthrow with its own efforts. A stark 'never' to rate rises would be a programme for wholesale withdrawal from local government by the labour movement.
But the resolution did attempt to commit the conference to a repudiation of the role which Labour-controlled councils normally fill, that of tamely participating in the administration of bourgeois society according to the bourgeois norms and the dictates of government, and, where 'necessary', cutting against the grain of working-class interests. It called for a commitment to struggle by left Labour councillors and councils, while realistically taking into account the possibility of defeat.
Yet in the discussion the opponents of the Workers' Action resolution insisted on distorting its meaning and caricaturing it. Their arguments were directed not against what it said, but against a position of immediate showdown at all costs and blanket opposition to any rate rises, ever, under any circumstances.
Caricaturing Workers' Action's position made it possible for the conference majority to continue to avoid both practical commitment to the struggle and a decision not to struggle. The Chartist tendency reflected the vacillations and contradictions in the conference, obstructing a clear commitment against business-as-usual Labour councillordom, and blocking a start in drawing the practical class struggle conclusions from premises they share with Workers Action.
Such a commitment meant a beginning of the work of organising to draw practical conclusions from general left ideas; the beginning of the necessary polarisation between those who are clear in their own minds that they are going to fight, and those who are only prepared to indulge in left talk.
It is the classic experience that the meaningful dividing line between revolutionaries and vague leftists emerges when it comes to the drawing of such partial conclusions from general 'left politics'.
We were also told that the Labour councils had to look to their commitments to maintain jobs and services (a bird in the hand, etc.) Yes, throughout the country Labour councils will be quite willing to discharge these responsibilities, in collaboration with the Tory government and on its terms!
But the left must organise against the Tory government onslaught. The 'bird in the hand' approach to the problem of local councils is a recipe for the most craven compliance with anything the government decrees.
In fact the relationship between Labour-controlled councils and the living standards-cutting Tory government is not something given once and for all. It can be modified tremendously in favour of the working class. It depends on mobilisation, on struggle.
Even if one defiant Labour council could be dealt with easily, could a string of such councils, across London or throughout the country, backed by the power of unions and tenants? (And in fact the last Tory government found it far from easy to deal with one tiny council in Clay Cross).
At the conference it was not a matter of ultra-left fantasies, but of orienting for a struggle, beginning from where we are.
The conference's responsibility was to adopt a class struggle policy that might allow 50cialist Organiser to rearm the left politically and begin to organise it against the Tory onslaught. To me degree that the left can organise class struggle (including around councils), then a real alternative to the sit-tight 'bird in the hand' approach will manifest itself and 'make sense' to those who want to fight in the working class interest.
At this stage it is necessary to hammer out and demarcate a real left, defined by commitment to class-struggle politics, not to seek to sink the identity of the Marxists in the broader left and that of the broader left in the labour movement.
With Labour-controlled councils it is now either class struggle politics or the role of administrator of capitalist politics and therefore also propagandist for bourgeois ideas.
Councils are subordinate to the national government, but despite this difference in scale all the arguments about the 'responsibility of councils to maintain jobs and services', and therefore not to risk the 'bird in the hand' by clashing with central government, are the self same arguments that Harold Wilson and James Callaghan have used to justify their politics-including their cuts.
They too have to be 'responsible', have to reckon with the entrenched power of the state, the City, big business and the IMF. All such things would be major problems for a Parliamentary-based seriously left Labour government. It would in fact be a left government only to the degree that it mobilised and fought against those forces.
Logically, the 'bird in the hand' approach to local government cannot be limited to local government. If it is a valid argument at all, it applies also to a national Labour government. If it justifies a policy of acquiescence in local government it justifies Callaghan before the IMF.
In fact Labour local ~government is and always has been a major school of class-collaborationist polices. The council Labour groups are, after the trade union bureaucracy, probably the most corrupting force in the labour movement. They tie the political labour movement to a soulless municipal administration that has nothing to do with socialism.
Almost everywhere the councillors form dictatorial, undemocratic cliques, with an almost Stalinist 'discipline', which in many areas allows them to play a dominant role in the local Labour Party.
It may not even be too much of an exaggeration to say that the activities of these councils are the opposite of the socialist struggle.
Socialist Organiser has carried articles on transforming this situation with local councils. All the less reason for supporters of Socialist Organiser to pretend such a transformation has already been accomplished, or to lend justification to the way Labour councils throughout the country will carry out the local implications of Thatcher's policy with talk of the need to be responsible to the 'bird in the hand'.
Workers' Action's motion
Workers' Action motion on rate rises to the June 1979 conference
This conference believes that a council's job is not to off-load the present crisis, particularly in local government finance and services, onto the backs of the working class, either through cutting back on jobs or services or through rent and rate rises.
Instead, this conference believes that the best way to meet the crisis is by united action, linking Labour councils, Labour Parties, trade unions and community organisations, to force those responsible to foot the bill. Such action should form an escalating campaign, leading up to industrial action and councils refusing to pay debt charges, with the aim of forcing central government to provide more funds.
The campaign should involve:
1. A fight to commit labour movement organisations to a policy of:
* nationalisation without compensation of the banks and financial institutions; the removal of the burden of interest charges on local authorities; and the abolition of the cash limits system.
* giving full and automatic support to any local councils, and other labour movement bodies, conducting a fight against cutbacks and rent and rate rises. This support must also be extended to local authority Workers fighting to improve their pay and conditions.
2. An immediate move to get local Labour Parties/trade union organisation to call borough-wide conferences, to which should be invited representatives from all the labour movement and community organisations in the particular area. We should campaign to get such conferences to discuss and decide on a joint local campaign, and also to establish labour-movement-based 'Fight the Cuts' committees to coordinate propaganda and action.
Cuts without a fight!
On JULY 9 1979 Lambeth announced 4.5% cuts. Report from Workers' Action, 21.7.79
Lambeth Council's Labour Group, meeting on 4th July, voted by 34 to 4 to cut spending on council programmes by 4.5%. The cuts include £1 million off social services and £800,000 off housing.
Camden councillor Ken Livingstone told Workers Action: "After all the posturing as 'Marxist Lambeth', already the right wing councillors here say, 'we'll do no more than Lambeth'. The real tragedy is that Ted [Lambeth council leader Ted Knight] has given a cover for every right-winger to put through cuts.
"We've all been sharing the same platforms as Ted. We got no idea he was considering these cuts".
Knight, who was a leading member of a revolutionary Marxist organisation, the Socialist Labour League, in the '50s and early '60s and declares he has not changed his ideas, won the leadership of Lambeth group on a programme of 'no cuts'. He also last year signed the platform of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, calling for no cuts and no rate rises.
At the group meeting Mike Bright, chair of Amenity Services, announced that the programme devised a few weeks earlier as the minimum for a Labour authority was in fact 'full of fat,' and that 'comrades ought to be reasonable'.
The local Trades Council was dismissed: 'who are these so-called people?' The local government workers' union NALGO is imposing a 'no cover' policy in response to the council's decision not to fill Town Hall vacancies if it can avoid it. Ted Knight ridiculed NALGO as irrelevant to the Labour struggle because they had not proved capable of resisting the Tory council in neighbouring Wandsworth.
Three councillors and an observer spoke against the proposed cuts. Bryn Davies, former deputy leader, argued for a supplementary rate rise. If the council was serious about its programme, he said, it should be prepared to justify another rate rise.
Observer Ian Murray from Vauxhall CLP argued:
* That the council should unconditionally support all workers, including the NALGO workers, fighting the Tory cuts;
* That the council should actively use its publicity machine to fight the Conservative government;
* That the councillors should realise they could not go on being the blade of the Tory knife.
Murray argued that the council should face the options of resignation or voluntary liquidation. ff any cuts were implemented mey should be in me Tory areas.
But Ted Knight heaped scorn on the public sector unions as ineffective. He said mat Lambeth council was already sailing too close to the wind on use of its facilities to fight the Tories, and refused to commit himself further. Nothing could be done until the workers had risen up and brought down me Tory government.
He defended the size of the cuts on me grounds that he was planning next year's cuts in advance so as to have a smooth downturn in council spending.
Thus the Black Queen has taken the Red Knight in Lambeth. Without a struggle, a fight or even a whimper, Lambeth councillors have given in-and all this in a week when they rejected new maternity and paternity leave proposals as too expensive at a projected £49,000, but voted to create more top jobs to cost £45,000 as 'the minimum required to implement their programme'. What programme?
The Labour group meeting also rejected a proposal to postpone the cuts decisions until the four local Constituency Labour Parties could have their say.
Norwood CLP has a long-standing policy of opposition to cuts, yet all the Norwood councillors, selected on the basis of being answerable to the General Management Committee's policies, voted for the cuts.
They must be called to account!
Norwood CLP already has an anti-cuts meeting planned for July 27th, and has been making contact with me trades council, NALGO, and other unions. The four GMCs are meeting on July 29th. They must instruct the councillors to take a different course:
* Opposition to freezing or vetting of vacancies, and full support for council workers fighting me cuts.
* Use of the council's facilities to campaign against the Tory cuts and the stranglehold of the moneylenders, and to rally local trade unions and community groups for a united fightback.
* Refusal to implement me cuts.
Supplementary rate rises are not me answer, and nor is voluntary liquidation. If Lambeth starts a fight, and links up with other councils and with the trade unions, then the Tories can be forced to retreat.
Solid support from council workers, and a pledge to take industrial action in case of government interference, could make the Tories think twice about intervening against a military Labour council.
Supplementary rate rises might be used to gain time if the council were building a campaign. But for now it seems the campaign must be built despite and against the council.
A QUESTION OF TACTICS
On July 291979 a Lambeth Labour Parties Local Government conference called on the council to revoke its cuts. Council leader Ted Knight accepted this decision and started a campaign against cuts. He explained himself in an interview with Socialist Organiser, September 1979.
What' s your view of the outcome of the local Government Conference?
It was my suggestion there should be such a conference, and I believe it gave Labour Party activists a chance to express their view as to the tactical approach we should make in the fight against the Tory government. They have made it very clear that they believe it is now the time to mount a campaign, and the Labour Group will take that into account when it meets in the first weeks of September.
I believe the debate we've been having is not a debate about principles but is a debate about tactics. If the Labour Party members are prepared to say that the situation is now ripe for mounting such a campaign, then we'l1 do it.
Don t you think there have been some inconsistencies in your attitude to the cuts over the last year? /n January there was a declaration against the cuts; in July the (7roup took the decision for a 4 per cent cut; and now you re saying you re against the cuts again.
I don't think there's any inconsistency at all. In January we were talking about the situation under a Labour government. We were saying that we would tolerate no cuts and that the government should provide the financial resources' and that was a fight within the labour movement itself, to force the Labour government into action.
Shortly after the Tory election, I indicated that I thought there was a need for a fight against the Tory government's cuts. The question of debate within the labour movement is how do you mobilise that campaign.
It seemed to me and the Labour Group here in Lambeth that there was very little opportunity of mounting that campaign to any successful degree between now and November. In November we are faced with massive cuts which will come in the Rate Support Grant declaration by the Tory government. The Labour Group sought, and I agreed with them, to give ourselves a breathing space between now and November by reducing the level of expenditure during that period by £3 million, which is less than the amount that is actually going to be cut from Lambeth.
By doing that we thought there was the possibility of a breathing space during which a campaign could be mounted to meet the Tory offensive.
I believe it's a question of tactics, and I think we made it very clear at the conference called by the Socialist Organiser, as did the conference itself, that there's no way of walking away from the possibility that there may be cuts or massive rate increases.
How do you see a campaign against the cuts developing concretely?
Irrespective of the decision the Labour Group takes in September, the campaign will be mounted by Lambeth making a call for the support of other boroughs in this situation. We'll be using the campaign originated by the London Labour Party executive, the 'Defend London' campaign, and we'll also be moving towards the declaration of a Day of Action in early November, where Lambeth will be using the trade union resources we have to mount a demonstration and march on Parliament. Hopefully we'll link up with other boroughs in the same fight and other unions drawn into the public sector struggle.
Then locally, of course, the Labour Parties have already agreed to the proposals I've made for mounting street meetings during the months of September and October, building up to the Day of Action. Following the Day of Action, we'll continue with the exposure of Tory policies and we will by then know the full brunt of the Tory attack next year. Then the Labour Parties will have to take their decision as to how they proceed from that point.
How do you expect to really get a campaign moving against the cuts when the Group here, and yourself, have already been involved in one round of cuts ?
Well, if we decide to change our minds in September and not to impose the cuts, there should be no problem. But I don't think there was any problem anyway.
What we were doing, and what we would have done, would have been to use the cuts we had made in order to show in real terms: what cuts mean. The cuts we suggested were those that did not involve any redundancies or loss of jobs in Lambeth' and didn't damage the services in particular. So that what we were showing in practice was what Tory cuts mean in real terms for people living in Lambeth.
So there's no problem. There was never any decision not to campaign. It is question of tactics. What comrades seem to be doing is to raise the question of cuts into a principle. If they pursue that policy, there's really no future.
Don’t you think your strategy could be seen as boiling down to postponing a fight into the indefinite future?
I think it could be seen that we didn't believe we were going to win at the moment. That's true. But then very often ~t is necessary in a struggle to decide when to fight, and it was felt at the time that we took the decision in July that there wasn't a possibility of mounting a major campaign within a matter of a few months.
Since then, things may have helped, such as the Area Health Authority decision [to defy cuts] and others. to show that this may not necessarily be so.
'FIGHT LIKE CLAY CROSS!'
At an SCLV fringe meeting at 1979 Labour Party conference Dennis Skinner attacked the common notion that Clay Cross was a disastrous defeat.
Report from Workers' Action 8.1 0.79.
"It was a glorious fight. It was mainly successful. We've got to repeat it".
At the SCLV/Lambeth Against the Cuts meeting on Tuesday evening, Dennis Skinner called for Labour councils to fight the Tories now-like Clay Cross fought the last Tory government.
The consequences could be grave, he said. Twenty Clay Cross ex-councillors are still disqualified from public office, ten are undischarged bankrupts.
"But they are not bowed down". They are still active, still fighting, they still think what they did was right.
And it wasn't all a defeat. "The Clay Cross people alone were able to destroy the Housing Finance Act". After that Act was repealed by the Labour minority government, the Tories did not propose reintroducing it in their October 1974 manifesto.
On the cuts fight, Dennis Skinner argued, we can get wider support than Clay Cross did. He told the meeting about how a cut in Water Board expenditure had been defeated under the Labour government.
Many of the steelworkers at Staveley used to believe that cuts meant getting rid of an extra carpet here or an extra person there. "It was an abstract thing". Then they found their jobs were at threat because the Water Board was no longer buying the steel pipes they produced. They protested -and the cuts were reversed.
So "I think it's quite possible to stop these massive cuts in public expenditure.
"I don't accept that the Tories have got any mandate to do anything that upsets my class, the people I was elected to represent". When the Labour government was in, "what authority did the CBI have to mount an investment strike?
"How many votes did the IMF have? What mandate did the House of Lords have?"
We should reject any idea of the Tories
having a mandate and take as our guideline "defending and improving the conditions of the working class". "I went to the House of Commons the other day. They're not cutting there. It must be half a million pounds they are spending on the central heating". But the cuts hit the old and the sick hardest.
"There's got to be some action. And I don't say this lightly. Because the consequences for those in the centre of the struggle can be grave", as in Clay Cross.
But "We've never had these problems when the trade unions are really involved. When we marched to Pentonville Jail in 1972 no-one worried about the law".
In any case, "it won't be won in the courts. You won't defeat them by relying on MPs and other bureaucratic groups.
If they pursue that policy, there's really no future.
Don't you think your strategy could be seen as boiling down to postponing a fight into the indefinite future?
I think it could be seen that we didn't believe we were going to win at the moment. That's true. But then very often ~t is necessary in a struggle to decide when to fight, and it was felt at the time that we took the decision in July that there wasn't a possibility of mounting a major campaign within a matter of a few months.
Since then, things may have helped, such as the Area Health Authority decision [to defy, cuts] and others. to show that this may not necessarily be so.
Reliance must be placed on the rank and file". Dennis Skinner warned us against relying on "people who make speeches and then go away and make cuts".
"Have a lobby of Parliament, Ted" he said to Lambeth council leader Ted Knight (the Lambeth Against the Cuts speaker) beside him on the platform. "Have it. But don't expect too much to come of it". "It will be action that will win the day. It will need courageous people in the local authorities".
So "what we want is not one Clay Cross, but countless Clay Crosses, up and down the country".
Lambeth council leader Ted Knight also spoke.
"The coordination has got to be done by us. because Hattersley and Jack Smart and Transport House don't want a fight".
The packed 150-strong meeting on Tuesday evening, 2nd, jointly sponsored by Lambeth Against the Cuts and the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, was focused on rallying support for councils like Lambeth which are defying the cuts.
A united stand by many Labour authorities is essential, said Ted Knight. After Lambeth's stand, Haringey and Camden, and some councils outside London, have said they will refuse to make cuts.
"The question is how to mobilise support". And that's where we come into conflict with the Labour right wing.
An official Labour demonstration against the cuts has been organised for November 2&h, in opposition to the march called by Lambeth for November 7th. They justify it by the fact that November 28th is after the new Rate Support Grant levels are announced.
"That's just it". Hattersley will then try to convince us that it's settled and all we can do is discuss "how to equate the misery".
Ted Knight explained how in July Lambeth council had decided to go for £3 million cuts, and then, in line with the principle of accountability, had reversed them after the local Labour Parties insisted on no cuts.
Now Lambeth is mobilising. The South East Region of the TUC has pledged support tor November 7th, so have other union bodies. Lambeth direct labour workers have contacted other District Labour Parties throughout London.
Mike Davis spoke from the floor, explaining why the SCLV had chosen to focus on the cuts issue. "Unless a fighting socialist alternative in the Labour Party connects with the class struggle, it is not worthy of the name". Davis called for the maximum turnout for the SCLV's November 24 conference.
The other platform speaker was Stephen Corbishley (CPSA NEC, in a personal capacity), for the SCLV.
The TUC, he noted, is "committed to a strategy of talking, talking again, and hoping to God that the Tories will carry on talking to them".
We need not just a propaganda campaign, but "a fightback that links up the immediate struggles that are now going on"-and with a political focus, "taking on the banks and finance companies challenging interest rates and the money transferred to the banks".
The fight against the cuts is "linked into the fight inside the Labour Party. Yes, this could be the end of the Labour Party as we know it. The end of a Labour Party committed to compromise with thesystem".
To fight for that outcome, the SCLV is organised, not just around replacing MPs and councillors, but around a definite political platform for an all-round struggle.
The later part of the meeting was marred by a disruptive and point-scoring quarrel on rate rises. Ted Knight, summing up, said,, "I'm in favour of rate increases" (a view which the SCLV and Workers' Action reject), but he also stated well the basis for unity of the left in the struggle now against the cuts.
"I didn't raise the issue of rate rises. I think we're going out to defeat the government, not to work out how we're going to get round not having defeated the government in January or February".
Underestimating our strength
How did the Left assess what had happened in Lambeth? This statement in Socialist Organiser of October 1979 was signed by prominent supporters of rate rises within SO.
We note the decision of Lambeth Council to confront the Tory government by its refusal to carry out any cuts to balance its books.
We wish to warn all SCLV members and supporters that unless this authority is supported to the hilt, the outcome could be a major setback to the labour movement throughout the country. Lambeth Council is now set on course for what in the words of the Evening Standard (19.9.79) "could be the bloodiest battle with the government for years".
Lambeth, unlike virtually every authority, has listened to the instructions of its CLPs, and committed itself to an all-out battle against the government from now on.
In the past Socialist Organiser has printed criticism of Lambeth council leader Ted Knight for even contemplating any form of temporary compromise with the Tories and central government.
In our view, Ted Knight underestimated his own and his supporters' strength. But when comrades such as those now leading Lambeth council feel obliged. under pressure, to make concessions to the superior force of the capitalist state, it is not because they want to: it is because. to the extent that we lack the physical power enabling us to overthrow the whole system of big business, the insurance companies and the state-to that extent all of us are continuously forced to make concessions on the level of practical struggle.
What these events mean in reality is that we are involved in a struggle for power. What the Lambeth comrades need now, therefore. is not pious resolutions or recipes for socialism on paper- what they need is the real power which only all of us through our organisations in the mass movement can pro~ vide.
We therefore call on all Labour councils to stand by Lambeth in its fight. Concretely this means:
*Fighting to get all cuts decisions taken this year reversed.
*Where Labour councils refuse to do this, it means fighting for the removal of those councillors who will not stand by Lambeth.
*We call on our supporters on the Greater London Regional Council of the Labour Party, in London Labour Groups and GMCs to instruct all Labour Authorities to emulate Lambeth's stand.
*Fighting for the maximum Labour and trade union support for Lambeth's day of action on November 7th.
Bring down the Tory government!
For a Labour government to take over the banks and insurance companies!
For the full power of London's Labour movement to be mobilised in support of Lambeth council!
Chris Knight, Keith Venness, Ken Livingstone, Frank Hansen, Geoff Bender, Patrick Kodikara, Mike Davis
Struggle not excuses
Pete Firmin responded in Socialist Organiser of November 1979.
IN AN ARTICLE in the October Socialist Organiser-'Stand by Lambeth Council' - some supporters of the SCLV make statements which I believe need to be discussed further.
Of course it is the duty of socialists to give al1 possible support to the stand being taken by Lambeth Council-- and any other councils-against the cuts. However... Ted Knight did not just 'contemplate' some 'form of temporary compromise with the Tories and central government'. Lambeth Council decided to implement the cuts and only reversed its decision under pressure from the local labour movement.
Criticism of Lambeth council for its decision was fully justified, as is criticism of other Labour councils-be they left or right wing-which refuse to take a stand against the cuts. (Of course, we do not agree with anyone who uses the council's original decision to oppose support now).
The comrades seem to be making elaborate excuses for Lambeth council's pro-cuts decision. The excuses are not only elaborate, but positively insulting. The argument is: 'There was nothing else the councillors could do. The pressure was too strong'-as if the councillors did not have the wit or willpower to do anything but passively reflect contending social pressures.
Any serious political activists tries to help create or resist social pressures, not just respond to them. Those are the standards by which the Lambeth councillors must be judged-and by which as self-respecting people, they would no doubt wish to be judged.
Of course, concessions have to be made 'on the level of practical struggle', but such concessions are made in struggle, when support is lacking for further struggle. For example, a council could decide to refuse to implement the cuts and be beaten back or fail to arouse sufficient support in the local labour movement.
But how could it further the struggle against the cuts, let alone the struggle for the 'overthrow of the whole system of big business', for a council to agree from the beginning, without any attempt at mobilisation or struggle, to implement the cuts.
The comrades appear to say in some mystified way-that the struggle against the cuts was furthered by implementing them. The comrades would not recognise this conclusion as theirs, but it is the rational thread of the bombast about 'power'.
Then the comrades turn round, after Lambeth council has reversed its decision, to say 'we are involved in a struggle for power', 'what the Lambeth comrades need now... is the real power which only all of us through our organisations in the mass movement can provide' .
Obviously the view that one decision against the cuts means a struggle for power (apparently meaning state power) is consistent with the idea that nothing can be done until we can overthrow capitalism. However, it is hardly consistent with reality.
The struggle by councils against the cuts may develop and link up with other battles, so that they broaden into a struggle for power, and this is obviously the direction in which all revolutionaries should strive-but it is the least likely of many possibilities (retreat by the Tories, compromise, the council giving way, etc...)
Certainly we need to organise maximum support in the labour movement for Lambeth's stand against the cuts, but talk of 'giving the councillors the power...'can be misleading. What does this concretely mean? It means that we mobilise maximum support for the council but leave control of the struggle in the hands of the councillors.
We would argue that support should be built, not on the basis of just depending on the councillors to lead the struggle, but independently, so as to be able to continue the struggle if the council backs down or falters.
Mobilisation is needed in support of Lambeth's stand, on November 7 and after, but it must be done without myths and mystifications.
Conference opposes rises
In November 1979 the SCLV/SO conference reaffirmed the 'no rate rise' line after sharp debate. Report in SO, December 1979.
AFIER SHARP debate. a motion opposing rate rises was carried. It was moved by Gordon Brewer (Lothian).
"The question of the rates", he said. "is more and more becoming the dividing line between a campaign against the cuts based on direct action, and a campaign that confines itself to verbal opposition ".
Rate rises are another form of cut. For council tenants, for example, rate rises are indistinguishable from rent rises. And rate rises as a way of squeezing the middle class are not progressive. "We won't win over people by attacking them".
In any case, rate rises cannot offset the cuts. Without an all-out fightback,the result will be. not rate rises or cuts, but rate rises and cuts. This is doubly true about Michael Heseltine's recent announcement that the government will take action against councils levying big rate rises.
Rate rises run counter to a fight against the curs: "It is ludicrous to think we can mobilise people by cutting their living standards". And indeed, the arguments for rate rises "base themselves not on the class-struggle perspective of challenging the capitalist system, but on the existing role of councils, on the alternatives within the existing framework". Rate rises are often "the way right wing and soft left councillors get out of mobilising for a struggle".
Pete Rowlands (West London) agreed that rates are a regressive form of taxation, that "we would not argue that rate rises are some way of offsetting cuts", and that within the next two years it will become impossible to use rate rises. But, he said, in the short term, "if a council feels incapable of fighting both cuts and rate rises, that position should not be opposed".
Councils opposing rate rises as well as cuts will go down to defeat-just as Clay Cross was "a defeat for our movement". And "we are not in favour of heroic defeats. Better to have a Labour council in Lambeth next year, even if * has to raise rates, than to have Commissioners sent in by the Tories".
Bill Bowring, one of the Lambeth councillors who opposed cuts even in July when the council majority voted for cuts, spoke against rate rises. '`It is a question of mobilising the working class as a whole politically against this government".
Labour councillors are not shop stewards, touting for the best deal they can get, he said. They are people who manage the local state. "Are we going to be the agents of the capitalist state in carrying out these cuts" - thus directly opposing the working class?
Rate rises are another form of cut. And "it is nonsense", said Bowring, "to say that it is better to have left Labour councils carrying out cuts or rate rises than to have Tories doing it".
Geoff Bender (Lambeth) said that "none of us is over the moon about the prospect of rate rises", but the question is to have an analysis and strategy rather than posturing.
We must "unite with material forces capable of defeating the Tories". And the real dividing line is on making cuts or not, not on rate rises. Brewer had said that rate rises were another form of cut -how did he explain Heseltine's promise to penalise councils who raise rates?
Those arguing against rate rises would, said Bender, fail to support Lambeth council against the Tories if Lambeth raises rates. But without rate rises, Labour councils would go broke.
Dave Spencer (Coventry) disputed Pete Rowlands' assertion that Clay Cross was a defeat. By making a stand, Clay Cross had shown to wide sections of the labour movement that it was possible to defy the government.
Many Labour councils, like Coventry's, are 'anti-cuts in words-but they "speak with a forked tongue". We should tell them "we don't want them to manage on behalf of the Tory government. We want them to make a stand and mobilise against the Tory government ".
Al Crisp (UPW, International Telephones) said that 'If councils don't raise rates, they will go bankrupt". That means not paying wages, not providing services. Those opposing rate rises are "walking away from the fight" and refusing to back councils like Lambeth against the Tories.
Martin Thomas (Islington) replied that there is "no question" of us not supporting Lambeth's defiance on the cuts if Lambeth raises rates. "We support any section of the labour movement that fights the Tories. But we also say when we disagree with their policy".
Rate rises may be a necessary compromise forced on a local labour movement that has to retreat in struggle. But "if you retreat before you start. you certainly won't win".
If the Tories are not defeated. rate rises will not stop councils going broke. It will be rate rises and cuts. Rate rises are not an alternative to cuts, but an alternative to a fight.
Keith Veness (Islington) argued that rates are a form, however imperfect, of redistributive tax and of increasing public expenditure. ''We are being asked to vote against increasing public expenditure". And "any form of redistribution of incomes is preferable to no redistribution of income".
Thus the "no rate rise" policy is "abstentionist", it means ''sitting on the sidelines", it would "in a certain sense, mark the bankruptcy of the SCLV".
The Lothian motion opposing rate rises was carried by 155 votes to 67. A separate count was made of the voting by labour movement delegates (who had multiple votes: 5 for CLPs and Trades Councils. 2 for trade union branches. etc.: on that count the Lothian motion was carried by 44 to 33.
For a patient Left
By March 1980 SO had effectively split. Mike Davis and Geoff Bender wrote this polemic on behalf of themselves, Jeremy Corbyn, Mark Douglas, Keith Veness, and Pete Powlands (SO, March 1980).
THE founding conference of the SCLV over 20 months ago brought together over 200 Labour activists who say; the need to organise in the face of the low profile of the official left' in the movement to provide a united socialist alternative to the unpalatable choice of Callaghan or Thatcher. Our aim was to group? together, on a flexible non-sectarian basis, all the forces inside (and out, in some cases, of the Labour Party prepared to fight for a Labour victory on a clear anti-capitalist and class basis.
Labour lost the election. But the need to develop, clarify and above all unify the growing and revitalised forced on the Labour left is now imperative if we are to defeat both the Tories and the forces of the right in the Labour Party itself. To do this successfully we believe the SCLV needs a relatively open structure capable of forging the widest class unity in action and providing a forum for tendencies and individuals on the left to come together for debate and action.
We believe the conference vote to amend the Hackney resolution which argued for an open alliance, and to reject the West London motion which made the call for the SCLV to be open to those in the Party ready to break with the social democratic leadership and go forward to the socialist reconstruction of society, means that the SCLV has now detached itself from the conception which originally created the campaign and motivated it up until the Local Government Conference in London in June 1979.
The conception of the SCLV as a broad alliance of tendencies and individuals as a campaign rather than a revolutionary sect with an outward-looking approach to involving new people in the paper and campaign activity and with the platform as a guide rather than a catechism has now been rejected.
This conception which enabled us to organise the successful local government conference attended by 230 activists from the London region with representation from 30 CLPs, etc., interventions at the Party and TUC conferences, gain wider sponsorship and created a credible image for the campaign with a potential for growth has now been junked in favour of a more tightly-knit organisation, with a hard-line intransigent face.
The problem is one of confusing a campaign for definite aims-the defeat of the right wing in the Labour Party and the creation of a broad socialist alliance -with the functions of a Marxist tendency which has a wider mandate based on programmatic and strategic considerations for achieving socialism. A campaign is by definition an alliance, and whilst it requires guidelines for its activity, should not be organised or directed by the tighter 'higher-level-of agreement' prescriptions that bind together a revolutionary tendency.
Many leading SCLV activists seem to be motivated by the view that we're not so much a campaign, more a finished revolutionary grouping imbued with the idea that it has all the political answers while the rest of the left wanders about clueless, waiting for us to rope them in.
We believe that in adopting such a conception, the SCLV is unlikely to attract the many unaligned socialists in the party or outside or involve in the campaign the activists in the Institute for Workers' Control, Independent Labour Publications, the Labour Coordinating Committee and Tribune supporters, Campaign for Labour Party Democracy workers and the like.
Wel1 before the recal1 conference it was evident that supporters or Workers' Action were working to change the SCLV into a much harder, tighter, more exclusive set-up. The organisation of the recall conference along narrower lines, for example, the refusal to agree to send open delegate invitations to CLPs and other organisations not sponsoring SCLV, the issue of supporters cards and so on.
Whilst motivated by a desire to cement existing supporters, it had the effect of closing doors to potential supporters. The most damaging decision was the conference rejection of the Hackney proposal that no tendency should have a majority on the Steering Committee, both de jure and de facto: thus marginalising the vital tension and premium on winning others to particular views that gave the campaign strength in its early days.
At the very time that the campaign should be proving itself as a genuine non-dogmatic alliance of tendencies and individuals and creating a democratic climate capable of attracting Labour Party militants trying to tackle the right, a single-though important-tendency in the SCLV sees fit to assert its own politics.
The conference refused to accept the need (proposed by the Overseas Telephones SO group) for a reworking of the platform along less declamatory lines, making it less of a shopping list of slogans and demands and actually explaining out the aims of the campaign (as the founding statement did) and we have a sectarian 'holier than thou' attitude emerging. The left must be built '6around our platform andpolitics.
On the fight against cuts the Campaign seems to be accepting the view., expressed by a speaker that the main divide in the movement is not between those prepared or not to fight the cuts but between those who believed local councils should follow a policy of bankruptcy by refusing to raise rates and those who raised rates to maintain and expand jobs and services.
On women's oppression, the successful amendment blandly called for the"restructuring and reorienting of sections of the existing women's movement". Fortunately sucl1 patronising arrogance has not at present marred the work of the Women's Fightback campaign thougl1 a political rethink away from glib formulas of ''for a working class women's movement" is surely necessary.
For a campaign like the SCLV to have any value it must set its sights on the fight against the right wing within our movement and seek to organise on the left in a patient and non-sectarian manner. Already a number of individual supporters have withdrawn to direct their abilities elsewhere. Can the SCLV return to its original conceptions and recoup the ground that has been lost?
Some of us hope so, but the onus is on those the conference elected to reassess their direction before it is too late.
Fight now or wait for the big battalions?
In April 1980 Lambeth made a 49.4% rate rise and a £1.50 rent rise. Ted Knight responded to criticism by a bitter attack on SO. John O'Mahony replied with an open letter in Socialist Organiser, May 1980.
Dear Comrade Knight,
I decided to write this open letter when I read your article Build a wall of unity across London in London Labour Briefing. It was perhaps due in any case.
From being chair of the July 1978 conference which founded the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory, as an early supporter of Socialist Organiser, you have adopted a more and more antagonistic, rancorous and splenetic attitude to us.
You long ago abandoned the position against rent and rate rises adopted without opposition at the July 1978 SCLV conference, and now we find ourselves sharply opposed on this serious question.
You denounce the no rent and no rate rise policy as a 'recipe for political disaster'. Socialist Organiser thinks on the contras y that your policy of rent and rate rises is a policy of disguised cuts of working class living standards, and a backdoor form of collaboration with the Tories to implement cuts. It testifies to a grievous misunderstanding on your part of what the responsibilities of serious socialists are right now, be they in a trade union, in the Parliamentary Labour Party, or in control of a Labour council.
Far from being a policy to rally forces behind Labour councils, your policies can only give Heseltine a weapon to split and divide local communities and alienate support from Labour councils.
Whatever our differences, SO will continue to support Lambeth or any other council which fights the Tories, even if only partially or hesitantly, and even if you do it with politics which we think inadequate or seriously wrong-headed.
Since we do not (contrary to the view you attribute to us) think it a matter of principle never in any circumstances to raise rents and rates, the dispute, for now, concerns matters of opinion and political judgement.
We try to win enough support to make our judgement Party policy and to have your policy rejected, but this is still tor us a dispute to be fought by argument and votes in the appropriate labour movement bodies. It is a dispute within the left wing of the London labour movement.
But you don't see it like that. Any leftwing criticism of your policies you present as testifying to a bad faith which makes those on the left who criticise you the same as the right. Your London Labour Briefing article attempts through smear tactics to link the SO left with the right wing. You write:
"A feature of the (London Labour) conference was a unity between right wing spokesmen and those associated with Socialist Organiser in a desperate, and at times hysterical endeavour to characterise Lambeth council as a 'cutter'.
"Both groups see the danger of acknowledging that an independent left wing council can defy the Tory government and maintain a policy of refusing to cut any service' or job, or job opportunity.
"Finally they declare Lambeth councillors to be traitors because they have put up council rents. After a three-year rent freeze, and a manifesto commitment limiting such a standstill to a period of wage restraint, Lambeth councillors were faced with a clear risk of surcharge if they refused to make an increase".
The technique you use here has long been a prize exhibit in the black museum of working class history. It is the Stalinist technique dubbed 'the amalgam' by Trotsky in the 1930s when it was used to poison the labour movement against the Trotskyists by 'amalgamating' their politics and criticism of Stalinism with those of the Right, and pretending that Right and revolutionary Left were there~ fore in some mysterious way identical.
Just what has the position of SO to do with the Right? They are unhappy withrate rises and prefer cuts instead; we oppose cuts and oppose rent and rate rises because we think they are a variety of cuts. What is there in common? Nothing whatsoever!
Except that Ted Knight wants to present himself as being hounded by the Right and rese.nts and fears the criticism of the Left.
Comrade Knight, you spent a considerable part of your life ;n the Trotskyist movement. (It is no secret. and you have not declined to talk to the capitalist press about it). 23 years ago you were a business manager of Labour Review* which exposed and: helped clear away the mountains of Stalinist lies and "amalgams" which had suffocated the Marxists between the '30s and the '50s.
Many SO readers will find it hard to imagine how effective-for a quarter of a century-the Stalinist system of ideological terrorism- based on lies and 'amalgams' was in poisoning the moral, political and intellectual life of the labour movement, and in isolating the Trotskyists. You however must remember it. Like everyone who lived through even part of that period as a Marxist, you learned to hate the mendacity the demagogy, and the lack of political scruple of those who used the 'amalgam'.
Of course, the content of your smear is modest enough compared with what the Stalinists did. And there is no Lambeth GPU. But in principle it is no different. Nor, I suspect, is it different in intent.
When spleen against your left critics leads you to use this foul and dishonourable technique then perhaps it is time you took a cool look at where you have arrived at politically now-and at where you are going
You smear SO, I suggest, because there is a major and increasing contradiction between your projection of yourself (and, perhaps, how you think of yourself), as a man of the revolutionary Left, and the actual political role you now play You now occupy a position not too far from what we used to call a 'fake left’. Your talk is a great deal more 'left' than your actions.
You feel any challenge to your credibility keenly because you know it to be vulnerable. When you say-on what basis?-that we call you a 'traitor', one wonders if the accusing voice you hear is not inside your own head. We have not called you a traitor. You are seriously failing to be a revolutionary militant, but you are not yet a traitor.
Let us discuss the situation. I want to try to state and define the differences dividing us for two reasons.
In the first place SO cannot go on silently tolerating disloyal attacks such as yours. And in the second place, to define our differences and clear away misunderstandings (if such there be) will help perhaps to prepare unity* in action against our common enemies where that is possible.
Most of what I have to say implies that you have much in common with SO-if that were not so, there would be no point in the letter.
Our root difference lies in our perspectives for the labour movement and what conclusions serious socialist militants should draw from those perspectives. Britain is in a chronic and accelerating decline. There is no way out under capitalism. In order even to protect itself the working class must fight to put in a workers' government to fight for its interests.
Socialists must strive to orientate the entire labour movement towards the goal of taking control of society away from the incompetent parasites who now dominate and ruin or threaten to ruin our lives -not in the distant future, but in the next period ahead. Ail the present struggles-including the struggle to kick the Tories out-must be focused (insofar as Marxists can affect their focus) on that perspective. It is a matter of great urgency that the Marxists within the labour movement bind themselves together to help prepare the labour movement for this fight.
"The alternative may very- well be a major and historic defeat for the working class of Britain ".
The central question now is to break the labour movement from class collaboration; to break it from the dominant reformist commitment to bargaining within the capitalist system on a basis of taking responsibility for the system and being confined to capitalist options within it.
But you, however, see your role and responsibility in Lambeth as only a matter of being a humane administrator there.
That Lambeth Council has avoided any serious cuts is something to be proud of But how has it been achieved? By backdoor cuts in living standards!
Council services, plus disposable income, plus government services add up to one standard of living for the workers in the area. You act and talk as if they don't. You operate as if your only concern is with the gross council service component of it-even if that is maintained by 'redistributing' net income within one and same living standard to sustain it.
This is myopic and a bureaucratically compartmentalised falsification of reality.
That your view of your 'department's' responsibilities is a humane and a good one does not make a difference to theutterly inadequate view of the world involved here.
A socialist militant, as distinct from a professional councillor, is concerned with the social overview and the general consequences of what he does to sustain his or her own 'department'. But not you.
In order to avoid the risk of losing your position in Lambeth (as a result of taking on the Tories and being surcharged or disqualified) you pass on the Tory cuts, translated into cuts in income by rent and rate rises. You refuse to stand and fight the Tories now, and instead cling to the power to decide from which area of working class income the siphoning off should take place.
This is the essential truth, even if some redistribution of income to the working class of Lambeth may occur from the high proportion of Lambeth rates raised from business premises.
And of course you know that rate rises are not a way of avoiding indefinitely the choice of cuts or taking on the government.
Instead of preparing for that confrontation, you have turned Lambeth Council into a major school of reformist class collaboration for Lambeth and the London labour movement. You teach 'responsibility', confinement to the parameters and options laid down by the Tory government (until the 'big battalions' of Labour kick the Tories out), to justify and explain the choices you make and advocate within those parameters.
To justify your rate-rise policies, you refer to powers above you-the government-that you dare not take on or challenge at a fundamental level. Isn't this in essence the sort of argument Callaghan used to justify his posture before the IMF?
If the argument holds good for you in Lambeth, confronting the Tory government, why not for Healey and Callaghan and Wilson in the weak and isolated British state, confronted by the IMF?
Wilson and Callaghan might have said that weak Britain could not win against the international capitalist system-and many miseducated reformist workers would agree with them. It is even true that though the workers in Britain could take power, the immediate consequence would be, at least, boycott and sabotage, withdrawal of credit, etc., by international capitalism, and therefore it is true that there could be a possibility of stabilising workers' power only if the anti-capitalist movement spread to countries like France and Germany.
Immediately after taking power, the British workers' state would face a very difficult period.
If we apply your argument about Lambeth-supposedly under the control of the Left and those like you who present themselves as revolutionaries-to Britain as a whole, it is an argument not to take power until the 'big battalions of France and Germany' lead... it is an old argument of the more aware reformists and reactionaries in the labour movement to justify their own passivity and accommodation.
Lambeth alone can't defeat the Tories? No indeed! But you could give a lead that would inspire the general resistance to the Tories. At the least you would be a Clay Cross on a much larger scale; and even to be a Clay Cross on the original scale was no small thing.
In your interview with the Chartist magazine (March-May 1980) you say you hope to avoid cuts on top of the rate rises. You base this on the belief ('perspective') that the labour movement will fight the Tories and drive them from office (and you seem to set a maximum time scale of one year for this-it must happen 'before April 1981').
The clear implication is that if we don't fight, or if we fight and don't win, then you will probably have to cut.
But this is the 'perspective' you had in July 1979 when you cited the fact that the 'big battalions' had not yet moved against the Tories (two months after the election ! ) to justify capitulation to Heseltine and the imposition of cuts (which were later reversed when the Lambeth Labour Party revolted against and overturned your policy).
Three things are wrong with your 'perspective'.
In the first place, it is a more or less explicit 'declaration of intent' to capitulate and make cuts (on top of rent and rate rises) if the labour movement does not manage to settle with the Tories in a few short months. Now SO also believes the working class will take on the Tories and that we can beat them this time round too. But for a militant in a key position to make his decision on whether to fight (or, as now, manoeuvre), or surrender dependent on a decisive victory by others on his own side within a short time ahead is utterly unserious.
Your 'left' talk about industrial action to bring down the Tories turns out to be an excuse to wait on events. Do you remember NUM President Joe Gormley in 1973 calling for a general strike-when he was trying to convince the miners that they alone should not take on the Tories ?
In the second place, it has nothing to do with a Marxist idea of 'perspective' - it is nothing but passive expectation and hope.
Your conception of the role and responsibilities of a militant is remarkably like that of the Militant tendency. For what is to be the role of the leader of Lambeth council in the battle to dislodge the Tories, which you call for? What will be the role of Lambeth Council itself? Is it to be a bastion of left wing and working class strength (which it could be perhaps, but is not now), or is it to be preserved at all costs from possible damage in the struggle?
Your vision of the struggle against the Tories is a vision of a purely industrial struggle - to be initiated and waged by others. You hope the industrial struggles of the working class will come to your rescue-and meanwhile 'the Leader' administers Lambeth humanely. And if the rescue does not come in time you will have to consider administering it less humanely by making cuts.
I suspect that this 'syndicalist' (for other people) view of the struggle is probably central to your present outlook. For ff you conceived of the struggle as demanding the mobilisation of working class communities, tenants, etc., then you could not blithely raise rents and rates.
In the third and final place, I suspect you do not believe in your own 'perspective'. You do not at all act like a man who takes his own ideas seriously.
If decisive class battles are in the offing, then a serious militant would feel a strong need to find his own role in the struggle, to help develop it-perhaps to spark it: because you know that there are no grounds for confidence that the leaders of the 'big battalions' will lead the working class struggle against the Tories. But your only conclusion from your 'perspective' is that it is a licence to hang on in Lambeth. It is no more than an alibi for time-serving now.
If you really believed in the likelihood of a decisive labour movement clash with the Tory government then you would be less timid in face the government (and feel less need to lash out at the Left). And if you were still a militant, you would not shirk the personal risks (surcharge, disqualification as a councillor, gaol) of confrontation with the government, if that could give a lead to the movement.
Of course one understands the psychological logic of someone switching from the mindless voluntarism of the late-'60s SLL to Militant-style passive 'perspectives'. But the fact remains that either you no longer see any role for yourself in the struggle or else you do not believe in 'the perspective' you enunciate. Which is it?
Before you tried to identify SO with the Right you should have remembered the well-known proverb, 'one does not speak of the rope in the house of the hanged'. For though you need to present yourself as one who is hounded by the Right, in fact you seem to have much better relations with the Right (in Lambeth and in London) than you have with the revolutionary Left. For example, a few minutes of discussion between yourself, pocket calculator in hand, and the Right, sufficed to determine the size of rate increase in Lambeth recently.
Last July-and we have seen what 'perspectives’ you had then-when you decided to carry out cuts, you gave a signal to every right wing council in the country to follow suit. Your 'Red Knight' publicity had given you a national standing as a foremost opponent of the Tories and their cuts, and you had a solid base of support.
Yet two months after the election, when the movement was still feeling its way on how to deal with the Tories, when many people looked to Lambeth's 'Red Knight' for a lead, you signalled, loudand clear: 'Surrender, cut'.
You said the 'big battalions' had not moved to bring down the government, so there was no choice but to surrender. And every right wing council in the country breathed a sigh of relief.
The revolt of the Lambeth Labour Parties soon forced you to rescind the cuts. (In my opinion you do not have a right to the lavish self-praise for 'democratic accountability' which you now give yourself when publicly discussing this episode. A right winger or a Tribunite might have: not someone with your history).
But if one wants the outstanding recent example of leftists helping the Right, and even momentarily politically amalgamating with them (under cover of 'left' flak), then that was surely it, comrade Knight.
It is, I have suggested, this sort of contradiction between what you do and what you say that makes criticism from the left dangerous (and perhaps painful) for you. How unaware are you of the contradiction? The record suggests that you must be aware of it.
In July 1978 the SCLV conference chaired by you adopted the no rent and rate rise policy, with not one voice of opposition. It must have seemed to everyone present to be your politics too.
At a conference on the cuts called by the SCLV in June 1979, you may have been decisive in persuading the majority to opt for rate rises as the only alternative to cuts. A couple of weeks later you tried to cut, on top of raising the rates.
That you considered cuts an immediate option when you make those 'militant' speeches seems more or less certain. Were you just saying the 'popular thing' at conference to bamboozle people that rate rises were an alternative to cuts-or don't you know from one day to the next what you will do?
Again. In the recent interview with Chartist magazine, you pronounce yourself against rent-increases-about a week before you imposed an average rent increase of about £1.50 a week on the working class tenants of Lambeth Council.
How would you go about arguing that this is not the record of one who knowingly fakes?
Finally, one of the central things about the role and contradictions I have discussed above is, think, that you necessarily have a purely personalist view of politics now.
A man alone in a very loose social democratic party, you must protect yourself from surcharge, ~ail, disqualification from public office. What is 'the Leader of Lambeth' if he can no longer be even a councillor?
The Clay Cross councillors took on the Heath government and when the 'first 11' were victimised, a 'second 11' came forward. They were part of a fighting community. Each one could confidently say, "If I go down, there are others to come after me". They behaved as great working class fighters, and dealt blows to the government out of all proportion to Clay Cross's size.
But you, comrade Knight' are an individual operating through loose alliances, without a stable political base, and not one of a group of revolutionaries. You cannot think that you are replaceable- or not at any rate with equanimity. You have only the weapons of manoeuvre and manipulation. You are increasingly driven by the contradictions in your position to resort to the arts of the 'fake left' -and to the use of techniques like 'the amalgam'.
~Without being part of a serious political organisation, you have advanced to high political office, to a key position in the London labour movement. Faced with the prospect of a fight you feel weak and isolated; faced with capitulation- with betraying your whole political life -you vacillate and try to manoeuvre, and lash out at the revolutionary left.
The name the Marxist movement has given to the type of political course you have chosen is adventurism. It is a process whereby the one-time professional revolutionary can sink into being a professional leader of a safe Labour council.
The point where you find yourself using Stalinist techniques against the revolutionary Left should be the point where you take stock. Events are likely to move fast in the period ahead. You are probably much further along the road to being a professional councillor, and more distant from being a revolutionary, than you know yourself to be.
Fighters or agents
In autumn 1981 support for 'no cuts, no rate rise' ran high, and Tribune came out for confrontation. Response by John O'Mahony: SO 10.9.81 and Briefing, October 1981.
"Sooner or later we have to recognise that we are losing the arguments in favour of maintaining services at the cost of high rents and rates.
"We are losing because Labour voters simply cannot afford to pay any more. In council homes the length of Britain, Labour councils are being blamed for the high rates and rents which are the direct result of Tory policies.
"If the slide is to be halted, Labour must take a stand...
"Not only is Labour losing the battle over cuts, it is also getting most of the
blame for the consequences. Sooner or later there is going to have to be a confrontation . ."
CHRIS MULLIN, Tribune, August 28, 1981
Hunters whose 'strategy' is to grab the large wild beast firmly by the tail and- without making the kill-to settle down to preparing the meal, are not quite as in touch with reality as they need to be.
If the animal has sharp teeth and claws, the hunter is quite likely to become a meal himself.
It was such a strategy that led the local government Left to try to respond to the cuts drive of the most indiscriminately vicious government we have had in Brit ain for 40 years by trying to just quietly get on with administering local government.
This was a major experience of the Left in the last two years. And it was the major dividing point between London Labour Briefing and Socialist Organiser.
The lessons are vital for the struggle yet to come.
The central truth is that we did not- as some comrades thought we did- have local government 'power'. In a clash with central government over fundamentals there is no such thing.
Local government is at every point, RE legally and financially (and, in a crunch, by way of the military/police power of the central state) subordinate to centra1government. There is not-nor, unless the central state has disintegrated, can there be-such a thing as a 'People's Republic of Lambeth' (or Lothian).
After Thatcher won the 1979 election, we were peacefully able to do in local government only what a Tory government bent on savage cuts would allow us to do.
There were only two choices.
Either to comply with the government, thereby turning Labour-controlled councils into mere agencies for carrying out government-decreed cuts and passing them on to workers and small shopkeepers;
Or, to confront the government.
Labour-controlled councils had the choice of being centres of sabotage, guerrilla warfare and resistance to the government, or of being groups of quislings terrorised by Tory threats, agents working for the Tories against their own people.
That is still the choice now.
Nowhere does Tony Benn's proposal (in Arguments for Democracy) for noncollaboration and 'disengagement' by the labour movement from the institutions of Thatcherism have more direct and immediate relevance than for local government ‘which has been assigned to the role of the blade of the Tories' axe.
The fatal illusion to avoid at all costs is the belief that Labour local government can continue to go its own sweet way, more or less humanely administering local affairs and ignoring the central government. The beast is alive and has teeth and claws which it is certain to use!
Rent and rate rises were at best a species of evasive action-a manoeuvre which had to be carried out on terrain which remained under the guns of the government and ultimately under its firm control. Confrontation, a challenge to the overall central government control by action aimed to rouse a national struggle, was ruled out by the local government Left.
Labour local councils found themselves on a slippery slope. The Tories could and did simply siphon off more than was raised through rate rises by cutting the flow of central government support. Having-to take the case of Lambeth-raised rates to avoid confrontation and thereby cut seriously into the living standards of workers in the area-the leaders of the council found that me Tories' big stick was still there. Capitulation followed.
In Tribune of August 28 Chris Mullin accurately summed up the present situation of Labour councils:
"The 1982 election will simply be a
competition between two-and possibly three-main parties to see which shall have the honour of administering the cuts decreed by central government. Opposition to cuts is no longer an option. Instead the parties will be reduced to arguing that 'our cuts are more humane than yours'. "
But that has, essentially, been the choice for over two years.
It is not mainly a matter of recriminations. It is a matter of learning the lesson that we are faced with either destroying the Tory government or living under its anti-working class measures- and, in local government, with either using it as a base for operations against them, or with being forced to be their instruments.
It is a matter of learning that for serious socialists the 'option' - i.e. illusion-of assuming local power' was no alternative to the only realistic option, of being revolutionary militants.
For in essence the local government rent and rate rise option was a decision to be administrators, humane administrators, not militants concerned with the overall effects of the Tory onslaught.
The delusion that we already had little chunks of 'power' locally and could exercise it, was disorienting.
For even if an armed labour movement held real power in London, as the workers in Paris did for two months in 1871, it would have been necessary-if we were not to repeat the mistake made according to Karl Marx's analysis, by the Paris workers in 1871-to go on the offensive against the government of the rest of the country. And Labour councils do not hold state power, even locally.
The rent and rate rise strategy meant turning the left local councils into schools of class collaboration. There was not one of the arguments in support of the rent and rate rise policy that could not be applied to explain and justify 'the need' to cut. Even a cutting Labour council is still preserving some jobs and services, and wouldn’t Tory commissioners be even worse.
And every one of the arguments about local government being 'realistic' and 'responsible' faced with the national Thatcher government could be applied and extended to a British Labour government facing the IMF. Indeed, they were so applied by the leaders of the last Labour government, and the same arguments may we]l serve a Labour government again.
Now we have cuts in Lambeth and Lothian. Both the councillors and the labour movement were softened up for these cuts by all that went before and especially prepared by the pseudo left rationalisations. The local labour movement could only be turned away from the Labour council by rent and rate rises which cut living standards; and the eventual option of confrontation at the eleventh hour to stop cuts could only be: made more difficult. Inevitably the price of the rate-rise strategy ?The loss of support from tenants and others who would be decisive in a fight.
The rent and rate rises were' for that reason alone, counterposed right from the start to ever standing up to the Tories. All it needed was for the Tories to tighten the screws, and the rate-raisers did what they had always been doing -cut into workers' standards. this time by cuts.
There was no reason to expect that- to stick to the Lambeth experience-the 'left' talking council leaders could choose to fight in the last ditch, if it got that far. Nobody should have been taken in by Ted Knight, who tried (though he was overruled by the local Labour Party) to impose cuts a mere two months after the Tory victory. Yet Knight's performance is the best measure of the rent and rate rise strategy.
One, two or many Clay Crosses would have been much better. That was adefeat that shook not the labour movement but the Heath government, and helped force the repeal of the 'Fair Rents' Act.
Now we have a worse starting point than two years ago, because the experience of Lambeth and Lothian must depress the movement to some extent. Yet the fight goes on.
- Chris Mullin in Tribune suggests a way forward, and we urge London Labour Briefing to unite with Socialist Organiser and others to fight for it. Even now Labour-controlled town halls can become forts for the resistance to demolition squad Toryism, not seats of its reluctant) local agents.
*Cast iron Shadow Cabinet guarantees that surcharged councillors will be indemnified by an incoming Labour government.
*Labour Local Government Committees must coordinate a mass refusal by Labour councils to either increase rates and rents unreasonably or slash services.
*If the Tories sent in the commissioners councillors could occupy Town Halls and organise resistance by staff.