Leftist Vanguards And The Labour Party

The 1001 faces of Wedgewood Benn  - a weird collage of Labour leader Wedgewood Benn's face in different poses.

BM Blob on the UK left and the 1981 riots.

Submitted by Fozzie on April 15, 2022

The view from the front row seats in the rear

Leftist parties attempting to use the insurgent youth for their own ends were rapidly exposed for what they were. The newspapers also tried hard to link the Leninist/Trotskyist groups with the rioting. The truth is they had no influence whatsoever and were only tailending the movement, appearing with pamphlets and trying to organize meetings after the riots had occurred. They were met by open hostility or a wall of indifference. They were seen as outsiders muscling in, in a manipulatory fashion, which is exactly what they were doing. Each Leninist group believed it alone had the correct political analysis and program of action. Tony Cliff of the SWP said at a meeting in Liverpool, 'The young have provided the steam and now we must provide the engine for the steam to drive'. In the age of high tech and the micro chip, these weary clapped out metaphors probably deriving from Lenin are more ludicrous than ever. Besides he obviously can't tell the difference between steam and fire. He went on in his usual florid way which he mistakenly believes is gripping the absent masses: 'Because they have not been organized the kids have been attacking shops when they should have been attacking factories. We must teach them to take the bakery and not just the bread'. (One apocalyptic sympathiser wished they had 'kicked the factories to bit'). The arrogance and insensitivity of these people is such that they cannot see why these attitudes should be resented.

The Labour Party Young Socialists held a meeting in Southall after the riots and got a rough ride from the Southall Youth Movement. Balig Sing Purewal said,

'These people come here to exploit us. We do not want anything to do with them, the Socialist Workers Party, the Workers Revolutionary Party or any Marxist group. We are fed up with these lefties telling us what to do'.

When the LYPS held a meeting in Liverpool the reaction was the same. Claire Doyle who works for the Trotskyist 'Militant' tendency was constantly heckled by the youth of Brixton and Toxteth when she tried to hustle in on their action by calling for the setting up of a Labour Committee (euphemism for the Labour Party) for both neighbourhoods. She was rightly accused of trying to make political capital out of the riots. When she told a Brixton meeting, 'You have to organize to defend yourselves', the reply came back, 'We will do all our organizing ourselves'. At another meeting three members of the Revolutionary Communist Tendency got up to speak and were booed. One kid said 'We are fed up with them hanging around since it started.'

Black people are particularly sensitive with regard to left groups. The '81 pre-Carnival issue of Socialist Worker bemoaned the fact the black 'leaders' were telling black youth not to have anything to do with the white left. Because of their position, the 'leaders' reasoning would in all probability be highly suspect but their conclusion is certainly right. The groups are funded by and dominated by the white middle class left. If it is true that people in positions of power in capitalist society will fight to maintain their positions why is this not true across the board? Everything about them serves to maintain their position, they abuse the white working class so there is no reason to suppose they will behave differently to black people. These groups do not present any opportunities for black and white proletarians to organize themselves to achieve their own liberation. The reality is accepting leadership from the white middle class in what is supposed to be their own best interest. Despite their anti-capitalist and anti-racist rhetoric these groups do not present any alternative to society as it stands. Rather they present a fairly accurate reflection of it in their structure and organization.

The so-called practical help of the lefties through the Labour Committees was ostensibly to ensure that arrested youth were represented by solicitors in court. As it stood, it boiled down to little less than para-statist law centre work with 'politicizing' implications coming later. As for the rest of their comment, it was bullshit. The International Marxist's Socialist Challenge and the Socialist Worker's weakly paper achieved the ultimate in hypocrisy by defending looters, then condemning looting as unsocialist. The Workers Revolutionary Party's Newsline (July 18th) was pedigree basket case splutterings which was hardly surprising considering its long history of chronically blocked mental collapse. Breakdown for them is certainly not breakthrough. They claimed the riots were at the behest of the State, 'police and army provoked', because 'the Tory counter revolution is gearing itself to make a violent pre-emptive strike against the working class', concluding 'the main war is still in front - against the trade unions'. What drivel! But at least they didn't flinch from showing their true colours, unequivocally condemning all looting and vandalism as the acts of 'gullible youth' falling for 'police provocation'. The WIRP's have the merit of being just too crude to manipulate. Groups like the Communist Workers Organization (CWO) stemming from the old German and Italian ultra left were also only capable of writing nonsense. Having an ideology to realize they simply failed to grasp what was unique about the riots. They sounded for all the world like Trotskyists.

The CWO for example in the 'Platform of Unemployed Workers Group', predicted that 'the unemployed, discarded by capitalism today, will be dragooned into the factories to produce armaments under military discipline. This (their italics) is the only future which capitalism offers'. Rather it was (our italics). Increased automation and the higher technological composition of capital required in today's armaments industry combined with a reduced need for conventional armed forces makes today's situation utterly different from the '30s. (the source of all their cock-eyed theorizing).

Today's unemployed are not likely therefore to be dragooned into the war machine. Apart from staging bread and circuses, capital is at its wits end to know what to do with them. Obstinately ignoring these very elementary facts, how can the CWO even begin to create an effective unemployed workers group? Like diehard Trotskyists they even condemn looting as 'a gift to the ruling class since it leads nowhere' (Platform of the Unemployed Workers Group).

But Solidarity's (June/July '81) coverage of the Brixton riots didn't amount to much, unable to see that it has become a victim of views and attitudes that left parliamentarians increasingly tend to encompass. For instance Solidarity objected to those rioters who smashed the windows of small shop keepers 'who did not deserve it'. Let's face it, small shop-keepers have a well deserved notoriety. Not only do they often charge more than supermarkets because they cannot purchase in bulk and don't own an agri-business but are far from averse to short changing inattentive customers. Moreover working all hours, small shopkeepers are often classic canaries. So often their deceptive chattiness is simply earwigging which ends up down at the local cop shop.

In a similar vein, Solidarity went on to condemn all those who trashed 'the Community Action Office' whose work they said 'is appreciated by local people'. But is it that simple? Who hasn't heard people, drunk or otherwise, sounding off against these para statist bodies. And what they say often makes a lot of sense. In Solidarity's case they probably haven't because their membership is overwhelmingly drawn from the professional strata and some are involved in the 'community' racket themselves. To crown it all, there is more than a suspicious hint the police are absolved from acting like they do because they are simply doing their job protecting the commodity and the State. In inner city areas such views are a luxury and points to the fact Solidarity members tend to live in easier parts of the city, where cops breathing constantly down the back of your neck is not an everyday experience and which makes an enlightening observation of role structure, without frothing at the mouth, a bit difficult. Let's wait and see but in future, it is possible Solidarity members could opt for the soft cop/community policing line.

Solidarity never got down to the real nitty gritty of analysis. It cannot be stressed too often the extent to which urban dereliction was a major contributing factor to the trashing then burning of small shops in poor neighbourhoods. It crystalised the worst fears of urban reformers who following the lead first suggested by urbanist Jane Jacobs, began to dread the consequences of high rise estates, desolate spaces, barren streets and alleyways and planning blight generally. These conditions, they believed, destroyed the informal network of vigilance and surveillance which, including authority figures such as teachers, parents, shopkeepers, local businessmen, publicans etc, together made the job of the police almost unnecessary. By one handle or another people were always 'known' to each other but increasing anonimity has meant the local shop could be done in without much risk of being made to pay the cost.

Concealed behind a veil of good intentions there always was an inherent class bias in which small business interests came first and foremost into their apparently damning indictments of urban redevelopment. These urban reformers want ultimately to approximately recreate the conditions which they assume once bound otherwise class divided communities together. To achieve this they tend to highlight and sensationalize indiscriminate street crime. But what they fear the most is an explosion of class war which has no compunction about attacking small business. This is exactly what happened on the streets of Britain's inner cities between July 4th and 13th '81.

Of course one can criticize the rioters but it has to be more imaginative than the run of the mill lefty criticism .... Like the following.

Rioting in St Paul's Bristol, April '80.
Some shortcomings

The rioters unable to consciously get to grips with the more 'ghostly' aspects of the commodity economy, were easily pulled up before institutions whose brutality and nakedly system serving function all must have experienced at sometime or other. While shops were looted and a bank burnt in the St Paul's riot in Bristol '80, the rioters shopped short of getting the Labour Exchange. They were held back by a black ex-civil servant who had recently been employed at the local St Paul's Labour Exchange. He warned insurgents - within seconds of torching the building - that if they did so they only stood to loose their weekly giro. Old ways even in insurrectionary moments can still exert a fearful grip on events.

At the very worst, the unemployed of St Paul's would have only had to wait a few days longer for their giro's. In any case no senior civil servant would have dared leave St Paul's without any welfare support in the days following the riot. The real effect would have been felt in other Labour Exchanges, and Social Security offices throughout the country. The petty bureaucrats would have got the jitters and more importantly, the hideous fraud squads who harass all claimants, particularly women in single parent families would have received a well deserved slap in the mouth. Union backed blacking of the 'scrounge' squads outlined for use in '82 would not have the same impact even in the unlikely event of it ever happening. The final irony came a year later when striking civil servants, without the aid of incendiaries, in some inner city areas cut off cash aid to the unemployed. Courageous people, they preferred to do this rather than snarl up NATO defences or the Whitehall administration.

The unacceptable foot of British capitalism

As for the central core of Labourism - the Labour Party - perplexity reigned. They couldn't even muster one call to kick out the Tories which on past, tho' hardly comparable occasions, had been the thing to do. Did wor' great leader, Michael Foot see in those July days the lion's claw he had prophesied would smite the land? What a joke. Scarcely six months previously, he had called on the unemployed during a speech on Liverpool's Pier Head some 3/4 of a mile from Toxteth to 'rise like lions'. Being a fustian ditherer, he later reserved his position on the use of CS gas and water cannon secure in the knowledge that he lived in a world where the only projectiles thrown are made of paper. (That, or the less immediate and more respectable repudiation of nuclear weapons). In the midst of proletarian anger boiling over in the streets, all the unacceptable Foot of British capitalism could do was call the Government's decision to axe 20.000 university places 'an act of barbarism' (July 9th '81)............. And what of Wedgewood Benn, the ace lefty manipulator of the party machine, confined as luck would have it, to a hospital bed. Not a word, not even the hint of a whisper. Sister called for 'Silence' and got it. When peace was restored, he broke his silence to say Britain was heading for a police State. .......... But best of all were the antics of the Parliamentary extremist Eric Heffer, author of the book Class Struggle in Parliament (sic) acclaimed by the SWP. Pressed to make a statement on TV the panicked Right Hon MP for Walton, Liverpool said rioters and looters must be punished with all due severity.

.............................And the Labour Party that cannot change its spots

True the UK is tripping headlong down the primrose path to social revolution but a word of caution. Political parties are unlikely to give up that easily. The left in particular can still do much to slip-slide the movement awry. Ken Livingstone, leader of the Greater London Council, quick off the bureaucratic mark as usual called for the immediate release of asians arrested in Southall. He was applauded for saying it, then barracked by other asians who bluntly asked him why hadn't he been on the streets the previous night. Later on in the week, Livingstone was to address the moribund Anti-Nazi league in Brixton when rioting was literally going on only a 100 yards away! This prince of media deadlines arranges Council meetings timed to suit the press and approves of the Communist Council of Bologna in Italy, never once mentioning these Stalinists thrashed the Bolognese insurgents in 77. He has also gone on record as saying in an editorial in London Labour Briefing (late May '81) that the street fighting in Brixton during April was 'excellent'. (Later he denied he'd ever ever said such a thing).

The Labour Party is nothing if not chameleon like. The new or reconstructed Labour Party is just as prepared as the old to cut its coat according to its cloth. There have been several media scare stories of mobs stirred up by the 'new left' surrounding Parliament. Not however to demolish it but simply in order to bring more effective pressure to bear on MP's. This is what the media in general fatuoulsy calls 'extra parliamentary activity'.

Livingstone's intentionally vacillating behaviour during the riots was repeated when the Law Lords ruled against London's 'cheap' transport policy. Hiding behind a smokescreen of radicalism he had no intention of defying the ruling himself. And sure enough on the day London's fares became the most expensive in the world dear Ken paid his full whack. Even a reformist 'rebel' had been tamed by office and the media exulted. He even went so far as to say breaking the law was 'not part of the British tradition' urging Londoners to pressure 'their' 92 MP's to get the Law Lord's ruling overturned in the House of Commons (New Standard March 22nd '82). A week or so later having recovered from ticket collector jitters he was to be heard sounding off against the Met's prospective top pig Sir Kenneth Newman, the former RUC police chief from N. Ireland. This time everyone knew it was to save face.

Livingstone's duplicity is important because he is the first of the characteristically issue conscious 'new left' to drop his mask. Respect for legality may still hold good but otherwise there is little love lost between the old and the 'new' Labour Party. Throughout Britain the old hulk of consensus politics is breaking up and the classes are drifting away from the traditional parties. It behoves in the long run a profound social crises but meanwhile new political re-alignments are being launched daily.

The rhinoncerous hide of Labourism provides no lasting immunity against this frantic political experimentation. The old sub-Orwellian band of Tribunite intellectuals defending a non conformist hetrodoxy, standards in art and garlanding the image of the cloth capped worker are no match for the fledging alliance proposed by the reconstructed Labour Party. This still tentative consensus includes workers drawn from traditional sectors like coal and steel plus ethnic minorities, gays, women, ecologists, peace movement activists, paraplegics, pensioners, 'rebel' musicians, community workers, you name it Tony Benn in his report (12th Dec '81) to the London Labour Briefing said as much…'We should welcome radical liberals, community activists and those from the woman's movement, the ethnic groups, the peace movement and the pensioners, along with the young into our party now'.

It is a striking testimony to the power of issue politics. On the other hand Benn is also exploiting an endemic weakness for politics happy in the knowledge the task of winning over an issue to the reconstructed Labour Party has been smoothened from the start by a Statist orientation. Broadening an initial exclusivity then carries a heavy political penalty as single issues are refracted through the Labour Party/Communist Party 'Alternative Strategy' for capitalism.

Many of the new recruits were student 'radicals' in the late 60s who without a moments hesitation had joined moribund Trotskyist parties. From the mid '70s onwards most have begun to waken up to the utter irrelevance of vanguard parties derived from Lenin. There was even a hint of profounder insights: that working class uninterest in 'socialism' was more intelligent and egalitarian than the repentant vanguardist had previously given credit for. But to have continued in this vein may well have had disastrous (finally liberating) personal consequences raising searching questions about the State, power, the sort of job one was doing. As they had craftily slid around these thorny questions in the late '60s they were not likely to confront them in the mid to late '70s when the next installment of the mortgage was due. So they plumped for an 'independent' line which was neither one thing or the other uniting so to speak 'extra parliamentarism' with parliamentarism. Hilary Wainwright (joint author of Beyond the Fragments) has said as much in the ludicrously acclaimed 'political debate of the decade' when she and others from the 'far' left had got together with the Labour Party to thrash out their scant differences. 'The Labour Party' she said - 'lays too much emphasis on the State and on Parliament and is unable to develop extra parliamentary organizations' (The Times March 10 '80).

Their notion of what is extra parliamentary is intentionally vague. It can signify 'unorthodox' parliamentary methods. On the other hand the reconstructed Labour Party will lift a precious word like assembly knowing full well it has a certain autonomous resonance to promote a form of corporate assembly fudging capital and class (e.g. The London Assembly convened to discuss London's 'social problems', fare increases etc). To keep pace with growing political disaffection the Labour Party's new auxiliaries must maintain a hygienic distance from political parties appearing to merge with the struggles of the underdog. The moment these struggles get out of hand the reconstructed Labour Party is nowhere to be seen reappearing with Labour Committee's etc once the all clear is given. The new auxiliaries of Labourism were the authors in the late '60s of a counter revolution of dirty little tricks when obviously bogus libertarians, anarchists etc all of a sudden put in at the safe harbours of vanguard Leninist/Trotskyist parties even then OK with career stakes. But at least these parties did not flinch from using the term revolutionary albeit in a hopelessly deformed way. The Labour Party always has. These seasoned rookies of the reconstructed Labour Party are now faced with the unenviable and contradictory task of pretending to support more clear headed autonomous actions than anything seen in Britain in the late '60s whilst sanctioning the shabbiest parliamentary voting reflex.

Meanwhile these new recruits to Labourism ranks tend not to blurt out comments they could have cause to regret later. During and after riot week they maintained a judicious silence which was neither whole heartedly approving or disapproving. The reconstructed New Statesman limited itself to exposing a very biased press report on the second Brixton riot which appeared in the Daily Mirror and in a detailed but ultimately light weight article to criticising the behaviour of the police in Toxteth.


But what of the new breed of militant trade unionist who shall henceforth provide the muscle in the reconstructed Labour Party? Men for example like Arthur Scargill former leader of the Yorkshire miners and now President of the NUM (National Union of Miners). He could from his bureaucratic throne threaten strike action if such things as pensions and the low pay for YOP schemes aren't immediately upped. During the Grunwick strike of '77 and the steel strike of 1980, King Arthur chirpy as a cock sparrer led well drilled battalions of miners into the picketing foray. There was however method to his anti-sectional conceit. He was getting miners accustomed to the idea of one big union cutting across much basic industry. When the pathetic Bill Sirs of ISTC (Iron and Steel Trades Confederation) said he was retiring the King announced he already had eyes for merging the two unions.

As an adjunct to the expansionist game the King is to be heard cockily airing his views on a number of subjects including racism. He simply cannot resist invites to appear on TV chat shows putting in a plug for the forthcoming NUM Presidential election and pleased as puff to be rubbing shoulders with show biz celebrities. Could it be that the BBC wanted this formerly brilliant strategist of the blockade of Saltley Depot in 1972 to be the new Boss man of the NUM?

Just after the riots the King seated in his Barnsley Camelot in South Yorkshire could gloat he'd prophetically predicted at the end of that artistic charade 'The Peoples March for Jobs' that violence on the scale of Bristol and Brixton 'will erupt the length and breadth of Britain' unless (always unless) 'the Government changed its policies'. But for King Arthur rioting is not the stuff of 'socialism'. He believes all anger should be directed at the Tories and at the 'Tory policies' of all the other political parties emerging, like the SDP, into the light of day.

However even before his elections Scargill had come to mellow his simplistic anti-Tory stance. The awesome power of the miners having brought him to power could just as easily sweep him away. He is better placed than anyone to know it. Raising the temperature must in future be carried out with due regard for the King's safety. Long live the King! Many miners particularly from S. Wales and Kent had harsh words to say about Scargill when he steadfastly refused to encourage Yorkshire miners to strike during the lightening pit strikes against threatened closures in the spring of '81. And on TV the knuckle head half suggested the Yorkshire miners had stayed on their knees, solemnly hewing coal like painted black National Coal Board mannikins during the miners strikes of the early '70s. But the basis of Scargill's reserve goes back to 1979 and the Winter of Discontent and the strike wave sparked off by the Labour Governments 5% pay freeze. During these critical weeks he was neither seen nor heard. Except that is one evening when he put in a TV appearance quitely deliberately and agreeing with top management about the lack of investment in British industry. Lack of investment in industry, lack of investment in the inner cities. Lack of investment, lack of investment, lack of investment! Like an annoying jingle that won't go away these bureaucrats drone on in the same old key. What about a world without money? Is it so difficult to envisage.