The Revolutionary Communist Party and Labour politicking on Merseyside in the 1980s

Last month a story emerged of conflict amongst the Labour Party in Liverpool over the shortlist for the party’s mayoral candidate, with accusations that the Labour Party’s national leadership was interfering in local party selection processes.

Since then, another story has emerged of Labour allegedly running a ‘dysfunctional’ council in Liverpool and a proposal by Conservative Minister Robert Jenrick for a partial takeover of the council, supported by Keir Starmer’s Labour.

This politicking reminded me of a similar controversy on Merseyside in 1986 and the fact that this controversy was used by the Revolutionary Communist Party to portray themselves as the revolutionary alternative to Labour. And that this would eventually lead to the RCP creating the Red Front in 1987. That story is below…

In June 1986, the Labour MP for Knowsley North, Robert Kilroy-Silk, resigned, giving his reason as the ‘major Militant problem in Knowsley and on Merseyside’.[1] Facing possible deselection as he had become MP of the newly created seat at the previous election (having previously been the MP for Ormskirk), Kilroy-Silk felt that the Kinnock leadership did not support him enough against a rebellion by the local Labour Party constituency branch. Forcing a by-election in November 1986, the Labour Party leadership feared the vacuum left by Kilroy-Silk would allow the seat to be contested by Militant supporters and installed George Howarth as the Labour candidate. This led to a boycott of the election campaign by many in the local Labour Party branch, which the Revolutionary Communist Party sought to exploit.

The RCP put forward Dave Hallsworth as a candidate, who had previously run in the 1983 election. Hallsworth campaigned heavily on the notion that despite Howarth being put in place as Kinnock’s man for Labour, ‘local people will not have to vote for the candidate that nobody wanted’ and that with Hallsworth and the RCP, people would ‘be able to support a candidate who stands for a struggle to win what the working class needs.’[2] The RCP portrayed the by-election as a ‘practice match’ for Labour in the lead up to the 1987 general election and that Kinnock’s Labour was using Merseyside, including the constituency of Knowsley North, as ‘a convenient piece of wasteground on which to kick the local labour movement around’, using the presence of Militant as the pretext.[3] The RCP saw Militant as ineffectual and too dependent on the Labour Party machinery to seriously challenge the party, so promoted themselves as the only real alternative for the working class on Merseyside and beyond, stating:

A vote for Hallsworth will be a vote to reject the Labour leadership’s policies, and to support the struggle for the basic things which every worker needs. It will be a signal that people are ready to resist all attacks from the employers and the Tories, and to get organised to take control over our lives into our own hands…

We are appealing to every worker in Britain to learn the lessons of what is happening on Merseyside before their turn comes to play the part of Kinnock’s electoral football.[4]

As well as seeing the by-election campaign as a way to herald resistance to the Labour Party under Kinnock, the RCP also saw other benefits of running a candidate in Knowsley North at this time. Andrew Calcutt acknowledged in The Next Step that the by-election was ‘simply a good opportunity for raising the issues that count, and beginning to show that something can be done if workers get organised around the right politics.’[5] Because the by-election was of ‘immense national importance’, the RCP used it to publicise their manifesto and also used the constituency as ‘a good test of [their] work before the general election’.[6] The RCP reasoned that ‘[r]unning election campaigns is always a way of gaining a wide variety of political experiences’ and utilised it to intensify the political education of its supporters in the lead up to the election.[7] Anne Burton explained that the campaign in Knowsley was ‘a good test of our work before the general election’ and the RCP’s success would be measured ‘by how many people we can organise around our manifesto’ and ‘by how many people we can get involved in the course of the campaign’, as well as, ultimately, ‘how many people find out that the Labour Party, the Liberals and the SDP are far from the only alternative to the Tories’.[8]

The RCP were encouraged that another left group had, at the local level, decided to support Hallsworth in the by-election. Acknowledging that the local Labour Party branch had called for a boycott of voting for the Labour candidate, the Liverpool branch of the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers’ Press) called for unity with these Labour Party members and instead supported a vote for the RCP candidate.[9] Secretary of the WRP’s Liverpool branch, Franz Fitzmaurice, noted that the WRP had ‘a number of important disagreements’ with the RCP, but Hallsworth’s platform of jobs and decent housing for all, as well as campaigning against the ‘Tory law-and-order campaign’, against discrimination and for Irish self-determination, was seen as a sound basis for short-term support within the extenuating circumstances.[10] Furthermore, despite the RCP being allegedly silent on the ‘witch-hunt’ against leftists inside the Labour Party, Fitzmaurice surmised that ‘a vote for Dave Hallsworth would be a way of observing the Constituency Labour Party’s boycott and using the by-election to make a stand against the witch-hunt.’[11]

Not everyone inside the WRP was convinced of this tactic. Some WRP members brought up the RCP’s stance during the Miners’ Strike of calling for a ballot and their alleged vanguardism within the anti-racist movement in East London, with Charlie Pottins writing, ‘[w]hatever the battle being waged, the RCP comes up with ever-so-militant sounding arguments why it’s really the wrong battle, and we should be somewhere else.’[12] But a number of other WRP members defended the call by the Liverpool branch. Phil Penn wrote that ‘[n]o doubt the RCP have done some dreadful things in the past but they would be well within their right to point out that so have we’, and that the history of the RCP did not disqualify this tactical support during the by-election.[13] Fitzmaurice reiterated in a reply to Pottins that a call for a vote for the RCP in the by-election was ‘a legitimate temporary alliance with a legitimate party of the working class for a strictly defined objective.’[14]

In the lead up to the by-election, the RCP saw the support of the WRP as ‘a small step in the right direction’ towards unity of the left and the working class and whatever the result of the election, the RCP would be ‘working to build wider unity around a fighting platform as election fever goes through the top of the thermometer’ as the 1987 general election neared.[15] Replying to letters in the Workers’ Press, the RCP election agent for Knowsley North, Alan Harding, declared:

In the months leading up to the general election, building a coherent working class alternative to the Labour Party must be the top priority for the left – and this project cannot be the property of any individual organisation.

The future of the working class after the election – whichever party wins – will depend upon it.[16]

Although the RCP argued that those in the WRP, as well as other local activists disaffected with the Labour Party ‘should get involved with the RCP in the battle to build up an alternative to Kinnock’s party between now and the election.’[17]

In the end, Hallsworth received 664 votes, much higher than any other previous RCP candidate, but well below Labour’s George Howarth, who received over 17,000 votes (the SDP/Liberal Alliance candidate amassed over 10,000 votes, while the Conservative candidate got 1,960). The RCP saw this as quite an achievement, particularly as Labour had their majority reduced by around 10,000 and many stayed away from the polling booth altogether. While Labour just needed to get their candidate over the line in a somewhat subdued manner, the RCP had used the by-election as ‘a good way of challenging people’s political ideas and arguing for the need to struggle against the system’ – whether they won, lost or drew, the RCP saw this as a propaganda victory.[18]

It also gave the party confidence to attempt to build a project for the general election with an emphasis on ‘unity’, encouraged by the support from the local branch of the WRP. Mike Freeman wrote, ‘[o]ur experience in Knowsley vindicates our wider general election strategy’, arguing that some Labour supporters ‘actively backed our campaign’, alongside the support they received from the WRP’s Liverpool branch.[19] Looking ahead to the 1987 election, the RCP stated that it would be ‘appealing to all those individuals and organisations who want to take a stand for working class unity against the Tories’.[20]

The RCP went into 1987 proposing an electoral vehicle based around working class unity, but also reiterated the need for the building of a revolutionary party in Britain as a vanguard of the working class. At the RCP’s party conference in late 1986, the Political Committee reported that the RCP needed to project the party as ‘the most effective defender of class interests’, while at the same time, ‘establish[ing] a working class periphery’ to the party itself.[21] The proposed electoral alliance, yet to be named, would act as a bridge between the vanguard of the RCP, the wider left in Britain and the working class. By the end of January 1987, the RCP had announced this electoral alliance as the Red Front. 

[1] The Times, 4 August, 1986, p. 10.

Ironically Kilroy-Silk was a UKIP MEP in 2004, with Spiked’s Brendan O’Neill describing UKIP as ‘cranky’. Brendan O’Neill, ‘Why Waste Time Tanning Kilroy’s Hide’, Spiked, 8 February, 2005, https://www.spiked-online.com/2005/02/08/why-waste-time-tanning-kilroys-hide/ (accessed 30 April, 2020).

[2]‘Kinnock Scorns the Working Class’, The Next Step, 31 October, 1986, p. 3.

[3]‘Kinnock Gives Workers a Kicking’, The Next Step, 7 November, 1986, p. 3.

[4]‘Kinnock Gives Workers a Kicking’, p. 3.

[5]Andrew Calcutt, ‘Learning About Labour’, The Next Step, 14 November, 1986, p. 2.

[6]Anne Burton ‘The Knowsley Campaign’, The Next Step, 31 October, 1986, p. 11.

[7]Burton ‘The Knowsley Campaign’, p. 11.

[8]Ibid.

[9]Franz Fitzmaurice, ‘Boycott Kinnock’s Man – Vote Hallsworth’, Workers’ Press, 8 November, 1986, p. 4.

The WRP (Workers’ Press) was the result of a split in the WRP after the allegations of sexual abuse by the WRP leader Gerry Healy were made public a few years earlier. Those loyal to Healy retained the WRP’s newspaper Newsline, while those who left coalesced around the newspaper Workers’ Press, which was the name of the WRP paper prior to 1973.

[10]Fitzmaurice, ‘Boycott Kinnock’s Man’, p. 4.

[11]Ibid.

[12]Charlie Pottins, ‘Look Before You Leap’, Workers’ Press, 15 November, 1986, p. 12.

[13]Phil Penn, ‘No Fixed Rigid Formulas’, Workers’ Press, 22 November, 1986, p. 11.

[14]Franz Fitzmaurice, ‘Legitimate Alliance’, Workers’ Press, 22 November, 1986, p. 11.

[15]‘Fever’, The Next Step, 14 November, 1986, p. 2.

[16]Alan Harding, ‘RCP Reply: “Unfair Criticism”’, Workers’ Press, 22 November, 1986, p. 11.

[17]‘The Battle is Just Beginning!’, The Next Step, 21 November, 1986, p. 3.

[18]The Battle is Just Beginning!’, p. 3.

[19]Mike Freeman, ‘A Platform for Working Class Unity’, The Next Step, 28 November, 1986, p. 7.

[20]‘Election Platform’, The Next Step, 28 November, 1986, p. 2.

[21]RCP Political Committee, ‘The Party’s Progress’, The Next Step, 5 December, 1986, p. 8.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s