Our History — The left and local government in the 1980's: an Open Letter to Ted Knight (1980)

Submitted by Matthew on 18 February, 2010 - 10:54 Author: Sean Matgamna

“There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.”

So too with labour movements: there are turning points, crises, decisive moments whose outcomes shape the future. The victory of the Thatcher Tories in 1979 was one such turning point. But it was the turning point it proved to be only because of the response of the labour movement and its leaders to the assaults that followed.

Instead of mobilising to resist laws that shackled the unions and against the cuts and large-scale sackings in the slump that hit industry and the working class within a few months of the 1979 election, the local government left rushed to put its hands up in surrender. The slump was not only a British affair, but the Thatcher government took advantage of its deadening effect on the sort of rank-and-file industrial militancy that had defeated the Heath Tory government six years earlier, to wage a prolonged social war on the working-class and its labour movement.

The sorry saga of the local government left was a crucial part of the comprehensive failure of the leaders of the labour movement.

The local government left was a seemingly powerful force in major areas of Britain including London, Liverpool, Sheffield and many others. The Labour Party was then what it is not now — a body with a large, politically active membership. Over the five years of the Wilson-Callaghan-led Labour government (February 1974–May 1979), the Labour Party in the country had been in sharp opposition to the Labour government.

Influential in that Labour Party left were many Marxists who had taken refuge there from the problem of building revolutionary organisations which had turned sharply sectarian — in the case of Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League (SLL)/Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP), crazy, in the conventional as well as the political sense — in the mid 1970s. Some of them were prominent in local government.

One of these was Ted Knight, “Red Ted” to the press, a former leading member, full time organiser, etc, of the SLL/WRP, who was leader of Lambeth council.

Much of that local government left had participated in the work of the Socialist Campaign for a Labour Victory (SCLV), a rank-and-file movement that had campaigned in the 1979 general election against the Tories while simultaneously organising a Labour left pledged to fight the policies of the Labour leaders, should they win the general election. Ken Livingstone, “Red Ken”, had been the main speaker at the founding conference of the SCLV in July 1978, and “Red Ted” was a prominent supporter.

The platform of the SCLV included a pledge by the putative local government leaders involved in the campaign not to pass on government cuts to the working class by way of rate (council tax) rises, but to use local government to organise resistance to central government cuts.

The model of left local government to which they thereby committed themselves was not the “business as usual”, typical Labour local government, but that of Poplar in the 1920s, which resisted the government and whose leaders, including George Lansbury, were prepared to go to jail rather than comply with government anti-working class measures. There was also the recent example of the 1972/3 Clay Cross Labour council, which had defied the Tory government and caused a great stir.

But within weeks of the Thatcher victory in the general election, Lambeth council, led by the newly installed “Red Ted”, announced a rate rise!

The Lambeth Labour Party forced Knight and the councillors to retreat, for the moment, on that rate rise. But it was a signal to retreat before the Tories that echoed down the first half of the 1980s, as the local government left took control in London, Sheffield, Liverpool, etc.

Everywhere, the local government left buckled. They used ‘left’ rhetoric and worked policies that made them indistinguishable from the Labour right.

(In Liverpool a Marxist organisation, Militant, the present Socialist Party, took control: arguably Militant/SP was worst of all. Whereas Ted Knight justified retreat because the industrial “big battalions” had not mobilised, Militant/SP sold out during the great miners’ strike — when they could have opened a ‘second front’ against the Tories.)

The SCLV split on the issue of rate rises.

The tendency that is now the AWL had initiated and organised the SCLV (and a little later its successor, the Rank-and-File Mobilising Committee for Labour Democracy). We produced and controlled the SCLV paper, Socialist Organiser. We resisted the turn by the local government left, signalled by its reneging on its pledge to oppose rate rises.

The question thus focused amounted to a difference on political perspectives.

Either class struggle, using the local government positions as fortresses of resistance on the Poplar/Clay Cross model, or turn left-led local government into agencies for passing on Tory cuts.

They could not pass on the cuts and mobilise local working-class resistance to the government.

We argued for the Poplar/Clay Cross model; the rate-risers opted for “business as usual” in local government and a few ‘left’ frills and gestures.

Having chosen the second, some of them, years later, when the Falklands war and victory in the 1983 general election had enormously strengthened Thatcher, stumbled into a sort of confrontation with the government. Ted Knight, who at the crucial turning point had led the retreat before the Tories, would be disqualified from holding office for five years.

The SCLV left divided into revolutionaries and left-talking — and sometimes ultra-left talking! — reformists, the most important of whom was Ken Livingstone.

Briefing was set up by Livingstone, Knight and others as their publication. Shortly after, Livingstone and Knight launched Labour Herald, in which such people as David Blunkett were prominent.

It was financed and produced for them by the WRP, itself financed by Libya and other Arab governments.

As Socialist Organiser insisted, there was not one argument used in self-justification by the local government left, that would not logically apply to a national Labour government. Thus the local government left became a school of reformism for the generation that would control the Labour Party in the 1980s, 90s and afterwards.

It might have been a school of class struggle...

The following open letter to Ted Knight, written in 1980, posed the issues clearly and in time, before the retreat signalled by Lambeth had become a general local government left rout.

Sean Matgamna

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In April 1980 Lambeth council made a 49.9% rate rise and a £1.50 rent rise. Ted Knight responded to criticism by a bitter attack against Socialist Organiser. 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, 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 wrongheaded.

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. 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 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.

Just 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.

But 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 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 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 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 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 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 enery 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 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 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 onetime 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.

Refurbished reformism

By March 1980 Socialist Organiser had split over the rate rise issue. Mike Davis and Geoff Bender wrote a polemic against ‘our’ side of the split on behalf of themselves and Jeremy Corbyn, Mark Douglas, Keith Veness and Pete Rowlands. Below is part of our reply, printed in Socialist Organiser (March 1980).

Since the general election, many Labour politicians who were quite tame during the period of Labour government have suddenly been talking left. Left-wing activity focused on wheeling and dealing around official positions in the labour movement has been given a boost.

There is a tension in the SCLV between that focus and a broader class struggle perspective, centred on campaigning in the factories and on the streets. The rate rises issue sums it up very well: do we look for alternatives for Labour councillors trying to manage the system or for policies to mobilise anti-Tory mass action?

When Lambeth council leader Ted Knight makes rousing speeches against the cuts last June and then a few weeks later gives a lead for every rightwing and fake left council by proposing cuts, do we draw any conclusions? Do we learn any lessons about the real value of the policy of ‘rate rises instead of cuts to gain time for a fight’, which Lambeth was supposed to be the model for? Do we draw conclusions now when Ted Knight follows up a battle to get the Lambeth labour movement to agree to rate rises by also pushing through rent rises and cuts in growth?

Do we learn the lesson of the need for an independent campaigning policy? Or do we go on fluttering like moths around the illusory light of the ‘power’ and ‘broad labour movement influence’ of the Lambeth Labour group?

The SCLV conference gave a majority to the broader class-struggle perspective — against those who wanted to veer away from the SCLV’s original politics. It also established a flexible, open structure in which comrades with a different emphasis and different priorities can work.

Mike Davis and his co-thinkers have not actually been deprived of any valid minority rights.

All their objections come down to the fact that they are not the dominant majority.

There is a curious parallel — with all the necessary qualifications granted — with the protests of the right wing in the Labour Party against the left’s majority on the National Executive Committee and the Inquiry; the same protests about the need for a ‘broad church’, the same assumed concern for anonyiiious unaffiliated individuals who are going to be put off by the left’s extremism, the same wrapping up of political disputes in organisational disputes.

The right wing in the Labour Party is trying to appeal over the heads of the Labour conference, of the elected NEC, and of Labour activists, to ‘public opinion’ and to confused and passive Labour voters. They use popular, anti-socialist prejudices. Mike Davis and his co-thinkers are — certainly in effect, if not intentionally — trying to appeal to the general, more or less confused and more or less passive broad left. They use popular anti-revolutionary prejudices, which harm the SCLV as a whole.

In fact, though, they will damage themselves more than the SCLV. These comrades are spokesmen for a tendency which is moving strongly to the right and which is governed by a strong impulse to divest itself of its one-time revolutionary politics and to accommodate to the ‘Left’ establishment and the ‘powerful’ individuals like Ted Knight.

It is not coincidental that they are trying to scandalise the SCLV over their imaginary grievances and in so doing present themselves to the broad non-Marxist left as a ‘good SCLV’. Their political trajectory is not only away from the positive work that the SCLV is doing — on their own admission, even where they opposed the initiative, as with the Women’s Fightback campaign. It is away from serious left-wing politics altogether towards reformism.

In Britain in 1980 a refurbished reformism is the last thing the working class needs or can afford to waste time on. It needs a serious, hard-left, Marxist movement, rooted in the broad labour movement, including the Labour Party. That is what the SCLV conference decided to try and build in the working class struggles that are now opening up.