Local Government Left: Open Letter to Ted Knight, Lambeth Council (May 1980)

Submitted by dalcassian on 16 February, 2017 - 2:29 Author: Sean Matgamna

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, and an early supporter of Socialist Organiser, you have adopted a more and more antagonistic 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 contrary, 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 for 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 left-wing criticism of your policies you present as testfying to a bad faith which makes those on the left who criticise you the same as the right. YourLondon 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 govemment and maintain a policy of refusing to cut any service, or job, or job opportunity.
“Finally they declare Lambeth counciliors 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 therefore in some mysterious way identical.

What has the position of SO to do with the Right? They are unhappy with rate 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 resents and fears the criticism of the left.

Comrade Knight, you spent a considerable part of your life in the Trotskyist movement. (It is no secret, and you have not declined to talk to the capitalist press about it). Twenty-three 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 1930s and the 1950s.

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 [Soviet state security organisation]. 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 dishonorable 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 youself (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. All 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.

You, however, see your role and responsibility in Lambeth as only that 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 back door 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 the 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 the utterly 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 way of 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.
T
his 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 revolutionary socialists — 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 if 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 of 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, loud and 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 politically amalgamating with them, temporarily, (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 made 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 is, I 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 youself from surcharge, jail, 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 councilor, and more distant from being a revolutionary, than you know yourself to be.