IS/SWP

Corbyn, Labour and the limits of the British far left

This is something that I’ve been playing with while trying to write the intro to our second volume on the British far left’s history, titled Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956 vol. II and to be published through Manchester University Press in 2017. Parts of it may or may not end up in the final version, but I thought I’d post this while the topic is still being debated…

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While putting together our second edited volume dedicated to the history of the British far left, we have witnessed a year of Jeremy Corbyn’s stint as leader of the Labour Party. This has, in turn, brought a renewed interest in the far left’s history.

Corbyn’s victory in July 2015 had been on the back on a wave of enthusiasm amongst different sections of the Labour Party membership – trade unionists, young people, those who flirted with the Greens and other minor parties, working class members, and, of course, refugees from the British far left. Many on the far left had written off the Labour Party as unreformable in recent years, but Corbyn’s entry into the leadership contest after the 2015 election made a number of the Party’s leftist critics reassess their analysis of Labour.

The election of Corbyn as Labour leader seemed to many to overturn the assumed position of the far left since the advent of New Labour in the 1990s. From Militant Labour (later the Socialist Party of England and Wales) to the Revolutionary Communist Party, it was presumed that the Labour Party was unsalvageable, a bourgeois party that had abandoned the working class. Entrism was left to the rump of Militant and the other groups began a long line of alternative electoral vehicles to Labour – Socialist Alliance, Respect, No2EU, TUSC, the Left List (for example). Admittedly, some groups, such as the Communist Party of Britain, still called a Labour vote at general elections, but asked people to metaphorically hold their nose while doing so. But the initial period after Corbyn’s victory seemed to suggest that there was political life left in Labour, awoken from its slumber by the thousands of veteran activists from the social movements of the 2000s that Corbyn had been involved in, primarily Stop the War, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Unite Against Fascism, and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign.

However as the last year has proved, trying to reform the outlook and membership base of Labour Party (which has been the intention of many of those supporting Corbyn) while trying to maintain the emphasis on electoralism (which has been the focus of the Party since 1945 at least) has brought the Party to near schism. Looking at the long history of the relationship between the British far left and the Labour Party, it seems that the lessons of the 1960s (when the IMG and IS became entities in their own right) or the 1990s (when Militant Labour had its ‘open turn’) might have to be learnt all over again. Entrism has its limits and it is possibly far better for the far left to be social forces outside the Labour Party putting pressure from without than to be marginalised while attempting to apply pressure from within. Since the Labour Party refused to affiliate with the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB) in the 1920s, the far left has had to negotiate how much to work with (or within) Labour and how much to differentiate and present an alternative.

The Communist Party of Great Britain had sought affiliation with the Labour Party several times during the inter-war period, but after its last attempt failed in 1945-46, the CPGB devised another way to influence the Labour Party and bring forward the future possibility of a Labour-Communist alliance. This influence would come through the structures of the trade union bureaucracy. Most other groups on the far left looked to seek influence in the trade unions at rank-and-file level, but wrote off the higher echelons of the trade unions as reformist and too conservative. However this strategy of working through the trade unions formed the basis for the CPGB’s post-war programme, The British Road to Socialism. As John Callaghan has noted, almost all the elements of the CPGB’s plan to gain influence inside the Labour Party through the trade unions came together in the period between 1973 and 1983 (between the defeat of the Heath Government and Labour’s ‘radical’ 1983 manifesto),[1] but as we now know, there were little tangible gains from this strategy. The victory of the trade unions over Edward Heath only resulted in a crisis-ridden Labour Government beholden to the International Monetary Fund and Labour were roundly defeated in the 1983 election by Margaret Thatcher, after the Party’s leftwards shift caused a section of the right to break away to form the Social Democratic Party.

The loss of the 1983 election is routinely blamed upon the far left entrists in the Labour Party who pushed the party to the left, resulting in a manifesto that alienated the political centre. Roy Hattersley is attributed as saying the Party’s ‘Trotskyists, one-subject campaigners, Marxists who had never read Marx, Maoists, pathological dissidents … played a major part in keeping the Conservatives in power for almost twenty years.’[2] Although the actual reasons for Labour’s disastrous showing at this election are far more complex, the shadow of 1983 has loomed large over the party since Corbyn’s leadership victory.[3] Since becoming Labour leader, many have predicted that Corbyn will repeat the mistakes of Labour under Michael Foot – giving too much leeway to the far left and thus encouraging a split with the centre-right. The far left is portrayed by many commentators as a nebulous force set to derail Labour’s ability to present a credible opposition to the Conservatives and one of the main reasons that Labour will lose the 2020 general election (if not called sooner). While the spectre of various Trotskyists and Communists inside the Labour Party has been raised, it also vastly overestimates the influence that the far left has within the Labour Party nowadays.

In his recent book on the Corbyn ‘revolution’, Richard Seymour has suggested that the Labour Party ‘may simply be untenable in its current form’.[4] The gap between the electoral desires of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the grassroots call for reforms by a large section of the Party’s membership, not to mention to shifting voting base for the Labour Party, seems unsurmountable – and a resolution to suit all involved is unrealistic. Journalist and economist Paul Mason has recently suggested that the Labour Party should become a social movement, rather than simply an electoral political party. However the post-war history of the British far left highlights the difficulties in creating a social movement around an organised political party, rather than a single issue organisation. As Phil Burton-Cartledge showed in our last volume, Against the Grain, the success of the far left has come when it has spearheaded a broad-based social movement,[5] such as the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Anti-Nazi League or the Stop the War movement, rather than when it has tried to consolidate and centralise its membership into a particular party. The history of the far left in Britain has shown that when different parties have attempted to transform momentum from a broad social movement into concrete party membership, this has not been easily translated. An understanding of the history of how the far left has operated and functioned in Britain since the 1950s is important to understand the limits of a radical agenda within a reformist framework (essentially where the Labour Party finds itself in 2016). It is hoped that our forthcoming book, as well as the previous volume, will help provide readers with this understanding.

 

[1] John Callaghan, ‘The Plan to Capture the British Labour Party and its Paradoxical Results, 1947-91’, Journal of Contemporary History, 40/4 (2005) p. 707.

[2] Cited in, Mark Steel, Reasons to be Cheerful: From Punk to New Labour (London: Scribner, 2001) p. 116.

[3] For example, see: Peter Dorey & Andrew Denham, ‘“The Longest Suicide Vote in History”: The Labour Party Leadership Election of 2015’, British Politics (2016) doi:10.1057/s41293-016-0001-0

[4] Richard Seymour, Corbyn: the Strange Rebirth of Radical Politics (London: Verso, 2016) p. 12.

[5] Phil Burton-Cartledge, ‘Marching Separately, Seldom Together: The Political History of Two Principal Trends in British Trotskyism, 1945-2009’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley (eds), Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2014) pp. 80-97.

From Powell to Brexit: My interview with the Weekly Worker on ‘race’, anti-racism and the British left

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This week, the CPGB’s Weekly Worker (see here for more info on its background) conducted an interview with me about my forthcoming book, British Communism and the Politics of Race, as well as on my research in general and the anti-racist movement in Britain since the 1960s. You can read the full interview here. It was an interesting experience and some challenging questions!

“Don’t Let Them Die!”: The British Far Left and the Armagh Women’s Prisoner Protest

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As mentioned here, a former student and I are writing about the expressions of solidarity between the far left and the women’s liberation movement in Britain and the women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol in Northern Ireland who were seeking political prisoner status. While we work on a large and unwieldy draft, I thought I would post some stuff on the relationship between the British far left and the women in Armagh, as well as the wider anti-H-Block movement. This is still a work-in-progress so any feedback is most welcome!

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The anti-H-Block campaign that began in Northern Ireland, quickly spanning to the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain, was the first real opportunity to build a (pro-Republican) mass social movement since the anti-internment marches of the early 1970s. Culminating in two series of hunger strikes in 1980 and 1981, the anti-H-Block campaign brought together the various Republican groups that existed in Northern Ireland, as well as wider support from the labour movement, the far left, the women’s liberation movement and various faith-based and human rights groups in both Ireland and Britain. While the hunger strikes are seen as a turning point in ‘the Troubles’, F. Stuart Ross has argued that just as much happened within the popular anti-H-Block movement ‘outside the prisons’ (his emphasis).[1]

By the late 1970s, many in Britain had begun to think of ‘the Troubles’ as a distant and external issue, despite the regular threats of bombings in London and other cities in England. However the anti-H-Block campaign created new bonds of solidarity, especially as the hunger strikes got underway in late 1980 and then again in early 1981. Although most of those who went on hunger strike were men belonging to the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army (IRA) and the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) at Long Kesh, three IRA women (Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle) incarcerated at Armagh Women’s Goal also participated in the first hunger strike in the final months of 1980. The involvement of these three Republican women drew a substantial amount of solidarity with sections of the far left in Britain.

This post will explore how the far left in Britain demonstrated their solidarity with the three women in Armagh Women’s Goal on hunger strike in 1980 and their wider engagement with the anti-H-Block movement. It will also examine how other women imprisoned in Armagh who were involved in ‘dirty protests’ against the policy of criminalization were perceived by the various groups of the British left, especially looking at the massive amounts of sympathy expressed for the sick inmate Pauline McLaughlin in the left-wing press. While overshadowed by the death of ten hunger strikers in 1981, which generated worldwide outrage at the British Government, the three female hunger strikers at Armagh had a significant impact on how British socialists viewed women within the Irish Republican struggle.

The British left and Irish Republicanism before the H-Block campaign

Since the partition of Ireland at the end of the Anglo-Irish War, which occurred almost simultaneously with the establishment of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the British far left has generally supported the reunification of Ireland and since 1969, the removal of Britain’s military and political presence in Northern Ireland. This support for a free and united Ireland stemmed from the position of the Communist International to support for the national liberation struggles of all colonial and semi-colonial peoples across the globe, and the Leninist assumption that revolutions in the colonial sphere would help spark revolutions in the West. Specifically for the British working class, Lenin argued in 1914 that ‘[t]he English working class will never be free until Ireland is freed from the English yoke.’[2] The CPGB had a substantial Irish membership and had close links to the communist movement in Ireland,[3] with C. Desmond Greaves helping to establish the Connolly Association in 1938.

In the era of decolonisation that followed the Second World War, the CPGB believed that the Irish Free State would gain full independence similar to India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (which did occur in 1949), but accepted the idea that British rule in Northern Ireland was a form of neo-colonialism to be challenged by the Northern Irish population (especially the labour movement). However, unlike its support for the insurgent national liberation movements that emerged in the British colonies, such as in Malaya, Kenya and Nigeria, the CPGB chose to support the united Irish labour movement, rather than Sinn Fein or the Irish Republican Army. Before the advent of ‘the Troubles’ in 1969, the Party called for the remaining British troops stationed in the North to be removed, but believed that this could done peacefully. In some instances, the situation in Northern Ireland was seen as more akin to the political landscape in Scotland or Wales, and thus requiring a strategy of devolution, rather than the strategy of insurgent national liberation seen in many other colonies. For example, in the 1958 version of The British Road to Socialism, the Party stated:

The withdrawal of British troops from Northern Ireland is necessary to end the enforced partition of Ireland, and leave the Irish people free to establish their united Republic.[4]

Supporting the push for civil rights for the Catholic population in Northern Ireland, as well as an end to ‘police state’ present in the North, the Party were sympathetic to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, but were completely caught by surprise, like many of the British left, by the events of 1968-69, which saw British troops intervene.

The main Trotskyist group of the period between the 1950s and the late 1960s was the Socialist Labour League (SLL), led by Gerry Healy. Like the CPGB, the SLL (and its predecessor, The Club) believed that the force for change in Ireland was the Irish labour movement and were very sceptical of the IRA as existed before the British intervention in 1969. In late 1958, Healy’s group admonished Irish socialists for the divorce of socialism from the national struggle and opined:

The day must come when Irishmen who hold these aims will form an Irish socialist party that can play a vital part in the national and social struggle.[5]

Meanwhile, the IRA was dismissed as having ‘neither ideals nor courage’.[6]

The beginning of ‘the Troubles’ in Northern Ireland coincided with the explosion of the far left in Britain, with the radicalism of 1968 seeing the emergence of the International Marxist Group and the International Socialists, both Trotskyist groups that had broken away from being entrist factions within the Labour Party. For many on the left in Britain, the landing of British troops in Derry in August 1969 was initially welcomed as bulwark against the sectarian violence of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the paramilitary police organisation known as the ‘B Specials’, with the International Socialists stating that ‘[o]nly the intervention of British troops stopped the pogrom.’[7] However this intervention was believed to be a temporary measure and that the deepening of the crisis of Northern Ireland gave rise to opportunities for the left to exploit. For example, The Black Dwarf, the newspaper of a broad-based collective including the IMG, praised the people of Bogside for having ‘taken their lives into their own hands’ and while applauding that this had been done by urban struggle and supposedly not using the IRA, the paper called for the people of Ulster to ‘turn the civil war into a revolutionary war’.[8] John Cunningham shows that the Militant were sceptical of the deployment of British troops and instead called for ‘joint defence committees’ run by the labour movement, although Militant’s presence on both sides of the Irish border was minimal at this stage.[9]

However this view soon shifted as the British military presence was seen as an imperialist and invading force, linked to reinforcing Stormont and the structures of the loyalist state. The rising stature of the (Provisional) IRA after 1970 as the vanguard of resistance against the British occupation split the British left. Taking their cues from Leon Trotsky’s opposition to the anarchist terror of the Narodniks in late nineteenth century Russia, Militant argued that the IRA’s terror campaign against the British were adventurist and counter-productive.[10] Both the Communist Party of Great Britain (through the lens of the Communist Party of Ireland)[11] and the International Socialists viewed the leadership of the IRA within the Republican movement signified a failure of the left to convince the working class in Northern Ireland of a socialist solution to ‘the Troubles’. As Eamonn McCann, a founding member of the Belfast-based People’s Democracy, wrote for International Socialism journal in 1972, ‘The Provisionals filled the vacuum created by the effective absence of the Left and the irrelevance of the right.’[12] The most supportive group in Britain towards the IRA (both the Provisional and Official wings) was the International Marxist Group, who had political reservations about the IRA’s programme, but defended the organisations as an anti-imperialist force engaged in a guerrilla war with the British. As an editorial for the IMG’s The Red Mole proposed in 1972:

Both wings of the IRA have the military capacity and the support amongst the people needed to make the occupation of [Free Derry and Free Belfast] a very difficult problem for the British. The IRA does not need to force the British Army out at gunpoint, all they need to do is deny the British any peace…[13]

As the conflict in Northern Ireland became a violent stalemate in the mid-1970s, the British left focused their activities for peace in the region through the Troops Out Movement (TOM), which was established in 1974 by the IMG, the CPGB, the libertarian group Big Flame and the Anti-Internment League. Jacob Murphy has argued that ‘TOM was the leading organisation in the British Left campaign for the withdrawal of troops from Northern Ireland.’[14] With the experience of the IMG in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC), the TOM with devised on the model of the anti-Vietnam War movement and the hope that a focus on the casualties of the conflict ‘would provoke an identical crisis whereby the British public would demand the withdrawal of troops.[15] However there were divisions inside the movement over how the withdrawal of troops would happen – it raised questions of whether the withdrawal would be immediate or a gradual process – and this led to accusations of ‘reformism’ by some of the smaller tendencies within TOM, namely the Revolutionary Communist Group and Workers’ Fight (both of whom had split from the IS previously).[16] The TOM went into a temporary decline in April 1977, when the IMG and Big Flame sought to split the organisation’s leadership, but like the rest of the British far left, after the anti-H-Block campaign, a restructured TOM was rejuvenated for the early 1980s.[17]

The response by the British left to the Armagh protests

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The left wing press – the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge

As mentioned above, the anti-H-Block campaign regalvanised support for the Irish Republican movement in Britain, particularly as the Thatcher government took a hardline on making any concessions to the Republicans, and the 1980 hunger strikes attracted much attention from the British left. However the various groups on the British left were divided over their attitude towards the hunger strikers. The Communist Party, the Socialist Workers Party and the International Marxist Group all supported the hunger strikers and their demands for political prisoner status, with both the Morning Star and Socialist Worker demanding ‘Don’t let the hunger strikers die’.[18]

However Militant were more apprehensive in their approach, explicitly stating that their support was on ‘the basis of humanitarian grounds and not particular support for the IRA.’[19] In the organisation’s internal bulletin, some members questioned whether these ‘sectarian assassins’ could be called ‘political prisoners’ and stated that the ‘methods of the Provos have themselves made it extremely difficult before now to take up this issue.’[20] John Cunningham has shown that Militant argued that any concessions made to political prisoners ‘should be extended to all prisoners on a human rights basis’ and the review of those sentenced in the no-jury Diplock courts ‘should be adjudicated by the labour movement’.[21]

While there was considerable focus on the hunger strike by the seven men in Long Kesh, the newspapers of the CPGB, SWP and IMG all gave significant coverage to the Armagh women in their ‘dirty protest’ campaign and the eventual hunger strike. The Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge all announced the commencement of the hunger strike by the three women prisoners. The Morning Star called it ‘a sharp new twist’ in the hunger strike protests,[22] while Socialist Worker, writing in late November 1980, mentioned that ‘three to five of the 28 women will join the strike’, but also noted that ‘Sinn Fein still hopes to persuade them not to go on strike’.[23] The reason for this, the paper gave, was that ‘[i]t is not expected that they could endure a hunger strike for very long.’[24] Socialist Challenge announced the commencement of the hunger strike by the Armagh prisoners with the headline ‘NOW IT’S TEN WHO FACE DEATH’ and called for mass demonstrations by the labour movement in Britain in support of the hunger strikers, warning that ‘silence could well prove fatal for Mairead Farrell and her comrades’.[25]

These newspapers sought to humanise the women involved in the hunger strike, especially as Mairead Nugent’s mother, Margaret, toured the UK to raise awareness about the strike and gave interviews to both the Morning Star and Socialist Worker. In the interview with Margaret Nugent, Socialist Worker emphasised the terrible conditions faced by her daughter and the other women at Armagh, writing that Mairead was ‘[w]ithout anything to do but stare at the walls around her, walls that since February she has smeared with her excrement and with her menstrual blood.’[26] It continued:

Mairead does not do this because her conditions have driven her insane, though they might have done.

She does it because the alternative is to leave her own dirt on the floor where she sleeps. And that is her only choice, if you call it ‘choice’ at all. Like another 31 Republican women prisoners in Armagh jail, Mairead is denied access to toilet and washing facilities because she refused to classed as a ‘criminal’.[27]

Both newspapers conveyed Margaret Nugent’s message that Mairead and the other two on hunger strike at Armagh were determined to continue with their strike and that they entered into this on their own terms. They were neither ‘dupes’ of the IRA leadership, nor ‘weak’ women who were likely to break, as suggested by some within the Republican movement. The Morning Star quoted Margaret as saying:

They have made their decision. It is their choice. It is not up to us.

I just cannot imagine what they will look like after 40 days of hunger strike – but it is a choice I know they are determined to follow through…

I know my daughter is determined to win or die.[28]

The Socialist Worker stated that Margaret didn’t try to change Mairead’s mind, because she respected her too much for that and ultimately, the ‘hunger strike… is the last hope the Republican prisoners have.’[29]

Socialist Challenge reminded its readers that for the hunger strikes and the anti-H-Block movement to work, there needed a large mobilisation of people in sympathy with those on strike ready to challenge the position of the government. In early December, the newspaper warned that first hunger striker could die before Christmas and called for the fight for political status to be ‘stepped up’ before this occurred. To reiterate this point, the paper quoted the latest statement from the Armagh women:

Mobilise your resources and use every possible means to pressurise the British government into conceding our just demands before death and all its stark reality intervenes here.[30]

In the last edition before the Christmas of 1980, the newspaper warned that ‘it now seems certain that a number of Irish political prisoners will die an agonising death over Xmas’ and called for the Labour Party and its supporters to speak out against this.[31] In the event of any death, the newspaper declared that the national Ad Hoc Irish Hunger Strike Committee would hold a picket outside Downing St, with regional demonstrations in Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow and Cardiff to follow.[32]

However the 1980 strike was called off before any deaths and in the aftermath, Socialist Challenge portrayed it as a temporary relief from the deadlock of the strike and in the words of People’s Democracy, a ‘limited victory’. But referring to a statement from Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams, acknowledged that not much had changed from before the strike and warned of the ‘possibility of another hunger strike’. At the same time, the newspaper pointed to ‘unquestionable victories’ in the campaign, such as the emphasis on mass action, the thousands of people mobilised against the H-Block conditions and the enduring pressure applied by the community in both Ireland and the UK against the British government.[33]

The Socialist Workers Party and Socialist Review

While the CPGB, SWP and IMG all covered the hunger strike in their newspapers, only the SWP also discussed the strikes in the monthly journal, Socialist Review. The CPGB’s other publications, the fortnightly Comment and the monthly Marxism Today had no coverage of these strikes or the wider anti-H-Block movement. As an example of this lack of interest, Socialist Review reported that at the 1980 National Union of Students Conference that a SWP call for a collection to be held at the conference for the Armagh women’s campaign was opposed by a Eurocommunist member of the CPGB, ‘to the amazement of even many CP members’.[34]

In the pages of Socialist Review, the SWP’s Irish correspondent, Shaun Docherty, emphasised the importance of the ‘propaganda war’ being fought between the hunger strikers and the British government and the fact that ‘[t]he extent to which their struggle will be successful depends on the response to their tremendous sacrifice’.[35] As Socialist Challenge maintained, Docherty said that the hunger strike campaign needed support from the labour movement in Britain to put pressure on the Labour Party to challenge the Thatcher government. Writing in November 1980, Docherty stated:

It is the job of socialists in this country to build a mass campaign of support for the demands of the hunger strikers that will put enough pressure on the government to make it concede on all issues [regarding political status]…

[W]e must seek to transform this support into a movement that will force the government to concede.[36]

In the months after the strike ended, Chris Harman wrote that the anti-H-Block campaign had challenged the centrality of militarism to the Republican struggle, but acknowledged that ‘[t]he “left” still tolerate the subordination of everything to the military struggle’.[37] As Kieren Allen from the SWP’s Irish sister organisation, the Socialist Workers Movement, wrote, ‘The Provos are clearly seen as the fighters against British imperialism and the most consistent agitators for a united Ireland.’[38] Of the British far left political organisations, the SWP was probably the most influential of the groups that covered the hunger strikes, especially compared with the CPGB, IMG and Militant (although the much smaller Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency also gave considerable coverage to the strike and the wider Irish Republican struggle). However within the party’s coverage of the strike, there was little outside of the pages of Socialist Worker that mentioned the female hunger strikers in Armagh. It is not that the SWP focused on the hunger striking men at Long Kesh, but the women were not explicitly mentioned either – the strikers were only discussed as an entity that did not differentiate between the two groups.

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The Troops Out Movement

A newly restructured TOM was revived by the anti-H-Block campaign and the TOM was part of the campaign in Britain to mobilise people against the continued ‘criminalisation’ policy of the British government. Troops Out, the journal of the TOM, consistently featured stories on the Armagh women as they began their dirty protest in January 1980 and gave coverage to campaigns by various women’s liberation groups, primarily the Belfast-based Women Against Imperialism. The journal continually reported on the 33 women who were involved in the protest inside Armagh Gaol, giving details about the unsanitary conditions faced by these women and how these changed as months went by. At the beginning of 1980, the journal described the conditions as such:

The wing the women are held in is the largest block in the prison, with three stories, and on the Governor’s orders, only one orderly is detailed to clean it. So it is filthy. The women themselves have been on 21-hour lock up, so they have only three hours to clean themselves, their clothes, and their cells. There are two baths for the 33, the washroom has no hot water and regularly flood, there are no mops and one brush, Wing dirt gets walked into cells landing bins are not emptied. The place is maggot-infested.

The warders have cut down even more on toilet visits – twice a day only, and women are allowed only two sanitary towels daily, regardless of need. They have had to relieve themselves in the cells.[39]

In early February 1980, the journal reported a mass attack by prisoner guards on the women, with assistance from riot officers from Long Kesh, and ‘[a]fter this [incident], no-one was allowed to wash or use the toilets’.[40] In May 1980, the journal recounted the more severe conditions that followed as the prisoners stepped up their protest and the wardens sought to punish them:

The women had to dump their chamber pots through the spyholes and the windows of the cells. These were then blocked up by the warders, since when the women have had to smear excreta and empty urine in the cells themselves, or in the corridors during their one-hour exercise period.[41]

To protest these conditions and the violence experienced by the prisoners, the journal publicised the work done by Women Against Imperialism and the large demonstration held on International Women’s Day 1980 in Belfast in solidarity with the prisoners, as well as subsequent speeches.

The journal dedicated significant space to these mobilisations by Republican women and the August/September 1980 dedicated a page to the campaigning by former Armagh prisoner Rose McAllister in London, containing an excerpt of a speech given at Caxton House the previous month. McAllister concluded her speech by emphasising:

There isn’t one girl or one woman on protest there who’s a masochist, who enjoys that protest or enjoys living in filth and dirt for five months as it stands now. They don’t enjoy it, but they’re doing it and they’re doing it for one reason and one reason only. And everyone in this room should understand the urgency of this, they’re doing it because they’re political prisoners. They’re prisoners of war that’s going on the North of Ireland that the British public are being duped about.[42]

While the coverage of the dirty protest by the Armagh prisoners was extensive, once the hunger strike began, the three women subsumed by the wider reporting on the two strikes at Long Kesh and Armagh. The December 1980 issue of the Troops Out journal featured an article profiling each of the men on hunger strike, however the women did not get this in-depth treatment.

The Revolutionary Communist Group and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency

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The Revolutionary Communist Group (RCG) and the Revolutionary Communist Tendency (RCT) were two breakaway groups from the International Socialists in the mid-1970s, with the RCG forming first in 1975, and then the RCT in 1978. John Callaghan argued that both of these groups differentiated themselves from the rest of the left for their uncritical support for the IRA and the INLA.[43] The RCG had a ‘Third Worldist’ position and endorsed the theory of a labour aristocracy, which purported that Western workers directly benefitted from the exploitation of people in the developing countries, and therefore the RCG’s political activism was primarily organised around anti-imperialist issues, such as solidarity with Irish Republicanism, the anti-Apartheid movement[44] and anti-deportation campaigns.[45] This was reflected in the title of their newspaper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!

The RCG were part of the TOM and gave significant coverage to the anti-H-Block campaign in their newspaper. The newspaper had a special section of the newspaper dedicated to the RCG’s campaign, Hands off Ireland!, which often featured the prisons struggle and the newspaper had a special prisons correspondent. In July 1980, the newspaper highlighted that the prison authorities were ‘increasing efforts… to force these prisoners to give up the rights associated with special category status and hence in effect to withdraw political status from them’, and part of this was removing inmates who had been granted special category status before 1974, such as Marian Price.[46] The RCG concluded that the ‘release of Marian price at this was designed not only to ensure that she did not die in prison… but also to distract public attention from the worsening conditions of the protesting prisoners in Armagh.’[47] The following issue reprinted a statement published in An Phoblacht, celebrating those on protest in Armagh with this statement:

In the face of long periods confined to their cells, and the denial of basic facilities, such as adequate medical facilities, the courageous prisoners have refused to bend the knee to foreign rule and are an example of Republican resistance even when in the clutches of the enemy.

WE SALUTE THEM![48]

On the other hand, the RCT started its own campaign, Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act, in 1979, which sought to bring other anti-H-Block groups in Britain under the leadership of the RCT. A flyer for its initial run of demonstrations to support this campaign claimed support from a variety of left-wing groups and social movements, but the RCT did little to foster good relationships with others. In one pamphlet, the RCT claimed:

The left always tries to downplay the question of national oppression. In this way it tries to turn the Irish War into a trade union issue or a matter if human rights and civil liberties.[49]

The RCT were particularly critical of any left-wing condemnation of the IRA’s terrorism, declaring, ‘The left is ready to denounce the violence of the oppressed – especially when it is conducted in the heartlands of the oppressor, in Britain itself.’[50] This, the Tendency argued, left them with ‘no role to play on Ireland other than a pressure group on the Liberal and Labour Parties’.[51]

In contrast to this, the RCT’s Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act campaign called for two things – mass demonstrations against the PTA and in support of the H-Block prisoners, and for rank-and-file trade unionists to campaign inside the Trades Union Congress to take a decisive stance against the British occupation of Northern Ireland. At the beginning of the hunger strike in Long Kesh in October 1980, the RCT called for a march from Hackney Town Hall to Stoke Newington in support of the hunger strike, with four slogans daubed on the flyer:

TROOPS OUT OF IRELAND NOW!

SELF-DETERMINATION FOR THE IRISH PEOPLE!

SMASH THE PREVENTION OF TERRORISM ACT!

PRISONER OF WAR STATUS FOR IRISH ANTI-IMPERIALIST PRISONERS![52]

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The other tactic of the Smash the PTA campaign was to call for rank-and-file trade unionists to put pressure on the TUC and the Labour Party to challenge the existence of British troops in Northern Ireland. As the 1981 hunger strikes began, the campaign published a pamphlet asking for agitation on this issue at the forthcoming TUC Congress. The first of the five points of the proposed motion included in the campaign’s pamphlet stated:

This branch/union/trades council

  • deplores the failure of the official labour movement to support the demands for political status of republican prisoners of war in the Six Counties of Ireland.[53]

The pamphlet then ended with the plea, ‘Don’t let the prisoners in H-Blocks and Armagh struggle in vain! Fight for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Ireland!’[54]

This rank-and-file pressure was part of the RCT’s broader slogan on the ‘Irish War’, which was ‘Bring the War to Britain’. On one hand, it was ‘a call to make the Irish War an issue in the British labour movement’. But it also, as the Tendency recognised, ‘implie[d] support for a violent attack on the British state – not only in the Six Counties – but in Britain itself.’[55] With its origins in the Leninist idea of converting an imperialist war into a civil war[56] and the early Irish Communists inside the CPGB,[57] the RCT’s slogan also echoed the slogan of the US leftist terror group the Weathermen Underground, whose slogan was ‘Bring the War Home’.[58] However, despite the revolutionary rhetoric of the RCT, its influence upon the anti-H-Block movement was limited by its sectarianism. Although many outside the two groups could not differentiate between them, the approach of the RCG and its emphasis on the prisoners fit more with the wider currents within the Irish Republican movement in the early 1980s. On the other hand, the revolutionary and violent rhetoric of the RCT came at a time when the IRA were moving away from pursuing a primarily militarist strategy – inspired by the anti-H-Block movement and the hunger strikes.

The case of Pauline McLaughlin

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While attention was given to the dirty protest by the 33 women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the three hunger strikers by sections of the British left, within this coverage by these groups, another prisoner was also highlighted – the young Pauline McLaughlin. McLaughlin was a young illiterate woman who was imprisoned in Armagh serving an ‘indefinite’ sentence,[59] but also suffering from mental health issues. Sentenced before 1976, McLaughlin qualified for special prisoner status, but was denied this. She originally joined the protest movement inside the Northern Irish prisons to gain this special status, but became ill and according to some sources, ‘blackmailed by the prison doctor to end her action’.[60] Since that time, McLaughlin had suffered from stomach problems and was unable to digest food, which caused her to rapidly lose weight. Shuffled between prison hospital and Armagh, McLaughlin’s condition was viewed as potentially fatal and there were calls by the anti-H-Block movement for her to be released on compassionate grounds. However the Thatcher government refused to do so, with Northern Ireland Secretary Humphrey Atkins claiming that her condition was ‘not at present critical’.[61] Atkins continued:

While Miss McLaughlin’s health does give cause for serious concern, it is considered in the light of all the advice available that there are insufficient grounds for taking the exceptional course of releasing her on licence from the indeterminate sentence and using the Royal Prerogative to remit the balance of the fixed terms.[62]

The Morning Star dedicated a significant portion of an issue to highlight the case of McLaughlin, declaring, ‘Every day she remains in the prison her life is in danger – a senior consultant from a Northern Ireland hospital has diagnosed a psychogenic vomiting complaint.[63] The newspaper quoted government minister, Michael Allison, as saying, ‘If there is inescapable evidence that the condition is not self-induced we would respond by releasing her on medical grounds… But it may be that she is manipulating her illness.’ The newspaper then asked what ‘inescapable evidence’ did Allison need, writing:

That final, fatal cardiac crisis? Or have they rather been gambling with her life, refusing to free her while the H-Block crisis was nearing the climax, fearing that if they did that the government might appear weak?

Socialist Challenge claimed that the McLaughlin case ‘graphically illustrates the barbarity of Armagh’ and that ‘Pauline’s treatment is typical of that perpetuated by the British on Irish political prisoners’.[64]

Numerous demonstrations and political actions were called upon to highlight McLaughlin’s case, with pickets outside Whitehall and Downing St, emergency resolutions of various organisations being sent to the Northern Ireland Office and various protests against the doctors on staff at Armagh Goal. These actions were co-ordinated by the Armagh Co-Ordinating Committee, run out of a feminist collective space (A Woman’s Place on William IV Street) in London. These protests were given significant coverage in the Morning Star, particularly when actor Frances de la Tour attended a demonstration outside of Downing Street in December 1980.[65] Pickets were also established outside the General Medical Council offices to condemn the role that GMC members played in the inadequate treatment experienced by women in Armagh Gaol.[66]

In January 1981, McLaughlin was eventually released from prison on medical grounds, although it is most likely that the campaign for her release, in amidst the wider anti-H-Block campaign and the hunger strikes, contributed to this outcome. Some of the press in Ireland suggested that McLaughlin was released at a time when the British government were in talks with Sinn Fein over the continuation of the ‘dirty protest’, but Ann Rossiter argues that the grassroots movement that campaigned for McLaughlin’s release succeeded ‘in embarrassing the British government and pinpointing the plight of the women prisoners at the heart of the establishment.’[67] While the left wing press did highlight the plight of McLaughlin, the campaign on the streets was led by feminists in Britain and Ireland.

Conclusion

Most of the British left recognised that the anti-H-Block campaign had revitalised the Irish Republican movement on both sides of the Irish Sea and that despite the inability of the campaign to obtain political status for those imprisoned, a grassroots political mass movement had emerged that offered an alternative to the terror campaign waged by the IRA and the INLA. In Northern Ireland, the initial benefactors of this movement was the reformed People’s Democracy, whose members held important roles in the National H-Block/Armagh Committee, while in Britain, the campaign revived the influence of the Troops Out Movement. The gains made by PD eventually convinced Sinn Fein that their policy of abstentionism had not reached the masses in the same way that the anti-H-Block campaign had and led to the eventual acceptance by SF of gaining power by the ballot box – combined with the sustained terror campaign of the IRA.[68] Besides the RCT and RCG (and later Red Action),[69] the British left preferred the path of the mass political movement rather than the IRA’s terror strategy and expressed solidarity with those in the anti-H-Block campaign. However the British left had to accept that although alternative sites of Republicanism had been built in the early 1980s, the militarism of Sinn Fein and the IRA still dominated the Republican movement.

The ‘dirty protest’ by the women imprisoned in Armagh Gaol and the hunger strike by Mairead Nugent, Mairead Farrell and Mary Doyle brought attention to the experiences of Irish women involved in the Republican struggle in both Ireland and Britain. The British far left press followed these protests and the strike, with the pages of the Morning Star, Socialist Worker and Socialist Challenge all covering the developments in Armagh and the campaigns outside – although these campaigns were, at the local level, mostly led by women’s liberation groups, rather than the left-wing parties. Organisationally, the left still deferred much of its campaigning to the Troops Out Movement, which operated as a broad left campaign that reached beyond the traditional audience of the various far left groups. Particular emphasis was given to the plight of inmate Pauline McLaughlin who was not part of the hunger strike, but still suffered from illness due to a lack of food being eaten.

While the CPGB, the SWP and the IMG all broadly supported the anti-H-Block campaign and the women’s hunger strike, Militant was much more ambivalent and supported the campaign for political status purely as a human rights issue, even though the rest of the left acknowledged that the wider issue of the British occupation of Northern Ireland was an integral part of the women prisoner’s campaign. On the other side of the fence, the RCG and the RCT called for ‘direct action’ by British activists in solidarity with those in prison in Long Kesh and Armagh. The RCG maintained a focus on prisoner solidarity and highlighted the issue in their weekly paper, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!, while the RCT called rank-and-file trade unionists to compel the TUC to explicitly support the Irish Republican cause, as well as promoting the slogan ‘Bring the War to Britain’ (even the slogan was not widely received amongst other activists and left-wing organisations.

In conclusion, it seems that the issue of the women’s protests in Armagh were given much needed publicity in Britain by the left-wing press, but much of the grassroots campaigning was left to various feminist groups, such as the Armagh Co-Ordinating Group and Women Against Imperialism, who launched significant demonstrations in London, Belfast and Dublin between 1979 and 1981.[70] Many of these women were part of the various left-wing groups or the TOM, but organised around this issue as feminists or as Republicans (or even Republican feminists). While an intersectional solidarity was expressed with the women in Armagh, the British far left acceded much of this to the women’s liberation movement.

armagh

Thanks to Rob Marsden, Fidelma Breen, Adrian Kerr, Sarah Grimes, Jacob Murphy, Alastair Renwick, Di Parkin, John Cunningham, Helen Yaffe, Toby Harb, Jim Monaghan, Lindsey Cole and Brodie Nugent for their assistance in providing material for this post. 

[1] F. Stuart Ross, Smashing H-Block: The Rise and Fall of the Popular Campaign Against Criminalization, 1976-1982 (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2011) p. 5.

[2] V.I. Lenin, ‘The Right of Nations to Self-Determination’, Marxist Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/self-det/ch08.htm.

[3] Kevin Morgam, Gidon Cohen and Andrew Flinn, Communists and British Society 1920-1991 (London: River Orams Press 2007) pp. 196-202.

[4] CPGB, The British Road to Socialism (London: CPGB pamphlet, 1958) p. 24.

[5] Special Correspondent, ‘Ireland’s Workers Needs a Party Based on Connolly’s Teachings’, The Newsletter, 2/81 (13 December, 1958) p. 6.

[6] Special Correspondent, ‘Ireland’s Workers Needs a Party Based on Connolly’s Teachings’, p. 5.

[7] ‘Ireland’, International Socialism, 1/40 (October/November 1969) p. 2.

[8] ‘Ulster: Turn the Civil War into a Revolutionary War’, Black Dwarf, 14/21 (30 August, 1969) p. 8.

[9] John Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland, c.1969-89’, in Laurence Marley (ed.), The British Labour Party and Twentieth-Century Ireland: The cause of Ireland, the cause of Labour (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2015) p. 201.

[10] Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland, c.1969-89’, p. 200.

[11] In 1973, Marxism Today ran an article by the CPI’s Dublin Area Secretary, Tom Redmond, which argued, ‘Wherever working class leadership is absent the tactics, strategies and content adopted are those of the middle class.’ Redmond further claimed that the ‘social composition of the Provisionals was more middle class [than the Official IRA] and mainly rural’. Tom Redmond, ‘The Forces in the Irish National Liberation Struggle’, Marxism Today (June 1973) pp. 169-170.

[12] Eamonn McCann, ‘After 5 October 1968’, International Socialism, 1/51 (1972) p. 11.

[13] The Red Mole, 48 (7 August, 1972) p. 1.

[14] Jacob Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”: The Troops Out Movement Campaign for the Withdrawal of the British Army from Northern Ireland, 1973-77’, unpublished MA thesis, Newcastle University (2014) p. 4.

[15] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, p. 13.

[16] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, p. 40.

The situation in Ireland was one of the major areas of disagreement between the IS and those who formed Workers’ Fight. See: Ian Birchall, Tony Cliff: A Marxist for His Time (London: Bookmarks 2011) pp. 322-325.

[17] Murphy, ‘“Ireland’s Tragedy is Britain’s Disgrace”’, pp. 41-42.

[18] Morning Star, 17 December, 1980; Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[19] ‘H Blocks – Only the Labour Movement has the Solution’, Socialist Youth (February 1981) p. 2.

[20] Militant, Internal Bulletin (March 1981) pp. 6-7.

[21] Cunningham, ‘The Militant Tendency Comes to Ireland’, p. 208.

[22] Morning Star, 17 November, 1980.

[23] Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[24] Socialist Worker, 22 November, 1980.

[25] Socialist Challenge, 3 December, 1980.

[26] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[27] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[28] Morning Star, 9 December, 1980.

[29] Socialist Worker, 13 December, 1980.

[30] Socialist Challenge, 10 December, 1980.

[31] Socialist Challenge, 17 December, 1980.

[32] Socialist Challenge, 17 December, 1980.

[33] Socialist Challenge, 1 January, 1981.

[34] ‘Left Advance Left Behind’, Socialist Review (May 1980) p.

[35] Shaun Docherty, ‘Ireland: Bitter Climax’, Socialist Review (December 1980) p. 4.

[36] Shaun Docherty, ‘Don’t Let Them Die!’, Socialist Review (November 1980) p. 22.

[37] Chris Harman, ‘Ireland: After the Hunger Strike’, Socialist Review (January 1981) pp. 20-21.

[38] Kieren Allen, ‘Who’s Who on the Irish Left’, Socialist Review (January 1981) p. 23.

[39] ‘Attacks on Women Prisoners’, Troops Out (March 1980) p. 3.

[40] ‘Attacks on Women Prisoners’, p. 3.

[41] ‘Armagh Conditions Exposed’, Troops Out (May 1980) p. 12.

[42] ‘Rose McAllister Speaks Out Armagh Prison’, Troops Out (August/September 1980) p. 5.

[43] John Callaghan, The Far Left in British Politics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1987) p. 145.

[44] See: Gavin Brown & Helen Yaffe, ‘Practices of Solidarity: Opposing Apartheid in the Centre of London’, Antipode, 46/1 (January 2014) pp. 34-52.

As Brown and Yaffe mention elsewhere, the RCG portrayed the areas that it worked in as part of a global struggle, as demonstrated by the slogan, ‘Brixton, Belfast, Soweto – One Struggle! One Fight!’ Gavin Brown & Helen Yaffe, Non-Stop Against Apartheid: Practicing Solidarity Outside the South African Embassy’, Social Movement Studies, 12/2 (2013) p. 232.

[45] Eddie Abrahams, ‘Citizenship and Rights: The Deportation of Viraj Mendis’, Critical Social Policy, 9/26 (September 1989) pp. 107-111; Anandi Ramamurthy, Black Star: Britain’s Asian Youth Movements (London: Pluto Press, 2013) p. 105; p. 118.

[46] ‘Marian Price Freed’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (July/August 1980) p.

Marian Price was one of two sisters given life sentences in 1973 for terrorism offences. Imprisoned in England, the two sisters, along with two men, went on hunger strike, but were force-fed by the prison authorities. The strike lasted 200 days, before the Price sisters were transferred to Armagh. George Sweeney, ‘Self-Immolative Martyrdom: Explaining the Irish Hunger Strike Tradition’, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, 93/271 (Autumn 2004) p. 342.

[47] Marian Price Freed’, p.

[48] ‘Armagh Goal’, Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! (September/October 1980) p. 12.

[49] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat (London: RCT pamphlet, 1980) p. 15.

[50] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 17.

[51] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 17.

[52] RCT, ‘Demonstration in Support of the H-Block Prisoners’, October 1980, RCT flyer.

[53] Smash the Prevention of Terrorism Act Campaign, TUC Hands off Ireland! (London: RCT pamphlet, 1981) p. 15.

[54] Smash the PTA Campaign, TUC Hands off Ireland! p. 15.

[55] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, p. 23.

[56] V.I. Lenin, ‘The War and Russian Social-Democracy’, Marxists Internet Archive, https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1914/sep/28.htm

[57] RCT, Ireland’s Victory Means Britain’s Defeat, pp. 21-22.

[58] See: Jeremy Varon, Bringing the War Home: The Weather Underground, the Red Army Faction, and Revolutionary Violence in the Sixties and Seventies (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2004).

[59] ‘Pauline McLaughlin’, Troops Out (December 1980) p. 7.

[60] Socialist Challenge, 13 November, 1980.

[61] Hansard, 9 December, 1980, col. 345w.

[62] Hansard, 9 December, 1980, col. 346w.

[63] Morning Star, 23 December, 1980.

[64] Socialist Challenge, 13 November, 1980.

[65] Morning Star, 12 December, 1980.

[66] Morning Star, 5 November, 1980.

[67] Ann Rossiter, ‘“Not Our Cup of Tea”: Nation, Empire and the Irish Question in English Feminism in the 1970s and 1980s’, unpublished PhD thesis, London South Bank University (2005) p. 225.

[68] Tommy McKearney, The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament (London: Pluto Press 2011) pp. 157-163.

[69] Mark Hayes, ‘Red Action – Left Wing Political Pariah: Some Observations Regarding Ideological Apostasy and the Discourse of Proletarian Resistance’, in Evan Smith & Matthew Worley, Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956 (Manchester: Manchester University Press 2014) pp. 242-243.

[70] See: Christina Loughran, ‘Armagh and Feminist Strategy: Campaigns around Republican Women Prisoners in Armagh Jail’, Feminist Review, 23 (1986) pp. 59-79

‘By whatever means necessary’: The origins of the ‘no platform’ policy

Recently the concept of ‘no platform’ was in the news again when there were attempts to cancel a talk by Germaine Greer at Cardiff University. While there is no doubt that the use of ‘no platform’ has expanded since its first use in the 1970s, the term is bandied about in the media with little definition and understanding of how it was developed as a specific response to the fascism of the National Front (and later the British National Party). This post looks back at the origins of the term and how it was developed into a practical anti-fascist strategy.

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In the early 1970s, the term ‘no platform’ was first used to describe the anti-fascist strategy of denying fascist organisations the public space to organise and disseminate their propaganda. The denial of public space had been an integral part of the militant anti-fascist movement since the 1930s, employed by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB), various Jewish groups and other assorted anti-fascists. Fighting Oswald Mosley’s BUF, these anti-fascists broke up meetings, occupied spaces to prevent the BUF gaining access and mobilised massive demonstrations to physically confront the fascists in the streets. This continued after the war with various groups, such as the 43 Group, the Association of Jewish Ex-Servicemen and the Revolutionary Communist Party, joining the CPGB to combat Mosley’s Union Movement. As well as physically confronting the UM, part of the anti-fascists’ strategy was appealing to the local councils, particularly in boroughs where the Labour Party was in charge, to deny the UM (or its various aliases) access to any council property. The anti-fascist movement was quite successful in its approach and Mosley fled to Ireland in the early 1950s. Until the emergence of the National Front in late 1960s, the fascist groups in Britain remained small and the anti-fascist movement gradually faded away.

Forming in 1967, the National Front brought together a number of disparate fascist and anti-immigration groups and by the early 1970s, it was making headway by attracting disaffected Conservative Party voters who felt that the Tories were ‘too soft’ on immigration. Particularly when the Ugandan Asian controversy emerged in 1972, the NF publicised its opposition to letting these British citizens into the country after the Heath government acknowledged that it had legal reason to deny them entry. The first use of the term ‘no platform’ (that I have been able to find) comes from that year. The Red Mole was the newspaper of the International Marxist Group (IMG), a Trotskyist organisation that built quickly amongst the student and anti-Vietnam War movements in the late 1960s. In the issue for September 18, 1972, the front page headline declared ‘NO PLATFORM FOR RACISTS’. It described the NF and the Monday Club (a pro-empire and anti-immigration grouping within the Conservative Party) as ‘mortal enemies of the working class’ and stated that these two groups ‘must be stopped in their tracks’. The newspaper argued that these groups needed to be confronted and were ‘not going to be convinced by rational argument’, calling for ‘a concerted counter-attack’ at meetings of both groups.

The IMG proposed that groups like the NF could not be afforded ‘free speech’ because ‘their racist campaigns are a means to destroy the organisations of the working class which defend such bourgeois democratic rights’. The same issue claimed:

the only way to deal with fascist type organisations like the National Front is to break up their activities before they grow to a size where they can begin to smash the activities of the working class.

While acknowledging that ‘[w]e are nowhere near a threatened Fascist coup yet’, but said ‘the methods necessary on preventing such a threat must be explained and demonstrated in practice now… We must begin to adopt the right tactics right from the start.’

The IMG was one of the most influential leftist groups amongst the student movement in Britain in the early 1970s, but competed with the International Socialists and the CPGB (who were part of the Broad Left group with students associated with the Labour left). The NUS in 1974 was under the leadership of Steve Parry, a member of the CPGB and the Broad Left, and were in agreement (in principle) that a policy of ‘no platform’ should be applied to NF and other fascist organisations attempting to recruit students on university campuses. At the Liverpool conference in 1974, the policy of ‘no platform’ was devised as part of a wider stance against racism. Amendment 4 of the resolution on the fight against racialism stated:

Conference recognises the need to refuse assistance (financial or otherwise) to openly racist or fascist organisations or societies… and to deny them a platform.

However conference believes that in order to counter these groups, it is also necessary to prevent any member of these organisations or individuals known to espouse similar views from speaking in colleges by whatever means necessary (including disrupting of the meeting).

Student unions were called upon to ‘prevent any racist or fascist propaganda being displayed, sold, distributed, or propagated through meetings by whatever means may be necessary’.

Although agreed in principle the concept of ‘no platform’, the Communist Party, the IMG and the IS differed on the details of the resolution and how the strategy should be applied. The IMG felt that the joint action suggested in the resolution would not transfer into practice and declared that the other left-wing groups were unwilling to be involved in such joint practical action. Steve Webster wrote in Red Weekly (the renamed paper of the IMG):

The fascists will not be defeated by resolutions or statements alone. There are three specific issue which face us immediately: the activity of the right in the colleges, the campaign against the reactionary anti-abortion group, SPUC [the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children), and the fight against racism. The other groups of the left rejected joint action around these issues. But it is only by such joint mobilisations, by confronting the right wing head-on, that the fascists and racists will be routed.

The LSE branch of the International Socialists put together a newsletter called The Red Agitator which stated that they believed that the policy was ‘fundamentally correct’, but took issue with the lumping together of racists and fascists in the resolution as there was a difference in approach to fascists and those in the mainstream who promoted racist ideas. The IS raised the point of the racist claims made by the psychologist Hans Eysenck who toured universities in the early 1970s, espousing the idea that there were significant differences in mental capacity between the races. Eysenck was a racist, but not a fascist, and the IS suggested approaching his meetings in a slightly different way than the employment of the ‘no platform’ strategy:

To debate with Eysenck, to treat him as a genuine scientist, is thus to indirectly legitimise Powellism. This is not to say that we should go out to break up meetings which he addresses – the real threat lies in organised fascist groups – but rather that we should picket them and organise counter-meetings in order to show up the real nature of his ideas.

But dealing with the openly fascist NF, the IS agreed with the IMG. The Red Agitator newsletter finished with this:

The racists and fascists of today are not something that we can ignore. They are a growing menace. The liberties we have today are worth defending, small though they are. Fascism aims to smash, racism creates the conditions for their destruction. We cannot allow the open fascist, or the concealed fascist working in the Monday Club or some similar organisation to gain a hearing. Every meeting that they hold gives them confidence. Every apologist for racism lends them comfort. Every liberal who debates with them gives them aid – much against their will.

Every time they are stopped from meeting, every time their meetings are broke up, their task becomes harder and harder. The moral of the fascists fall. People turn away from them as a miserable and pathetic group with nothing to offer. Every success that we have demonstrates to the waverers that we are a better solution. That is the only way to fight fascism and racism.

The Communist Party’s National Student Organiser Dave Cook also took exception with the broad nature of the ‘no platform’ resolution devised by the NUS. Cook, writing in the CPGB’s Morning Star, argued that the second part of the resolution calling for the prevention of those speaking who espoused ‘similar views’ by any means necessary endangered support for the NUS policy because of its broad interpretation and could have potentially isolated the more moderate and centrist elements in the NUS. Cook proposed that there should not be all-applying response set at the national level, but allow each individual student council to decide whether to implement the policy of ‘no platform’. Like the Party’s wider anti-fascist strategy in the 1970s, Cook also warned against the vanguardist approach of breaking up meetings by a minority of students, writing ‘It is important that direct action does not become a substitute for the often more difficult task of winning the majority.’

In the Party’s internal documents, the broad and all-applying response of ‘no platform’ was criticised further. The Communist Party was particularly concerned with making the distinction between the fascism of the National Front and the racism of the Conservatives (and other right-wing groups), which nonetheless operated within a democratic framework. The Political Committee stated:

It is important to state from the start that the resolution is not a threat to the right of the Tory party to politically operate in the colleges. The resolution clearly and correctly differentiates between the expression of a Conservative viewpoint and organisations whose declared objective is racist. This is not to say that racism is an attitude that stops at the boundaries of the Conservative Party. On the contrary. Certain Tory leaders are more potent symbols of racism than anyone in the National Front… However it id important to draw the distinction between individual Tory racists, and organisations that are part of the Tory party like the Monday Club on one hand; and organisations whose declared objective is to further race hatred on the other – not because our opposition to them is any less intense, but because they are often best fought in different ways. It is so that it can more effectively fight them that NUS policy must hinge on this distinction. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, 22 May, 1974, CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

The Party also felt that the resolution could be used to enact the ‘no platform’ policy against individuals, rather than organised fascist groups, and that this went past necessary anti-fascist activism and contravened the idea of ‘free speech’. Another internal document made this clear:

No matter how nauseous we find the views of individuals who are not members of such [fascist] organisations, e.g. [Hans] Eysenck and [William] Shockley; or the views of the right wing of the Tory Party, e.g. the Monday Club; the fact is that both of these differ significantly from organisations whose aims is declaredly fascist. (‘The Fight Against Racism and Fascism, n.d., CP/CENT/PC/13/05, LHASC)

While the NUS resolution, as well as the IMG and the IS, all saw the Monday Club to resemble a proto-fascist organisation that should be barred from meeting and organising on university campuses, the CPGB stressed that the Monday Club (from which there was a conveyer belt of recruitment into the NF in the early 1970s) was merely a group within the Conservatives and thus should be allowed to organise publicly.

Furthermore, the CPGB was worried that the phrase ‘by any means necessary’ could be interpreted in a number of ways and was concerned about physical violence at public events involving sections of the non-fascist right wing, such as Eysenck’s university tours. This had already occurred the previous year when the tiny Maoist group the Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist) (featuring the future leader of the Workers Institute for Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, Comrade Bala) broke up a presentation by Eysenck at the LSE.

The resolution was heavily criticised in the mainstream media, with even The Guardian’s John Fairhall describing the move as a denial of free speech, voted for by student ‘under the spell of Mr Parry’s oratory’ (April 9, 1974). Fairhall predicted that ‘[t]rouble and violence seem inevitable’ and warned:

Students should perhaps remember that frustration which leads to a denial of the right of one section of society is not something new. It is classic pattern of fascism.

Parry replied in a latter to the newspaper (April 16), arguing:

Our members overseas have been singled out for abuse, threats and outright economic attack by powerful extreme right-wingers during the time of the last Government. All our conference agreed was that at least they should not be subject to that abuse in our own student union.

Parry further addressed his critics in the press in an article in the journal Labour Monthly (June 1974) which had been run since the 1920s by CPGB stalwart, R. Palme Dutt. Unlike the position taken by Dave Cook, Parry saw the Monday Club and the National Front as very similar and posed the question, ‘What is the difference between the ideologies of the National Front and the Nazi party?’ Responding to the claim that the notion of ‘no platform’ put restrictions on ‘free speech’, Parry answered at length:

One must accept that to deny racists and fascists a platform is to ‘limit freedom of speech’ but one cannot see this freedom as something which exists in the abstract. It is a freedom which is already limited by such laws as the Race Relations Act and the law of libel, and must also be seen in the context of a class society in Britain which limits the freedom of speech for the vast majority of people… In refusing to assist the spread of racism the NUS is fighting for a freedom of even greater importance: the freedom to live without discrimination on the basis of race. It is only in relation to reality that principles of freedom can be seen. It is not an abstract intellectual exercise.

Because of the controversial nature of this resolution, the NUS held a special emergency conference in London on 15 June, 1974. This was the same day that the NF attempted to hold a meeting at Conway Hall in Red Lion Square and a counter-demonstration was held by Liberation and other anti-fascists, including the IMG. The resulting melee between anti-fascists and the police led to the death of Warwick University student Kevin Gately.

At the June conference, the debate was over the application of resolution. Dave Cook, writing again in Morning Star (21 June, 1974), said that the IMG and the IS wanted to maintain the resolution as it was passed, ‘which dictated a common response to all racist and fascist organisations in all situations’. The Communist-affiliated Broad Left group opposed this arguing that ‘the best way to implement national policy was for decisions to be made by each individual union in accordance with its local situation’. Put to a vote, the amendment suggested by Broad Left failed to get over the line and the resolution remained as it was, despite the Federation of Conservative Students seeking the opportunity to defeat the resolution in its entirety. But the death of Gately at an anti-fascist demonstration bolstered the argument made by the Trotskyist groups – if fascism was not countered ‘by any means necessary’, then people on the left were to become targets of violence.

By this time, the National Front were starting change tactics. For most of the early 1970s, the NF had played up its ‘respectability’ and tried to attract disaffected Tory voters (and members) who were anti-immigrant, pro-empire and anti-Common Market. ‘No platform’ was probably at its most controversial, but also very necessary, during this period, when a determined anti-fascist movement was needed to break the respectable veneer that the NF was putting forward while trying to woo the Tory right.

It reached its highest membership during this period and concentrated on electoral politics. The NF continued to contest elections from 1974 to 1977, but switched to an attempt to siphon off right-leaning Labour voters. However the small electoral fortunes of the NF kickstarted the anti-fascist movement against them and the years from 1977 to 1979 saw increasing confrontation between the NF and anti-fascists on the streets. By the late 1970s, the idea of ‘no platform’ seemed fairly straightforward – occupy the streets and the places where the NF seek to publicly assemble. Colin Sparks, from the SWP, explained in a 1978 pamphlet, Fascism and the National Front:

We do not engage in this sort of activity because we like violence or because the NF are reactionary. There are many other reactionary organisations around, for instance the Tory Party, which we do not attempt to smash up. The National Front differs from the Tories because their aims are precisely to control the streets, to build a mass fighting movement. In this, they need the marches and rallies. (p. 41)

The Communist Party, which was largely critical of the SWP’s ‘adventurist’ approach, also recognised the need to confront the NF, but argued that this needed to be done on a mass scale. But they also advocated using the Race Relations Act to combat the NF and their ‘claim to have a democratic right to flaunt their racism’. In the 1978 pamphlet, A Knife at the Throat of Us All, Dave Cook, now the CPGB’s National Organiser, wrote:

Communists support, and will defend to the utmost, the right of people to freely speak their mind. But to attack people because they are black is not a political argument. People form their political views on the basis of conviction. They are born with their colour. That is why to attack someone because of his or her race is to attack that person as a human being. Their political views can change, colour cannot.

To permit the NF the ‘freedom’ to be anti-human can end up destroying the freedom of us all. That is why incitement to racial hatred must have no place in a civilised society. (p. 28)

Even the Labour Party accepted a form of ‘no platform’ for the National Front, when the Party’s National Executive Committee in 1978 declared:

Labour candidates should not share platforms at meetings or appear on constituency programmes on radio or television with candidates or other members of the National Front.

Despite the original NUS resolution targeting specifically openly fascist and racist organisations, such as the NF and (perhaps controversially) the Monday Club, there were fears that the policy could widened to be used against any political organisation and individual that fell foul of the NUS leadership. In their 1974 pamphlet, Fascism: How to Smash It, the IMG gave instances where ‘no platform’ had been applied to political ‘enemies’ who were not fascists:

Racists like Powell or Harold Soref – who are not fascists – have often been driven off university campuses. This is because the effect these people can have is similar to fascists – that is, terrorising black people or others chosen as scapegoats for capitalism’s social ills, and encouraging social violence, legal or otherwise, against them…

‘No Platform’ has been applied to many people by the workers’ movement. Trade unionists, for example, would generally expel employees who attended their meetings. Print workers sometimes censor by blacking a newspaper editorial attacking the unions. When Mr. Godber, Tory Minister for Agriculture, [was] sent to Birmingham one day last year to do a public relations job for Tory price policy, he was mobbed off the street by angry housewives. All these actions are against ‘free speech’ and sometimes involve a physical struggle.

Throughout the 1970s, the ‘no platform’ policy was challenged at the NUS annual conference. At the 1977 conference, concerns were raised about demonstrations against Sir Keith Joseph speaking at Essex University. In The Guardian (March 23, 1977), John Fairhall wrote that the NUS Executive Committee felt that actions, such as the one against Joseph, were ‘against the interest of the union, and damage an anti-racialism campaign’. Alan Elsner, a member of the Union of Jewish Students, wrote in the New Statesman (May 13, 1977) that the Joseph incident ‘heightened the fear that “no platform” policy could be used as a means of silencing people whose views might be controversial or unpopular’. Elsner also raised the controversy over the use of ‘no platform’ against organisations that were explicitly Zionist or supporters of Israel.

Fairhall reported that some on the NUS Executive Committee wanted to change the policy from ‘no platform’ to ‘no invitation’, allegedly supported by the Communists in the Broad Left coalition, but this was defeated, 182,333 to 154,033 (with 33,948 abstentions) (The Guardian, April 1, 1977). Future Labour MP Charles Clarke was, at the time, NUS President and a member of the Broad Left, but after the vote, defined the existing policy of ‘no platform’ as:

A student union would do anything it could physically – such as picketing and demonstrating – to prevent people whom the student union decided by a general meeting vote were racists or fascists from speaking on a campus. But prevention would stop short of violence.

The Times’ Ian Bradley stated that the policy was dropped by the NUS in December 1977 but reinstated at the 1978 NUS conference just four months later (April 7, 1978). Although the moderate NUS leadership opposed it, the far left, including the National Organisation of Labour Students, managed to get the policy reinstated. Trevor Phillips, the incoming NUS President and who was personally against the policy, maintained that the policy would be used against the National Front, but ‘would oppose any attempt to use it against Mrs Thatcher or other members of major political parties’. The outgoing NUS President, Susan Slipman added, ‘The new policy will not mean the infringement of the democratic right of any members and it will definitely not mean reraising the question of banning Jewish student organisations.’

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By 1979, the NF had fallen into disarray, marginalised by the growing anti-fascist movement from one side and by the right-wing shift of the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher from the other. However the ‘no platform’ policy was maintained and many would argue, succumbed to the newly developed interest in ‘identity politics’. Writing in Socialist Worker Review in 1986, Lindsey German said:

the policy often means little in confronting racism and sexism on more than an individual level. But what is more, it broadens the definition of no platform to an almost unworkable degree. The original no platform went for stopping organised fascists and racists, because their organisation was such a threat. That is not the case with individual members of the rugby club, however noxious they might be. Those people have to be defeated politically, in open and hopefully large union meetings.

German defended the policy, but argued that it needed to be limited to its original intent – against the National Front and other fascist organisations, such as the emerging British National Party. She warned that there were two things that were to be avoided if the NUS was to maintain the policy:

The first is to widen the policy far too far, and therefore allow the right wing to make capital from particular issues. The second is to get trapped into allowing the right to pose as defenders of free speech. Nothing could be further from the truth.

It seems that student activists at British universities have not heeded German’s warning and that the strategy of ‘no platform’ employed against political opponents far removed from the original targets, the organised fascist far right. ‘No platform’ was developed as a specific tactic to prevent the encroachment of the National Front (and the Monday Club) onto university campuses in the mid-1970s. However it seems that almost from the time of its implementation, it has been open to misinterpretation and abuse by certain student groups. This post has sought to show that before it became a widely used tactic by various student groups, ‘no platform’ had a discreet and specific context to be used in an explicitly anti-fascist framework. Contemporary discussions in the media of the tactic often ignore this origin story, but do so at their own peril.

IS/SWP Internal & Pre-Conference Bulletins 1974-1984 on anti-racism/anti-fascism

Next in the bunch of documents that I am looking to digitise is the internal and pre-conference bulletins of the International Socialists and Socialist Workers Party. The documents that I have scanned were especially requested by another researcher so they are no the full IBs, but selections relating to anti-racism, anti-fascism and the SWP’s black workers paper, Flame (which I posted about earlier here). Most of these IBs are in my own personal collection or lent to me by former IS/SWP members, but one extract is from the Alastair Mutch Papers in the Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick.

Due to the antiquated scanner that I have access to, the file is in two parts. Download the first part here and the second part here. Enjoy!

Flame: Black Workers paper of the SWP (Sep 1977)

Flame front page

Like many others with an interest in the history of the left, I have acquired many documents that have become rarities, yet are valuable to researchers. Taking a cue from great archival blogs such as Red Mole Rising, Big Flame and the Irish Left Archive, I have decided to start scanning some of these documents. My first try is a copy of the SWP’s newspaper aimed at black workers, Flame. Beginning in 1976, Flame, alongside the Woman’s Voice journal, was an attempt by the SWP to reach out to other social movements in the mid-to-late 1970s. In his autobiography, Tony Cliff described the paper as ‘completely ineffective in building IS/SWP membership among black workers’ and claimed that the ‘experience was completely negative’ (p. 152). By 1979, Cliff had managed to convince the party that both publications needed to be wound down.

The issue I have scanned was published the month following the ‘Battle of Lewisham’ in August 1977, when anti-fascists and the police fought each other at a counter-demonstration against a planned ‘anti-mugging’ march by the National Front. There is a centre-spread of photos from the demonstration, most of which can be found in David Widgery’s Beating Time book. The issue also features articles on South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Notting Hill Carnival.

The scan of the issue (8 pages) can be found here: Flame Sep 1977

The intersection of race, class and gender at the Grunwick strike

On 23 August, 1976, six workers went on strike at the Grunwick Photo Processing Lab in North-West London, beginning a strike that lasted for almost two years and involved thousands of people over the course of it. The Grunwick strike is now considered a turning point in the history of British trade unionism and race relations. I have written elsewhere about the intersectionality of the strike, but this post, based on an extract from my forthcoming book, expands on how the issues of race, class and gender crossed over during the strike.

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Looking through the lens of critical race and feminist theory, it can be argued that the Grunwick strike was intersectional,[1] where issues of race, gender and class were all present and raised by different people involved in the strike. However while all of these issues were present (and recognised by those involved), the approaches formulated to tackle these issues were disparate and non-inclusive. While the trade union movement recognised racial and sexual discrimination were issues of resentment amongst those striking at Grunwick, the strategy for ‘victory’ was a class-based approach – primarily recognition of trade union representation from the owners of Grunwick.

In the coverage of the strike in the various left-wing, feminist and black activist publications at the time, the prominence given to the various issues of class, gender and race can be seen. The Socialist Workers Party declared in their pamphlet on the strike that, the ‘issue at stake was simple: trade union recognition’,[2] while the International Marxist Group depicted the Grunwick strike as part of a longer union history:

From Todpuddle to Tonypandy, from the Match Girls to the Miners, working people have fought for the right to organise. Trade Unionism is now under attack at GRUNWICK. A defeat for us would be a defeat for the whole working class.[3]

However it was suggested in the journal Race Today that some black workers felt that to mobilise on this issue ‘does not mean that white workers are there supporting a strike by black workers’.[4] Meanwhile A. Sinanvandan, editor of the journal Race & Class, wrote that the strike was ‘no longer about racism’, but was now about the ‘legality… of the weapons that unions may use’.[5] In his eyes, the official union movement was not proving its commitment to black workers, but instead were ‘determining the direction that the strike should take and the type of actions open to the strikers’.[6] For example, in February 1977, APEX’s Grunwick Strike Committee produced a bulletin listing the demands of the strike, which stated ‘What are we fighting for’: the right to belong to a union, for APEX to be recognised at Grunwick, the re-instatement of those strikers that had been fired after belatedly joining APEX, ‘a decent living wage, proper working conditions and an end to the abusive and tyrannical regime of our management’.[7] However, there was no mention of combating racism anywhere within these demands. What the demand for trade union representation by the white labour movement failed to recognise was that the presence of a trade union did not actually equate to countering racism within the workplace at Grunwick. The black workers at Mansfield Hosiery Mills and Imperial Typewriters had been members of a union at these factories and these trade unions had been ineffectual in combating the racism experienced within these workplaces. As the Black Women’s Group Brixton stated in the following years:

The only basis on which the trade union movement and the White left would support the struggle of Black workers was on the condition that they subordinate the main issue of racism to trade unionism, which is of importance, but not sufficient to ignore the racist issue.[8]

The feminist magazine Spare Rib celebrated the role taken by women, particularly Asian women, in the strike, who, according to them, made up 60 per cent of strike. In January 1977, the magazine declared:

It takes a great deal of guts for an Asian woman to come out on strike and stand on a picket line in the full glare of publicity day after day. All sorts of psychological pressures are brought to bear on her. Members of her family may gossip and deprecate her, as it is considered a dishonour for a woman to put herself in the public eye.[9]

The magazine also highlighted the particular hardships faced by women employees at Grunwick and quoted one of the women on strike:

What I mean by slave treatment is that if a woman is pregnant, for example, she can’t get time off to go to the clinic. The management says why we can’t we go on Saturdays, but the cliniuc is not open on that day.

Many of our women have small children at school or in nurseries. The management tells you halfway through the day that you must work overtime that night – but this is terrible because you can’t pick up your children and you can’t contact your home.[10]

Interviewed at the height of the mass pickets in July/August 1977, Jayaben Desai talked positively about the support that came from different areas for the women on strike:

Before the mass picketing began in June the issue was not so clear in our community, it was misty before. But now the Asian community see what we are fighting for.

And before, the trade unions in this country were felling that our community was not interested – this was wlways a gap in our community. But this will bring the distance nearer.We can all see the result – people coming here from all over the country were seeing us as part of the workers now.[11]

These differing persepctives on the focus of the Grunwick strike have led to much debate over whether the strike was a class-based strike or a strike against racism (or both), with the female aspect of the strike overlooked by many scholars. A. Sivanandan wrote in 1981 that the ‘basic issue for the strikers was thw question of racist exploitation’, acknowledging that union recognition was part of this.[12] Ron Ramdin also acknowledged that racial discrimination was an issue at Grunwick, but wrote, ‘[w]hile low pay, racism and the oppression of women were contributory factors, the main cause of the Grunwick strike was the ‘conditions of work’.[13] Following on from this argument from Ramdin, several authors have argued that Grunwick brought black and white workers together as a class to fight for trade union recognition and to combat racism in the workplace. Gary Macfarlane stated that the strike ‘ demonstrated that class unity could be forged in action and racism challenged head on’,[14] while Satnam Virdee wrote ‘during Grunwick, ‘key groups of workers had moved towards a more inclusive lanhuage of class that could now also encompass racialized minority workers.’[15]

Although the main emphasis of APEX and the Brent Trades Council was on trade union recogition, as mentioned above, there were moments when these organisations did not acknowledge that there was a racial aspect to the strike. In a letter from the Basingstoke General branch of APEX to the General Secretary of the TUC, there was a call for a national campaign by the TUC to highlight the struggle at Grunwick, with letter ending, ‘Let all know about the Grunwick employers Dickensian nature of employment, mainly of Asian origin, thus making the issue additionally delicate in the matter concerning race relations.’[16] Furthermore, in a flyer produced by APEX to call for the mass pickets in mid-1977, it was stated in bold capitals at the top of the flyer:

GRUNWICKS STRIKE IS ABOUT

IMMIGRANTS             WOMEN

TRADE UNION RIGHTS

WORKING CLASS SOLIDARITY[17]

However other academics, such as Jack McGowan, have rejected that racism was an issue at Grunwick, writing that a ‘race-driven narrative is a tenacious trope in the accounts of Grunwick from the Left.’[18] McGowan cited the Commission for Racial Equality as stating, ‘It cannot be shown that the management at Grunwick practised racial discrimination’, and further argued that the strike could not be about ‘race’ because the co-owner of Grunwick, George Ward, was of Anglo-Indian descent.[19] Criticising a particular BBC Radio 4 documentary on the strike produced by Melissa Benn, McGowan lamented that ‘Benn’s radio audience might… misinterpret Grunwick as a case of white exploitation of ethnic workers’ and argued:

[Benn] appears to conflate the profound difference between the structural, socio-economic status of a sector of the labour force – regardless of ethnicity – with an implied willingness on the part of an employer deliberately to exploit workers on the grounds of race alone.[20]

McGowan here takes a very narrow concept of racism and does not consider that Grunwick’s owners and management relied on the structural position of the Asian manual workers (especially the female workers), largely informed by their ethnicity and recent migrant status, to treat them poorly as employees. As Pratibha Parmar and Parita Trivedi have argued, Asian women were viewed as ‘passive’, ‘submissive’ and ‘meek’ and ‘pushed into unskilled and semi-skilled jobs’ in ‘small organized sweatshops or doing homeworking’.[21] These racist and sexist assumptions, along the difficulties of trade union organising in these workplaces, made Asian female workers vulnerable to exploitation, but as the Grunwick strike has shown, these women were willing to challenge these assumptions and were able to take the lead in militant industrial action.[22]

The importance of the strike in fighting sexual discrimination has traditionally been overlooked in discussions of the strike, although since Amrit Wilson first wrote about the strike in the 1978 edition of Finding a Voice, it has been acknowledged by feminist scholars that the discrimination that workers faced as women informed the militancy of the women involved on the picket line.[23] As the quotes from Spare Rib above show, women at Grunwick experienced specific discrimination based upon their gender, which was often combined with discrimination based upon their ethnicity. The recent work by Linda McDowell, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson suggests that previous accounts of the strike have ‘neglected the complex intersections between class, gender and ethnicity’ at Grunwick and therefore argue that the strike should be viewed through an intersectional lens.[24] For the labour movement, there was an emphasis on class, although there was an increasing acknowledgement of the extra problems faced by ethnic minorities and by women – but the strategies put forward for combatting the intersecting forms of class, gender and racial oppression always emphasised class unity and using the tools of class mobilisation, such as the mass picket and the accession to the trade union leadership.

Although the strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since because of this compelling narrative of class unity. As McDowell, Anitha and Pearson have argued:

the strike has become constructed as a iconic moment in the history of the labour movement, the moment when the working class recogniswed the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[25]

————————————————————–

[1] See: Crenshaw 1989, pp. 139-68; Crenshaw 1991, pp. 1242-300.

[2] SWP, Grunwick, p. 4.

[3] Socialist Challenge, 3 November 1977.

[4] ‘Grunwick Strike: The Bitter Lessons’, Race Today, November/December 1977, p. 154.

[5] ‘Grunwick (2)’, p. 292.

[6] ‘Race, Class and the State (2)’, p. 70.

[7] Grunwick Strike Committee (APEX), Strike Committee Bulletin, 29, 21 February 1977, G1548/9, MSS.464 Box 1, in Grunwick Dispute Archive, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[8] Black Women’s Group Brixton, ‘Editorial’, Speak Out, 2, 1981, p. 3, DADZIE/1/8/3, in Stella Dadzie Papers, Black Cultural Archives, London.

[9] Rossiter, ‘Risking Gossip & Disgrace: Asian Women trike’, Spare Rib, January 1977, p. 18.

[10] Campbell and Charlton, ‘Grunwick Women’, Spare Rib, August 1977, p. 7.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Sivanandan 2008, p. 130.

[13] Ramdin 1987, p. 288.

[14] MacFarlane 2013, p. 87.

[15] Virdee 2014, p. 135.

[16] Letter from APEX Basingstoke General branch to TUC General Secretary, 18 April 1977, MSS 292D/253.119/3, in TUC Papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[17] APEX flyer, August 1977, MSS.464/20, in APEX papers, Modern Records Centre, University of Warwick.

[18] McGowan 2008, p. 389.

[19] McGowan 2008, pp. 389-90.

[20] McGowan 2008, p. 390.

[21] Parmar 1986, p. 245; Trivedi 1984, p. 45.

[22] Although a recent study has suggested that African-Caribbean women, who also went on strike at Grunwick, have been erased from the visual and collective memory of the stike. McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 606.

[23] Wilson 1981, pp. 60-71.

[24] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2012, p. 134.

[25] McDowell, Anitha and Pearson 2014, p. 600.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY

Crenshaw, Kimberle 1989, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, pp. 139-168.

——— 1991, ‘Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color’, Stanford Law Review, 43, 6, pp. 1242-1300.

MacFarlane, Gary 2013, ‘From Confrontation to Compromise: Black British Politics in the 1970s and 1980s’, in Say It Loud! Marxism and the Fight Against Racism, edited by Brian Richardson, London: Bookmarks.

McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2012, ‘Striking Similarities: Representing South Asian Women’s Industrial Action in Britain’, Gender, Place & Culture, 19, 2, pp. 133-152

——— ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, pp. 754-775.

McGowan, Jack 2008, ‘“Dispute”, “Battle”, “Siege”, “Farce”? – Grunwick 30 Years On’, Contemporary British History, 22, 3, pp. 383-406.

Parmar, Pratibha 1986, ‘Gender, Race and Class: Asian Women in Resistance’, in The Empire Strikes Back: Race and Racism in 70s Britain, Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, London: Hutchinson, pp. 236-275.

Ramdin, Ron 1987, The Making of the Black Working Class in Britain, Aldershot: Gower.

Sivanandan, Ambalavaner 2008, Catching History on the Wing: Race, Culture and Globalisation, London: Pluto Press.

Trivedi, Parita 1984, ‘To Deny Our Fullness: Asian Women in the Making of History’, Feminist Review, 17, 34-50.

Virdee, Satnam 2014, ‘Anti-racism and the socialist left, 1968-79’, in Against the Grain: The British Far Left from 1956, edited by Evan Smith and Matthew Worley, Manchester: Manchester University Press, pp. 209-228.