A sectarian caricature: the lessons of Alan Thornett's "All Trades Union Alliance"

Submitted by martin on 17 September, 2020 - 11:11 Author: Thomas Carolan
Workers Press 8 September 1972

Above: Workers Press 8 September 1972. The claim that the TUC was working with "ultra-right" or "pro-fascist" Tories to install a fascistic "corporate state" became increasingly strident up to the ATUA's de facto collapse in 1975.

One of the most important efforts to organise a rank and file movement on the model of the [1920s] Minority Movement was made by the "Healyite" organisation in the 1950s and 60s.

The "Healyite" organisation, variously named the Newsletter Group, Socialist Labour League and the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, is now scattered into at least a dozen pieces, some of them very crazy. But in the late '50s it was one organisation, and the nearest thing to Trotskyism in the British labour movement.

In 1958 — at the very start of the prolonged wave of strike militancy that would continue for two decades — the Healyites got 500 people, many of them shop stewards and quite a few critical supporters of the Communist Party, to a rank and file conference. From 1968 they maintained a "rank and file movement", known first as the "Oxford Liaison Committee for the Defence of Trade Unions" and then as the "All Trades Union Alliance". It was the only nationallyorganised attempt in that period to compete with the Communist Party in industry.

But it was a vicious sectarian caricature of a rank and file movement. Like the Minority Movement before it, it was crippled politically and then organisationally by the political instability of the organisation which had the leading role within it.

In the 60s the SLL-WRP became a very sectarian organisation, denouncing everybody else on the left as "scabs" and so on. It was more interested in conducting a war of literary denunciation against the Communist Party than in unity with Communist Party militants to pursue the class struggle, for example against the Devlin proposals on the docks in the late 60s.

The SLL-WRP had become a strange cult around an all-powerful and all-knowing leader, Mr Gerry Healy. Its politics depended on the brainstorms or calculations of advantage made by Mr Healy. So did the politics of the ATUA.

The result was that the ATUA militants were often a force for disruption rather than class struggle unity. For example, the ATUA's leader, Alan Thornett, was told to spread the story at the Cowley car plant (in Oxford) where he worked that some other Marxists there (members of the IMG) were ‘police agents’.

And the ATUA had strange politics. They proclaimed themselves the only Marxists and revolutionaries, but in many ways were quite right-wing. When the press was being hysterical about the big anti-Vietnam-war demonstrations of that time, the Healyite is took their newspaper into the factories denouncing the demonstrations as a "middle class circus".

To be in the ATUA you had to agree to “build the party"! The combination of weird politics and sectarian organisation is evident, for example, in this passage from the SLL daily Workers’ Press, reporting the ATUA conference in October 1972.

“Over 2,000 workers from all major industries voted unanimously at Birmingham yesterday, to build the revolutionary party in Britain". The main speakers were SLL secretary Gerry Healy and ATUA secretary Alan Thornett. According to the report, “Gerry Healy warned that the Tories’ move into the Common Market in January meant that the working class would face an attack from a most reactionary pro-fascist conspiracy of monopolists”.

By 1974, the guru Healy had gone mad, believing a military-fascist coup in Britain was only a matter of days away. He was losing his grip. He expelled the then public figurehead of the ATUA, Alan Thornett, for consorting with supporters of the French Trotskyist group known as "Lambertists".

The ATUA and the WRP fell apart. Healy became even crazier, and in 1976 sold the WRP to the Libyan and Iraqi governments. In return for large sums of money he would support them, and get his organisation to spy for them in Britain on dissident Libyans and Iraqis and on Jews.

It was perhaps not impossible for the ATUA to have benefited from the break with the SLL-WRP, by its leaders regrouping a movement free of Healyism. In fact that proved impossible, partly because the ATUA never had an autonomous life and neither did its leaders.

The ATUA had three figurehead leaders — John Powers, who went over to the right wing of the Oxford Labour Party in the late 60s; Reg Parsons, who went over to management in the early 70s; and, finally, the best of them, Alan Thornett.

All these figures were to a decisive extent "manufactured" leaders, built up by the organisation’s real leaders, spoon-fed with ideas, told what to do from day to day. They had to have a base, of course, and some speaking skills and "presence", in order to function, but they did not have the ability — and, in two cases, not even the sustained political will — to lead a movement.

They were to genuine rank-and-file leaders what studio-made pop stars like Jason Donovan and Kylie Minogue are to real singers.

After Healy went mad in 1974, Thornett had the ball at his feet, but did not know what to do with it. And Healy set out to wreck the organisation if he could not control it. With great press publicity, he demanded back from Thornett £4,000 advanced to him by the WRP, thus trying deliberately to give an impression to Cowley workers that Thornett was corrupt.

Thornett grouped a sizeable group of former WRPers round himself, and called some industrial conferences under the name of the "Campaign for Democracy in the Labour Movement". The conferences were quite well-run, and reasonably democratic, free from the worst ranting of the Healyites — but both the organisation and its influence dwindled for lack of a leadership able to work out an adequate political orientation.

Essentially it came to nothing more than a small and loose personality cult, modelled on the WRP, but without its crazy vigour and with Thornett in Healy’s clothes, which didn’t fit.

Thornett himself was sacked from Cowley in 1982, where he was a driver. He neglected to renew a Heavy Goods Vehicle licence and was stopped by the police. Anyone else would have been reprimanded, but the company took the chance to sack Thornett. It was a sad measure of the decline of what had once been the main base of the ATUA that there was not even a token strike to protest at the victimisation.

Thornett made some efforts to build something better, collaborating with Socialist Organiser [a predecessor of Solidarity] for a period; but by the mid-80s he and his group had collapsed into Labour Briefing. [They became part of the Mandelite current.]

Thornett writes some strange articles in Briefing. During the 1989 docks dispute, for example, his leading demand was for the TGWU to defy the law. No doubt a successful struggle would have clashed with the law. But to start out with that call was to demand that the TGWU do to Thatcher what the whole labour movement has not yet succeeded in doing.

Thornett has also published a book of memoirs, whose reliability can be measured by the fact that he presents his experience at Cowley as if the SLL-WRP were just a shadowy force off-stage, rather than the organisation whose leaders guided him day by day, and whose often crazy politics he peddled daily with their paper in the plant. He can’t draw any lessons from the real experience of the ATUA because he can’t give a halfway accurate account of it, or of himself.

The story of the ATUA is a sad story. The figures the SLL-WRP claimed for the ATUA were always inflated, and its conferences were filled more with raw young people than with active trade unionists. It was, nevertheless, the only attempt to build a national militant movement of trade unionists in the days of the great militancy of the 1960s and early 70s.

• From New Problems, New Struggles: a handbook for trade unionists, published by Socialist Organiser in 1989.

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