labour history

‘Who Governs Britain?’: The last time the Tories called a snap election…

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In between the ‘hey-day’ of 1968-69 and the upsurge in trade union militancy and political radicalism of 1971-74, the 1970s began for the British left as a period of a political plateau, only shaken up by the unexpected election of the Conservatives under Edward Heath. Although Harold Wilson had faced several political problems in the dying days of the 1960s, such as increased trade union militancy, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland, a burgeoning anti-war movement against Vietnam and some economic woes, it was still expected that Labour would win the 1970 General Election, probably with a reduced majority of seats. However, once the Conservatives were elected to power, Heath introduced a piece of legislation that would transform the labour movement for the first half of the decade. The Industrial Relations Act 1971 created a groundswell of resistance to its implementation and in 1972, the trade union movement, with the lead taken by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM), undertook a strategy of continual strike action, which led to paralysed industries.

Britain was thrown further into disarray over the next few years, beginning in late 1973 when the Oil Crisis plunged the Western world into economic shock and the re-election of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1974. The Oil Crisis emanating from the Middle East in October 1973 caused massive energy problems for the Western world, particularly in Europe and North America who were facing the start of winter, which impacted upon industry, causing a rise in inflation and living costs. The Heath Government, concerned about conserving energy now that the price of oil had risen exponentially, instigated a three day business week, but was also concerned about an on-going pay dispute with the NUM, which looked threatened access to coal stocks. To break this deadlock, Heath called a snap election in February 1974 with the campaign promise to be tough on trade unions who held the nation to ‘ransom’, with the NUM calling a strike a few days later. The outcome of the February election was a hung parliament with no clear majority to either Labour or the Conservatives and thus another election was held in October 1974, which Labour won with a majority of three. After the February election, Labour ruled momentarily as a minority government and the NUM called off its strike, but Wilson, not wanting a return to the industrial action he faced in the late 1960s and fearing that any strike activity would hinder Britain’s economic recovery, negotiated a ‘Social Contract’ with the Trades Union Congress that agreed to a voluntary wage freeze and a cessation of strike activity for the short-term future. Many felt that the victories of the early 1970s had not produced their desired effects and that end result of years of militant industrial struggle was a return to the same old Labour Government that had preceded Heath and had now restrained the unions with the Social Contract.

But the crisis that Britain faced in the mid-1970s was not remedied by reinstallation of a Labour government. Despite Labour’s best efforts, unemployment and inflation still rose and productivity declined. The economic crisis compounded the feelings that a political crisis was impending. Wilson suspected that a right-wing conspiracy, with sections of the military and intelligence services involved, was out to unseat him from being Prime Minister. The National Front, as well as the Monday Club, started to agitate for stricter immigration controls and the repatriation of non-white Britons, as well as the elimination of trade unions and the monitoring of those considered ‘communists’ or ‘socialists’. In 1976, the International Monetary Fund agreed to loans to assist the Labour Government, but only on the condition of strict public spending cuts, which exacerbated the problem further and turned many sections of British society away from Labour. This, alongside the view that the Social Contract agreed between the TUC and Labour was on the verge of collapse, placed an enormous burden upon Wilson, who resigned due to ill health in March 1976, with James Callaghan becoming Prime Minister. Increasingly it looked to many observers that Britain was experiencing a crisis of the post-war social democratic consensus and that the bipartisan framework constructed by both major parties in the early 1950s was now falling apart. As Stuart Hall and others from the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies wrote, the crisis of the mid-1970s was ‘a crisis in political legitimacy, in social authority, in hegemony, and in the forms of class struggle.’

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Forthcoming volume: The Far Left in Australia since 1945

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I am happy to announce that Jon Piccini, Matthew Worley and I have recently signed a contact for an edited volume tentatively titled The Far Left in Australia since 1945 as part of Routledge’s Studies in Radical History and Politics. While there is no publication date yet, here is an outline of the forthcoming book as a preview…

The far left in Australia – as has been revealed by edited collections on its equivalents in the UK, USA and elsewhere – had significant effects on post-war politics, culture and society. The Communist Party of Australia (CPA) ended World War II with some 20,000 members, and despite the harsh and vitriolic Cold War climate of the 1950s, seeded or provided impetus for the re-emergence of other movements. Radicals subscribing to ideologies beyond the Soviet orbit – Maoists, Trotskyists, anarchists and others – also created parties and organisations and led movements. All of these different far left parties and movements changed and shifted during time, responding to one political crisis or another, but they remained steadfastly devoted to a better world.

Equally, members and fellow travellers of the CPA and other far left groups instigated or became centrally involved in struggles for indigenous rights, gender equality, ending immigration restrictions, stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and fostering peace—alongside continuing work in trade unions. In starting these groups, providing personnel, funding and guidance, far left activists contributed in no small way to the reforms that have changed Australian from the racist, sexist and parochial society of 1945 to one which is now multicultural, champions gender equality and is open to the world. The far left’s contribution to culture also cannot be ignored, with the CPA in particular providing a home for writers, poets, film makers and others who found their experimentation unwelcomed in an Australia in the grips of the cultural cringe.

Lastly, the Australian far left has also had a fascinating – if troubled and convoluted – career of ‘mainstreaming’ itself, whether through aforementioned cultural organisations, or through working with the social democratic Australian Labor Party, forming their own electoral alliances, or reaching out with mass market books. As such, while the far left might have never led a revolution in Australia, it has inarguably played a central role in revolutionising it.

The study of protest movements is exploding around the world. Major research and publishing projects charting the far left – particularly set around that halcyon year of 1968 – have appeared in most western nations in recent years. Yet, no such comparable body of work exists for Australia’s vibrant and exciting far left movements in the post-war era – from the Communist Party of Australia to smaller ideological groups, their intersections with broader movements for women’s, indigenous and gay liberation and broader effects on culture and society. By analysing far left movements in Australia from 1945 to the 1980s, these interconnections are explored in depth, and a light can be shone on the current state of Australia’s left and progressive movements.

As such, this book’s key strengths lie in its broad range of topics – from the politics of Australian communism in its various forms to the far left’s interactions with the women’s, gay, anti-nuclear, anti-war and indigenous groups, as well as attempts to mainstream its appeal via electoral politics, government compromises and mass media.

This work exists at the intersection of academia and activism, offering politically and theoretically informed chapters which provide both valuable scholarly interventions into key local and global debates, as well as casting light on contemporary struggles around the world. As such, its readership will be broad, encompassing activists of all ages and across a variety of causes, as well as the growing body of academics and postgraduate students studying and teaching global radicalism, as well as scholars engaged in 20th century history in general.

This collection, bringing together 14 chapters from leading and emerging figures in the Australian and international historical profession, for the first time charts some of these significant moments and interventions, revealing the Australian far left’s often forgotten contribution to the nation’s history.

Stay tuned to this blog for further information about the volume in the near future!

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Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated

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To Guardian journalist Simon Jenkins, just over thirty years ago is too far into the past for an inquiry into the events at Orgreave in June 1984, when the police reacted violently to striking workers in South Yorkshire and led to the arrest of 95 miners, as well as a number of people injured. Jenkins argues that “we know” what happened at Orgreave on that day, and that it should be left in the past – even though no one in a position of authority has been held accountable for excessive force used by the police against the striking miners. Anyway ‘[t]here were no deaths at Orgreave’, he says, so an inquiry, like those held into Bloody Sunday or Hillsborough, is unnecessary. But this assumes that the only reason to have an inquiry into police actions is when there is a death involved – isn’t the likelihood of excessive force being used by the police en masse enough of an issue to warrant further investigation?

Jenkins is right in that government inquiries often don’t led to any significant reform or ‘lessons learned’. Even the stand out inquiries of Lord Scarman into the Brixton Riots of 1981 and the 1999 Macpherson Inquiry into the Investigation into the Death of Stephen Lawrence have been criticised for their limited impact upon the policing of ethnic minority communities in the UK (especially in the wake of the 2011 riots). But most inquiries held are short term affairs, announced by the government of the day to placate public opinion and often to appear to be ‘doing something’. A swathe of criminological and public policy scholarship has proposed that public inquiries are foremost exercises in the management of public opinion, rather than missions to find the ‘truth’ behind an incident or to determine accountability. Between the Scarman Inquiry into the Events at Red Lion Square in 1974 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1998-99, there have been numerous inquiries into the actions of the police (and other government agencies) that have resulted in disorder, injuries and even death. Besides the Scarman Report in 1981 and the Macpherson Report almost 20 years later, most inquiries have left little mark on police practice. There are a number of incidents involving the death of people involved in interactions with the police, such as that of Blair Peach in 1979 and Ian Tomlinson in 2009, where there has been a coronial inquest, but no wider inquiry, even though people have demanded it.

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But an inquiry into Orgreave is likely to be much more far-reaching than those held immediately after the fact, similar to the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday or the Hillsborough Independent Panel. These inquiries were held after the initial inquiries, the Widgery Report into Bloody Sunday in 1972 and Taylor Report into Hillsborough in 1989-90, were seen to be deficient by subsequent governments. Both of these inquiries were held over years, rather than weeks or months, and had legislation specifically introduced to open many documents that had previously been classified. In the end, these inquiries identified those who should be (or should have been) held accountable for these tragic events and delivered some form of justice to the relatives of the victims. Jenkins suggests that these were merely costly exercises in legal navel-gazing and that the cost of both inquiries could have been better spent on been given to the relatives of the victims and/or to their communities. However what had driven those pushing for the events at both Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough to be re-examined was not compensation, but for those responsible to identified and where possible, held accountable in some way.

This is the purpose of a proposed inquiry into the events at Orgreave on 18 June 1984. Opposite to Jenkins’ argument, we don’t know the full story of what happened on that day. We have footage, we have witness testimony and the paperwork of those who were dragged through the courts, but we don’t have the police side of the story (or at least the full story). Despite thirty years since the event passing, no documents relating to Orgreave have been made open by the National Archives at Kew and the police have refused several previous FOI requests. Like the documents examined by the Hillsborough Independent Panel, all police and government papers relating to the events at Orgreave should be released to an inquiry and at the completion of said inquiry, these documents (with the necessary redactions) should be digitised and made available for public viewing.

Jenkins says there should be a statute of limitations on inquiries into the past, writing ‘History is for historians’. He seems to be proposing that there is a clear line between contemporary politics and ‘the past’, but it is not so clear-cut. Thirty years ago is not that long ago and there are still people who were involved in police actions on that day in 1984 who could be held accountable in some manner. There are still people affected the actions of the police who are looking for some kind of ‘justice’ and official acknowledgment of what occurred, particularly how much was planned and how far the authorities went in the aftermath to absolve themselves of any blame.

Jenkins equates a possible inquiry with Tony Blair’s apologies for the slave trade and the Irish Famine, but this is false. The ‘Battle of Orgreave’ happened within the lifetimes for many of us, not 150-200 years ago. Orgreave is not merely history, but an important historical incident that needs to be fully investigated. Let’s hope that enough pressure is put upon Amber Rudd (or her successor) to reverse the decision for an inquiry not to be held.

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Photos by John Sturrock, originally from Socialist Worker.

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After Grunwick: Trade unions and anti-racism in the 1980s

This is the latest post looking at the history of the turbulent relationship between the British labour movement and black and Asian workers in the post-war era, following on from posts on the Imperial Typewriters strike in mid-1974 and the Grunwick strike between 1976 and 1978. While Grunwick is seen as a turning point, there were still significant problems for black and Asian workers in the labour movement. These were exacerbated by the attacks on the trade unions (and the black and Asian communities) by the Thatcher government in the early 1980s. This post is based on extracts from my forthcoming book with Brill/Haymarket, British Communism and the Politics of Race.

Although the Grunwick strike ended in defeat, it has been celebrated by the British labour movement ever since as 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 recognised the rights of women and minority workers to join a union as part of the British working-class movement.[1]

However the strike did not signal an end to the problematic relationship between the trade unions and black and Asian workers, particularly as the trade unions, as well as Britain’s black and Asian communities, came under attack in the early 1980s.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, many black and Asian workers remained dissatisfied with the trade unions, particularly for their limited reaction to the problem of racism faced by these workers. In 1977, the PEP (Political and Economic Planning) report, Racial Disadvantage in Britain, outlined the problems that black workers faced in their relationship with the trade union movement, noting that while the 1970s had seen developments in most of the trade unions adopting anti-racist and equal opportunities policies, there was ‘a contrast between this formal policy and its practical results’.[2] In interviews with eight of the largest unions in Britain, the report found ‘little evidence that any definite action had been taken’ by the trade union leadership to combat incidents of racial discrimination inside the unions.[3] The report revealed that the trade union leaders were likely to ignore cased of racial discrimination unless they reached the highest echelons of the unions’ complaint structures and as ‘very few complaints filtered up to head-office level,… leaders tended to interpret this as meaning that there was very little trouble of this kind.’[4] The trade unions, along with the Labour Party, were spurred into anti-racist action by the mid-to-late 1970s, as seen with the large scale mobilisation of trade union support for the Grunwick strike and the labour movement backing of the Anti-Nazi League. However as Phizacklea and Miles argued in 1987, the anti-racist campaigning by the trade unions (primarily the TUC) and the Labour Party ‘seemed to die away with the collapse of the National Front vote in the general election of 1979’.[5]

In August 1976, the TUC formed its Race Relations Advisory Committee and in 1981 created a Black Workers Charter, but several studies conducted in the 1980s revealed that these initiatives had a limited impact upon the efforts of the trade unions to combat racism in the workplace and within their own organisations. Phizacklea and Miles cited a 1981 investigation by the Commission for Racial Equality into the AUEW that it was the policy of the union to condemn racial discrimination, ‘no specific instructions about how such a policy should be implemented had been provided for either officials or members’ and this principled opposition to racism was ‘contradicted by both the open expression of racism’ by some union members and ‘the refusal of the officials to take any action to combat that racism’.[6] Gloria Lee stated that when interviewed, black members ‘saw themselves as grossly under-represented within their unions’ and ‘felt that as black members, they [were] more poorly served buy their union than white members’.[7] John Wrench cited in his 1986 paper that certain acts of explicit racism were still occurring in the trade union movement in the early 1980s, but there was also ‘the more passive collusion of union officers in practices which were discriminatory in their outcomes, and a reluctance to change these practices’, such as the use of word-of-mouth to hire people, which worked greatly against non-white applicants.[8]

The traditional position of the trade unions was to have no specific policies to assist black workers integrate into the labour movement, arguing for ‘equal treatment’ for both black and white union members.[9] Despite the actions taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s, such as the aforementioned initiatives by the TUC, the ‘equal treatment’ argument still remained with the trade unions. In 1977, the PEP report stated that some union officials justified their poor record on combating racism ‘by saying they make no distinction between black and white and that this means that no special action can be taken’.[10] Phizacklea and Miles claimed that this was still the case in the 1980s and declared ‘[r]acism can masquerade in the guise of colour-blindness, when there is clear evidence of cases containing discrimination and allegations of lack of support for Asian and Caribbean members from their unions.’[11]

As part of the TUC’s efforts to combat racism, special education classes were created to inform trade unionists about the impact of racism upon black workers and how to tackle this, but critics asserted that as these classes were voluntary to attend, it had not reached the right audience and was not well supported by the unions.[12] Wrench argued that ‘those…who would benefit most from attending such courses tend to stay away as they feel that such provisions are a waste of time and money’.[13] A 1984 report by the Greater London Council’s Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group found that the GMWU, ACTT and NUT all held equal opportunities and ‘racism awareness’ training courses, but only the AUEW-TASS ran any ‘positive action’ programmes, which supported ‘appointing officials with ethnic background, or females, to the union’.[14]

John Wrench wrote in 1986 about this GLC report, stating:

The findings of the GLC survey confirm the suspicions of many activists that despite the history of disputes and struggles, the research, the educational material, and the prosecutions, there remains a body of trade union officers who simply do ot understand – or are wunwilling to acknowledge – what racism and racial equality are, what their effects are, how they operate, and what sorts of measures are needed to oppose them.[15]

However most of these reports from the 1980s pointed to areas where the trade unions were progressing on issues of ‘race’. Phizacklea and Miles wrote that ‘we have witnessed some concern amongst some unions to increase the participation and representation of Asian and Caribbean workers and restatement of a commitment amongst the same union to tackle racism within their own ranks and the wider society.’[16] John Wrench also noted that in the era of austerity and the Thatcherite onslaught against the trade union movement, ‘there has been an awareness of common cause and common interest’ between black and white workers and that this had been ‘part of one positive development of recent years – the increasing organisation of black workers and their success in making their influence felt within the labour movement.’[17]

This eventually led to the establishment of black sections or caucuses within several trade unions, as well as the Labour Party, which were seen as highly controversial at the time. Despite opposition from Labour Opposition leader Neil Kinnock, the black sections motion was passed by the 1983 Labour Party conference and the Party, alongside several public service unions, established black caucuses or sections as part of their internal structures. In a 1985 roundtable organised by Marxism Today, Stuart Hall and the Indian Workers Association (Southall) General Secretary Vishnu Sharma (also a leading CPGB member) argued that black caucuses and sections were beneficial for the labour movement, while Race & Class editor, A. Sivanandan, described them as a ‘distraction from the struggle that the black community has to face today’.[18] Hall countered this by saying:

If you say that the real problem is maintaining the momentum of the black struggle then I can see that the black sections are a distraction. But if you are concerned, an I am concerned, about the question of the white working class, you have to recognise that the Labour Party is a majority working class party. It has hegemonised the working class since the beginning of the twentieth century, whether we like it or not… So the black struggle must have some idea about how to get into that organisationally, how to transform that organisation…[19]

He argued that bringing the black struggle to the Labour Party was a ‘double struggle which is both with and against’ and required taking the fight to the Labour Party’s constituent elements, as well as the TUC –‘blowing it apart from the inside’.[20] To transform the ideas and actions of the labour movement, Hall proposed, one had to ‘mak[e] the internal structured organisation of the labour movement aware of the impact and history of racism.’[21]

Despite their initial controversy, the general political consensus is that the black caucuses within the trade unions and the black sections inside the Labour Party proved useful for promoting an awareness of issues of racial discrimination and equal opportunity within the labour movement, remaining until today. At a time when Thatcherism seemed at its hegemonic peak and the labour movement was at one of its lowest ebbs, the formation of the black caucuses/sections in the face of fierce resistance was a victory that buoyed those in the anti-racist struggle.

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[1] McDowell, Linda, Sundari Anitha and Ruth Pearson 2014, ‘Striking Narratives: Class, Gender and Ethnicity in the “Great Grunwick Strike”, London, UK. 1976-1978’, Women’s History Review, 23, 4, p. 600.

[2] Smith, David J. 1977, Racial Disadvantage in Britain: The PEP Report, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, p. 193.

[3] Ibid., p. 202.

[4] Ibid., p. 204.

[5] Phizacklea, Annie and Robert Miles 1987, ‘The British Trade Union Movement and Racism’, in The Manufatcure of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveride, Milton Keynes: Open University, p. 119.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Lee, Gloria 1987, ‘Black Members and Their Unions’, in The Manufacture of Disadvantage, edited by Gloria Lee and Ray Loveridge, Milton Keynes: Open University Press, p. 151.

[8] Wrench, John Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, Policy Papers in Ethnic Relations no. 5, 1986, pp. 11-2.

[9] Wrench, John and Satnam Virdee, ‘Organising the Unorganised: “Race”, Poor Work and Trade Unions’, in The New Workplace and Trade Unionism, edited by Peter Ackers, Chris Smith and Paul Smith, London: Routledge, p. 245.

[10] Smith 1977, p. 193.

[11] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 123.

[12] Lee 1987, p. 149.

[13] Wrench 1986, p. 13.

[14] GLC Anti-Racist Trade Union Working Group, Racism Within Trade Unions, 1984, London: GLC, p. 16.

[15] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 22.

[16] Phizacklea and Miles 1987, p. 121.

[17] Wrench, Trade Unions, Equal Opportunity and Racism, p. 24.

[18] ‘Black Sections: Radical Demand or… Distraction?’, Marxism Today, September 1985, p. 33.

[19] ‘Black Sections’, p. 34.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid.

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.

Hobsbawm, 1956 and the Mythology of the CPGB Historians’ Group

British historian Eric Hobsbawm at work in January 1976

The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party of Great Britain is historically significant for two main reasons. Firstly the historians involved in the Group became some of the most influential in contemporary British history, helping to pioneer the theory of ‘history from below’. Secondly, the historians involved in the Group were significantly involved in three major acts of rebellion within the Communist Party in 1956 as the Party went into crisis. The impact of those who were part of the Historians’ Group, such as E.P. Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, Maurice Dobb, Dona Torr, A.L. Morton and Raphael Samuel (amongst others), upon historiography is hard to deny. The recent celebrations of the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class are testament to this. However this post will deal with the second point and will explore the role that members of the Historians’ Group played in the rebellion against the Party leadership in 1956.

Until recently, there was not much written about the Historians’ Group, besides some work by Harvey Kaye and Bill Schwarz on the Group’s contribution to historiography,[1] and Hobsbawm’s account of the Group, written in the late 1970s. As a prominent member of the Group and the author of (for a long time) the most comprehensive account of the Group’s activities between 1946 and 1956, Hobsbawm’s narrative had become definitive and widely accepted by those who have subsequently discussed the Group. Despite acknowledging that ‘the Group itself did not express any… collective views and was indeed increasingly split’ on the issue, Hobsbawm asserted, ‘the fact that many of the most vocal critics came from among its members is a matter of record’.[2] By the time that Hobsbawm had his autobiography published in 2002, the equivocations had been removed. In Interesting Times, he wrote that in 1956, ‘the group emerged almost immediately as the nucleus of vocal opposition to the Party line’ and claimed that the Group ‘made the two most dramatic challenges to the Party’.[3]

The three acts of rebellion described to by Hobsbawm were the publication of The Reasoner by Saville and Thompson, the publication of a letter signed by a number of historians in Tribune and the New Statesman and Christopher Hill’s involvement in authoring the Minority Report on Inner-Party Democracy for the 25th Special Congress of the CPGB held in April 1957. These acts have subsequently been referred to in most histories of the Group as important intervention in the communist discourses of 1956. For example, Adrià Llacuna has written that the events of 1956 ‘generated a virtually en bloc opposition from the ranks of the Historians’ Group… to the party’s position on the events’.[4] Varying degrees of importance have been placed upon the three acts involving different members of the Historians’ Group, but despite this disagreement, most consider the publication of The Reasoner to be the most controversial act at the time, and also the one that had the longest effect, with Saville and Thompson’s The New Reasoner becoming one of the founding journals of the British New Left in the late 1950s.

Hobsbawm was chair of the Historians’ Group in 1956, but despite a motion passed by the Group in April of that year, in which ‘profound dissatisfaction’ was expressed at the Party’s ‘failure to discuss publicly the implications for the British Party of the 20th Congress [of the] CPSU’,[5] the Group did not engage in organised action as a group against the CPGB leadership. Of the actions, by individual members of the Historians’ Group, Hobsbawm was only publicly involved in one of them, putting his signature to the New Statesman/Tribune letter. This letter, originally sent to the Daily Worker, stated:

We feel that the uncritical support given by the Executive Committee of the Communist Party to Soviet action in Hungary is the undesirable culmination of years of distortion of fact, and failure by British Communists to think out political problems for themselves.[6]

However the letter also concluded with the line, ‘Not all the signatories agree with everything in this letter, but all are in sufficient sympathy with its general intention to sign with this reservation.’[7] Some critics, such as the Trotskyist Terry Brotherstone, suggest that this allowed Hobsbawm the necessary leeway to be a signatory of the letter, but not be held to its entire contents.[8]

Brotherstone uses the words of Peter Fryer, the Daily Worker who quit the Party after learning that his reports from Budapest in October-November 1956 were being unjustly edited or ignored, to describe Hobsbawm’s protests during that year as having ‘all the force of a pop-gun fitted with a silencer’.[9] Although Hobsbawm signed the letter that was published in the New Statesman and the Tribune, Brotherstone points to another letter by Hobsbawm published in the Daily Worker in early November 1956 that concluded with the sentence:

While approving, with a heavy heart, of what is now happening in Hungary, we should therefore also say frankly, that we think the USSR should withdraw its troops from the country as soon as this is possible.[10]

As I have argued previously, Hobsbawm tried to negotiate the balancing act between maintaining his political and historical integrity through his relationship with those that left the Party and staying within the Party, which he believed was important for the health of British politics at the time. MI5 surveillance files showed that the Party leadership was highly critical of Hobsbawm’s position of being neither in nor out of the Party during this period. Dennis Dworkin has argued that Hobsbawm believed that, however seriously flawed, the CPGB was the only working class party in Britain ‘committed to revolution’ and might eventually re-establish itself as a political force.[11] However Hobsbawm himself admitted that after the events of 1956, the Party had become so weak that despite his criticisms, the Party couldn’t throw him out and ‘didn’t want to anyway’.[12]

In an interview with Tristram Hunt in The Observer in 2002, Hobsbawm stated that this decision to stay in the Party was not ‘out of idealisation of the October Revolution’, but stemming from a political awakening when living in Berlin in the early 1930s when Hitler rose to power.[13] As Dworkin put it, Hobsbawm had joined the Party when anti-fascism and Popular Frontism were at its height and his deep personal attachment to this sense of solidarity and immediacy probably influenced his decision to remain inside the Communist Party.[14] In Hobsbawm’s history of the Historians’ Group and in a number of other discussions of the Group, the Popular Front era (from roughly 1934 1939 then from 1941 to 1945) is seen to have a significant impact upon the Group’s politics and its relationship with the structures of the Communist Party. As John Callaghan has written, the Popular Front created a bigger and more pluralistic Communist Party[15] and Hobsbawm, and others, have argued that this pluralism was reflected in the work of Historians’ Group.

According to Hobsbawm, the Historians’ Group believed that Marxist history was ‘not an isolated truth’, but the ‘spearhead of a broad progressive history… represented by all manner of radical and labour traditions in British historiography’.[16] This drove the Group to engage with non-Marxists based on a flexible and open-ended reading of the Marxist view of history,[17] with this dialogue eventually leading to the establishment of the journal Past and Present. In their history of the early years of the journal, Hill, Hobsbawm and Rodney Hilton argued that the journal was an example of the Historians’ Group attempting to bring the broad-based politics of the Popular Front era into the historical profession in the era of the early Cold War.[18] Despite this, the Communist Party leadership viewed the Historians’ Group as a concentration of loyal and active party members, who drew little controversy or attention to themselves.

While Hobsbawm and several others have pointed to the Popular Front politics of the Historians’ Group as a positive influence upon their historical and political work, others have viewed it as having a negative impact upon the Group. David Renton and Sam Ashman have both proposed that the politics of the Popular Front era and the Second World War, with the emphasis on ‘national roads to socialism’, blunted the revolutionary nature of the Historians’ Group’s work, and there was a focus by many with the Group on the exceptional nature of English/British populism and the inherent radicalism of the English people.[19]

In retrospect, Hobsbawm and others have portrayed this adherence to the principles of Popular Frontism and broad-based unity as evidence that while being loyal members of the CPGB, those in the Historians’ Group did not compromise their intellectual integrity and remained historians first and Party members second. As Madeleine Davis has written:

Associated with the somewhat looser intellectual discipline and populist imperative of the Popular Front period, the main representative of this ‘muffled’ or ‘premature’ revisionism is often thought to be the CPGB Historians’ Group, in whose histories can be seen a more sophisticated interrogation of social being than ‘orthodoxy’ strictly permitted…[20]

However there was little dissidence amongst those in the Historians’ Group in the decade leading up to 1956. As Hobsbawm himself recognised in a letter to the Party journal World News in January 1957, writing:

We tell them that we do not give the USSR “uncritical support”, but when they ask us when we disagreed with its policy, all we can point to is Nina Ponomareva’s hats.[21]

One explanation for this lack of controversy was that the Historians’ Group did little history of the twentieth century and therefore did not interfere in the history of the Soviet Union, which had to be negotiated carefully. This is only half the story, with members of the Group explicitly demonstrating their loyalty to Moscow and the Stalinist regime. For example, Thompson wrote in his biography of William Morris in 1955 (published in 1961 in the USA):

Twenty year ago even among Socialists and Communists, many must have regarded Morris’ picture of ‘A Factory as It Might Be’ as an unpractical poet’s dream: today’s visitors return from the Soviet Union with stories of the poet’s dream already fulfilled. Yesterday, in the Soviet Union, the Communists were struggling against every difficulty to build up their industry to the level of the leading capitalist powers: today they have before them Stalin’s blue-print of the advance to communism.[22]

In a 1953 issue of the CPGB’s journal Modern Quarterly, published shortly after Stalin’s death, Christopher Hill wrote hagiographically about Stalin’s contribution to the Marxist theory of history. Hill called the former Soviet leader as ‘a very great and penetrating thinker, who on any subject was apt to break through the cobwebs of academic argument to the heart of the matter’ and a ‘highly responsible leader, who expressed a view only after mature consideration and weighting the opinions of experts in the subject’.[23] He continued by stating:

His statements, therefore, approximate to the highest wisdom of the collective thought of the USSR.[24]

He concluded the article with this claim:

Such was the final legacy to his peoples of the great Marxist thinker who had himself made history more effectively than any of his contemporaries: considered guidance on the practical measures necessary for the creation of a communist society… It was Stalin’s greatest happiness that he was able to contribute so largely to the creation of such a society, to know what he was creating, and to see that knowledge spread among the men and women who were joining with him in its creations. Humanity, and not only in the USSR but in all countries, will always be in his debt.[25]

reasoner

Even during the turmoil of 1956, those in the Historians’ Group who raised questions about the Party leadership’s reaction to Khrushchev’s Secret Speech and the invasion of Hungary were often at pains to stress that they were loyal party members pushed to take action. As Michael Kenny has shown in his history of the first New Left in Britain, when Thompson and Saville published The Reasoner, their original intention was to foster discussion inside the party about how to reform itself and encourage greater inner-party democracy.[26] As Saville wrote in a letter to Yorkshire District Committee leader Bert Ramelson defending their actions:

It is necessary at the outset to emphasise that The Reasoner was conceived entirely in terms of the general interests of the Party… I am as firmly convinced as ever of the need for a Communist Party in Britain. Those who have sought to present it as an ‘opposition’ journal, aiming a destructive or factional attack upon the Party leadership, are entirely mistaken.[27]

Before their production of The Reasoner, both Saville and Thompson had written in World News, calling for greater scrutiny of the Party’s past inability to criticise the Soviet Union. Thompson wrote a piece in late June 1956 titled ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, which claimed that the Communist Party had alienated themselves from the rest of the British labour movement and from the British people by ignoring the crimes of the Stalin era. In this, he wrote, ‘the British people do not understand and will not trust a Monolith without a moral tongue’.[28] In his book on the British new left, Dworkin has written that Thompson’s article echoed the collective voice of the Historians’ Group,[29] but the collective voice of the Group was more fragmented than Dworkin (and Hobsbawm) have argued. A letter from Christopher and Bridget Hill to World News stated, ‘We did not agree with most of what Comrade Thompson said, and we did not much like the way he said it’.[30] Hill tried to push reform through the Party’s official channels and became a member of the Party’s Commission on Inner Party Democracy, set up after the 24th National Congress of the CPGB in April 1956 and the intra-party discussion over the ‘Secret Speech’. He only resigned from the Party after the Minority Report on Inner Party Democracy, which he co-authored with Daily Worker journalist Malcolm MacEwen and Peter Cadogan, was rejected at the CPGB’s Special 25th National Congress in April 1957.

The dissidence of certain members of the Historians’ Group during 1956 has led to Hobsbawm (and others) to claim that the Popular Frontism that permeated the Group’s membership had created a rebellious intellectual contingent within the Communist Party in the first decade of the Cold War – a retrospective attempt to portray the Group as a font of humanist integrity in opposition to the Stalinised leadership of the CPGB. However, as Lawrence Parker, Neil Redfern and Phillip Deery have shown, [31]most of the dissent within the Communist Party in the decade after the Second World War was by hardliners within the Party who rejected the ‘reformism’ of The British Road to Socialism. Some intellectuals, such as Edward Upward, supported the criticism of the CPGB by the Australian Communist Party in 1948, which called out the ‘Browderism’ of the British party and maintained a strong allegiance to the Soviet Union.[32]

Indisputably the British new left partially emerged out of the dissenting acts of those within the Communist Party, with several of those involved in the Historians’ Group (primarily E.P. Thompson, John Saville and Raphael Samuel) giving voice to discontent felt by many CPGB members – although Thompson spent more time with the Party’s Writers’ Group than the Historians’ Group.[33] But while the rebelliousness of the first new left grew out of the intra-party rebellion that occurred in 1956, it is wrong to suppose that this rebelliousness predates this year. Up until 1956, those in the Historians’ Group were considered loyal and congenial members of the Communist Party and even when dissent started to emerge after the Twentieth Congress of the CPSU, those from the Group who dissented attempted to do so through official channels, such as through the letter pages of the Daily Worker and the World News.[34] The mythology of the Historians’ Group as described by Hobsbawm and others suggests that an anti-Stalinist humanism bubbled just below the surface throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s, until the events of 1956 unleashed a torrent of dissent. It is more the case that those in the Historians’ Group who disagreed with the Party leadership were provoked into taking more and more radical actions as the year progressed and the leadership dug in its heels, only begrudgingly making any admissions of past errors. By the end of 1957, a large proportion of the Group had left the CPGB, including E.P. Thompson, Dorothy Thompson, John Saville, Christopher Hill, George Rudé, Rodney Hilton, Brian Pearce and Raphael Samuel,[35] but these resignations came reluctantly and only after discourse within the Party was shut down. Although much romanticised, those within the Historians’ Group were not the vanguard of a humanist rebellion inside the British communist movement, rather they were loyal comrades hesitantly pushed further towards dissent over the course of a year and a half. As Bryan D. Palmer wrote, ‘The dissident communism of 1956 and the reasoner rebellion… thus served as midwife to the birth of the British Marxist historians’.[36]

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[1] Harvey J. Kaye, The British Marxist Historians (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 1995); Bill Schwarz, ‘“The People” in History: The Communist Party Historians’ Group, 1946-56’, in Richard Johnson, et. al. (eds) Making Histories: Studies in History-Writing and Politics (London: Hutchinson, 1982) pp. 44-95.

[2] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘The Historians’ Group of the Communist Party’, in Maurice Cornforth (ed.), Rebels and Their Causes: Essays in Honour of A.L. Morton (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1978) p. 40.

[3] Eric Hobsbawm, Interesting Times: A Twentieth-Century Life (London: Abacus, 2002) p. 206.

[4] Adrià Llacuna, ‘British Marxist Historians and Socialist Strategy: Within, Beyond and After the Communist Party’, Twentieth Century Communism, 9 (2015) p. 151.

[5] Minutes of Historians’ Group meeting, 8 April, 1956, CP/CENT/CULT/06/01, Labour History Archive and Study Centre, Manchester.

[6] Tribune, 30 November, 1956, p. 3.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Terry Brotherstone, ‘Eric Hobsbawm (1917-2012): Some Questions from a Never-completed Conversation About History’, Critique, 41/2 (2013) p. 276.

[9] Cited in, Ibid., p. 275.

[10] Ibid., p. 276.

[11] Dennis Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1997) p. 50.

[12] Eric Hobsbawm, Politics for a Rational Left: Political Writing 1977 – 1988 (London: Verso, 1989) p. 200.

[13] ‘Man of the Extreme Century’, The Observer, 22 September, 2002.

[14] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 50.

[15] John Callaghan, ‘The Road to 1956’, Socialist History, 8 (1995) p. 19.

[16] Interview with Eric Hobsbawm, in H. Abelove, et. al. (eds) Visions of History (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983) p. 33.

[17] Robert Gray, ‘History, Marxism and Theory’, in Harvey J. Kaye & Keith McLelland (eds) E.P. Thompson: Critical Perspectives (Oxford: Polity Press, 1990) p. 153.

[18] Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton & Eric Hobsbawm, ‘Past and Present: Origins and Early Years’, Past and Present, 100 (1983) pp. 4-5.

[19] David Renton, ‘Studying Their Own Nation Without Insularity? The British Marxist Historians Reconsidered’, Science & Society, 69/4 (2005) pp. 559-579; Sam Ashman, ‘The Communist Party’s Historians’ Group’, in John Rees (ed.) Essays on Historical Materialism (London: Bookmarks, 1998) pp. 145-159.

[20] Madeleine Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism 1956-1963: Reflections on the Political Formation of The Making of the English Working Class’, Contemporary British History, 28/4 (2014) p. 443.

[21] ‘Other Readers Say…’, World News, 26 January, 1957, p. 62.

[22] E.P. Thompson, William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary (New York: Pantheon Books, 1961) p. 760.

[23] Christopher Hill, ‘Stalin and the Science of History’, Modern Quarterly, 8/4 (Autumn 1953) p. 209.

[24] Ibid., p. 209.

[25] Ibid., p. 212.

[26] Michael Kenny, The First New Left: British Intellectuals After Stalin (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1995) pp. 16-17.

[27] Cited in, John Saville, ‘The Twentieth Congress and the British Communist Party’, Socialist Register (1976) p. 9.

[28] E.P. Thompson, ‘Winter Wheat in Omsk’, World News (30 June, 1956) p. 408.

[29] Dworkin, Cultural Marxism in Post War Britain, p. 48.

[30] ‘Forum’, World News, 18 August, 1956, p. 525.

[31] Lawrence Parker, The Kick Inside: Revolutionary Opposition in the CPGB, 1945-1991 (London: November Publications, 2012) pp. 15-43; Phillip Deery & Neil Redfern, ‘No Lasting Peace? Labor, Communism and the Cominform: Australia and Great Britain, 1945-50’, Labour History, 88 (May 2005) pp. 63-86.

[32] See the correspondence contained in the CPGB archival file, CP/CENT/INT/34/02, LHASC.

[33] Davis, ‘Edward Thompson’s Ethics and Activism’, p. 443.

[34] According to Willie Thompson, the editor of the Daily Worker, J.R. Campbell declared discussion of the 20th Congress to be closed as early as 12 March, 1956, only a few weeks after the Congress had ended in Moscow. Willie Thompson, The Good Old Cause: British Communism 1920-1991 (London: Pluto Press, 1992) p. 100.

[35] Hobsbawm, A.L. Morton and Maurice Dobb remained within the Party, with Morton and Dobb both maintaining their membership until their deaths. Hobsbawm stayed a party member until the Party dissolved in 1991.

[36] Bryan D. Palmer, ‘Reasoning Rebellion: E.P. Thompson, British Marxist Historians, and the Making of Dissident Political Mobilization’, Labour/Le Travail, 50 (Fall 2002) p. 214.

1951 and the attempt to ban the Australian Communist Party: When Turnbull’s predecessor gambled on a double dissolution election

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Yesterday Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced that if the Senate did not pass two pieces of legislation to re-establish the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC), he would call for the Governor-General to issue the writs for a double dissolution election. This would mean that all seats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate would be contested at the election to be held on 2 July. Only a handful of double dissolution elections have occurred sine Federation in 1901, with the first double dissolution called by a Liberal Prime Minister occurring in 1951, requested by Sir Robert Menzies.

Menzies had won government in December 1949, defeating Ben Chifley’s Labor government, which had been in power since the end of the Second World War. The Liberal-Country Party coalition had made significant gains in the House of Representatives, but Labor still controlled the Senate, which made the passing of controversial legislation difficult, especially as a central part of the LCP’s programme in the lead up to the election was the proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).

The CPA had been briefly banned during the war while Menzies was Prime Minister, but this was reversed by Chifley’s predecessor, John Curtin. As the Cold War erupted in the late 1940s, the CPA took a particularly militant line, partially inspired by the rise of communism in Asia and assertion by the Soviets that the world was falling into two opposing camps – the democratic and ant-fascist bloc of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European ‘People’s Democracies’ (soon to be followed by China) and the anti-democratic and fascist bloc of the Western nations. This led to fierce battles in the Australian labour movement over its stance towards Chifley’s Labor government, with the CPA-led trade unions pushing for confrontational industrial militancy in several industries. This came to a head in 1949 with the Coal Strike that led to the Chifley government ordering troops to break the strike and the imprisonment of several Communist trade unionists.

Sir Robert Menzies

Sir Robert Menzies

This industrial unrest gave Menzies the opportunity to campaign on the programme that an LCP coalition would ban the CPA. Drawn in tandem with the Suppression of Communism Bill by the Malan government in apartheid South Africa, the Menzies government drafted the Communist Party Dissolution Bill in early 1950. First introduced into the House of Representatives in April 1950, the Bill was opposed by Labor and heavily criticised outside of Parliament by the Communist Party and a significant portion of the trade unions. Initially rejected by the Labor controlled Senate, Menzies threatened a double dissolution election and Labor senators, possibly against the public statements made by Chifley, passed the Bill into law in October 1950. The legislation banning the CPA was broad in its scope and meant that fellow travellers who sympathised with Soviet communism could be prosecuted, as well as ‘official’ members of the Party.

As soon as the Bill became law in November 1950, it was subject to a High Court challenge by the Communist Party and several trade unions, with H.V. Evatt (soon to be Labor leader) acting as one of several counsels for the trade unions in this case. On 9 March, 1951, a 6-1 majority of the High Court of Australia found that the Communist Party Dissolution Act was unconstitutional and its powers to prosecute individuals for their alleged connection to the CPA violated what could be included in Commonwealth legislation. To re-introduce legislation banning the CPA would need a change to the Constitution, which itself needed a referendum to allow these changes. Without control of the Senate, Menzies felt that he would be unable to pass the necessary legislation to alter the Constitution and subsequently, formally ban the Communist Party of Australia.

On 15 March, 1951 – a week after the High Court’s decision – Menzies formally requested that the Governor-General order a double dissolution election, on the grounds that the Labor controlled Senate had already twice rejected his Commonwealth Bank Bill. Two days later, both houses of Parliament were dissolved and a bicameral election was held on 28 April, 1951. While Labor gained five seats in the House of Representatives, Menzies won control of the Senate and now had a majority in both houses.

This allowed the Menzies government to introduce legislation that would start the process to change the Constitution that would render any new Bills to ban the Communist Party legal and without grounds to challenge. With control of the House of Representatives and the Senate, the Menzies government quickly passed the Constitution Alteration (Powers to Deal with Communism and Communists) 1951 Act and a referendum was held on 22 September 1951.

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As the above graph shows, the states of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia voted ‘no’ and at the federal level, a slight majority voted against altering the Constitution to allow the banning of the CPA. While the gamble of the double dissolution had paid off for Menzies, his attempt to change the Constitution to ban a specific political organisation failed and was seen as government over-reach by many commentators.

The CPA's weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies' referendum defeat.

The CPA’s weekly newspaper, The Tribune, after Menzies’ referendum defeat.

Since Menzies, there have only been four double dissolutions, by Gough Whitlam in 1974, by Malcolm Fraser (in caretaker mode) in 1975 and 1983, and by Bob Hawke in 1987. Each time the incumbent government, besides Fraser in 1983, has retained power – although in the case of Whitlam, only briefly. It could be argued that powerful political conviction on a controversial, yet important, topic has helped governments get over the line in double dissolution elections. The question is whether the Turnbull government have this conviction or the right issue to take to the electorate if they proceed with a double dissolution.